Are capitalism and democracy paradoxical?

Often cited as one of the most influential political economists and social democratic theorists of the twentieth century, Karl Polanyi has – of late – enjoyed an upsurge in popularity. A fact that is in no doubt due to the search for alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. In his book ‘Reconstructing Karl Polanyi’, Gareth Dale writes that the symptoms of the ‘self-regulating market’, carefully unpicked by Polanyi in his book ‘The Great Transformation’, closely resemble ‘the social and economic malaise, and ecological Armageddon’ of late capitalism. Polanyi’s writings offer insight into the machinations of the neoliberal apparatus (as well as soothing our angst against the ‘Terminator-like’ resilience of the political system). In this article for the Pluto blog, Dale considers the contemporary relevance of Polanyi, examining the debate on the proposed dissonance of capitalism and democracy and citing Trump, Streeck and Habermas along the way:

In response to anti-establishment insurgencies from right and left, we have seen a sharpening of the debate on the clash of capitalism and democracy.

For Stephen Moore, co-founder of the Club for Growth and economic adviser to Donald Trump, ‘capitalism is a lot more important than democracy.’ In the eyes of another Trump karly-pbacker, the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, the compatibility between freedom and democracy expired long ago. The 1920s was ‘the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics.’ Since then, ‘the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women—two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians—have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ an oxymoron.’

Essentially the same instinct—to defend capitalism against democracy—has also guided liberal elites in their defence of the established order against populist assault. For them, the upsurges of right and left in the US and UK, and the Brexit vote too, appear as monsters unleashed by an excess of democracy. The language of the ‘mob,’ of the ‘ignorant masses,’ has come out of the shadows. Democracy should no longer be trusted. It panders to the demos, a group that Plato had long ago shown to be fickle, irrational and paranoid, easily weaponised by demagogues.

The empirical flaw in these arguments is obvious. In reality, as Astra Taylor observes in respect of the United States, ‘our political system is far less democratic than it was a generation ago. Over the past 40 years, we’ve seen unions crushed, welfare gutted, higher education defunded, prisons packed to overflowing, voting rights curbed, and the rich made steadily richer while wages stagnated.’ Protests and populist political movements, she adds, ‘are signs that people have been locked out of structures of governance, not that they have successfully ‘hijacked’ the system.’

These excerpts from the ongoing debate exemplify a broader phenomenon: the revival of the thesis on the incompatibility of capitalism and democracy. This notion was widely held in the interwar period, including by Karl Polanyi, as I discuss in detail in a chapter of Reconstructing Polanyi.

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Noam Chomsky Reading List

This month we publish two new additions to the Chomsky Perspectives series. The series brings together essential Chomsky titles with other significant texts that have lain dormant for a few years. Beginning his career as a linguist, Noam Chomsky has since expanded prolifically into the field of social and political criticism; channelling the rationalism of his first discipline into his political histories, social criticism and analytic philosophy. The variety of the ‘Chomsky Perspectives’ series is a testament to his extensive scholarship, comprising of titles such as ‘Fateful Triangle’, ‘Culture of Terrorism’ and ‘On Power and Ideology’, they make available a wealth of Chomsky’s thoughts on the 20th Century and its aftermath. Each book is beautifully designed, includes a new foreword by Chomsky, as well as, contributions from Edward Said, Andre Vltchek and Edward S. Herman.

To celebrate the publication of two new additions to the series we have compiled a ‘Chomsky Perspectives’ reading list. In addition to that we also have an offer of £40 (RRP £62) to buy the four newest titles ‘The Fateful Triangle’‘Rogue States‘, ‘Powers and Prospects’ and ‘Pirates and Emperor’s to help you on your way to building the series. 

Visit to purchase the books or the books’ pages on Pluto’s website. for more titles and information regarding the ‘Chomsky Perspectives’ series.


The Fateful Trianglechomsky-t02964

A damning indictment of America’s relationship to Israel, written in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, The Fateful Triangle systematically covers Middle East history from the formation of the State of Israel to the Oslo Peace Accords. An exercise in myth-busting, Chomsky compares the inhumane, cynical and cruel treatment of the Palestinian people with accounts by those whom Chomsky calls “the supporters of Israel”, notably the “pro-Zionist” bias of the U.S. media and intellectuals.

The Fateful Triangle contains a foreword by Edward Said, as well as, a new preface by Chomsky.


Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairschomsky-t02980

A collection of essays written by Chomsky in the late 1990s, predicated on his understanding that ‘States that have some degree of power and agency in the international arena face two related tasks: to portray the targets of their punitive actions as irremediably evil and their own acts as glorious and just.’ With this in mind, Chomsky considers U.S. involvement in the Balkans Crisis, the embargo against Cuba, and intervention in Latin America, turning the focus of criticism inwards to demonstrate how Western powers too often fail to uphold their own standards of conduct.

This 2016 edition includes a new preface from the author.


Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Nature and the Social Orderchomsky-t02981-copy

An essay collection that veers wildly across the expanse of Chomsky’s thought, with topics ranging from linguistics, to human nature and international affairs. A vital compilation of Chomsky’s writing that no admirer of Chomsky’s oeuvre can afford to be without.

This 2016 edition includes a new preface from the author.


Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real Worldchomsky-t02966

By examining the Lockerbie Bombing, the Second Palestinian Intifada and the attacks on the World Trade Centre, Chomsky seeks to expose the machinations of Western responses to ‘terrorism’. Revealing how the aggressor has unique privileges that give them the right to invade and destroy at will, categorising any resistance to its justified actions as a terrorist act. From this analysis, we come to understand the roots of American military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, recent interventions in Libya, and the on-going destruction of Palestine.

This 2016 edition includes a new preface from the author.

Get all four of the above books bundled together for £40.


Year 501: The Conquest Continues

‘The conquest of the New World set off two vast demographic Year501AWcatastrophes, unparalleled in history: the virtual destruction of the indigenous population of the Western hemisphere, and the devastation of Africa as the slave trade rapidly expanded to serve the needs of the conquerors, and the continent itself was subjugated. Much of Asia too suffered “dreadful misfortunes.” While modalities have changed, the fundamental themes of the conquest retain their vitality and resilience, and will continue to do so until the reality and causes of the “savage injustice” are honestly addressed.’ Exploring “the great work of subjugation and conquest” which began with Columbus, Year 501 surveys the history of American imperial power in the ensuing 500 years; a brutal condemnation of the excesses of Western colonial and neocolonial politics.

This 2015 edition includes a substantial new foreword from the author.



Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture

Proffering a thorough analysis of the Kennedy administration and JFK’s involvement in Vietnam, Chomsky dismisses the crowing of JFK as a ‘shining knight’; a neo-Camelot. Instead he considers the parallels between his presidency and the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Rethinking Camelot is a potent act of myth-busting and proves a bitter pill to swallow.

This 2015 edition includes a substantial new foreword from the author.


All books are available to buy from or the Pluto Press website.


Noam Chomsky is a world renowned linguist and one of our foremost social critics. He is Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT and the author of numerous books for Pluto Press.

Eco-Apartheid as War: An extract from Vandana Shiva’s ‘Making Peace with the Earth’

This extract is taken from Vandana Shiva’s ‘Making Peace with the Earth‘, a study into the  environmental impact of globalisation and corporate control; Shiva takes the reader on a journey through the world’s devastated eco-landscape, one of genetic engineering, industrial development and land-grabs in Africa, Asia and South America, concluding that exploitation of this order is incurring an ecological and economic debt that is unsustainable. In this extract Shiva looks at the ecological destruction caused by warfare. 

When we think of wars in our times, our minds automatically turn to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the bigger war is the on-going war against the earth. In fact, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya can be seen as wars for the earth’s resources, especially oil. The war against the earth has its roots in an economy which fails to respect ecological and ethical limits – limits to inequality, to injustice, to greed and to economic concentration. Even though both economy and ecology have their roots in oikos, our home, the planet, the economy has separated itself from ecology in our minds, even as the intensity of exploitation and dependence on nature has increased.


The global corporate economy based on the idea of limitless growth has become a permanent war economy against the planet and people. The means are instruments of war; coercive free trade treaties used to organise economies on the basis of trade wars; and technologies of production based on violence and control, such as toxins, genetic engineering, geo-engineering and nano-technologies. Here we have just another form of “weapons of mass destruction” which kill millions in peace-time by robbing them of food and water, and poisoning the web of life. Tools of war have become the tools of economic production. The tragic bombing in Oslo on July 22, 2011 used six tonnes of chemical fertiliser; the serial bomb blasts in Mumbai were fertiliser bombs; the bombings in Afghanistan are, likewise, based on synthetic fertiliser.

The present global “war” is the inevitable next step for economic and corporate globalisation driven by a handful of corporations and powerful countries that seek to control the earth’s resources and to transform the planet into a supermarket in which everything is for sale. The continuing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and onwards are not only about “Blood for Oil”; as they unfold we will see that they will be about “Blood for Land”, “Blood for Food”, “Blood for Genes and Biodiversity”, and “Blood for Water”. By extrapolation, the rules of free trade, especially the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Agreement on Agriculture, are just another kind of weapon in the food wars. Biodiversity and genes have been called the “green oil” of the future; water is frequently referred to as the “oil” of the twenty-first century. Oil has become the metaphor and organising principle for corporate globalisation for all resources in the world. Wars and militarisation are an essential instrument for control over these vital resources, along with free trade treaties and technologies of control. Continue reading

Marx and the global crisis of capitalism

We have another extract, this one is taken from the sixth edition of Marx’s ‘Capital’ by Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, described by none other than David Harvey as the ‘expert guide to the political economy of Marx’s Capital’. The book highlights the continuing relevance of Marx’s ideas in light of contemporary capitalism, this section looks at the crash and crisis of the neoliberal financial system. 

This chapter seeks to apply a Marxist political economy to the global crisis of capitalism atfine-t03118 the time of writing, which presents itself as deriving from a major dysfunction within the financial system, with devastating repercussions across each and every aspect of economic and social reproduction. But, in light of issues of power and conflict around war, gender, race, poverty and development, for example, it is important to bear in mind that the current crisis is neither an acute break with the past, nor is it confined to narrowly defined economic issues. Indeed, crises tend to accentuate and, to that extent, reveal the nature and contradictions of the society in which we live; this is especially well illustrated by the fall from grace of the financial fraternity. However, the merciless light shone by the crisis obviously does not render contemporary capitalism an open book, to be easily read from cover to cover in large print. So, whilst neoliberalism temporarily suffered a crisis of legitimacy in addition to its economic crisis, the reasons for the latter as well as proposals for resolution remain disputed across the intellectual and political spectrums, and within Marxism itself. Continue reading

An introduction to ‘Naija Marxisms’

Taken from Adam Mayer’s book, ‘Naija Marxisms’, we have an introduction to Nigerian Marxism. “Long gone are the days when Marxism meant imported pamphlets and a rootless foreign ideology”, Mayer’s book chronicles the development of Marxist thought in Nigeria and its influence on  party politics and the political economy; Nigeria has produced Marxist thinkers of vital importance in most fields of political and human inquiry. This extract offers you lucky blog readers an introduction to the books key themes: 

This book, the first monographic study of Nigerian Marxism, had to be written sooner or later. It is reasonable to ask, however, why exactly a Hungarian researcher should have undertaken the task. Indeed, it is – or it should be – humbling to write on a history that is not one’s own. However, without trying to gloss over the occupy-nigeriaobvious difficulties of being a foreigner (and someone who does not hail from a Commonwealth country at that), there may be some advantages resulting from my standpoint. I spent my formative years in socialist Hungary. Linkages between Eastern Europe and the Nigerian socialist movement abounded from the 1940s until 1989. Some authors discussed below were actually schooled in Eastern Europe: Eskor Toyo studied economics in Poland, and even had a book published in Polish. Labour leader Michael Imoudu, Tunji Otegbeye, Wahab Goodluck, socialist feminist Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and others travelled regularly to Moscow for conferences and for funds to support the socialist movement and labour initiatives, including strikes. The Eastern Europe–Marxist Nigeria link has been recognised and partly documented by the eminent Nigerian historian Hakeem Tijani (whose eminence is matched by his allegiance to the political status quo), but the connection is still awaiting a historian to unearth the exact details in the Russian language in Moscow. At the same time, to reduce Nigerian Marxism to an acolyte movement, funded by Eastern Europeans would be a very erroneous proposition. Even Tunji Otegbeye, leader of the Moscow-sanctioned Marxist party (Socialist Workers’ and Farmers’ Party), made frivolous remarks about the land of the Soviets in his books, not to mention heterodox thinkers such as Niyi Oniororo or Edwin Madunagu, who condemned Soviet leaders nearly as often as they did Americans. Two Nigerian Marxists, Peter Ayodele Curtis Joseph and Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti were the recipients of the Lenin Peace Prize along with Nasser, Nehru, W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, Salvador Allende, Pablo Picasso and Nelson Mandela – a sign that the USSR recognised the potential of the Nigerian Marxist movement. I devote a chapter to the international links of the Nigerian Marxist movement: mainly British, East European, Ghanaian, and South African. Indeed, the multifaceted nature of the Nigerian left’s international links reminds us that there is more to the international flow of ideas than the metropole–colony relationship.

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Staff Reading List: Back to University!

We present our staff reading list with picks from members of the Pluto team. From theory to biography, history to global politics, all our selections are available on our website! 


Jallad by Tasneem Khalilkhalil-t02986

Kieran O’Connor, Publicist

From the chillingly euphemistic ‘encounter specialists’ in India, to the weaponised flanks of the Royal Nepalese Army, this book is a timely, rigorous assault on the brutalities exacted on hundreds of thousands of people in South Asia by state agents, helped in kind  by the US, the UK, Israel and China who back these regimes.  Muscular, fearless and rigorous, Jallad is an incredibly timely and essential book.


The Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj

Simon Liebesny, Sales Director

The book I wish I had read years ago is The Rent Trap. In my time I have squatted, lived in a walker-t03066housing co-op, rented a room, rented a flat and eventually got a mortgage. All of these have been and still are precarious; the word mortgage literally means “a pledge unto death”. There is no security in “security”. As Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj show in a clear and yet eviscerating guide to the world of private renting, we are constantly at the whim and mercy of faceless people in glass offices, who care not a whit about how ordinary people are supposed to live from day to day. A dangerous cocktail made up of the recklessness of governments combined with the greed of private landlords and agents will leave a scar on this generation and on those to come. The Rent Trap is the antidote.


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‘Comic Anti-Humanism’: An extract from Owen Hatherley’s ‘The Chaplin Machine’

This extract is taken from Owen Hatherley’s ‘The Chaplin Machine‘, a history of the Communist avant-garde and their improbable fascination with Hollywood’s stars.  In this extract Hatherley considers how Chaplin’s binary of human and machine befits the theoretical criterion of the Communist avant-garde. Timothy’sBook(B)AW

For Walter Benjamin, the new landscape of the ‘Second Industrial Revolution’, with its mass production factories, new means of transport and communication, and its increased geographical spread and its concentration of population and labour, is incarnated as a ‘newly built house’ – but a newly built house which, we can expect, resembles the theatrical constructions of Vesnin and Popova, or, as we shall soon see, of Buster Keaton – a house full of trapdoors, mass-produced, jerry-built or prefabricated, but with a new spatial potential, where its multiple pitfalls can be faced without incurring real pain, real physical damage – traversed, if not transcended. The person that can live in it is the Soviet figure of the Eccentric, who has adapted himself to the precipitous new landscape, and has learned to laugh at it; in turn the audience, who may well live in these new houses too, learn to live in them in turn. To get some notion of what the newly built house is like, we could turn to the one in Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920): a prefabricated house whose pieces are assembled in the wrong order, which is alternately dragged along a road and knocked down by a train, but which in between provides a series of vivid and joyous surprises for its inhabitants and the audience. Alternatively, it could be like the house in Lev Kuleshov’s Americanist gold- rush melodrama By The Law (1926), another minimal, wooden construction placed in the barren Western expanse, which begins as a sweet petit-bourgeois homestead but soon becomes consecutively an execution chamber and marooned wreck, left desolate and hopelessly bleak. Continue reading