Capitalism, Democracy and the Occupy Wall Street Movement

11/29/2011 03:41 pm ET | Updated Jan 29, 2012

In the concluding remarks of his lecture "Capitalism and Democracy" (1991), Gabriel Almond, one of the most prominent political scientists of the 20th century, stated "that democracy and capitalism are both positively and negatively related, that they both support and subvert each other." Almond reached this conclusion after examining the relationship between capitalism and democracy and the arguments of political theorists as they pertain to the different logically possible relationship between the two, namely: Capitalism Supports Democracy; Capitalism Subverts Democracy; Democracy Subverts Capitalism; Democracy Supports Capitalism.

The point of view of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, specifically as it relates to capitalism and democracy, has been a subject of much discussion and speculation. In particular, the critics have portrayed this movement as antithetical to capitalism and thus consider the movement and its supporters "radicals" who pose a threat to the American way of running the economy and doing business. This understanding has been further reinforced by some of the slogans and placards calling for "abolishing capitalism" at various Occupy locations.

Contrary to the above mentioned understanding, the results of our 453 interviews at seven Occupy locations indicate that OWS movement demands are not mutually incompatible with capitalism. Moreover, for the most part, the OWS movement is neither calling for abolishing capitalism, nor is it demanding a massive overhaul of capitalism as an economic system -- less than 5% of all the respondents we interviewed in the seven Occupy locations made any reference to ending, abolishing or getting rid of capitalism. Instead, the key demands we kept hearing in this regard are: elimination of corporate personhood; the need for campaign finance reform and getting money out of politics.

OWS protestors' demands suggest that this movement is not averse to capitalism per se, but to a very specific relationship between capitalism and democracy in which the former subverts and undermines the latter. In his book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) Joseph Schumpeter adroitly summed up this relationship as follows:

"There are some deviations from the principle of democracy which link up with the presence of organized capitalist interests...[T]he statement is true both from the standpoint of the classical and from the standpoint of our own theory of democracy.
From the first standpoint, the result reads that the means at the disposal of private interests are often used in order to thwart the will of the people. From the second standpoint, the result reads that those private means are often used in order to interfere with the working of the mechanism of competitive leadership."

Interestingly, the above demands of the OWS movement can actually be met without harming or undermining the key tenets of capitalism as an economic system. Curbing capitalism's ability to subvert democracy does not require regulating how the capitalist market forces operate in the economic realm, rather it requires regulation of capitalist market forces' attempts to operate in and impact the political realm. What is more, these demands may be achieved through an agenda of reform implemented through legislation rather than a revolution or a massive overhaul of our political economy. However, for this to occur, political leaders need to realize that many of the key demands of the OWS movement are not radical and do not pose any threat to American values and way of life and should therefore be seriously considered and accommodated. Lastly, for their part the OWS protestors too need to appreciate that reform implemented through legislation alone may not accomplish all of their key objectives, but that it may help them achieve some of them.

Occupy Wall Street - Public Opinion Project (OWS-POP) is an independent initiative dedicated to generating and publicly sharing data on the Occupy Wall Street protests and protesters. To date we have conducted 453 interviews at seven Occupy locations:
220 interviews at Occupy New York in Zuccotti Park (October 15-16, 22-23 and November 5)
95 interviews at Occupy Boston in Dewey Square (October 23)
38 interviews at Occupy Washington D.C. in McPherson Square (October 30)
32 interviews Occupy Providence, Rhode Island (November 13)
11 interviews at Occupy Oakland (November 10).
37 interviews at Occupy San Francisco (November 11-13).
20 interviews at Occupy Portland (November 12)

For Questions or Comments, please email:

For Results: OWS-POP website: