Demands for a Democratic Political Economy

29 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2020 Last revised: 17 Nov 2020

See all articles by Amna A. Akbar

Amna A. Akbar

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law

Date Written: October 29, 2020


We are living in a time of grassroots demands to transform our built environment, our relationships with one another and the earth. To abolish prisons and police, rent, debt, borders, and billionaires. To decommodify housing and health care and to decolonize land. To exercise more collective ownership or, at least, to have more say, over our collectively generated wealth. Some of us are reimagining the state. Others are dreaming of moving beyond it. But these are more than dreams. These are demands for a democratic political economy.

We are living through a material and ideological crisis: people’s basic needs are not being met—not by the state, and not by the market. In his remarkable Foreword, Michael Klarman implicitly makes the case for this decade of protests, riots, and strikes, and the demands that spring therefrom. The United States “is not a democracy,” he argues. Our political system is “dominate[d]” by “the wealthiest Americans” and “well-funded interest groups,” whereas “working class and middle class Americans exercise almost no influence on political outcomes across a wide array of issues.” It is not simply that material conditions are increasingly unsurvivable, then, ordinary people have no real way to determine the conditions of their lives. People are taking to the streets because it is their “only recourse.”

The reforms Klarman advances would provide important avenues to reconstitute Democratic Party power and to weaken nativist right-wing forces. But they would not go far enough to counter the devastation minority rule has unfurled through never-ending privatization and the monstrosity of the carceral state. The flourishing protests, strikes, and campaigns of the last decade are grassroots insurgencies against elite rule and its ravages on the public and the environment.

In this Response, I lay out a more capacious vision of democracy emerging from today’s movements: one that pursues “non-reformist reforms” as one strategy to move us toward a democratic political economy where people possess the agency and power to self-determine the conditions of their lives. Non-reformist reforms provide a framework for thinking about reforms that aim to build grassroots power as they redress the crises of our times. They embody a combined concern with democracy and the economy, the ends and process of grassroots power: to fight criminalization and privatization as we organize for collective self-determination.

The Response proceeds as follow. In Part I, I lay out the conceptual framework of non-reformist reforms, its origins, and its current articulation in abolitionist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist organizing. In Part II, I turn to defund the police. In Part III, I explain that movements are making demands for the public to have greater say on the commons: our collectively generated wealth, the land, and our shared built environment. These demands reflect the deepening of anti-capitalist and anti-racist critique in many of today’s movements, and a shift in thinking about the nature of reform that creates greater self-determination for poor, working-class, Black, and brown people—and a more just and sustainable future for us all.

Keywords: protest; social movements; abolition; political economy; defund the police; non-reformist reforms

Suggested Citation

Akbar, Amna A., Demands for a Democratic Political Economy (October 29, 2020). Harvard Law Review, Vol. 134, No. 1, p. F, 2020, Ohio State Legal Studies Research Paper No. 578, Available at SSRN:

Amna A. Akbar (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law ( email )

55 West 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics