From the Socialist Standard, November 2004.
The nature and meaning of democracy in society has recently become a topic of major interest in the media. Not only are we repeatedly reminded that the 'war on terror' is being waged to defend 'our' democratic rights and freedoms, but more recently the issue acquired unexpected notoriety when supporters of the 'Countryside Alliance' tricked their way into the debating chamber of the House of Commons. Although a great embarrassment to the 'security forces' and the government and a mild source of amusement to the rest of us, it did trigger a debate, however brief, on the role of parliament and what constitutes a working democracy.
The first moves towards control of parliament by means of elected representation emerged in England in the 17th century, as parliament attempted to expand its authority at the expense of the king. The electorate was limited to the small minority, who regarded it as imperative that they capture exclusive political power to pass laws that would safeguard their land and property interests from the 'propertyless masses'.
Their purpose was to exclude ordinary people who might voice views dangerous to the propertied class or pass laws detrimental to their interests. The control exerted over parliament became a reflection of the property relations in society; a role that parliament has successfully fulfilled, largely unchallenged, to the present day.
As capitalism emerged as the dominant social system, competition and the misery of working people intensified, so worker organisations struggled against laws that hampered their ability to defend themselves and improve their conditions. The 'Anti-Combination Laws' that made unions illegal were repealed in 1824, although it wasn't until the depression of the 1870s and the Trade Union Act of 1871 that legal protection was granted to union funds. Later, peaceful picketing was allowed. Likewise, the struggle to achieve universal suffrage was slow, driven by overcrowding, excessive hours, child labour, dangerous working conditions and dire poverty. It took the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 to expand the franchise, but even by 1900 only 27 percent of the male population had the vote and it would take a further 30 years before full adult suffrage would be conceded to working people.
By the end of the 19th century the political debate influenced by worker organisations centred on whether the state should become involved to help the poor or whether traditional laissez faire – the notion of individual self-help – should prevail. Collectivism – the view that the state must improve things for the poor – gradually emerged and led to the development of what we know now as the welfare state in the twentieth century.
This summary raises two important issues. The first is that whilst parliamentary government still operates to protect property, the concessions and the elbow room that have been won in capitalist democracy are important and of value to working people. Rights to organise politically, express dissension and combine in trade unions, for example, are valuable not only as a defence against capitalism, but from a socialist viewpoint are a platform from which socialist understanding can spread, while the right to vote the means by which socialism will be achieved.
For the Chartists, winning the vote was part of a wider struggle for
social change – a class struggle.Hence their fierce suppression by
At the same time we must recognise that genuine democracy is more than these freedoms and the right to vote. Whilst 'one person one vote' is an essential ingredient of democratic society, democracy implies much more than the simple right to choose between representative of political parties every five years. The Chartist movement, in the 19th century, saw that gaining the right to vote was meaningless unless it could be used to effect 'change'. But today exercising our democratic right to vote for a conventional political party does not effect change. It amounts to little more than making a selection between rival representatives of power and class interest whose overarching function is to protect private property and make profits flow. It is representative government where all the representatives support obedience to the capitalist system.
Some exponents of modern democratic theory assert that ordinary working people should only be 'spectators' but never 'participants'. They hold that while we may busy themselves on the fringes of political issues, ordinary working people must be excluded entirely from any involvement in deciding economic matters; for this is where the real decisions that effect our lives are made. This is where the interests of the capitalist class have exclusive decision making authority.
Milton Friedman in his Capitalism and Freedom, for instance, tells us that capitalism and democracy are inseparable. He assets that far from being its antithesis, profit creation is actually the very embodiment of democracy and any government that restricts the market is pursuing an anti-democratic policy. He argues that the real issues, including the distribution of resources, social organisation and the economic sphere in general must be excluded from public debate and left to 'free market forces' or removed from public scrutiny altogether and made secretly. He predictably concludes that government should limit its involvement to the protection of private property, law enforcement and to a policy of limiting all political debates to minor peripheral issues. Not surprisingly, capitalist democracy is one where the political agenda is dominated by trivial and often insignificant debate between political parties with the same class based convictions.
Other exponents of capitalist democracy go still further, for they assert that to keep democracy 'healthy' (by which is usually meant working in the interests of capital), public opinion must be moulded and manipulated to encourage obedience – to "manufacture consent". Ordinary working people are to be targeted with propaganda and 'public relations' exercises to induce acceptance of things that are contrary to our interests. The effectiveness of this propaganda is illustrated by the widening gap between people's preferences and government policy which often result in the quiet acceptance of, say, unpopular cuts in social spending or policies clearly incompatible with their interests. It is hardly surprising that working people become increasingly disillusioned with 'democracy' and politics and register their frustration by declining participation in elections. We start to believe that if our vote is so ineffective in changing things there can be little point in casting it. We become exactly what our master class wants us to be, obedient and silent.
Clearly, 'democracy' under capitalism is different from the generally accepted meaning of the word as a situation where ordinary people make the decisions that shape their lives, frequently summarised as being the 'rule of the people.' But democracy is not simply about 'who' makes decisions or 'how' the decisions are to be made. It is an expression of the social relations in society. If democracy means that all have equal opportunity to be heard, then this not only implies political equality but also economic equality. It further presupposes that people have individual freedom. A genuine democracy is therefore one where people are free and equal, actively participating, without leaders, in co-operative discussion to reach common agreement on all matters relating to their collective as well as individual requirements.
A genuine democracy complements equality and freedom and is therefore incompatible with capitalism. We are told we have 'equality,' but how can this be when the majority are compelled to sell their labour power to a minority who have the wealth to purchase it? Likewise, we are told we are 'free' but in reality our only freedom is to sell our labour power to someone who is 'free' to buy it – or not, as the case may be. If we choose not to exercise this freedom then we are 'free' to go without or even starve. It is quickly apparent that in capitalism freedom is an illusion because freedom cannot exist when the conditions for the exercise of free choice do not exist. In capitalist democracy freedom has become a commodity strictly limited to the amount that can be purchased by a given wage or salary. In the workplace our 'work' organised under a strict division of labour is often tedious and repetitive; we have become an appendage to a machine or computer in industry organised on a strictly 'top-down' chain of authority – more fitting to a tyranny. This is what freedom means under capitalism.
The vote as weapon
The realisation that genuine democracy cannot exist in capitalist society does not alter the fact that the elbow room already secured by struggle can be turned against our masters. The right to vote, for instance, can become a powerful instrument to end our servitude and to achieve genuine democracy and freedom. Working people with an understanding of socialism can utilise their vote to signify that the overwhelming majority demand change and to bring about social revolution. For while democracy cannot exist outside of socialism, socialism cannot be achieved without the overwhelming majority of working people demanding it.
A genuine democracy can flourish only in socialist society. Socialism will liberate the productive forces within capitalist society by bringing the means and instruments of producing life's necessities into common ownership, thereby destroying the economic foundation upon which class distinction and social discrimination rest. It will replace production for profit with production for need, where money, exchange and the market will all become obsolete. The democratic organisation of socialist society will necessarily require the full participation of all free and equal people, without leaders, to vote and decide on the issues that determine how the welfare of all can best be served. It will end forever the degradation of wage slavery, hierarchy and coercion and provide the economic basis for free people to become creative, unfettered to express their diverse and individual talents and be fulfilled as human beings.
Today, we must view with suspicion attempts to further restrict or limit our legal rights by carefully considering the motives that lie behind such moves. For we need to use these rights to organise and spread socialist understanding so a socialist majority can capture political power, end capitalism and establish socialism. Only then will we have genuine freedom and a genuine democracy.