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UK General Election 2005: Democracy as it is and as it could be

Many people would argue that Britain is a democracy and that we all benefit from living in a democratic society. By this they would probably mean the regular holding of elections to parliament and local councils, the freedom to organise political parties, a press which is not beholden to the government, and the rule of law. If people object to the policies of the government or a particular MP, they can vote them out of office. If they oppose a specific action by a local council, they can set up a protest group and hold demonstrations, without the fear of being carted off to prison just for voicing their views.

In this, comparisons would be drawn with dictatorships, where elections may be non-existent or a sham, where independent parties and trade unions are outlawed, where the press just follow the government line, and arbitrary arrest and even torture are commonplace. Such comparisons are by no means valueless, and capitalist democracy is definitely useful to workers, yet the idea that
elections and the other points listed above in themselves constitute democracy needs a great deal of reflection.

For do the trappings of democracy, as we might call them, really guarantee a truly democratic way of life? Do they ensure 'rule by the people', which is the etymology of 'democracy'? Socialists argue that the answer to these questions is a resounding 'no!', that real democracy - a social democracy, as it might be called - involves far more. The problem is that under a capitalist system there is a built-in lack of democracy, which cannot be overturned or compensated for by holding elections or permitting protest groups. Our objections are far more basic than suggestions that proportional representation is the best electoral system.

In the first place, capitalism involves an inevitable inequality, between on the one hand those who have to work for a living or who depend on a family member who does so, and on the other those who own enough land, shares or bonds that they have no need to work. This is a division between two classes, the working class and the capitalist class, between those who do the useful work but are paid a pittance and those who live a life of luxury in country houses, posh flats and expensive clubs and restaurants.

Those who have more money have more power and more control than those who have far, far less. This is partly a matter of mere wealth: if I have one hundred times as much money as you, then I have far more say over how I spend my time, where I live, what my children can experience, and so on. Workers have to struggle with a mortgage, fear of redundancy or a monotonous job, and have far less control over their lives. So poverty and inequality of wealth undermines any claims that capitalism can be democratic. But there is more to be said. The capitalist class have power not just over their own lives but over those of workers as well. They can order the closure of factories, as at Rover or Marconi, the building of a new motorway, the invasion of another country, all of which can affect the workers who will lose their jobs, suffer noise and disruption, or have to fight and die on behalf of their masters. The press may be  formally 'free', but in practice newspapers are owned by capitalists and so will naturally reflect  procapitalist views in their pages. The government, too, is there to administer the system on behalf of the capitalists, something they do irrespective of which party is occupying 10 Downing Street.

In fact, though, there is a sense in which the government does not run the system at all - rather, the capitalist system runs the government, by limiting the actions that can be taken. The capitalists and their governments can propose what they like, but it is the capitalist economy that disposes. Raising of interest rates, increased unemployment, devaluation - these may not be what governments
want to do, but may well be what they are forced to do because capitalism leaves them no choice.

There are at least three reasons, then, why capitalist democracy does not mean that workers are in charge of their  own lives. They are too poor to be able to do what they want to do, being limited by the size of their wage packets. They are at the beck and call of their employers in particular and of the capitalist class in general. And they are at the mercy of an economic system that goes its own sweet way without being subject to the control of those who suffer under it.

In contrast, Socialists advocate a way or organising society that will result in real democracy, where people genuinely run their own lives and are not pushed around by bosses. Firstly, Socialism will do away with the inequality of capitalism. With free access to what has been produced, everybody (that's absolutely everybody) will be able to decide on their own consumption, living conditions, and
so on. There will no longer be a forced 'choice' between a new car and a summer holiday. Poverty will no longer limit people's lives and experiences.

Secondly, there will be no employment, no employers and no capitalist class. Nobody will therefore be able to make decisions about the livelihoods (and, indeed, the very lives) of others. Nobody will have privileged access to the media and means of communication and so be in a special position to influence the views of other people.

And thirdly, the uncontrollability of the capitalist economy will be a thing of the past. Production will be for use, not for profit, and there will be no more gluts or 'overproduction'. With all the paraphernalia of money, accounting, interest rates and the bottom line done away with, there will be no obstacles to people producing what is wanted.

More positively, Socialism will involve people making decisions about their own lives and those of families, friends and neighbours - decisions unencumbered by so many of the factors that have to be taken into account under capitalism. The means of production (land, factories, offices) will be owned in common, and everybody will help to determine how they will be used. This need not mean endless meetings, nor can we now give a blueprint of how democratic decision-making in Socialism will work. Quite likely there will be administrative structures at different levels, local, regional and so on. This will not just be the trappings of democracy but the real thing - people deciding about and running their own lives, within a system of equality and fellowship.

Paul Bennett