The struggle for democracy
The capitalist system may have nominally democratic institutions, but it relies upon working class compliance, passivity and lack of involvement in the process to carry out its worst and most illiberal functionings. Real democracy can only be achieved on the basis of the common ownership of society’s means of living.
Anyone who has engaged in politics must eventually come across such statements as “democracy is inefficient”; “the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship”; or (a personal all time classic) “the country should be run by experts, well trained managers, not just any Tom Dick or Harry”. Such comments (which are surprisingly common) reflect a general lack of democratic culture among the working class. These points are easily countered: democracy is only inefficient if your only criterion is speed, but if you include wide consultation and a plurality of opinions and ideas within the decision-making process, then democracy is actually far more efficient in the long run. The benevolent dictator idea neglects the fact that dictators must have a class to back them up so as to ensure the primary aim of all dictators—of staying in power. Likewise, with the group of managers, the question becomes, how do we select such managers? And how are they supposed to manage the country? In whose interest?
These attitudes reveal, however, not that the working class is not interested in how the world is run, but that they have a strong desire for it to be done better. The whole ideology behind a benevolent dictator (the sort of ideology that led to the worship of Lenin, and then Hitler and Mussolini in the thirties) is that they have the power to do what is right, without being constrained by laws or petty interests. The dictator becomes the symbol of the law, all-capable, all-powerful, ready to manage affairs in a rational manner, not in the manner dictated by bourgeois law or by propertied interests. That’s the idea at least. The dictator or the managers become a symbol for orderliness and rationality in an insane and disorganised world. They represent stability.
The problem is that most folk do not look to democracy to bring about this stability. The bourgeois propagandists have done their work, and have effectively destroyed any belief in democracy as the idea that folks can run their own lives and own communities. Years of battering and enforced passivity has come to mean that for most of the working class the idea of them being in charge of affairs is inconceivable.
The most damaging thing to the cause of true democracy is the repeated assurances that what we have nowadays is democracy, and so all the sleaze, all the dumbing down, all the secret negotiations and dirty deals get lumped together to suggest in people’s minds that democracy is not all that great. Our masters wouldn’t want it any other way.
A recent example of the state of democracy in Britain is the Labour Party conference. Traditionally the Labour conference had at least some nominal control over party and policy. However this year, after Blair has wrought his changes, it became a parade ground, and more of a rally than a decision-making body. Hack after hack talked about the old days of Labour scraps and ferocious debates at the conference. None of them mentioned that debate is part of the democratic process, but instead concentrated on the way it used to damage the image of the Labour Party by making it look divided. Likewise, whenever a party official or government member warned conference that they mustn’t go back to the in-fighting of the 70s, they neglected the fact that the infighting was caused by the party’s leaders refusing to do as they were told by the democratic bodies of the party.
Such exercises in amnesia are not accidental. The British Establishment does not like the idea of its government being under any form of democratic control beyond the nominal scrutiny of Parliament. The media plays a powerful role in this. Its whole agenda of trying to detect splits in the governing party, or questioning the “strength” of a Prime Minister’s position, is entirely geared towards promoting anti-democratic, anti-discussion attitudes within the political elite. If a party can lose power because it is seen to have differences of opinion then the only alternative is to keep quiet, and try to get into a good ministerial job to try and “make a difference” there.
It was such a desire to stay in power and limit the appearance of dissent that led to the changes within the Labour Party being agreed to and passed by the very democratic procedures that they have just abolished. The membership of the Labour Party, desperate for a chance to get into power to enact their ever more limited reforms, surrendered their capacity to effect democratic control.
There are further anti-democratic forces at work in the general political discourse, some of which have been with us a long time. One of the most potent is the argument that there is a need to elect to Parliament the people best able to run the country (back to those managers again). Thus there is a selection process for candidates that has a set of criteria to be fulfilled to show ability, usually involving being white, and university-educated, and either a teacher, lecturer, lawyer or banker. Thus Parliament is stuffed with clones of the type most likely to help the ruling class rule. Any notion that Parliament is there to represent the people, and that a constituency should elect someone that they think is most like them, and represent their interests, goes completely out of the window. Even the most limited scope for democracy is subtly elided by propaganda, ideology, and the practice of the main institutionalised parties.
At the last Labour conference, when Tony Blair complete with mechanical body language and a look of good intent, strongly emphasised his strong belief and strong determination, he was met with slavish rapture by the ranks of Labour hacks. They loved his insistence that a strong Britain would be good for everyone, and loved his ideas about working in partnership with our exploiters for mutual gain.
This is the old nationalist lie that we are one country, one people, working together for a common interest. Or, to take a leftist version, as Orwell put it “one family, with the wrong members in charge”(The Lion and The Unicorn). This ideology allows politicians to present us as if we have one common interest. “I’d rather be unpopular than wrong” Blair declaimed, in the full expectation that his unpopularity was about to come from a Labour government acting against the interests of the working class (yet again) in defence of the “National Interest” (the interests of the exploiters of the ruling class).
Nationalism allows the politicians to limit democratic choice on the grounds that there is only one national interest and therefore only one general programme, one set of policies to be followed. However, one of the basic points about liberal democracy is that, as we put it in our declaration of principles, “all parties are but the expression of class interests”. This has long been a guiding principle in British politics, with the different interests of different sections of the ruling class being represented by the different parties. Whilst the Labour Party has always firmly supported the interest of the industrial sections of the ruling class, it has also, at its most reformist, sought to be a conduit for working class interests within capitalism.
That Labour has renounced even the most basic reformist platform reflects the interests of a ruling class that is itself in something of a crisis. The poor growth of the last twenty years, the need to keep wages and welfare down, and the need to find new markets have meant that our rulers have had to clamp down on possible channels for dissidence. They cannot, in their current condition, accept any challenge to their profits. When the Major government looked like it was too hostile to the Euro, and thus to the interests of big business and one of their few possible escape routes, they deserted it, and took their money to the Labour Party, newly reformed to appeal to their interest.
In its switch from Tory to Labour the age-old influence of Money has been much more visible than it usually is. The Labour conference attracted heavy criticism for the sponsorship it received from many companies up to and including the delegates’ name tags sponsored by Somerfield. Powerful vested interests have been shamelessly brought in to help Labour “co-operate” better with their kleptocratic masters. They conspicuously drew from the corporate world by bringing Lord Simon (a former Director of BP) into the cabinet by way of the unelected House of Lords. There was nary a whisper of protest at this, not from the media at any rate, and not from the Tory opposition, who doubtless approve of such things.
The influence of Money was plainer to see in the last general election too. Of some £26 million spent by the Labour Party, only £9 million came from unions and members. Nearly all the rest came, according to the recent Neill Report on Party Funding, from private donors including businesses and 21 millionaires who each gave a minimum of £50,000 and not much more. This effectively meant that Labour policies were being sold to these people, and had to be acceptable before they would buy them. This is of course nothing new, but it is more blatant than before.
Although the government is due to introduce reforms to the party funding system, this is unlikely to do much to change the basic fact that money dominates elections. For that matter, most of their “democratic reforms” are unlikely to make any real change either. Abolishing hereditary peers will simply allow for a House of Appointees—it is unlikely, given that Blair exercised his power of appointment to get Lord Simon into the cabinet, that he would wish to renounce such an option for the future. He defends himself against charges of being a control freak by pointing out all the extra voting that he is allowing for Scottish and Welsh devolution. However, this merely means voting parties in to oversee the bureaucratic work already going on, and to enable regional government to make itself more business-friendly.
Neither do other options being considered add to the democratic culture in Britain. Given the low turnouts in many elections (which the goons at Class War celebrated after the last general election), there has been talk of introducing compulsory voting. This would amount to a state forcing its citizens to legitimize it and runs totally counter to any real notion of democracy. PR, if instituted, would just be a way of further institutionalising parties, and changing the question from representation to one of balancing the parties’ share in the executive. It would merely mean that it would become more difficult for one party to dominate the government and thus go against the ruling class interest in the way the Tories did at the end.
All of these changes, however, are merely cosmetic. They represent changes to formal democracy, which has no real power to affect the course of events. At the moment a small group of people control all the wealth and property, and it is upon their interests that everything hinges. It is only by removing such people, and not by tinkering with the form, that true democracy can be reached.
Democracy is not a set of rules or a parliament; it is a process, a process that must be fought for. The struggle for democracy is the struggle for socialism. It is not a struggle for reforms, for this or that political system, for this or that leader, for some rule change or other—it is the struggle for an idea, for a belief, a belief that we can run our own lives, that we have a right to a say in how society is run, for a belief that the responsibility for democracy lies not upon the politicians or their bureaucrats, but upon ourselves.