2010s >> 2019 >> no-1384-december-2019

Democracy: Another Word for Plutocracy

The time of street revolutions is over. Socialism’s future lies in class-conscious workers expressing themselves through collective action and the ballot. How, then, has the ruling class been able to prevent the working class up to now from achieving this goal? There are two obvious possible answers. The first is to skew the vote against the workers, privileging the elite. The second is to entice the workers into voting against their class interests.

The first was suggested by the radical liberal John Stuart Mill, who suggested in his Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform (1859) that ‘every person should have one vote, but that every well-educated person in the community should have more than one, on a scale corresponding as far as practicable to their amount of education’ . The second was put succinctly by David Hume :

Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.’ (First Principles of Government)

Both stalwart classical liberals had , then, a deep scepticism when it came to democracy, and sought ways to restrict it.

More recently Jan Fleischhauer wrote in the Guardian (9 April) that: ‘Democracy is overrated anyway. The truth is, it only works reasonably well if the number of voters who have no idea (or perhaps worse: are convinced they do) are not too big on the day.’ We ask ourselves: how might people have an idea? Surely, the answer is the media, reporting on the facts and showing how to criticise the government, along the lines of Jeremy Browne, the then Foreign Office Minister, set out during a speech in April 2011 in Hanoi : ‘In democracies, the media is fundamental to political life. It provides facts to allow us to be better informed about the issues that matter to us. It provides criticism and debate to ensure that that information is tested and examined from all points of view. And it provides investigation and examination to ensure that power is checked and decision-makers are held accountable’ (www.gov.uk/government/news/role-of-media-in-society). Let us, perhaps without justification, take this as true. Why does the situation outlined by Fleischhauer arise then? The answer is clear – the media does not do what it claims to.

Least trusted

In fact, the British press is the least trusted in Europe, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre. The British Social Attitudes Survey found in 2014 that a majority did not think the media provided them with adequate tools to criticise the government. This majority has most likely increased in the last five years.

In 2017, BSA found that two-thirds of the population think there is ‘quite a lot of poverty’ in Britain, and 78 percent said that the gap between high earners and low earners is too large. This is strikingly different to what the previous chancellor, Philip Hammond, said on BBC’s Newsnight on 3 June when he rejected ‘the idea that there are vast numbers of people living in poverty in this country.’ He claimed that the suggestion was ‘a nonsense’, and his reasoning for such a bold claim was ‘Look around you, that is not what we see in this country.’ This was in response to Philip Alston, a UN Rapporteur, whose statement in November 2018 following a visit to the UK was damning. He wrote in his conclusion that ‘Thomas Hobbes, […] memorably claimed that without a social contract, life outside society would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ The risk is that if current policies do not change, this is the direction in which low-income earners and the poor are headed.’ An even more biting conclusion he drew was that ‘Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.’

What do these simple facts show? Firstly, that Hume and Mill were both right, simply on the wrong side. Their conclusions were absolutely correct. The rich being more privileged and public opinion being restricted are the most effective mechanisms for restricting democracy. The media, now that it is election season, are diverting their efforts to whichever horse they have in the race. The Guardian remains on the centre-left, and is the closest thing to representation of the left-wing in the mainstream – but that is a far cry from any considerable change to capitalism. The Times has devoted columns and columns to spelling out the disastrous consequences of Labour in power, etc, etc. Public opinion is confined to such narrow boundaries that renationalising the railways seems like something out of Marx’s Capital.

There are a number of reasons for this, the foremost being that the media are profit-seeking corporations and are subject to business interests. It is not in their interest to suggest that there is an alternative to the profit system. The public are not so easily duped, as shown by their dissatisfaction with capitalism above, as well as their scepticism with respect to the media. Melanie Phillips in an article in the Times (12 November) wrote: ‘Few British or American students are told about the evils of communism in the same way as they are told about the evils of Nazism. […] Few are taught that capitalism is the precondition for freedom and prosperity.’ It is hard to see a more ironic statement than an organ of propaganda claiming that freedom cannot exist without capitalism, and socialists are wrong because they do not allow freedom. George Orwell wrote in his essay The Freedom of the Press (1944), ‘the English intelligentsia have plenty of reason for their timidity and dishonesty, indeed I know by heart the arguments by which they justify themselves. But at least let us have no more nonsense about defending liberty against Fascism. If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

Matthew Goodwin, in another recent article in the Times (3 November), wrote of ‘angry, divisive populism that is eroding everything once considered essential to our culture of consensus.’ By this populism, he meant the ‘belief in a corrupt, self-serving and neglectful elite that undermines the interests of the ‘pure’ people.’ It doesn’t take much to work out why such a view is so quickly disparaged by the capitalist press. Indeed this ‘civic culture’ he extolled might be seen as a society in which the elite do as they will and those below are docile and humble enough to submit to this rule. Though, he isn’t stupid, and he knows that the public is not either. He knows that this view will ‘resonate with voters’, even though ‘Britain will drift further from the civic culture that was considered to be one of its most valuable features.’ But ‘valuable to whom?’ Clearly not valuable to the majority, who are beginning to shake off the neoliberal denial of class altogether.

A genuine alternative is obviously needed. Discontent with the status quo is growing. Of course, the alternative is not, as the capitalist press have it, Jeremy ‘class war’ Corbyn, but socialism. Obviously, this is totally against the interests of the ruling class and therefore not something they want the public to hear. What are the majority then to do? Now seems an appropriate time to make the case for socialism and show that the poverty of many and greed of some is not the only way. The extension of democracy to all aspects of life, including work, is the foundation of socialism, and it is hard to think of something more apt to our times. The challenge is to overcome an anti-democratic media that seeks to restrict opinion and to keep the majority obedient.