Capitalism and Democracy : Part 1

Capitalism: incompatible with democracy

Capitalism’s relationship to democracy is similar to a conversation in a film set in apartheid South Africa, where a lawyer addressing a client described the relationship between the law and justice in general as being similar to distant cousins who were not on speaking terms. Capitalism, as we know, is a world-wide system. However, the type of political system that underpins it differs in various parts of the world. In many places it operates on the basis of what are clearly totalitarian regimes, although even here terms such as ‘Peoples’ Assembly’, as in China, try to create the illusion that it contains democratic features. The dominant political system for organising capitalism is the mostly Western mode of liberal democracy (LD). It is this system that we will focus on here as it claims to be the only democratic system on offer, and organisations such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and National Endowment for Democracy attempt to export and promote this model to other parts of the world.

It seems that there is a widely held belief that capitalism and democracy go together almost as well as bread and butter and that therefore totalitarian regimes are seen as something other than capitalist. China and similar systems are labelled, quite incorrectly of course, as ‘Communist’. This linking of capitalism with democracy seems to be contradictory when one considers that it is based on the minority ownership and control of the means of producing and distributing wealth; meaning of course that the majority are separated from those means and therefore from any real control over their lives. So immediately the system of LD defines democracy in very limited terms. It is clearly undemocratic in terms of wealth production and distribution but claims to be democratic on the basis that on the political level it allows for a multi-party political system where a majority of the population, restricted generally only by age qualification, can vote political parties in and out of government, which normally occurs every four or five years. So the general opinion is that this is more democratic than the parts of the world that are governed by one-party states.

However, it can also be argued that this multi-party system does have advantages for a smoother running of capitalism. To begin with, the state can be described as little more than an executive committee to ensure the overall interests of the minority who monopolise the means of living. If a particular government is seen to be failing in this respect, normally due to some problem with the economy, those who hold economic power have at their disposal an alternative to take its place, and generally they have enough control over the prevailing ideas in existence to persuade the majority to vote in line with their thinking. So a multi-party system is a good arrangement for the minority capitalist class. Secondly, it is probably less costly in economic terms not to have to resort to maintaining the kind of state apparatus needed to support a totalitarian state. As the majority are convinced that they live in a free and democratic society, control over the population is easier.

Illusion of Political Democracy

However, it can be argued that even the limited democracy allowed for in the LD system is a sham. Whilst LD does allow for multiple political parties for the electorate to choose between, perhaps there is less difference than many might think between a one-party state and a situation where multiple political parties exist but stand for more or less the same thing. For example, there is little difference in real terms between the Democrats or Republicans in the United States or between the parties who might reasonably be expected to compete for government in places such as Germany, France or Italy. Here we are merely considering differences limited to the running of capitalism and not anything more radical. In the years running up to the election in December 2019 the situation in Britain was arguably somewhat different and so is worthy of examination.

Margaret Thatcher once suggested that one of her major accomplishments had been Tony Blair. It seemed that the Labour Party had been moving rightwards prior to Blair but it was under his leadership that the concept of New Labour really began to take shape. The policies advocated by this seemingly new version of the Labour Party meant that it was now in a position to challenge and perhaps end the Conservative Party’s long reign of political power in Britain. It was now seen by those who mattered most to be a party fit to take power and run capitalism in the right way. Things radically changed in 2015 when, after Labour’s defeat in the general election of that year, a subsequent leadership election led, much to the surprise of most people, to the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a long standing left-winger.

Whilst the background to these events is of interest, the relevant point to be teased out here is that the Labour Party under a left reformist programme was a rather different animal and definitely not one the capitalist class would be willing to accept as suitable for forming a government. From almost the moment he was elected there were moves to discredit his leadership abilities and most definitely his suitability to be a prospective Prime Minister; that was apart from personal attacks and for good measure his dress sense. The anti-Corbyn campaign was mainly administered by the mass media but was also supported by many of those close to the top of Corbyn’s own party including a substantial number of Labour MPs, so much so that after only about a year as leader Corbyn had to seek re-election. Despite all of this the Labour Party gave the Conservative Party a good run for their money in the snap general election called by Theresa May in 2017.

If a fairly recently leaked report into the internal strife in the Labour Party is anywhere near accurate, the surprisingly good showing of the 2017 Labour election campaign was the last thing that many near the top of the Labour Party wanted. Those who were totally opposed to the elected leader of their own party had to wait until the end of 2019 to achieve their goal when a disastrous election result for Labour signalled the end for Corbyn and led to another leadership election early in 2020. The election of Sir Keir Starmer who has been described as ‘soft left’ is probably seen as the beginning of the process to return the Labour Party to a situation where it can be viewed by those who matter in the capitalist system as a party fit to form an alternative government if the need arises.

This points out something about the level of democracy within capitalism. LD may be a multi-party system but to have much or even any chance of gaining political power the policies put forward have to be inside a very limited framework. A party needs to operate in very narrow confines even when it is only concerned with running capitalism. Take for example the Labour Party’s slogan for the 2019 General election ’For the many not the few’. That slogan, along with the way in which the Labour Party under Corbyn thought they could administer capitalism, not only sounded the alarm bells for much of the capitalist class but also caused dissent for many in the hierarchy of the Labour Party who saw even this kind of mild reformist programme for running capitalism as meaning they would very likely be unelectable despite the fact that they performed quite well in 2017.

By 2019 the Brexit issue was more at the forefront of the campaigns. Some have argued that the programme put forward in 2019 was much less radical then those of the 1960s and 70s. Following on from the Blair governments the dominant attitude of many in the Labour Party was that to win an election they had to advocate policies that either mirrored or were at least not that far removed from those on offer by the Conservative Party. The important issue now was not even trying to represent the many but who could run capitalism to the benefit of the minority who really mattered. After all, the only time that Labour had been in power in over forty years was the Blair administrations. Elected in 1997, the prime ministerial role was passed over to Gordon Brown in 2007 who was then defeated by Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010, following another periodic capitalist economic crisis in 2008. To be blunt, the Blair governments were more or less conservative in everything but name. So the last Labour government that was elected with something close to a traditional Labour programme was way back in 1974. Many of course will blame this on neo-liberalism but that is just capitalism operating in the only way it can.

As pointed out previously, LD has advantages over more authoritarian systems for running a society based on the rule by and for a privileged minority. As it is based on a multi-party political system it manages to create the impression that people live in a free and democratic society, thus making it easier to manage any opposition to it. For people have little to object to as they seemingly have the right to vote governments in and out of power and the right to protest and there exists a media which is seen as being independent of the state.

However, the right to vote on its own is no guarantee of democracy. As for the freedom to protest, whilst as with voting it is an important right, history has tended to show that whilst there have been many protests on many issues they have changed very little and fundamental change needs more than just protest movements, especially as they normally focus on single issues campaigns. As for the media such as television and the press, whilst it is, in theory, free from the state it is a powerful weapon in the hands of capitalism.

Managing Democracy

As capitalism operating under LD permits a limited form of democracy it needs to find a way of making sure that it can control the majority who are divorced from ownership, It needs a mechanism to replace the outward repressive state apparatus generally found in totalitarian societies, in order to maintain a compliant society; otherwise the democratic practices it does allow could be used by a politically conscious population to overturn the rule of capital. This is where the work of Chomsky (Manufacturing Consent) or more recently a book entitled Managing Democracy, Managing Consent edited by Rebecca Fisher come in very useful. This process could also be termed as the Construction of Reality. This is not a form of conspiracy theory where a group of powerful individuals meet and make certain plans to hold the population in check but is the natural outcome of a system of minority control operating with limited democratic rights which need to be controlled within.

To begin with, it is stating the obvious to say that in a capitalist society the means of communication are owned and controlled by members of the capitalist class who have no interest whatsoever in undermining their system. Not surprisingly as in capitalism the tendency to monopoly is an unstoppable force the media is owned and controlled by very few companies. This is highlighted by a report published in 2019 by the Media Reform Coalition on the ownership of the media in the UK. This states that just three companies, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach, the publisher of the Mirror titles, dominate 83 percent of the national newspaper market. This is up from the figure of 71 percent only four years earlier. When online readership is included it means that five companies – News UK, Daily Mail Group, Reach, the Guardian and Telegraph control nearly 80 percent of the market. To quote from the Media Reform Coalition:

We believe that concentration in news and information markets in particular has reached endemic levels in the UK and that we urgently need effective remedies. Concentrated ownership creates conditions in which wealthy individuals and organisations can amass vast political and economic power and distort the media landscape to suit their interests.’

From time to time media outlets may question the way that capitalism is operating or favour one particular political party over the rest but any criticism it makes is within the boundaries which suggest that capitalism is the only game in town. In line with all capitalist companies, the corporations who own the mass media exist on a profit priority basis and much of their revenue comes from selling advertising space to their fellow wealthy corporations. The income from this source is estimated to be around 75 percent of a newspaper’s total income, even for the so-called quality press such as the Guardian or Independent. So there is no wish to bite the hands that feed them. (The source for much of the information on the media is Media Lens).

(continued next month.)


Socialist Standard September 2020

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