Capitalism: incompatible with democracy

We continue from Part One, our explanation as to why capitalism is not and cannot be democratic

The ownership of the mass media is merely the start of the problem. Another way of constraining democracy is by limiting what is seen as being suitable for discussion. Liberal Democracy (LD) does not normally limit discussion by outlawing ideas and throwing people who fail to conform into gaol or worse, although this may happen in certain circumstances. Instead it falls more into the category expressed by Marx that the dominant ideas in society are those of the ruling class. The dominant mode of thinking is instilled in people gradually from a young age via institutions such as the family, education system and cemented by the mass media. What this encourages is a limited range of permissible opinions which are, to a large extent, an endorsement of capitalism and its system of market ‘democracy’ so that in general such opinions are held as being natural common sense whilst ideas and opinions that fall outside of this remit are seen as being illegitimate, illogical and irrational and perhaps even dangerous. Try to discuss an alternative which fundamentally challenges the major features of capitalism and you are likely to be ridiculed or considered as a dangerous subversive. In any event getting a serious discussion of them on to the mass agenda is as difficult as running through a brick wall.

When capitalism is seen to be failing in some way as, for example, in the 2008 financial crisis then the system is often subject to a more critical examination and questions may be raised about its future. However, such an examination will be extremely limited as in the instance of the events of 2008 there had to be scapegoats – certain individuals got out of control; it was due to a minority of greedy people, and the like. The system itself will not be subject to a serious critique. The alternatives put forward will be something like increased economic regulation or perhaps more state intervention in the economy whilst the core features of the system, production for profit, capital accumulation, employment (wage slavery), the market economy, these, if discussed at all, will only be in the margins, not on the main agenda.

On that main or mass agenda the only alternative to capitalism is a reformed version of that same system. The process of limiting the discussion to a pre-set agenda is undemocratic as it places restrictions on the alternatives open to us in solving ongoing problems. So this is part of the process of constructing reality. We have all come across terms such as ‘we have to live in the real world’ or ‘there is no alternative’. The nonsense being peddled here is that the ‘real world’ equals capitalism to which there is no ‘alternative’. It is almost as if the capital system has always existed and will always exist, as if it is the one and only reality.

It is continually the case that political language is used to obfuscate the real meanings of concepts. For example take the word ‘free’, we are very often confronted with the terms ‘Free World’, ‘Free Trade’, ‘Free Markets’, ‘Free Enterprise’. These terms most definitely hide more than they reveal. What the word ’free’ means in the face of capitalism has nothing to do with the majority of the people in the so-called ‘Free World’ being free. In fact the opposite is the case. The world-wide capitalist system presents a situation where the mass of people are at the best tied to the dictatorship of capital. The other so-called ‘freedoms’ (trade, markets, enterprise), whilst presented in the rhetoric as a system where small businesses or the self-employed operate via their own hard work to exchange their goods (commodities) via free’ mechanisms, are in reality part of a process which is dominated by a few major corporations and the world market. Capitalism is a world-wide capitalist economic system, a system that leaves millions throughout the world not only far from ‘free’ but in poverty or even starving. This of course includes people living in the major power of this illusionary ‘Free World’, the United States of America. In addition, this is the system that results in wars all around the planet but never mind because capitalism gives you the ‘Freedom’ to die for your country, meaning the part of the world you were born in.

Profits capitalism’s main priority

Real democracy is not possible under capitalism. However, democracy is continually used by countries which operate under the banner of ‘Liberal Democracy’ as a propaganda tool. A country under this heading will enter into trade agreements, providing they are profitable, with totalitarian regimes, who are known to have appalling records in areas such as human rights. Western capitalist countries have therefore entered into such agreements with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China. They do so with no scruple whatsoever as the opportunity to trade and make profits is of far more importance than concepts such as human rights or democracy.

In addition, major economic powers operating under this banner have not been slow in acting to remove from power democratically-elected governments when their economic interests are threatened. Iran in the early 1950s and Chile in the early 1970s are major examples, though there are many others. In the latter case, whilst the election of the Popular Front government had nothing to do with establishing socialism, which would require an entirely different set of circumstances, it is nevertheless difficult to recognise as democratic a system that overthrows democratically-elected (in their terms) governments and replaces them with dictatorships. As indicated, there are many other cases of similar actions and this is a subject that deserves more attention.

It is also the case that an LD such as Britain has a rather dubious internal record in certain areas of human rights. Since the end of the 1970s there have been countless Acts passed on the industrial relations front, all designed to hinder workers taking collective industrial action to defend their terms and conditions of employment; so much so that we reached the point some years ago where it is almost impossible to organise collective action which can be both legal and effective. This applies as much to Labour governments as it does to Conservative ones. In addition, there has been a series of Acts over the same period that make it extremely difficult for protest movements to stay within the law whilst organising meaningful campaigns.

A democratic society requires a democratic base defines democracy as: ‘A form of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system’. It describes the United States of America and Canada as examples of democratic countries. The Cambridge English Dictionary states that democracy is The belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves. It then states that the early 1990s saw the spread of democracy to Eastern Europe. There are many other similar definitions to these and it is not really surprising that in the current environment they relate to LDs.

Such definitions limit democracy to political systems of government but remain silent on the most basic and important feature in society, namely, how the means of production and distribution are organised. Concentrating on the political system limits the concept of democracy because it is constructed on the base of present-day society and the political system operates to defend that society’s structure. So, where there is a lack of control for the vast majority at its most fundamental level, no political system can overcome that undemocratic nature and it is not designed to do so (but this does not mean that it cannot be made to contribute to this purpose under the right conditions). This is the main reason why the so-called democracies that operate within capitalism are not democracies.

The type of definitions of democracy outlined above are just defending capitalism. For example, talks of a ‘free electoral system’ but it is only free in a very limited sense, most people have the right to vote for the political party of their choice, but as we have pointed out it is not free from bias in the realm of acceptable ideas. How can it be when it is constructed on an economic dictatorship at the base of society? Likewise the Cambridge English Dictionary definition speaks of ‘a belief in freedom and equality between people’ but freedom and equality between people is completely absent in terms of the organisation and ownership of wealth production and distribution.

In fact this is where the inequalities within society stems from and they cannot be healed by the political system, especially one which is designed to perpetuate such fundamental divisions. Both definitions have reference to power being held directly by the people but this is quickly diluted to elected agents or representatives acting on their behalf, the capitalist reality is that those agents or representatives are acting in the interests of capital accumulation and definitely not in the interests of the majority.

Socialism and the use of the political process

If socialists regard the political process on offer in LD as undemocratic, then why do we advocate that it is possible to use it in order to replace minority control with common ownership? Should we not logically reject the empty rhetoric of capitalist democracy entirely and favour something similar to a modern system of workers’ councils? Should we not recognise the limitations of the political process and the possibility that, if the socialist movement grows to an extent that it forms a large minority, that the right to use the limited democratic system might be closed off to us?

In addressing this, two points need to be considered. Firstly, it would be a mistake to dismiss a process that, for now at least, gives us the opportunity to put forward the socialist case as an alternative to the capitalist system. This process offers us an opportunity to put forward that perspective and is therefore an important way of winning more people over to the socialist movement. If it offers this advantage then why not use it? Secondly, just because we advocate using the political process does not mean we rule out using other democratic methods alongside it and which would supplement the political process. In fact we never have ruled it out.

There is a common misconception amongst many that the World Socialist Movement (WSM) advocates using political means alone to bring about socialism and rules out all other forms of organisation. For example, some years ago Leftcom when reviewing our pamphlet What’s Wrong with using Parliament? suggested that the reason for the pamphlet was to ‘restate their belief that socialism can only come about via parliament’. There is a lot of difference in saying that parliament can be used in bringing about socialism to saying either that it would have to be used or must be used in all circumstances. What we in the WSM insist on is the need to organise on a democratic basis.

If you wish to achieve a free and democratic society you have to use democratic methods, as the means for achieving something will determine the end result. So we oppose as utopian and dangerous the idea that a well-organised and conscious minority can lead a majority who lack socialist understanding to the freedom of socialism/communism. We of course do not know what precisely will happen in the lead-up to socialism but would think it highly likely that, as socialist consciousness develops in various parts of the world, workers will create several different forms of organisation. One would be a movement to represent them at the political level. This would probably vary depending on the differing circumstances in various parts of the world. But there would be other forms of organisation, perhaps something like workplace and neighbourhood councils. Industrial organisation such as unions would take different forms to those around today, reflecting an increased socialist awareness. Lastly, we might even see people in some places creating their own parliament, a ‘peoples’ parliament’, more advanced and effective than what exists today. Whilst we do not want to engage in too much crystalball gazing the point is that socialists accept that, when workers begin to engage with socialist ideas in far greater numbers than we have today, they will form various types of organisations to help achieve their goals. What must also be pointed out is that in such changed circumstances parliament would not be the dung heap that it is at present. For us the key is democratic means, whatever the differing forms of organisation that may develop.

The path towards a genuine democracy is a path leading away from capitalism whether of the state or so-called private variety and towards a society run by people for people, using the most advanced productive capacity and technology available to directly satisfy human needs whilst giving regard to protecting and nurturing our planet which is the source of life itself. The time to act towards that goal is now. We do not suggest that the road towards this alternative society will be easy but it is necessary and urgent.


Socialist Standard October 2020

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