Socialist Worker

Democracy: Crisis And Renewal

Tony Phillips welcomes a new book that criticises the shallowness of our democratic structures and calls for them to be radically extended

Issue No. 2118

At the beginning of the 21st century there are more countries across the world with governments that are subject to election than ever before in history.

Yet in the world’s oldest democracies in Western Europe and North America, democratic government is in crisis. Turnout in elections has fallen to historic lows. Political parties, politicians and democratic institutions have never been held lower in public esteem.

A new book by Paul Ginsborg, Democracy: Crisis And Renewal, looks at why this has happened, offers some ideas on how society could be made more democratic and how people’s faith in it could be restored.

Ginsborg points out that democracy in a country like Britain is representative, not participatory. We elect MPs to act on our behalf who then make decisions into which we have no input. Our representatives are not accountable to us between elections. Once elected they can ignore the promises they made and the views of those who elected them.

Ginsborg argues that long working hours, family commitments for women and the rise of consumer society have led to the increasing withdrawal of ordinary people from an active role in political and democratic institutions.

More fundamentally, he notes that democracy under capitalism is founded on a separation of politics from economics – the area of society that has the biggest influence on our lives.

Neither our elected representatives nor we ourselves have any control over the actions of big business. As more and more industries are privatised, what little democratic control over the economy that existed in the heyday of the welfare state is taken away.

Corporations can subvert democracy by funding parties and candidates that will look after their interests. So the electorate is increasingly faced with parties that all support the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, pay cuts and labour market flexibility. Voters are left with no real political choice at the ballot box, leading to cynicism and abstention.

So what can be done about this crisis? Ginsborg argues that the way forward is to encourage what he calls “active and dissenting citizens” and involve them in “deliberative” democratic structures that involve actual decision making, rather than merely choosing representatives.

He considers a number of examples of attempts to do this, ranging from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the “participatory budget” initiated by the city council of Porto Alegre in Brazil while it was controlled by the Workers’ Party.

One of the strengths of the book is that, unusually, it recognises the democratic credentials of Karl Marx and later Marxist thinkers such as the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci.

Ginsborg highlights Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune as an important contribution to understanding how democracy can involve the mass of people and subject much wider areas of society to democratic control than is ever the case under capitalism.

He quotes approvingly Marx’s description of the extreme alienation that workers experience through their lack of control in the workplace. He refers favourably to the role of the soviets (workers’ councils) in the early years of the 1917 Russian Revolution and to the democratic nature of Vladimir Lenin’s vision in his famous pamphlet State And Revolution. But Ginsborg misses a key reason why democracy under capitalism is so limited – a reason that is central to Lenin’s analysis.

The point is that the state under capitalist society is not some kind of neutral entity that stands above political conflict. Rather, it is there to enforce capitalist rule – by consent if possible, but by force if necessary.

That is why any real increase in democracy under capitalism has always had to be fought for by mass action involving the working class. Furthermore even when democratic advances are achieved, they can be take be taken away again so long as capitalism endures.

Ginsborg acknowledges that Marx’s vision of socialism was based on the extension of democracy to every aspect of society. He rightly credits the Paris Commune, the Russian soviets and the factory councils of Turin, Italy, in 1919 and 1920 as being experiments in the extension of democracy.

But he misses the fact that these structures were thrown up spontaneously by the working class as part of its struggle for power. They had the potential to not just strengthen democracy under capitalism, but to replace the capitalist state altogether with something infinitely more democratic and accountable.

The author dismisses Marx’s belief in working class revolution as “romantic”. But for Marx, Lenin and Gramsci, the capitalist state can never be permanently democratised. It has to be overthrown and replaced by the rule of workers.

And it is only through this process of revolution that the mass of workers can develop the confidence in its capacity to run society itself. In transforming society, we transform ourselves. For socialists, revolution is the most democratic thing in the world – and the only way that real and permanent democracy can ever be won.

Democracy: Crisis And Renewal by Paul Ginsborg is available for £10.99 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop – phone 020 7637 1848 »

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Tue 9 Sep 2008, 18:55 BST
Issue No. 2118
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