In the 21st century all politicians, almost without exception, proclaim their commitment to democracy. This goes not only for the likes of Obama, Sarkozy, Merkel and Cameron, but also for Nick Griffin of the fascist BNP. Even the most obviously anti-democratic political forces and organisations say they believe in democracy. So the Swedish fascists call themselves the Swedish Democrats while Mubarak’s party in Egypt was the National Democratic Party.
This testifies to the ideological power of the concept of democracy in the modern world. Along with “freedom” it was deployed, with a vast array of academic and media support, as the central justification for “the West” in the Cold War: the key division in the world, it was claimed, was between the free West based on pluralist democracy and the totalitarianism of the Communist East. Indeed many intellectual apologists for the system – the likes of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek – argued there was an intrinsic and necessary link between capitalism and democracy.
At a deeper level, the ubiquitous declarations of democracy also testify to the potential power of the people in the modern world – power that has grown enormously with the global growth of the urban working class – and to our rulers’ fear of that power. To rule the people you have to rule “in the name of the people”.
What politicians actually do, as opposed to what they say, is a different matter. On 1 November, George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, announced his plan to hold a referendum on the “rescue package” (i.e. brutal austerity programme) negotiated with the European Central Bank (ECB) and IMF. “The markets” (that is, the capitalists), the media, Merkel, Sarkozy and so on reacted with absolute fury at the very idea of giving people a vote on such a thing. Papandreou was called in and told in no uncertain terms that this would not be permitted.
Two days later, the referendum idea was withdrawn and a week later Papandreou was replaced by the unelected Lucas Papademos. The media calls Papademos a “technocrat”, but like most of the jargon used in this crisis (“quantitative easing”, “haircuts”), it is a term designed to mystify. Papademos is a banker. He was governor of the Bank of Greece from 1994 to 2002, and vice president of the ECB from 2002 to 2010.
Then as the Italian debt crisis mounted, Silvio Berlusconi resigned and was replaced by another unelected “technocrat”, Mario Monti. Monti is an academic economist, European Commissioner and an international advisor to Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola. He was appointed “Senator for Life” by the Italian president on 9 November and a week later sworn in as prime minister at the head of a “national unity government” of bankers and businessmen.
Thus in both cases, in a situation of extreme economic crisis, the democratic “right” of the people to elect their government was simply “suspended” to ensure the rapid implementation of the austerity measures demanded by the international bankers – measures so severe that any politician subject to the pressure of actually getting elected might balk at adopting them. To add to this, as I write, Sarkozy and Merkel are now demanding changes to the Lisbon Treaty to secure closer fiscal integration and tighter budgetary discipline on the part of all EU states, which in practice means even further erosion of the power of democratically elected governments. So what is the real relationship between capitalism and democracy? It is useful to put this in some historical perspective.
The historical record
Historically there was a certain connection between the rise of capitalism and the rise of modern democracy but it was far more limited than is often claimed or implied.
Under feudalism the bourgeoisie was subordinate to the feudal aristocracy. Although a minority it was already an exploiting class and was obliged, in its struggle for power, to present itself as the representative of society as a whole. As Friedrich Engels expressed it in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, “Side by side with the antagonisms of the feudal nobility and the burghers, who claimed to represent all the rest of society, was the general antagonism of exploiters and exploited, of rich idlers and poor workers. It was this very circumstance that made it possible for the representatives of the bourgeoisie to put themselves forward as representing not one special class, but the whole of suffering humanity.”
To this end the bourgeoisie specialised in abstract declarations of rights ranging from the Bill of Rights in England in 1689, through the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 with its statement that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, and its subsequent Bill of Rights, the French Revolution with its cry of “liberty, equality and fraternity” and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Moreover, the rise of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois revolution tended to be associated with the struggle for parliamentary rule as opposed to various forms of monarchical and autocratic power. Hence the role of the States General of the United Provinces in the Dutch Revolt of the 16th century, the war between parliament and the king in the English Revolution of 1642, and the role of the Estates General and the National Assembly in the French Revolution.
In practice, however, the commitment to the “human” or “universal” always turned out to contain major exceptions and multiple get-out clauses and to be far from actually “universal”. The cases of Catholics in the 1689 Bill of Rights and black slaves in the American Revolution are classic examples and, of course, the rights of “man” did not include women. Likewise no human or political rights were accorded to native or indigenous peoples (of whatever colour) on the receiving end of colonialism, whereas the “right to property” was always enshrined as one of the most sacred rights of all. Nor did bourgeois enthusiasm for parliamentary rule ever extend to the establishment of universal suffrage.
In the Putney Debates of 1647 Henry Ireton (speaking for Oliver Cromwell in opposition to Rainsborough of the radical Levellers) asserted, “I think that no person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here – no person hath a right to this, that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom…”
By “permanent fixed interest” Ireton meant ownership of property, specifically land. His argument was that the propertyless could not be allowed to vote as they would undoubtedly use it to end the rule of property, which, naturally, was out of the question. This opposition to universal suffrage (i.e. votes for the working class) remained the position of the British bourgeoisie and other bourgeoisies internationally until, at least, the end of the 19th century.
“Universal suffrage”, wrote the 19th century Whig historian Lord Macaulay, “would be fatal for all purposes for which government exists” and was “utterly incompatible with the existence of civilisation”. Even the great philosopher of liberalism John Stuart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government opposed equal universal suffrage for fear of a manual working class majority.
It fell, therefore, to the working class itself to fight for its right to vote, and a long fight it was, passing through many momentous battles such as the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, the great Chartist campaign from 1838 to 1859, the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, the Belgian General Strike of 1893, the campaigns for votes for women, and right down to the US Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Not so universal suffrage
In an article published in New Left Review in 1977 “The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy”, Goran Therborn showed that none of the 17 leading capitalist countries had achieved full universal suffrage by 1900. Australia was first in 1903, followed by New Zealand in 1907. The key period for the establishment of something approaching universal suffrage (there are numerous specific complications like women under 30 not getting the vote in Britain until 1928) was 1917-20. This was the case for Austria (1918), Canada (1920), Finland (1919), Germany (1919), Sweden (1918) and Britain (1918).
In other words, broadly speaking, the right to vote was won by working people as a by-product of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe at the end of the First World War.
The right to vote, though often thought of as the hallmark of democracy, only has meaning in the context of reasonably free and “unrigged” elections to a sovereign parliament, not the kind of elections regularly held in Mubarak’s Egypt or the kind of parliament, subservient to the Emperor, which existed in Germany until the German Revolution of 1918.
The vote therefore is part of a package of democratic rights such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, trade union organisation and the right to strike, the right to protest, equality before the law and so on which together constitute what is generally considered democracy today. Like the vote, the winning of these rights by working people has involved prolonged struggle. They have had to be fought for and refought for on innumerable occasions ranging from the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 to the struggle against Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws in Germany in the late 19th century, to the resistance to fascism in many countries, to all the smaller tussles over political, trade union and legal rights that go on every day.
The fact that in the main, with all the many exceptions and qualifications (like, for example, such small matters as China and much of the Middle East) the battles have generally been won constitutes an unstable compromise in the ongoing class war.
On the one hand they are real victories wrung from a reluctant capitalist class to be celebrated and defended as such. On the other they reflect an understanding gradually reached by the ruling classes internationally that, given certain general circumstances such as a modicum of social stability, they and capitalism could usually live with “democracy”, and that, contrary to their fears, the propertyless could be induced not to vote to outlaw private property.
The nature of bourgeois democracy
The literal meaning of democracy is people’s rule but bourgeois democracy, even in its purest and most complete form, never delivers the rule of the people. In reality it is always, in Marx’s words, “the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.
There are many reasons for this. Even the most democratically elected parliament and government do not own or control the principal means of production or concentrations of wealth in society, which remain in the hands of the unelected capitalists and which operate according to the laws of capitalist competition.
Consequently, elected governments generally govern entirely within the limits prescribed by and acceptable to the bourgeoisie (“the markets”, corporations, etc) and even reluctant governments can almost always be brought to heel by investment strikes, flights of capital, speculative attacks on the national currency and so on.
Secondly, the elected parliament exists as part of, and alongside, a state machine (armed forces, police, judiciary, civil service, etc) which is unelected, strictly hierarchical and tied by a thousand threads – social, economic, historical and ideological – to the interests of the bourgeoisie.
As possessor of the decisive concentration of physical force in society this state holds the practical keys to the implementation of government policy, as well as the ability to exercise a massive influence on that policy and if necessary actually to supplant the government (i.e. stage a coup as in Chile in 1973).
Thirdly, the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class, as Marx put it. The entire political process is framed by capitalist ideological assumptions – above all the assumption that capitalist relations of production and the priority of profit are natural and unchangeable – which are then translated into specific policies and attitudes (the necessity for cuts, the irresponsibility of strikes, etc) by the capitalist and state-controlled media. Moreover the massive inequality between the capitalist and working classes means that in the political struggle itself, including elections, the representatives and parties of the respective classes enter the fray with massively unequal resources.
In addition, the alienation, exploitation and oppression of daily life under capitalism means that in normal times a considerable portion of the working class and the poor are so ground down and feel so excluded from society that they “can’t be bothered” with politics, and take no interest in it. Non- voting is much higher at the bottom end of society than at the top.
Finally, bourgeois democratic elections and electoral systems, whatever their variations, all mitigate against real democracy because the electors vote as atomised individuals, once every four or five years, in large geographical constituencies for MPs or deputies who they are unable to hold accountable or recall and who are elevated to an economic and social standing far above the average working class elector. Consequently it is extremely easy for these representatives to be subtly, or not so subtly, corrupted and to betray their election pledges.
But if all these factors make parliamentary democracy a facade masking the rule of capital, it must also be stressed that the bourgeoisie is by no means unconditionally committed to the maintenance of even this facade, as has been proven time and again by the experience of fascism in Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal or by the Greek military junta (1967-74) and by innumerable Western-backed dictatorships in Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere.
This is because bourgeois democracy is a compromise between the classes, a concession extracted from the bourgeoisie. It contains “rights” and practices, as I noted above, which though not in any way ending bourgeois rule do constrain it and enable the working class and other popular forces to organise against it. Our rulers will not embark lightly on the course of tearing up democracy. They are well aware of the advantages of ruling “by consent” and the legitimacy afforded by the democratic mask and of the grave risks involved in attempting to impose open dictatorship or fascism.
They will take that road only when driven by some combination of economic imperative, political fear and the conviction that they can get away with it. It is quite possible that serious tactical and strategic divisions would emerge on such a question, before the bulk of the ruling class would solidify around a fascist or anti-democratic option.
So where do we stand now? As readers of Socialist Review are well aware capitalism is in the grip of a severe global crisis which is producing a multitude of economic, social and political tensions, including the crisis in the eurozone and significant popular resistance including the Occupy movement in the US, the Spanish “indignados”, the British demonstrations and strikes of 30 June and 30 November and the highest level of struggle apart from the Arab Spring – the sustained strikes, demonstrations and riots in Greece.
In this context the installation of the Papademos and Monti governments in Greece and Italy is a serious development. It marks a significant anti-democratic shift in the constantly changing balance of opposed forces that constitute the bourgeois democratic settlement. It should also be seen in the context of increasing police repression against demonstrators and protesters and the ratcheting up of vindictive sentencing that has been evident in Britain, along with the coordinated police action against the occupations in the US.
In themselves these developments do not signify a decisive abandonment of bourgeois democracy of the kind that would involve outlawing working class trade union and political organisation, banning strikes and protests, ending the right to vote or dissolving parliament. However, they should be seen as a serious warning of the shape of things to come, of what the 1% will be prepared to do, without compunction, if they need to, and as a reinforcement of the old lesson that while we have no illusions in bourgeois democracy and work for its replacement by the far higher democracy of workers’ councils, we must also defend all the democratic gains won by working class struggle in the past.
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