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Whose democracy-the bosses’ or ours?

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
KEVIN OVENDEN writes the second article in our series on socialism from below
Issue 1799

THE LOCAL elections in England show how limited democracy is under capitalism. It’s not just the precious little difference between the mainstream parties’ policies. The whole system operates by removing the most powerful institutions in society from any democratic accountability. Ordinary people have no say over decisions with the biggest impact on their lives.

Voters in Portsmouth, for example, got to choose their councillors. They did not get a vote on whether ITV Digital could sack 1,300 workers at its call centre in the city. Limits on what we are allowed to vote for exist over a range of vital issues. That is true of the whole of capitalist democracy, including elections to parliament.

Over 150 years ago decisions and debates in parliament were far more significant for the ruling class than they are now. Representatives of major capitalist enterprises sat in parliament and settled many of their disputes over how to run their system. They were immune from any pressure at the ballot box because all but the rich were denied the right to vote.

Pressure from workers, starting with the near revolutionary Chartist movement of the 1840s, forced the ruling class to extend the vote to wider layers of people. However, it was not until 1928 that all adults, women as well as men, were entitled to vote.

The more our rulers were forced to concede wider participation in voting, the more the real centres of power were removed from the influence of elections. The permanent bureaucracy of government, the civil service, took more and more control.

It is organised in a hierarchy with decisions made by unelected figures at the top, drawn from the ruling class. Other institutions have never been under democratic control. Generals, judges, bosses, top managers and police chiefs have never been elected. Yet these people make the decisions that have a great impact on our lives. Successive governments have gone further in reducing even the cramped democracy of parliament.

Decisions are now settled in government committees, with even backbench MPs having no control over them, let alone ordinary people. New-style council cabinets work in collusion with unelected quangos to increasingly control spending. There is a more radical vision of democracy in opposition to this hollow system. Karl Marx first developed socialist ideas on the radical wing of the democratic movement a century and a half ago.

He argued for the extension of democracy to cover not only political decisions in parliament but every other area of society, above all the economy. Capitalists’ undemocratic control of the means of making wealth is at the root of their power.

True democracy from below is incompatible with capitalism, and it is something people who resist capitalism make real in their struggles. Campaigns and strikes involve democratic discussion and debate among participants.

Workers often elect strike committees composed of people who, unlike MPs, do not stand above them but are going through the same hardships. Mass meetings are far more democratic than isolated individuals, under the pressure of the media, voting once every few years.

It is the sense of participation and democracy that means in all the recent strikes the minority who voted against action have nevertheless struck when the majority voted to. Major struggles take this democracy to an even higher level.

Mass strikes have on many occasions led to the formation of committees (or councils) that go far beyond organising particular actions by strikers. These workers’ councils can link up to run food distribution, transport, services and other functions.

In doing so they become a direct challenge to the capitalist state. That happened in Russia in 1905 and 1917, in Germany after the First World War, in Spain in 1936, in Hungary in 1956, and in other cases. The first example of anything like it came in 1871 when people in Paris revolted and established the Paris Commune.

The Paris Commune and the workers’ councils in Russia in 1917 shared two key principles. Delegates were recallable. That meant they could be replaced immediately, unlike MPs or councillors, if they did not carry out the wishes of those who elected them. They were also paid the average worker’s wage, again unlike MPs.

The workers’ councils in Russia sent delegates to higher bodies on the same principles. Before it was crushed workers’ councils were infinitely more democratic than capitalism and were at the centre of the revolution that overthrew it.

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