[Democracy: “…a situation in which everyone is treated equally”. A process: .”..relating to or… available to the broad masses of the people.” Websters Dictionary]
Democracy under Capitalism.
Much play is made by the political class (and many other pro-capitalists) concerning the so-called merits of western democratic practices. It is often trumpeted by its advocates as – the best system possible. Others, more sceptical, view it as the least worse form of governance for modern societies. The result has been, that the concept and practice of bourgeois democracy has been treated almost like any other capitalist commodity and therefore marketed and exported to punters around the world. However, even in the European heartlands, where ‘bourgeois democracy’ has been most developed, many millions of citizens are not exactly enthralled by its functioning. Millions now view it with suspicion and contempt and do not bother to participate in its restricted activities. This negative reaction is also a phenomena that has appeared wherever else it has been adopted. Such a negative response is not really surprising – and it is not due to apathy – a frequent ill-considered rationalisation for any obvious lack of interest.
In fact many people throughout the world have actually seen through its paper thin relationship to direct democracy and have rejected it. More and more people are coming to the conclusion that, even when operating at its best, this form of democracy is not really meant to be inclusive. Indeed, examined closely, bourgeois democracy is essentially a means of excluding the majority from effective engagement with, and control of, issues that deeply effect their lives. In this regard, modern (ie bourgeois) democracy is a direct, albeit modified, descendent of the forms developed in ancient Greece. Formal political discussion, debate and decision by was initiated, and perfected by elites in the ancient discriminatory political arena known as the Greek Polis. By that period of history, any direct democracy of previous egalitarian modes of production had been completely destroyed, along with the essential rights of women and ‘other’ non-Greek men – both of whom could therefore be (and were) captured and treated as slaves.
So the important point to recognise and stress is that modern bourgeois democracy is not democracy in the abstract, as the above quoted part of Webster’s definition implies, but a particular form of restricted democracy. One which is designed to allow bourgeois elites to govern in their own interests. It was adopted by the bourgeoisie and altered with regard to who was allowed to vote on important issues and who (in elections), one was allowed to vote for. For example; from Greek to late Feudal times, it was the landed aristocracy which supplied those who were allowed to influence decisions (not always by vote) and from which candidates for office were selected. After their ‘revolutions’, the bourgeoisie initially extended the direct influence on governance to include those who owned capital, (the newly rich). The capitalist class also became part of the pool of possible candidates for public office. It was blatantly clear to the bourgeoisie that this new addition to voting rights was simply a sharing of power – an accommodation with the remnants of aristocracy. The old feudalist and new capitalist elite, after battling each other, combined in order to carry on ruling in their own, albeit often conflicting, ways.
With the expansion of capitalist activity (more of that later) and the rising numbers of working people, displaced from agriculture and crafts, the unfairness of exclusive elite decision-making was increasingly challenged – as were the new methods of capitalist production. Voting in elections was mistakenly seen as a means to remedy fundamental socio-economic ills. Consequently, agitation for the extension of voting rights to working men (male suffrage) became a mass campaign alongside the development of trade unions and was eventually achieved. This was followed by a suffragette campaign to extend this right to women, which was also successful. At each stage of the huge increase in eligible voters it became clear, despite some doubts, (and many workers hopes) that the bourgeois system was safe from unwanted influences exerted by the new electorate. Its safety in the hands of the elite was ensured by the structure and form of political representation. It is this structure and form we now need to consider.
Because all citizens are allowed to vote in modern representative democracies it is made to appear as if all eligible voters are actively involved in democratic decision-making. However, on closer examination, they are decidedly not. First, of all the broad masses do not choose the candidates who appear on the ballot boxes for election or re-election. That choice is not even made by all the members of a political party, but by a small group within each political party. These ‘executive‘ committees (or candidate panels) are the ones who select the person they want to stand as candidate. Moreover, these miniscule bodies are subject to various forms of outside influence from powerful individuals or other small panels as well as informed by their own career ambitions. The wishes of party donors and their own career paths are never far from the minds of those few who are involved in such selections.
So before we even get to governing at a Parliament or Congressional level, the political system is anything but democratic or exclusively focussed on the general good. Nor is everyone treated equally. In fact the system is thoroughly oligarchical and guided (or in most cases corrupted) by the individually tailored needs and desires of the few involved and their inside and outside backers. The only thing available to ordinary political members or the broad masses is to decide which candidate of some central office influenced, back room dealing oligarchy, should or should not get their vote. This is an extremely limited participation – and occurs only after the event. It bears no resemblance to the idea of democracy in its general form. The next level of the bourgeois form of democracy is also interesting and informative regarding the complete lack of any real contact with the electorate.
If a political grouping win a majority of seats in elections, another small group (or sometimes a few individuals) within the top tiers of the successful party decide who should do what in the government of an entire country including – who should have the top position. Then Prime Ministers or Presidents (and their close advisors) get to deal out lucrative jobs for the boys (and sometimes girls) to reward past favours, or ensure future ones. The wishes of the majority in this scheme of things has never had a look in, let alone had any serious purchase upon what has taken place or is about to take place at the level of administration. Although after an election the population are told they have chosen a government, in fact, no matter who wins, the population has had a government chosen for them. The facts contradict the ideology. So in reality we have a situation in which everyone is not treated equally, nor is the process available to the broad masses. And it gets even more undemocratic, if that is possible, when the whole theatre or pantomime of governance is finally opened for business.
There is a whole industry of powerful, well-funded, think – tank, political lobbying agencies that hover like lies around the seats of power and decision making. They use every inducement and reward imaginable to seduce and persuade elected representatives to legislate in a manner favourable to those who fund their activities. No one elects these agents of capital. They are not concerned with the general welfare of citizens or humanity at large, but with the narrow interests of other powerful and wealthy individuals, corporations or institutions. This parasitic lobbying is clearly not a democratic process for ordinary citizens do not play a part nor can they compete with such powerful means of persuasion and influence. However, it does allow the back stage economic and financial elites to push and pull decision-making strings in the directions they need to maintain or improve the system as they desire it.
Then of course there are the permanent officials and officers of the state, who steer the day to day functioning of the various institutions of governance. None of these are elected, but selected and chosen on the basis of their general loyalty to the system and particular loyalty to those individuals or panels who selected them. Career considerations and promotion prospects ensures that their reliance upon the upper tiers for security of tenure is rewarded by loyalty and cooperation, and even voluntary silence (or gagging orders) when needed. So as was intended from the outset, the political and administrative functioning of capitalist societies are completely locked into the needs and wishes of the economic, financial, military, political and educational elites. With a few well-groomed (in the full sense of the word) exceptions, the ordinary citizens and working class people are intentionally locked out.
So far we have considered the exclusive nature of the so-called democratic process of selecting candidates and choosing the temporary Ministers and permanent officers of the various capitalist states. The narrowly drawn, but powerful interests which, by various means are able to penetrate this exclusive and hugely undemocratic process have also been indicated along with the career considerations of those who have become the chosen few. Now it is time to consider, the powerful economic forces which determine to a greater or lesser degree, what foreign and domestic decisions are made by capitalist government.
The capitalist production process is one dominated by the needs of capital in its various forms; industrial capital, commercial capital and finance capital. Each category of capital needs to be thrown by its owners/managers (individual or collective) into a process by which the original amount is preserved and a new amount (profits or interest) added to it. At the end of each cycle the overarching requirement is to keep the process going, so that capital is not idle in any of its departments but constantly circulating. Industrial capital needs to be continually put into new production; commercial capital needs to continually purchase items and sell them; finance capital needs to continually find new sources to lend capital and receive interest.
The collective pressure of those individual and collective owners of capital to keep the system going is immense. They have become accustomed to living off the proceeds of capital and getting rich in the process. From their positions in the system they have come to view it as ‘natural‘ that there should be rich and poor and that the economic system – more or less as it is – is something to be taken for granted. Thus, when sales of products dry up, pressure for new sales outlets increases and they need to be energetically found. When essential raw materials become scarce, pressure to find new and guaranteed sources of them builds up. When waste materials accumulate, new places to dump them need to be urgently located. When investment opportunities are in short supply, new sources and forms of investment need to in be found or created. The logic of the capitalist mode of production makes it like a machine which the owners and those who benefit most from its operation, wish to keep in constant motion.
However, to keep it in motion the machine needs to be supplied with all the essentials it needs. In general, the more extensive and efficient the system of production, the more these essentials are needed. Increased output requires increased input in one form or another. For capitalists and their supporters, the question is perennially posed: ‘Where can we get them?’ Nations who have these essentials; material resources, markets and opportunities need to be made at least friendly to the most industrious and powerful capitalist countries or else they may be tricked or forced to becoming client states of one kind or another.
The list of European annexations, conquests, settlements, arm twisting treaties, and territories ceded was several pages long before the 21st century. When two, or more, powerful capitalist countries are in competition for these essential resources, especially those which are scarce, then armed skirmishes and even invasions are still likely. This is no theoretical conclusion, but a matter of historical and contemporary record. On a global scale capitalist competition creates social instability among peoples and nations along with ecological instability. Two World Wars and numerous invasions, unfriendly regimes toppled, uncooperative individuals assassinated for standing in the way, tell their own story once the official spin is spun away.
It is a fact that excuses and additional reasons are frequently layered on top of the fundamental economic compulsions described above. This is done to confuse or misguide the general public as to what is really at the bottom of the foreign policy of capitalist and state-capitalist countries. A section of the bourgeois intelligentia and media outlets are tasked with hiding, smoothing over or even white – washing the actions of their respective national elites and demonising their rivals. They are amply rewarded for these cosmetic applications on, and air-brushing of, modern history, to disguise the numerous disfigurations of our humanity engendered by the needs of the capitalist mode of production. Of course they can fool some of the people all the time, or all the people some of the time, however it is not always possible for them to fool all the people all of the time.
Another frequent tactic intended to fool the masses by pro-capitalists, is to claim that the capitalist production machine needs to be kept running all the time, irrespective of the myriad of negative symptoms it produces, because workers need jobs. There is a section of the reformist left that buys into that unwarranted assumption and masks it’s own pro-capitalist needs by pretending to be concerned for the needs of working people. It’s a piece of nonsense, but is given credence because it is frequently repeated by so-called political, economic and social experts, who sound like they know what they are talking about. But of course it is obvious nonsense to claim that working for capital is the only means of creating jobs for working people. People had jobs and occupations before capitalism became the dominant economic and political mode of production and non-profit making production still exists on a massive scale.
Whenever you hear or read that particular type of ossified bourgeois economic nonsense it is invariably coming from a politician, an academic or government minister, few, if any, of whom work for a profit based capitalist organisation. They along with local government, national government, education, higher education, state health workers, police, army, navy, air force, fire service, employees all have jobs in organisations not based upon invested capital and are not required to return a profit. Interestingly, most of the above have standards of living and job satisfaction equal or better than the majority employed in capitalist concerns. In terms of job security, health and safety and pension rights, those non-capitalist jobs, for ordinary workers are frequently far superior to those in the private capitalist concerns. Of course if all the above noted jobs can be done well and effectively without the intervention of capital and without the need to produce profit, then so could all jobs. Yet for that to happen, the capitalist mode of production would need to further phased out and a post-capitalist mode of production constructed.
Indeed, the creation of large-scale non-profit public services and production organisations, is one of the most important developmental processes, that the capitalist mode of production has offered to the future of humanity. It may seem a massive contradiction that a system based originally upon individual capital and private ownership of the means of production, has given birth to its opposite; collective capital and social ownership of public services. But contradictions are everywhere, they are how the real world works. It would seem that here too, as in the natural world, the seeds of the new come out of the old: before the old one dies and makes way for an expansion of the new. To continue the analogy; of course the new will need to be nurtured and be provided with time to blossom. So when comments coming out of the secure public sector extol the virtues of the insecure private sector, we are witness to a body that lives in a new mode of production, with a brain that is rooted in an old one. Moreover, it is a brain that stands in the way of general progress.
And this point brings us back to the question of why bourgeois democracy is the way it is and not something; “in which everyone is treated equally”. And why it is definitely not something .”..available to the broad masses”. Can the reader imagine that the broad masses, if they had the chance, would vote to continue having low-paid, unhealthy, dangerous and precarious, jobs, whilst everyone else was treated much better? Would you expect most of the unemployed, if they were asked to vote on it, to settle for unemployment whilst some in the elite have multiple well-paid jobs? Can we suppose that in advanced old age, pensioners would vote against ending up in short-staffed, care homes with low-paid, overworked carers? And can you imagine the capitalist class and the middle-classes really wanting to have a system “in which everyone is treated equally”? Of course not. Not even in their wildest liberal dreams. And is there not something quite nauseating about, well paid, job secure, adequately pensioned, middle-class individuals, shielded from market forces, asserting that due to market forces, ordinary working people and their children will have to endure, low pay, unhealthy and precarious employment for the rest of their lives?
Capitalism and authoritarianism.
From the logic of what is written above, we can conclude the following. 1: That when in crisis, the capitalist classes and their hangers on, either directly or by proxy, will engage in competitive wars, (both economic and military) rather than change their system. 2: That in any crisis these same people would not allow any kind of internal democracy that might seriously challenged their system. Indeed, they already demonstrate that the freedom of thought and protest is severely limited if it does not serve their own elite purposes. If the voters in elections, do not choose the candidate the elite prefer, as in the case of the USA, they imply foreign manipulation and a gullible or 5th column electorate. They wouldn’t hesitate to suspend elections altogether, along with existing civil liberties and declare emergency powers rather than contemplate radical changes. Indeed, they have done so in the past. When the elite say they will vigorously defend their system of democracy, what they mean is they will ruthlessly defend their system of exploitation. It isn’t hard to work out what they would do if a substantial internal challenge to the system emerged.
If any reader is in doubt, then they could check out what the EU elite did to Greece as the least worst kind of response to serious reforms during their debt crisis. Mull over what the elites in Egypt, Turkey and Syria did to put down mass citizen protests for change as examples of the extreme lengths which elites will go to prevent their system from being altered from below. Add to this the treatment of Kurdish aspirations for independence, (97% voted in favour of it) denied by the Iraq business and political elite who want to keep hold of the lucrative oil business. Even consider what happened in Catalonia when a majority of people there wanted to continue supporting capitalism but on a more regional basis. The nationalist middle-class elite in Spain, knew what would happen to their stipends if they lost full control of the taxes flowing into their coffers from that region. They were having none of it and voters were clubbed unconscious and beaten up whilst others were arrested and at least one had to go into exile to avoid arrest, simply for advocating a vote of independence.
It is at this point that the other fundamental factor previously mentioned – economics – needs to addressed with regard to the overall political tendency of advanced capitalism toward authoritarianism. There is a built in inclination in capitalist economic and political affairs, to counter some aspects of the capitalist economic free-for-all by resorting to authoritarian actions. It occurs most regularly in periods of crisis. The strong economic tendency of elimination of competition by monopoly under capitalism is mirrored at the political level by the elimination of political competition by authoritarianism. When this development occurs, the power of the state is harnessed by a single political party, in order to smooth out the extreme effects of unplanned economic competition and to counter any stalemate or instability within social life along with ending the competitive struggle for political power. This totalitarian inclination at the heart of the capitalist system of economic activity is manifested in the political and intellectual realms of society in three basic ways.
The first is by way of establishing political coalitions in which separate political parties agree to rule jointly in order to impose upon the people a platform of economic and social measures agreed between them. However, this remedy itself is invariably unstable and rarely lasts very long before breaking down. Note, for example, the limited time-scale of coalitions even during the existential crisis of the First and Second Capitalist driven World Wars. So in an extreme crises of a prolonged nature, the idea gradually emerges (among all classes) of the need for a single determined and resolute political entity to replace the competitive stalemate and confusion. It can seem to many that any form of ‘law and order’ is better than an absence of law and order. Starting off as what is now incorrectly diagnosed as ‘populism’, the mood eventually crystallises into the desire for someone and some single political party to take power and rule with an iron will and iron fist for the hoped for benefit of all.
Emerging to fulfil this role in the 19th century, during the last severe crisis of the capitalist mode of production, were two forms of iron will accompanied by iron fists – Fascism and Bolshevism. Hitler and Mussolini etc., on the one hand; Lenin and Mao etc., on the other. Both these basic forms of authoritarian response had nuanced differences. Spanish, German and Italian fascism had their own individual peculiarities, as did Russian, Chinese and Eastern European Bolshevism. But the differences were of form rather than content. All the authoritarian forms offered to run society on behalf of the little man – hence its attraction to many workers – and curb the worst characteristics of capitalism whilst retaining it’s system of wage-labour, one party governance, central planning and aggressive resource acquisition. All the 19th century iron-fist forms managed to gain control of state power and all used their resources to plan and prepare for war. And of course, it was the same workers who they cynically promised to assist, that were ordered into armed combat and who died by the millions.
The economic and military similarity between Fascism and Bolshevism was because the system they supported was still capitalist, despite being politically designated as communist, socialist or national socialist in three of the cases. True, they were modified forms of capitalism – capitalism controlled by the state! They were right-wing and left-wing variants of the state-capitalist type, but both retained and preserved all the above noted essentials of capitalism – authority, hierarchy, capital investment, wage-labour, surplus-value extraction. This explains their later relatively easy transition to other forms of capitalism (welfare-heavy capitalism in post war Europe) then neo-liberal capitalism. In the cases of Russia, Eastern Europe and China, all in the hands of more entrenched bureaucratic elites, the transition from state-capitalism to neo-liberal forms of capitalism occurred after a much longer period of time, but at an accelerated tempo when it did.
All this reasoning suggests that hopes for a victory of bourgeois democracy over authoritarianism (or democracy versus fascism) is an illusion, or self-delusion, arising from a partial or complete lack of understanding of the capitalist mode of production and the evolution of its social and political development. Authoritarianism at the factory level, the social level, the military level and the bureaucratic level is as much a part of capitalism as money, credit and loan – capital is. Capitalism and authoritarianism are the two sides of the same bourgeois coin. This is why state capitalism in the political form of Fascism or Bolshevism were not simply the inventions of a few ruthless political elites of right or left persuasion. They simply codified and personified the logical expression of the capitalist tendency of centralisation for ever large concentrations of accumulated capital and the power and influence this creates. If capitalism is likened to a coin, then bourgeois democracy is on one side and on the other is authoritarianism and Fascism.
In the humanist struggle against capitalist exploitation and authoritarian suppression, it is a tragic misfortune that the very organs of defence against capitalist exploitation, created by the slow and painful efforts of the working classes; the trade unions and friendly societies, have become part of the bourgeois establishment. Their, hierarchical structures and their entrenched bureaucracies will ensure they remain wedded to the capitalist system in any present and future class-based struggles. It is more than likely they will stay neutral or actively take the side of capital, as they did in the two world wars of the 20th century. Long ago, Marx noted (with a nod to Greek tragedy), that in the struggle of the working classes against the capitalist class;
“..they seem to throw their opponent to the ground only to see him to draw new strength from the earth and rise again before them, more colossal than ever; they shrink back again and again before the indeterminate immensity of their own goals, until the situation is created in which retreat is impossible.” (Marx. Eighteenth Brummiare of Louis Bonaparte. In Surveys from Exile. Pelican page 150.)
Although more concerned with describing tendencies, than making predictions, this passage by Marx serves as an excellent surrogate for an out and out prediction. Capitalism, like the aftermath of the mythical sowing of dragons teeth by Jason (or Cadmus) seems to rise up after every defeat and armed to the teeth reinstates it domination over humanity and the whole world. Perhaps, given the global levels of pollution and ecological damage now evident, due to its unbridled over-production tendencies, a future situation will indeed be created “in which retreat is impossible”. That tendency, along with capitalisms continued insistence on dragging humanity into genocidal wars, may encourage more people to look up from their daily routine and question if there is not a better way to provide ourselves with adequate food, shelter and safety. Humanity, I keep suggesting, needs a new set of ideas around which to organise it’s resistance to being drawn further down the sink – hole capital has created under our homes and communities.
R. Ratcliffe. (June 2018)
[See ‘Revolutionary-Humanism’, parts 1 and 2 and ‘Capitalism and Fascism’, both on this blog;]