The meaning of democracy is contested. On one hand, it was invoked by George Bush and then Barack Obama to justify wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Every fascist party in Europe today either has democracy in its name or as part of its rhetoric.
On the other hand, striking workers, movements from the student and worker rebellions of the 1960s to the anti-capitalist protests at the turn of this century, to the Occupy Movement of 2011, have taken democracy to include the right to organise, the right to protest, free speech and equal civil rights irrespective of class, race, gender or sexuality. And they have exposed the severe limits of representative government as a vehicle for the defence of any of those rights.
The history of democracy
Capitalism emerged from revolutionary struggles against the old feudal order. In the English Civil War of the 1600s, the US War of Independence and the French Revolution, the new capitalist class that aspired to rule employed the language of democracy and universal rights to mobilise the masses to fight beside them.
But in every revolution, the capitalist class moved, as soon as they thought they could get away with it, to constrain the rights of the masses and entrench their own power and privileges. In 1660, one parliamentarian in London was explicit in his justification of the reinstatement of Charles II as head of state: “The government of a king though tyrannical is far better than the usurping tyranny of many plebeians.”
In the US War of Independence, while they mobilised the masses to defeat the British, the capitalists employed more radical rhetoric than their predecessors. Just as the French would raise the banner of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, the US founding fathers talked of the “rights of man”. The Declaration of Independence pronounced that governments derived “their just powers from the consent of the governed”.
But the capitalist elite faced the question of how to consolidate their rule. The masses expected to be included in the outcome of the revolution they had backed – and they were armed. And so, as New Zealand historian Brian Roper put it in his book The History of Democracy, “[T]he framers of the Constitution embarked on the first experiment in designing a set of political institutions that would both embody and at the same time curtail popular power.”
Selection by voting, as James Madison, one of the authors of the US Constitution, put it, it would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens”. Intense competition for a few government seats supposedly ensures a body of the most talented.
The actual agenda was to ensure the rich would retain power commensurate with their economic privilege. Madison was completely transparent, arguing that the protection of the “rights of property” was to be “the first object of government”. A pure participatory democracy like the Athenian democracy of antiquity, in which people in government positions were selected by lot, would be fatally flawed because they are “spectacles of turbulence and contention [which] have ever been found incompatible with … the rights of property”. The ideological justification for this was articulated by Alexander Hamilton, a lawyer and banker who helped to bring about the Constitutional Convention, attended it and then was influential in getting the Constitution ratified:
“[A]s riches increase and accumulate in few hands … virtue will be … considered as only a graceful appendage of wealth … the advantage of character belongs to the wealthy. Their vices are probably more favourable to the prosperity of the state … and partake less of moral depravity [than the poor].”
One of the key US institutions which enabled representation but no control was the Supreme Court. A layer of law professionals grew up which ensured that “private property became truly sacred, inviolate from state and anarchism alike”. However, this separation of powers is not unique to the US. It is a feature of how capitalists rule.
The struggle for universal suffrage
The settlement after the English Revolution was not seriously disrupted until the “Great” Reform Bill of 1832, which granted the franchise to the new middle class emerging in the industrial revolution, bringing the proportion of adult males able to vote to about 18 per cent.
On another note, dozens of Luddites and others – including Glasgow weavers in 1820 and the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs who formed a union in 1834 – were transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Five hundred agricultural labourers were transported in 1830 in response to the Swing riots, famous for their arson and machine breaking across the rural south of England. They were not over until 1848, by which time the Chartist movement had become the first working class movement for universal suffrage. Between 1839 and 1847, 102 Chartists also sailed to Australia as convicts.
The Chartist movement regularly mobilised hundreds of thousands demanding suffrage for all males over 21, payment of MPs and other reforms that would enable working class men to enter the political arena as never before. It reflected the growing recognition that the poverty and exploitation the vast majority suffered could not be ameliorated by trade unions and protest alone. Governments, made up of representatives of the rich and privileged, sided with the exploiters at every turn.
In this great movement we see the emergence of what has become the alternative to capitalist democracy. Marx and Engels were inspired by this and other workers’ struggles and came to see this very struggle as the means by which society could be founded on a new basis. Mass organisations mushroomed, inspired by the idea of a stand by the vast masses against the tiny layer of rulers. This sense of a common identity led to an unprecedented sympathy of British workers for Irish immigrants, whose suffering was now recognised as part of the general oppression of workers. Some of the most determined and respected leaders were black, in spite of the dominant racism invoked to justify slavery not long ended.
Even though the Charter called only for male suffrage, many leading male Chartists wrote pamphlets and articles calling for workers to support female suffrage. One, in his pamphlet Rights of Women, written in jail, criticised the men of the movement for too little attention to women’s political and social rights. Hundreds of thousands of women organised and attended meetings. According to Dorothy Thompson, a historian of the movement, “[B]y the early 1840s [women’s suffrage] seems to have been one of the main reforms which most Chartists expected to follow from the gaining of the Charter.”
However, the vote would not be extended beyond a tiny layer of men until 1867, and even in the reform act of 1884 only two of every three men got the vote. Women would not get the vote until 1928. It would be more than a century before most male workers, women, blacks and Indigenous people in other capitalist countries would win the vote. The southern states of the US were eventually forced by the federal government, after the massive civil rights movement, to allow African Americans to participate as voting citizens in 1965.
In Australia, invaded and colonised with the hard labour of convicts, many political and trade union activists, South Australia granted universal male suffrage in 1856, the first government in the world to do so. Federally, Australia was the first country to introduce universal suffrage for the non-Indigenous population, in 1903, but all limitations on Indigenous people’s right to vote were not removed until the 1960s.
It is no coincidence that universal suffrage became a reality in a string of European countries between 1918 and 1920, when revolutionary sentiments spread like wildfire after the 1917 Russian Revolution and the horrendous experience of the World War.
Capitalism and democracy
There are social scientists who argue that capitalism necessarily brings democracy. The truth is, capitalism creates the conditions in which representative democracy is possible but not inevitable. Under feudalism, the peasants produced their basic necessities on the land, and the landed aristocracy relied on brute force to seize enough for their own consumption. Capitalism, by contrast, has separated workers from any control over the means of producing wealth.
Separated from any control over what will be produced or how, workers confront employers seemingly as equal citizens. Marx pointed out in Capital that they are “free” to take their labour power to the market, forced only by “the dull compulsion of economic facts” to work for capitalists. The reality of exploitation and the resultant unequal power hidden by this transaction is what forces workers to unite in trade unions.
No elected government actually controls what happens at the point of production. We do not vote for unemployment, what kind of cars to produce, which companies will collapse in a financial crisis. In other words, while government legislation can purport to exert controls, the fundamental decisions that determine the lives of millions are taken in the boardrooms and on CEOs’ yachts.
Fritz Thyssen, one of the capitalists who bankrolled Hitler, explained why capitalists can live with representative democracy:
“An industrialist is always inclined to consider politics a kind of second string to his bow … In a well ordered country, where the administration is sound, where taxes are reasonable, and the police well organised, he can afford to abstain from politics and devote himself entirely to business.”
It is this separation of economics and politics that provides the context for representative democracy that ensures the continuation of rule by an exploiting minority. But even limited democracy is not inevitable. State force hovers behind the facade of democracy, often used simply to intimidate and warn.
A system of recurring crises and war, capitalism cannot always maintain the facade, and the state can be used to maim, jail and even kill those who refuse to accept the barbarities of capitalism. Capitalists have turned to fascism or military dictatorship in times of crisis – Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Spain and Portugal from the late 1930s until the 1970s, Pinochet in Chile 1973, the Greek colonels’ junta 1967-74, Suharto’s regime in Indonesia after 1965 – when they judged it necessary. These regimes were hailed as saviours of civilisation when they inflicted mass slaughter on their populations – until of course the West went to war with Hitler. Paul Keating, the ALP elder statesman and former prime minister, wrote that Suharto’s massacre of possibly a million was one of the best things to happen in Australia’s “neighbourhood” because it brought “stability”.
The present crisis has produced mass unemployment at levels not seen since the 1930s Great Depression in countries across Europe. Attacks on workers in even the US, the most powerful imperialist state, have forced car workers to take cuts to their wages of up to a third. As a result, new methods of limiting democracy have come into play.
In November 2011, George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, proposed a referendum on a “rescue package” – a brutal austerity programme negotiated with the European Central Bank (ECB) and IMF. The whole of European respectable society reacted with absolute fury. The very idea! Giving people a vote on managing the economic crisis! Within days Papandreou was replaced by the unelected Lucas Papademos. The media call this former governor of the Bank of Greece and vice-president of the ECB from 2002 to 2010 a “technocrat”.
Then, as the Italian debt crisis mounted, Silvio Berlusconi resigned and was replaced by another unelected “technocrat”, Mario Monti – actually a European commissioner and an international adviser to Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola. He was appointed “senator for life” and a week later sworn in as prime minister at the head of a “national unity government” of bankers and businessmen.
In the situation of extreme economic crisis, the democratic “right” of the people to elect their government was simply “suspended” to impose savage austerity, which governments subject to the pressure of actually getting elected might baulk at adopting.
In Australia four decades of neoliberalism laid the basis for an increasing negation of democracy. Social policy and notions of public good are now openly determined entirely by reference to what they imply for the Treasury. Increasingly, governmental tasks have been devolved to unelected institutions.
The history of parliamentary democracy makes it clear that if mass poverty, war and oppression are to be eradicated, if the environment is to be saved, an alternative form of democracy is absolutely necessary. The history of workers’ struggles illuminates what this alternative looks like.
In 1871 the workers of Paris rose up, took control of the city and replaced the old state machinery with the Paris Commune. Marx saw that workers had found the answer to the question of how to replace capitalism and its systems of power. Workers had created their own genuinely democratic organisations – not the result of abstract theory, but of the actions of the revolutionaries who seized Paris. Then in 1905, when the workers of Russia rose in revolution, the working class was more a force in its own right, giving us an even clearer picture.
In Paris, delegates to the Commune were chosen by geographical area, giving middle class reformers undue influence. In Russia in 1905, workers created representative bodies made up of delegates from workplaces. This brought the question of democratic control into the workplaces where society’s wealth is produced. Delegates were recallable at any time, unlike our politicians who are secure in their fixed terms. They were paid the wage of a skilled worker and remained at work, where they experienced the consequences of their decisions beside those who voted for them. Think how much more accountable this makes delegates than the people we vote for but never meet face to face unless we are pounding on their office door to protest – and even then you’re unlikely to meet them.
These kinds of structures – soviets in Russia, workers’ councils in English, shoras in Iran in 1979 before they were smashed by the Islamist clerics – have been created in many revolutionary workers movements since. They bring the administration of economic and social affairs into the representative bodies, a point Marx drew out as of great significance in 1871. Workers create the wealth that can be used to enrich the whole of society. So they cannot separate political rule from control over the process of production the way exploiters can. And the revolutionary struggles that produce workers’ councils, like the Chartist movement, change workers, making them “fit to rule” as Marx put it, overcoming divisions, becoming capable of building a new humane society – unlike numbering a few boxes in elections.
There are those who say that society is too complex today for workers to organise it. But alongside the growth of a literate, educated, skilled working class, capitalism has developed immense systems of communication. In Poland in 1981, workers used the telephone system to broadcast through the factories the proceedings in meetings between their representatives and the bosses. Today it’s not difficult to imagine workers’ councils in workplaces linked up not just city or nation-wide, but internationally. There would be no need for secrecy; delegates could be made accountable and replaced if they did not carry out policies their electors supported.
Of course there would be disagreements about how to achieve a better world. But once the power of the capitalists was broken, those discussions could be conducted by people with common interests. In a class society, where exploiters live off the labour of the majority, the conflicting interests cannot be resolved by debate; that is why the capitalists rely on a repressive state to impose their interests when necessary.
Capitalist democracy is a compromise between the classes, a concession won generally by workers’ struggles. While democratic rights have to be defended at every turn, they should be seen only as the basis on which we can fight for rule by the people for the people. We could hardly make as big a mess of it as the present mob who rule.