If you want to change the world, go into politics: that’s how we’re told things work. Capitalist countries might have disgusting inequalities of wealth, power and privilege, but when it’s time to vote, we’re all supposedly equal. In capitalist democracy, (most) people can vote, and each vote is (kind of) worth the same amount. (Just about) anyone can become a politician, and when politicians pass laws, they (sort of) apply to everyone.
So, no matter how much injustice you experience, there’s always a way out: the official, legal path of capitalist democracy, through which every inequality can be ironed out and any reform is theoretically possible. And if the world doesn’t change, it must mean that people don’t really want it to be changed—because, as we’re often told, we get the governments we deserve.
Of course, even the claimed benefits of capitalist democracy elude many people. Much of the world is blanketed with a patchwork of dictatorships, or pseudo-democracies that don’t make much effort to pretend that their elections matter. But even in the official democracies, democracy itself is rarer than we’re led to believe. Many countries go to extraordinary lengths to stop oppressed people from voting—whether it’s Israel, the “only democracy in the Middle East”, disenfranchising its millions of Palestinian subjects, or the United States, where Black people have had to fight every day to exercise their right to vote.
Gerrymandering, electoral systems that favour sparsely populated right-wing rural areas, and other tricks make sure that votes are rarely really equal; right-wing votes usually get more representation. (The smallest state in the US is rural Wyoming; votes cast there in presidential elections are worth three and a half times as much as the average vote.) Countries can pass laws that ban people with criminal convictions from standing in elections—so if activism is criminalised, then only supporters of the status quo can become politicians. And, of course, when laws are passed, they don’t really apply equally.
Nonetheless, the dream of a perfect capitalist democracy is attractive. In a society based on profit and competition, a perfect democratic system promises a way out of the inequality and chaos. In everyday life, we feel powerless, so it makes sense that a small crew of specialist politicians should take on the difficult job of administering society, as long as they truly represent the will of the people. Elections can seem a kind of magical process that transforms a conflict-ridden and unplanned society into an orderly, collaborative one. The perfect parliament, the ideal democratic government, is like a little heaven that floats above the hell of capitalism. The miniature world is purified of all inequality because it has been built on the universal right to vote; it’s a place where reasoned debate rules, where purposeful planning in the “national interest” can put limits on the special interests that dominate regular life.
So it makes sense, even when most politicians are obviously liars, scum, peddlers of racism and bigotry, and craven servants of the ultra-rich, that the idea of a perfect capitalist democracy remains incredibly powerful—even inspiring people to give up their lives in revolutionary struggles to win the right to vote and to have their votes counted.
And if you’re a socialist, the argument seems to be obvious. You’re for transcending capitalism and increasing the power of the working class. The working class is the majority of the population; capitalists are a minority. So why not use our numerical strength to win a majority in the parliament, to pass laws that will replace capitalism? This is the basic argument of parliamentary socialism, “democratic socialism”, or reformism. Despite a century of failure, it remains a popular argument. That’s partly because it is often encouraged by mainstream voices seeking to discourage wild revolutionary extremism. But the argument also seems to match the basic structures of capitalist politics. We are powerless at work and isolated at home, but every few years, when it’s time to vote, we have just as much power as the richest boss in the country—more, if we organise in numbers.
The reality is that even a “perfect” capitalist democracy is designed to protect the power of capitalists. Socialism means ending economic exploitation and the rule of profit over humanity: it’s the ultimate democracy, in which collective decision making allows us to decide what to do with the world’s wealth. But at every level, the very logic of capitalist democracy prevents this real democracy—the collective power of the oppressed—from being exercised. Capitalists don’t generally love democracy, and they often intervene to crush democratic uprisings. But liberal democracy itself can help stabilise capitalist rule—and it can never bring about socialism.
It’s not just what we see on the surface: that politicians disproportionately come from wealthy families, were trained at exclusive schools, have backgrounds in business and law and are close friends with big capitalists—that they are people who have spent their lives expecting to rule over others and who have a personal interest in keeping wealth concentrated among the elite. Of course, that’s true, and it matters. But it’s not the whole story.
If the problem were only that politicians were rich, the solution would be simple: get more working-class people elected. This idea inspired the formation of various workers’ or “labour” parties, devoted to standing workers and unionists for election. Those parties usually don’t want to challenge capitalism, but they might have policies that challenge certain capitalists: finance reform that annoys banks, public housing programs that might undermine the profits of landlords, health and safety reforms that might cost factory owners money. And they might expect to win—after all, those reforms would be in the interest of the majority, and in many capitalist democracies, the majority can vote.
But once “workers’ candidates” start running, we can see how the structures of capitalist democracy constrain what’s possible. Firstly, and most obviously, they encounter the capitalist media, which control the dissemination of ideas. That can be the privately owned capitalist press, like Rupert Murdoch’s notorious News Corp or liberal outlets such as the New York Times, which are equally keen to bury or distort the message of pro-worker politics, while slandering candidates who threaten the mainstream.
In many cases, the supposedly more “left-wing” mainstream outlets are the most vicious and dishonest campaigners against leftist activists who seem too hard to control, even when the activists aren’t really that radical. And that goes equally for “public” state-owned broadcasters like Britain’s BBC or Australia’s ABC: their managers and journalists see themselves as guardians of the establishment, with a duty to expose and destroy any marginal figures who challenge the status quo. Social media initially seemed to promise an escape from this system, but they too are controlled by big, unaccountable corporations that want to limit acceptable discourse in the interests of defending the system.
It’s not just about the snobbery and bias of middle-class journalists, although that plays a role. It’s not even about the money-grubbing motives of corporate media bosses: Murdoch makes a loss on many of his most rabidly right-wing newspapers, and state-owned outlets like the BBC are some of the most committed to defending the mainstream.
The structural bias of the media ultimately derives from the basic logic of capitalism: everything, even the basic facts about what’s happening in the world, is produced and disseminated under the control of a class that survive by controlling the labour of others, or by the administrators of the capitalist state that exists to stabilise the system. Their outlets serve their class interests, not just directly by making them money, but by smearing, distorting or concealing anything that challenges their class power.
Capitalists and state officials feel that it is their duty to stabilise and defend the system. To them, that’s the “truth”, even if it means spreading lies, slanders and conspiracy theories.
The next challenge is finance. Running in a local election can cost tens of thousands of dollars; running for the US presidency costs about a billion. The class-divided nature of capitalism means that bosses have more money to donate to politicians who will do their bidding. Political candidates who adopt anti-capitalist policies will have a hard time raising funds from wealthy donors.
You don’t need to be a Marxist to know that campaign finance and media bias are barriers to left-wing political candidates. If you believe in the system of capitalist politics, there are two ways you can respond. By far the most common response is to adopt more right-wing, conservative policies to signal that you want to compromise with bosses and tone down your more radical ideas, to arrange meetings with influential fundraisers and ritualistically denounce extreme leftism to show you’re reliable. For most reformist politicians, this is a fundamental job skill, and the art of official leftist politics largely consists of balancing this kind of act with just enough militant rhetoric to bullshit your supporters and keep getting votes from workers and activists.
But you might find other ways around those obstacles. Workers have strength in numbers: we can fundraise in numbers, too. A small number of capitalists can donate millions of dollars each, but millions of workers can counteract that by each making a small donation, maybe through their trade unions. Capitalist control of the media can be offset a little by the organised production of alternative media, hence the long tradition of party-affiliated socialist newspapers. Suppose an honest, working-class candidate were able to rise in the polls purely by those methods, despite the bosses financing their rivals and slandering them in the media. Would democracy prevail then?
In fact, once left-wing reformers are elected, the problems only intensify. The experience of entering the exclusive club of parliament immediately exerts a pressure of its own. Successful candidates for high office are highly paid; they work in magnificent halls, removed from the mass of the population, meeting every day with politicians from elite backgrounds, being courted and lobbied by the most powerful and wealthy capitalists. For example, when the first British Labour politicians were elected—trade union officials in cloth caps and cheap suits—they were awestruck by the noble Tories, with their posh accents, who spoke to them as chums and colleagues.
For candidates who genuinely believe in the power of parliamentary politics to overcome the problems of capitalism, this can be a bewildering, ego-stroking experience. Now they aren’t on the outside; they’re part of a tiny circle of important people, tasked with conspiring over the heads of the ignorant, self-interested citizens who can’t see past their own narrow interests. Political parties that see reform as the solution will, logically, give their elected politicians a leading role—meaning the ideology of capitalism, which claims that class struggle can and should be overcome through clever political compromise, can permeate back into the working-class movement through its parliamentary “leaders”.
But suppose all these obstacles are overcome: a left-wing government forms a majority and tries to implement policies that really challenge the capitalists—things like raising corporate taxes a lot, using the proceeds to pay for social welfare and nationalising important industries so they aren’t run for profit any more. Then the power structure of capitalism can be really revealed.
In the ideology of capitalism, “politics” is meant to be separate from “the economy”. In the realm of politics, citizens can make democratic decisions. In the realm of the economy, profit and self-interest organise the production of wealth. The two must be kept separate, so that the smooth economic machine of capitalism can keep running with good, but hands-off, democratic oversight.
The meaning of that is simple. No matter who’s in government, capitalists retain their power to decide what gets produced, and how. The ultimate power in society remains with those who own and control the factories, mines and offices, which is partly why capitalists themselves can be pretty indifferent to politics—whoever wins government, the bosses are the ones really in charge.
When left-wing governments try to use their power in a way that inconveniences capitalists, the capitalists can use their economic power to strike back—by threatening to withhold investment and crash the economy, to hold up the production and distribution of food and medicine. The separation between “politics” and “economics” means capitalists keep the ultimate political power: they can use their control of the economy to discipline governments. These “capital strikes” are quite often threatened, and sometimes carried out, to bring rebellious governments to heel.
The capitalist economy disciplines politicians from one side. On the other side, there are the vast unelected bureaucracies of the state, tasked with preserving the existing order. Most of the state isn’t democratic at all.
Unelected judges, sometimes appointed for life, can overrule legislation. Obscure bureaucrats, such as Australia’s governor-general, can dismiss and dissolve governments. Military generals believe their duty is to protect the nation from radicalism, even if it means stepping in to take power directly.
Capitalist democracy is a tiny theatre between two vast fortresses of undemocratic power: the capitalist economy, where all production is organised, and the bureaucratic state, armed to the teeth. That remains true no matter how fair your campaign finance laws are, no matter how diverse your media landscape is or how accurately and fairly your votes are counted. And it makes it impossible to challenge capitalist rule using the mechanisms of capitalist politics.
The capitalists’ power can be resisted. But not through parliamentary means. If you think socialism must come through parliament, then you argue that workers and social movements must devote themselves to promoting electoral candidates—and when those candidates are threatened by the mechanisms of capitalist power, everything is subordinated to protecting their place in the establishment: their favourable media coverage, their alliance with capitalists, their position in the parliament or government. Parliamentary socialism is littered with tragic examples of unsuccessful compromise, from Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn desperately signalling his desire to work with the right wing even as the media destroyed him, to Chile’s Salvador Allende appointing generals to his government only to have them overthrow and murder him.
Meanwhile, the reformists’ working-class supporters are encouraged to see salvation coming through parliament, so they ultimately play a passive role. They may work incredibly hard knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and attending rallies to support politicians. But parliamentary socialism teaches us that the final transformation of society will be carried out by the bureaucracies of capitalist politics, enforcing laws passed by a small number of politicians, and the role of workers is to support that, vote for it and cheer it on. So when the project is defeated or compromises, workers have been taught that they’re powerless to carry things on.
The right to vote and participate in elections is important. It’s a good way to get the word out about socialism, and when our rulers try to restrict those things, it is usually because they are on the offensive generally and want to silence resistance in every sphere.
But to disrupt the restraining power of capitalist politics, we have to attack it at its base: capitalists’ rule over the economy. Socialist politics begins with a refusal to accept that “politics” means elections and parliaments. Workers can impose economic policy by taking strike action in workplaces to win higher wages and better conditions; but they can also strike and organise at work to demand political outcomes, whether it’s to bring down a government or end a war.
Just as capitalists use their economic power to determine political outcomes, so can workers. But there’s a difference: working-class struggle of this kind teaches oppressed people how to coordinate with each other, how to reorganise society from below, how to defend themselves from the ruling class and how to take power into their own hands. Working-class action has the power to disintegrate the rule of capitalists, while also teaching workers how to transform the world, economically and politically, without depending on bosses or politicians. This revolutionary socialism is what the world urgently needs.