When he took office in January, Donald Trump declared that he was “transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you: the people”. As the rain fell on the half-empty National Mall, the new president predicted: “January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again”.
It was a strange claim to make, given that “the people” had just been defied: 75 percent of the American voting-age population had either not voted for Trump, or had voted against him. In fact, 20 January 2017 was the inauguration of the most hated person ever to run for president in modern history, according to all available polling data.
It was only the most recent outrage against democracy perpetrated in the name of the democratic process itself. Trump’s anti-democratic triumph came six months after the Democratic Party machine systematically dismantled the campaign of Bernie Sanders; two years after the Greek people voted in a landslide referendum to reject austerity, and then had the most sadistic austerity imposed on them as punishment; five years after police drove Occupy Wall Street from the streets, ending its campaign for “real democracy”; and 13 years after that epoch-defining atrocity, the US invasion of Iraq, was inflicted on a world that overwhelmingly opposed it. Meanwhile, polls showing landslide support for higher taxes on the rich and increased funding of social services are ignored year after year.
It’s no wonder, then, that many have little interest in what passes for capitalist “democracy”. For many of us, that lack of interest manifests as disengagement, apathy and cynicism.
Others – including many of the rich and powerful – are more interested in outright dictatorship. According to research published in the Journal of Democracy, around one-third of young wealthy US citizens think a military dictatorship can be useful, and that it’s more important to have a “strong leader” than elections.
When the system is under strain, the “democratic deficit” of capitalism becomes obvious. No matter how many elections take place, the things we want don’t happen; the things we don’t want, do happen; and the people we despise are in charge.
But the roots of the problem are deeper than the political process: the lack of democracy is built into the fundamental structures of a capitalist economy.
Democracy means “the rule of the people”. Capitalism means the rule of the market. Between those two concepts lies a gulf that can’t be bridged by any number of patriotic songs and firework displays.
A capitalist economy, based on private property, divides society into those who own and those who don’t: those who decide and those who obey. The first, most fundamental decisions that can be made in society – what to do with the tremendous wealth and technology that exists in the world – are made with no democratic oversight at all.
Will factories be used to assemble medical equipment or machine guns? Will cranes be set to work building schools and hospitals or luxury apartments for the rich? Will the printing presses make textbooks or newspapers full of racist fear-mongering?
These key decisions, which determine the shape of the society we live in, are made every day in secret, with no democratic oversight, by the tiny minority of the population that owns society’s productive wealth. They are not made in parliaments, but boardrooms. And they are made in the interests of the capitalist class, to increase its profits and strengthen its rule over society.
In capitalist “democracy”, “the people” have no say whatsoever over the most important decisions in the world: the economy is the private concern of the bosses, and we have to live with their decisions. And the state – supposedly the democratic influence on society, in which all citizens, rich and poor alike, have an equal say – merely reflects and reinforces this tyranny.
The vast bulk of state institutions are totally unelected. “The people” have no influence over the police, the army, the courts, the spies or the mammoth and largely invisible state bureaucracies that administer capitalist society. While presidents and parliaments are paraded on television, they are only the tip of the iceberg.
In any capitalist “democracy”, we are allowed only to vote for who occupies a tiny part of the state, every few years, from a list of candidates largely selected, trained and presented by the capitalist class and its political machines. The candidates raise their funds from the capitalist class, present their case in the capitalist-owned media and, once elected, vanish into a world of meetings with unelected “business leaders” and senior state officials. The elected parts of the state make up only the tiny public part of a vast, largely anonymous and unaccountable ruling elite.
And, should a politician get out of hand, they can easily be disciplined – between the capitalists’ awesome power over the economy and the fact that every capitalist state has built in “checks and balances” to ensure unruly servants can be tamed or sacked. We have seen that in Australia, when the Whitlam Labor government lost favour with the ruling class and found itself dismissed by the decree of an unelected governor-general in 1975.
In other countries and at other times, when the stakes have been higher, the ruling class has used all its levers of unelected power: grotesque smear campaigns in the media, economic blackmail and sabotage, and, in the last resort, military coup. As long as the structures of private ownership and state bureaucracy remain intact, they will be used to restrain and repress any threat to the ruling class’ priorities or orderly exploitation and profit making.
It is for that reason that Marx pointed out that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. Capitalist “democracy” provides institutions that are designed to create the illusion of fairness, while guaranteeing the rule of a minority. Working class democracy – socialism – will require the destruction of those institutions and their replacement with something new.
In the US election of 2016, all the worst vices of capitalist democracy were exercised to the full. Fundraising, media attention and bureaucratic arm-twisting meant that, in the end, the contest was between two of the most vile right wing millionaires in modern history. A “choice” was offered between an unacceptable status quo, and one of the worst monsters produced by the system. After the victorious Trump promised to turn power over to “the people”, he immediately set about appointing a string of billionaire plutocrats to key cabinet positions, tasked with delivering even more power and wealth to the US ruling class.
What happened next, though, was extraordinary. From the day of Trump’s election, protests bloomed across the US and the world. Some of the largest demonstrations in modern history have taken place against Trump and his agenda; walkouts, sit-ins and civil disobedience have made a sudden and shocking return to US public life. From day one, Trump’s plans have been met with explosive resistance.
This is where we must look if we want to find the potential for an authentic democracy. For the working class, “democracy” means the power to defy our rulers, to overturn their decisions, to disrupt their plans and undermine their institutions. Working class democracy is born in struggle against the powerful. The peaceful and undisturbed rule of the boss at work, the police on the street and the generals in the war zone, is incompatible with real democracy.
Because our world is divided into classes, with the majority exploited and oppressed, for “the people” to exercise real power, business as usual must come to an end. It means protest, defiance and the courage of the oppressed to assert themselves collectively against the orders of their rulers.
There is a long and glorious counter-history of democracy: democracy of the oppressed, built in struggle against the system. It is a history that includes the mutinying soldiers of World War One, who refused the orders to massacre their fellow workers; the workers of Hungary who struck against the Stalinist monolith in 1956 and shook it to its foundations; the students of Paris, who in 1968 took over their universities and turned them into organising centres of a radical social movement; and the people of Egypt, who in 2011 occupied their city streets and made them into a revolutionary festival, toppling a police state through collective courage and defiance.
All these movements, and the thousands of others like them, emerged from the struggles of the working class to assert their rights and interests in a system based on their oppression. All of them were infinitely more democratic than everyday capitalist politics: they were ways for the people to collectively influence the course of history. All of them were illegal: no system of class division can allow the mass of the population to freely determine their own fate.
And all of them ultimately met with repression. Our leaders love to celebrate democracy, until people begin to really to believe in it; then they meet it with truncheons, bullets and bombs. The dictatorship in Egypt and the devastation in Syria bear witness to how the ruling class treats democratic outbursts. Permanent, authentic working class democracy will require the destruction of the ruling class’ capacity to respond with trickery and violence.
Capitalists have their boardrooms, parliaments, courts and cops to coordinate their attacks on workers. For socialist democracy to flourish, we must develop our own revolutionary organising centres, where striking workers and mutinying soldiers can coordinate their defiance, robbing our exploiters of the ability to wield economic and political force against us.
The development of such institutions marks the transition from protest to revolution. To smash the fake democracy of capitalism and replace it with the democracy of the working class opens up the possibility of a world in which democracy encompasses all of society, in which the working class can collectively decide our fate, with no limitation or coercion. This is the starting point of socialism.