From the March 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard
Democracy is perhaps one of the most distorted concepts in modern political language. The ruling elite of almost every country will claim that the political system which they preside over is a democracy. Certainly the fact that countries such as the USA and Russia, who claim to have totally different systems of government, both also claim to be democracies does seem to make the concept somewhat difficult to define. Such difficulties are multiplied when a brief look at these two countries reveals that the democracy in the USA is limited to the opportunity to vote once every few years and furthermore the choice they have is between two parties which can hardly claim to be basically opposed to each other. In Russia the people are not even given this pretence of political choice, there being only one party to vote for.
The liberal individualist interpretation of democracy stemmed from the liberal tradition based on the “rights of the individual”. According to this theory political authority stems from individuals in society pursuing their own interests. The individual, it is argued, should be released from as many constraints as possible, the role of the state should be that of a referee guiding the competition of individuals in society. This concept of democracy developed in line with the economic theory of laissez-faire as it calls for a minimum of government interference in private and social life and individual enterprise and responsibility. Thus the whole theory is very much connected with, and places very strong emphasis on, private property rights.
This view of democracy, which in theory places much emphasis on individual rights and on liberty and equality, is in reality all about the liberty of the minority at the expense of the majority. Individual rights, or the lack of them and the influence people have over political decisions, stem from how society is organised at its economic base; how wealth is produced and distributed and at this level there is tremendous inequality. This point was emphasised over thirty years ago by Robert Lynd who stated:
Liberal democracy has never dared face the fact that industrial capitalism is an intensely coercive form of organisation of society that cumulatively constrains men and all of their institutions to work for the will of the minority who hold and wield economic power . . . (Robert Lynd, quoted in R. Miliband - The State In Capitalist Society).
The class in society who hold power, (those who own and control the means of production), have ultimate control over the lives of those who have to work for them in order to gain access to the necessities of life. Between these two classes there exists an unequal distribution of wealth and it is through their dominant position in the economic sphere that the owners of wealth production control political power. For supporters of liberal democracy to talk of individual rights and liberty and equality when in reality these can only be enjoyed by a small minority, is to degrade the very concept of democracy.
The pluralist conception of democracy is in many ways an updated version of liberal democracy, replacing the individual with the group. The pluralist theory argues that by organising themselves into groups people have more chance of influencing government decisions. Government policy is thus seen to develop out of a process of bargaining and compromise between different interest groups and the government is seen, in the main, as a referee to ensure that the participants play to the rules of the game. Supporters of pluralism believe that any form of direct democracy is an impossibility in modern industrial society due to its size and complexity; in modern society, they argue, it is not possible to involve large numbers of people in the decision making process and still achieve a consistent, coherent and stable policy making process.
But a group’s ability to turn a desire to act into reality must in the end depend on their access to economic resources. Influence is needed to be able to gain entry to government agencies, political parties and the media. Groups with these kinds of resources can be mobilised for political action but they are likely to be the ones who already wield economic power and who would therefore be already favoured by the existing set up. The only way such a system could operate on a democratic basis would be through the equal allocation of resources to all groups irrespective of their position in society. Within the confines of an economic system where the need to accumulate capital must override all other interests such an idea is completely utopian. Furthermore a fairly recent example of a conflict of interest between labour and capital shows that the state cannot be viewed as a neutral body. The 1984-5 miners’ strike from the point of view of capital was all about making that industry profitable. The fact that people needed coal to keep themselves warm is completely immaterial to a system dominated by the need to accumulate capital. The idea of keeping unprofitable coal mines open to provide employment is quite unthinkable. What in this dispute was the role of the state? Did it act as a referee between the two sides to ensure fair play, rather like a tennis umpire keeping his eye on John McEnroe? To the misguided supporters of pluralism we must point out that far from allocating the NUM equal financial resources, the same state which spent millions of pounds putting forward the interests of capital, in this case represented by the state controlled National Coal Board, through the courts relieved the NUM of hundreds of thousands of pounds of their funds and imprisoned many of their members.
In opposition to the pluralist theory of democracy, elite theorists put forward the view that all important decisions should be taken by a single ruling elite rather than through a process of competing interest groups.
Elite theorists argue that in advanced industrial society direct democracy is impossible; they have therefore replaced it with what they see as a form of representative democracy. However in the elite model, representative democracy itself has been substituted, as an elected elite appoint a second elite which becomes even more powerful. An example of this is the British parliamentary system where the leader of the party elected to form a government appoints the cabinet, which makes all the major decisions. In fact, in this example, this elite is appointed by one individual. Whether an elite is open or closed makes no difference in terms of democracy. For even if it is open it will only recruit from a section of society which has gone through an educational and socialisation process which will have conformed them to attitudes that are acceptable to the existing elite.
One point stands out above all others; until a society has been achieved where all men and women have free access, on the basis of self determined need, to the products and services to live a decent life free from want and thus stand in equal relation with each other, then democracy in its true sense is an impossibility. Therefore the basis of establishing a free and democratic society is a majority political and social revolution where people organise worldwide to convert the means of production and distribution from private or state ownership to common ownership, thus abolishing the class relations of capitalist production. Once democracy is an inherent feature of the material base of society, the level at which the means of life are produced and distributed, then a host of possibilities are revealed. We do not know what conditions a socialist society will inherit from capitalism or have any idea as to the level of technology at the time when a socialist majority has been established. In addition, at the present time, when socialists are in a tiny minority, it would be quite undemocratic to lay down in detail what a socialist society will look like. Rather we should consider the possibilities which flow from the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution.
Common ownership and production for use would mean that all members of society would have free access to all goods and services on the basis of self determined need. Co-operation would replace competition and coercion, people themselves would decide how best they could serve society. Alongside common ownership would run a system of democratic control, which would require that all information be freely available to all members of society.
To opponents of socialism, it is utopian, not allowing for “human nature”. However capitalism has made such a society practical by developing the means of production to the point where the potential exists to produce the necessary requirements of life in abundance. Socialism could use such potential, while production for the market acts as a brake on improving the society we live in. It has yet to be proven that humans are naturally greedy, selfish, and act out of only self interest. Indeed the evidence is that previous societies were based on communal ownership, where production, albeit primitive, was organised for the common good. The problem in forming a democratic society is not one of “human nature” but of human conditioning.