From the July 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Why in the end the two are incompatible
Democracy, either as simply a word in our lexicon, an actually existing system or a utopian ideal, is a concept which should be wide open for discussion. The term is bandied about to represent something which is generally poorly understood, something which is widely recognised as being the status quo but with little or no thought given to the relationship between what we each individually mean when we use it and the situation on the ground to which we are referring.
Democracy is something alleged to be a system of popular involvement which leans towards majority consensus; but ask ten people, or a hundred, and get widely differing explanations of what it is or what it should be. It is a word that is ill-defined, misused, overused too ambiguously and has been hijacked by governments and elites to deliberately misinterpret their actions and so deceive a captive and poorly represented electorate.
For example – In the 'largest democracy in the world', India, how do the majority of the population on $2 or less a day consider they are being represented? And how many of the minority even pause to consider the possible effects of this lack of representation on the majority?
For example, in so-called 'developed' countries, many of which have just two or three major political parties becoming ideologically closer and closer so that there is little difference whichever is voted in, how can this false choice be deemed democratic? A choice between two or three closely related manifestos, differing in minor details but overall being variations of the same business-friendly agenda, distanced from the majority of the voters.
Existing political democracies
Electorates worldwide haven't had the true experience of involvement, of having had their voices heard, at any significant level to have resulted in a culture of expectation of inclusion in the various processes of so-called democracy. Rather than an expectation of involvement there is apathy, cynicism or a complaining mantra heard far and wide that governments don't listen to the people or that they put on a performance of listening pre-elections and then make wide ranging excuses for their negligence in following up on promises or manifesto declarations.
Polls show people in greater numbers becoming further and further removed from statements made by politicians both right and left on topics which impact on daily life – wages, working conditions, high unemployment, cuts in health care, education and general public spending, poor infrastructure, creeping surveillance, big-brother laws and questionable aggressive involvement in the affairs of other nations. And who can determine any significant difference between left and right whether in the US, UK or most other nations where all are beholden to corporate capitalism?
The current hierarchical systems of 'democracy' can never effectively represent the widely differing demands of majorities on wide ranging topics. What this system gives can more accurately be termed imposition. When people judge they are getting less democracy as time goes by – arrest on suspicion of almost anything, tighter control of cyberspace, personal information passed from agency to agency without consent, working conditions changed without consultation, retirement age increased, education budgets severely cut (all these currently in focus in many countries) – the discussion required is much more than how to take back lost ground and go on to gain more leverage. It becomes how to take control of the direction and quality of our own lives; in other words how to move forwards to a true and meaningful democracy.
A UK government sponsored think tank, Wilton Park, concluded in a paper in 1996 that 'Democracy must not be confused with capitalism. The former is a political system while the latter is an economic system. Although many capitalist countries are democracies, capitalism can exist without democracy.'
According to Noam Chomsky, writing in On Power and Ideology and referring to the US as a 'capitalist democracy', true capitalism isn't possible, state intervention being a necessary component for several reasons: to regulate markets, to support business interests and to employ its means of violence in the international arena on behalf of business.
Chomsky being a highly respected political commentator and activist over a number of decades, many would agree with this assertion and with his comment that democracy is a commodity – you can have as much of it as you can afford. It is probably pertinent to add to Chomsky's statement that true democracy also is not possible in capitalism because the system (and the market) is manipulated by the capitalists to fit their agenda by use of media, advertising and lobbying. The incompatibility of capitalism and democracy, which follow opposing principles, render democratic capitalism an oxymoron.
Apathy and complaint
Many so-called democracies tend to breed apathy for a variety of reasons. Decisions have long been made for people not by people, electorates distanced from their representatives, decisions made with no consultation process and 'leaders' believing they have been selected to take the reins and make all decisions on behalf of the voters. It's taken for granted that once elected the 'member' decides on behalf of the electors.
There is scant reference to the masses in times of major decisions – where to cut public spending, whether to involve a population in invasion or war, how to deal with the effects of harsh economic downturn. Even mass demonstrations against unpopular decisions can leave the elected unmoved and intransigent. As a result there has long been a culture of complaint, a collective feeling of impotence with no expectation of being heard, even if seemingly listened to.
It is easy to recognise from both an individual and collective standpoint what it is, in work, in life, society, environment, that is required to be changed, removed, expunged; however it is not so simple to know exactly what should be put in its place or how to do it. Most people can more readily identify the negative aspects of their lives which they want rid of than they can imagine the positives to replace them. They have been part of a manipulative system for too long and have become passively compliant.
Anger and indignation can be positive motivating factors enabling people collectively to come to the realisation that if power won't heed the people then the people must act together, take hold of the power and make it their own if they are to become the active part of the decision making process.
Whereas emotional stimuli can play a useful part in rallying individuals to a cause overall a plan is vital. We need to understand not only where we're coming from but why and where we're headed. It's not enough to know what we're working against but significantly more important to understand and affirm what we're working to achieve. This largely entails each individual actively raising their own consciousness to higher levels of understanding and commitment which ultimately will lead to a majority of the working class pulling together in order to take control of their own collective destiny.
Politically to dissent is simply to disagree with an official decision, course of action or set of principles but the term of reference has become debased and it is now commonly understood to be something other than seeking to have an alternative view expressed overtly; it is often conveyed as being connected to some kind of subterfuge, a covert, possibly illicit movement to overturn an established regime.
Dissent, because it is seen to be too far outside the mainstream of traditional politics, becomes a threat. And what leads to dissent? Poor working conditions and levels of pay, high costs of food, services, fuel, etc., high levels of unemployment, high levels of homelessness and poor housing conditions, perceived injustices with regard to minority groups, creeping surveillance and curbs on freedom of expression, limited access to health care and education, widespread corruption in the corridors of power, inconvenient secrets leaked to the media revealing a catalogue of lies and deceit that the people aren't supposed to be a party to, oppression and repression; in general lack of democracy in one form or another. Any one or any combination of these issues, coupled with a particular geographical location and appropriate timing could lead to the blue touch paper being lit and then look out for the explosion.
Active dissent from the majority.
It is surely too narrow official, bureaucratic and parliamentary or oligarchical decisions which lead to all the states referred to immediately above – decisions taken which sideline, ignore, humiliate, debase and exclude the recipients from active participation in any of the decision making processes for surely one does not dissent from decisions one had a free hand in making.
If democracy is to mean more than one vote nationally and another regionally every few years, an arrangement that most will agree displays a huge deficit of democracy and does little to represent public opinion, then an alternative system must be devised. An alternative system involving the general public in all decisions which impact upon them, their communities and local environments, one which embraces the notion that all are entitled to be active participants in the local and global community.
In order to invert the current system with the outcome that it will be society at large's decisions that are to become the norm means that each community's ideas and plans will be presented, discussed and decided upon by those within those communities. All discussion in the public domain; no minorities behind closed doors weighing up pecuniary advantage. The will of the people – so often disregarded – the will of the people on an ongoing basis, not just for the moment when they put their tick in a box, but the ongoing will of the people, giving ongoing legitimacy to all decisions in the best interests of all.
Hierarchies are necessarily divisive in their manner of imposition, patriarchal minorities holding onto power in situations opposed by their electorates until forced to give concessions or step down. Governments don't easily give up their power and use various means to cling on through thick and thin whether in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Americas. Noam Chomsky has said, 'Propaganda is as necessary to bourgeois democracy as repression is to the totalitarian state.' The purpose of both to keep control.
In contrast the ethos of true democracy, with a horizontal structure, has a unifying factor with people working together for the best outcomes for all. Real democracy must mean a system of common ownership, production and consumption, moving from a system of passivity to one of proactivity and empowerment by sharing responsibility for decisions and outcomes. In a true democracy people would have real choices in all areas of their lives, not choices manufactured to suit business, market and monetary interests.