Friday, December 11, 2020

Capitalism and democracy (1979)

From the December 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is a notion in certain circles that something called “democratic socialism” is a contradiction in terms, that state ownership and centralised planning is incompatible with freedom. Such an assertion is intended as a smart rap over the knuckles of left wing gurus such as Tony Benn or Eric Heffer who like to see themselves as “democratic socialists”. They confidently assert its vital difference from the stale and discredited “social democracy” of the Labour Party stick-in-the-muds; and yet argue that it offers a democratic “humanistic” alternative to the tyrannical political system of places like Russia whose economy is predominantly under state ownership.

Unfortunately for Benn, Heffer and the like, theirs is a herculean task. Not, one must hasten to add, in convincing critics of their ideological separateness from a socially acceptable “social democracy” (what would the establishment press do, without a Red Scare in the guise of harmless-looking Wedgie to provoke good old Col Twrphitt-Plunkett into bristling indignation over tea and the Telegraph?) No, the real problem for them is to persuade their critics and an electorate which provides them with the votes they want, that they are not the Red Scare they are made out to be (hence the stress on “democracy”). And, of course, they’re not: sheep in sheep’s clothing would be nearer the mark.

For one thing, the qualification “democratic” gives rise to the suspicion that those who make use of the phrase “democratic socialism” allow for the possibility of there being something called “undemocratic socialism”. If democracy is not a necessary concomitant of “socialism”, it then becomes possible to envisage a situation in which “democratic socialists” would choose “socialism” at the expense of “democracy”.

For another, critics of “democratic socialism” would say that full-blooded state ownership of the economy—the washed-out worthless ideal of “democratic socialists” obtains in decidedly undemocratic Russia. It sounds nice in theory, they would say, but look how it turns out in practice. For did not Lenin argue in 1918—not unlike our “democratic socialists” today—for a state that would be “democratic for the proletariat and propertyless in general and dictatorial against the bourgeoisie only” (section added to the 2nd edition of The State and Revolution). Further, is there not a significant correlation to be discovered if we look at the world around us, between dictatorial government and state involvement in the economy?

“Democratic socialists” would respond to this criticism by pointing out, with justification, that an undeveloped, predominantly feudal, economy such as existed in Russia in 1917, is an altogether different matter from that of an industrially advanced capitalist economy. They would locate in the backward nature of the chaotic, war-stricken economy of pre-revolution Russia the essential reason for the emergence of a new political dictatorship to replace that of the tsar and to preside over the birth-pangs of capitalism. Indeed, the liberalising tendencies that appear to go hand in hand with industrial development in all economics, state capitalist or private enterprise, would seem to support this argument. Expensive modern wage slaves, who produce and operate all the sophisticated machinery of modern industry to submit indefinitely to naked, brutal coercion.

Thus “democratic socialists” would reaffirm their faith in state capitalism, although many have wavered in it and some have renounced it altogether as in the fifties. Then, the emerging picture of the stalinist nightmare provoked first disbelief then waves of disillusionment. Nevertheless, the basic argument is still adhered to: state ownership does not present a threat to, but on the contrary is a necessary basis for the extension of political democracy. To quote Ramsay MacDonald:
  The nationalisation of production is just as necessary to democracy and is just as inevitable if democracy is to mature into fullness — as the nationalisation of the sovereign authority by the suppression of the personal right of kings to rule. (Socialism 1907.)
The justification for this belief was spelled out many years later by another Labour leader:
  Political democracy, moreover, in a regime of capitalism and great social inequality, is only half alive. Political forms are twisted by economic forces. Citizens legally equal, wield unequal power. Political democracy will only be fully alive when married to economic democracy in a society of equals. (Practical Socialism for Britain by Hugh Dalton, 1935.)
A left wing assumption is that nationalisation brings the “economic democracy” necessary for the full and vital functioning of political democracy. If ownership of property is the basis of power, the argument goes, then an extension of public ownership to encompass the entire “public” (“economic democracy”), must correspondingly result in an extension of political democracy itself.

Curiously, laissez faire apologists attack egalitarianism precisely because they feel a “society of equals” would
   “. . . require a political system in which the state is able to hold in check those social and occupational groups, which by virtue of their skills or education . . . might otherwise attempt to stake share of society’s rewards. The most effective way of holding such groups in check is by denying them the right to organise politically” from Class Inequality and Political Order 1972 by Frank Parkin, quoted in The Free Nation 16 February - 1 March.
Further, they see in state capitalism not the extension, but the abolition of property ownership as far as the “public” is concerned: which calls into question the nature of “property ownership”. Tory MP Stephen Hastings summed up what he saw as the consequences of this, in a diatribe under the heading “Time to unite against Marxism” in the Daily Telegraph some years ago. His argument, stated simply, was that “democracy only has meaning if it is based on individual liberty” and “liberty can only exist if it is rooted in the concept of property and the rule of law” and that should “Marxism” — by which he meant state capitalism — prevail, this would result in the erosion of liberty and therefore democracy. But since when have the “concept of property and the rule of law” been exorcised from the domain of state capitalist dictatorships? If they have, then perhaps Hastings would care to provide some explanation to account for — and to comfort — some poor wretch of a Russian worker up before the law for stealing “public” property which he might have been forgiven for thinking he was entitled to as a member of the “public”? The “rule of law” is a product of property relationships and its application implies the existence of a property set-up which it seeks to protect.

The fact is that both the left and its laissez faire critics are wrong. Nationalisation no more entails the extension of property ownership to the public than it does the elimination of property relationships. For a start there are just too many uncomfortable facts which neither viewpoint can account for, such as the immense inequality of power and income in all state capitalist regimes. Tins could not exist if nationalisation brought about “economic democracy" or abolished property ownership. Such inequality makes the Free Nation view that egalitarianism gives rise to dictatorship completely irrelevant as an explanation for state capitalist dictatorship.

State property is effectively the collective private property of a small minority who, through their control of the state, exercise ownership and control of the economy. If dictatorial government is a tendency in state capitalism this may be due partly to the fact that access to the “commanding heights” of the economy depends on political criteria — the Party has the say in the selection of top state officials. It is is hardly surprising, then, that this arrangement should tend to reinforce political conformity and stifle dissent.

But this cannot be explained by the absence of class or property relations in places like Russia; on the contrary, it is precisely because of class division in society that the possibility for political dictatorship arises in the first place. As Marx put it, with the end of class division that will come with the establishment of socialism, “there will be no more political power properly so called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society” (The Poverty of Philosophy). No political power means no government, liberal or dictatorial.

In a recent lecture, Professor F. A. Hayek remarked:
  If a free society is to continue to exist, no monopoly can be allowed to use physical force to maintain its position and to threaten to deprive the public of essential services others are capable and willing of rendering. (The Listener 17 August 1978.)
In thus attacking trade unions, Hayek inadvertently provided a description of capitalism which is based on a class monopoly of the means of production backed up by the armed might of the state. It is by Hayek’s own yardstick an unfree, undemocratic society. Despite the fact that the workers produce all the wealth in society they have very little, if any, say in the process of producing this wealth because they do not own the means of production. When the profit motive dictates that the public should be deprived of essential services which workers are capable and willing of rendering, as is the case in capitalism’s periodic slumps, what better evidence can there be of the way in which capitalism undemocratically places the interests of the few before the interests and wishes of the majority?

In contrast, the entire community will own the means of production in a socialist society, with the necessary consequence that the process of production will be democratically organised by and in the interests of society as a whole. This will not be the sham democracy of the people electing governments to run society against their interests, but direct, democratic control by people over the conditions of their existence.

And the phrase “common ownership” is not used here as a shibboleth or empty slogan after a leftist fashion. It means precisely what it says — that everyone will own all the means of production and will therefore have unrestricted, free access to the fruits of production and all the information necessary for the fullest democratic discussion and participation in decision-making. Next to this, what more is there to be said for the “democracy” of the marketplace; if pound notes spent are votes cast, then the great majority everywhere languish under the iron heel of minority dictatorship.
Robin Cox

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