Saturday, February 3, 2024

Material World: Technology, capitalism and war (2024)

The Material World column from the February 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Modern warfare entails the destruction of both means of production and workers themselves, as we all see on our TV screen at the moment in Gaza and Ukraine. It represents quite the opposite of any progression of our productive potential — a drastic regression — and poses a massive threat to everyone.

What we are referring to here is the technology devoted to the art of killing human beings on a potentially industrial scale and reducing their habitat to an utter wasteland. The very thought of it strikes us as repulsive and inhumane. Little wonder people feel so ambivalent about ‘technological progress’. Little wonder that, for so many, the future has come to look so bleak.

While some innovations have provided us with both benefits and disadvantages, the same most certainly cannot be said of certain other technological innovations one can think of – like, say, a Tomahawk cruise missile costing about $2 million apiece. There are thousands of Tomahawk missiles at the disposition of navies around the world, not to mention all those other kinds of missiles in service. The destruction they could inflict on the planet does not bear thinking about. One cannot even pretend that there is any real benefit to be gained from any of this — unless you count employment for workers in a factory producing such weapons as a ‘benefit’. But then, these same workers could have been far better employed producing something social useful.

There is an argument that is sometimes made that for all sheer waste of human talent and material resources that the military establishment represents, technological innovation in the service of this establishment has had important spinoffs that benefit us all. According to NATO’s website, for instance:
‘Our militaries have one paramount duty: to keep us safe from any threat. Over the years, countless inventors from NATO countries have created new technologies, big and small, that contribute to that ultimate goal. The spill-over effects of this innovation are all around us and have laid the foundations of our modern world. NATO has supported science and innovation for more than 70 years. The Alliance not only provides direct funding to researchers, but also maintains networks that bring together thousands of scientists from around the world to collaborate and build on each other’s work. Military innovation in science and technology has helped to create some of the most iconic and essential items in our streets, offices and homes. Here are seven of the most interesting inventions pioneered and popularised by NATO militaries that are now common in everyday life’.
The article then goes on to list the more well-known inventions initially intended for military purposes, such as the internet, GPS satellite navigation, microwaves, duct tape and so on, plus a much longer list of ‘honourable mentions’ only cursorily referred to.

If this is not an example of special pleading then one wonders what else it could possibly be. Reading this, one might be forgiven for having overlooked that NATO, like any other military bloc, is a huge killing machine that consumes massive quantities of resources and manpower for the purpose of waging war. How is that a socially beneficial use of resources and manpower? Satellite navigation is great if you want to find the shortest route from A to B. But satellite navigation can also deliver a Tomahawk missile to its intended destination resulting in appalling destruction and lives lost. That is not so great.

The spurious reasoning in the NATO piece lies in the apparent implication that but for the existence of the military establishment we wouldn’t have at our disposal something like that handy roll of duct tape to seal our leaking pipe. But who is to say this would be the case at all? It seems presumptuous to make such a claim. Maybe someone would well have invented duct tape or, indeed, something superior to duct tape had there not been any capitalist nation states around or military establishments built up to defend them. One might also note in passing that every military establishment claims its role is purely ‘defensive’ but obviously this cannot be the case otherwise wars would never have occurred in the first place.

The potential for war, however, does not exist because we just happen to possess the means of waging war. On the contrary it is wired into the very system of global capitalism that created these means. Since the so-called Great War of 1914-18, dubbed the ‘war to end all wars’, there has not been a single day when there has not been a war going on somewhere in the world.

War is the military expression of capitalism´s competitive struggle over resources, markets and trade routes where other methods of securing these things have failed. This is notwithstanding attempts to rationalise or justify this conflict in terms of supposedly irreconcilable religious or ethnic or whatever other differences one can conjure up between the warring parties concerned. That, however, is just the froth on the surface of things — the whipped-up pretext for war, rather than its fundamental cause. Dig deeper and you will always find an ulterior, economic motive.
Robin Cox

‘Defence diplomacy’ (2024)

From the February 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

On Christmas Eve the Ministry of ‘Defence’ announced that a Royal Navy warship, HMS Trent, would be deployed to Guyana in South America. Sky News described the ship as one used for ‘defence diplomacy’ (

What, then, was the diplomacy that required the deployment of a gunboat in support? The one-word answer is ‘oil’. The Harvard International Review (27 September) noted:
‘In 2015, the oil giant Exxon Mobil discovered 11 billion barrels of oil off the coast of the small Latin American country. The discovery promises to change Guyana forever, catapulting the country and its people to new heights of power and wealth. Oil already generates US$1 billion in revenues annually for the government and will produce an estimated US$7.5 billion by 2040. By these forecasts, Guyana—the impoverished, rainforest-covered country of just 800,000 people—will become the fourth largest offshore oil producer in the world.’
The discovery was off the coast of a part of Guyana which has been the object of a territorial dispute with its neighbour, Venezuela, since the middle of the 19th century when Guyana was part of the British Empire. In 1899 an international court of arbitration awarded the disputed area to Britain. It’s an area comprising some 75 percent of present-day Guyana. Venezuela never accepted the decision, alleging that it was rigged, but didn’t insist too much in pursuing its claim until now.

On 3 December the Venezuelan government, under Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, held a referendum throughout the country about whether or not to reject the 1899 ruling and to incorporate the area as a new province. The result was a huge majority for, but on a low turnout, and the government duly established the new province, on paper.

Venezuela, much as it would like to acquire control of the new oilfield, is unlikely to try to actually annex the disputed area. The referendum had more to do with the presidential elections later this year and as a way of trying to win votes for Maduro by beating the nationalist drum. In any event, it is not the land, mainly tropical forest with a few gold mines, that Venezuela really would like so much as the territorial waters off the area’s coast where the oil is. Diplomatic talks have begun, with the US and Britain backing Guyana. Hence the dispatch of the Royal Navy warship to carry out its role in ‘defence diplomacy’.

Diplomacy is not a matter of working out what is the fair solution to a dispute between states. An important factor affecting the outcome is the relative strength of the two sides. In relations between states might is right. Venezuela may be stronger than Guyana and so could seize the land it claims. But Guyana is backed by the US and Britain, because they don’t want a state with a nationalist anti-American government to control the new oilfield (they want a friendly state to) or to extend its territory (in fact they have been working to overthrow the government there), and Venezuela is in no position to take them on any more than it was to challenge the British Empire in 1899.

The cannons roar
In another part of the world another Royal Navy warship, HMS Diamond, has also been engaged in ‘defence diplomacy,’ in the Red Sea. In fact it actually used its weapons. As the Royal Navy’s website boasted on 19 December:
‘Diamond’s actions in the small hours of Saturday morning is the first time a Type 45’s Sea Viper missile has been used in action and the first such shootdown by the Royal Navy since the 1990-91 Gulf War’.
The British Minister of War, Grant Schapps, later threatened more ‘direct action’ than shooting down a few drones (Daily Telegraph, 1 January). On 11 January Britain carried out this threat by joining the US by bombing Yemen, escalating the war in the region.

What is going on in the Red Sea is an aspect of the question of who controls the Persian Gulf, its oilfields and the trade route out of it. In 1980 President Carter laid down the Carter Doctrine that: ‘Gulf oil reserves were of vital interest to the US and the US would therefore be justified in preventing outside domination of the region by military intervention’. This was invoked against Iraq in 1991 and in 2003. Now the threat is from Iran, with the US relying on Israel to counter this. Indeed Israel has already bombed Iran on a number of occasions.

Israel is currently engaged in a war of revenge against the Hamas administration in Gaza. The West supports this because Hamas is an enemy of Israel, its asset in the region, only cynically advising Israel not too kill too many Gazans.

Iran and its allies and proxies see the Gaza war as a chance to weaken Israel as the West’s asset. The pro-Iran government of Yemen has been attacking ships bound for Israel or owned by Israeli capitalists. This has led major shipping companies to re-route their ships round Africa, with serious consequences for international trade.

As the Royal Navy’s website explained:
‘An estimated 23,000 merchant vessels pass through the Bab-al-Mandeb choke point – with Suez the gateway to the Middle East and beyond for shipping from Europe… and for Europe from shipping from the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Vice-Admiral Brad Cooper, the US officer commanding the Combined Maritime Forces from their headquarters in Bahrain, underlined that safe passage of the Red Sea was “crucial for the world economy”. He continued: “More than 10% of global trade transits the waters anchored by two globally strategic waterways – the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab-al-Mandeb. Regionally, it has even greater impact, channelling trade across more than half the globe, ranging from Europe to Asia.”’
HMS Diamond’s commanding officer was quoted as saying: ‘The Royal Navy has always been committed to the protection of maritime trade’. By force if necessary. In this case in the context of the wider conflict of economic interest in the Middle East between the West and Iran over who controls oil in the Gulf and the trade route out of it.
Adam Buick

Letter: Will anything good come out of the war in Israel? (2024)

Letter to the Editors from the February 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

I remember dancing and singing Hava Nagila with my two Jewish roommates in our college dorm in 1978, when Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accords. Time has shown how naïve we were to rejoice. Sadly, decades will pass again, and it will probably not matter whether or not the current fighting ended with the signing of a major ‘two-state’ accord.

The broad mass of the public is not galvanized either way by what is happening in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The weak and underprivileged, the working poor and the lower middle class aren’t taking sides. They know that the wars are taxing their pockets and that nothing positive can follow if they balloon into regional wars and the price of oil exceeds 150 dollars a barrel.

The ideological battle lines around the wars in Israel and Ukraine do not follow class lines. Most people on either side are white. This is an identity crisis at the top of society. These fissures and divides reflect the declining international strength of the United States and its inability to guarantee that Globalization 2 does not crumble and collapse. This is a conflict between those who support Palestinians against Israeli apartheid, and those who are attracted by Israel’s apartheid treatment of non-Europeans (never mind that most Israelis today are Mizrahi with origins in the Middle East and North Africa rather than Ashkenazi, or European Jews). Incidentally, the supporters of Palestine must be very careful around their new political bedfellows. A person carrying a Pride flag at a recent pro-Palestine rally in London was angrily chased away by other demonstrators.

Proponents of the idea of statehood for Palestine are drawn to the cause as one of ‘national liberation.’ They forget that the bourgeois revolutions ended in the mid-nineteenth century and that although numerous new nations emerged in the twentieth century, their significance was no longer a struggle against a pre-capitalist mode of production. The so-called ‘national liberation struggles’ and ‘anti-colonial’ or ‘anti-imperialist struggles’ of the twentieth century all turned out to be wars between capitalist powers. Every ‘liberation’ movement since the early 1920s has been harsh on all forms of democratic and autonomous groups, particularly among workers. And ‘liberation from imperialism’ always seems to involve subjugation to the imperialism of another superpower (in today’s world, that is the United States on the one hand, and China, Russia, and Iran, on the other).

The backers of Netanyahu’s Israel tend to be connected with the military industrial complex and traditional sectors of the economy. Among them are radical conservatives like Elon Musk and Donald Trump, who do not want to succumb to the authority of the politically correct supporters of Palestine. Also supporting Israel are far-right groups. Who would have thought this possible? Does this mean that anti-Semitism—racism in general—is a biproduct of the disease, and not the disease itself? Holocaust or no, right-wing fanatics around the world are openly voicing their support for Netanyahu’s government because they appreciate the harsh way it deals with non-whites. But doesn’t a class aspect usually lie behind any manifestation of racism? The Nazi hatred of the Jews, for instance, can be seen as a socio-psychological transformation and generalized expression of the fear the German middle class had for both large capital and labor.

What advantage can simple Palestinians derive from the existence of a homeland for themselves? The worst calamities befall simple people during periods of enforced national unity in war. What can they gain from the existence of a Palestinian state other than more war, death, and destruction? The champions of a two-state solution— which includes many liberal Jews, particularly in North America—are unwittingly supporting the freedom of simple Palestinians to be exploited by their Hamas masters or whatever replacement is found for them in the future.

Is a lasting peace in the Middle East possible? Theoretically speaking, yes. It’s a long shot, but it’s out of the box and obvious. It requires no war, no blood, no creation of a Palestinian state, and no Israel as we know it. Naturally, the starting point would have to be the ouster of the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem and the end of the rule of Hamas in Gaza. Peace will remain a pipe dream until the corrupt monster states in the region—and that includes Netanyahu’s government—fall and are replaced by something new and truly democratic. Only resistance by the people of the Middle East (and Eastern Europe) against their own governments can lead the way to permanent peace. It is impossible to predict what exact form this new ‘people power’ might take. Who knows? Perhaps it might be something along the lines of a unitary republic of workers’ councils. That might work.
Evel Economakis, 

Yes, but only if we are talking about democratically elected popular councils on the basis of the common ownership of the means of living; which of course couldn’t exist just in one province of the former Ottoman Empire. 

Cooking the Books: Entrepreneurialism (2024)

The Cooking the Books Column from the February 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

In an article in the Sunday Telegraph (2 December) appealing for Tories to vote Labour, subtitled ‘My party extends the hand of friendship to those who voted for the Tories but feel let down by their failure to act’, Sir Keir Starmer praised Thatcher for having ‘set loose our natural entrepreneurialism’. Entrepreneurialism, what’s that?

One dictionary defines it as ‘the ability to start new businesses, especially when this involves seeing new opportunities to make money’. This is not what most people remember the Thatcher government of the 1980s for. Selling off nationalised industries and council houses, cutting social benefits, mass unemployment and hammering the miners come more readily to mind.

Thatcher is on record as declaring:
‘I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the people. We were the first country in the world to roll back the frontiers of socialism, then roll forward the frontiers of freedom’ (
By ‘socialism’ she meant of course the sort of restrictions on the workings of private capitalist enterprises that the Labour Party used to preach. Private capitalist enterprises supported her because they wanted more ‘freedom’ to choose how to make profits. In writing of ‘our natural’ entrepreneurialism Starmer even agrees with her ridiculous claim that this accords with ‘the character of the people’.

Entrepreneurs are people who invest money in producing something or providing some service with a view to making more money in the form of profit. This is not necessarily their own money but is frequently money borrowed from a bank or some venture capitalists or even the state who reckon that the entrepreneur has identified a potential way to make more money in which they can share.

In chapter 23 of Volume 3 of Capital on ‘Interest and Profit Enterprise’, Marx discusses how this extra money is divided between the lender of capital and the entrepreneur who actually uses it:
‘The functioning capitalist is here assumed as a non-owner of capital. Ownership of the capital is represented in relation to him by the money-capitalist, the lender. The interest he pays to the latter thus appears as that portion of gross profit which is due to the ownership of capital as such. As distinct from this, that portion of profit which falls to the active capitalist appears now as profit of enterprise, deriving solely from the operations, or functions, which he performs with the capital in the process of reproduction, hence particularly those functions which he performs as entrepreneur in industry or commerce. (…) [P]rofit of enterprise appears to him as the exclusive fruit of the functions which he performs with the capital, as the fruit of the movement and performance of capital, of a performance which appears to him as his own activity.’
Entrepreneurs, especially those who succeed in making lots of profit, have a high opinion of themselves. They see themselves as ‘wealth creators’. They are certainly more involved in this than the mere owner of capital but only because they identify some new way of making money by organising workers to produce wealth.

Entrepreneurs are obviously more useful from a general capitalist point of view than mere coupon-clippers living off dividends or interest as they are an active section of the capitalist class identifying new ways of making profits, the driving force of capitalism. Which is why governments, as the guardians of the overall general capitalist interest in a particular country, seek to encourage them. It is part of their remit. Thatcher recognised this. So does Starmer. Labour is now more than ever an avowedly capitalist party and is openly saying it will govern as such.

Will information goods undermine capitalism? (2024)

From the February 2024 issue of the 
Socialist Standard

Information goods are goods whose value derives not from physical characteristics but from the information they convey. In many cases they can simply be copied or downloaded without any cost to speak of (apart from the time spent doing this). Moreover, there is no obvious upper limit as far the volume or quantity of these goods is concerned. They are intrinsically non-scarce or non-rivalrous and, also, ‘non-destructible’ – unlike a physical good.

For instance, by accessing a piece of music on YouTube or an article via Google, you are not denying anyone else the possibility of doing the same. This may very well not be true of a physical good. If I take the last loaf of bread off the supermarket shelf you will, sadly, have to go without at least until the next delivery.

A further characteristic of information goods is that while they have very low or zero marginal costs, their fixed or amortised development costs tend to be particularly high. This cost structure is rather different from the traditional cost structure pertaining to physical goods and, thus, calls for a somewhat different pricing strategy.

Given the non-rivalrous nature of information goods, their zero marginal costs, and the technical ease of capturing or pirating such goods (perhaps in contravention of copyright law), an internet-based business might decide that the most pragmatic thing to do would be to simply abandon the idea of charging for the information goods or service it makes available to its customers. However, while it costs you nothing to have a Facebook page or use the Google search engine this does not mean these commercial entities don’t generate enormous revenues (and profits) for themselves in some other way. In fact, both these entities currently make billions of dollars in profits and even more in revenue. Primarily their revenues derive from advertising (and the copious use of algorithms to more effectively target individual users to benefit their advertisers) though there is also a growing secondary source of revenue in the form of various ‘virtual goods’ or Cloud-based services.

The point is that unless a business like Google was able to make a profit under capitalism it would simply not exist. You and I would not then be able to use its search machine. Being able to freely make use of this facility is contingent upon Google making a profit in the first instance.

As a matter of fact, making this facility free to its users is actually a rather clever way of generating a massive revenue flow through advertising and thus securing a handsome profit into the bargain. People using this facility are a captive audience as far as the advertisers are concerned with adverts being tailored via algorithms, as mentioned, to our own particular tastes and online viewing habits. How many of us would even consider using a Google search engine if we had to pay for it? One suspects only a miniscule fraction of its current users.

Dominated by Big Tech
It is not difficult to see why this kind of commercial activity based on the provision of information goods has come to be absolutely dominated by a tiny handful of very large corporations that have nearly all become household names in their own right. These corporations have the wherewithal to afford the very high development costs incurred. They have the economic clout and reach to shape the industry to suit themselves. For advertisers too, the large size of these corporations has distinct advantages; it provides a platform that enables them to cast their net much more widely – and efficiently – than would otherwise be the case.

Of course, not all information goods are free to the public. Far from it. Internet-based corporations, like Meta (Facebook) and Alphabet (Google), may be able to provide a free service to the public but only because they can cover the enormous, fixed costs all this involves, and make a profit, by making an even larger sum of money primarily in the form of advertising revenue.

However, in the case of other internet-based businesses we see a somewhat different model in place. The information goods and services they provide are not free but are commodified. This is apparent in the case of paywall sites for some online journals or newspapers or else, streaming services like Netflix or Disney. Still other internet-based businesses such as Amazon are engaged in the retailing and distribution of actual physical goods and thus depart even more from the conventional cost structure of businesses purely concerned with the distribution of information goods and services.

However, regardless of the kind of business we are talking about or the type of good it is peddling, the bottom line for any business in a capitalist economy is the need to make a profit. There is no such thing as a free lunch in capitalism. Somebody somewhere ends up having to pay the bill.

Developments like artificial intelligence, the internet of things, robotics and even 3D printing and desktop manufacturing are revolutionising the costs of doing business and shifting the emphasis from tangible to intangible assets. Physical goods are, so to speak, increasingly taking on or incorporating more and more of the qualities or aspects of information goods even though they obviously can never transcend their essential status as physical goods. Or to put it in a nutshell – you can´t have software without the hardware that goes with it

For this reason (and others) information goods are not, and can never be, free in some absolutist sense in a capitalist society as might be inferred from the fact that they – or some of them – can be downloaded effortlessly and without cost to your computer screen; they come with a price (even when the price is not necessarily paid by the consumer but the advertiser in this case).

Too easily beguiled
Some are too easily beguiled by the notion that we are moving, or already have moved, into something called an ‘information-based’ economy. It is the very nature of such an economy, they imagine, stemming from the intrinsic nature of information goods themselves, that has somehow supposedly changed the basic rules of the game, so to speak.

Tom Stonier, for instance, argued in The Wealth of Information: A Profile of the Post-Industrial Economy (1983) that:
‘Whereas material transactions can lead to competition, information transactions are much more likely to lead to cooperation. Information is a resource which can be truly shared’.
Superficially, this sounds all very plausible. One thinks of the crucial role of R&D in industry. A lot of the work of scientists involves collaborating with other scientists and sharing information through peer-reviewed journals and so on. This comes across as all very cooperative and civilised, indeed. Being a ‘non-rivalrous good’, information can be universally shared at virtually no cost. No nasty competition is required.

Its very abundance, goes the argument, means that an information good fundamentally breaks with the logic of the market itself. ‘Plenty’ undermines the rationale for attaching a price tag to a product and, thus, the idea of exclusively owning this product – in this case an information good. Insofar as a price tag is still attached to such a product this can only be explained, it is argued, by the fact that the provider is seeking to perversely, and quite unnecessarily, exclude others from freely using it. The motive of the provider is simply one of self-gain to be achieved by such means as patents and copyrights. In other words, they are asserting an unjustifiable monopolistic hold over the product in question in an age of potential plenty.

Indeed, this, it is sometimes suggested, is precisely why ‘late-stage capitalism’ is today dominated by the existence of virtual monopolies – or, more precisely, oligopolies. Prices are no longer explicable in the conventional terms of supply and demand. Rather they are imposed by diktat by the price makers – namely, those industrial giants striving to enlarge their share of the market in which they operate – to the detriment of price takers, the consuming public.

The basic idea that information technology is – allegedly – more and more bent on subverting the rationale for a market system is a recurring theme in books like Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski´s The People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism (2019). Capitalism, according to them, is being progressively hollowed out from within and what remains of it is but a brittle shell that seeks to needlessly confine and imprison the new life forms it has given birth to. These represent its arch nemesis: in particular, information technology.

Such technology, goes the argument, by enabling the application of so-called ‘centralised planning’ within the corporation and, by extension, the suspension of market principles – has the potential to transform society along ‘socialist’ lines or at least, provides us with a model of what such a future society would look like. This in itself is a questionable proposition in some ways, but it is also one that seems fundamentally at odds with the pre-eminent role of big corporations today in promoting market imperialism and commodity fetishism.

We should be more cautious in our assessment of the potential impact of information technology and not get too carried away with fanciful notions of the imminent arrival of what has been dubbed ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (FALC). There is no reason to think that information technology or the enhanced role of information as a factor of production, will somehow in and of itself pose some kind of existential threat to capitalism.

This should be obvious from the standpoint of capitalist businesses. The idea that they would somehow resign themselves to economic suicide seems inherently implausible. Under capitalism, generally speaking, technological innovations tend not to be taken up and developed by businesses if there is no prospect of making a profit by doing so.
Robin Cox

Blogger's Note:
Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski´s The People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism was reviewed in June 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard.

How democratic is ‘Democracy’? (2024)

From the February 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Writing in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell made the following remark about democracy:
‘In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning’.
As Orwell noted 78 years ago, democracy is felt to be a political system that is good, and therefore when people wish to imply that a political system is good, they call it democratic. The question of democracy, however, like all political buzzwords, is in need of detailed and sober scrutiny by socialists, both for its connection with the capitalist society of today, and with the future socialist society to which we aspire.

Democracy in context
In considering democracy, we must be clear not to confuse fact and fiction. The ideas of the age do not represent reality, but are just that: illusions we tell ourselves (or are told about ourselves by others). As Marx and Engels cautioned in The German Ideology, we must not allow the ‘idea’ to become the ‘active force, which controls and determines [our] practices’. In this sense, socialists do not believe in democracy in the same way we do not believe in god.

In speaking of democracy we are thus talking not about a philosophical ideal, a utopian vision towards which we should be constantly striving, but an actual system existing in reality. It is not the job of socialists to perfect ideas, but to critique ruthlessly all that exists.

Democracy is often said to have originated with the Ancient Greeks. Certainly ideas of voting and the consent of the governed have existed throughout history. However, we must remember that for most of its history, democracy in the form of voting has been merely a method of sharing power between members of the ruling class. Ancient Greece was the democracy of slaveholders, and the English Parliament was the democracy of landlords.

It was not until 1832 that the vote in Britain began to be extended – rising from 1 percent of the population to 7 percent. Universal suffrage was not achieved until 1928, after a political conflict lasting over a century to fully extend the vote to working-class men and women. In America, blacks were excluded from voting until the 1960s under Jim Crow laws. Swiss women did not gain the right to vote in federal elections until 1971.

For most of its history, therefore, democratic forms of government have gone hand in hand with highly repressive and authoritarian political systems, in which the majority of the population have been prevented from voting even under republics and parliamentary governments.

How democratic is democracy?
The current form of democracy – liberal democracy – is based upon an idea of a separation between the private sphere and the public sphere. The public sphere is the realm of politics, civil rights, law-making; the private sphere is that of economic transactions between free individuals. At the risk of oversimplifying, we may say that Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Paine and John Locke saw a free society of individuals based on mutual agreement as the natural state of humanity. To them, the public sphere of states and laws was a necessary mechanism where people surrender some of their natural freedom to join forces and protect themselves and their property by mutually submitting to a central authority, namely a government.

This idea lies at the heart of modern democracy: the bills of rights and written constitutions that exist in almost every country on the planet, limiting (at least in principle) the powers of governments, flow directly from this philosophical idea that Private individualism is good and natural whereas Public collectivism is at best a necessary evil.

What liberal democracy fails to address, however, is the power individuals hold over each other. Individuals do not exist freely in relation to each other on a level playing field; even without the presence of a state, inequality and injustice would still exist in any society where ownership and control over resources is limited to a single class. Under a class-divided system, freedom in practice means the freedom of ‘man to exploit man’. The ‘rights’ to own property and make contracts protected by constitutions mean, in practice, the right of the capitalist class to hold us hostage to their economic power. Marx wrote at length on this dichotomy between liberal democracy’s promise of freedom and its reality of class exploitation, for instance in On the Jewish Question:
‘Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society and shows itself […] as soon as civil society gives complete birth out of itself to the political state. The god of practical need and personal self-interest is money’.
Under capitalism, political democracy provides the fig-leaf of economic dictatorship.

Something worth fighting for?
Socialists look to the ballot as providing a secure way forward for the transformation of society and the dissolution of class distinctions. At the same time, however, we must not shy away from the uncomfortable realisation that democracy does not mean freedom. Far from it, the history of democracy shows that it is not only compatible with, but comfortably well-suited to, sustaining class dictatorship.

As the German Social Democrat legal scholar, Hermann Heller wrote in 1928:
‘Through financial domination of party, press, film, and literature, through social influence over schools and universities, [the rulers] are able, without using direct corruption, to influence the bureaucratic and electoral apparatus in such a consummate fashion that they preserve every democratic form while achieving a dictatorship of content.’
Herman Heller died five years later in exile in Madrid. The Weimar Republic in Germany was overthrown by the Nazis, with the backing of Junker landowners and the big industrial bourgeoisie. Before all else, the Nazis ruthlessly suppressed the leftist SPD and the KPD; arresting their politicians, closing down the left-wing press, and ransacking the offices of trade unions.

Since the invention of universal suffrage, every person has one vote, and each vote is counted once. This does not mean that all votes are equal. The capitalist class own the media, the movie studios, the printing presses, and they sponsor the universities and research institutes. They have far easier access to scholastic qualifications and government jobs, and unlimited publicity through advertising, pop culture, and news media to reinforce the sanctity of the capitalist mode of production. As Marx and Engels outlined in The German Ideology:
‘The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it’.
There are no easy answers to how socialists should navigate past these obstacles. However, in grappling with difficult questions of democracy and class conflict, we must remember what is at stake. On the one hand stands a ruling class which history shows to be violent, amoral, and ruthless. On the other stands the mass of the world’s population, robbed of the value they create by this class, and living in or just above destitution, and ultimately, it is to end this that we fight. Not for the democracy of the ruling class, but for a socialist world free of exploitation and the violence its maintenance necessitates.
Uther Naysmith

Party News: The Socialist Party's Summer School (2024)

Party News from the February 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Our understanding of the kind of society we’re living in is shaped by our circumstances: our home, our work, our finances, our communities. Recognising our own place in the economy, politics and history is part of developing a wider awareness of how capitalist society functions. Alongside an understanding of the mechanics of capitalism, political consciousness also involves our attitude towards it. Seeing through the ideologies which promote accepting our current social system requires us to question 
and judge what we experience. Realising that capitalism doesn’t benefit the vast majority of people naturally leads on to considering what alternative society could run for the benefit of everyone.

The Socialist Party’s weekend of talks and discussion explores what political consciousness is, how it arises and what we, as a class and as individuals, can do with it.

Our venue is the University of Worcester, St John's Campus, Henwick Grove, St John's, Worcester, WR2 6AJ.

More information, including details of talks, ticket prices and how to book a place can be found on the Socialist Party’s website. Scan the QR code or visit summer-school-2024/

Email enquiries to