Capitalism and democracy

John Molyneux argues that while capitalism came into being with grand claims about universal freedom, democracy has had to be fought for—and is never completely secure

In the 21st century all politicians, almost without exception, proclaim their commitment to democracy. Even the most obviously anti-democratic political forces and organisations say they believe in democracy. So the Swedish fascists call themselves the Swedish Democrats while Mubarak’s party in Egypt was the National Democratic Party.

What politicians actually do, as opposed to what they say, is a different matter.

Last November George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, was replaced by the unelected Lucas Papademos. The media called Papademos a “technocrat”. But Papademos is a banker. He was governor of the Bank of Greece from 1994 to 2002, and vice president of the ECB from 2002 to 2010.

Then as the Italian debt crisis mounted, Silvio Berlusconi resigned and was replaced by another unelected “technocrat”, Mario Monti. Monti is an academic economist, European Commissioner and an international advisor to Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola.

In both cases, in a situation of extreme economic crisis, the democratic “right” of the people to elect their government was simply “suspended” to ensure the rapid implementation of the austerity measures demanded by the international bankers. So what is the real relationship between capitalism and democracy? It is useful to put this in some historical perspective.

The historical record

Historically there was a certain connection between the rise of capitalism and the rise of modern democracy but it was far more limited than is often claimed.

Under feudalism the bourgeoisie was subordinate to the feudal aristocracy. Although a minority it was already an exploiting class and was obliged, in its struggle for power, to present itself as the representative of society as a whole. To this end the bourgeoisie specialised in abstract declarations of rights ranging from the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 with its statement that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, and its subsequent Bill of Rights, and the French Revolution with its cry of “liberty, equality and fraternity” and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Moreover, the rise of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois revolution tended to be associated with the struggle for parliamentary rule as opposed to various forms of monarchical and autocratic power.

In practice, however, the commitment to the “human” or “universal” always turned out to contain major exceptions. The case of black slaves in the American Revolution is a classic example and, of course, the rights of “man” did not include women. Likewise no human or political rights were accorded to indigenous peoples on the receiving end of colonialism, whereas the “right to property” was always enshrined as one of the most sacred rights of all. Nor did bourgeois enthusiasm for parliamentary rule ever extend to the establishment of universal suffrage.

In the Putney Debates of 1647 Henry Ireton (speaking for Oliver Cromwell in opposition to Rainsborough of the radical Levellers) argued that the propertyless could not be allowed to vote as they would undoubtedly use it to end the rule of property, which, naturally, was out of the question.

This opposition to universal suffrage (votes for the working class) remained the position of the British bourgeoisie and other bourgeoisies internationally until, at least, the end of the 19th century.

Even the great philosopher of liberalism John Stuart Mill opposed equal universal suffrage for fear of a manual working class majority.

It fell, therefore, to the working class itself to fight for its right to vote, and a long fight it was, passing through many momentous battles such as the great Chartist campaign from 1838 to 1859, the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871, the campaigns for votes for women, right down to the US Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Not so universal suffrage

In an article in New Left Review in 1977 “The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy”, Goran Therborn showed that none of the 17 leading capitalist countries had achieved full universal suffrage by 1900. Australia was first in 1903 (although Aboriginal people were excluded), followed by New Zealand in 1907. The key period for the establishment of something approaching universal suffrage was 1917-20. This was the case for Austria (1918), Canada (1920), Finland (1919), Germany (1919), Sweden (1918) and Britain (1918).

In other words, broadly speaking, the right to vote was won by working people as a by-product of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe at the end of the First World War.

The right to vote, though, only has meaning in the context of reasonably free and “unrigged” elections. The vote therefore is part of a package of democratic rights such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, trade union organisation and the right to strike, the right to protest and so on which together constitute what is generally considered democracy today. Like the vote, they have had to be fought for and refought for on innumerable occasions.

On the one hand they are real victories wrung from a reluctant capitalist class to be celebrated and defended as such. On the other they reflect an understanding gradually reached by the ruling classes internationally that, given certain general circumstances such as a modicum of social stability, capitalism could usually live with “democracy”, and that the propertyless could be induced not to vote to outlaw private property.

Bourgeois democracy

The literal meaning of democracy is people’s rule. But bourgeois democracy never delivers the rule of the people. In reality it is always, in Marx’s words, “the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.

There are many reasons for this. Even the most democratically elected parliament and government do not own or control the principle means of production or concentrations of wealth in society, which remain in the hands of the unelected capitalists.

Consequently, elected governments generally govern entirely within the limits prescribed by and acceptable to the bourgeoisie (“the markets”, corporations, etcetera) and even reluctant governments can almost always be brought to heel by investment strikes, flights of capital, speculative attacks on the national currency and so on.

Secondly, the elected parliament exists as part of, and alongside, a state machine (the armed forces, police, judiciary and civil service) which is unelected, strictly hierarchical and tied by a thousand threads—social, economic, historical and ideological—to the interests of the bourgeoisie.

As possessor of the decisive concentration of physical force in society this state holds the practical keys to the implementation of government policy, as well as the ability to if necessary actually supplant the government (i.e. stage a coup as in Chile in 1973).

Thirdly, the ruling ideas in society are the ideas of the ruling class, as Marx put it. The entire political process is framed by capitalist ideological assumptions—above all the assumption that capitalist relations of production and the priority of profit are natural and unchangeable—which are then translated into specific policies and attitudes (like the necessity for cuts and the irresponsibility of strikes) by the capitalist and state-controlled media. Moreover the massive inequality between the capitalist and working classes means that in the political struggle itself, including elections, the representatives and parties of the respective classes enter the fray with massively unequal resources.

In addition, the alienation, exploitation and oppression of daily life under capitalism means that in normal times a considerable portion of the working class and the poor are so ground down and feel so excluded from society that they “can’t be bothered” with politics, and take no interest in it.

Finally, bourgeois democratic elections and electoral systems, whatever their variations, all mitigate against real democracy because the electors vote as atomised individuals, once every four or five years, in large geographical constituencies for MPs who they are unable to hold accountable or recall and who are elevated to an economic and social standing far above the average working class elector. Consequently it is extremely easy for these representatives to be subtly, or not so subtly, corrupted and to betray their election pledges.

But if all these factors make parliamentary democracy a facade masking the rule of capital, it must also be stressed that the bourgeoisie is by no means unconditionally committed to the maintenance of even this facade, as has been proven time and again by the experience of fascism in Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal or by the Greek military junta (1967-74) and by innumerable Western-backed dictatorships in Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Class compromise

This is because bourgeois democracy is a compromise between the classes, a concession extracted from the bourgeoisie. It contains “rights” and practices, as I noted above, which though not in any way ending bourgeois rule do constrain it and enable the working class to organise against it.

Our rulers will not embark lightly on the course of tearing up democracy. They are well aware of the advantages of ruling “by consent” and the legitimacy afforded by the democratic mask and of the grave risks involved in attempting to impose open dictatorship or fascism. They will take that road only when driven by some combination of economic imperative, political fear and the conviction that they can get away with it. So where do we stand now?

Capitalism is in the grip of a severe global crisis which is producing a multitude of economic, social and political tensions, including the crisis in the eurozone and significant popular resistance including the Occupy movement in the US, the Spanish “indignados” and the sustained strikes, demonstrations and riots in Greece.

In this context the installation of the Papademos and Monti governments in Greece and Italy is a serious development. It marks a significant anti-democratic shift in the constantly changing balance of opposed forces that constitute the bourgeois democratic settlement.

In itself this development does not signify a decisive abandonment of bourgeois democracy of the kind that would involve outlawing working class trade union and political organisation, banning strikes and protests, ending the right to vote or dissolving parliament.

However, it should be seen as a serious warning of the shape of things to come, of what the 1 per cent will be prepared to do, if they need to, and as a reinforcement of the old lesson that while we have no illusions in bourgeois democracy and work for its replacement by the far higher democracy of workers’ councils, we must also defend all the democratic gains won by working class struggle in the past.

Adapted from Socialist Review UK


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