In response to an earlier article in this series, Steve Priestley makes a valid point: “In a properly run government with ethical standards and integrity (I know it’s quite a high bar) their purpose is to fairly and equitably distribute the scarce resources available to them. This means that not all workers or large groups of the public will get what they want. Consultation with these people of course is right, but the final say must rest with the government.”
The question I would raise though is in regard to the idea of a ‘properly run government’. If that is our ambition then we are, it seems, stuck in a rut from which it will be difficult to escape without radical change. Government, as we understand it, is there to govern. That is an obvious tautology. But the question is really from where do they get the consent to do so? Most theorists of liberalism (which is simply capitalism pretending not to be a total system by ignoring entirely the primary role of the economy) will tell you that consent comes through the democratic process.
Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the earliest writers about democracy, gives the following explanation for why the democratic system of the United States was/is democratic:
“In America, the people name the one who makes the law and the one who executes it; the people themselves form the jury that punishes infractions of the law. Institutions are democratic not only in their principle, but in all their developments as well; thus the people name their representatives directly and generally choose them every year, in order to keep them more completely dependent. So it is really the people who lead, and, although the form of the government is representative, clearly the opinions, prejudices, interests, and even the passions of the people cannot encounter any lasting obstacles that can prevent them from appearing in the daily leadership of society.
“In the United States, as in all countries where the people rule, the majority governs in the name of the people. This majority is composed principally of peaceful citizens who, either by taste or by interest, sincerely desire the good of the country. In constant motion around them, parties seek to draw them in and gain their support.”
I have quoted this at length because it a statement that is important to understand. De Tocqueville was not so enamoured of American democracy that he could not see the potential for it to be used to tyrannise minorities. I’ll return to that point in a moment.
American democracy in 1835 was very limited. From a population of over 15 million people, only 1.5 million had the vote. In the UK, at around the same time, the Whig Party won, securing just 349,868 votes against the Conservatives. The population of England and Wales around that time (the earliest figure I could find being 1838) was just over 15 million people. In some ways, you can see that the American system was more democratic, allowing 10% of the population to vote.
The point is that, despite the appeals to the democratic system as being ‘where the people rule’, the truth is that democracy has never been concerned with rule by the people, only rule by some people. And, yes, there have been substantial changes to the suffrage since the nineteenth century, so that now in both America and the UK, a majority of adults is able to vote. Nonetheless, we should note that every single concession to include more people in the electorate has been fought tooth and nail by those already there.
It is a convenient fiction to believe that “the majority governs in the name of the people.” It has always been a minority who governs in the name of the people. And even then, only in the name of some people. Their people. Even if, as now, the minority has grown.
The important point to note is that ‘democracy’ as we know it does not date back to Ancient Greece or pre-date capitalism. It emerged in the 1800s as the new mercantilist class (what Marx called the bourgeoisie) sought to replace the ancien régime with a system of governance that allowed the new class of factory owners to take their rightful place at the heart of a system they were now funding. In France and America the aristocracy was to lose its place at the head of government. In the UK a bourgeoisie who had pretensions to be absorbed into the aristocracy an accommodation was found.
Let’s be clear; modern parliamentary democracy was not supposed to be for working people; it was invented, if invented is the right word, to prop up and support a bourgeoisie who wanted the right to make the laws that their workers would have to abide by.
In this regard the ‘government’ is not a neutral body allocating scarce resources. It is a body that exists to manage capitalism and to ensure that bourgeois owners of capital are provided with an environment in which they can make profits.
To counter this, those beguiled by the parliamentary system will point out that not all MPs are capitalists. This is absolutely true. But how many are genuinely anti-capitalist?
Some on the left will continue to argue that the parliamentary system can be reformed (Hands up all those who support PR?), but reforming a system set up to maintain capitalism has the same chance of success as those who argue that capitalism can be reformed to serve the interests of the working class. In a word, zero.
Does that mean then that socialists are against democracy? If they are, then they are not really socialists. De Toqueville’s concern was that American democracy could lead to what he called the “tyranny of the majority”, in which the concern of minority groups would be ignored by majoritarian rule. In fact, capitalist democracy has always involved the tyranny of the minority who have imposed their will upon the majority, most of whom, until recent times, were denied even a vote.
What we call democracy is based on a system in which a tiny minority of an elite class could send representatives to parliament to argue for their interests. As the electorate has grown, under pressure from below, so the connection of representatives to those they are supposed to represent has diminished. This is not democracy. It is a parody of a democratic system. It is a parody that cannot be fixed by changing the method by which we select those representatives. Indeed PR far from putting power into the hands of ordinary voters takes democracy even further from those directly affected by it. It places power into the hands of party functionaries who decide, on your behalf, who should represent you, often based on formulas that most voters will not remotely come close to understanding.
Socialists are certainly for democracy. But our view of democracy must surely be one which places decision-making as close as possible to those affected by the decision.
The IPPR reports that only 6% in a recent survey believed that voters have the most powerful influence on government decision-making. Whilst 78% believe that politicians understand the lives of people like them “badly” and fewer than one quarter of under-50s believe that democracy in Britain as a whole serves the interests of people like them well. In other words, democracy in the UK is serving most people quite badly.
Carnegie UK supports these findings in its recent poll which finds that 41% of voters in England say that democracy is not working. In England, 76% of the public don’t trust MPs to take decisions that will improve their lives. The fact is that PR, in any of its forms, cannot solve this widespread disillusion with democracy. The promise of democracy is of a political system that is responsive to voters. That promise was what fuelled the drive to extend the suffrage. Whilst the suffrage has been expanded, the promise remains unfulfilled. It is fools’ gold to think that a system that has failed so badly can be reformed in such a way as to make it workable.
Which brings me back to Steve’s point that we need government to make decisions about allocating resources. I hope that I have shown here why that depends on the form of government. Governments in capitalist societies present themselves as independent of the economic system on which they rest. The fact is our form of government emerged with the express intention of allowing a minority to impose rules on the majority. Much of the disillusion with democracy is simply a reflection that, by extending the suffrage, it has encouraged a belief that the majority can have a greater say than the minority ever intended.
To create a democratic system that can bring decision-making closer to the majority it will be necessary to develop a new kind of democracy, one seen, only briefly, in Russia, Cuba and the Paris Commune. A socialist democracy will not cede power to a minority, but will find ways to ensure that every citizen can have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.