Capitalist democracy can’t be reformed
Gordon Brown is in trouble. Backbenchers organised in the ‘Hotmail conspiracy' are calling on him to go. One after the other, cabinet ministers have been deserting him in the middle of local and EU elections, with some - like Hazel Blears - transparently acting in revenge for Brown's criticisms over her involvement in the MPs' expenses saga. Pensions Secretary James Purnell, quitting on 4 June, echoed the call for Brown to step down. The papers are full of articles about Brown's weaknesses: he's a ditherer, he doesn't know how to smile, he's caught between New Labour's love affair with business and Old Labour's reliance on the state...
The Labour party is in trouble. A disastrous performance in the local elections, having taken the majority of the flack over the expenses scandal, and being the party saddled with managing the state during the worst economic crisis since the 30s, and on top of that still wounded by the shrapnel of the Iraq war...
The British parliamentary system is in trouble. MPs of all major parties caught red-handed over their expenses and yet appearing to get away with fiddles that would bring the police to the door if you were an unemployed worker accused of comparable misdeeds. Parliament is seen as a talking shop divested of any real power by the executive apparatus, as an outmoded gentleman's club, with MPs seen as party robots incapable of responding to the feelings of their electors...
Capitalist politics in decomposition
All this turmoil in the world of official politics is the expression of a deeper malaise. Capitalist society is rotting on its feet and offers no perspective for the future. The ruling bourgeoisie increasingly resembles a bunch of petty gangsters out for number one. The Hazel Blears episode is typical of this ‘each for themselves' attitude which is quite prepared to put the desire for personal revenge or ambition above loyalty to party or nation. There is a profound tendency for bourgeois political structures to disintegrate: in many of the weakest countries of the planet, this results in civil wars and ‘failed states'. In the more advanced ones, conflict between individuals, clans and factions is not yet so openly violent but no less relentless. In such a situation, it is becoming more and more difficult for the bourgeoisie - even one as sophisticated as the British ruling class - to keep control of its political game.
Campaigns to strengthen the democratic charade
But even when it's shaken by the decomposition of its social and political institutions, the bourgeoisie is not about to throw in the towel. It is still capable of coming up with political strategies aimed at hiding the bankruptcy of its system from those who least benefit from it. Above all, it can devise all kinds of false solutions which stop people looking for the real problems.
The Prime Minister has no charisma, he's a liability for the next election? Get rid of him then - a decision that seems to have already been taken by a growing element within the Labour Party.
The party in power is tainted with corruption and failed policies? Let's have an election and get the opposition in. Or if you think the major parties are all tarred with same brush, why not try a protest vote and put a cross next to one of the smaller parties (not the BNP of course)?
But perhaps the problem really does go deeper. Perhaps there are some fundamental flaws in ‘our' political system and we need what The Guardian is enthusiastically calling ‘a New Politics'. Let's have a robust, nationwide dialogue about how to reinvigorate democracy: maybe we need a written constitution, or proportional representation, or to get rid of the Lords, even the monarchy, devolve power to the regions and to local councils. We need to make the executive more responsive to parliament and MPs more accountable to their constituents.
In short: we need to reform the existing democratic state. Because what the ruling class does not want is any questioning of the underlying article of the democratic faith: the sacred belief that the people rule, even though, in reality, the people are divided into classes with irreconcilable interests.
In truth, the role of democracy is not to let us ‘have a say' in how society is run. Rather it is to disguise the dictatorship of the capitalist class. It is this class and this class only that ‘has a say' and it organises its rule through the power of the state. Democracy simply serves to present this state power to the working class with an egalitarian gloss. But whoever is elected to manage the state has to defend the national capital, increase profits and improve competitiveness on the world market. It can only do this by the continued ruthless application of state control over all areas of the economy, whether this is overt (as in the case of Stalinism and Fascism) or concealed but just as extensive (as in the case of neo-liberalism).
In a period where the economic crisis is the driving force in the development of society, this state will have no choice but to attack the working class. The attacks that are carried out against the working class by the bourgeoisie and its state are not the product of bad leadership, or the wrong party being in power. They are the products of the inexorable economic crisis which has no solution within the capitalist framework. In other words, whoever the workers elect will immediately exercise state power to defend the economy - and it will be the working class that has to pay.
Neither can this fundamental reality be altered by reforming the existing state apparatus with schemes to make it more responsive to the popular will. This is why Marx said, concerning the Paris Commune: "I say that the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people's revolution on the Continent." (Marx to Dr Kugelmann, "Concerning the Paris Commune", 1871.)
Today the "Continent" is the whole planet. The most democratic parliamentary forms of government have shown themselves to be entirely subordinate to capital and cannot be taken over by the exploited to be wielded in their own interests. The revolution that is needed to overthrow moribund capitalism will be obliged to dismantle the bourgeois state from top to bottom. And the resistance struggles of today that pave the way for the revolution of the future will have to organise themselves outside and against the organisms of the state, including the most democratic ones.