From all sides of the political spectrum, we are being called upon to defend democracy.
The “rebel alliance” of politicians opposed to a no-deal Brexit denounce Boris Johnson’s “coup” against parliament, organising marches and rallies against the 5-week suspension of parliament in the period leading up to 31 October, and uniting their forces to compel Boris to respect the hallowed parliamentary customs and procedures.
The hard Brexiteers from Farage to Spiked magazine reply that it is the “Remoaners” who are insulting democracy because they refuse to respect the “will of the people” embodied in the June 2016 referendum. They also claim to be the defenders of British democracy against the interfering bureaucracy of the EU.
But we live in a society which makes the very terms “democracy” and the “people” empty of meaning. We live in a capitalist society based on the exploitation of one class by another. The exploiting class holds the vast bulk of wealth in its hands, and the state, political power, is there to guarantee its privileges, as are the means of ideological domination such as the press, the TV, and the mainstream social media. In such a society, the “people” is a term used to hide these class divisions and “democracy” serves to mask the monopoly of power held by the ruling class.
The exploited class, on the other hand, even though it generally comprises the majority of the population, is not permitted to express its own real needs. Its efforts to organise against exploitation are either suppressed by force or tamed and incorporated into the state: that’s the history of the trade unions and “workers” parties (such as the Labour party) over the last 100 years or more.
Of course, in contrast to the early days of capitalism, workers are not only allowed but positively exhorted to vote in local and national elections and referendums. But they can only do so as atomised “citizens”, as a mass of isolated individuals; and the very act of voting in bourgeois elections has become an expression of powerlessness, of the absence of the working class as a class.
What’s more, the themes around which elections, referendums, and parliamentary debates are organised provide clear evidence that we live under an ideological monopoly. For or against Brexit? To enter into this debate you have to assume that the interests of the nation, of “Britain”, are our interests. But the workers have no fatherland, and the nation, like the people, is a false community which obscures irreconcilable class divisions. And more: neither of the options in the Brexit conflict will protect workers from the mounting attacks on their living standards demanded by the world economic crisis. If Brexit goes ahead, there will no doubt be savage attacks on immigrant workers, whether illegal or legal, like the recent rules insisting that EU residents sort out their “settled status” prior to October 31st: almost a guarantee of future “Windrush” scandals. But the EU, which supposedly stands up for workers’ rights, has already shown its willingness to impose draconian austerity on different parts of the working class: the case of Greece is the most eloquent here (and it was the “left wing” Syriza government which applied the belt-tightening demanded by the EU).
The religion of democracy
Democracy and the nation have become today what religion was in the days when Karl Marx first coined the term “opium of the masses”. Democracy and the national interest are the “spiritual aroma” of bourgeois society, “its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification”. In other words, you cannot argue outside the assumptions of democracy and the nation, which are the ultimate truths of this society, the justification for all the sacrifices demanded in work and at war.
But this “aroma” has now become a very bad stench because parliament, like capitalist society itself, is a profoundly decadent institution. In the days of Marx and Engels, when capitalism was still an ascendant system, it made sense for workers’ parties to have a presence in bourgeois parliaments because they were the theatre for real conflicts between progressive and reactionary sectors of the ruling class, and there was still the space to fight for durable reforms on behalf of the workers. But such activities always contained the risk of the corruption of workers’ delegates, who became the main vehicles for “parliamentary cretinism”, the belief that capitalism could be overcome simply by amassing votes for workers’ parties in bourgeois elections.
In decadent capitalism, all factions of the ruling class are equally reactionary, and there is no scope for any lasting improvement in living standards. And the profound impotence of parliamentary procedures faced with the growth of the totalitarian state as a whole has become increasingly obvious – not least in the current Brexit pantomime.
The dead-end of parliament and the rise of populism, with its fake criticism of the “elite”, has led many to conclude that it would be better to have an “illiberal democracy”, the rule of “strong men” who can get things done. But this is yet another false choice for the working class.
The proletarian alternative
The historical movement of the working class has shown another way. The Paris Commune of 1871 already went beyond the limits of parliamentarism, so that “instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament”, the working population began to organise itself in neighbourhood assemblies whose delegates were not only elected and mandated but could be recalled at any moment. The soviets or workers’ councils that arose in Russia in 1905 and 1917 took these principles a step further, since they were based on assemblies of workers in the factories and other workplaces, making the contours of proletarian power even clearer than in 1871.
During the world-wide wave of revolutionary movements in 1917-21, the workers’ councils arose in direct opposition to parliamentary (and trade union) institutions; and the bourgeoisie understood this very well, because - above all in Germany, where the fate of the world revolution was to be decided – it did everything it could first to annex the councils, to turn them into a powerless appendage of parliament and the local state, and then to violently crush any attempt to restore their real power, as in Berlin in 1919.
Capitalist democracy has shown itself to be the deadly enemy of the proletarian revolution, of the emancipation of the exploited. And the goal of this revolution is to create a society where there will be no classes. Then for the first time, it would make sense to talk about the “the people”, or rather, a unified humanity. And a true human community will have no need for what the Greeks called “kratos”, for any kind of state or political power. Amos 7.9.19