Sunday, March 25, 2012

Electing Democracy

A coup d'etat by the army took place in the West African nation of Mali on Thursday, March 22 even though elections were scheduled to be held in little over a month (on April 29) where legitimate differences could have been debated, with voters (rather than guns) deciding the future of the country. A group of military officers , ironically calling themselves the "National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State", ended 20-years of democracy in the West African country. This group did not topple a dictator who had ordered soldiers to fire on his own people, as had been the case 21 years ago, but a democratically elected president in the last month of his term.

Liberal freedoms matter. One should never underestimate the value of liberal-democratic freedoms, even if they can be said to be often primarily symbolic. It is important, not to understate the significance of holding back authoritarianism. The dictator has in many peoples' minds the symbol of the law, all-capable, all-powerful, ready to manage affairs in a rational manner, not in the manner dictated by bourgeois law or by propertied interests. The most damaging thing to the cause of real democracy is the repeated assurances that what we have nowadays is democracy, and so all the sleaze, all the secret negotiations and dirty deals get lumped together to suggest in people's minds that democracy is not all that great. The dictator or the Junta become a symbol for orderliness and rationality in an insane and disorganised world. They represent stability. Most people do not look to democracy to bring about this stability. The bourgeois propagandists have done their work, and have effectively destroyed any belief in democracy as the idea that folks can run their own lives and own communities. Years of battering and enforced passivity has come to mean that for most of the working class the idea of them being in charge of affairs is inconceivable. They have been part of a manipulative system for too long and have become resigned and compliant.

The term democracy is bandied about and gets widely differing explanations of what it is or what it should be. It is a word that is ill-defined, misused, over-used too ambiguously and has been hijacked by governments and elites to deliberately misinterpret their actions and so deceive a captive and poorly represented electorate. Electorates worldwide haven't had the true experience of involvement, of having had their voices heard, at any significant level to have resulted in a culture of expectation of inclusion in the various processes of so-called democracy. Rather than an expectation of involvement there is apathy, cynicism or the repeated mantra heard far and wide that governments don't listen to the people. Many so-called democracies tend to breed apathy for a variety of reasons. Decisions have long been made for people not by people, electorates distanced from their representatives, decisions made with no consultation process and "leaders" believing they have been selected to take the reins and make all decisions on behalf of the voters. It's taken for granted that once elected the politician decides on behalf of the electors. There is scant reference to the masses in times of major decisions, public spending or whether to go to war. Even mass demonstrations can leave the elected unmoved and intransigent. As a result there has long been a culture of complaint, a collective feeling of impotence with no expectation of being heard, even if seemingly listened to.

We have all heard at some time or other such statements as "democracy is inefficient"; "the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship"; or "the country should be run by experts, well trained managers, not just any Tom Dick or Harry". These points are easily countered: democracy is only inefficient if your only criterion is speed, but if you include wide consultation and a plurality of opinions and ideas within the decision-making process, then democracy is actually far more efficient in the long run. The benevolent dictator idea neglects the fact that dictators must have a class to back them up so as to ensure the primary aim of all dictators—of staying in power. Likewise, with the group of managers, the question becomes, how do we select such managers? And how are they supposed to manage the country? In whose interest?

It is a basic tenet of the World Socialist Movement that the establishment of socialism involves the capture of political power via the ballot-box. For this to happen presupposes the existence of a "bourgeois democracy". We regard universal suffrage, the vote and political democracy within capitalism as a potential class weapon, a potential “instrument of emancipation” as Marx put it. Marx and Engels always held that the bourgeois democratic republic was the best political framework for the development and triumph of the socialist movement. But while such an arrangement is undeniably preferable to political dictatorship we don't entertain any illusions about the nature of this "bourgeois democracy". It is a very limited kind of democracy indeed. Capitalist democracy is not a participatory democracy, which a genuine democracy has to be.

“Democracy” has become an ideology used to give capitalist rule a spurious legitimacy. Looking at the vast sums of money involved in our allegedly democratic elections we can hardly claim that they are "free". In fact in most of the so-called democratic countries it could be said that the astronomical costs of challenging for political power have been deliberately manipulated in order to ensure that those who cannot attract rich backers will be denied meaningful access to the democratic process. There also the other aspect of bourgeois democracy, such as free speech, which is similarly compromised by the nature of the system. In this case by the disproportionate power it bestows on those who own and control the media. Effectively this means that in the same way as people in dictatorships are denied the right to make real political changes, in allegedly democratic societies prohibitive financial restrictions are placed in the way of the working class organising politically to effect real economic change. The idea of fair and free elections would give the ruling class political apoplexy. This does not mean that socialists equate dictatorship and bourgeois democracy. Within the latter we are free to organise politically and to develop our support to the extent where we can eventually overcome the embargoes and impediments that capitalism’s restricted democratic forms impose on us, whereas in the former any socialist work is necessarily clandestine and can invoke severe penalties. What we can equate is the hypocrisy of bourgeois politicians, who rightly condemn those dictatorships where political freedom is denied and yet are willing participants and vociferous defenders of a form of capitalism wherein financial impediments exist that make a mockery of real democracy. Democracy is not a set of rules or a parliament; it is a process, a process that must be fought for. The struggle for democracy is the struggle for socialism. It is not a struggle for reforms, for this or that political system, for this or that leader, for some rule change or other—it is the struggle for an idea, for a belief, a belief that we can run our own lives, that we have a right to a say in how society is run, for a belief that the responsibility for democracy lies not upon the politicians, but upon ourselves.

Socialists are offering the establishment of an open and genuine system of participative democracy in a world where the massively destructive and ubiquitously corruptive power of money would no longer exist. Socialism will of course be a democratic society with elections and referendums. Democracy means the rule or power of the people, i.e. popular participation in decision-making. It allows various ways of reaching a decision but, in the end, if consensus cannot be obtained, it has to come to a vote; in which case the majority view prevails. Democracy does not mean that all decisions have to made at general assemblies of all concerned or by referendum; it is compatible with certain decisions being delegated to committees and councils as long as the members of these bodies are responsible to those who (s)elected them. If there wasn’t such democratic control there wouldn’t be common ownership, so there wouldn’t be socialism. Democratic control is not an optional extra of socialism. It is its very essence. This being so, socialism cannot be imposed against the will or without the consent and participation of the majority. The socialist revolution can only be democratic, in the sense of both being what the majority of people want and of being carried out by democratic methods of organisation and action.

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