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How would we make a real democracy?

By Eric Ruder | May 23, 2003 | Page 7

WE'RE ALWAYS told that we live in the "greatest democracy in the world"--and that the U.S. therefore has the right, and even the responsibility, to spread democracy, even by force if necessary.

But democracy can't be imposed by an occupying power at the point of a gun. Nor does the simple act of voting guarantee democracy--as the case of the U.S. itself proves.

Each American has one vote, but the wealthiest 10 percent of people here control 70 percent of the nation's wealth. In practice, this means that they also have a lock on political power, using their billions to buy the loyalty of politicians.

A society characterized by stark economic inequality can't ever be truly democratic. Democracy is impossible so long as the vast majority has no real choice in their lives but to spend 40 hours or more each week working to make ends meet--while a minority devotes their time to making decisions about what to produce and how to administer social life.

This stands in stark contrast to the socialist vision of participatory democracy, "where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes," as Karl Marx put it. Socialism would make it possible for each person "to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic."

In other words, democracy depends upon every person having the time and opportunity to develop their own capacities and also to participate in making decisions about the direction of society.

Until the development of capitalism, with its ruthless pace of innovation, there was no alternative to a division of labor between the rulers and the ruled. Because society was not technologically advanced enough to produce a surplus that could free the entire population from toiling the great majority of their lives, only a small minority was free from this fate. But while capitalism has made it possible to meet the needs of every human, this potential is denied at every turn by the pursuit of profit.

A socialist society would use this incredible productive capacity to eliminate poverty and undo inequality--rather than extend both, as capitalism does.

But how? What will insure that no one hijacks this system for his or her own benefit? Doesn't someone always rise to the top?

There are several reasons to believe that it is possible to build a real democracy. First, socialism doesn't depend on an enlightened leader. It depends on the actions of the working class--the vast majority of people in society that produces all the wealth, but under capitalism doesn't share in it or have any say over its use. When workers come to control their own workplaces, making decisions about their conditions of work and the ends that their labor is directed toward, then the decisions over how society is run aren't confined to a caste of professional politicians.

Decision-making and the power to carry out those decisions are fused in a single institution--the workers' councils--collapsing the distinction between the voters and those who carry out the will of the voters. In each factory, office, school and farm, the people who work there would meet to both discuss how to run their own workplace and to elect representatives to citywide councils. But delegates to this higher body wouldn't be elected to a fixed term or gain a material incentive to take on the responsibility. The delegates would be subject to immediate recall by a majority vote, and their compensation would be the same as their coworkers.

As economic resources are increasingly used to meet consumption needs of those who do the producing--rather than to expand the riches of those who own and control--it will become more and more absurd for an individual or a group to hoard the wealth of society. After all, even under capitalism, certain resources like air are already free because they are so abundant--and no one attempts to hoard air!

Capitalism has made it possible for all the resources of society to exist in abundance--and this in turn makes it possible for workers to run society collectively and democratically. But the power to rule the world has to be taken away from a tiny minority--and used by the vast majority of people under a truly democratic system.

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