Is our society really democratic?

April 27, 2012

Is the right to vote in elections enough to make a society democratic?

FOR SOCIALISTS, democracy exists only in name unless it consists of genuine popular control from below.

The American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 were tremendous steps forward because they replaced autocratic rule with forms of representative democracy.

They were propelled by mass popular action from below, under the slogans of freedom and brotherhood. For the masses of people, these slogans reflected the desire to be rid of all economic and social inequality.

But in each case, wealthy merchants, bankers and industrialists repressed the most democratic elements of the popular movements--in order to consolidate their own class's power.

Formal democracy--the right to vote--was established. But alongside this right went many restrictions.

In 1851, Karl Marx analyzed the French Constitution, which "guarantees liberty," save for "exceptions mode by law."

"For each paragraph of the constitution contains its own antithesis, its own Upper and Lower House, namely, liberty in the general phrase, abrogation of liberty in the marginal note," Marx wrote.

In Britain, the working class had to organize mass protests in order to win complete universal male suffrage without property restrictions--and women didn't win the right to vote in the U.S. until the 20th century.

Long after slavery was abolished, millions of Blacks in the South--and many poor whites--were denied the right to vote.

To this day, it's possible--due to an antiquated electoral system designed to give more political weight to the slave owners--to win the presidency in the U.S. without winning the popular vote.

In fact, workers have had to fight for the extension of democracy at every step of the way against ruling classes fearful that complete universal suffrage might threaten their rule.

But universal suffrage, as it turned out, has not constituted such a grave threat to capitalism. Parliamentary democracy gives, in reality, more votes to those who have more wealth.

To use an old but appropriate cliché--money talks.

IS MY right to free speech equal to that of Rupert Murdoch, who owns a multibillion-dollar media empire? Moreover, a large part of the state apparatus--the military and the state bureaucracy--isn't subject to elections.

The voting population doesn't make decisions like whether or not to go to war. Workers have no democratic say-so over the most basic economic decisions that affect their lives.

We can't fire our boss or vote to change working conditions. Even today, every freedom granted to us is hemmed in by political and economic qualifications. In many states across the country, for example, public workers are denied the right to strike.

That's why, in spite of our right to vote, we're forced to engage in demonstrations and strikes that are outside the formal political process.

Parliamentary democracy--in which we choose unaccountable misrepresentatives every two, four or six years--has been fairly successful in providing the illusion of real democracy in a society where a small number of very wealthy people and the bureaucrats who serve them make all the important decisions.

But there are times when even formal democracy becomes too threatening to the powers that be--as the many military coups around the world show. As the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg pointed out at the turn of the l9th century:

In this society, the representative institutions, democratic in form, are in content the instruments of the interests of the ruling class.

This manifests itself in a tangible fashion in the fact that as soon as democracy shows the tendency to negate its class character and become transformed into an instrument of the real interests of the population, the democratic forms are sacrificed by the bourgeoisie, and by its state representatives.

First published in the November 24, 2000, issue of Socialist Worker.

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