Elections versus true democracy

June 21, 2012

David Wood considers how democratic a capitalist democracy actually is.

GROWING UP in the "world's greatest democracy," my family, schooling, books, television and radio all made me see the ballot box as our nation's holy grail. One person, one vote...giving everyone equal say in our country's course. If I had not already been swayed from this belief, events of the past year would have challenged my opinion.

Most recently, the actions of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) and that country's military junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), clearly demonstrate the limits of electoral politics under capitalism. In the final days of the Egyptian presidential elections, the SCC ruled to dissolve parliament.

On June 17, SCAF declared martial law with a constitutional declaration effectively grabbing any meaningful power the president--still undecided after the vote--might yield. These actions represent the boldest attacks on the Egyptian revolution to date.

Some Americans might expect this from a country like Egypt. After all, in the midst of the Egyptian revolution last year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lectured that country on the need for an "orderly" and "peaceful" transition to democracy. You know, kind of like the "peaceful" and "orderly" transition we advocated for in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I kid, but Clinton's message was in-fact consistent with other U.S. interventions, as it was delivered at the same time that tear gas marked "Made in the USA" was being hurled towards protesters.

Racist remarks from Clinton aside, the recent corruption of Egyptian elections should tell us more about our own democracy. xsIt was not long ago when the U.S. Supreme Court orchestrated a similarly undemocratic transition of power by denying American citizens a vote recount in Florida during the 2000 presidential elections. By doing so, the Court (appointed, not elected) secured an illegitimate win for George W. Bush.

Indeed, stolen or castrated elections are anything but uncommon across the capitalist world. This is especially true in the "world's greatest democracy." Under capitalism, it's hard to think of honest elections or an electoral win truly reflecting the peoples' will. Rather, parties of capital often demobilize any hope of the masses through carefully controlled elections.


IN MY lifetime, the most amazing moment I've witnessed in America was last year when the people of Wisconsin, enraged by Governor Scott Walker's assault on collective bargaining and inspired by the Egyptian Revolution, occupied the state Capitol in protest.

This inspiring moment, unfortunately, was short lived. The Democrats, in partnership with top union leadership, folded the grassroots movement into an electoral campaign to recall Walker.

The campaign drew out for over a year and recently flopped as the Democrats did little to voice the movement's original concerns. Scott Walker held victoriously to his power having succeeded in striking a painful blow to the working class across his state and paving the way for politicians to do the same across the country. But hey, at least it was "orderly."

I'm obviously critical of placing the world's bourgeois democracies on any pedestals, as would today's preachers of respectability. Politics stem from economics, not the other way around. If the dominant economic system is top down, undemocratic, authoritarian, violent, etc., the mainstream politics will reflect this.

I go into work and have no illusion of having any democratic say. Yet, work is where I spend most of my time, where I interact with the most people and have some of my strongest connections. Work is the source of my livelihood and much of my self-worth. If here democracy vanishes and I lay down my basic human rights why would I then view myself living in a democracy?

True democracy will only occur when those who produce and give service have a say in how their labor benefits society. This is done through mass participation in bottom-up democratic organs through which society's base expresses its will. Examples of this include the soviets, or workers' councils, in Russia around the 1917 revolution.

To secure this working-class power in a revolutionary state Karl Marx called for a dictatorship of the proletariat or an assertion of the working class against counter-revolutionary elements of the bourgeoisie. Amongst these elements is the parliament, which Marx considered "but a committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." Trotsky defended this view in the midst of Russia's civil war following the 1917 revolution.

In response to German social democrat Karl Kautsky, who criticized the Bolsheviks resistance to parliamentary forces, Trotsky wrote:

The capitalist bourgeois calculates: "While I have in my hands lands, factories, workshops, banks; while I possess newspapers, universities, schools; while--and this most important of all--I retain control of the army; the apparatus of democracy, however you reconstruct it, will remain obedient to my will."

This has never been so evident as in my above examples from Egypt and America...the use of phony oppositional parties to co-opt mass sentiment, or use of the courts or military to reel in unsatisfactory election results, etc. Trotsky continues to paraphrase the capitalist:

For moments when it (the lower middle class) is dissatisfied and murmurs, I have created scores of safety-valves and lightning-conductors. At the right moment I will bring into existence opposition parties, which will disappear tomorrow, but which today accomplish their mission by affording the possibility of the lower middle class expressing their indignation without hurt therefrom for capitalism...I will corrupt, deceive and terrorize the more privileged or the more backward of the proletariat itself. By means of these measures, I shall not allow the vanguard of the working class to gain the ear of the majority of the working class, while the necessary weapons of mastery and terrorism remain in my hands.

This past Saturday, June 16, five fellow socialists and myself stood outside a farmers' market in Western Mass., holding signs defending Egypt's revolution. We held them up for cars and reached out in voice to passersby, soliciting from them solidarity for the Egyptian people in their struggle with the anti-democratic capitalist forces aimed against them.

In reaching out to our fellow workers here, we should remember that those forces are not aimed at Egypt alone, but toward masses here and across the world looking for a brighter life. When seeing Egypt's SCC or SCAF steal that country's hope, we should not fall prey to "out of sight, out of mind"--but rather be sobered to look more closer at our own immediate world and be motivated to rise against its oppressive forces in the same fighting spirit of our sisters and brothers across the world.
David Wood, from the Internet

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