The historical problem of “democracy”

In the nineteenth century the ruling class were terrified of the masses. They could see that the limited democracy for the monied capitalists and rump of the old propertied class was soon going to have to give way to one that enfranchised people who weren’t necessarily going to have the interests of exploitation in their hearts. So they spent a lot of energy coming up with ways to prevent the masses from getting too uppity. There isn’t space here to discuss this at length, but it’s worth noting that the ruling class have always had a terror of democracy and the kind of legitimacy that comes from the people themselves endorsing things, without some guiding hand controlling the debate, preventing even the discussion of change to economic and social relations that would challenge our current society’s work or starve ethos.

If you look at the Peterloo massacre back in 1817 it’s fairly obvious that even demanding some simple representation was too much for the ruling class. But over the next hundred years or so the franchise was extended to include all of us, because the working class movement became too strong. So instead of murder, they opted for co-option, which is a strategy they were very good at, and had practised at length in their empire.

The key purpose of the guiding hand is to deny agency and do as little as possible to challenge the status quo, always stopping the working class from demanding too much too quickly, delaying and sabotaging any change. There is usually a large gap between words and deeds. Promises are not kept, or, if kept then kept in name only. Behind the smiling face of the Blairs of this world there is a high handed arrogance that keeps working class needs and aspirations under control. This was and is more ironic when you consider the mountain of babbling about aspiration designed to divide us into the deserving and undeserving, and make appeal to the middle class using coded language. For example look at New Labour’s nasty campaign against asylum seekers, where they coined the term bogus asylum seekers, attempting to send people back and stir up hatred in the wider community. They succeeded, but oddly you don’t hear the term any more, Theresa May built on the shameful rhetoric and replaced it with her vicious, murderous hostile environment. It was hard for the New Labour parliamentary rump to combat, given it was built on their racism in the first place. This assumes they even wanted to. If you can remember Ed Milliband campaigned with a carved piece of stone that had his various electoral pledges, one of which was more anti-immigrant rhetoric couched in suitably vague language.

At its origins we have the historical drive where Victorian do gooders kept the spectre of democracy safe for our owners. Knowing better than, and therefore guiding, an ignorant electorate has always been part of the Labour party’s DNA. Being outright racist nationalists who love the empire was always there, too. After all, this is when the empire was in full flow, and virtually everybody in England had been trained into having an uncritical love of empire and royalty which carries down unquestioned right to this day. Mention to people that the British queen is an arms dealer who personally profits from the mayhem in places like the Yemen and folk will just refuse to join the dots.

We also have the recalcitrant problem of so-called democratic systems and institutions that are designed from the get go not to be democratic. One of the most egregious examples of this is the system in the USA using the electoral college which was designed to make sure that a small number of mostly white dominated states kept disproportionate political power. This of course feels “democratic” if you’re a racist living in one of the racist states where your vote is worth something like one and a half times more than one in an urban centre.

The British first past the post system is another example. 48% of the right votes in the right constituencies give you a thumping majority that lets you do what you want. But do you have a mandate? No. This is never discussed, how could it be? Things would have to change.

So democracy as practised is a purely rhetorical gambit and is always limited and contained. Capitalism in its purest form, the corporation, can do what it likes up to and including consequence-free murder. The issues you or I might care about aren’t discussed except in forums that aren’t part of the mainstream. A true democracy that actually allowed people to express their wants and needs and make sure that the systems they lived under met those needs, a true democracy is not what we have been allowed.

The system of workers’ councils that developed spontaneously in what became the USSR, and that seems to develop during most popular uprisings is often mocked as not having political parties in it. If you have a system where anyone can raise an issue that concerns them, and then that issue is properly discussed by your peers, and then can be taken to the council of councils for proper discussion, what do you need a party for? There still needs to be some kind of executive that makes sure that the bins are emptied and services people need are running, but after that, what are politicians for? This is discussed tangentially in the book The Retreat, an anti-dystopian alternate future story.