February 2013        

Democracy and the crisis

Part 1

The importance of democracy as a central part of any progressive programme, whether socialist or republican, at the present time cannot be overstated. It is vital that Marxists remain committed to democracy in its real sense and advance it as one component of the way forward for society out of the crisis in capitalism.
      All around us we can see evidence of the erosion of even the limited scope of bourgeois democracy, as the capitalist system and its ideologues want to be free of more of the constraints on their actions. At the same time the political and ideological bankruptcy of much of social democracy, republicanism and the left in Ireland has led to a collapse in the articulation of a principled and coherent alternative to the status quo.
      To quickly illustrate these claims, first look at the way the establishment has attacked the idea that the people can and should participate in making the decisions about how society is organised. Since the first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty they have argued that the need for referendums on changes in the European Union is both inefficient and undermines elected representatives; that giving balanced media coverage to the different sides in a referendum is unfair and inappropriate; and that the people always concentrate on issues that are not contained in the proposals under consideration.
      The capitalist state in Ireland would clearly be very happy to dissolve the people, though perhaps not so enthusiastic about electing another.
      Secondly, the complete capitulation of the Labour Party and its trade union supporters to the agenda of capitalism and imperialism can be seen in the actions and programme of the present Government. The Labour leadership boasts that it is willing to make the “hard” decisions and that the EU-IMF programme must be implemented so that the country can “return to the markets.” Obviously, they can see no alternative to capitalism and imperialism; unfortunately, they are not alone.
      While Sinn Féin has opposed the austerity programme of the Government and argued for a greater share of the resulting burden to be shouldered by the better off, it too sees no alternative to capitalism: just witness its argument that increased tax on higher incomes can be justified during the crisis but might be unfair at other times, or its acceptance that the EU-IMF targets are essentially correct, it is only how they are achieved and over how long that is in question.
      Nor has the United Left Alliance or any of the independent left in the Dáil offered any way forward: to an extent they have been trapped in the parliamentary game, discussing budgets and economic and fiscal policy within the terms of bourgeois democracy. While it is necessary to engage with the establishment discourse—this is part of the battle of ideas, the propaganda war—this is not enough. Proposing alternative sources of tax and demanding more investment to create jobs remains firmly within the capitalist status quo unless it is accompanied by demands that challenge capitalism’s organisation of the economy and society. They might produce a somewhat fairer distribution of wealth (certainly not a fair distribution), but any such gains will inevitably be subjected to the class struggle that is a continuing feature of class society.
      At a time when political understanding and ideology is at a very low level, the demand for democracy can be both a realistic approach and one that challenges the nature of the capitalist system. We know that bourgeois democracy is neither real democracy nor a possible vehicle for revolutionary change. But our criticism of it should be tempered by our understanding of the material conditions of class struggle in which it emerged in the modern era and in which it continues to exist.
      The breaking free from earlier feudal and aristocratic forms of social control was necessary for the development of capitalism—and it was progressive in its context. Bourgeois democracy has been called formal democracy or political democracy by academics. It essentially provides for a procedural equality in the political process of decision-making without allowing any of the content of equality.
      Part of the reason for this is that bourgeois democracy is confined to the political sphere and does not address the crucial social and economic spheres. As a system, modern representative democracy is not designed to give the people (the citizens) control over the decisions that affect their lives and shape society. Most modern theorists of democracy think this is a good thing: like our establishment politicians and commentators, they do not believe that the people are capable of making the decisions that govern their lives, nor do they think that this would be desirable.

■ Part 2 will be published in March

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