In this Section
2 Claiming democracy for the people
An unholy alliance between the state, political parties, corporate and financial power dominates society in all the major capitalist countries. From London to Washington, from Berlin to Rome, from Tokyo to Seoul, market states are the rule. Democracy is reduced to a sham, a façade behind which real decisions are made and power exercised over ordinary people.
The right to vote counts for little and the aspirations of ordinary people are denied by state systems that primarily function in the interests of big business. The financial meltdown exposed the real power relations in capitalist society for all to see. Bankers lined up for state bail-outs, but working people are having their hours and pay cut, or losing their jobs and their homes. Essential services for all are being slashed.
In Britain, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that no one actually voted for, and that is therefore without a democratic mandate, is imposing the harshest cuts in public spending ever seen. Throughout Europe, other governments have jumped to attention when the money markets have demanded budget cuts. Barack Obama’s administration is as much beholden to the banks and corporate interests as the Republicans always have been, confirming that the two major parties are capitalist through and through.
Each state increasingly resembles the senior management team of a corporation, with the prime minister or president acting like a chief executive. Their role is to smooth the way for transnational corporations and banks to operate as freely as possible and to create new markets and profit-making opportunities in areas such as education, health and pensions. In fact, it can often look like an outright merger, with leading lights from the world of business sitting in governments. In the United States, key state posts are held by ex-bankers from Goldman Sachs. Ministers in Britain leave office and within weeks are sitting on the boards of major corporations.
The state machine and bureaucracy is the lynchpin of the social system of capitalism, holding it all together. It provides the ideological, political, social, legal, educational and coercive frameworks essential for the maintenance of a class-divided society.
Real power, control and influence lie beyond the reach of ordinary people. Authority instead is concentrated in the hands of permanent structures that rule over, rather than on behalf of, society. These institutions can include central and local government administration, the central bank, legal and penal systems, the police, armed forces, secret intelligence agencies, the monarchy and a whole variety of quasi-state bodies and bureaucracies. In major confrontations, like the British miners’ strike for jobs of 1984-5, state forces are deployed physically to maintain the status quo. They are used to subvert legitimate organisations and act as agents provocateurs. The role of the state is to protect private rights to property, including land, using force as necessary.
The state has control over formative education, setting out what is taught in schools to ensure that the social contract of capitalism – employer and wage earner – is binding and permanent and that the accepted notion of democracy reinforces the status quo. Organised religion plays a similar role while the mass media can be relied upon to sing the same loyal tune. In Britain, the modern state came into existence in the 19th century to enable corporate and financial interests to flourish while keeping society from breaking apart. Private and shareholder ownership of the means of production and property, including land, was enshrined in law. In Britain, a police force was created to maintain the status quo, while the army enforced colonial rule.
After two world wars, in the face of popular, revolutionary anger, a welfare state was built in many countries. It seemed to signal a new era of social harmony, with the state mediating between conflicting class interests. Then, following the economic crisis of the 1970s, a wave of privatisation, spending cuts, anti-union laws and corporate-led globalisation swept all that away. Post-war controls over the movement of finance and production were abandoned and the trade unions shackled. The unregulated, free market capitalism that is now in disarray was brought into being by the US and British states, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union.
Because capitalism is now globalised, each capitalist state has ceded power to supra-national bodies like the WTO and is subject to the demands of the transnational corporations and international finance. When the transnational corporations (TNCs) and bankers say jump, the state does exactly that. In the market/business state we are expected to carry the entire cost of the financial crisis while bankers’ bonuses return to their previous astronomical levels.
Political representation developed out of the bitter and long struggle against the ruling classes for the vote and basic democratic rights. In Britain, it led to the creation of the Labour Party and eventually to reforms like the health service achieved through Parliament. In other countries, workers were able to exert some form of influence through their own parties or in the United States through the Democratic Party.
Now this historically important but nevertheless limited form of bourgeois representative democracy without power is in terminal crisis. Globalisation has reduced the national state’s power to direct the economy and thus eroded the basis for achieving reforms through elections. It was this process that in Britain transformed Labour – founded to reform capitalism – into an outright capitalist party. Its leaders have shut down internal democracy and transformed New Labour into a party that promotes war and the values of the market capitalist economy. The policies of the ConDem coalition are no more than a continuation of the 1997-2010 Blair and Brown governments.
The Guardian/ICM poll of five European Union countries in March 2011 confirms the sharp decline in relations between the political class and voters. The survey revealed:
- only 6% of people across Europe say they have a great deal of trust in their government. Overall, the percentage of those who think politicians are not at all, or not very, honest outweighs those who disagree by a massive 89%
- only 9% of Europeans think their politicians – in opposition or in power – act with honesty and integrity
- some 78% of those questioned don’t trust the government to deal with their country’s problems, with the figure in Britain a huge 80%
- even fewer Europeans think their politicians are honest. In Poland, only 3% of those questioned agree; in Britain 12%. Overall, a mammoth 89% believe politicians are not honest
- overall, only 42% of the 5,000 people questioned believe that governments should cut spending to reduce the national debt, while in Britain, more than two-thirds disagreed.
The British Parliament has failed to protect rights won over centuries, such as habeas corpus, the right to a jury trial and access to justice. Nor did Parliament defend the right to free education and health care. The welfare state has been replaced by a profit-driven market state backed by all mainstream parties. Adequate housing is beyond the reach of many because the market has driven prices sky high. Alienation from a political system that is in the pockets of big business is marked by large-scale abstentions at elections and an increasing distrust of governments and/or their ability to deal with issues fairly. In the May 2011 UK elections and referendum, the majority opted not to vote.
It is ironic that in spite of devolution, the British state is more centralised than ever before. Neither the Welsh Assembly nor the Scottish Parliament have brought significant improvements to the lives of their people. Independence will only improve the lives of ordinary people if it is won as part of a transformation of the whole British state and in a way that nurtures and defends the material unity of the working class in every region and country.
We do not accept that parliamentary democracy is the last word on the subject, whatever the political class claims. Extending and expanding democracy to give expression to what the term actually means – the power and rule of the people themselves – has to focus on building a momentum which leads to the dismantling of the existing state and all its institutions. In its place, the people themselves would develop a transitional democratic state that takes forward the achievements of the last 200 years. It would go beyond representative democracy, which actually dilutes and filters the aspirations of the powerless majority until they are acceptable to the ruling classes.
Democracy can be extended in new ways. For example, all workers should have the right to democracy at work. Co-ownership and self-management should replace the present capitalist hierarchies of worker/manager/owner.
A framework for a new democratic Britain could be built around the following ideas:
- a network of local, regional and national People’s Assemblies (see below) with executive as well as deliberative power and control over resources acting within the framework of a Charter of Economic and Social Rights and a Bill of Rights (see below)
- Assemblies with delegates who reflect the diversity of communities, with distinct voices for: workplaces, women, minority ethnic citizens, people with disabilities, older people, refugees and asylum seekers, young people, trade unions, progressive political organisations, students and small businesses
- an electoral system in balance with the new participatory system
- delegates to be paid no more than the average national income and subject to recall and removal by local/regional voters at any time
- mass involvement in the new democratic process through the Internet and other social media
- extensive and binding consultation with voters on significant new proposals.
A new constitution would enshrine a Charter of Economic and Social Rights based on citizenship for all and should include:
- the right to co-operative ownership and self-management in workplaces
- employment for those who can work and average pay for those who cannot
- the right to a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing
- decent housing at affordable cost for everyone
- free education for students at all ages; the right to free continuing education and training
- equal pay and job opportunities for women; free child care
- free health care at all levels
- dignity in old age through pension provision at average income, and free social care
- safe and nutritious food at affordable prices
- rights to live in an environment shaped by ecological care and basic human needs.
We need to take forward what human society has achieved in terms of law while abolishing the existing class-biased framework of private property and the wage-labour contract. A new courts system would involve lay judges with special training. A commission would investigate what laws inherited from capitalism need scrapping or amending in the light of the structure of the new society. The rule of law must prevail in society, with courts and lawyers guaranteed freedom from state interference and pressure. A Bill of Rights should affirm in unconditional and positive terms individual rights to liberty and freedom from arbitrary arrest and include:
- habeas corpus, requiring people arrested to be brought to court and charged or released within 24 hours
- free and equal legal representation for defendants and those challenging state decisions
- freedom from state surveillance and interception of communications
- unconditional rights to organise, associate, demonstrate and strike
- access to information held by public bodies
- equality in all areas for minority communities
- the free movement of people based on “no borders” principles.
The existing, barbaric prison system should be scrapped. Where it is unavoidable to detain offenders, a new approach would make rehabilitation the priority alongside the protection of society. The bureaucratic, secret world of the police means they are often closer to the criminal fraternity than ordinary people; many vulnerable and innocent people end up serving long sentences for offences they did not commit. Deploying the police to break up demonstrations, arrest protesters and infiltrate movements is part and parcel of their role as a state agency. The present police force should be disbanded and reorganised to serve communities within the framework of the rule of law and a democratic system of justice. In time, as society develops along new lines, the community would be able to learn to control and regulate itself.
The secret intelligence agencies, MI5 (Security Service) and MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) together with the police Special Branch would also be abolished. The secretive Privy Council, which has powers to impose rule by decree, will be dissolved. The army, together with the navy and air force, presently used to fight wars on behalf of the capitalist state, would be reorganised as a defensive force under democratic control and command. All weapons of mass destruction will be scrapped. The institution of hereditary monarchy would be dissolved and the Church of England separated from the state.
As the state turns more and more to repression, surveillance and foreign wars to maintain its grip, we need to claim democracy for the people. Without a comprehensive revolutionary regime change we cannot breathe new life into democratic achievements and give the right to vote real significance. Each country will find its own path to freeing the people from state oppression and creating new democratic structures that reflect revolutionised economic and social relations. In this way, we would open a new chapter in the history of international relations.
People’s Assemblies can go beyond resistance and struggle for a democratic society based on co-operation and self-determination instead of profit and corporate power. A network of People’s Assemblies will challenge the lie that there is no alternative to a capitalist system in deep crisis.
What Assemblies can do
- defend communities against closures, evictions, public service cuts and job losses
- fight for democracy and rights
- campaign for action on climate change
- oppose war and the secret state
- struggle against racism and attacks on minority communities
- build links with movements internationally
- create a new democratic society through a transfer of economic and political power.
Q: How will Assemblies come into being?
A: Through local initiatives of people and communities who want to resist cuts, job losses, repossessions, and go beyond protest to build a real democracy.
Q. What is A World to Win’s role in setting up Assemblies?
A: AWTW is joining with others to take the idea forward. We advocate the policy of setting up People’s Assemblies wherever cuts, closures or strikes are happening, where people are at risk of benefit cuts, and where repossessions or evictions are threatened.
Q: What will Assemblies do to show they are the legitimate representatives of the people?
A: They will have a strong defensive role, as the government launches its attacks. They can learn lessons from others about how to defend communities and individuals. For example, from the movements in the US against evictions, where communities are getting together to stop people being thrown out of their homes when they can’t pay their mortgage.
The experiences of Transition Towns which have been encouraging communities to do things for themselves, exploring new ways of living, can provide a source of inspiration.
Assemblies can learn from history – from the Paris Commune, the early Soviets or Workers Councils in Russia, from the Councils of Action in the 1926 General Strike in Britain and the movement that brought down the Berlin Wall, to the struggles in Venezuela and Bolivia today.
Q: How will this be different from the old politics?
A: The Assemblies will involve and mobilise the whole community, including young people, people from minority ethnic communities, small businesses and self-employed people as well as workers from every sector.
They will show by their own actions that there is another way of living, and another way of “being political” that isn’t about money-grubbing and getting expenses.
They will work for education, for culture and a decent life for all. There will be opportunities for everyone to share their skills and talents, and for young people to work creatively and learn. A wide range of people will gravitate towards them. They will embrace different points of view in a refreshing way.
Q: What will AWTW’s role in the Assemblies be?
A: The Assemblies can look beyond a failed economic system towards building a true democracy in place of the sham one we live under now. That is the revolutionary policy we will campaign for in Assemblies.
We will work within the Assemblies to win people to the idea that they should not be talking shops, or just organisers of protests or social support, but start to see themselves as the legitimate representatives of the people, with the right to replace the existing undemocratic structures of both local and national government. This includes revolutionising the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, which in their present form have dashed the hopes raised by devolution.
A Britain based on local and regional People’s Assemblies would aim to democratise society as a whole in new ways:
- Co-ownership of resources. The key areas of productive and financial resources, including land, would transfer from private equity and shareholder ownership into forms of co-ownership. These resources would be held in trust by locally-elected bodies and placed under democratic control.
- The workplace. All workers should have the right to democracy at work, whether in a factory, hospital, call centre, in public transport, civil service, local government, offices, shops, schools, colleges or university. All major decisions would require the consent of the workforce. Self-management would be encouraged in place of top-down control.
- Public services. Users will have the right to be involved in how services are run and what they should do. For example, rail passengers will be in joint control of the network. In schools and universities, teaching and admin staff will work as equal partners with students and parents.
A revolutionary government should:
- end private equity and share ownership as a step towards social ownership of major corporations and banks
- abolish the anti-union laws, giving trade unions independence from the state
- restore basic rights by scrapping the anti-terror laws, database and electronic surveillance
- stop repossession of people’s homes and launch a crash housing programme
- launch an economic recovery and retraining programme, with average pay for those out of work
- draw up plans for a People’s Convention on the Constitution.