The case for a democratic revolution

Why making a transition beyond the present capitalist type of state is key to building a real democracy

The loss of legitimacy and authority of the present state-political system of rule, and a marked shift towards authoritarian rule, is indisputable. So what can and should we do about it?

There are two main options:

  • 1. try to make the existing system more democratic and responsive to the majority who are effectively excluded from power
  • 2. build a real democracy with new, people-centred forms of governance that value and incorporate past achievements.

Many are concerned that the gains we have already achieved down the centuries could be lost in an upheaval and may feel that Option 1, which would mean pressing for reforms, is preferable. But is it realistic? Is the capitalist type of state capable of being reformed and made into something that will work for the majority? Option 2 is obviously a huge undertaking. It will involve mass social participation and creative practice over a sustained period. It is undoubtedly the hard choice but in reality it almost certainly is the only practical path to a real democracy.

The present state and capitalism are mutually interdependent. Although they are operationally independent, in effect power is shared – political on the one hand and economic on the other. The state and corporate power are clearly not the same – but nor are they completely separate. They are actually interdependent, mutually conditioning each other while they can also be at odds with each other.

For example, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, it is clear that most big business and finance wanted the UK to remain in the European Union single market. Political pressures have led the Tory government to abandon that goal and instead go for a new trade agreement with the EU. As a result some bankers are planning to relocate to mainland Europe or Ireland and Toyota is reconsidering its investment plans because a new deal between the UK and the EU is by no means certain. Corporate loyalty is to shareholders and lenders, not to the state where they operate.

The state sustains a framework that reinforces existing relationships within the workplace, namely the wage-labour contract. Under this, workers agree to labour for a specified number of hours (or wait around for a call while on a zero hours contract) and allow the employers to retain the surplus proceeds of their labour after wages have been paid and the state has taken its cut.

Bob Jessop, in his book The State: Past, Present and Future already referred to, explains this relationship, showing how the state “protects private property and the sanctity of contracts on behalf of capital as a whole”, adding: “This supports capital’s formal rights to manage the labour process, appropriate surplus labour, and enforce contracts with other capitals. Second, the rational organisation of capitalism requires free wage labour – which the state creates through its role in … imposing an obligation to enter the labour market. It also enables workers to sell their labour power ‘freely’, secures conditions for the reproduction of wage labour, imposes factory laws, responds to the housing question, secures cheap food, and so on.”

Company law means that shareholders take priority when it comes to distributing profits and, of course, employers have the right to shut down an enterprise and/or relocate geographically. Ancient laws relating to private property ensure that corporate owners have the legal title to the means of production and can use the state to evict occupiers.

The capitalist type of state like the UK’s tries to create beneficial access to markets by way of inter-state trade agreements and underwrites and compensates for market failures. So while the banks were bailed out in 2008 and the burden passed on to taxpayers, the National Health Service staggers close to collapse for want of a similar injection of funding. Similarly, Chinese and French investors are pledged billions in subsidies for nuclear power plants while schools go underfunded.

The present state is clearly a taxation state. That makes it dependent on enterprises to pay corporation tax and hand over VAT and for employers to enforce the deduction of tax and National Insurance from their workforce in order to finance state expenditure. In turn, this makes the state dependent on the growth of the economy to advance its revenues to meet the demands of its citizens. The impact of a growth-driven economy on the environment is secondary to the imperative of increasing Gross Domestic Product year on year.

The case for a democratic revolution

Therefore a transition to real democracy is incompatible with a narrowly-based state that is predisposed towards capitalism. The present state cannot tame or control capital – even if it wanted to – because the economy operates through markets which are by their nature beyond state control.

In any case, essential parts of the state are increasingly in private hands under contracts which are driven by cost cutting and profit. These include the probation service, parts of the prison service, sections of the education system and the National Health Service. Other parts of the state are organised at arms length in the shape of executive agencies and quangos, which are accountable to no one in particular.

Increasingly, of course, many services formerly carried out by central or local government have been contracted out or ‘outsourced’ to use the business term. Social care, for example, is in the hands of private agencies and care home owners. The market in public service contracts was worth over £100 billion in 2016, rising steeply under the New Labour and Coalition governments. It is about one-seventh of total government spending.

The people today have little or no power to influence the future, to shape policy, to determine the direction of travel of governments or councils, even to control their own lives or to make a difference. They have been shut out of the business of government, both nationally and locally. Representative democracy, where MPs are elected every few years into parliament, has little or no resemblance to real democracy. The capitalist system, in other words, is undemocratic because the people have been excluded. They have no input apart from the vote every four or five years.

Originally a challenge to the power of the ruling classes, representative democracy over the years has been transformed into a ritual, a safe way for the real powers in the country, the corporations, the banks and the rich to carry on ruling as before without serious challenge.

That is why elections alone which leave the present state intact cannot provide the solution. The issues are too deep to be solved solely at the ballot box. In any case, the party political system in the UK – which is effectively part of the state system – is broken. New movements and organisations have to take their place (see Chapter 5).

The impossibility of separating the present state from economic power is a powerful enough reason on its own for making a transition to new forms of democracy, taking a leap into the future. Self-preservation means the state will block with all the means at its disposal the merest hint of a transfer of power to the majority. That is a lesson from history we would be well advised to heed.

The 17th century struggle between King and Parliament, the American Revolution against Great Britain, the revolutions in France and then Italy – all became titanic struggles in which the masses played a significant role in overturning an old order that clung to power.

In the 20th century, movements against capitalism in Russia, Germany, Spain, Chile, Venezuela and for self-determination from colonial rule, encountered resistance of an often vicious and brutal kind. Only those that had a plan to replace the older order, succeeded.

While it may be possible to reform certain superficial aspects of the state, like voting procedures, the fact remains that by its nature the state favours the status quo. A state that is alienated from its citizens cannot, therefore, be made to work for society as a whole. You cannot vote capitalism out of existence.

Another reminder from history is that state change is crucial and necessary when further political, economic and social development become impossible within the existing structures. At that point the old state becomes a barrier to further progress by humankind. We have reached such a stage of history. Climate change, renewed dangers of military conflict in the wake of economic isolationism and trade war being pursued in the US are real threats to humanity as a whole. The failure of the capitalist economy to recover from the 2008 crash is driving a dangerous moment of the crisis.

The critical issues of the day for humanity in general – global warming, the destruction of the environment, sustainability issues, resources depletion, global poverty and unemployment – are side-lined because they are not solvable within the system that caused them in the first place. To create an ecologically-sustainable economy, for example, we will need to create an entirely different motive for producing goods and services to the drive for profit that is the DNA of capitalism.

The present state has shown in practice that it cannot create these conditions. To end our alienation from what we produce, from the state and from our fellow citizens, we should aim at the transfer of both economic and political power so we can move towards a society based on co-ownership and co-operation. As real democracy is something that the ruling elites cannot give, we have to build a new type of democracy, where institutions reflect the power of the 99% and work in their common interest.

A way forward

Historically, the only real threats to the status quo from within the UK have come from outside the Westminster bubble in the form of great strikes and mass street protests. Now is the time to build a new kind of challenge, not for reforms to a bankrupt system, but for new kinds of democratic assemblies out of which can come ideas and actions for furthering the interests of the majority. A real democratic movement of the people on the issues of housing, poverty, low wages, rights, as well as the environment and global warming could unite most sections of society into a real force for change that would be difficult to resist.

The existence of undemocratic bodies at the heart of society and government should be addressed by creating a new written constitution that places power in the hands of the people. A convention that reflects our diverse society and the different nations within the UK would be tasked with drawing this up with the help of experts in the field.

This constitution would have to be carried into effect by people organised in assemblies, creating a network of popular power that challenges the status quo and acts as a means of a transition to a real democracy. It could enhance the principle of self-determination that would break the stranglehold of corporate power over the democratic process – and hand control to workers, consumers, students, parents and communities (see Chapter 4).

Parliament, with its enormously rich history, could be made into a powerful body to reflect the new power of society in place of the poodle without bite that it has become. For example, a new kind of Parliament could bring together citizens elected by local and regional assemblies where members can be recalled and/or re-elected every year.

The constitution could establish a co-operative not-for-profit system, which locally, nationally and internationally would lead to the possibility of restoring the planet to health and of transforming the social relations of human beings. There are many barriers in the way, but the centre clearly cannot hold. A collective, concerted and above all organised movement will open a new chapter in the long march for democracy.

Next: Signposts to the future …

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