Can we get real democracy?

Author: 
John Molyneux

The call for ‘Real Democracy Now’ was the key demand, and ‘They don’t represent us!’ the most popular slogan, of the great Indignados movement which occupied the squares of Spain’s cities in the summer of 2011 and transformed Spanish cities.

And expressed in various forms the question of democracy and the quest for ‘real’ democracy has been central to many of the mass movements of the last few years, most notably the Occupy movement in the US and elsewhere.

It was also a major factor in the mass popular protests in Bulgaria that last week brought down the right wing government of Boiko Borisov in response to a huge increase in electricity prices. The call for direct democracy, along with attacks on corruption in government, also feature heavily in the programme of the new ‘5-Star Movement’, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, which has just polled 25% of the vote in the Italian elections.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland, November 2012 saw the launch of a new party, Direct Democracy Ireland (DDI). Their website defines direct democracy as a form of democracy in which the people have the right to:

1. Select their own candidates to represent them.

2. Call a referendum on any topic if a sufficient number of people deem it necessary, by gathering a set number of signatures.

3. Create legislation and put it to a referendum if a sufficient number of people agree with it, by gathering a set number of signatures.

4. Recall, remove from office, any representative deemed to have acted in breach of their terms of employment.

Though by no means original or specific to DDI (which in itself is not important) these sort of ideas are very likely in the current climate to strike a chord with many and may even attract significant active support.

Five years of bank bail-outs and austerity, coming on the back of decades of corruption stretching back to Haughey and beyond, have generated widespread bitterness, anger and cynicism in relation to the political establishment and established politics. Whatever the relative standing of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the fact remains that the two parties that have completely dominated Irish political life since the foundation of the state stand, combined, at less than 50% in the polls.

The massive betrayal of working class people by Labour and their partners in crime, the union leaders, has further deepened the cynicism, while the absence, up to now, of strong resistance from the organized working class means that many people are on the look out for ‘something new’. The idea of recalling corrupt or treacherous TDs seems likely to be particularly popular.

How should socialists respond to this development?

The first thing to say is that we should welcome it. We are in favour of direct democracy and a critique of how so-called ‘representative democracy’, or the parliamentary system, works has been central to the socialist and Marxist tradition ever since the Paris Commune of 1871.

This extraordinary, but little known, event (because largely written out of the history books) involved the people of Paris rising up and taking over the running of their city for two and a half months until they were bloodily suppressed by a combination of the French and German armies. It was a pioneering example of direct democracy.

Writing at the time Marx commented:

The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms [my emphasis]…From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wages
…The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves.
…the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the “parson-power", by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles.

The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state

Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm

How much we in Ireland today can learn from the Paris Commune 142 years ago!

The socialist critique of parliamentary democracy as it exists in Ireland, Europe, North America and elsewhere stresses the following points.

1) Elected representatives are not accountable to or recallable by their electors except once every five years, ie when the damage is done. This makes possible and even encourages promise breaking and corruption. Eamonn Gilmore can say ‘It’s Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way’ and then go Frankfurt’s way all the way and promise not to serve in a government that cuts child benefit and then do just that, and Ruari Quinn can publicly sign a pledge to oppose student fees and then raise them. ‘Isn’t that what you do at elections?’ as Pat Rabbitte put it.

2) The lack of accountability is closely linked to the fact that we vote (once every four or five years) as isolated or ‘atomised’ individuals, not as part of any collective or on the basis of any collective debate. As a result the electors feel powerless and are highly vulnerable to the influence of the media, ie the super rich who control the media, and in between elections they do not come together to assert control over their representatives. Socialists therefore favour voting at meetings or assemblies where debate and discussion is possible.

3) Parliaments (and local councils) are only one part of the machinery of state. In the other parts of the state apparatus – the state bureaucracy, the judiciary, the police and armed forces – there is no election or democracy at all.

4) Most importantly, parliament is not where real power in society lies at all. Real power lies with the banks and corporations who control the wealth, finances and production of society. And just like the army and the police, the people who run these institutions are not subject to any sort of democratic election or recallability.

James Connolly famously said that you could ‘remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle’ but ‘England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country’. With equal truth we say that we could elect any number of ‘honest’ TDs and hoist the green or even the red flag over the Dail and the capitalists will still rule us through their control of wealth and production.

Proposals to look at ways of making elected representatives accountable and to enable the people to force referenda on issues they feel strongly about are steps in the right direction and should be supported. But by themselves they don’t go far enough because they don’t tackle the undemocratic nature of economic power, of big business, the banks and the corporations. We need to make not only TDs and councilors recallable and subject to referenda if the people want it, but also the CEOs and major decisions of big business and that can’t be done without social ownership ie socialism and without mobilizing the working class

How far the members of DDI will be prepared to go in this direction remains to be seen but the fact that their ‘founder’, Raymond Whitehead, is a former night club and restaurant owner, antique dealer, and teacher of “Transcendental Meditation and The Science of Creative Intelligence” and that their ‘leader’ is Ben Gilroy of the constitution obsessed Freemen, suggests their may be problems there.

However, it is mass mobilization from below, a crucial part of which is action from organized workers, that will be necessary to win these or any other democratic reforms and ultimately real democracy, genuine ‘people power’ is incompatible with capitalism as a political and economic system which, by its very nature, involves the rule of the many by the few.

March 1, 2013 - 13:02