Democracy for Dummies

Marx on democracy


Bravo Rachel Stewart for taking on the ‘sour Old Men’. It is true that a few ‘grown-up boys’ chose to lecture her in public. That is their problem. Not that I mind being a sour old man. What I am sour about is not the end of ‘democracy’ but the general ignorance about ‘democracy’. That is not confined to any particular gender or generations, but to all those in thrall of what passes for democracy in capitalist society.

For historical reasons explored below most people actually believe in bourgeois democracy, and it is not a personal failing, but one which is imposed in the popular culture like baby milk powder. These are not the dummies. They are those who have a professional/intellectual stake in defending bourgeois democracy against all the odds. They include those criticise Rachel for diagnosing its deathly state, and not Rachel herself who is asking the question of why democracy is not working.

But what is this democracy and why are those who defend it when they should know better dummies? For me, dummies are like useful idiots, they glorify their ignorance of the social reality and make do with superficial common sense platitudes because they do it for a living. They are the contemporary priests. So, democracy is the weapon of goodness we use to destroy badness. Sounds like a religion because when you analyse its origins it has the same roots.

Copernicus proved that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Darwin proved that humans evolved and were not the progeny of any ‘intelligent design. Einstein overturned our dogmas about space and time. And Karl Marx proved that ‘democracy’ in capitalist society was a ruling class idea and part of the ruling class state. Those who are paid to challenge these new scientific discoveries and promote the defence of bourgeois democracy as the solution to capitalism’s problems are the dummies.

Maybe it is news to Rachel, but she is not the first to predict the death of ‘democracy’. Marx did so after 1848 when the revolutions in Europe began to go into reverse. The French Revolution gave birth to ‘democracy’ as the political ideology of the bourgeoisie who rose up to overthrow the feudal state and impose a bourgeois state. Equality, Fraternity! What better slogans for the new society based on a new class division of the bourgeoisie as property owners who exploit landless workers. Because workers would accept their exploitation if they believed themselves to be the equal of their employers – as sovereign citizens capable of contesting power in a ‘democracy’.

Bosses had good reason to believe this would work since they cynically promoted capitalism as an equal opportunity society. You see, they worked hard for land because they or their forebears had acquired it by abstaining from consumption and saving up their capital. As Marx wrote, they willfully suppressed history as one of merciless rape, plunder and genocide in the ‘original’ (or primitive) accumulation of their land and wealth. If workers did not accept this bourgeois myth of the origins of capitalism when confronting by class inequalities, most would remain trapped in the ‘false consciousness’ of ‘democracy’ as capable of reforming capitalism.

So while capitalism was of its nature based on class struggle, it survived as long as it could escape the blame and point the finger at either landlords, employers or workers as exceeding their fair share of wealth. This meant rejigging the system not overthrowing it. If workers were equal citizens they could vote a majority of their representatives into parliament and equalise incomes. Bourgeois democracy therefore was the solution to all the problems of capitalist inequality.  But such democracy was a fraud, because while on the surface democracy could legislate equal distribution in income, it could not cancel surplus value, so that workers would never be citizens equal to employers.

Marx explains this in his theory of commodity fetishism. Most of the best scientific discoveries are simply because they resolve anomalies. Marx discovered that capitalism is a society in which commodities sell at their price, but that in the case of one commodity, labour-power, produced more value than the value of its wage. Commodities produced for sale in the market embodied a total value comprising the value of the wage, all the value used up from machinery etc in the process of production, and surplus-value. Thus the capitalist paid the wage, retained the invested value used up in production, and then pocketed the surplus-value as profit. So how could workers who were exploited by producing surplus-value, and were thus by definition unequal in production, become equals with their employers in politics?

Having discovered that workers were exploited in production Marx explained how this unequal relation of production was automatically inverted as an equal relation of exchange. Because the commodity incorporated value and was appropriated by the employer, the existence of surplus-value was masked within the total value of the commodity. This inversion of unequal production relations into equal exchange relations Marx calls ‘commodity’ fetishism. The value appeared to be inherent in the commodity and not in the labour-power that created it. Moreover this value appeared to distribute naturally into what Marx called ‘revenue’ classes, depending on their fair share of value earned as rent, wages and profits.

Arising from this fetishised appearance of equal exchange, the ideology of bourgeois democracy emerges, complete with the state that belongs to all citizens. That is why Marxists call bourgeois democracy the “democratic dictatorship” of the bourgeoisie because it fetishises individual citizenship as sovereign, and masks a class exploitative state and destructive society. As mentioned above, bourgeois democracy came under challenge early in its life when the class war against workers drove down wages and conditions and threatened to destroy the working class as the basis of capitalist profits.

The most enlightened capitalists like Robert Owen, or the Cadbury family, reinforced the fetishism of bourgeois democracy by supporting reforms like the 10 hour act and better wages and conditions. Ever since, liberal bourgeois like William Pember Reeves, Chomsky, or Piketty, despite growing inequalities, crises and world wars driven by falling profits, have staked their reputations on defending the ‘democratic principles’ of commodity fetishism. That is, whatever is wrong with capitalism is due to an aberration in which one or other class, sometimes workers, but mainly bosses, have used their power to increase their income share at the expense of the other.

Yet, nothing comes of attempting to reform the capitalist state that acts to defend private property and to reproduce the working class as alienated, exploited bourgeois subjects. The dummies, priests of capitalism, pretend that the inherent evils of capitalism can be resolved by voting for one or other faction of the ruling class, right, centre or left, to legislate the further exploitation and inequality in the name of bourgeois democracy, equality and liberty.

The good thing about Rachel Stewart’s charge that ‘democracy’ is dying is that it invites a further questioning of bourgeois democracy as the solution when it is very much part of the problem. The real solution is the end of capitalism and the beginning of ‘workers’ democracy’.