The democracy illusion

Karl Marx believed that participative democracy had a bias towards the proletariat, owing to their greater number compared with the bourgeoisie. This, he argued, would inevitably lead to the powerful attempting to overthrow democracy and institute a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” – thus, to protect their interests, the working-class must pre-empt this and establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Marx’s mistake, an illusion shattered conclusively by the election of Donald Trump, was to consider democracy an alternative system to tyranny. The reality is that democracy is merely a (superficially) more civilised arena for different “interests” to do battle in.

Western liberals evangelise around the globe for the democratic ideal. There is no such thing as an “ideal” democracy. It is not simply a matter of tweaking the constitution until an optimally fair outcome is achieved. Any democratic framework intentionally promotes the interests of some groups at the expense of others.

Universal suffrage doesn’t equal one person, one vote if participation is voluntary and turnout is low – such a setup empowers the white, the well-off, and especially the elderly. Mandatory voting on the other hand not only empowers labour at the expense of capital, but also makes space for populism on the margins and potentially allows minorities to be tyrannised by the majority. Build a rule-of-law system to protect those minorities, and you create a mechanism for blunting democracy which shores up the status quo and empowers established interests.

Which interests are to be empowered and which contained may be a selfish judgement, based on what benefits oneself the most. It may be a normative judgement, based on what one considers to be a morally “just” distribution of power. But what shape democracy should take is always, a deliberate judgement about empowering certain interests at the expense of others.

Hugh McDiarmid once wrote: “No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote | But misapplied is aabody’s property, … toastin ane wha’s nocht to them but an | Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.”1 Too many commentators try to reinterpret Marx in order to lend his authority to their own conclusions. I will not pretend to know with certainty that when he spoke of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, he didn’t have an actual dictatorship in mind – perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t. But a quick scance at democracy today reveals what I believe can reasonably be called a creeping dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

In Britain – in contrast to many developed nations – we have the good fortune of parliamentary sovereignty. In America, liberal ideologues with good intentions designed a number of checks and balances to regulate power in what they believed to be an ideal system. Almost two and a half centuries later, none of them is working as intended – and chief amongst them the constitution and the Supreme Court. Though intended as a guarantee of basic rights – and a defence against the tyranny of the majority – it turns out that a piece of paper written over two hundred years ago, when guns were a necessity and slavery was legal, isn’t necessarily the optimal framework of protections for the citizen today. Though amendments are possible, the process is fraught and laborious. Worse, the constitution actively suppresses the democratic will of people today by overruling the campaign pledges of successful candidates – from progressives trying to ban guns at a state level to right-wing demagogues trying to ban Muslims at a national one. However well intentioned, a major consequence of the US constitution is to shore up the status quo until it becomes farcical, forcing the values of the past upon the present.

And SCOTUS only exacerbates the problem. The idea of giving power to unelected, unaccountable judges was to put the basic rights of citizens beyond the reach of politicking. But the rationale behind the Supreme Court is fatally undermined by the fact that in modern times, its Justices are incredibly political. Unlike normal politicians, who have limited terms and rely on the enduring confidence of the electorate to persevere, Supreme Court Justices serve life terms and are shielded from general scrutiny by an almost iconoclastic taboo. The checks and balances intended to embolden American democracy only serve to weaken it – many Trump voters wrote off much of the outrageous nonsense the reality TV star spouted as impossible due to those checks and balances, and treated the election as a mixture of entertainment and protest opportunity.

Though the US is the most extreme example, any liberal republic with a written constitution and supreme court is vulnerable to similar issues. In Britain, we are fortunate enough to have an unwritten constitution and an elected parliament which derives its absolute sovereignty from the Crown, thus (legally, by “divine right”) from God. Nevertheless, we are not impervious to the tyranny of the judiciary that plagues liberal republics.

Those who argued that the judges of the UK “Supreme Court” deliberately ruled as they did out of personal prejudice to try and thwart Brexit are dangerous raving zoomers; yet that doesn’t mean those judges were right to hear the case in the first place. Our judges are the envy of the world: in terms of freedom from corruption, objectivity, consistency and training, the arbiters of the UK’s jurisdictions are second to none. Yet inevitably, excellence leads to arrogance, and – consciously or not – the judiciary of late has been undertaking an increasingly audacious power grab. I have no doubt that the judges in the Brexit case, in both England (and Wales)’s High Court and the UKSC, conducted themselves professionally, knowledgeably and as objectively as possible; but what is of concern is that – from Article 50 to Named Person – these people arrogate unto themselves, junta-like, the tutelage of our democracy, appointing themselves the task of approbating the expressed will of the electorate.

Besides the judiciary, another major interest vying for influence in modern democracies is what Wolfgang Streeck calls the Marktvolk2. In the era of public debt, the god of policy is the bond market. Again, those liberal republics who have fallen for a written constitution are more vulnerable than the UK, because they can be pressured into writing debt ceilings or even surplusses into binding undemocratic law. Yet noble Britain, despite having never bought into the bold yet naïve experiment of the liberal republic, is far from free from the influence of lenders. There is no easy freedom from these masters, but growing our economy whilst reducing our reliance on borrowing by setting sustainable tax rates and increasing revenue through state enterprise are the best way to strengthen our bargaining position.

Another grave threat to proletarian democracy is differential turnout. This favours the well-off, the educated, the white – but especially the old. The baby boomers are the most gilded generation in our history. Baby boomers worked all their lives – in secure, well-paid jobs – to fund their own and their immediate ancestors’ welfare in a time of rising prosperity (and therefore tax revenue). In a time of austerity, “choices must be made” – and because of the size and dependability of the grey vote, pensions and retirement benefits are ringfenced or even increased, while the welfare and public services on which those of working age on zero hours contracts in the service industry rely are cut to fund them. Because middle-class homeowners are more likely to vote than the young poor, policies which boost the price of houses are prioritised over policies which make them more affordable – despite the rhetorical lip service often paid. If we are to honour democracy’s proletarian bias, we must push for mandatory voting.

Another malign influence in modern-day politics is lobbying. Whilst key players in industry who create jobs and bring in revenue must rightly be entitled to protest their interests, a system where deep pockets allow one to frustrate the passage of bills in a democratically elected parliament cannot be a just one. I offer here no easy solutions to this problem, but – as even, to his rare credit, David Cameron had the courage to point out – the system of lobbying that exists at present is a problem, and must be tackled.

As common as it is in our culture to proselytise for “democracy” as a homogenous ideal, we must acknowledge the flaws in its every current implementation. I do not proffer that a valid democracy is one that blocks Trump’s “Muslim ban”; I proffer that a valid democracy is one which prevents Trump’s election in the first place. A system that permits his election on the premise that he won’t fulfil his promises is a broken system. Optional participation is a disaster, especially when one tacks on “rule of law”.

“Democracy”, as a singular ideal, does not exist. We must accept that democracy is not a single system, but a spectrum. We must have the courage to reform the system, and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat within a democratic framework. Parliamentary sovereignty, mandatory voting, controls on lobbying and keeping borrowing on Faustian terms under control.

Footnotes:
[1] MacDiarmid, Hugh (aka Grieve, Christopher); A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, 1926
[2] Streeck, Wolfgang; Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, 2014. The Marktvolk he contrasts with the Staatsvolk, i.e. the voting citizenry.

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