A Lethal Distraction
As the lost desert wanderer drifts closer to death, they begin to have desperate visions. These visions are illusions called mirages, light rays that are bent and produce displaced images of distant objects and scenery.
Newborn sea turtles, confused by the lights of the businesses along the seafront, shimmy and scoot away from the ocean only to be eaten by crabs, get stuck in the sewer or smashed by cars and other vehicles. The false promise of the street lights, the literal beacons of civilization, leads them away from the water to their demise. One can imagine electric traps for mosquitoes and other insects having a similar allure.
This is how democracy has led the working class away from seizing the means of production and taking political power for themselves.
Democracy is a subjective term. It’s a colloquialism that has no exact meaning; a mystifying degeneracy. It’s an umbrella term and a safe word, the use of which compels curious minds to reconcile numerous and often contradictory definitions. The way the global proletariat clings to democracy today is a clear sign of the the working class’ political immaturity and historical amnesia, which continues to exist in an era of ubiquitous Internet and information technologies.
For hundreds of years now, workers have been kept effectively powerless for the sake of “the profit motive”. We elect politicians who cater more to businesses and corporations than to the people they’re supposed to represent. Instead, we should remove the middle men and figure things out for ourselves together. The persistent distraction of perfecting democracy will not allow us to do that.
Democracy has only been and can only be part of a system of class rule where one class of people dominate, exploit and oppress another class. Workers don’t need “more” of it. We need anti-authoritarian communism. A healthy rejection of democracy is essential to pro-revolutionaries and the project of creating a classless society of freely associated people. It is every bit as essential as our rejections of patriarchy, racism, nationalism and authoritarianism.
Democracy as Procedure
Democracy in the purely procedural sense is a method of political organization in which individual participants take part in decision-making through voting, either directly or indirectly (via delegates and representatives).
The vote won by the majority supervenes the will of the minority. Every individual of the body must obey the decision-making and voting process, whether consenting to the majority’s opinions and actions, or not.
The state, an alienated body, is tasked with enforcing the democratic will of the majority in a way both sides agree on and perceive as fair and balanced. This ensures the unity and integrity of the procedure as a whole. Of course, there may be guarantees for minorities to prevent “tyranny of the majority” when it is viewed in excess. But democracy serves the majority by design, and the will of the minority always takes the back seat.
A show of hands is common sense in group decision-making. The criticisms of democracy found here are not of a group of friends or co-workers making a decision on where to eat. (Although we don’t recommend it if you’re hungry!) But this is still the scope of consideration in most attempts to define democracy. Could there be more to it?
The General Historical Phenomenon
Revolutionaries should not to limit themselves to the purely procedural definition of democracy.
“Broadly speaking, one can define democracy as the behavior of humans, the organization of those who have lost their original organic unity with the community. Thus it exists during the whole period which separates primitive communism from scientific communism.”
“…The democratic phenomenon appears with clarity in two historical periods : at the time of the dissolution of the primitive community in Greece; and at the time of the dissolution of feudal society in western Europe. It is incontestable, that during this second period the phenomenon appeared with greater intensity, because men had really been reduced to the status of individuals and the ancient social relations could no longer unite them.” (Camatte)
Classical Greek democracy, also called Athenian democracy, was the first democracy in the world. It lasted for about three-hundred years with some minor periods of interruption before Athens joined the Roman empire. There was not “universal” suffrage (even this is limited to citizens rather than residents). Women and slaves were barred from voting, as well as any male citizen that did not own land. These qualifications resulted in the participation of only fifteen to twenty-five percent of Athenian citizens. (Thorley) This figure is comparable to modern mid-term election turnout in the United States of America.
In the context of philosophical thought, modern democracy is the product of a long tradition of liberal thought, stretching from the Enlightenment to the present age of liberal democracies. As Marx once said, “Democracy relates to all other forms of the state as their Old Testament.” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, pt. 2, sec. c) It has become the standard form of government in the world today, although some democracies are variably formal and hollow.
A System of Class Domination
The democratic ideology has become the implicit ideology of bourgeois society in modern times. It is the common-sense thought that arises from implied and often unconscious assumptions of liberal individualism.
These assumptions take the abstraction of atomized individuals as the starting point of political thought, and go on to assume political consent through an unspoken social contract between these same abstracted atomized individuals. Some of them come together every decision-making period or “election cycle” as a unity of divisions, a unity of atomized individuals, as the “lonely crowd”.
They vote and the elections affirm the atomization of said individuals: they are united in their alienation and they are alienated in their unity. Mutual alienation is affirmed through both the voters’ estrangement of political power to the alienated state, and their separation from each other through the partition of the organic masses into discrete units. The individual is basically cleaved off from the whole of society and then asked to make a decision about the whole of society.
As the fruit of liberalism, the democratic ideology relies on malformed liberal assumptions about the essence of the human being. It assumes that an alienated body, the state, is required to hold back the evil supposedly inherent in human beings. Without the state, asked many of the Enlightenment thinkers, what would prevent us from harming one another?
Democracy arises out of a sacred legal relation called private property which is upheld by the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois rights, often referred to commonly as “human rights”, are nothing but the rights of exclusion. They are the rights of the private property owner to alienate themselves, their actions and (most importantly) their property from the general human community. Bourgeois right therefore aims to make possession mutually exclusive and this causes the social division of atomized property owners.
There is a contradiction between the abstract ideal of private property, the individual as the owner of this property, and the concrete reality of the unalienated or natural human community. Owners of private property unite on the basis of safekeeping this property. They entrust this duty to that alienated body called the state, by way of an unspoken social contract.
These atomized owners of private property are compelled to unite upon a basis in which they exchange thoughts in the marketplace of ideas. They then estrange their power as individual capitalists to an alienated body (the state), which then enforces the content of these ideas based on which have the most currency and are the highest in demand. In other words, the ideas which succeed and come to the surface of society are those most loyal to the bourgeois rights that lie at the foundation of democracy.
Democracy is both all-powerful and toothless: all-powerful because, in theory, it claims to give the masses control over everything within the parameters set by the bourgeoisie and the wider capitalist framework…but toothless because it cannot touch the capitalist relations of production and private property at the heart of capitalism itself. We see this stretched to its limits by bourgeois economists and the mainstream advocacy of workers’ cooperatives and self-management in general.
Within democracy, each of us live inside our own bubbles or spaces, like the characters from the children’s story The Little Prince or the teen comedy film Bubble Boy. Everyone has some degree of understanding of their alienation and exploitation, although it varies greatly between individuals. We do our jobs and endlessly work hard to keep warm, fed and comfortable. Our qualms with the status quo, whatever they might be, are limited in such a way that allows us to be managed based on our atomization. One group of workers is kept apathetic about the concerns of another by using all the normal divisive devices like racism, sexism and homophobia. When one section of the working class rises up against some injustice, all other sections are contained by the ruling class from spreading the struggle in solidarity with their fellow workers because as groups of atomized voters, they know exactly what our strengths and weakness are. Like a patient of an organ transplant, capitalism’s health is maintained only via the immunosuppression of its most vital cells and organs: the working masses.
Marx and Democracy
Marx himself was in conflict over these questions and explored them in some detail. He wrote of democracy as early as 1843, and described it then as a “particular form of the existence of the people” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, pt. 2, sec. c), contrasting it with monarchies of the era, and exploring the state as a product of human activity and idealism.
Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto “that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.” (ch. 2, par. 68). This contributed greatly to the rise of social democracy and bourgeois socialism and has become a theoretical basis for democratic socialism even today, though it has largely been misinterpreted or misrepresented from the start. Even though Marx was engaged in polemical discussions with groups like the German social democrats and others during the 1870s, his criticisms were not made public.
Marx goes on to abandon any references to genuine or “true democracy” when describing a situation where “the political state disappears” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, pt. 2, sec. c), later consciously choosing to describe this situation as only communism instead.
The “true democracy” or pure democracy advocated by Marx in his youth is evidence that the young Marx of 1843 was a radical democrat and not yet a communist. This is because “true democracy” in this sense is a mode of management within class society, while capitalism and communism are of modes of production and societies in and of themselves. In 1843, Marx had not yet completely uncovered the value relations at the core of capitalism. He had yet to analyze the productive relations of society. As a result, at the time of the writing of the Critique of Hegel, Marx did not have the coherent pictures of capitalism and communism that he would develop in the following decades.
“…The ideas he put forward even in the Critique (which was later published by Engels) are by no means unproblematic. They include a theory of transition in which bourgeois right in distribution would still prevail, through the use of labor notes, and in which his description of the “first stage of socialism” is far closer to capitalism than it is to the more attractive second stage, with no mechanism given to explain how the one can change into the other”. (Endnotes 2)
There is further evidence of the evolution of Marx, and Engels on this issue. In a letter to August Bebel Engels wrote the following:
“As to pure democracy and its role in the future I do not share your opinion. Obviously it plays a far more subordinate part in Germany than in countries with an older industrial development. But that does not prevent the possibility, when the moment of revolution comes, of its acquiring a temporary importance as the most radical bourgeois party (it has already played itself off as such in Frankfort) and as the final sheet-anchor of the whole bourgeois and even feudal regime. At such a moment the whole reactionary mass falls in behind it and strengthens it; everything which used to be reactionary behaves as democratic. Thus between March and September 1848 the whole feudal-bureaucratic mass strengthened the liberals in order to hold down the revolutionary masses, and, once this was accomplished, in order, naturally, to kick out the liberals as well.”
Democracy or Communism?
Democracy and bourgeois rights cannot understand communism’s abolition of private property and its affirmation of the real human community, except as the negation of its very basis of existence. Neither can it understand right except as an instance of exclusion, rather than an instance of inclusion, as an instance of the real human community, as an instance of the common possession of each other and the property we work on.
There are many communists and even anarchists today who call for a defense of genuine or “true democracy” and the safeguarding of the liberal bourgeois state against the rising tide of right-wing populism, nationalism and authoritarianism. They often ask “would you rather live in fascism?” They become delirious and reach out for the liberal bourgeois state like the deserted traveler grasps at a false image of an oasis. This is the essence of the democratic mirage.
Camatte, Jacques. “The Democratic Mystification.” Invariance 1.6 (April-June 1969). Marxists.org. 2006. Web. 9 Jan. 2017. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/camatte/demyst.htm>.
Thorley, John. Athenian Democracy. Routledge, 2005. 74.
Marx, Karl. “Democracy.” Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970. Marxists.org. 2000. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/index.htm>.
Marx, Karl and Fred Engels. “Proletarians and Communists.” Manifesto of the Communist Party. Moscow: Progress, 1969. 98-137. Marxists.org. 2004. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm>.
“Communisation and Value-Form Theory.” Endnotes 2. Endnotes. Web. 16 Jan. 2017. <https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/2/en/endnotes-communisation-and-value-form-theory>.
Engels, Fred. “Engels to August Bebel In Berlin.” Letter to August Bebel. 11 Dec. 1884. Gesamtausgabe. International, 1942. Marxists.org. Sally Ryan. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/letters/84_12_11.htm>.