Does the left get democracy?
Events in Egypt are truly inspirational. Hopefully they are just the
beginning of events that will truly transform the entire Middle East.
They may seem remote from our struggles in Britain; we, after-all have
a Parliamentary democracy and the protestors across the Middle East
are taking to the streets against despotic and barbaric dictators.
However, ‘economic factors’ have been one of the key motivating
factors of the current unrest; spiralling food prices, inflation,
unemployment have proved to be an explosive cocktail across the
region. Naturally the intolerability of the economic hardships these
regimes have led to wider questions being asked. When conditions of
living become unbearable it’s only natural that people respond with
resistance and demand more control over their lives. Rather than being
separate, the calls for greater ‘social justice’ and to extend the
frontiers of democracy are one and the same call.
However, sometimes you would be hard-pressed to find a reflection of
this on the British left. Far-left groups tend to feed us a thick,
stodgy diet of propaganda that waxes very lyrical about the many
economic privations capitalism inflicts upon us. Fair enough. But
where is the talk about the democratic deficit that is inherent in a
system where the few deprive the many of control of what they produce?
Democracy is usually attached pejoratively to the ‘bourgeoisie’ and
therefore alienated by implication from working class politics.
Meanwhile, within the more mainstream left and the unions the attitude
is encouraged that politics is something you do in your Labour Party
This has to change. Democracy is a scarier word for capitalism than
socialism which is all too often tarred with the brush of being
opposed to democracy, statist and bureaucratic. This is so because
democracy and extending its frontiers is all about increasing peoples
control over their lives – an idea that pro-capitalist forces on the
right successfully often markets itself as favouring. However, we know
that these people favour freedom and control for things like markets
and capital over freedom and democratic control of their own lives for
people. They successfully pull off the trick of making it appear
otherwise though and are aided and abetted by a left that is too
preoccupied with other causes. It’s a sympathetic and self-reinforcing
However, that is being shattered on the streets in the Middle East.
Democracy is the defining rallying call of the masses in struggle,
even now after all this time. It builds bridges and unites the
majorities of society in a common struggle far more effectively than
any other demand. While capitalism exists it is facile in the extreme
to dismiss democracy or say glibly ‘the democratic revolution in
Europe is finished’ so why bother. This is disarming and dishonest.
Democracy will never be fully realised under capitalism; it cannot be,
because capitalism as a social system can never be truly democratic.
Parliamentary democracy is a system whose credibility is in terminal
decline – hence the frantic efforts at reform – and everybody knows it
as surely as they know in Egypt that to win the first battle in the
war for democracy they have to leave the Mubarak regime in ashes. The
centrality of democracy to progressive politics is an obvious truth;
obvious it seems to everybody but the left.