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Fear of the masses

The 'end of communism' has led to widespread celebrations of the triumph of liberal democracy. But, says Mike Freeman, a spate of elections in the West reveals a pervasive uneasiness in the relationship between capitalism and democracy

A recent poll conducted for the European Commission in Eastern Europe revealed widespread disenchantment with the operation of the new democratic systems (Guardian, 29 January). Only in Lithuania was a clear majority satisfied with democracy; in Bulgaria more were dissatisfied than satisfied; everywhere else the majority was dissatisfied, by 2:1 in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland and by 4:1 in Russia west of the Urals. Just as in the past conservative ideologues in the West influenced the intelligentsia in the East, now Eastern disillusionment with democracy fuels anti-democratic sentiment in the West.

Take the recent review of a collection of the writings of the notorious Russian chauvinist Alexander Solzhenitsyn by Oxford history professor Norman Stone (Guardian, 31 October). In a generally sympathetic account, Stone notes, almost in passing, that Solzhenitsyn 'does not care much for universal suffrage; he thinks that voting should not begin until 20, and that there should be a lower age limit for people who are elected'. (Stone also notes with approval Solzhenitsyn's suggestion that men should be paid more so that women can stay at home and raise a family.)

Not so fast

At February's World Economic Forum in Switzerland, former Japanese premier Noboru Takeshita expressed alarm at events in Eastern Europe. Takeshita, who himself had to resign in 1989 over his involvement in one of the financial scandals that are endemic to Japan's parliamentary democracy, declared that while 'democracy was laudable', some countries had rushed into it so fast that their political systems had collapsed. He was particularly concerned that nobody should suggest accelerating the pace of democratic transformation in Japan's East Asian sphere of influence.

In discussing the problems of democracy in the East, Sunday Times columnist Barbara Amiel has commented that 'democracy, strictly speaking, is only a means of ensuring a method of succession in government. It is an excellent method, but by itself it is not a guarantee of anything' (26 January). The democratic ideal, so recently proclaimed over the ruins of the Berlin Wall as the ultimate realisation of human destiny, is now reduced to a technical device for reproducing governments.

Corruption and patronage

Just as the ending of the Cold War has thrown the old world order into disarray, it has also unleashed a crisis of legitimacy of the political institutions of Western society. Combined with the impact of economic recession, the result is a trend towards the fragmentation of old parties and alignments.

Take Italy. For 40 years, Italian politics were polarised between the virulently anti-Soviet, anti-communist Christian Democrats and the Communist Party. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of the Communist Party (which has changed its name and split) has deprived the Christian Democrats of their unifying focus. Faced with all the problems of inflation, unemployment and regional differentiation, the Christian Democrats are revealed for what they have always been: a coalition of local bosses relying on corruption and patronage. Only now they are incapable of holding together.

Throughout the West, mainstream parties of the right have lost the propaganda focus that gave them cohesion throughout the Cold War era at the very moment when the deepest postwar recession weakens their grip on society. The right's only consolation is that the collapse of the Soviet bloc has dealt an even heavier blow to established labour movement organisations, both Stalinist and social democratic, further discrediting their programmes and eroding their popular support. The resulting instability gives unprecedented scope for populist, even demagogic, politicians to make dramatic advances. It is in response to such movements that anti-democratic trends have recently become apparent.

Some increasingly widespread trends are apparent in the USA. Until recently, president George Bush anticipated a fairly easy ride through this year's election campaign to a second term in the White House. But the conqueror of Baghdad and the victor in the Cold War has spectacularly failed to defeat the recession that is ravaging America, intensifying sentiments of national decline that are not assuaged by triumphs in far-away countries.

Sex scandals

The main threat to Bush in the early stages of his campaign has come from rivals for the nomination of the Republican Party, notably Pat Buchanan and David Duke. Both candidates emphasise populist, racist and anti-Semitic themes, Buchanan in the more discreet terms of a Washington sophisticate, Duke in the less coded rhetoric of the South. Bush's first response to the challenge was to subvert the electoral process by using bureaucratic methods to prevent both his rivals, but especially Duke, from entering Republican Party primary contests.

Another trend evident in the early stages of the US presidential election is the mobilisation of the media around sexual and other scandal allegations to discredit opposition politicians. Bill Clinton, Bush's most dangerous challenger from the chronically demoralised Democratic camp, has been subjected not only to highly publicised allegations of sexual misconduct, but also to smears about his record in relation to Vietnam. The most striking feature about the latter charge is that it suggests the involvement of the security services in providing dirt for the presidential campaign. The recent media attacks on Neil Kinnock and Paddy Ashdown in Britain reveal a similar process.

Blocking tactics

As the far right has grown rapidly in Europe, politicians in mainstream parties have resorted to collaborating together to try to block its rise - if necessary by delaying elections. In January in Milan, Italy, for example, the Christian Democrats persuaded Piero Borghini, for 30 years a prominent communist, to become mayor in a new municipal coalition, so avoiding the danger of holding elections. Both the traditional right and left feared that they would lose support to the anti-Southerner, anti-immigrant Lombard League which recently won an election in neighbouring Brescia and is set to advance further in Northern Italy.

But the racists' influence will not be reduced by depriving them of opportunities to display it. Such tactics simply expose the weakness and desperation of the mainstream parties. Similar trends are apparent in the response to the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National in France.

The fact that anti-democratic measures are commonly used against far-right and racist politicians and movements today should not disguise their reactionary character. It is already clear that the predominant response of the mainstream parties to the success of the far right is to adopt similar policies. This is apparent in the explicitly racist statements of prominent French politicians, both in the conservative parties and in the Socialist government. While trying to restrict Le Pen's organisation, they are happy to adapt to his prejudices. It is also clear from the campaigns against moderate opposition politicians like Kinnock, Ashdown and Clinton, that any more radical opposition movement could expect the even more drastic curtailment of democratic liberties.

Fear and contempt

However, at the root of the current trend to restrict democracy and to question its validity lies a more fundamental feature of bourgeois politics - a profound distrust, compounded with elements of fear and contempt, for the mass of people who express their judgements through the ballot box.

The Queen's cocktail party exchange with Reagan, quoted above, echoes the concerns of the establishment about the consequences of expanding voting rights in the nineteenth century. The consensus of contemporary capitalist opinion was that there must be a direct link between the franchise and the ownership of property. Only those who paid taxes should vote because only they had a stake in the system. It was considered self-evident that the beneficiaries of government revenues should not have the vote, or they would use it to back candidates offering more benefits
--thus unleashing a spiral of public expenditure and corrupting public life. This is why, according to the Queen, 'all the democracies are bankrupt'.

For people like the Queen and Reagan, the trouble with democracy is not only that it gives non-taxpayers authority over taxpayers, but it also gives the uneducated masses power over the enlightened few. For a minority ruling class, democracy is the tyranny of the majority. Such concerns were widely expressed in response to the 1867 Reform Act which, for the first time conceded the vote to a significant section of the working class in Britain.

This limited measure, which fell far short of universal suffrage and included a property qualification, was fiercely resisted by conservatives, notably by the Queen's great-great-grandmother. A recent appeal to 'restrict the right to vote' recalled that the fear of 'thoughtful people' was that 'if everyone had the vote the result would be tyranny of the mob, in other words the dictatorship of the ignorant' (Sunday Telegraph, 13 October).

A contemptuous attitude towards the masses was by no means exclusive to aristocratic and upper class circles. It was also held by the lower middle class Fabians who became a major influence on the early labour movement. This is how George Bernard Shaw, a prominent Fabian, summed up the prevailing view:

'In spite of all the efforts to feed and educate them, the common people were still "riff-raff". To hand over the country to riff-raff is national suicide, since riff-raff can neither govern nor will let anybody else govern except the highest bidder of bread and circuses.' (From the preface to Man and Superman)

The Fabians aspired to forge a new elite to run society on rational principles: they ended up as a Labour Party think-tank.

Nineteenth-century prejudices against popular democracy are currently enjoying a revival. One of the central Tory justifications for the poll tax was that it restored a direct relationship between the individual taxpayer/voter and the local councillors responsible for spending on services. The immediate result was to remove thousands of voters from the electoral register. Numerous surveys showing high levels of ignorance and indifference among young people about the general election have reinforced Tory scepticism about a system that puts the power to change government in such unreliable hands. On the left, an echo of Shaw's disdain for the masses can be detected in theories of 'Thatcherism', which sought to explain the Conservative ascendancy in the eighties by the gullibility of 'the common people'.

The British ruling class conceded the right to vote to the working class in a gradual and piecemeal way over several decades, carefully constructing mechanisms for containing and managing the masses through the party system. The whole panoply of modern parliamentary party politics, with its structure of national and local organisations, conferences, newspapers, factions, and other activities emerged in response to the problem of integrating the masses into the political system. The current malaise of democracy results from the fact that these mechanisms are now in decay.

The growing corruption and trivialisation of politics throughout the Western world creates many problems for the establishment. At least in the short term, the process of the disintegration of old organisations and the emergence of new populist movements is likely to continue. The result will be more instability and more conflict between the old and the new.

Urban outlaws

Another consequence is growing alienation from the political process. Commenting on the number of people who have disappeared from the register to avoid the poll tax, the Daily Telegraph concluded that 'we may be confronted with a new and threatening character - the urban outlaw, a being with no interest in the rule of law, who, by his own choice, has no political party to represent him' (13 February). While the Telegraph does not yet say how to deal with 'the urban outlaw' its definition of the problem suggests that the solution will be more repression.

Liberal critics of British parliamentary democracy have focused on the defects of the voting system, proposing various electoral reforms as a solution. Others call for a written constitution or a bill of rights to protect and extend civil liberties. The weakness of all such schemes is that they identify the problem too narrowly in the political sphere, when its roots are to be found in the structure of capitalist society itself. Even the most democratic system of government provides no respite from the exploitative relations of the capitalist economy and the problems that follow.

Guardian adverts

Furthermore, the constitutional reformers seem to assume that the power of persuasion is sufficient to ensure that their schemes prevail. But, while history offers examples of constitutions imposed by dictators from above or enforced by revolutions from below, there is no precedent for major constitutional reform resulting from full-page advertisements in the Guardian.

Defending the limited democratic rights that exist and extending them in face of the repressive trends of modern capitalist society will require the mobilisation of the long-despised masses. They alone can realise the ideals of government of the people, for the people by the people, long abandoned by those who still proclaim, in increasingly subdued tones, the triumph of democracy over communism. As the Queen concluded her chat with Reagan, 'I think the next generation are going to have a very difficult time'.

'But you see, all the democracies are bankrupt now, because, you know, because of the way that the services have been planned for people to grab.'

Her Majesty the Queen to Ronald Reagan, featured in a recent BBC documentary commemorating her 40-year reign.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992
 
 

 

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