Brian Milne analyses the current stage of capitalism within democracy and asks if there is there a growing concern about its future and should radical moves using traditional theories be applied in order to save society?
We do not claim or hold an ideology, a political alignment or any other dogma that ties us to a point of view that is fixed, thus if opposed becomes a battleground. Therefore, I unreservedly admit, what I am embarking on here will have people shouting us down as lefties, commies and a few other words meant to be offensive along with their critical message, telling us we are wrong. So I just thought I would jump the gun here to let those who will possibly erupt anyway know that I am taking the words of Dr Karl Marx in the context of where we are being taken by our political class here in Europe, similarly elsewhere and especially the USA that has been very influential in Europe since 1945, as a basis for an analysis that needs to be attempted.
Thus, what I am saying is not advocating we throw the baby out with the bathwater, since we have seen how what he wrote was twisted to produce a number of political monsters, perhaps Stalin being the one on our continent who springs to mind, certainly not saying we need any form of communism. I am here simply taking Marx’s analysis of the world he saw in the late 19 century to look at what is happening now. In short, I am not advocating a political ideology that would replace the ones we have now, but looking at where we have possible gone wrong and what we might consider as means to correcting that.
Karl Marx predicted that the final stages of capitalism would manifest themselves once we reach the stage at which global capital is no longer able to expand, thus generate profits at former levels. Those defined as capitalists and their agents would begin to control, but destroy from within, governments along with the physical and social structures that maintained them. Democracy, social welfare, electoral franchise, health care, education, utilities such as power and water, public transport and roads, environmental protection and all that serves the common good would be sacrificed to feed the obsession with short term financial gain. These attacks on democracy and personal liberty will destroy their host in the attempts of those with wealth and power who wish to increase those and concentrate them into their hands. This is the stage of late capitalism Marx predicted as it manifests itself in the 21 century that such populist leaders as Donald Trump and governments like the ones in the UK, Hungary and other nations represent.
It might come as a surprise that Marx who is normally considered an essentially economic thinker, who had little to say about the design of constitutions and political institutions was not actually a socialist or communist himself but a committed democrat whose written works contain a very carefully tailored critique of liberal constitutionalism and representative government, with only a kind of thumbnail sketch of the institutions that should replace it.
From the late 19 century to the present, the road to the end of an always fragile democracy has been the monster that raised it head with the Depression years that led to populism that produced dictatorships, world war, the perverted form of state monopolies such as the Stalinist Soviet Union, all unlike Marx’s vision of communism, yet they fell and a period of optimism and possible peace and democracy caught our eye for a political moment. Then neoliberalism grabbed the incentive, even now dying to create a period of impending economic slavery. That exists in a world where a shrinking percentage of people control all wealth as the economic distance grows with increasing poverty on the opposite extreme. In line with Marx’s theory, this is the end of capitalism because without a Stalin and not under the thumb of states, the world is being monopolised. Democracy is defined by those who accrue wealth and power but whose exercise of that democracy is greater control, more restrictions, xenophobia and an almost shockingly contradictory reliance on the support of religious extremists.
In Marxist theory, it was long ago said that a new democratic society will arise through the organised actions of an international working class, extending power to the entire population, thus liberating people to act without being bound by the labour market. As a result, there would be little, if at all any, need for a state, the goal of which was to enforce the alienation. At present the wealthy hegemony that increasingly controls power is inhibiting the potential for working class people to rise up. Just enough inducements to pacify them are offered. Democrats looking on at people who demand sovereignty and control of their nations must be stunned by how often those people freely vote to deliver control of their countries into the hands of those who do the opposite to their wishes, yet do so with popular support. It works by illusion. A very vocal critic of the power of entertainment some years ago said that when the time comes that in order for the elite to concentrate power into their hands, soap operas, reality shows and other popular formats will take over all television with political programming, most news and certainly anything involving analysis minimal, if allowed at all. The problem with that is that whilst people will be drawn away from reality, their beloved shows will no longer reflect life and thus lose credibility, creating a nostalgia for the ‘real world’ that will turn against the elite.
The failure of democracy
There is already widespread recognition on European left that our democratic institutions are failing. We see it in examples such as the UK’s Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey’s policy to abolish the House of Lords and, in her words, deal the state a ‘seismic shock’. Prominent democratic liberals and socialists are well aware that the movement for a more just social order is intrinsic to the cause of once again democratising political systems. The small numbers of people fighting this corner have common problems in confronting corporate and elite influence over decision making and legislation, unbridled executive power in the hands of distant and unaccountable representatives and their ‘advisers’ as observers of Downing Street in London will know. Our political systems distance themselves from those subject to their decisions and threaten to thwart the efforts to bring back more democracy to any government that comes to power that does not conform to its conservative strategies and underlying ideology. What is become less and less apparent is what tangible change in political and economic regime might even begin to address these problems. It would be entirely wrong to assume that Marx’s ideas, no matter how true they are proving to be, are any form of blueprint we can follow today. His writings were from a point in time when capitalism was still growing and had yet to reach its zenith, thus do not give us sufficient detail for planning out a strategy for today and should never be considered the repository of truths for our time.
However, as we consider how to democratise our political institutions, his often discredited ideas have become an important resource on which to draw. They present us with the means by which to critically appraise what is happening, to begin to think of ways of bring back ‘people’ as participants rather than well played subjects in a world in which they have become enslaved. Marx once described religion as the ‘opium’ of the people, today we have so-called entertainment, a tightly controlled media that is vastly more populist than democracy in contemporary political terms and political liars who sell us dreams that can never be fulfilled. They have learned how to ride on the skills of entertainers to gain popular following, as we have seen with the present UK prime minister, using equally popular groups whose lyrics impart a government or party policy that sticks in voters’ mind and other theatrical devices.
Putting this all in context
Recently we have looked at topics such as social media, the environment, artificial intelligence and ethnicity. Those topics are always about what we have caused and yet have to some extent lost control, in each case they are serious themes but lack one important element – humanity. Marx proposed a root and branch transformation of the state to put ordinary people at the heart of public administration. His proposition was to open up bureaucracy to competitive elections, with the proviso that those elected would be subject to recall, which he also proposed for political representatives, thus change the state from a disconnected, almost foreign body that ruled over the people into one that was under its control. He believed that the selection of political officials by voters that came from from a large pool of candidates would give us a system in which competent and interested parties would all have an equal chance of holding public office. At least it would be the choice of the electorate and, unlike the present, we would be able to remove those who displeased us or broke their word. This system, sortition, has an historic precedent. We often hear about ancient Athenian as the birthplace of democracy. There sortition was the traditional and primary method of appointing political officials; regarded as one of the principal characteristics of democracy. This was part of Marx’s belief that this kind of representative government and its administrators was a great advance over the often absolutist regimes it replaced. His argument was that those institutional changes would generate a political system with ‘really democratic institutions’, however they did not include the kind of apparatus that regimes that claimed his ideas as the basis for their existence installed.
One element of ancient democracy has recently re-emerged and is becoming very popular in democratic theory and practice. It is regarded as a means of addressing some of representative government’s shortcomings. There has been a considerable amount of discussion about citizen assemblies that are randomly selected groups of people which are asked to deliberate and make recommendations that take into account the position of ‘grassroots’ on specific policies and essential constitutional reforms. They have been used to discuss constitutional change in Ireland, electoral reform in parts of Canada and there is now a campaign for their inclusion in any future constitutional convention in the UK, most certainly advocated as governance in Scotland after independence.
One of the main reasons Marx spoke out was against powerful executives. His concerned was that they evade popular control and scrutiny. By investing too much power in the peak of a hierarchal system of government, he drew attention to the personal nature of presidential power in such countries as the present USA or France, similarly where prime ministers head government and presidents and monarchs are non-political figureheads, the UK absolutely epitomising that at present. Those executives project themselves as the personification of the national spirit of their nation who assume they possess some kind of divine right that is granted to them by the grace of the people who vote them into office, even when statistically speaking they do not command anything like a majority as the UK and USA perfectly illustrate.
So where does Marxism fit in this? In fact it does not. As an ideology, of which there are quite a few interpretations, most of which do not reflect the original thought but use selective adaptation of parts of a larger theory to create a particular politic, it does not. There will be people who can only react to use of Marx’s analysis by saying that it is automatically socialist. It is not, although it was part of a design that led to a theoretical construction of socialism that has never been used in practice. It is an examination of democracy in what is very apparently a crisis of capitalism at a stage where its life is numbered with its neoliberal version heading toward a form of monopolism in which a minority of people on this planet control all wealth and resources, whereby the majority will either be completely impoverished or become debt slaves who thus serve the wealthy elite. Those people are very skilfully using populism to feather their nests, relying on such ideological tropes from the hard right as democracy is socialism, thus must be destroyed, to consolidate their growing power. They know that we are in the final stages of capitalism which is manifesting itself by coming to the stage at which global capital is no longer able to expand, thus generate profits at former levels. As we often see, more money is printed than there are funds behind those pieces of paper and metal, more recently in electronic form as well. Therefore the most useful resource that elite can take control of is power.
The search for resolutions
The real message here is that when we overlook all of the variants based on selective use of Marx’s work, in which his views on democracy have tended to be so modified that they are no longer democratic, they have become simply a rhetorical device to justify modified ideological extracts. In this essay it is specifically democracy under scrutiny, looking at what he predicted that we are increasingly seeing and experiencing now, thus having believed the ideas projected in the 19 century are entirely disconnect from today, from which some clues to change can be taken. They do not give us direct resolutions; they by no means suggest we must have socialist or state monopolistic communist regimes, simply that how we are represented needs to change in order for us to move back toward representative governance. Arguably, we have never seen that anywhere, but between the beginning and middle of the 20 century some countries moved in that direction by introducing state welfare, health, education and other institutions that served the people in return for the taxes and other dues they paid into their state. At Europa United we have looked critically at topics that touch each and every one of us, no matter what our individual political stance may be, but also know that we need the political apparatus with which to properly address and perhaps resolve them. We have no ready remedies on offer other than suggesting something needs to be done and that one of a number of great thinkers predicted our predicament and that within his theories we may find clues to how we gain the kind of democracy that would provide us with the tools with which to find resolutions.