What is democracy?

By Allen Myers

If you conducted a random survey asking people what “democracy” means, probably the most frequent answer you would receive would be “government by the people” or “the people rule”. That’s not a bad answer; it’s the meaning of the Greek words from which “democracy” comes. Ancient Greece, particularly Athens, offers the best-known examples of early democracy. But in ancient Greek democracies, the people who ruled were certainly not all the people. Women were not allowed to vote, and neither were the large number of slaves. So ancient Greek democracy applied only to a rather small part of the people. It was decisively shaped by two social distinctions, gender and class.

Limited by class

In modern democracies like Australia, women and men have an equal right to vote or stand for public office. People from all classes have the right, and indeed a legal obligation, to vote. But that doesn’t mean that there is now a democracy, anywhere, that doesn’t rely on and maintain certain class relations. There is no such thing as democracy in general. While Australian democracy doesn’t restrict voting rights of large numbers of people, it very much restricts what the voters, and those they elect, are allowed to decide. We can vote for whoever we like, but the electoral system is stacked in favour of political parties that serve the interests of the capitalists.

For a start, the capitalists own all the major media, which do their best to condition our ideas of what the important issues are and which group of politicians is best able to deal with them. And when the party we vote for is elected to government, it turns out that there is nothing in the constitution that forces the government to keep its promises. If we feel really cheated, the only redress the electoral system offers us is the chance, after waiting three years, to vote for a different party.

This is because the electoral system is based on a small number of electorates each consisting of a large number of unorganised voters — around 80,000 in each federal seat — electing one representative. It is impossible for such a large number of voters to get together to hold their elected representative accountable. Indeed, the whole parliamentary system is structured so that the involvement of the great majority of working people in “deciding” government policy is restricted to marking a ballot paper in an isolated polling booth once every few years.

Military intervention

But even the best laid schemes can’t be guaranteed infallibility: it is not totally excluded that people who are serious about doing things like taking away the capitalists’ property might, in exceptional situations, manage to surmount all the obstacles and win election; they might even succeed in changing the constitution to allow a government to expropriate capitalist property. And whenever they feel there’s a serious threat of losing their property, the capitalists decide that they can do without an elected government for a while. That’s what they did in Chile in 1973 and tried to do in Venezuela in April 2002, by replacing the elected government with a military dictatorship.

Capitalist democracy never extends to having the people elect the commanders of the armed forces. The armed forces, like all the other institutions of rule under capitalism, are structured to ensure that the people at the top are drawn from the families of the big property owners or identify with the interests of the capitalists through being paid huge salaries. This is often justified by capitalist politicians with the argument that if you pay “peanuts”, you’ll get “monkeys” making the decisions about how the country is run. And who gets paid “peanuts”? Those who supply all the goods and services that keep the country running — working people.

Capitalist democracy is not “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. It is government of the people, by the capitalist politicians and the privileged “public service” officials (bureaucrats), for the capitalist class. Of course, capitalist democracy is preferable to capitalist dictatorship, just like being exploited by capitalists is usually better than being unemployed. Democratic forms of capitalist government offer working people easier conditions in which to organise to get rid of capitalism.

But capitalist democracy cannot be a tool for replacing capitalism with socialism. It is a means for protecting capitalist rule in periods when class conflicts are not too intense, and which the capitalists will try to replace with military dictatorship, fascism or whatever they think is needed when their form of democracy can no longer do the job. This is why a revolution, depriving the capitalists of the means to block majority rule by the working people, is necessary even in the freest of capitalist democracies.