Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How the system is undemocratic

As the Occupy movement in London (and elsewhere), discusses next steps, it is as well to restate some basics about the extremely limited democracy we live under and what the alternatives might be.

Much of the debate in Occupy is bogged down around whether the consensus model of decision making is appropriate. Some suggest that the consensus approach is time-consuming and actually prevents or delays steps towards concrete action.

Some who defend consensus do so on the grounds that it is more inclusive than majority voting and that this is the way the movement demonstrates that it is different and more democratic than the prevailing political system.

Others extend the argument to imply that the general assembly/consensus model could if replicated somehow transform the way society as a whole goes forward and governs itself.

There is a danger, however, of missing the wood for the trees. The essence of why the contemporary social economic and political system – aka capitalism – is a shadow of democracy is not primarily the result of the way decisions are made.

Process is, of course, an issue. Most decisions are made behind closed doors and the voting system in Britain ensures that minority voices and interests are firmly excluded. But even if there were some improvements in these areas, the system would remain undemocratic.

Why? Because the system of state power is exercised primarily on behalf of dominant economic and financial interests in society. We have seen from bank bail-outs to cuts in corporation tax what these interests are.

A system compelled by law to pursue year-on-year increases in shareholder value above all else is inherently undemocratic because these interests do not (and can never) coincide with those of society as a whole. Moreover, the globalisation process has intensified this contradiction. Getting on for half of all shares on the London stock exchange are held by overseas investors, putting them further out of reach.

Social interests like decent, affordable housing, well-paid jobs, proper health care and a broad education are wider than those of shareholders. Yet the majority are excluded from economic decision-making activity. The first most people learn about job losses or cuts to services, for example, is when they are already a fait accompli.

In any case, a market-driven economy cannot possibly be democratic because interaction between the most powerful forces – hedge funds, bond dealers, handful of corporations in each sector, major investment banks etc – always decide the outcomes. Ordinary people are once again excluded. Their fates are decided on their behalf.

The political system is equally undemocratic because it accepts and encourages this status quo of minority rule. Political institutions are as much tied into the shareholder syndrome as the corporations and financial institutions. They depend on each other. Deregulation was carried through by the political system at the behest of the corporations, for example.

A politics that privileges narrow interests while claiming to rule on behalf of everyone is dishonest, undemocratic, essentially unaccountable. The system as a whole is beyond reform because of the symbiotic relationship between corporate and political power. It’s not a matter of choice but of historical necessity. Capitalism actually rules through state politics; corporate clout would be of little import if it had no political expression.

Creating a real democracy that reflects social interests can only come through a transition to a new economic and political framework. General Assemblies and the assembly process are at the heart of the movement towards this goal.

A fresh constitutional settlement that embraces democratic institutions, new forms of co-ownership, decentralised community power and a range of social rights would for the first time give power to ordinary people. How to achieve this change ought to figure high on Occupy’s agenda.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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