Any discussion of democracy is likely sooner or later to recall Churchill’s famous dictum to the effect that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time. It is one of those seductive aphorisms that are thought to clothe a profound truth in a pithy witticism. Churchill, like his literary kindred spirits, Shaw and Wilde, was a past master in the delivery of such witticisms. And, to be sure, this one has a prima facie ring of truth about it. But the timing of his remark is of some interest. It dates from November 1947. He had been out of office for over two years, after losing the post-war general election of July 1945 to a Labour landslide. His heroic status as Britain’s war leader had led many, including his closest allies in the United States, to believe that he would triumph at the polls. He thought so himself. So, his comments on the merits of democracy may have been in part a sad but resigned reflection on his own fate at the hands of a seemingly ungrateful electorate. Then again, by the end of 1947 the international political landscape had changed dramatically since the end of the war. The cold war had started, fuelled to an extent by Churchill’s speech at Fulton Missouri in March 1946, in which he claimed that from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an ‘iron curtain’ had descended across the continent of Europe. All those countries to the east of that line falling within the Soviet sphere, were, he said, part of the undemocratic bloc of communist totalitarianism. According to the cold war rhetoric that was then becoming commonplace, Soviet totalitarianism was simply a different variant of the Nazi totalitarianism that had just been defeated. So his ‘least worst’ claims about democracy must also be seen as a defense of the representative democratic systems in Britain, western Europe and the United States as opposed to communist dictatorship.
Few would now seriously argue that the Stalinist regimes that emerged in Eastern Europe after the second world war, were, despite their designation as ‘people’s democracies’, in any meaningful sense democratic. But the liberal subsumption of Nazism and Communism under the generic ‘totalitarianism’, fails adequately to address the profound differences between them. Churchill certainly had ‘totalitarianism’ in mind when extolling the merits of democracy as preferable to any other political system. Liberal political theorists take for granted that ‘democracy’ in the modern world means nothing other than representative parliamentary democracy of the type that has evolved in most western countries during the past two centuries. The idea that there could possibly be democratic alternatives to the liberal democratic model is discounted as idealistic, romantic nonsense. The Stalinist regimes and certain Third World dictatorships that claim to be democratic are cited as negative examples, demonstrating the invalidity of any model of democracy other than the western liberal parliamentary version. In rather the same way as the failure of the Soviet and East European communist economic system has been used to reinforce the claim that there can be no alternative to the neo-liberal economic system that has triumphed in the west, so it is claimed that western-style liberal democracy is the only desirable alternative to the single-party bureaucratic dictatorships that ruled those states. It is taken for granted that more or less everyone accepts this proposition. This assumes that everyone is in agreement about what is meant by democracy and also, that everyone agrees that the system we have at present is democratic. This is a rash and unwarranted assumption.
The reality in Britain (and very likely in most other democratic countries) is that there is widespread and growing cynicism about professional politicians and the political system. A venal and prostituted ‘popular’ press systematically panders to the lowest common denominator of supposed ‘public interest’. A current case in point is the forthcoming referendum on reform of the voting system. It is no exaggeration to say that the level of public interest and information about the proposed ‘Alternative Vote’ option, even amongst otherwise well informed people, is abysmally low. Although its adoption would produce a more genuinely representative electoral outcome than the existing ‘first past the post’ system, it will probably be defeated on what looks likely to be a very low turn-out. The two main parties (Conservatives and Labour) have always favoured the old system against any version of proportional representation, and most of the press adopts the same stance.
But quite apart from reform of the electoral system, the level of public knowledge and debate about democracy is still superficial. Widespread public cynicism about the political system and professional politicians has not yet led to probing questions about the nature and limitations of representative democracy. The financial crisis of 2008 and the bail-out of the banks at the expense of the taxpayers have caused real anger on a scale not seen for decades. The onslaught on the welfare state in the name of ‘deficit reduction’ has produced the first serious signs of opposition. At the end of March 500.000 marched in London under the banner of the TUC and the public sector unions. New grass-roots organizations such as UK Uncut have staged audacious public demonstrations on the premises of businesses and banks guilty of tax avoidance. Anarchist groups, demonized by the popular press, have physically attacked the bastions of corporate power and conspicuous wealth. Things are stirring and as the impact of the onslaught on the living standards of the majority of people becomes clearer opposition will certainly grow. The prospect of this growing public resistance which will increasingly involve direct action, raises crucial questions about the nature of democracy. Those in power will hope that extra-parliamentary action will be limited to the odd peaceful demonstration that can be easily contained. But it is precisely extra-parliamentary opposition that needs to grow and become ever more effective. And this must eventually encompass large-scale strike action.
Those who have advocated parliamentary representative democracy as the highest form of democratic expression necessarily regard all extra-parliamentary action as less legitimate. But the current popular uprisings in the Arab world have brought to the forefront of public debate the question of ‘people power’. The literal translation of the word ‘democracy’ from the Greek is ‘rule of the people’ (demos: people; rule: kratia), and this recalls the concluding words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in which he referred to ‘government of the people, by the people for the people’. Of course, while lip service has been paid to the notion of democracy as government, or rule, by the people, in reality it is taken for granted that even under the most democratic voting systems, ‘the electorate’ will participate in the process by voting every four or five years to send a representative to the legislature. That will be the limit of their involvement. The belief that, through a majoritarian electoral system, the people will be able to exercise full political and economic power, enabling them to enact policies that would, for example, bring about a radical redistribution of wealth and take the commanding heights of the economy into public ownership, is completely illusory.
Real power in Britain does not rest with parliament. No-one voted for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation, but he is set to take control of the majority of the British news media. No-one voted to allow the accumulation of unregulated power and wealth in the hands of irresponsible investment bankers and, when they brought the whole financial system to the brink of disaster, no-one voted to bail them out at the expense of the taxpayer. No-one voted for the dismantling of the National Health Service and the decimation of the welfare state. Yet all these measures are being undertaken by a government that had no mandate for them, led by a political party which, without the support of their Liberal Democrat partners who betrayed their election pledges, would have no parliamentary majority. The manipulation of the parliamentary system in the interests of a power elite, hell-bent on solving the economic crisis into which their system has fallen by shifting the burden onto the shoulders of the majority of the working population and the poorest sections of society, has never been more transparent than it is today. A representative democracy that is limited to the operation of a parliamentary electoral system that affords no opportunity to redress the gross and growing inequalities of wealth and real economic power in society, may rightly be regarded as a sham democracy.
This doesn’t mean that it is without value or merit. Freedom of expression and the freedom to organize, to resist and to strike, are precious freedoms won over decades and centuries of struggle by working people. They must be cherished and defended and cannot be taken for granted. The coming months and years are sure to see growing resistance against the unprecedented scale of attacks on the public sector and on the living standards of the people. The degree of success of the popular struggles that lie ahead will also be the measure of the growth of a genuine people’s democracy. Such a democratic movement will not reject the parliamentary system, but neither will it be confined to it. Only by the determined mobilization of extra-parliamentary power, through trade unions, industrial action, direct action, occupations, sit-ins and large-scale community initiatives will a real democratic popular movement be able to tip the balance of power away from the corporate elite and into the hands of the majority of the people.