It may be a dangerous thing to put on line and attract the wrong sort of attention, but I am becoming increasingly convinced that parliamentary democracy is past its sell-by-date. It has historically been part of the development of burgeoning capitalist societies since the late eighteenth century. On the one hand, it is seen as a healthy means of keeping the lower orders in their place by giving them the illusion of ‘control’ over politics – though it has always been grudgingly conceded and is nowadays heavily managed. On the other hand, it is seen as part of a general dialogue connected with liberty, human rights and other conceptual ideals and therefore ‘a good thing’ in itself. However, this seems to be increasingly no longer true.
Particularly during the twentieth century and today, as capitalism has become more and more centralised on a diminishing number of powerful individuals supported by heavily bureaucratised political unions and state institutions, the emphasis on rights and liberties has tended to take second place to the need for unfettered exercise of centralised power, dependent on a façade provided by heavily managed elections. Numerous supposed democracies, whether in post-Soviet nations, the so-called ‘Communist’ nations (really, state capitalist), or in the supposed economic miracle countries of the global south (or their equivalent basket cases), find issues of even the most basic rights and liberties under constant attack. Most recently has emerged the subtle (or not so subtle) management of democracies using electronic media as tools for the manipulation of elections through a wide range of techniques: hacking, leaking, stealing and manipulating data, using algorithms to target individuals, etc. These might be softer than the use of riot police, closing down news outlets, arresting dissidents and so on, but no less effective and potentially chilling.
Against these distortions of democracy, the individual certainly has no power and that is even true of quite large political organisations and campaigns. The periodic pushing of a button or drawing of an illiterate’s mark on a ballot paper is more often than not becoming futile. However, the issue of freedom has not gone away. The disenchanted have a way of sometimes confounding expectations at the voting booth, even if this is often a response to some crude sloganizing by maverick political innovators.
The socialist movement needs to rediscover and reinvent its foundation in the principles of democracy, liberty, freedom of speech and freedom of organisation. It needs to foreground the issue of ‘power to the people’ by grounding it in the locality and the workplace, by making it a face to face phenomenon. It was there in the 1950s and 1960s at the heart of movements on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but we seem to have lost sight of how important that culture was. Healthy debate gave way to a proliferation of centralised organisations often justified by some kind of theoretical underpinning, but based on no more than the personal fiefdom of a self-appointed theorist. If the movement as a whole was dependent on such groups and individuals, socialism would now be dead in the water. But it keeps being rediscovered and reinvented. The incipient desire for freedom never goes away.
So, parliamentary democracy may have had its day and we should not be afraid to condemn it to death, but in its place we should be shouting loudly for a new democracy to replace what is in effect a disguised plutocracy – the rule by the rich for the rich, paid for by the rest of us and supported by passivity.