Whose democracy? By William Bowles

19 October, 2009

It’s really time I started writing more about the country I live in, the country of my birth, the UK, a country that has the oldest, the most cunning, the most duplicitous (not to mention the most mendacious) of all ruling classes. After all, they’ve been at it for five hundred years, finally being forced to come up with what they like to call parliamentary democracy over a century ago, but just how democratic is it? And can we really expect real change to come about through a system as corrupt and sclerotic as ‘parliamentary democracy’?

Parliamentary democracy is a closed system, literally owned by the two main political parties who work in intimate cooperation with the state bureaucracy to maintain the status quo. For proof of this we need only look at the panic caused by the ‘expenses’ scandal and how the political class, fearful of any challenge to its hegemony has fought tool and nail, left and right to defend their privilege to spend our money as they please.

How they have managed to do this should be important to us and especially the confidence trick called Parliament. It is a system that has, for around a century, played the central role in the preservation of capitalism, in reality a private game with the political class being the players, the judges and the rule makers. In other words, a fix and a fix carried out, no less, with the complicity of organized labour.

We, the public, play our part by voting (or not) to maintain the ‘game’, getting bounced back and forth between two sides of same coin. But clearly the ‘game’ would seem to have run its course which, with all the talk of the state’s ‘lack of legitimacy’, is reflected in the falling number of those who bother to vote or take part in any kind of political activity. Even the Labour Party’s own membership has dwindled to a fraction of its size since ‘New’ Labour came to power (before coming to power in 1997 the Labour Party had over half a million members).

The worst thing about this scenario is that, aside from the Anarchists, the left has attempted to join in the ‘game’ for the past century and more, with predictable results. We only need to look at the ‘left’ in Parliament to see the truth, for no matter how left they are outside of Parliament, inside, they too have to play the ‘game’, effectively emasculating themselves in the process. If they don’t, the results are predictable, for example, when George Galloway spoke out about the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, he was very quickly ejected from the ‘game’. Just how seductive the ‘game’ is can be illustrated by Galloway’s claim, via the Respect Party, that part of Respect’s objective was to restore the Labour Party to its former, pre-Blairite reformist glory.

The exclusion of the real left from the political process by the Labour Party and its complicit trade unions goes back decades, illustrated by the endless disbanding and reforming of the Labour Party Young Socialists every time it moved to the real left. Also, the fact that under the Labour Party’s ‘bans and proscriptions’, all attempts by the left within the Labour Party to seek common cause (and vice versa) with real progressives meant certain expulsion from the Party. True to its Cold War legacy Red-baiting was and remains Labour’s methodology.

The trade unions are in the same fix, having handed over their power to the ‘party of labour’ long ago. Interestingly, William Morris’s ‘News From Nowhere’ predicted this outcome in 1895 after the path of attempting to ‘reform’ capitalism won the day.

The end result is plain to see: a disenfranchised and alienated population, and with only a fraction of the workforce in trade unions (in the 1950s around 50% were unionized), most don’t even get a look-see into the ‘game’ unless some scandal is exposed. Add to this a corrupt, incompetent and murderous political class, revealed in all its sordid details over the twelve years of Labour rule. Is it any wonder that the state ‘lacks legitimacy’?

So what’s the reason for this pathetic state of affairs? In a word: reformism, the idea that capitalism can be ‘reformed’ to more resemble socialism (capitalism with a human face?), a process that reached its zenith with the post-war Labour government and even then the nationalization of key sectors of the economy came about firstly because British capitalism was bankrupt. Secondly, it was under pressure from a working class who did not want to see a return to a reactionary and backward pre-war Britain. Things had to change but, how much? And, what kind of change?

The post-war Labour government was elected on a wave of progressive ideas following the defeat of Fascism: the National Health Service (the Tories realizing that a complicit population was essential to the survival of capitalism, had already created a new standardized national ‘education’ system), transport and energy were nationalized, a massive house building programme was initiated, Keynesian capitalism was born (even in the early 1960s many British homes had neither an indoor toilet or even a proper bathroom, let alone adequate heating).

So all the while the Labour Party (and successive Labour governments) were proclaiming socialism, in reality they were, not only, propping up domestic capitalism, worse still, their foreign policy was avowedly anti-communist and imperialist/colonialist! So those on the left who claim that ‘New’ Labour has somehow strayed from the path of righteousness need to brush up on their history. Britain’s African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean colonies got the same treatment from Labour as they did from the Tories; the same, racist and imperialist policies were enacted (if ever there was proof of just how the ideology of racism works when utilized by the state this is it) and nothing has changed eg, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, China, Russia, in fact any country that doesn’t buy into Western ‘democracy’ gets the ‘treatment’.

This is the terrible trajectory of reformism. It explains in part at least, why the left is so marginalized in British political life by what is, in effect, an unholy alliance between organized labour and its alleged voice, the Labour Party and their master, Capital.

But how to break this impasse? Over the past one hundred-plus years the British left has ‘evolved’ as an integral (if ineffectual) component of the reformist model with organized labour, led by a revolutionary party, viewed as the main vehicle for bringing about an end to capitalism through the ballot, a policy that obviously has not worked. Instead, the trade unions became an elitist battleground between left and right with corrupt practices on both sides. The ‘rank and file’ membership were relegated to mere onlookers whilst the labour elite slugged it out, with the left inevitably losing.

The end of the industrial working class

The end of the Keynesian model of capitalism in the 1970s with the birth of so-called neo-liberalism should surely have been a wake-up call for the left. Instead, it retreated in disarray, eventually fragmenting into small pieces, especially after the destruction of the largest and most powerful of unions, the miners by the Thatcher government (the opening shot in the deindustrialization of the UK). Instead we have witnessed the same entrenched left ‘leadership’ pushing the same failed reformist policies, the ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ as the British Communist Party called it.

The central question for the left is: what is to replace organized industrial labour, after all wasn’t it organized labour that was to lead the revolution? In order to try and answer this question, we need to recognize that, whilst capitalism has transformed itself, largely by exporting manufacturing to our former colonies and, in the process, destroying the organized industrial working class, the left simply hasn’t got it. Instead, it insists on fighting a battle long lost and with ‘tools’ that no longer exist.

What used to be the organized industrial working class is now a shadow of its former self, worse still the creation of a so-called service-based economy, composed largely of non-union labour, much of it part-time. It is fragmented and lacks voice. It’s here that the trade union movement reveals its real nature: where are the campaigns to unionize the unorganized if only to strengthen the power of the central union bureaucracy, the TUC?.

The only potential rising force in society, the so-called middle class, is barely even recognized as being a part of the working class by the left (we really need to question the use of the term middle class). Yet the economy is now managed by the ‘middle class’, a situation the ruling elite are only too aware of. The state is the single biggest employer and not coincidentally. The biggest unions are all mostly public employee unions, but these unions are split along ‘middle’- working class lines.

In the private sector, with ascendancy of the financial services sector, marketing and distribution, especially of ‘virtual’ products, the capitalist economy is now in the hands of the managers and technicians, the so-called middle class. Just look at the chaos unleashed by paying young university whizz kids to play with the numbers in the futures markets, it’s all a big game to them.

Britain is once more a Merchant’s economy with ‘wealth’ being generated, not by the production of real and useful products and services, but by manipulating numbers on a gigantic, global scale and doing all of it in real time. The amount of money in private hands dwarfs the amount that the state messes about with as the UK’s £20 billion public debt. The US’s now (officially) $1.3 trillion debt demonstrates, after all, the state borrows it from the private sector (after the banks et al have ripped off their profits they get by charging interest on the money printed by the state that they then lend out to customers). It’s a marvellous system, ingenious even, but utterly irrational, designed to do only one thing, produce a profit for the shareholders in the shortest possible time.

This is the setting, so for example, truly revolutionary trade unions would be demanding that running financial services like this is irrational, immoral, unstable and destructive, in other words, against the public’s interest. So here’s an alternative way of managing the economy, if for no other reason than to protect the interests of its members. But, for as long as the trade unions are in bed with the political class, such outcomes are just fantasies.

Instead, we get the following collaboration between the union hierarchy and the government!

“BBC Newsnight on Thursday revealed a leaked confidential document spilling the beans on a Royal Mail plan to impose cuts, provoke a strike and smash the union. This blows a hole in their spin over the past couple of weeks about an uncooperative union!


“The embarrassing bit was when the Newsnight presenter repeatedly asked Billy [Hayes, postal workers’ union] how he felt about the CWU giving £7 million since 2001 to Labour to have it plotting against it, and did he support the 98% of London postal workers who had voted to break from Labour? Labour-lovin’ Billy ducked it several times before lamely saying the party wasn’t the same as the government.” — “Royal Mail secret plot with ‘the Shareholder’”

How can a trade union represent the interests of its members when its leadership are funding the very government that’s trying to destroy it? This is the insane end-product of reformism, where workers fund a government via their trade unions that is a wholy owned subsidiary of capital.

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