6. Democracy

Submitted by Spassmaschine on December 17, 2009

In connection to the fascism/antifascism question, the relation to democracy as ideology and as a political form of capitalist rule is very important. We think the main weakness of so-called antifascists is their defence of democracy, and their inadequate or absent critique of the theory and practice of democracy as part of class society. We think it's possible and necessary to fight the Nazis without being antifascist, but impossible to fight capitalism without being antidemocratic in theory and practice, without a critique of the Declaration of human rights and civil rights. Strikes and riots for example aren't democratic. What do you think ?

Isn't democracy the community of capital ? How does democracy relate to the formal and real domination of capital?

You're right about strikes and riots: few of them fit within any of the basic criteria by which democracy is usually defined. They are neither born nor organised according to majority rule, rights of the minority, decision-making assembly, precedence of debate over action, agreed-upon and respected procedures, etc. Yet most strikers and rioters would call their acts democratic, and claim to be realising the democratic ideal betrayed by parliamentarianism. Actually, when they speak of democracy, they mean something else, which is essential to them and to us: self-organisation, the ability to act as a community, to go beyond separations and divisions, to define themselves by their deeds and not by some pre-set identity, to produce their own leaders, in other words: autonomy. If we dare use a sadly devalued term, to them "democracy" means freedom. The problem is, this is more than a question of words, because speaking of democracy is not innocuous: it conveys the idea of democracy as a principle, as the condition of social change, it reinforces the privilege given to politics.

By the way, in times of crisis, antifascism also takes on a radical form and denounces class society. As it does so, it does not deny the contradiction between bourgeois and proletarians: it merely puts it aside, for the moment, and gives priority to another opposition: the one between democrats (i.e. nearly all proletarians, as many petit-bourgeois as possible, plus progressive bourgeois) and fascists (i.e. the most conservative bourgeois, quite a few petit-bourgeois, and a few misguided proles).

More basically, the difficulty is to hold both ends of the theoretical stick at the same time: there is a fundamental connection between capitalism and democracy, but capitalism also often disconnects itself from democracy (let's keep this inappropriate word for the moment).

Some equality between commodities (and between human beings inasmuch as they sell themselves) plus the free circulation of these commodities are necessary to the wage labour system: it needs the exchange between an x sum of money and a y item bought at its market price, and a relatively free encounter between a bourgeois and a wage earner: the former buys the labour power of the latter and pays him what he needs to renew this labour power and support a family. The democratic principle is perfectly adequate to that exchange: one man, one vote.

Yet, capitalist equality and freedom always go together with constraints exterior to the "equal" exchange properly speaking, and more often than not wage labour is exploited in conditions where the police have as much power as the market. Although the wage and profit system flourishes better in parliamentary democracy, and although dynamic capitalisms end up introducing bigger and bigger doses of political as well as economic competition, only a minority of countries on this planet now enjoy a parliamentary or representative regime. Capitalism does better with democracy, but it often does without, at least for a while... that sometimes lasts for a long time.

You ask about formal and real domination of capitalism. Quite frankly, the return to (or the discovery of) that concept in the 1960s and 1970s has had nearly as many negative as positive effects on revolutionary thinking... We won't deny its importance. But it's concrete historical situations that cause the twists and turns of bourgeois political rule, the combination of parliamentary and authoritarian forms, the periodic transformation of democracy into dictatorship, and the evolutions the other way.

The distinction theorised in Marx's "Unpublished 6th Chapter" of Capital between formal and real submission of labour to capital does not mean that there would exist a phase when the proletariat could have been only reformist, and then another one (from 1914 onwards, according to the 3rd International, or now because of current globalisation, according to some comrades), when capital's domination would be so complete as to leave no other option to the proletariat but to be revolutionary. (This is developed a bit more in our In For A Storm.)

Consequently, there is not a stage (formal domination) when democracy would be unavoidable, followed by another (real domination) when it would empty itself of its content and appeal, and stop mystifying the proletarians. As long as capitalism exists, it will breed reforms, and will periodically give birth to democratic aspirations and practices. Democracy is not a smoke screen that would be dissolved by a certain capitalist phase. As soon as something appears to be at stake (really when fascist or bureaucratic regimes crumble, or fictionally as in France, April 2002), democracy is revitalised.

First, the parliamentary system will never rule everywhere: in "rich" and apparently stable countries, inevitable social conflicts regularly push the State into a tougher stand; in weak and dominated countries, the free use of civil rights is often dangerous for the social order and the privileges of the ruling class, and are therefore regularly curbed or suppressed by political leaders or the army.

Secondly, because of what we've just said, and because the parliamentary system is suited to the inner logic of capitalism, it's possible for parliament, party life and civil liberties to come back on stage now and again (often as a farce, as in many African and Asian elections). Crowds are ready to die for "democracy", not because they believe in the intrinsic value of the polling booth or the honesty of the elected, but because voting seems to bring about some freedom and some improvement of daily life, which is often partly true, for a while. Whenever democracy reigns, it's for something else than its own merits. There's always some social element and hope behind the attraction of democracy.

Whether triumphant, trampled upon or mocked, democracy is inevitable in the merchant and wage labour civilisation. There will never come a time when it will appear in its nakedness, sheer bourgeois rule, devoid of meaning and appeal.

In the absence of social upheaval, the best radical demonstration of the true nature of democracy, of its class content, of the shallowness of its liberties, will never convince any democrat (no more than the most brilliant revolutionary tract has ever put anyone off reformism). Just as he is resigned to recurring crises and wars, the democrat knows all too well that his favourite regime sometimes yields to dictators: he just wishes these interruptions to be as rare and short as possible. And he will maintain (with some evidence to support his claim) that democracy does commit evil, but is the only system that acknowledges and restrains its evils.

Radical critique (of democracy as of everything else) is only meaningful if one believes in an utterly different world, and this belief only becomes historically real when masses start fighting for such a world.

It will take no less than an attempt at communist revolution for Marx's critique of the rights of man (as exposed in The Jewish question, 1844) to become "a material force". Until then, what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1903 still remains true: "Marx [and others, we'd add] has outstripped us as a party of practical fighters. Our needs are not yet adequate for the utilisation of Marx's ideas." (Stagnation and Progress of Marxism)