The election of a Blair-clone Tory leader and the US Congressional bribery scandal pose basic questions about the supposed democracy under which we live.
Gary Younge, the Guardian columnist, put it nicely when he said recently that the bribery and corruption scandal centered on the US professional political lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, one of many thousands of such people working in Washington amounted to a tainting and poisoning that runs through the whole US political system.
When the rich can buy legislators and legislatures, then it is a poor look out for those who, in the theory of democracy, are their political, but not their financial, equals. The scandal raises the old but still fundamental question: if Democracy is, in Abraham Lincoln's apt definition, "Government of the people by the people for the people", then is it not an abuse of language to describe a system in which it costs on average a senatorial candidate something like $25 million - to accept Younge's figures: Gore Vidal, the grandson of a Senator, brother-in-law of President JF Kennedy and himself a one-time candidate for the Senate, gives roughly the same figure - to get elected, as "democracy"?
Government of the people by the people for the people, it certainly is not, nor could it conceivably be.
To describe such a democracy you need to add a qualification which so heavily alters the meaning of the word "democracy" - "bourgeois democracy", or "pluto-democracy" - that you are left with a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. Oxymoronic Democracy!
A better, though longer and less elegant, descriptive definition of the American "democracy" now and for many decades past, would be - "Government of the country and its people - and, of course, its foreign policy too - for the rich, by the rich or those who depend on the wealth of the rich to get re-elected".
One of the old demands of labour movements was that MPs and other elected representatives should be paid by the state in order to allow those to serve as elected public representatives who were not rich enough to do without salaries.
In America, that is now more or less cancelled out by the prohibitive cost of getting elected. Only the very rich or those they will finance in return for expected services, can get elected. Joseph Kennedy bought the deciding votes that got his son, John, elected President - even so, he only just scraped through - in 1960. But very few can afford to pay even the legitimate cost of an election campaign" without mortgaging themselves to the rich. And it is not only in the USA.
In Britain, the system is not yet as direly and openly corrupt as that of the USA, but it is going in that direction. It is already far gone.
Tony Blair was able to make himself independent of his own party, and of the labour movement that - operating not behind the scenes, but openly and democratically - created it, by soliciting and receiving millions of pounds for his "Private Office" from very rich people looking for political favours, minor public office,or a seat in the "reformed" House Of Lords or wanting to do their bit to detach the Labour Party from the labour movement.
The list of the rich who donate large sums to the governing New Labour Party is now very long. Their money has helped make possible the further erosion of Parliamentary, and even of Cabinet, control of government policy by a "Presidential" Prime Minister. No one in Britain was given a chance to vote on such a momentous constitutional development.
Venality and corruption have not been so blatant in Britain since ninety years ago Prime Minister Lloyd George and his lieutenant Rufus Issacs, the future Lord Reading, operated an open market in public "honours", in which the prices were widely known - so much for a knighthood, so much for ennoblement and a seat in the Lords, etc.
How is that worse, more corrupt, than the trade unions paying money to the Labour Party to secure representation in Parliament? The Labour movement is an open, democratic - more or less, but in any case immensely more democratic and representative than anything the bourgeoisie can show - movement bonded together to fight to improve the lot of its members. It is entitled to decide, as it did 100 years ago - and, again, it did it openly and democratically, under hostile legal fire from Judges and Law Courts - to extend itself into politics, into Parliament, into the overall running of the political society by financing its own representatives to stand for election on platforms which the labour movement wants to see implemented.
That - the exploited, the poor and the disadvantaged combining in politics as in day-to-day trade unionism to counteract the efforts of the rich to run the affairs of society entirely for their own advantage - is something radically different from what we have described above.
But it isn't just a matter of the effects on the political system of the corruptive money-power of the rich and the control it gives them over the affairs of society.
The election of David Cameron as Tory leader was followed by the mildly astonishing spectacle of the Tory Party making a public bonfire of its old and, some of them, venerable, policies and replacing them with copy-cat "Tory" versions of New Labour style and New Labour policies. To become a Blair-Clone Cameron eagerly underwent political plastic surgery to replace his native hard-right political features with those appropriate to a would-be cuddly Tory version of Blair. Nobody, it seems, will hold that against him. The Lib-Dems have been thrown into a leadership crisis by the shifts in the Tory Party.
"New Labour" has a right to complain? Not at all! What Cameron is trying to do to Blair, steal its political clothes and its political identity, is what Blair and Brown did to the Tories a decade ago when, in essentials, they adopted the Thatcherite outlook that shaped Tory policy for twenty years.
Mainstream, bourgeois, politics in Britain now is not a matter of conviction, of honestly thought-out politics honourably presented to the electorate and fought for.
Political parties in Britain now openly act as brutal political gangs, concerned above all with securing Government office. They rob each other of policies and political identities. They struggle for possession of what was once the natural ground of one of them - Tory ground. They "triangulate" each other, which is their jargon for gazumping each other.
They bring to politics the morality of the jobbing lawyer who argues for a given brief, but can, if retained and paid the right price, argue just as fluently and with the same conviction the opposite case. They adapt to politics the attitude, approach and way of working of the advertising agency - which, after all, is only a variation on the way the hack lawyer does things, arguing a brief, or an advertising campaign, for a fee.
The old "Irish" joke has the politician making a passionate, ringing, spine-tingling, high-principled speech, winding up with the declaration: "Them's me principles! But if you don't like them, I'm sure I can find others! In Britain today this is no longer a joke, a caricature, but the literal depiction of the leap-frogging and political gazumping of parties and mainstream politicians.
Of course there was always an element of that, sometimes a big element and sometimes a dominant one, but now it is open and undisguised, unashamed and uncamoflaged, all-pervasive, and visible to all who care to look. The prerequisite for it is that real differences between the parties on everything fundamental no longer exist.
The hi-jacking of the Labour Party by the Blairites, the political asset-stripping of the labour movement in politics, has seen to that.
The corollary of it is that important decisions - and such decisions have to be made - are not made by the electorate, or even, most of the time, by MPs. The decision to go to war three years ago is an extreme case in point.
If policy options do not go to the electorate, or, for this Government, to the Parliamentary Labour Party, or the LP NEC - who then decides? What dictates policies? The needs, interests and preferences of the big property owners dictate policy, sometimes tempered by a more long-sighted social and political overview (as, for instance, with the minimum wage, which the employers did not what).
But isn't that degree of "flexibility" democratic? Isn't it democratic for the politicians to try to reflect and please those whose votes they seek? It depends. Often it is only a matter or trickery, of appearing to embody opinions and prejudices. With New Labour it has usually been a matter of a jumpy government scurrying to adopt right wing authoritarian stop-gap measures to placate the "Tory" press and those it is assumed to influence. On immigration for example, we have had the obscenity of a Labour Home Secretary - David Blunkett - and Prime Minister Blair mouthing the opinions and prejudices of the worst bigots whipping up a lynch-mob mentality against poor and isolated immigrants and refugees and themselves doing obscene things to would-be immigrants - these New Labour barbarians deport small children who have spent most of their lives in Britain! If this sort of jittery response is "democracy", it is democracy reduced to the lowest common denominator of populist demagogy, and supine pandering to mindless prejudice.
Sober and honest discussion of the pros and cons of an issue before a democratic decision is arrived at is, in almost all cases, ruled out by the existence of an often malignant press which is the private property of a Rupert Murdoch or a Richard Desmond. It poisons the wells of public information just as certainly as the bribery and corruption in Washington poisons the American political system - and Blair's croneyism and patronage poisons the British system.
The Sun newspaper is one of the great political powers in our "democratic" Britain: that is, the US citizen Rupert Murdoch, who owns it is a great political power in Britain. The Sun - Murdoch - can tell the British government what it wants done, or not done, with a good chance of being obeyed.
How many votes has Rupert Murdoch in Britain? He, as an American citizen doesn't even have one vote; but in practice he influences enough votes to have the Prime Minister fly half way around the world to pay personal homage to Lord of Communications, Murdoch, like a supplicant vassal before a medieval king or pope.
Even apart from direct control of the legislatures by the rich and their servants how can anything but a travesty of democracy exist in a society where most of the means of communication, that is the vehicles of information, education, opinion-shaping and opining forming are private property, run for profit and for the enormous political influence they bring to their owners?
All are equal in this democracy, but to use George Orwell's satirical expression, some are more equal than others. A great deal more. The consequences of the way things with British bourgeois democracy are is that large numbers of the electorate turn away in disgust. They feel that they cannot possibly influence what happens, that all politics is a fraud, all politicians tricksters. Others see politics as a matter of judging politicians as they might judge a TV soap opera or a football match - as a "performance".
One of the most striking aspects of the election of Cameron was "ordinary people" being interviewed on the radio and TV and responding entirely within what is now the public framework for what politics is. Did they like Mr Cameron? What did they think of his "performance" recently? How did he compare with Blair? No wonder more young people cast a voter to determine who will stay and who will go from TV's Big Brother house, then voted in the last General Elections!
At the heart of the widespread disillusionment with Blair is the fact that he lied about Iraq But that occurs within the framework of political decrepitude we have sketched here.
Why is British democracy in such a state? We will stand back and take a long view; a seemingly perverse view.
British democracy was at its best, experienced its golden age between 1832 and 1867, that is, between the First and Second Reform Acts. The 1832 Reform Act admitted the bourgeoisie to the franchise and gave places like Manchester and Birmingham which had grown up in the industrial revolution representation in Parliament.
The 1832 Act had given the vote to those who in fact by then owned much of Britain. It admitted the widest circles of the ruling class to what, since the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, had been the monopoly of a special political caste of the Whig aristocracy, who ruled for the bourgeoisie.
The 1867 Act gave the vote to a large swathe of the male urban working class and thereby ruined British democracy. (The Act of 1884 did the same for the male rural population.)
The Second Reform Act extended the vote way beyond the people of money and industrial power. To workers and other "small" people who owned neither factory, land, or shop. It thereby undercut and destroyed the link between voting and owning, between the overall running of the affairs of society, which is what politics is, and the ownership of the economic bases of that society.
Going beyond the limits marked out in 1832, the 1867 Act gave potential political power to the social have-nots, to those who did not own big property in land or industry. It put the social administration formally, though only nthough nominally in the hands of those who did own the economic bedrocks of society. Democratic political power could become a weapon against private property, lead to the confiscation of private property in the interests of "the masses" who, individually, owned very little of it.
Where the 1832-67 system fused social and political power, fitted them together neatly without gap or overlap. The 1867 Act and subsequent extensions of the franchise, opened a yawning gap between them. Between 1932 and 1867 those who owned could rule though representatives over whom they had direct - elected - political control. No one else had such power. After 1867 and 1884 the unity of ownership and political power was destroyed. Thus democracy, or more exactly bourgeois democracy was weakened.
These ideas about democracy, though we think they have much truth in them and shed much light on the sickness of bourgeois democracy in Britain and America today, are not ours. They are the ideas of the great 19th century historian WEH Lecky, author of a deservedly respected five volume history of Ireland. Lecky was a medium-sized Anglo-Irish landlord, part of the Protestant ascendancy, who began in politics as a mild supporter of Home Rule and ended as a Liberal-Unionist MP. He was a benign and enlightened man who wrote books that explained the growth and development of social ideas - the growth of rationalism in Europe for example - and social morality in terms of the material reality and changes in society, that is in a way that has much in common with Marxism.
Lecky saw the 1884 conferral of the vote on Ireland's mainly rural population lead to the election of MPS belonging to a strong nationalist party under Parnell from most of Ireland. He saw the tenant farmers, organised in their Land League, wage a prolonged social war against landlords and, in the towns, against protestant shop keepers and other "small" or "medium" "alien" people. He saw naked social war and the use in this war of the electoral empowerment conferred by the 1884 election Reform Act.
Such things shaped Lecky's outlook and led him to write a two-volume work, "Liberty and Democracy" (1898) in which in a long survey of aspects of democracy and its effect on liberty he argued the views outlined above. He was far from being alone in such views.
The point is that what Lacky says about the relationship between democracy and property is true. It says a great deal about the state of British bourgeois democracy now.
The split of democracy - that is of the vote of the people who own neither land nor factories - from property is at the root of the malaise of bourgeois democracy, in Britain, America and elsewhere. Through Leaky's conclusion - the people should not have the vote - is utterly wrong, his assertion that a healthy democracy demands that those who own should rule, is true. The conclusion for democrats and socialists is that those who have the vote should also have the property, should collectively own the social means of production. Those who own should rule; and those who rule should own.
That idea was the nightmare of those like Lecky and many others in the era of the early bourgeois "experiment" with mass democracy, which opened in Britain with the 1867 Reform Act. The ruling class fought democracy for that reason - in 1848 they prepared for civil war rather than grant the Chartist demand for universal suffrage. They fought it until experiences - initially in France and the USA - proved that they could tame and control it. They tamed it in many different ways.
They separated the two aspects of democracy, the social and the political, which both friends of democracy - the working class Chartists fought for the vote because they wanted power in society and in order to re-organised society in their own interests - and its enemies had at first thought to be inseparable.
In Britain they began a process of separating out the state power from direct control of the democratically elected Parliament by expanding the state civil and military bureaucracy and giving it a new degree of autonomy. They "reserved" great powers to the Crown, which though normally not used except in ceremonial occasions, could be used in a crisis. Until as late as 1910/11 the House of Lords had an absolute veto over the House of Commons.
More important than all such means of controlling democracy, the ruling class learned that the real power of property in society to shape and determine what happens could operate still to regulate the affairs of society within a formally democratic system in which power was, notionally, held by those with no property.
The power of social, political and ideological inertia was still enormous. The power of the churches, and of deference to those who run the economic affairs of society, landlords and capitalists; the ingrained education of the day-to-day experience of living in a capitalist society where markets regulated and the monied ruled; the power of the press to shape opinion; the conditions of life where the struggle to earn a living occupied most of the time and energy of most of the people most of the time; the existence of political parties that differed on secondary things but agreed on the basic, accepting as normal the rule of the wealthy the length of time between elections which meant that most important matters did not come before the electorate - for example, if the vicious Thatcher government had been compelled to stand for election before the Falklands War in 1982 it would have lost - annual parliaments are the one demand of the Chartists that has never been granted; the fact that "patriotism" and nationalism and racism could be used to line up populations behind their rulers; the difficulties in the way of the mass of the people, and especially the working class, in creating and maintaining their own political parties and associations - these and many other aspects of capitalist class society operated to gut democracy of its great potential, to make it a great deal less that government of the people by the people for the people.
To break through those enormous barriers to working class participation in politics beyond the mere casting of a vote every five years to determine which party of the ruling class would be in government, the trade unions formed a Labour Party that would represent the working class. Mostly the old Labour Party did that very badly; but it did it minimally and sometimes a great deal more than that, as when the 1945-51 Labour government created the NHS and the modern welfare state.
Without their own political party, the working class and the working class movement can not participate in politics except in the most minimal sense. That is why the hijacking of the Labour Party by the Blairites dealt such an immense blow to the British bourgeois-democratic system, as well as to the working class. It disenfranchised the working class movement politically. The result is a "Labour" government that is Thatcherite Tory in most of its
The fact that the Tory party the traditional party of the upper classes can attempt to become a clone of the Blair party and renounce what it was, the party of the owners of Britain, tells us what the Blair "Labour Party" is..
The labour movement - fundamentally the trade unions - needs to either reclaim the Labour Party from the Blairites - in theory that is still possible because the unions retain a lot of power in the Labour Party - or take steps to form a new working class party.
Immediately, they should make a concerted effort to reclaim the Labour Party by way of an offensive against Blair and Brown and their politics, against such foul Tory politics as their proposals on education.
There is no other way for the working class to regain the political power to shape society. Not only that: there is no other way to drain the filthy cesspool that bourgeois-democratic politics has become; no other way to create - that is what it would amount to - a really democratic political system. Not bourgeois but working class popular democracy.
There is no other way to reach the only solution to the poverty amidst plenty that disgraces and condemns this system with its all-corrupting reduction of culture, social values, morality and every aspect of our lives, to the lowest common denominator of commercialism - under which, as the Communist Manifesto long ago said, "everything holy is profaned".
That solution demands a workers government. A government of the people - led by the working class - by the people, for the people. A government that would overcome the contradiction that guts bourgeois-democracy - he gap between ownership of the means of production and nominal political power - by expropriating the means of production from the ruling class and putting it under the planned control of the working class and its allies.
Except superficially, the present bourgeois society simply can never be properly democratic. Even if elections sometimes, albeit rarely, by kicking out a government or electing one can allow the electorate to influence or even shape important things, that is the democratic self-government - of the people, by the people, for the people.
Where the social reality is minority rule and minority ownership of the means of production, that is, where the bourgeoisie rule, there can never be other than a hollow mockery of democracy. By contrast, the working class, collectively owning the means of production can rule only democratically. By definition, collective ownership, demands real democracy, democracy in every pore of society, democracy in the economy and in society.
In that way the debilitating conflict between ownership and political power can be resolved on a higher level in the interest of the mass of the people.
Only the fight by the working class and its movement for a socialist workers' government can create a healthy working-class democracy!