Democracy’s breakdown

24 June, 2020

The “European Fundamental Rights Agency” published today its report “What do fundamental rights mean for people in the EU?“. In spite of the categories and questions, biased to the point of contortion, a general disbelief towards democracy and its supposed ability to represent the interests of the workers, clearly emerges from the study. 60% (58% in Spain) of those asked say that systemic parties do not care about “people like me”.

Systemic party representation by country in the EU.

But let’s not fool ourselves: behind such skepticism there is not always class-based criticism, nor are the workers necessarily the ones expressing it. The echo of the US demonstrations of BLM has been orchestrated in France by what they call “racialism”, a victimization-based racism that is overtaking the original state-sponsored Republican “anti-racism”. Racialism” or “indigenism,” the twin brother of the ethnic “communitarianism” of the ultra-right wing, uses the categories of the black American petty bourgeoisie such as “white privilege” to challenge the political system. In one way or another it asserts that the subjects of rights would not be individuals but collectives defined around race or religion. In other words, the old category of “people” from the democratic petty bourgeoisie breaks down into “communities” of race, religion or “culture”. Since these are not territorialized groups, national liberation is not proposed as state independence, but as a supposedly necessary segregation (“safe spaces”, “community laws”) so that every suffering small nation could “assert itself” with “pride”. Of course the way to articulate this would require the elevation of the “communitarian” petty bourgeoisie to the leading layer of its market share, corporate power and small share within the state. That is, a bureaucracy of its own with “representatives” in the ruling class, to manage and mediate relations with the state and with other “communities”, which would be essentially alien and potentially harmful to its identity. The class character of this kind of approach and its origin in the weakest factions of the petty bourgeoisie is obvious. So is its structural coincidence with feminism… which results in a certain discomfort for the ruling class at a time when it is elevating feminism to a state ideology.

In summary, the petty bourgeois revolt in Europe has -from Le Pen and Orban to the Muslim Brotherhood and “indigenism”, from classical independentism to feminism- a growing ideological component that points to the transformation of the political apparatus from a democracy of “citizens” to a “democracy of identities”. If this component keeps developing, the petty-bourgeois revolt will soon become the main divide in the European “democratic consensus”.

What is democracy about?

Attack on the Grenelle field, decisive moment of the “Conjuration of the Equals”

In 1796, Babeuf, seeking a political expression for the sans-culottes -the urban proletariat that constituted the left wing of the French Revolution- wrote a letter to his friend Bodson, a letter which is usually considered the first statement of his program.

Robespierrism is democracy and these two words are absolutely identical. If Robespierrism is resurrected, I know for sure that democracy will be resurrected.

Robespierre equals democracy? The head of the Terror? The bourgeois dictator par excellence?

The “confusion” is worsened when we remember that in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto, it is openly stated that “the first step of the workers’ revolution is the elevation of the proletariat to a ruling class, the conquest of democracy”. And it is even more shocking if we go to the Russian Revolution. What did a worker or a workshop owner understand by democracy in 1917? A social whole, not a form of organization and government. This is not so surprising: even today the word “aristocracy” can mean a form of government -and so it appears in high school textbooks when they describe classical Greek history- or a class, the one formed by the aristocrats during the Ancien Régime. In the same way, in the political language of 1917 -as in Babeuf or Marx- democracy was not a form of government but the control of the state by the oppressed classes, that is, those oppressed under capitalism because of being deprived of real political power by the dictatorship which supposes the subordination of all government measures to the interests of the accumulation of capital.

In 1913 Rosa Luxemburg, assessing the previous decade and the effects of the financial crisis of the 1990s, wrote:

Instead of social reforms, we saw laws on sedition, criminal laws on imprisonment; instead of democracy, we saw the powerful industrial concentration of capital in cartels and employers’ associations and the international practice of giant lockouts. And instead of the new upward development of democracy in the state, there was a miserable collapse of the last vestiges of bourgeois liberalism and bourgeois democracy.

As you can see, first of all it opposes “democracy” to industrial concentration. She is comparing the accumulation of power among two groups: capital and “democracy”-that is, the classes that live by their labor. And in case it wasn’t clear, she contrasts the “upward development of democracy in the state,” i.e., the expected growing influence of the working classes on institutions, against the erosion of civil liberties. Nor was this characteristic of revolutionaries. The famous speech of Kerensky before the Soviet on March 29, 1917, began by saying: “On behalf of the provisional government of the country, I salute and bow down to democracy: the workers, soldiers and peasants”. This was not a concession to the language of the workers and their organizations. The Duma’s Publishing House, the parliament that disputed power to the Soviets until October, published a dictionary of political terms aimed at popular political education. It defined democracy as: “All those classes who live from their own work: workers, peasants, officials and intellectuals”.

Representation of the alliance between worker class and petty bourgeois peasantry during the twenties in Russia.

Even when the Mensheviks and SRs called the “Pan-Russian Democratic Conference” in September 1917 with the aim of electing a “pre-Parliament”, they invited all the socialist parties including the Bolsheviks, trade unions, peasant and soldiers’ organizations… but not the Kadets (liberals) or representatives of the landowners, simply because “democratic” and “democracy” had a class meaning, not a merely procedural meaning. In fact, when, after Kornilov’s attempted coup in August, factory assemblies call one by one for the soviet to take power on its own and break with the bourgeois parties, they do so in the name of democracy because democracy meant the power of the oppressed classes and their interests. Democracy in the language of revolution – and as we have seen from social democracy in the previous decades – is not a method nor a procedure bringing together all the social groups and interests of the nation, it is synonymous with the oppressed classes.

And when in 1918 the revolution broke out in Germany and the social dichotomy materialized, as it had between February and October in Russia, between workers’ and soldiers’ councils on one side and parliament on the other, the meaning of democracy as the exclusive government of the laboring classes became even clearer: democracy means separating from the power structure those classes that do not live from their work and among them, especially, the bourgeoisie. The socialist message of the moment is that democracy as a social whole is made up of the non-exploiting classes… that is, even the petty bourgeoisie is excluded, and democracy in the political sense (the rule of the majority interests) can only be illuminated through its own exclusive institutions, not through the institutions of representative democracy within which it had grown up until then.

Democracy, the government of the people, will begin when the working people take political power. (…) The aim is to make the motto of the French bourgeoisie in 1789, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, a reality for the first time by abolishing the class domination of the bourgeoisie. And the first step before the whole world and History, is to make clear on our agenda that what until now was claimed to be the basis of equal rights and democracy – Parliament, the National Assembly, even the universal right to vote – was a lie and a deception. All power into the hands of the toiling masses as a revolutionary weapon to extirpate capitalism, that is the only true equality of rights, that is true democracy!

In short, until some time after the Russian Revolution, “democracy” was not a “floating signifier”. The conflicting parties were very clear about their definitions. When we read today that between February and October the revolution lived its “democratic phase” in Russia, surely many will understand something very different from what the protagonists themselves understood by that expression. The idea of democracy understood as the government of the interests of labor, as we have seen, went across the border between the supporters of the Soviet power (Bolsheviks, left-wing SRs, anarchists) and the supporters of a regime that would carry out the unfinished bourgeois revolution (Mensheviks, right-wing SRs). Only the right-wing SRs and Mensheviks, the Kadets and the remnants of the autocracy intended that a parliamentary government and division of powers could still be democratic in 1917.

Democracy and socialism

First appearance of the red flag in 1848: the workers first emerged as a political subject when they raised the red flag as an alternative to the tricolor. Lamartine withdrew it in February.

Marx was not the discoverer of class struggle. The experience of the French Revolution had made it obvious to earlier bourgeois historians. The struggle among large social classes for political power and control of the state implied that what was essential to characterize a regime or government was not its internal procedures or its mechanisms for electing cadres, but the interests whose laws, policies and structures they promoted.

From this point of view, which is so important that otherwise every other perspective becomes a mystification, any government of the social whole in a society divided into classes is a dictatorship. If what is placed as an imperative social criterion, before any other consideration, is the need for capital to make profits, we are facing a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. If it is the interests of the oppressed classes that -temporarily- are imposed from the state, we are in front of a “democratic dictatorship”, that is, an interclassist one. And if it is the universal, generic needs that are imposed on everything else, especially on top of capital accumulation, we would be before a dictatorship of the proletariat. And of course, it was clear that no social class could expect anyone else to do anything but impose the needs it represented.

Both Marx in 1848 and the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 were trying to direct the political action of the working class towards democratic revolutions -where the petty bourgeoisie, especially the peasantry, was fundamental- which aimed to evolve into socialist revolutions. Marx called this development “permanent revolution” and it was based on the idea of a certain common course with the petty bourgeoisie, basically putting an end to feudal power in order to bring about a capitalist development that would develop a massive working class and bring capitalism closer to a phase in which overcoming it would be a universal necessity. The peculiarity of the Russian Revolution is that it would have been the last permanent revolution and the first stage of the first world socialist revolution. That is, after it – the first great wave of the world revolution between 1917 and 1937 – the conditions for another such revolution would simply no longer exist. Or in other words, the conditions for a “democratic dictatorship” of the workers and petty bourgeoisie would no longer exist.

We have already seen how Rosa Luxemburg excluded the petty bourgeoisie from democracy in Germany in 1919. Engels himself had seen this clearly decades earlier in the German case, where the particular evolution of capitalism, despite having been led by a bourgeoisie supported by an autocratic state still marked by feudal remnants, had already left behind the perspective of a new permanent revolution like that of 1848. In a letter to Bebel dated 1884, he makes it clear that the petty bourgeoisie already understands “democracy” as “pure democracy”, that is, as a mere game of formalities and elective procedures of representation within the political apparatus of the state. And that this marks precisely the moment in which “democracy”, the rule of an alliance of interests of the oppressed classes, becomes impossible. From now on, the German proletariat would be alone and would not share any part of the struggle for socialism with any other class.

Whatever happens, our only adversary on the day of crisis and the day after, will be the entire collective reaction, which will be grouped around pure democracy, and I believe that we should not lose sight of this.

Democracy and crisis

Yellow vests on the Champs-Elysées, the national flag, symbol of interclassism and the consequent subjection to the republican framework and objectives of national capital

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In recent years we have seen how the petty bourgeois revolt, which began as a response to the 2008 crisis, increasingly stated clearly that its goals were to participate in the new flow of income that big capital was extracting from the workers on the basis of precarization and thanks to which this big capital was “getting out” of the crisis. Whether on separatist discourses, in Catalonia, Corsica, Hong Kong or wherever; under the rise of xenophobic nationalist right-wings, or under the form of “popular democratic revolts”, all movements sought to avoid, if not repress any expression of class interests by the workers. The only movement that showed a possibility of serving as a support or at least as a warning was that of the Yellow Vests and only while it was led by the weakest and proletarianized sectors of the rural peripheries. With a little government and media assistance, it soon corrected itself. Moreover, all these movements openly called for the patriotic sacrifice of the workers for the sake of “transversality”, when they did not bring them to the brink of war. And meanwhile, the petty bourgeoisie dreamed of new government structures with which to improve their situation and in which to place their children.

Such movements could hardly be called “democratic”. As we have seen, democracy implies joint interests expressed under common slogans. And there are no common interests with a class that at this point is championing the tendencies towards war and that is fighting for a piece of the over-exploitation that capital drives in order to escape the recession.

The decay of democracy

Pro-BLM protesters kneel to apologize for a supposed “privilege” that all white people in the world would enjoy regardless of their class.

Politically, the petty bourgeois revolt has been a real show of impotence. It has hampered the ruling classes, it is true, leading in the last years to a stagnation in the parliaments in several countries and to a serious crisis of the political apparatus -generating fractures with and within the state in many cases- from Chile to Spain. But it has not managed to salvage its situation for the most part. What is worse for its goals, the Covid crisis is enabling the bourgeoisie to renew its political apparatus and redefine its roadmap… and the petty bourgeoisie is being left out.

That is, they are discovering that in front of the ruling class “pure democracy” is not enough for them: neither their new parties managed to displace the old ones sufficiently (Salvini, M5S) nor all those claims about “direct democracy”, “revolving doors” and so on saved them from the economic crisis and bankruptcy brought about by the Covid. And in front of the workers the universalist democratic discourse -the “right to decide”, the “constituent process”- cannot be used as a flag under which to discipline the workers because their economic interests are simply opposed. In the end, it has become clear, for example, that the “cutbacks” in the health and education system led by the governments of the Catalan pro-independence “process” have aggravated the consequences of the pandemic in Catalonia.

Their way out? Sizing down the scale to ensure control of “those at the bottom” and resistance to “those at the top”. Redefining democracy in the way that the Anglo-Saxon “identitarian left” and the French “communitarian right” have been doing: ending the short-sighted and hypocritical universalism of the French Revolution in order to… go backwards towards essentialist identities of sex, race, religion, ethnicity, territory and so on… One could hardly think of anything more reactionary. A new sort of chieftain rule is coming over us. A democracy of chieftains of gender, race, nationality… allied with each other in “confluences” on the right and left united through a glue of victimizationist “intersectionality” and being given disciplinary power by virtue of receiving delegated powers from the state and the invocation “of class transversalities“.

The disbelief

Strike of telephone company workers in Lebanon this week.

But not everything under the disbelief in democracy is reactionary. The Covid crisis has left some important lessons about the role of the state and what is to come… which are maturing in very broad sectors of the workers, among other things because of the massive experience of struggles of these months, struggles which are still going on. There is an awareness of a growing oppression of the working class, fostered by the reactions of the states in the face of the recession and there is a growing distrust towards the “naturalness” with which they intend to play the trick of turning resistance against sexist discrimination into feminism, resistance against environmental destruction into environmentalism and resistance against racism into “racialism”. This resistance does not depend on or arise from ideological processes. It arises from the practice and necessity of the struggles that are being waged. This is the path of the alternative, against the dictatorship of accumulation… and against the anti-democratic delusions of the petty bourgeoisie.


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