Democracy? What’s that got to do with it?

30 Aug


Analogies are by definition imperfect but humour me. Imagine, if you will, trying to make sense of the finer points or even the elementary principles of astronomy when you and all around you – as well as those who teach your kids and those whose sagacities you daily consume through mainstream media – rest in the unshakeable belief that our sun merrily orbits the earth.

Hold that thought.

Prior to her granting of BoJo’s request to prorogue (temporarily dissolve) parliament, FB and Twitter were abuzz with open pleas to HM the Q. So I ask myself: how many of those who saw fit to thus petition this icon of staggering inequality, this walking antithesis of democracy,1 paused to consider the surreal, oxymoronic nature of such appeals?

Few I guess. Most are ingenues: hence the frequent spectacle of Remainers conflating EU with internationalism and democracy, and characterising Leavers as racists and morons to the core; plebs perversely oblivious, in Littletown England, to how enriched their lives have been made by the EU and its globalisation project.

Such a worthy project, too! Provided we ignore Greece 2015,2 TTIP sneaked in, and the growing synergy of EU and NATO agendas as the war drums – over Iran and Ukraine, South China Sea and Greenland – beat with rising tempo. Held back only by what remain of the restraints of a nuclear age, all the conditions are in place for world war waged, as always, in the name of lofty values but in the interests of profit.3

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Brexiteer: they have their own delusions.4 I’m just too respectful of truth – or too bad mannered – to let such reality-lite conflation and contempt go unchallenged.

But this post isn’t about Brexit. It’s about democracy and it’s about delusion. An insistence that the sun orbits the earth cannot but lead, buffeted by so many inconvenient empirical findings, to all manner of confusion, seeming paradox, denial and spatchcock workaround. So too does the cherished fairy tale that we in the West live in democracies, as opposed to national variants on a world run by criminal elites.

Britain being a monarchy is an important variant but not a crucial one. France isn’t a democracy either, not least because like every other nation named here it lacks independent media,5 while America’s red/blue comic turn stands as lesson to us all in how nakedly class war can be waged by big money. Class war at home, class war abroad – class war helped rather than hindered by the charade of government by and for the people.

Britain’s successful colonial and slave trading past is another important but not crucial variant. Germany had few colonies, Scandinavia fewer and Switzerland none at all, yet those states are thriving imperialisms.6 As such they are no more democratic than Britain, France, Holland or the once great powers of Iberia, and for a very good reason. Class rule and democracy can no more coexist than fire and ice. It’s a matter of irreconcilable interests, you see.

Except most don’t. That’s the clever bit.

But let’s stick with Britain, an imperialism whose rulers grew stinking rich on the back of former colonies, and a monarchy to boot. The problem with begging the Queen to intervene on behalf of ‘democracy’ is not just that we shouldn’t have the one and don’t have the other – and that appealing to her was both demeaning and a measure of the inability of so many Remainers to see beyond the ends of their noses.

(An earlier measure is the failure of Referendum II devotees to see or care that a tiny majority, which the polls show as likeliest outcome, would be perilous if it fell to Remain. Why do they not grasp this? Because many – new to politics, often painfully lacking in class awareness but for once in their lives given a sense of purpose and active participation (neither good nor bad in itself, and in any case not to be underestimated) – can’t conceive of anything worse than life beyond the European Bankers’ Club. At side of that fate a toxic divide between haves and have-nots, highlighted but not caused by Brexit and parallel phenomena, is to them a trifling matter.)

Nor is the problem the minor one that her Yes to BoJo was a foregone conclusion. I don’t think it was. It’s another delusion, in this case on the part of centre-left Remainers, that Brexit is what our ruling class wants. This is a simplistic view of that class as undivided. It is not, and the fault line runs with a fair degree of accuracy, as it has so often run – from a Whig/Tory divide at the dawn of the industrial revolution to dry versus wet Tories under Mrs Thatcher – between rentier and industrial wings of capital. It was not unrealistic – sad to behold, but not unrealistic – of the pleaders to hope the monarch might refuse the Boris.

No, the problem here is both bigger and smaller. Smaller than those I’ve alluded to – capital in the age of imperialism, folly of taking its democracy at face value and blithe indifference to the rage of millions shafted by neoliberalism. Yet bigger than wishful thinking on the part of those disappointed by Queenie.

The problem is that Boris – oaf and reckless narcissist, liar and, like that tangerine bad acid trip across the pond, fitting metaphor for empire on the turn – is not stupid. Are we to suppose that these protests at his scorn for democracy come as any surprise to him and Dominic Cummings? More realistic, surely, is this assessment by Stephen Bush in a New Statesman not normally on my reading list.

[prorogation] sets up a showdown in parliament next week that would give Johnson the pretext to stand outside Downing Street, decry the bad behaviour of MPs and go to the country on a “don’t let politicians steal Brexit” ticket before 31 October – which increasingly looks like the government’s real first preference, rather than pursuing a no-deal Brexit with such a fragile parliamentary majority.

Democracy, it seems – even the fake kind – is a double edged sword.

* * *

  1. Some claim all manner of virtues for the queen, and maybe they speak truth but what of it? My concern is with realities less personal. I no more care whether Queenie is or is not a good sport, and hard working with it, than I do whether Hitler could knock out a decent water colour or Obama charm a dinner party as bombs rained on the middle east.
  2. While an understanding of German prosperity as driven by a hard working protestant ethic is widespread, this – and the corollary that Greece’s fecklessness led it to Hell – is self-serving amnesia. German prosperity owes its all to being chosen at Bretton Woods, for reasons given by Yanis Varoufakis in The Global Minotaur, as best placed to play lead creditor nation in the cold war reconstruction of Free Enterprise Europe. A Eurozone straitjacket only tilted further an already stacked deck. As did the old “heads we win/tails you lose” trick, enabled by conflating ruling class and national interests in both the creditor and debtor nations. This was a three act drama. Act One, Greece’s corrupt elite half squander/half trouser loans from the greedy bankers of pre crash Northern Europe. Act Two, post Lehman Brothers, German taxpayers kindly take on Greece’s debt. Act Three, that old chestnut of German industriousness versus Greek indolence and spendthriftery comes in handy for selling the whole dirty business of 2015, not least to millions of uncritical EU fans, as tough love and fiscal rigour.
  3. As Russia and China grow stronger it makes sense – chilling, but in its own deranged terms rational – for America to strike sooner rather than later. Unsurprisingly, those elements within its ruling class which have long believed a nuclear war can be won are closer to Pentagon orthodoxy than at any point since Stalin got the bomb seventy years ago.
  4. I’ve given my views of Brexit in a few posts, most recently here, though a piece put up yesterday on the World Socialist Website does a more thorough job.
  5. Democracy assumes consent, and consent is meaningless if not informed. Hence the pivotal importance of media independence, as lived reality in a genuine democracy or sacred cow in our fake brands. What does ‘media independence’ mean? Media free of state interference and oligarchic ownership, to be sure, but also of class forces playing out through reliance on advertising: shown by Herman and Chomsky – big businesses selling privileged audiences to other big businesses – to be a vital disciplinarian in the manufacture of consent.
  6. I define imperialism as export of monopoly capital and repatriation of profits. I’ve yet to pen a detailed account but two book reviews, here and here, serve as markers.

2 Replies to “Democracy? What’s that got to do with it?

    • Just wish I could offer a solution or two, Jeni. But no, nothing but problems.

      On the narrow question of the EU, I’d have to run with Varoufakis’s diem25 project but in truth I deem the EU no more capable of reform than the US Empire. Just as I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument from the Lexit crowd as to how leaving the EU in current circs can possibly be a victory for workers, so have I yet to hear one from would be EU reformers on how to build transnational alliances of workers capable of reforming from within that corrupt institution.

      I guess it’s a case of a million to one shot being better than no shot at all.

      On the wider question of overthrowing class rule and achieving real democracy, I’m similarly pessimistic. I’ve no faith in either the parliamentary or revolutionary roads to that end. Some say I should STFU then. I deem that illogical. I never saw the sense in insisting that without a solution we’ve no business articulating the problem. In fact that problem, beneath the confusions begot by serious misunderstandings of the nature of the social world – analagous to those of thinking sun orbits earth – can be simply put. If humanity does not find, and in very short order, alternatives to wealth creation driven by the insane and unbridled (because unbridleable) pursuit of private profit, we are headed for nuclear armageddon and/or environmental catastrophe.

      As you and most of my friends know, I’m not given to morbidity. I love life and have always sought to taste it to the full. I have two daughters, beautiful women now in their mid thirties and running out of time if they wish to bear children. One is in a lesbian relationship, the other a high flyer in an adrenaline fueled and at times dangerous occupation in which romantic relationship has necessarily come second. Both have spoken of having children and, if they do, I’ll be happy for them and for me. Butshould neither go down that road I’ll not be greatly disappointed. I’m not a cynic but am deeply pessimistic and increasingly alarmed.

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