The Betrayal of Democracy

Alan Dent

From the mid 1970s the British working-class, probably the only force capable, at that time, of pushing it to the point that it could become in practice what it promised as an ideal, effectively turned its back an democracy; for democracy, unless it is to be thought of as a mere mechanism, must be an ideal at whose heart is the notion of equal rights; a notion which the working-class rejected as they rallied to Mrs Thatcher and the hope of more money in their pockets through 'popular capitalism'. Democracy, as the promise of freedom in equality, has hardly any currency in contemporary Britain. Instead, it is the reduced definition, the concept of democracy as a mere mechanism through which people can elect those who shall rule over them locally, nationally or, in the case of Europe, supra-nationally, which holds sway; a definition wholly compatible with elective tyranny. A government, for example, duly elected by the lawful process of universal suffrage on a platform of diminished rights for blacks could be said to be democratic. Yet, if we were to ask whether Abraham Lincoln would have accepted the idea of a statutory inferior status on the basis of race, we can glimpse how reduced our idea of democracy has become. Democracy, if it is a mere mechanism, is robbed of moral power. Any outcome, so long as it is supported by a majority of electors, is acceptable. It is around this degraded conception of democracy that the far-right parties in Europe are organising. They look respectable, engage in electoral politics and at the same time preach a doctrine which denies what democracy proposes: that all individuals should enjoy equal political rights.

Democracy has always had most to offer the poor and powerless. The rich have no need of it, for they can buy much that it offers. The promise of democracy is, as Huey Long said, “every man a king and no man with a crown". Embracing the idea of equal rights, it is incompatible with a society in which rights are distributed according to income. It is this idea, that people should buy their rights, which Mrs Thatcher pushed to the forefront of British politics. She made it popular by granting council house tenants the right to buy at knock down prices and by permitting those with a little spare cash to make an assured, if modest, profit from successive privatisations. Yet the popularity of her project should not be allowed to mask the debasement of democracy which it entailed: equality of rights was displaced by the idea that if you can't pay, you're second class. No-one has rights. You must earn your place in the democracy of wealth. Should you fail, then you suffer diminished status.

Now, democracy has never been a guarantee against failure but it has proposed that citizenship should not be defined according to wealth. The abolition of the property qualification for suffrage was an assertion of equality in citizenship, an equality fulfilled when women were finally granted the vote. Yet what does equality in citizenship mean if some are able to buy rights which others are denied? If we take a. simple example: suppose a family in which the mother and father enthusiastically supported Mrs Thatcher and following her call for a property owning democracy, took out a mortgage. All goes well for a few years, then the mine where the man works closes and in due course his wife too loses her job as the local economy shrinks. Redundancy money keeps them buoyant temporarily but at length they are unable to keep up the repayments on their mortgage and their house is repossessed. Homeless, they go to the council which houses them on an estate where crime, drug pushing and prostitution are rife. Fearing for the well-being of their children, they do not want to live here. But they have no choice. It is this or the streets. Unable to afford the cost of sending their children across town, they must use the local school where results and discipline are poor and the teachers struggle to cope with the victims of poverty, family breakdown and despair.

Compare this to the head of a privatised utility earning £500,000 a year. Should he feel dissatisfied he is free to move elsewhere. He has almost unlimited choice about where to live for in any town or city in Britain even the most expensive locations are likely to be within his budget. Should he feel unhappy with the local school he has the possibility of paying for his children to travel to a more distant one or to go private. Money gives him rights: the right to choose where to live, the right to choose a school the right to travel, the right to good health care, the right to dignity in old age. Money confers rights, poverty removes them.

The conservative answer to this is that the wealthy executive has earned what he enjoys. They are not rights but rewards for effort. In an open, entrepreneurial system everyone has the opportunity to go out and make their way. Inequality is merely a measure of greater or lesser effort or ingenuity in doing so. People must be free to enjoy the benefits of their own efforts, just as people must understand that they will suffer the consequences if they do not shift for themselves. No-one has a right to decent house, a good standard of living.   They have to be earned and in the competition to earn them some will fall by the wayside.

Yet if the logic of this is that whatever we enjoy we must have earned, how does it tally with political equality? Why should the conservative be able to accept the notion of equal political rights but baulk at equal economic rights? After all, political equality is enjoyed by the most responsible and the mast feckless. To be consistent, shouldn't the conservative argue for a return to the property qualification for electors for wouldn't that be thoroughly in keeping with the idea that whatever we enjoy we must earn through personal effort? It is hard to understand how the conservative sensibility can be at ease with political democracy when this enshrines the idea of absolute equality of political rights. The ideal behind this equality is that every adult should be free and responsible. It is the recognition that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. It is the belief that every individual should enjoy equal freedom and equal responsibility as far as the election of political representatives is concerned. Why then should this notion of freedom and responsibility in equality be confined to the sphere of the political? Why, if it is fundamental to democracy, should it not inform every area of life?

The ideal of democracy is precisely that it should: just as every individual enjoys political equality, so they should enjoy the right to an independent life in equality in the economic sphere. Democracy is simply incompatible with disparities of wealth which permit huge inequalities of rights. The ideal of democracy is that if one man shall choose where he can live, so shall all men. If one child shall enjoy a good education, so shall all children. To deny this is to reduce democracy to a mere means: that of bringing your chosen political party to power. In which case democracy is deprived of moral value for if I place the interests of my party above those of democracy I deny the intrinsic value of the concept of political equality. To realise this intrinsic value, however, is to see that democracy is a greater value than the Ideology of any political party which makes use of it. The intrinsic value of democracy lies in respect for the freedom of the individual to participate in the political process on the basis of equality. Yet once this equality is accepted, why should it be corralled? If equality of rights is an important principle why should we acknowledge it in one sphere only to deny it in another?

Just as it is now argued that the right to economic decency is no right at all but a privilege which must be earned, so it was once argued that the right to vote should be granted only to those who showed themselves worthy. Women, of course, were unworthy simply by virtue of their gender. But the poor were unworthy too. Democracy was the recognition that the poor and women have rights. Now, if we can accept that the poor have the right to political equality, why can't we accept that they should have the right to choose where they live? And if their poverty is all that stands in the way of this, why can't we accept that poverty is incompatible with the ideal of democracy?

When a democratic political framework co-exists with huge disparities of wealth and the poorest in society effectively live in a different country from the richest, then democracy has been betrayed for economic inequality makes a mockery of political equality. Those who pursue economic inequality (and to believe in the accumulation of exorbitant wealth is to do so for by its very nature such wealth resides in the hands of a tiny minority) must reduce the currency of democracy. What they need to conceal is the belief in equality which lies at its heart. In its place they must put the idea that democracy is a mere mechanism and therefore implies no moral intention. Along with this must come the reduction of the importance of the individual as a free and responsible participant in democracy. In its place conies the idea of the voter as a 'punter' a consumer, someone to be sold a product, to be hoodwinked, to be duped, to be manipulated, The people who matter are not the voters but those they elect. All the democratic conduits must be colonised by the career politicians and those who seek their election: media proprietors, editors, journalists, pundits, opinion formers. Ultimately, the individual voters must be made to feel that their votes count for very little, even nothing, and that, by extension, they count for the same.

In every advanced democracy this process of making the voter feel that his or her own feelings and thoughts are inferior to those of professional politicians and of reducing political choice to that between two, or if you're lucky, three serious parties between whose policies it is sometimes difficult to pass a wafer and whose principles are even closer, has resulted in significant loss of faith in democracy as a means of change and democratic politicians as people who can be trusted, let alone looked up to. The ideal of democracy implies respect for the individual. The practice of democracy sees the individual as a mere instrument, a voter, and in the vicious contest for power where the stakes are inordinately high, hardly any politician can resist manipulating voters. When democracy is seen as a simple means to power then its promise of sufficient experiential space for every individual to fulfil his or her individuality, its guarantee of principled respect for everyone's freedom, is destroyed. Instead of the free individual we have a person whose hopes, anxieties, desires, weaknesses can be played upon, flattered, condescended to, belittled, ridiculed or whatever else needs to be done in order to ensure electoral victory. If most people believe that democracy is about putting political parties in power then they accept a minimalist definition which ignores altogether democracy's promise of equality in freedom. They have accepted a definition of themselves as instrumental, do not perceive the excitement of democracy as the promise of mutual equality and freedom, but view it rather as a more or less cynical process through which a few become very powerful, while the rest accept their subordinate place.

Abraham Lincoln declared that as he would not be a slave so he would not be a master. This understanding that tyranny and slavery are reverse images of one another was fundamental to his conception of democracy. A democratic society was one, by implication, without slaves or masters. However right Toqueville might have been in seeing that the ideal of democracy quickly descends into the tyranny of the majority, the ideal that Lincoln proposed was something very different. But an ideal can only be kept alive by strenuous moral effort, by the kind of restraint that made Lincoln something far greater than a political opportunist. To see that a democratic society provides opportunities for manipulation and yet to resist them is part of the demanding ideal of democracy. The belief in equal rights implies that you cannot see other people as a means to your power. People are not merely "voters" or "the electorate", they are autonomous individuals whose needs and hopes should be treated with respect. It is difficult to express just what this means but it is perhaps made clearest through a spatial metaphor: the space between people in which they meet should not be colonised. It must be an open area which each can enter and retreat from as they choose.

It is an astonishing spectacle that in societies calling themselves democratic the master-slave relationship persists. As Michael Foucault has argued, this relationship is no longer based on brute authority, but on compliance, on self-policing, on holding back from doing or thinking whatever the "system", whether in the form of a specific institution or society as a whole, finds unacceptable. Modern society has become a kind of vast examination room in which the individual is tested, over and over again, by more or less anonymous institutions. On success or failure in one kind of test or another depends almost the whole of your well-being. If you are found wanting you are unlikely even to be able to earn a living. By making people comply with the tests which define them, and accept the definition they offer, by instilling fear of failure in any test, modern society places the policeman within the individual so that people are radically unreal: they do not act as they wish, or say what they think or even dare to think freely. In thought, action and speech they seek to comply with judging, testing institutions, for fear that by not doing so they may be cast out of society.

Now, what is democracy if not the right of the individual to think, speak and act freely and without fear? How can democracy function if, in fear of losing their livelihood or of social ostracism, people dare not even think what supervising institutions forbid? The rise of the testing, supervising, punishing institution and society along with democracy must be one of the strangest combinations in history for democracy ought to mean that people have no need to be afraid, no need to comply. Yet the requirement of compliance in daily life means that when people come to exercise their democratic right in the polling booth, they are not free, They are accustomed to thinking, feeling, speaking and acting only in ways condoned by society and its institutions and are therefore unlikely to vote for candidates who challenge the status quo. This is what Martin Luther king was expressing when he said:

"The salvation of the world lies with the maladjusted."

People who are perfectly adjusted to the existing order cannot challenge its injustices, cannot be agents of moral improvement. Yet, more and more, society requires perfect adjustment even for survival. Everyone must be processed, disciplined, supervised, tested. Those who fall short will be deprived of influence and in this way the system is guaranteed to perpetuate itself. People will dutifully cast their votes only for candidates who refuse all significant challenge to the status quo. People, in short, will fear freedom.

The supervising society is a product of positivism, of that dream of society functioning, as Foucault points out, with military precision: society as a machine obeying immutable laws and under the control of rational, scientific experts. Democracy, by contrast, is the ideal of a society of free agents, a society which cannot be perfectly ordered precisely because people will make individual, quirky choices. A society furthermore ruled, not by experts, but by amateurs, by men and women in their commonplace fallibility. The positivist project has no need of democracy for, by its very nature, the latter is about choice while the positivist view of society sees choice as unnecessary. If society evolves according to strict laws then choice is irrelevant. What is required, rather, is the understanding of the scientist: the ability to isolate the laws, to see the nature of the process of evolution and to manipulate it in the way that a physicist can manipulate the laws of the physical world in order to produce nuclear explosions or X-rays. It is, among other reasons, because this positivistic view of society still has such a hold on the modern mind that the promise of democracy cannot be realised.

Between the democratic and the positivistic views of society and the individual there can be no compromise, no peace. The former views the individual as a free agent, not only capable but forced to choose and wishes to confer upon him or her the greatest possible degree of freedom and responsibility. The latter sees the individual as subject to the working of immutable law and views choice, freedom and responsibility as illusions. In the political sphere we have accepted the idea of equal rights, of freedom of choice, of responsibility for the outcome of choice, but in the economic sphere we continue to believe that abstract law rules, making intention, choice, action and responsibility ultimately impossible. The conservative mind responds to the problem of poverty, for example, by explaining it away (which is different from explaining it) as the product of the working of the market mechanism. Hopeless, in this view, to try to do anything about it other than to allow the market to keep making the decisions about distribution of wealth. The idea that poverty might be a choice, that it might suit the needs of the rich and powerful, that it might be the result of human action, must be put aside. Yet if we accept this, what good is democracy? If we are not free to choose how to act, free to strive to ensure the outcomes we choose, then political liberty is illusory. If the market or any other supra-human mechanism, determines how we shall relate to one another, we are morally doomed.

Democracy is the belief that we can choose how to live and that the actions we engage in on the basis of our choices make a difference. It is, as an ideal, the belief that every adult man and woman is fully responsible for his or her own actions. It is also the acceptance of equality in citizenship. Consequently, it is incompatible both with positivistic interpretations of society and with gross economic inequality. It is also inimical to deference.

Dominated by a positivistic ideology, embracing obscene wealth at one extreme and degrading poverty at the other, and displaying an increasing need for those at the lower end to show deference to their supposed superiors, contemporary Britain is democratic in only the most minimal sense.

For this degradation, the working-class bears a major responsibility. It is the votes of skilled workers in their millions that have kept the Conservatives in power since 1979. For these workers, money in their pockets has been more important than the democratic ideal of equality. Helped towards prosperity by that very ideal, they turned their backs on it when their prosperity allowed them to seize short-term opportunities. The excitement of freedom has meant less to them than that of consumption. Old ideas and ideals of solidarity and community have been dropped in pursuit of immediate material gain or status, or even the simulacrum of status in the showy possession of consumer goods. Democracy is about none of these things. It is concerned with the way we relate to one another and its principle assertion is that we should meet as equals. Yet it implies not merely an absence of social deference but also the elimination of those distinctions of wealth and institutionalised status which are the basis of a deferential culture. This is not to imply State confiscation of wealth. It is to suggest rather the widest possible distribution of productive wealth. The old idea of a "competence", of every man and woman in possession of the wherewithal to shift for themselves, is in keeping with the ideal of democracy. The concentration of huge wealth in a few hands, the reduction of the majority to mere factors of production, the restructuring of employment so that more and more jobs are part-time, poorly paid and insecure, the emergence of an overclass at the upper end and of an underclass at the lower, the creation of an atmosphere of fear in which people dare not speak out because it might cost them their job, the bullying demand for deference by those who have status and power; all these are indicative of a terrible degradation of the democratic ideal.