Friday, 7 September 2012

Democracy and Socialism.

In my essay on polyarchy I only addressed narrow questions of American liberal democracy with the Bush administration as a principle example. There are much more interesting questions raised by the concept. It's very easy to scrutinise the democratic institutions of capitalist society, but it is less clear what position should be drawn from such a critique. After all the notion of polyarchy picks away at the liberal ideal of representative democracy and seems to push us towards notions of a radical democracy. This is all especially relevant to socialists, who lack a theory of government - that's the breach that the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' filled in the 20th Century. It's easy to dismiss vanguardism, but it's less clear where to head next if we want to retain our commitment to socialism. It could be that this is just a matter of transition. In defence of historical materialism GA Cohen wrote of communism as freedom from social structure. It's possible to see radical democracy as consistent with such a notion.

I turned to my friend Chris Horner on this matter and first made a few clarifications "Well, from a Marxist perspective, class is abolished altogether - after a transitional period (socialism) to a point at which class antagonism no longer exists: proletariat abolishes itself at the same time." Before adding "So the way Marx envisaged it was that democracy would be vastly enhanced by socialism - in the interests of the proletariat - and the bourgeoisie would be in the state of the current proletarians - i.e., unable to use economic power to enforce de facto 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie'. Would this be polyarchy? Possibly, but only briefly." He went further to stress that Karl Marx was never all that clear about this, though all Marxists seem to see the class struggle continuing after the revolution for a period. I recall that Mao pointed out that the ruling party can take on the role of the ruling-class after the revolution and so opens up the need for a mass-movement to undermine the party-state apparatus.

It's worth noting that Karl Marx thought it would be much easier for the working-class to achieve victories, to some extent, through the fledgling Parliamentary institutions of Europe. The dichotomy between the promise of grass-roots democracy and a sort of Hobbesian reaffirmation of statehood. The former has the comforting appeal of ultra-leftism while the latter takes the contrarian line in its unreconstructed defence of a strong state. It seems pertinent that the vanguardists have little use for concepts such as polyarchy. Instead you might tend to find more simplistic talk of oligarchy and plutocracy. This is where the Left is problematically sectarian, its inability to sustain fine differences. Rousseau had seemed to favour an egalitarian variety of an 'elective aristocracy', which could be seen as a version of representative or delegative democracy. Then there's the accusation that this is just 'reformist' meandering out of the revolutionary project. Yet it's very clear that the capitalist system can only be overthrown through revolution.
You could interpret the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' as a sort of polyarchy given it's representative composition of prevailing economic interests. Chris went on to say "The range of opinions is represented (as they are in liberal society), but the bourgeoisie no longer has its hands on the levers of economic power. Ultimately a radical democracy develops in a context in which class no longer exists. Again, I wish Marx had said more about this, but maybe he was being wisely cautious. That doesn't mean socialists of all stripes shouldn't think hard about what a democracy actually is!" Another friend of mine once joked that the ultimate victory over capitalism will be signified by the lack of presence of officially socialist/communist parties, as well as the insignificant presence of tiny capitalist parties that will never take power. There's some truth in this as it points at hegemony and that's something that the polyarchy model definitely appeals to. This is where we need theory more than ever.

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