Is free-market democracy capable of delivering socialism?
First published in Morning Star 25th October 2018
For several years now there has been a resurgence of socialism and a subsequent political main-streaming of progressive radicalism. This is probably best exemplified by the phenomena of an actually socialist-led Labour Party in the UK, democratic socialists within the Democratic Party in the USA, Syriza in Greece, and of course Podemos in Spain. And in light of this trend, it is worth understanding not only what kind of society it is that we are all trying to build, but whether the systems we are using to try and build it are capable of doing the job. For me the question is, whether the ‘state’ in the ‘free-market democracy’ model, is fundamentally capable of delivering a society built on compassion, freedom, equality, and sustainability, or is it simply not fit for purpose?
In 1918, when the sociologist Max Weber was asked what is a state, he answered that it is a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”[i]. Which as I understand it means, that the state is a minority within a wider population that argues that they, and only they, have the right to use violence. A few years later in 1931, the educator and philosopher John Dewey wrote that “As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance”[ii]. Or to put it another way, while the political system is fundamentally beholden to the wealthy elite, acting within the system approved by the political establishment will have little if any impact on the true nature of power in society.
If both these statements are true, one could quite logically conclude, that it is possible that what we understand as ‘democracy’ could in fact be four processes, that when come together, are in fact more akin to an authoritarian control system. Firstly, in a society where both power and wealth are apportioned unequally, the powerless will inevitably attempt to redress this inequality. Secondly, in response to the demand for power to be shared more equally, the powerful will have to make concessions to the powerless. However, this will be in the full knowledge that as power is shared more equally, it will be used to force the sharing of wealth more equally as well. Therefore, in order for an economic elite to maintain privilege while ensuring the powerless feel empowered enough not to revolt, there must only be the appearance of power being shared equally. And finally, if that were the case, in order to maintain such an all-encompassing fraud the system would need to be in a state of near permanent contradiction, both maintaining tyranny, while at the same time projecting democracy.
Next August will be the bicentenary of the Massacre of Peterloo. When 60,000 people came together in Manchester, England to peacefully call for political and economic equality, at a time when poverty was an early death sentence and only 2% of the population had the vote, the ruling elite sent in the military and private militias to crush the unrest[iii].
Nearly seventy years later and on the other side of the Atlantic, the social reformer and abolitionist Fredrick Douglas[iv] made the speech that vocalised the fears of the ruling class everywhere, and draws the first aspect of this argument into focus. During his address to the crowd at the 24th anniversary of emancipation Douglas said, ” … where any class is made to feel society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe”[v]. By the time Douglas spoke these words in the U.S., in the UK it was becoming increasingly apparent to the ruling elite that continuing to deny the vote to large sections of society was leaving their subjects with only one course of action, revolution[vi]. Which leads to the second process.
As far back as Aristotle, but really taking it’s modern shape under the likes of Hume and Smith during the Scottish enlightenment, and then in the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the idea that the principle requirement of a ‘state’ or ‘government’ is to protect the ‘landed’ from the ‘landless’, while avoiding the appearance of despotism is not particularly controversial[vii]. By the end of the 18th century, both Madison and Hamilton, two of the key architects of the Constitution were very clear about only trusting the propertied classes with political power. They were adamant that the threat of universal suffrage was that certain sections of the population would organise together to force change[viii]. And a few decades later in 1866, Lord Salisbury addressed the UK Parliament during a debate on extending the vote to the working class, in order to repeat the same sentiment. He stated that working class people, if given the vote, would be likely to pass laws “with respect to taxation and property especially favourable to them, and therefore dangerous to all other classes”[ix].
On both sides of the Atlantic, the local elites were equally aware that if the poor gained true political power, it would only be a matter of time before they used that power to abolish the privilege enjoyed by the elite. So in the early decades of the 20th Century, and with the revolution in Russia still fresh in everyone’s mind, the second stage of the process was beginning to take shape, with the right to vote being extended across ever wider sections of UK and US society, albeit in a very closely controlled way[x].
And a century later, what exactly has this extension of suffrage achieved for us? Only a few years ago a poll showed that it was possible that as many as a quarter of all UK households had been forced to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children[xi]. In 2016 the estimates for people living in poverty in the UK ranged from between 19% and 22%, while for children it was between 26% and 30%[xii]. Across Europe in that same year, in the region of 23.5% of the total population was at risk of poverty or social exclusion[xiii]. While, in the U.S. only a year later, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, somewhere in the region of 12.3% of the population were living in poverty. That is just short of 40 million people in the U.S. alone[xiv].
Arguably, the vote, as determined by the establishment institutions, hasn’t had the equalising effect on wealth and privilege that the ruling elite thought it would have. Which brings us to the third process in the system. Is what we understand as the democratic franchise, simply the illusion of equal power?
The word most commonly associated with the process of influencing large sections of society to embrace political positions in the interest of the producer of those communications, as opposed to the consumer, is propaganda. In 1622 Pope Gregory XV, fighting a losing battle against protestant reformation around Europe, took the step of establishing the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Its primary role was to shepherd those straying from the faith, back to the flock. Today ‘propaganda’, as described by those that study it, is the “use of images, slogans, and symbols that play on our prejudices and emotions … with the ultimate goal of having the recipient of the appeal come to ‘voluntarily’ accept this position as if it were his or her own”[xv].
So how are these messages disseminated? Certain leading theorists in the field of cultural studies argue that it is through the media that our societies construct the views and values available to us about the world, each other, ourselves, wealth, power, morality, justice, and freedom. In many ways, it can be argued that the common culture that we share is one that is constantly being negotiated and developed, and that it is one that we both influence and our influenced by. However, how control and power is apportioned within the production/consumption framework is fundamental to understanding the third process of this system[xvi].
When the mass media only uses a very narrow framework of symbolism and subtexts, the culture available to us becomes homogenised, and in doing so offers a similarly homogeneous set of identities available to negotiate with. And it is in those definitions of identity that the messages tell us who has the right to use force and who doesn’t, who deserves privilege and who doesn’t, and of course who has the right to lead and who must obey. But for the purposes of the third process, perhaps the most important is that they also tell us who has the right to question authority and who doesn’t[xvii].
This needs to be seen in a more subtle context as well. To paraphrase McLuhan, it is not just about the message, it is also about the medium and how that medium conveys the message[xviii]. Since the late 1970s there has been an ever increasing body of work outlining the homogeneity in film and television of ‘the male gaze’. Put simply, more often than not, the camera represents a controlling-male subject position, so the audience only has one identity to comfortably identify with, and it is that of a man[xix]. Can the same be said for race and class as well? Is the mainstream media predominately representing the subject position of the privileged-white-male? And if there is such an homogeneity of messaging, then who is it within society that could be trusted to deliver it.
It is not particularly controversial to argue that there is a revolving door between the corporate media and the state. What isn’t so widely reported is the socio-economic class structure of all the institutions that have been tasked with maintaining the fantasy[xx]. The Sutton Trust have countless studies demonstrating how paying privately for education in the UK is the surest pathway to power and wealth, in the law, medicine, business, politics[xxi], military, civil service, journalism, music and even television and film[xxii]. But if you want to be really sure that your children and their children will enjoy the same power and privilege that you do, then paying for them to go to one of the top ten private schools in the country, which largely act as feeder schools[xxiii] to Oxford and Cambridge is your best bet[xxiv]. The specialist knowledge that wealth and power is inherited and intergenerational is actually so widespread now, that it has been subjected to countless studies, analyses, and meta-analyses[xxv]. However, the disproportionately privately-educated mainstream journalists, appear to not want to draw too much attention to this.
The reality is that the very nature of the economy and the role of the workers within it is a perfect example of this third aspect of the argument. In reality, the entire economy is built on the production of a surplus to that which is required by the majority of society. And that surplus production, manifests in the accumulation of wealth for the exploiter of the resource and/or worker. Exploitation in the pursuit of a surplus is technically what ‘profit’ is, in a for-profit model[xxvi]. However, it is very rarely mentioned on Dragons Den, or for that matter the business and markets section of the News.
A system that prioritises the accumulation of wealth into a narrowing section of the population, while masking the fact that it is doing so, runs the risk of impoverishing the exploited class to the point of revolution. Which is why the fantasy needs to mask that reality. It is in this role that the media corporations have become the de facto Psychological Operations Division of the ruling elite. Discussions about the quality of life in our communities, the courage and compassion of everyday people, and the commonalities that transcend the socially constructed identity differences, have all been largely redacted from the cultural space. Instead we are now showered with a multi-media torrent correlating wealth with intelligence, wealth with beauty, wealth with talent, wealth with philanthropy, wealth with health, wealth with charity, and of course wealth with biological superiority.
Which brings us neatly to the fourth and final process within this argument. If the systems of government and social institutions were constructed in order to walk a thin line between presenting a fantasy of shared power, while ensuring wealth inequality, then there would be evidence of it wherever you looked. After all, for a fraud on that scale, it would need to be both persistent and all-encompassing. The institutions of power have been shown, as mentioned earlier in reference to the work by the Sutton Trust, to be disproportionately managed by the sons and daughters of the families wealthy enough to send their children to some of the most expensive schools on the planet. It is through this process, that for centuries a very thin segment of global society can be shown, and has been shown time and again, to be handing disproportionate power and privilege down through their families and networks from one generation to the next[xxvii].
If it was just a case of propaganda being used to coerce society into becoming more submissive and distracted, then that would be one thing. But history tells us that when subtlety and coercion fails, then violence and totalitarianism will be resorted to. In the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s both the FBI and the CIA were running covert quasi-military operations against the sections of the population demanding greater equality[xxviii]. By the 1980s Colonel Oliver North and the Office of Public Diplomacy ran psychological operations (PsyOPs) against the US population, media and both houses of congress in order to garner support for their counter-revolutionary actions in Central and South America[xxix]. In the UK from the late 1960s onwards, specialist teams within law enforcement and the intelligence services have been targeting and infiltrating environmentalists, anti-racist campaigners, peace activists and social reform groups[xxx]. We even now know that the UK government had plans in place to use the army to break the miners strike[xxxi].
And it is not just the activists. Much of the modern technology that we so willingly embrace, acts as the panopticon that watches all of us. We now know that the NSA, in collaboration with GCHQ and certain major tech companies and research institutions, have been monitoring and recording all of our digital communications. And in this process no one has been immune to the monitoring, not even the political ‘leaders’ themselves. And, thanks to the courage of people like Snowden, we also know that the intelligence arm of the various governments have been using that data to profile and categorise tens of millions of us according to how much of a threat they think we pose to their authority and status[xxxii].
It appears to be quite possible that the institutions and hierarchies that we put so much faith in, might in truth have been developed to act as nothing more than a pressure release valve to defend against revolution. I honestly hope that the systems of government are democratic, and that all sections of society will respect the will of the people, if the people choose to build a new society based on compassion, freedom, equality, and sustainability. But I also think, it might be worth remembering that there is the possibility that the systems through which we intend to do this might not be as democratic as we are told.
When a parent has to decide whether to keep it’s child warm or to feed it in one of the richest nations on the planet, while being told by millionaires that they should be thankful that they get to put a tick in a box every four years, one needs to remember the words of Fredrick Douglas. If the poor are subjected to an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, then why should they play by the rules dictated by their oppressors? If the system can bring about equality then let it. But if not, then it might be time to change the system. After all, if that were the case, it would be the system that is broken, not the dream.
For more of Nicolas Lalaguna’s writing visit www.nicolaslalaguna.com
iEric Wilson, Government of the Shadows (2009) p235
vPickett, K. & Wilkinson, R. – The Spirit Level, 2010 – P129
vijones, owen – the establishment, 2015 – P5
viiNoam Chomsky, from Profit Over People, 1998, downloaded 20/10/2018 from https://chomsky.info/profit02/
ixjones, owen – the establishment, 2015 – P5
xjones, owen – the establishment, 2015 – P5
xijones, owen – the establishment, 2015 – P229
xvAronson, E. &, Pratkanis, A. – Age of Propaganda, 2002 – P11
xviDouglas Kellner – Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism and Media Culture in Humez, Jean M. & Dines, Gail – Gender, Race and Class in Media, 1995 – P6
xviiDouglas Kellner – Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism and Media Culture in Humez, Jean M. & Dines, Gail – Gender, Race and Class in Media, 1995 – P5
xixHumez, Jean M. & Dines, Gail – Gender, Race and Class in Media, 1995 – P163, 164
xxviFleming, Peter – The Death of Homo Economicus, 2017 – P168
xxviiClark, Gregory – The Son Also Rises, 2014
xxviiiBruce Shlain, Martin A. Lee – Acid Dreams, 1985 – P224
xxxiiHarding, Luke – The Snowden Files, 2014