Their democracy or ours?

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Donny Gluckstein looks at what democracy means under capitalism - and our alternative

Democracy is today's all-popular buzzword, beloved alike of mainstream politicians, the Arab revolutionaires, and young people protesting in Spain. For people like David Cameron democracy means a parliament which gives rein to the tyranny of market forces, and the grotesque inequalities that brings. Those facing poverty and unemployment expect the opposite of this democracy - freedom from want, and a just society.

Democracy is a form, an empty vessel, which can contain different things. Originating in Ancient Greece (the term comes from the Greek words "demos" - the people - and "kratia" - rule), it gave free expression to the will of "citizens", but no rights to the slaves or helots. During the 19th century, while the franchise widened for Westminster elections, Britain was conquering the biggest empire in history through brutal colonisation. America claims democracy gives it the right to intervene anywhere in the world, while Israel boasts about an electoral system whose main debate is how to best oppress Palestinians.

So understanding democracy requires looking at the context. Under capitalism we have no control of wealth production, which makes a nonsense of the right to vote. From the media, to schooling, and the unrelenting pressure of exploitation, everything is designed to make ordinary people feel powerless. So on 6 May 2010, when financiers threatened ruin if they were not appeased, most felt the choice was between immediate savage cuts or slower savage cuts. Of course, a pretend capitalist democracy is preferable to open capitalist dictatorship, but it has severe limitations.

Every movement against capitalism also strives for democracy (and most of today's meagre rights were won by such struggles from below), but democracy of a different character. Fundamental change requires the creation of a movement which mobilises vast numbers of the system's victims. They cannot be involved if they cannot shape that movement or articulate their demands through it - if they do not have real, rather than fictitious, democracy. This is not an abstract question. We see a striving for such democracy every day. Anti-cuts committees, active union meetings and grassroots campaigns all have democratic discussion and decision-making at the base, even if at higher levels there may be bureaucrats at work. However, as long as the dictatorship of wealth is dominant, these currents can express only the first part of democracy - "demos" (the people).

Full democracy requires the addition of "kratia" (rule). It only becomes practical when struggle against the state creates an alternative source of mass power. This was seen recently in Egypt but occurs in every major revolution. In Paris in 1871 it was the "Commune" (against a parliament at Versailles); in 1917 in Russia the soviets opposed the Duma and Constituent Assembly; in Germany two years later workers' councils challenged the Reichstag, and so on. Such democratic forms from below appear equally in revolts against dictatorships: witness the shoras in Iran in 1979 or Solidarity in Poland in 1980.

These examples share common features. An immediate response to crisis, they are not bound by bureaucratic procedures. They draw in the masses using whichever forms of collective life exist. In Paris the backbone of the Commune was the National Guard encompassing the male working class, supplemented by revolutionary assemblies in confiscated churches representing the rest. Russian factory workers elected soviet delegates (one per 1,000 in Petrograd), as did each regiment. During 2009 neighbourhood assemblies in Caracas blocked the counter revolution.

Instead of voting one day every five years, continuous direct democracy is the outcome. Regular mass gatherings allow everyone to take part whenever urgent discussion is needed. Writing about Russia, John Reed described how, on one occasion, the composition of the soviets changed in 24 hours after the Bolsheviks made an unpopular decision.

For organisation across larger groups (up to national level) representatives are elected. These come straight from the masses and so reflect their wishes. They get no special privileges or pay, and will return to the masses on removal from office. Instant recall is commonly employed as electors can assemble to dismiss their delegates as soon as they lose support.

Above all, our democracy is based on collective units of the people where they can exercise a powerful control. In place of the ongoing dictatorship of the market masked by an occasional "X" on a ballot form, it offers active debate and an electorate to whom all representatives are continuously answerable. Ultimately, whether the decisions made are enforceable depends on revolution being successful. But that's another article.