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Democracy and socialism

by Francisco Nemenzo Wednesday, May. 28, 2014 at 4:21 AM

Democracy is the most popular word in the vocabulary of politics but also the most brazenly abused.

Democracy and social...
1-dodong-nemenzo-democratic-left-philippines.jpg, image/jpeg, 480x240

Since the defeat of fascism in World War II, everybody has become a democrat. Even the neo-Nazis in Germany call themselves the National Democratic Party. Marcos entitled the book preparing us for martial law Today’s Revolution: Democracy. Suharto and Pinochet slaughtered thousands to save democracy. And Pol Pot’s murderous regime was officially named Democratic Kampuchea.

These demonstrate that the absence of a universally accepted definition of “democracy.” The concept is so vague that it can accommodate any regime, any social movement, any political philosophy. On account of its ambiguity, democracy is useless as a tool for analysis but very useful as a tool for demagoguery. By affixing the word “democracy” or “democratic,” even a malevolent cause can be made to look sublime.

Lincoln’s a cute definition of democracy as “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” leaves open the key question of who comprise “the people.”

A quick glance at history will show how the ruling classes circumscribed and mangled the concept of “people” to hide the elitist nature of their democracies.

The word “democracy” originated from ancient Greece, specifically from Athens. Demos in Greek means “people” and kratos means “power”; hence, democracy to the Greeks meant “people’s power” or rule of the people.

But who were “the people” of Athens? Not all the inhabitants but only the descendants of the original families. At the peak of its prosperity and glory, the majority of the inhabitants of Athens were immigrants (metics) and slaves. Having instituted no procedure for naturalization, the immigrants remained aliens forever, no matter how many generations their ancestors had lived in the city state. And the slaves with whose labour the Greeks built those magnificent structures were considered sub-human. Even the slaves who were released from bondage continued to bear the sub-human stigma, so they could not accepted as citizens.

Approximately half the Athenian citizens were women, but women were viewed as underdeveloped men, and therefore unfit for democratic rights. Of the males, many were below the age of 20; they, too, were disqualified. And among those qualified, many abstained from exercising their political rights. In sum, a tiny minority enjoyed democratic rights in the “cradle of democracy.”

The British claim to have invented parliamentary democracy when a conspiracy of nobles forced King John --- the mortal enemy of Robin Hood --- to sign the Magna Carta in 1225. This social contract guaranteed the privileges of the nobility, and required the king to rule with parliament. But parliament was an exclusive club for aristocrats only. The common people were kept out.

If Greek democracy was a democracy of the slave-owners, the Magna Carta established a democracy of the feudal lords. Both were democracies for a few, both were systems of elite rule.

With the advent of capitalism, the bourgeoisie demanded the right to vote but only for themselves. A property qualification for suffrage disenfranchised the workers and peasants. Until the late 19th century, only the big tax payers could vote and run for public office in Britain.

For a century the workers fought for the right to vote; and it took more years of struggle for this right to be extended to the women. Universal suffrage was not a gift from the bourgeoisie; it was won by the Left against stiff opposition from the rightwing and centrist parties who tried hard to retain the property requirement.

With universal suffrage, it became theoretically possible for the working class to compete for political power through elections. But we have seen not only in the Philippines but also in the so-called “advanced countries,” that elections are arranged so that the odds are heavily loaded in favour of the candidates of the ruling class. In the capitalist “liberal democracies,” the bourgeoisie have built structures for mass deception to ensure that power remains in their narrow circles. So effective are these that instead of reforming society, the workers’ parties deformed themselves.

Thus, to enhance their chance of winning parliamentary seats, the labour, social democratic, and, later, even the communist parties in Europe discarded the revolutionary principles that inspired their founders. The result is the liberal democratic system we know today. Marx described this it as a system that allows the workers to choose which candidates of the ruling class will represent and repress them in parliament!

Against this historical background, let us reflect on democracy in the Philippines. Liberal mythology equates democracy with elections. After a period of tutelage on American style politicking, the imperialists conferred on the Philippines the title of “show-window of democracy in Asia.” Instead of exposing it as a sham, we pretend that it is true and hold competitive elections every three years to retain the title.

I don’t think anyone here falls for this myth. The cynics among us say that guns, goons and gold are needed to win an election. COMELEC disqualifies as a nuisance a candidate who fails to prove that he has enough money to run an expensive campaign.

While conceding that the electoral system is imperfect, there are others who believe it can be perfected. They propose a crusade to dismantle the political dynasties, disarm the private armies, computerize the elections, bring down the billboards, and control the campaign expenditures.

Much as I respect their noble intention, I will not devote the remaining years of my life for a forlorn cause. Rather than promoting democratization, it will reinforce the illusion that electoral reforms can make democracy real without the necessity of overhauling the social system as a whole.

In my view, elections will always be a façade for oligarchic rule for as long as a huge gap divides the ultra-rich and the destitute masses. Tinkering with the electoral procedures will not stop the poor from selling their votes and the rich from buying politicians.

Still others who are more sophisticated pin their hopes on economic development; they believe that by abolishing poverty, the Filipino electorate will acquire a higher sense of civic responsibility. But is it possible abolish poverty where a few hold enormous wealth and power?

In the capitalist system, economic development tends to widen the gap because the benefits of development accrue only to the big time investors. There is no evidence for what they call a “trickle down” effect. Where an income discrepancy of scandalous proportions exists, sovereignty resides in the elite, not in the people.

The very optimistic among us propose that we organize a unified party to pack the government with progressives. I do not share their optimism. We have seen how in Europe the militant workers’ parties watered down their principles and refurbished their public to suit the prevailing prejudices.

Take for, instance, the German Social Democratic Party, the mother organization of FES. It started as a revolutionary party. Marx commented on its Gotha Program and Engels played an active part in its formative years.

It became the biggest single party in the Reichstag in 1912. But in 1919, Gustav Noske, the interior minister of Friedrich Ebert’s Social Democratic government unleashed the brutal Freikorps to murder Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg to prevent the Bolshevik revolution from spreading to Germany.

The British Labour Party deleted “Clause 4” from its constitution. It enunciated the party’s cardinal article of faith that reflects more or less our stand in the Philippine Democratic Left: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

By persuading the party congress to delete that provision, Tony Blair transformed the Labour Party into a neo-liberal party in time for the 1997 general elections. A landslide victory swept Tony Blair to the Palace of Westminster; the legacies of Keir Hardie and Aneurin Bevan were buried underneath. I dread to suffer a similar fate since I was one of the founders of Akbayan, and the keynote speaker at its founding congress.

Most of us here (including myself) belong to the Democratic Left. Let me explain to others what this means. DemLeft is a generic name for those organizations and individuals who broke away from the Stalinist and Maoist traditions but nonetheless continue to fight for system change. We do not identify the Left with the CPP-NPA-NDF. A Leftist is one look forward, as distinguished from the Centrist who defend the present, and the Rightist who yearn for the past. In this paradigm, we do not despise the Magdalo boys as Rightists just because they are military officers. Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, is unquestionably a Leftist even if he is also a military man, having been a colonel of the air force.

For the DemLeft to remain true to our principles, we must rebuff opportunism, even if it means losing our handful of party-list representatives. Being on the Left means putting forward an alternative to capitalism, to swim against the tide, and espouse unpopular positions.

In the remote possibility that we can elect enough congressmen to pass radical reform laws, we still have to reckon with an inept and tradition-bound bureaucracy that is prone to corruption. The fulfillment of these reforms depends on the bureaucracy’s willingness and capacity to implement them. But the capitalists, if they fail to block enactment of laws that threaten their interests, will use their enormous resources to pressure the bureaucrats to implement them in a manner that runs counter to their authors’ intensions.

And we must also reckon with a Supreme Court that decides on the basis of precedents. The capitalists have ample resources to hire lawyers who are adept at fixing disputes out of court or mesmerizing the judges with Latin phrases and pompous quotations from American jurists. It is an uphill battle for as long as the present system is intact.

When a society is divided into classes with diametrically opposed interests, a state is indispensable. The dominant class needs a coercive apparatus to enforce its hegemony. All states therefore have democratic and dictatorial aspects. Democracy and dictatorship are two sides of the same coin. A state is at once a democracy for some and a dictatorship over the rest.

Greek democracy, as we have seen, was a dictatorship over the slaves; feudal democracy was a dictatorship over the serfs; and bourgeois democracy is a dictatorship over the toiling masses.

If political power shifts to the working class, they, too, will need a strong transitional revolutionary government to root out the legal and structural conditions that maintain the system.

It requires childlike naïveté and extravagant optimism to imagine that a new social order will arise without going through a painful transition. A transitional regime is necessary to enact and ensure the faithful implementation of fundamental reforms.

We do not consider socialism the antonym of democracy; quite the contrary, we consider socialism an extension of democracy. By unmasking bourgeois democracy as another form of elite rule, we aim to involve the working people directly in the making of public policies. In advocating a socialist-oriented transitional revolutionary government, our aim is to do away with the structures that endow the bourgeoisie enormous wealth and power.

Socialism is a system where the working people get a proportionate share in the fruits of collective production; an industrialized economy where every rise of the GNP results in greater equality instead of widening the disparity between the rich and poor.

Hence, the struggle for democracy cannot be confined to raising the working people’s influence in government; it must spill over to the “private sector”. Socialism seeks to democratize life in society. Since the workers spend most of their lives earning wages, the economy must also be democratized.

In a capitalist enterprise, dictatorship is the norm. We do not expect democracy in the corporate empires of Ayala, Lopez, Manny Pangilinan, Lucio Tan, Henry Sy, etc. In the private sector, the capitalists are dictators who wield absolute power to hire and fire; they can manipulate prices, shift the tax burden to the consumers, and let the people shoulder the debts and loses they incurred through mismanagement or ill-fated speculation. In short, the democratic movement should bring the battle to the corporate boardrooms.

Today the elective national officials and those who aspire to dislodge them have acquired the habit of monitoring the SWS and Pulse Asia surveys. Local candidates hire amateur pollsters to gauge their chances in the next elections. This does not mean they want to want to obey the people’s wishes; their aim is to redirect public opinion to their interests.

Rousseau pointed out centuries ago that the will of all does not amount to the general will; in other words, public opinion does not necessarily reflect the public interest. In this age of mass communication, public opinion is molded by media; and in the capitalist system, the press, radio and television are owned by the media lords and run for profit like any business enterprise; or these facilities are used to enhance their political influence. With these facilities, they can tell the public what to think and even to crave what we do not need.

Systematic brainwashing has amputated Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Instead of demand and supply interacting freely in the market, demand is now supplied to the manufacturers and merchants by the advertising agencies. Media reports and commentaries create public opinion.

The abolition of official censorship by Cory Aquino did not institutionalize freedom of the press; it merely shifted the power of censorship to the media lords and the big advertisers. In their hands, public opinion is a plastic material to be shape and reshape according to their whims and biases.

Conscious of this, Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian Marxist theoretician, warned that a revolution that erupts while the people are still trapped in the old mindset may usher in a Jacobin dictatorship. The DemLeft should therefore prioritize the liberation from ideological captivity over the scramble for positions in the bourgeois government. It should nurture organic intellectuals because they are more effective as change agents, being integral to the working class communities.

In the late 1960s, the Left was able to draw spontaneous mass support with the traditional agit-prop methods: fiery speeches, shouting slogans, raising clinched fists, and waving red flags. Not anymore. These methods have lost their novelty. They have become stale and corny.

Aside from devising a fresh agit-prop style, we should re-examine our socialist vision, taking cognizance of changes in the mode of production with the advances in information and communication technologies as well as the specific characteristics of contemporary global capitalism.

Marx’s analysis of capitalism in Das Kapital is more appropriate now than in the days of the Cold War, when Keynesian economics was the orthodoxy in the capitalist countries. Since the start of the global financial crises in 2008, neo-liberalism has been losing credibility. Several scholars, businessmen and stock exchange players who are not Leftist in political orientation are now studying Marx; that is why his works are being republished.

We used to assume that the Third World countries can never industrialize because the imperialist powers want to keep them agricultural. Recent history refutes this. It is therefore important and extremely interesting to study the phenomenal progress of countries like South Korea and India. We should also learn more about Bo Xilai’s Chongqing experiment which the Communist Party of China aborted.

We should critically re-examine the Stalinist formula of state ownership + centralized planning = socialism. This brought about not prosperous for all but equality in poverty. And we should study the development strategies of Vietnam and China after Mao. We cannot summarily dismiss these strategies as “restoration of capitalism.” We should also take a close look at Venezuela and the latest reforms in Cuba.

Let me conclude with a summary. Democracy is a nebulous concept. The DemLeft should evolve a new vision of a democratic Philippine society. Even as we manoeuvre within the context of capitalist democracy, every political move we take should be oriented to this vision, even at the risk of losing elections. With their overwhelming control of the ideological apparatus, the bourgeoisie have made the oppressed masses to view the world from the capitalist perspective. That is why in elections the masses follow the trapos more than they listen to us. Let us not deceive ourselves that we speak for the masses, that our agenda is truly the people’s agenda. We have a lot of educational work to do before the masses begin to view the world from a different perspective.

We should, as Gramsci suggested, give primacy to the ideological struggle because system change is a pipe dream if the minds of the masses remain captives of bourgeois ideology. While planning the path to socialism, we should study the experiences of industrialization in Korea and India, and of socialist construction in China and Vietnam, and critique the negative features of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

To complete our break from the bureaucratic dictatorships which some of us (including myself) had mistaken for socialism, we must to do what Herbert Marcuse called an “immanent critique,” that is, critiquing Stalinism and Maoism using the Marxist dialectical method of analysis. Only then will the DemLeft vision become a believable alternative.

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