By: Raúl Zibechi
There is consensus as to the convenience of democracy and rejection of dictatorship. But this consensus obscures opposing ideas about what we understand by democracy and where we place the emphasis: from those who prioritize the electoral system and the vote to those who understand by democracy “an authentic egalitarian system of power” (Immanuel Wallerstein).
The hegemonic media, the political parties and the capitalists, emphasize in the periodic holding of elections to elect presidents and parliaments, with freedom of the press, diversity of candidates and the possibility of rotation in these positions. They reduce democracy to the electoral act and to the existence of certain civil rights, although the extension of these is usually at the discretion of the government of the day.
The right to demonstrate, for example, is often severely restricted during economic and political crises, during health emergencies and whenever states of emergency are imposed by the executive. It has become customary for police to establish cordons surrounding demonstrations, whereas previously they were established remotely to intervene only in the event of incidents.
In this way, it intimidates the demonstrators and seriously limits the right to demonstrate. As Foucault pointed out, “the police are the permanent coup d’état,” so legal armed apparatuses are used when power and the powerful consider the time has come.
The right to strike is also often undermined, by imposing minimum services that neutralize the effects of workers’ stoppages, as is being debated these days in England, and before in so many corners of the planet.
Something even worse happens with freedom of expression: media concentration with a monopoly character neutralizes the basic right, since access to communication is enormously unequal according to social class, skin color, age and regions or barrios where you reside. The media’s monopoly excludes anti-systemic political expressions and is one of the major obstacles to the functioning of a true democracy.
The exponential growth of inequality is revealing that democracy is a fantasy, because the concentration of wealth occurs in a fully functioning “democracy,” under governments of any sign and color, without the slightest interruption. The richest one percent captured about half of the new wealth in the last decade; but since 2020 they have taken twice as much as the remaining 99 percent of the world’s population, according to Oxfam (https://bit.ly/40jele8), with the blessing of democratic institutions.
Democracy is a factory of the rich, in reality of multimillionaires, because those who represented workers went over to the side of the bosses. The American sociologist Heather Gautney argues in an interview with Truthout: “The Democratic Party at a particular time, before Bill Clinton, made the decision to cut ties with workers and build ties with corporations” (https://bit.ly/40RNA11).
Gautney is the author of The new power elite, inspired by the famous work of C. Wright Mills The Power Elite, in 1956, which offered a powerful critique of the concentration of political, economic and military power, which influenced movements in the 1960s.
She maintains that inequality is “a class program” that includes Democrats and Republicans, which in Latin America we must interpret as rights and progressives, both committed to promoting the interests of the ruling classes and capitalism. Both currents encourage large infrastructure projects, mining and monocultures, which are the ways in which neoliberalism is presented in this continent.
The sociologist adds that population manipulation has grown dramatically: “Today, a small number of people exercise more control over the media than any dictator in history.” Without dismantling the power of the elites, and preventing new ones from forming, there will never be structural changes.
For the popular sectors, democracy has always been a means to defend their interests, never an end in itself. For Wallerstein, universal suffrage aims to “integrate the dangerous classes,” a point on which the historian Josep Fontana agrees in his book Capitalism and democracy. He affirms that the cultural hegemony imposed by the bourgeoisie (in the nineteenth century), sought and managed to integrate the workers “in their vision of society and history.”
But democracy fulfills an additional role: It manages to hide that capitalism needs the democratic game to colonize all the pores of society through consumerism. The electoral lefts defend this camouflage, by transferring conflicts of classes, sexes and skin colors to the institutional terrain, where they vanish in laws and regulations.
Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Friday, February 10, 2023, https://www.jornada.com.mx/2023/02/10/opinion/015a2pol and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee