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Capitalism against democracy

Not since 1989 has the demand for democracy been so loud across the world. But everywhere police and governments are trying to repress our movements. The big question is, are capitalism and democracy compatible? By Nat Silverstein, Joana Ramiro and Simon Hardy

Markets against the people
DEMOCRACY: 2011 has been dominated by the issue of democracy. In the Middle East, millions have fought for it, believing that it offers a route to a better life, a way to ensure that society’s resources are used for the benefit of all. Thousands have died for it. Yet, in the West, where democratic rights have long been established, workers have found that democracy is no defence against unemployment and pay cuts. It cannot prevent the imposition of unelected governments or even guarantee the democratic rights of protest and assembly.

Does this mean that democracy is nothing more than an elaborate delusion, a way of fooling the great mass of the population, while the rich laugh all the way to their banks? Is democracy, in fact, not worth fighting for, or defending?

Socialists have always argued against this view. What the year has shown is the contradictory nature of democratic movements and of democracy itself. The fight to overthrow repressive regimes, to respect the equal rights of all citizens regardless of ethnicity, age, gender or beliefs is a hugely emancipatory fight. The achievement of basic rights such as assembly, organisation, freedom of speech and movement, access to health, education and housing as a right, this can transform the lives of millions and create the conditions for further progress.

Private property
At the same time, democracy, more precisely “liberal” democracy or what Marxists call bourgeois democracy, is also a barrier to that progress. Such democracy declares that all are equal in law and in their rights, but it ignores the reality of inequality of wealth. Indeed, it proclaims the right to private property to be one of its most basic rights. That is not just a question of personal property, cars, homes and so on. It means that the entire economy, society’s means of supporting itself, is also privately owned.

As a result, those who own the dominant sectors of the economy are more powerful than any government. The truth of this has been demonstrated very forcefully in recent months as “the markets”, that is those who have the money, have removed and replaced governments in Greece and Italy.

Even in more tranquil times, the mass of the population have no control over the supposedly democratic governments. While it grants more or less equal voting rights, democracy then insists that, once elected, deputies or MP’s have the right to make their own decisions, as they think best.

That was the mechanism that allowed the governments of Greece and Italy to be removed and replaced without any vote. The two parliaments voted to install the governments that the international money markets wanted. It was also what allowed the formation of a coalition government at Westminster that then proceeded to implement a programme of austerity and privatisation that had never been presented to the voters.

As long as the mass of the population has no means of enforcing the redistribution of wealth, controlling the use of society’s resources or removing governments, there can be no real “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

That is why socialists support the struggle to achieve and defend democratic rights but argue we need to go beyond merely formal equality to a society in which production and distribution are socially owned and democratically controlled by the producers and consumers themselves. This is why we can’t just extend liberal democracy, we have to replace with a new kind of society – one based on genuine mass democracy which has the workers at the centre of decision making.

Who rules Europe?
TWENTY YEARS ago, Western leaders and propagandists used to argue that, if the peoples of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe wanted democracy, they had to reintroduce a market economy. Freedom, it was said, meant both free speech and free markets, the two things went together.

Today, it is clear that the only people who are free in a free market are those with money – what can you get in a market if you have no money? And the more money you have, the freer you are to have what you want.

The role of Goldman Sachs, one of the biggest investment banks in the world, in the developing eurocrisis reveals what this means in practice. It is now widely recognised that the origin of the crisis lay in the ability of the Greek government to amass huge debts that were not visible in the government’s accounts between 1998 and 2009. The debts were systematically hidden via an accounting procedure developed by Goldman Sachs in conjunction with the Greek Central Bank whose head, for part of that time, was Lucas Papademos – that is the same man who was recently imposed on the Greek people as their prime minister.

At this time, the Managing Director of Goldman Sachs International was Mario Draghi, who went on to become the Governor of the Bank of Italy in 2006 before becoming the President of the European Central Bank in November 2011. To complete the picture, Mario Monti, now prime minister of Italy, as well as finance minister, was previously an international adviser to Goldman Sachs, while Petros Christodoulou, who is head of Greece’s debt management agency, is also a former Goldman Sachs employee.

Police against the people

LIEUTENANT JOHN Pike, the police officer who casually “pepper sprayed” a line of peaceful protesters at the University of California’s Davis campus last month, rapidly became an internet phenomenon. His image was photoshopped into famous paintings and historical moments, pepper-spraying everything and everyone, from Socrates to Abraham Lincoln. Obviously a lot of people see Pike as a sign of the times, the state’s refusal to tolerate the slightest challenge to its power. The nonchalance of the Pepper Spraying Cop reveals not only his own belief that he is above the law but also the extent to which the police are already a paramilitary force.

Nor is that a purely US development. Last year’s student protests in Britain gave rise to a public debate on police brutality and the nature of violence. While media focused on the graffiti and broken windows of the Treasury, activists pointed out the terrifying images of dozens of mounted police, charging into unarmed teenagers; police medics using truncheons on demonstrators and the general assumption that the police have the right to use whatever force they like against protesters and media alike. Victims of police violence like Jody McIntyre, who was pulled from his wheelchair by a police snatch squad, and Alfie Meadows, beaten so hard he needed emergency brain surgery, became household names and spokespeople for a movement against increasingly heavy-handed policing of what had been peaceful demonstrations.

International clampdown
Popular outrage, however, has not been enough to stop police brutality as the automatic governmental response to the anti-austerity movement across the world. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, went so far as to say that he had his “own army in the NYPD”. This tells us a lot, perhaps more than was intended.

Generally, armies are trained to fight a foreign foe, their extreme violence is justified by their supposed defence of the “folks back home”. The police are different, they are trained to defend the existing social order, basically, the rights of property owners. That is why, for them, the majority of citizens, especially those with no property, are all potential “criminals”. For Mayor Bloomberg’s army, the enemy can only be the poorer citizens of New York.

The ‘total policing’ tactic introduced by the Met, with hundreds more officers mobilised and authorised to use rubber bullets, restrictions on the duration of public assemblies time and Home Secretary Theresa May’s ban on demos in six London boroughs, are all part of the same pattern. They are all part of the bourgeoisie’s pre-emptive repression of those about to dissent. With the pay gap increasing to Victorian levels and youth unemployment breaching one million, it is not surprising that the Coalition government has been quick to unleash such authoritarian measures. This summer’s riots were a glimpse into a future in which government imposed poverty is virtually guaranteed to provoke resistance on the streets. So, while the Occupy pacifist movement grows, the police flex their muscles, practice their strategies and prepare to repress any threats to capitalism’s survival.


The West is a place of double standards. Third World dictatorships are criticised for their despotic regimes but, in ‘Western democracies’, the use of ‘undercover agents’, who would be called secret police or agents provocateurs, anywhere else, is legitimate. If, for Cameron and Merkel, Obama and Papademos, “defence of democracy” means the criminalisation of those who oppose condemning millions to utter destitution, then peaceful dissent will not suffice.
Demonstrators who face attack by police using truncheons, pepper spray, CS gas, tasers and horses have every right to take steps to defend themselves whether with face masks, body armour or banner poles – but more is needed. Above all, demonstrations, pickets and occupations need organised self-defence – and that requires collective organisation, in advance.

The lesson of the last 12 months, even in the “democratic” countries, is that all attempts to make use of democratic rights to oppose austerity programmes and increased exploitation will be met by state violence. All demonstrators need to recognise this but, above all, the leaderships of organisations which call and organise demonstrations and strikes have a responsibility to prepare their defence. This means training teams of stewards as well as educating rank and file members in the best means of protecting themselves and others.

All the economic indicators, even all the political commentators, point to a deepening crisis in the coming year. The state forces are already preparing for increasing protests and confrontations. Their goal is to defend the wealth of the wealthiest, to ensure the transfer of even more wealth to the wealthiest, in short, to maintain capitalism – the victims of that system, however, cannot limit themselves to defence of what they have, or had. The fight to defend jobs and rights must be developed into a fight against the system that threatens them.

The law against the people

THE CONDEM government and their friends in the police are stepping up their attacks on civil liberties and the right to protest. Before the 9 November student demonstration, activists were sent letters warning them of the “consequences” of going on the demo and the impact that criminal convictions could have on their futures. At the same time, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, ensured wide publicity for his decision to authorise the use of plastic bullets on protestors. The message was clear: stay away from protests or face police brutality.

Even more extreme is the proposal to effectively ban protest during the London Olympics in 2012. A contract worth £100 million has been awarded to G4S to provide a force of 21,000 private security guards to keep everyone under constant surveillance. This is the same company that may face corporate manslaughter charges over the death of Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga, who collapsed on a flight after their security guards heavily restrained him.

Worse, powers have been granted to allow people’s homes to be raided and materials confiscated during the Olympics. Supposedly this is to prevent “breaches of advertising rules”, but the real purpose is shown by the inclusion of “non-commercial materials” – this is a licence to suppress all political protest, anyone raising political slogans could face raids on their homes and prosecution.

After the criticism levelled at the undemocratic attitude of the Chinese government at the last Olympic games this smacks of hypocrisy. Justifications for the proposed ban centre on fears of the continuation of “Occupy St Pauls” style protest – despite these having being overwhelmingly peaceful.

Meanwhile Occupy Wall Street in the US was violently closed down by the New York Police Department. The forcible evacuation was ordered by Mayor Bloomberg supposedly on “public health” grounds. Yet this directly contradicts the First Amendment of the US constitution, which enshrines the fundamental right to freedom of assembly.

Further attacks proposed
The Home Office is now consulting on even more attacks on our civil liberties. Police officers already have the power to demand the removal of any item they believe is worn “wholly or mainly” to conceal identity. At the moment, this only applies if a senior officer has given an authorisation across a locality. Freedom of Information requests have shown that these powers are already over-used in some urban areas, both for this purpose and for allowing stop and searches where there are no other grounds to suspect the individual. The new proposal, currently under consultation, would give any officer the power to demand the removal of a covering.

The supposed justification is that the current requirement for an authorisation “can cause bureaucratic delays and can hinder police response to mass disorder.”

What both the proposals and the existing powers ignore is that there are legitimate reasons for activists or others to cover their faces. This includes the filming of protestors by police surveillance operations such as the Forward Intelligence Team. These have no legal basis and are used to gather intelligence about protestors, including those with no criminal convictions. Even if police powers were removed, protestors would still face the threat of fascist and far right monitoring sites such as Red Watch, which publish photographs with a view to intimidating activists.
The Home Office is also considering introducing the power to impose curfews. Again, the police already have broad powers in this area, including the designation of localities as “dispersal zones” and the power to direct an individual aged 10 or over to leave any area and not return for up to 48 hours. Now, the supposedly “unprecedented” nature of the riots in August 2011 is being used to argue for an extension of these powers, up to and including full curfews over a given area, meaning no-one is allowed on the streets.
The riots were not caused by too few police powers but by police violence alienation and poverty – neither were they unprecedented. They should not be used as a reason to scrap the basic right of freedom of movement, or to make the streets of London look like Gaza.

The Tories have talked for years about opting out of the Human Rights Act (which brings the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law), but this is currently vetoed by their coalition partners. In response, the Justice Minister, Ken Clarke, is suggesting an “opt out” from those parts of Act that can be used to stop deportations on human rights grounds.

The HRA is constantly subject to attacks by politicians and right wing rags, most recently in Teresa May’s ridiculous claims that an illegal immigrant “could not be deported” because he had a pet cat. While this has been revealed as untrue, the government still believes that people should not be able to oppose deportation on human rights grounds. Mr Clark proposes to drive through a new deal in 2012.

What the right wing lies wilfully ignore is the fact that, where individuals are convicted of a crime, they have already served time for it in prison before deportation is considered. They should not be punished twice merely because they did not happen to be born in the UK. What makes it worse is the Home Office’s completely unrealistic views about countries that are “safe” for asylum seekers to return to. Together with a culture of disbelief in the UK Border Agency, this meant that in 2007, only 19 per cent of asylum applicants were successful.

Human rights grounds are one of the few gateways for vulnerable individuals to prevent deportation; the attacks on this most vulnerable section are attacks on us all.

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