This article represents the views of its author, V.V.G., not necessarily those of the C.C.S.
Published: November 2013

Ideology and democracy

The problem of proletarian democracy cannot be separated from the problem of ideology. One hundred and fifty years ago the bourgeois propaganda methods were still relatively crude and we were hopeful; today the bourgeoisie is bursting with confidence and their myth-making industry is at its pinnacle. Saying that we are all infected by the ideology of the ruling class is, of course, nothing new. But while there is no doubt that early attempts at socialism failed to generate mass prosperity, they failed in a far worse way in terms of ideology. Somehow the Soviet Union ended up standing for a creepy bureaucracy, while Britain and the USA were perceived as defending freedom. Before we tried building a communist state it was perfectly possible to affect a kind of carefree optimism about the future, to say that our victory is historically inevitable; now the same is all but impossible for Leftists to even think, never mind display. How do we get it back?

Because we live in a society built in order to facilitate bourgeois power, it is far easier to achieve and wield power using the methods propagandized by the bourgeoisie than others. That is not simply to say that it is easier to achieve power supporting the status quo, but more that we are all indoctrinated to respond to a certain kind of "leadership", a kind of "leadership" which the bourgeoisie has found best suited to its own ends. Actively refusing to participate in that system is hard, as evidenced by the failure of various "separatist" attempts at commune building in advanced capitalist economies during the 20th century. Attempting to subvert it by participating as a kind of double agent and distributing power is practically impossible and ultimately mentally destructive to those who try it; and this has been especially true in the period following the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Left lost its ideological anchor-point. Simply in empirical terms, the compromises involved in any kind of participation in bourgeois democracy since then have systematically destroyed, or reduced to irrelevance, every left-wing organization which has engaged in it. In this sense capitalism has turned Lenin's maxim about capitalists selling the rope which is used to hang them on its head: what they are selling the Left is liberal democracy, and the Left has used this to hang itself.

In fact, it is worse than that. The term "democracy" is itself highly mythological, and has been almost entirely appropriated by the ruling class. It is generally used to mean something akin to: a democratic system of government is one which allows people like me to get on with our lives without overtly harassing us; actual discussion of how power is distributed, who makes important decisions, who controls the means of production, and so on, is out of the question. Indeed one of the primary uses of the word democracy is in the service of imperialism, particularly when it is convenient to denounce non-imperialist countries as backwards and illiberal and "undemocratic", and hence in need of some pedagogical intervention. Navigating a discussion of democracy therefore requires a certain degree of cognitive dissonance on the part of Leftists, who must set aside the everyday meaning of the word before trying to use it to mean the kinds of things, listed earlier, which we care about. And this makes it very tough to even talk about what democracy means in progressive terms, without slipping into the kind of language used by the ruling class when it discusses the topic.

If the problem of organizing democratically, especially in the context of operating within a liberal democratic political system, had a purely procedural solution then it would have surely been solved during one of the myriad of genuine attempts at a socialist way of organizing over the past century. Of course certain ways of organizing are more prone to undemocratic behaviour than others, but the historical experience unambiguously shows that the very act of exercising power is corrosive to the democratic process, even when the actors are committed communists acting in good faith. Partly this is because undemocratic methods are more efficient at producing action: thinking, debating, and compositing differing points of view takes a long time, time which it is often hard to feel that one has. Sortition offers something of a way around this by combining the efficiency of unsupervised individual decision making with the democracy of ensuring that the decision maker is changed regularly, but it would be a fantasy to think that sortition is a silver bullet. For one thing even randomly selected representatives will talk to each other, previous representatives, individuals regarded as "powerful" or "influential", etc., so that a certain inertia will inevitably exist even in this system. But the more fundamental problem is that any power structure built by people indoctrinated in bourgeois mythology will unconsciously ape its most grotesque features. We've seen this happen too many times for it to be chance.

What we need is our own mythology. By completely immersing ourselves in the day to day battles against this or that aspect of capitalist society, we are ensuring failure not only because defensive campaigns of this type always wind up in a nostalgia for a softer form of exploitation known as social democracy, but also on the level of ideology because it forces us to think in the enemy's terms. This, incidentally, is also the real problem with the notions of "intersectionality" and "privilege" which have taken over so much of Leftist discourse: they are so absorbed in studying the symptoms of capitalist society as it actually is, and in correctly describing every person's place in today's largely arbitrary matrix of oppression, that they end up asserting the historical primacy of that matrix over those whom it oppresses. The logical conclusion of this approach is most succinctly encapsulated by Melissa McEwan of the Shakesville blog in her review of the Dark Knight Rises movie: "The nature of privilege is such that the truly meaningful revolution is when those with privilege choose to cede it". Now it should be quite obvious that this is not a communist perspective on how oppression or revolution works, but the real mistake lies in the definition of the subject and object in the historical process, not in any incorrect understanding of how oppression manifests itself within capitalism. Indeed the most tragic thing about the intersectional approach is how much it gets right about the experience of oppression in modern-day capitalist societies—a great deal more, it must be said, than a lot of today's socialism—while having so little to say about how to transcend the current state of affairs.

Of course building a Left mythology is not easy—indeed, if one takes the orthodox Barthes line, it is simply not possible, as a myth is an inherently ahistorical instrument, whereas communism is, crudely speaking, the science of history. It is not like communists haven't tried and produced plenty of examples of what doesn't work: hero workers, massive armies, faux national pride, all of which, not coincidentally, ape bourgeois myths. At the same time the historical reality which confronts us today is certainly not one which was foreseen when the Communist Manifesto was written: this is not how the story was supposed to go. And faced with this, far too many of our criticisms of capitalism (and ourselves, for that matter, again not coincidentally) play into exactly the same mythology that the capitalists themselves project: that of a glorious past betrayed by a small number of immoral individuals. So maybe, instead of focusing on the reality of how the world is, what we really need to focus on is what we would want it to be like. We have to be, and believe ourselves to be, the standard bearers of the future: not just a future which may happen, but one which is screaming out to be built right now. At a time when the bourgeois myths are of an overexploited earth ready to die and take us with it, we must be unrelenting in our exposition not of what capitalism is doing badly, but of what it is not doing well enough. Where are our jet packs? Where is the electricity too cheap to meter? Where are the lunar holiday resorts? We may just find that, in recreating a future worth believing in and fighting for, the problem of democracy solves itself. Or to put it even more tritely: allow people speaking rights, and you empower them for a moment. But when they seize the means of production, they liberate themselves forever.


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