The Most Profound Chapter from the Book ‘Managing Democracy Managing Dissent’

1. Introduction

By Rebecca Fisher

Because they (citizens) press for more action to meet the problems
they have to face, they require more social control. At the same
time they resist any kind of social control that is associated with
the hierarchical values they have learned to discard and reject.
The problem may be worldwide.

The Crisis of Democracy 1975 Trilateral Commission Report

This collection is centred on the fundamental problem of creating legitimacy for capitalism: how can an inherently and profoundly antidemocratic system contain and limit dissent and at the same time present itself as ostensibly ‘democratic’? It will examine how ideological and material limits are placed on democratic practice, suppressing oppositional politics and restricting people’s freedoms in order to protect the capitalist social order from challenges for greater social, economic and political equality and freedoms. It will argue that these limits are sustained using hollowed out, carefully managed versions of ‘democracy’, which exploit the popular appeal of democratic ideals while suppressing political dissent. Thus the grand promise of social and political equality is exploited to protect a system which requires gross social and political inequality.

Capitalism is dependent upon its relentless expansion and penetration into new spheres – such as land, resources and forms of labour – and consequently can permit only a very limited degree of popular participation. This is restricted to nominal political ‘rights’ which are separated from, and privileged over, socio-economic equality. Thus even while inequality deepens, our legal and social sanctioned political agency is largely limited to choosing between a selection of politically homogeneous parties once every four to five years. These elections have become empty, largely symbolic rituals, in which professionalised marketing campaigns elide any substantial political debate. Meanwhile, our legal avenues to hold our putative representatives to account, or to persuade them to take heed of our demands, are restricted to actions via pressure groups or tame and largely ineffectual protests about specific, isolated issues. This ensures that the capitalist system is able to reap catastrophic damage upon subject populations and the environment, even to the extent of threatening the habitability of the planet, while remaining, for the most part, insulated from public challenge.

Yet it is a widely held belief that, in an inseparable and providential union, democracy and capitalism have, in most countries of the world, defeated the forces of authoritarianism, and granted us universal political freedoms. Some also hold the less positive view that there is no other potential system which could meet our needs, wants and desires, and that ‘democratic’ capitalism is the least bad option. Such beliefs are crucial to the subtle and insidious processes of organising popular consent to the capitalist social order, and so to containing people’s oppositional demands arising from the ever-worsening social polarity and economic oppression. The belief that we live in a democracy is also crucial to the legitimation of the use of repression, even military interventions to fight for ‘democracy’, when such demands are not successfully contained; demands which are so often cast as undemocratic and even pernicious.

As the contributions to this volume will show powerfully, a highly limited concept and practice of democracy, with its accompanying rhetoric, has been developed in parallel with the emergence of the capitalist system, to manage and contain dissent, shroud and legitimate the oppression that capitalism requires, and heavily confine our political responses to it. For capitalism requires firm limits on who has political power in order to function, and consequently, our political actions must be channelled into forms which do not fundamentally threaten its operations. Frequently this happens via subtle and obscure processes of co-option and neutralisation of public opinion and of what is termed civil society, i.e. social institutions that are, at least in theory, in a position to challenge the state or the market. Vital too is the reverse side of co-option – the marginalisation and repression of those elements which transgress the boundaries of safe, manageable dissent. Thus ‘democracy’ is managed, in order to contain dissent, and ensure it does not threaten transnational capitalism, corporate power and elite interests. Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent brings into sharp focus some of these mechanisms, and explores how limited and heavily circumscribed ‘democratic’ processes and ideology facilitates the organisation of consent, and legitimates the use of coercion when that consent is lacking, in order to constrain our political freedoms.

Fundamentally, capitalism – the economic and political system by which goods and services are privately owned, commodified and distributed through the market – requires the majority to sell their labour in order to keep generating profits, while also relying upon both women’s unpaid work in the private sphere to ensure the reproduction of labour power and the existence of a large pool of labour which remains unenfranchised and unintegrated into the formal wage economy. Such an exploitative system necessitates the majority relinquishing a great deal of their power over the political, social and economic forces that mould everyday life. In modern-day capitalism, political and economic decisions are made largely in the interests of corporations – the institutional managers of the capitalist system – their profit margins, and a transnational class of elites. Governments frequently serve as vital handmaids of the perpetual drive for the profits and resources. They create and maintain the conditions necessary for continual capitalist accumulation, and provides protection from the resistance capitalism inevitably provokes, via the legitimation of capitalism and repression of dissent. From political policing to generous corporate-friendly legislation, from massive bank bailouts to military interventions to secure corporate access to valuable resources and markets, governments protect the functioning of the market and the constant accumulation of capital above all other social or ecological considerations. Wide-ranging political and economic decisions which affect the lives of billions are made in largely unaccountable inter-governmental institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Such antidemocratic forms of governance are necessary to ensure that the corporate engine continues to accumulate profit through new resources, new markets and ever cheaper sources of labour. The socio-political polarity thus intensifies as global capitalist penetration deepens, making the task of its legitimation increasingly difficult. For as social and economic oppression intensifies, so can the clamours for redress, clamours which must be contained. This is the contradiction at the heart of capitalism, and that which demonstrates the lie of democratic capitalism.

It is thus essential that the incompatibility of genuine democracy and capitalism is disguised, and for the majority to believe that democracy and capitalism are not only compatible but indivisible: that one engenders the other. And if this connection seems not to be quite watertight it is reinforced by the more negative notion that capitalism is the form of social organisation truest to basic human nature, and thus no more equitable, or sustainable system is possible. Together, they help to engender the widely held belief that challenging capitalism is not only misguided but unprogressive, even pernicious, and as a result, deserving of the marginalisation and repression it receives. This ideological perversion of ‘democracy’ is therefore used to create a hegemonic order in which a set of beliefs which broadly correspond to the ‘democratic’ nature or at least potential of capitalism becomes so accepted, even internalised, throughout the public mind, that it acquires the status of ‘common-sense’ or even of a self-evident ‘truth’, and thus opposing values or ideas are deemed ‘illegitimate’ or ‘unacceptable’ or even ‘illogical’. Unlike more totalitarian systems, such ideological hegemony does not entail one particular dominant world-view, but allows for a variety of differing opinions as long as they do not transgress particular boundaries of ‘legitimate’ or ‘reasonable’ values, opinions and actions. In this way a semblance of plurality and open debate can be created, even though the overall limits can in effect be as in rigid as any totalitarian system, but without as much overt policing of thought and action. For if these notions are largely internalised, the need for them to be so visibly policed by overt propaganda or coercion, which would only expose the pretence of democracy, is obviated. The power of ideological hegemony results from its ability to limit or repress the imagination of the possible or even conceivable, thereby facilitating the implementation of policies and systems which might otherwise be deeply unpopular, and the incorporation, recuperation and neutralisation of forms of politics which might otherwise have remained fundamentally oppositional.

The belief in the inevitability, viability and democratic nature of capitalism within civil society leads to popular consent – that is, the majority participate in a social order even though it is inherently incapable of achieving social equality, or meeting our needs and interests, and is an order over which we have very little say. Today, most people have little choice but to sell their labour in return for the minimal freedoms granted by wages, although many others have not been granted even this, hard-fought, concession. Either way, labour provides the profit necessary for the continued accumulation of capital, and the majority are left with a meagre degree of wealth and freedom which suffices to contain antagonism and dissent. In addition, the jobs most of us are permitted are actively connected to the maintenance of capitalist systems of production, providing surplus profit for employers, providing the social welfare services that train and educate workers and providing services that seek to soften the worst effects of socio-economic inequalities. As the capitalist system is forced to become more coercive to protect the social and public order, so the security industry increases its share of the labour market – the army, police, prison officers, security guards, private mercenaries etc. In return we are ‘rewarded’ with grossly unequal wages, with which we are compelled to purchase or rent basic requirements for life, such as food and housing, which have all become ensnared by the market. Meanwhile, services such as education and healthcare are becoming even more overtly divorced from our control, increasingly placed in the hands of private companies over which we have even less authority than our governments. The idea of common ownership and entitlement of such provisions has been hacked away at to such an extent that to advocate more democratic control is to risk accusations of naivety or lunacy. Trapped in the capitalist system in which we must participate to gain the money necessary for survival, anticapitalist, democratic notions contradict the prevalent ‘common-sense’ and are thus rarely heard, let alone heeded. Instead, we are force-fed the illogical ‘truth’ that capitalism is inevitable and progressive, and that, in spite of the inherent social limits to capital accumulation, and the obvious finiteness of the planet’s resources, it will eventually provide for all; indeed, that it is the only system that ever will.

Of course, this is not to negate the reality of people’s conflict with the system. People will continue to fight to improve their lives and the lives of others, in spite of the way economic dependence on work and economic insecurity limits the time and energy available for such efforts. But collective internalisation of the ‘truth’ of the ‘democratic’ nature of capitalism and its destiny to engender the best possible life for all, can limit such struggles, and heavily circumscribe their political intent, when they do emerge. For a collective belief in the illegitimacy of challenging the fundamentals of capitalism will engender only reformist political activity – that is, working to make certain changes which even if granted remain compatible with the functioning of the wider social order. Arguably, such actions which can be incorporated within the system actually strengthen the capitalist social order, insofar as they create the impression of a citizenry armed with democratic political freedoms to effect change. And so, great lengths are taken to co-opt resistance struggles, and to keep them within these boundaries, thereby protecting the capitalist system and reproducing the ideology of ‘democracy’. And while activities which are not contained in this way, and which do fundamentally challenge that system, are deemed to be morally illegitimate, it becomes legitimate to use state (or privatised) repression against them, ironically in the name of protecting ‘democracy’.

Today, the processes of managing dissent via the ideology of democratic capitalism are highly developed. Yet as a consequence of many processes, including the deepening globalising penetration of capitalism, the resulting financial crisis and the accompanying imposed austerity measures, the ecological crisis asserting the planetary limits on capitalist expansion, and the structural social limits to capital accumulation (the ability or willingness of workers to keep working and consumers to keep consuming), the hegemonic order is arguably becoming increasingly vulnerable. The myth of ‘democracy’ has to be carefully and constantly (re)created, not only in the media and other information-producing institutions, but also through the influencing, neutralising and outright repression of people’s political agency. From the structures and nature of institutions through which people choose to take political action, to the sources of funding for political groups; from the the circumscription and control of information and culture to which people have access, to the manipulation of the very language we have to describe our realities, much of this channelling and influencing is subtle, insidious and, even covert, taking effect incrementally and cumulatively. But sometimes the process is forced to be more overt, risking exposure, particularly when people resist co-option and containment and so coercion must be applied. The struggles over the meanings and definitions of democracy form a fundamental battleground in the struggle for a just and equitable world. It is thus vital to try and understand this issue, from a theoretical, historical and contemporary perspective.

This volume thus aims to expose some of the overt and covert ways in which democracy is managed to protect unequal power structures of capitalism from the potential force of participatory democracy. It is made up of five sections, which together build a picture of how the hollow promise of capitalist ‘democracy’ is promoted, while our political thoughts and actions are heavily circumscribed through subtle and sometimes not so subtle methods, in order to protect capitalism and forestall genuine democracy. The articles vary in length, style and form, and do not correspond to a single, unified viewpoint, or way of addressing this problem, but we hope they will inspire debate. What they do share is a common critique of the current ideology of capitalist ‘democracy’, and a sense of the urgency with which it needs to be challenged.

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