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Is it possible to vote socialism into power in a ‘free-market democracy’?

The revival of socialism has come with an unwelcome renewal of faith in the ‘democratic’ system. The system is anything but democratic, explains NICOLAS LALAGUNA

FOR several years now there has been a resurgence of socialism and a subsequent political main-streaming of progressive radicalism.
This is probably best exemplified by the phenomenon of an actually socialist-led Labour Party in the UK, democratic socialists within the Democratic Party in the US, Syriza in Greece and of course Podemos in Spain.

And in light of this trend, it is worth understanding not only what kind of society it is that we are all trying to build but whether the systems we are using to try and build it are capable of doing the job. For me the question is, whether the ‘state’ in the ‘free-market democracy’ model, is fundamentally capable of delivering a society built on compassion, freedom, equality, and sustainability or is it simply not fit for purpose?

In 1918, when the sociologist Max Weber was asked what is a state, he answered that it is a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

This, as I understand it, means that the state is a minority within a wider population that argues that it and it alone has the right to use violence.

A few years later in 1931, educator and philosopher John Dewey wrote: “As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”

To put it another way, while the political system is fundamentally beholden to the wealthy elite, acting within the system approved by the political establishment will have little if any impact on the true nature of power in society.

If both these statements are true, one could quite logically conclude that it is possible that what we understand as ‘democracy’ could in fact be four processes, that when brought together are in fact more akin to an authoritarian control system.

First, in a society where both power and wealth are unequally distributed, the powerless will inevitably attempt to redress this inequality. Second, in response to the demand for power to be shared more equally, the powerful will have to make concessions to the powerless but with the full knowledge that, as power is shared more equally, it will be used to force the sharing of wealth more equally as well.

Therefore, in order for an economic elite to maintain privilege while ensuring the powerless feel empowered enough not to revolt, power is shared in appearance only and, finally, if that were the case, in order to maintain such an all-encompassing fraud the system would need to be in a state of near permanent contradiction, both maintaining tyranny and at the same time projecting democracy.

Next August will be the bicentenary of the Massacre of Peterloo. When 60,000 people came together in Manchester to call peacefully for political and economic equality at a time when poverty was an early death sentence and only 2 per cent of the population had the vote, the ruling elite sent in the military and private militias to crush the unrest.

Nearly 70 years later and on the other side of the Atlantic, the social reformer and abolitionist Fredrick Douglass made the speech that vocalised the fears of the ruling class everywhere, drawing the first aspect of this argument into focus. During his address to the crowd at the 24th anniversary of emancipation Douglas said: "Where any class is made to feel society is in an organised conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

By the time Douglas spoke these words in the US, it was becoming increasingly apparent to the ruling elite in the UK that continuing to deny the vote to large sections of society was leaving their subjects with only one course of action, revolution, which leads to the second process.

As far back as Aristotle, but really taking its modern shape under the likes of Hume and Smith during the Scottish enlightenment and then in the writing of the US Constitution, the idea that the principal requirement of a state or government is to protect the landed from the landless, while avoiding the appearance of despotism, is not particularly controversial.

By the end of the 18th century, both  Madison and Hamilton, two key architects of the US constitution were very clear about only trusting the propertied classes with political power. They were adamant that the threat of universal suffrage was that certain sections of the population would organise together to force change.

A few decades later in 1866, Lord Salisbury addressed the UK Parliament during a debate on extending the vote to the working class to repeat the same sentiment. He stated that working class people, if given the vote, would be likely to pass laws “with respect to taxation and property especially favourable to them and therefore dangerous to all other classes.”

At the start of the 20th century, with the revolution in Russia still fresh in everyone’s mind, the right to vote was extended across ever wider sections of UK and US society, albeit in a very closely controlled way.

And so, a century later, what exactly has this extension of suffrage achieved for us? Only a few years ago a poll showed that it was possible that as many as a quarter of all UK households had been forced to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children.

In 2016, the estimates for people living in poverty in the UK ranged from between 19 per cent and 22 per cent, while for children it was between 26 per cent and 30 per cent. Across Europe in that same year, in the region of 23.5 per cent of the total population was at risk of poverty or social exclusion, hile, in the US only a year later, according to the US Census Bureau, somewhere in the region of 12.3 per cent of the population were living in poverty. That is just short of 40 million people in the US alone.

Arguably, the vote, as determined by the Establishment institutions, hasn’t actually had the equalising effect on wealth and privilege that the ruling elite feared it would have, which brings us to the third process in the system.

Is what we understand as the democratic franchise simply the illusion of equal power?  

The word most commonly associated with the process  of influencing large sections of society to embrace political positions in the interest of the producer of those communications, as opposed to the consumer, is propaganda.

Today, propaganda, as described by those who study it is the “use of images, slogans, and symbols that play on our prejudices and emotions ... with the ultimate goal of having the recipient of the appeal come to 'voluntarily' accept this position as if it were his or her own.”

When the mass media uses only a very narrow framework of symbolism and subtexts, the culture available to us becomes homogenised and in doing so offers a similarly homogeneous set of identities available to negotiate with.

And it is in those definitions of identity that the messages tell us who has the right to use force and who doesn’t, who deserves privilege and who doesn’t and of course who has the right to lead and who must obey. But for the purposes of the third process, perhaps the most important is that they also tell us who has the right to question authority and who doesn’t.

To paraphrase McLuhan, it is not just about the message, it is also about the medium and how that medium conveys the message.

Since the late 1970s there has been an ever-increasing body of work outlining the homogeneity in film and television of “the male gaze.” Put simply, more often than not, the camera represents a controlling-male subject position so the audience only has one identity to comfortably identify with — that of a man. Can the same be said for race and class as well? Is the mainstream media predominately representing the subject position of the privileged white male? And if there is such an homogeneity of messaging, then who is it within society that could be trusted to deliver it.

It is not particularly controversial to argue that there is a revolving door between the corporate media and the state.

What isn’t so widely reported is the socio-economic class structure of all the institutions that have been tasked with maintaining the fantasy.  The Sutton Trust has countless studies demonstrating how paying privately for education in the UK is the surest pathway to power and wealth in the law, medicine, business, politics, military, civil service, journalism, music and even television and film.

But if you want to be really sure that your children and their children will enjoy the same power and privilege that you do, then paying for them to go to one of the top 10 private schools in the country, which largely act as feeder schools to Oxford and Cambridge, is your best bet.

A system that prioritises the accumulation of wealth into a narrowing section of the population, while masking the fact that it is doing so, runs the risk of impoverishing the exploited class to the point of revolution, which is why the fantasy needs to mask that reality.

It is in this role that the media corporations have become the de facto psychological operations division of the ruling elite.

Discussions about the quality of life in our communities, the courage and compassion of everyday people and the commonalities that transcend the socially constructed identity differences have all been largely redacted from the cultural space.

Instead we are now showered with a multi-media torrent correlating wealth with intelligence, wealth with beauty, wealth with talent, wealth with philanthropy, wealth with health, wealth with charity and of course wealth with biological superiority.

This brings us neatly to the fourth and final process within this argument. If the systems of government and social institutions were constructed in order to walk a thin line between presenting a fantasy of shared power, while ensuring wealth inequality, then there would be evidence of it wherever you looked.

After all, for a fraud on that scale, it would need to be both persistent and all-encompassing. The institutions of power have been shown, as mentioned earlier in reference to the work by the Sutton Trust, to be disproportionately managed by the sons and daughters of the families wealthy enough to send their children to some of the most expensive schools on the planet.

It is through this process that for centuries a very thin segment of global society can be shown, and has been shown time and again, to be handing disproportionate power and privilege down through their families and networks from one generation to the next.

If it was just a case of propaganda being used to coerce society into becoming more submissive and distracted, then that would be one thing, but history tells us that, when subtlety and coercion fails, then violence and totalitarianism will be resorted to.

In the US in the 1960s and 1970s both the FBI and the CIA were running covert quasi-military operations against sections of the population demanding greater equality.

By the 1980s, Colonel Oliver North and the Office of Public Diplomacy ran psychological operations (PsyOPs) against the US population, media and both houses of Congress in order to garner support for their counter-revolutionary actions in Central and South America.

In the UK from the late 1960s onwards, specialist teams within law enforcement and the intelligence services have been targeting and infiltrating environmentalists, anti-racist campaigners, peace activists and social reform groups. We even know now that the UK government had plans in place to use the army to break the miners’ strike.

And it is not just the activists. Much of the modern technology that we so willingly embrace acts as the panopticon that watches all of us.

We now know that the NSA, in collaboration with GCHQ and certain major tech companies and research institutions, has been monitoring and recording all of our digital communications. And in this process no-one has been immune to the monitoring, not even the political ‘leaders’ themselves.

Thanks to the courage of people like Edward Snowden, we also know that the intelligence arm of the various governments has been using that data to profile and categorise tens of millions of us according to how much of a threat they think we pose to their authority and status.

It appears to be quite possible that the institutions and hierarchies that we put so much faith in might in truth have been developed to act as nothing more than a pressure release valve to defend against revolution.

I honestly hope that the systems of government are democratic and that all sections of society will respect the will of the people if the people choose to build a new society based on compassion, freedom, equality, and sustainability.

But, when a parent has to decide whether to keep it’s child warm or to feed it in one of the richest nations on the planet, while being told by millionaires that they should be thankful that they get to put a tick in a box every four years, one needs to remember the words of Fredrick Douglass.

If the poor are subjected to an organised conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, then why should they play by the rules dictated by their oppressors?

If the system can bring about equality then let it. If not, then it might be time to change the system. After all, if that were the case, it would be the system that is broken, not the dream.



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