editorial of The Commune
Just as the financial crisis brought home the inadequacy of the capitalist economy, the scandal of the expenses scam by Members of Parliament brings into question capitalist democracy. The mirage of the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ has given way to a view that most workers of this country once adhered to – that of ‘the rotten House of Commons’.
In the midst of a deep recession, with even the Metropolitan Police were openly exposed as lying killers at the G20 protests, such a loss of confidence in the key institution of the UK state is a matter of deep concern for the establishment. Amidst the media frenzy The Times warned that despite the corruption the “traditions of Parliament have also protected freedom and the rule of law” and now “an important reputation is being jeopardised for the wrong reasons”.
In an effort to restore confidence in the House of Commons the establishment is trying to assuage opinion with such measures as de-selecting the exposed MPs, ousting the Speaker and new regulations on allowances. There is even an element of exaggerating the “threat of the fascist BNP” to encourage participation in elections to endorse the establishment parties. But even if the whole parcel of rogues is replaced this will solve nothing, for the problem with Parliament is not one of personalities. The question the working class and our labour movement has to ask is whether we should support the rescue Parliamentary prestige: for just whose freedom does it protect and in whose interest does it serve?
It is a great lie that the Parliamentary system is the sovereign representative of all citizens of the UK. Just like the discredited banks, Parliament is inseparable from the capitalist system which does not and cannot work in the interests of the majority. Capitalism is a society divided into classes – the capitalist class and the working class. The capitalist class is a ruling class, it consists of the wealthy few who own the means of production and make all the key decisions which affect our lives, and it does so on the basis of what will increase its profits and promoting its interests. The working class consists of the vast majority of us who must seek work for a wage in order to live. This is an exploitative society, the workers who produce the goods and services do not receive in wages the full value of the products they create. The capitalist class receives or controls the major share of the wealth workers create because it owns and controls the means of production and distribution.
The establishment seeks to present the relationship of the “political system” and the “economic system” as if they are separate, this a view presented by Brown and Cameron in the Hansard Society book Democracy and Capitalism. It is a deception: Parliament is not separate from this system which operates according to the profit motive, and it is not neutral but part of this system which creates an ongoing struggle between the two classes. This is most evident in the fact that Parliamentary democracy does not extend to the most important sphere of society – the economy. Whether in its private or state capitalist forms this remains a tyranny run by unelected bureaucrats and managers. Every other institution in society is also run without any democratic control whatsoever: the Police, the Army, the Civil Service, the media, hospitals etc, are run by the same principle – appointment from above. Of the mechanisms of the state, the House of Lords, the Privy Council and immense Crown Powers remain unelected and unaccountable.
Far from Parliament safeguarding freedom for ‘the people’ it perpetuates this social system and the property and privilege of the ruling class. The capitalist class consolidated their control of Parliament in the Victorian era, the old English aristocracy amalgamating with the new industrial capitalists. The Houses of Parliament have belonged to the upper classes for centuries, whilst the working class only secured full voting rights in the 20th century; the ruling class never surrendered their dominance of the political machinery of the state.
This influence of business over Parliament and government itself is no secret; the organisations of capitalists openly advertise this fact. The Confederation of British Industry ‘the UK’s leading employers’ organisation; which seeks “to uphold the market system” has daily contact with every level of government and senior civil servants. The CBI’s chief economist is a member of the panel which advises the Chancellor on the Budget. Similarly the Chamber of Commerce, which describes itself as ‘one of the UK’s most powerful business affinity groups’, claims equally strong influence on government, ministers, officials and MPs. Whilst the Institute of Directors boasts a string of successes in its objective to “exert influence in the corridors of power and to advance the case for business in government”. The New Labour government has regularly given unelected CBI and other corporate leaders posts in the Government.
This whole machinery of control by business is camouflaged under the cloak of Parliamentary democracy, after all the government is elected in free elections. The very fact that fewer and fewer people bother to vote is symptomatic of just how inadequate this democracy actually is. The timing of elections is not based on the needs of society but chosen by the government when it best suits its chances of winning. The participation of the vast majority of the population is reduced to every four or five years voting for a Party candidate, these candidates are not chosen by their community but generally imposed by their Party leadership or manipulated into position. Parliamentary democracy offers no means by which electors can control these MPs. Once elected there is nothing to stop them breaking their pre-election promises. The Tories, New Labour and Liberal Democrats all support the capitalist system and are incredibly undemocratic, their conferences are but rallies whose policies are generally ignored when drawing up election manifestos’.
The very existence of free elections has to be seen in the context of a situation in which as a result of the immense power it derives from its rule of the economy, the capitalist class is in a position to exert tremendous influence over the ideas of society and mould public opinion in its favour. Capitalist ideas dominate society at large, perpetuated by bodies from politicians to the church, capitalists such as Rupert Murdoch own and control the media; they fund the main parties directly or via donors. In the era of global capitalism this has taken on obscene proportions with the principles and methods of the advertising industry to convince people to buy commodities having moved into the realms of politics. The electoral success of those political parties which perform a service for capitalism is dependent for success as much on ‘political technicians’ or ‘spin doctors’ as their actual policies.
Once elected MPs do not in practice control the government, instead it is they who are under the direct control of the government through a mixture of patronage and pressure. It is not the constituents who are represented but the state political machine itself. Furthermore there is a direct link between the MP’s and capitalism not only in terms of the ideas held by the majority of them but in direct material benefits through their second incomes from business. Two thirds of Tory MPs, over a third of Liberal Democrats and a fifth of New Labour MP’s hold second jobs. This ranges from law firms for the private equity industry to directors of banking groups. The Tories who are nurturing an image of cleaning up the House of Commons, under Cameron have taken £14 million from the City and bankers.
The ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ is a sham, not just because it reduces the level of participation to voting every few years for which party can administer capitalism, or that it is a gravy train, but because this democracy is but a manufactured form of consensus to ensure the preservation of a system which allows minority class to rule over the majority of us.
The scandal of MPs’ allowances is a symptom of the decadence which the Parliamentary system entered long ago; the labour movement and working class as a whole has no interest in supporting the efforts to revitalise and “restore confidence” in Parliament. Its defenders from the Tories to Labourite socialists fall back on the lamentable argument that there is no alternative. There is a viable alternative, it is one which the pundits who wrote of the relevance of Marx during the ‘credit crunch’ are silent about as regards the Parliamentary scandal, its has been tried and tested, and needs to be renewed for the 21st century: the communist alternative of communal self-management, an extensive participatory democracy.
The communism being advocated has nothing in common with the totalitarian state-socialist or state-capitalist systems as exist in China and North Korea. It began to take shape for a brief time in the Paris Commune of 1871, and in the early period of the Soviet republics such as in Russia, Ukraine, Hungary and Germany during revolutionary wave of 1917-1921. Workers from below began the communist reconstruction of society; they ended the false-separation between economics and politics with the close co-operation of organisations of workers self-management in a system of communal self-government.
In contrast to Parliamentary democracy which conceals the class character of its state, communal self-government openly acknowledges its working class character whilst any remnant of state power is in existence. The communist revolution provides new forms of working class democracy; historical experience has seen numerous examples of such bodies as soviets or councils of workers’ deputies, essentially democratic assemblies created by workers in the course of their struggles. In contrast to capitalist democracy, communal self-government will involve direct participation the great majority of the population in the running of society. The communist revolution we advocate pushes up from below through the workers own organisations it is not a coup by an elite or do we pursue power through parliament designed to exclude us from effective control of our lives. The system of advocated by communists draws on the principles of the Paris Commune that all officials are subject to recall by their electors, all public service to be performed at the average workers wage.
Whereas parliamentary democracy is restricted to a fictitious popular participation in the management of the state, the communal system with its principle of the elections of all organs of power from the lowest to the highest, with a method of election of representatives and their removal when the majority who elected them desire it. The negative features of parliamentarism will be eliminated – the detachment of representatives from the electors, their irrevocability, the passive participation of the populace in political life. Communists aim to create system which abolishes the division between the legislative, executive and judicial, communism will replace this with a united self-government from top to bottom.
The political rights and freedoms proclaimed at present are merely formal – freedom of assembly, association and press. In practice the ruling class has always restrained these activities and their development to prevent their use by workers in their class struggle. Communists advocate a system of self-government where these freedoms can be realized in full. Our goal is not less democracy but its extension to such a scale that we transcend the state itself: no body would exist which was superior to, or controlled, the workers’ own organisations.
This vision of communism is not utopian: the potential to create such self-government of the workers themselves already exists. It involves winning our movement to developing this goal within its struggles. If part of that struggle involves communists entering Parliament it is to use it as a platform to attack capitalism as opposed to rescuing an institution past its sell by date.
4 thoughts on “it’s their parliament, not ours!”
Contrast to this the front page of Socialist Worker, “Jail these corrupt ministers” http://socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=17972
Of course the “jailing” would be by none other than the British state, and since when have we called for the state to lock people up? I don’t think that when she was in her cell Rosa Luxemburg demanded that the army stuck the Kaiser in prison.
The SWP slogan runs dangerously close to the theme common in the Telegraph, Times etc., namely that the MPs expenses scandal shows that we need commissions and (unelected) state bureaucrats to manage the affairs of the House of Commons – a profoundly undemocratic sentiment. One article in the Mail even argued for the bolstering of the powers of the Crown as a check on the excesses of Parliament.
Much as with the bankers bail-out issue, the point is not that there is corruption and a few bad eggs who ought to be “punished” but rather that is the state machine and not the mass of the population who really hold power, and calling on one (no doubt, ‘responsible’) section of our rulers to attack another doesn’t exactly do much suggest the possibility of overcoming that.
This response by Socialist Worker is even to the right of The Times, who in their manifesto are calling for the right of recall of MP’s amongts a string of reforms. However unlike Socialist Worker – The Times is honest that its proposals are to save capitalist Parliamentary democracy! Socialist Worker could do well to take the advice of their hero Leon Trotsky to English communists to study Chartism and the English Revolution of the 17th century. The Chartists reforms of Parliament were to take it over and install a plebian democracy of labour against capital, the revolution of Cromwell’s time were not interested in locking up a few rotten MP’s – they dispersed their enemies, cut the King’s Head off and installed the republic.
In its own way this piece by Brendan O’Neill is just as reactionary:
by trumping up the threat of monarchists (utter nonsense I think we can all agree) he finds a way to defend the Parliament. And then, echoing the Anchbishop, he lays into the media:
“The scandal confirms that the media have become the voice, not of the public interest, as they claim, but of public cynicism”
All this in the service of the cult of the Institute of Ideas overiding political theme of instigating populism in the British public. How anyone, except right-wing libertarians, can see anythign radical in the stuff I can’t imagine. But inside the cult it all makes sense apparently!
Goood piece btw.
Only one point I’d want to address in a tone of criticism: “Far from Parliament safeguarding freedom for ‘the people’ it perpetuates this social system and the property and privilege of the ruling class”; I think we have to recognise that the real trick that they carry out is in safeguarding particular kinds of freedoms for “the people” in order to placate, distract, redirect, but also to threaten. David Cameron recently said that if people wanted to assemble to party it up after Thatcher’s death then that was there “democratic right”, which of course, in the mouth of the head of the government, means that it is tolerated so that “you ‘the people’ can’t claim we are repressing you”.
“If part of that struggle involves communists entering Parliament it is to use it as a platform to attack capitalism as opposed to rescuing an institution past its sell by date”.
I can’t help but think that in all of those other reactions people are talking about we’re really seeing the structural effect of the media in an age of acceleration (ie: the thing happens and it can be reported on while it is happening, maybe even in anticipation of its happening). All that people have left is a purely emotional response, there is no time to think critically, and so we get this moralism that tries (and usually succeeds) to capture populist impulses.
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