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Saturday, April 4, 2015

The importance of substantive democracy

Bourgeois democracy is democracy of pompous phrases, solemn words, exuberant promises and the high-sounding slogans of freedom and equality. But, in fact, it screens the non-freedom and inferiority of women, the non-freedom and inferiority of the toilers and exploited. Soviet, or socialist, democracy sweeps aside the pompous, bullying, words, declares ruthless war on the hypocrisy of the "democrats", the landlords, capitalists or well-fed peasants who are making money by selling their surplus bread to hungry workers at profiteering prices. - Lenin, Soviet Power and the Status of Women
An often ridiculed concept is that of "substantive democracy" - mostly by libertarians and liberals, but frequently also from the Left. The idea of "substantive democracy" is seen as a mere propaganda tactic used by totalitarian states to keep it's population in chains, conjuring up classic "Orwellian" imagery of a Big Brother who denies his subjects political freedom by using economic bribery and guilt. It is, despite it's anti-authoritarian rhetoric, a quite authoritarian sentiment if you think about it. The bourgeois democrats have become the masters of coating their own elitist authoritarianism in democratic sounding language - and no more is this true in their critique of substantive democracy.

Very often, it's not the traditional concerns for political liberty and civil rights that are at the heart of their critiques of "authoritarian leaders" - it's the audacity that they would stoop so low as to actually institute economic reforms that serve national and popular interests. This is, for the bourgeois democrat, a cheap trick, a form of political bribery unknown to the respectable democrat. Anyone who institutes popular reforms in the economy that aims to serve it's people instead of the insignificant minority of exploiters and imperialists is a ruthless authoritarian who is using political reform to further their own power-hunger. Serving the immediate economic needs of the many is "short-sighted" - the task of the "true democrat"is not to give in to peoples unquenchable and destructive thirst for unimportant and economically harmful things like public education, healthcare, wealth-redistribution and full employment. Instead, the bourgeois democrat should "know better" than the people, implementing long-term reforms that, while at this present moment seemingly only serves the minority of capitalists, will bring people jobs, economic growth and some healthy incentive to work a bit harder in the coming neo-liberal paradise. 

Hiding this fundamentally authoritarian mentality is the mirage of formal democracy. The formal democratic process is viewed as the ultimate peak of liberty and freedom, and subsequently, anything that threatens or transcends this process is viewed as the negation of liberty and freedom. In the liberal, bourgeois democratic world-view, anyone who breaks the sacred shackles of the established political order is at once a tyrant - and the motive to transcend such a system cannot be anything but a quest for personal power. But bourgeois formal democratic processes, historically progressive compared to previous eras, sometimes stands in the way of liberation rather than it's realization. It becomes nothing more than a crutch for the hegemonic class to dismantle genuine opposition, to keep popular resistance in check, and to justify the repressive class society. 

Substantive democracy becomes the enemy of "real" bourgeois democracy. Bourgeois power paints itself as the last resort of popular power against the irrational, short-sighted mass of people demanding economic security over formal rights, regardless of how practically unattainable the exercise of these rights are to the vast majority of people. These same people mock the idea that there was substantive democracy in the Soviet Union. Full employment, the near abolition of homelessness, the guaranteed social right to healthcare, education both lower and higher, relative gender equality and a living wage are all snobbishly derided as irrelevant to the undemocratic nature of the historical socialist states. But those of us who've felt the brunt edge of poverty, who have experienced the exploitation and oppression of capitalist power, who have had our bodies forever scared by the thorns of the class system, see the focus on serving people's economic needs that distinguishes the historical socialist movement from others in a different light. We can never accept a "democratic" system that is predicated on the exploitation of the vast majority of people by a small minority - in fact we refuse to call it democratic at all. 

Does this mean that we throw the baby of formal democracy out with bourgeois democratic bath water? No. Like Chavez, I am convinced that socialism will not survive without the popular participation of the masses. The moment the Soviet Union faced it's ultimate decline was in the 80's, were the leaders started dismantling the last scraps of the deformed systems of popular, proletarian power in the workplace, party and soviet councils. The modern struggle for socialism will be impossible without the simultaneous struggle for the popular sovereignty of the masses. I believe a successful modern socialist movement can be built on the idea of direct democracy, that extends democracy to the trade unions and workplaces. As Al Szymanski points out, these structures existed, albeit in a crude form, in the Soviet Union, and such ideas should be studied and reworked for the modern age. But at the heart of socialism, whichever form it will take, will be an economic and social system that serves the needs of the many. Substantive democracy is the framework around which legal democracy should be formulated.