For a long time radicals have characterized the electoral systems in capitalist societies as “bourgeois democracies.” At times, this term has been used in a strictly pejorative sense, to dismiss any electoral work as inconsequential or merely a device for legitimating capitalism in the eyes of the poor and working class. Our view of left electoral work is less doctrinaire; we think there is an important place for such activity as a part of a broader socialist organizing agenda, though the degree of importance in any particular instance varies depending upon many factors. We also think that such a categorical dismissal of electoral politics misses the critical significance of the term “bourgeois democracy.” It means an electoral system in which the rule of capital—i.e. bourgeois social relations—is taken as a given, and the range of electoral debate is strictly limited, never challenging the class basis of society.
How and why this process of converting democracy to bourgeois democracy takes place in capitalist societies is a complex issue, but take place it invariably does. For Marxists and radicals, the adjective “bourgeois” is meant to highlight how far the electoral system is from a genuine democracy in the classical sense of the term, as the rule of the many. It underlines the need to move beyond capitalism if we are serious about democracy.
It has long been true in the United States that on those core issues that the ruling class agrees upon—the equation of capitalism with democracy, the need for the U.S. government to have the right to invade any place in the world to protect ruling class interests, and the primacy of investors’ needs in determining core economic policy—the two major parties have been in full agreement. But within those parameters there were at times considerable debates between the Republicans and Democrats on labor policies, taxation, trade, social welfare policies, business regulation and civil rights, to mention but a few. The most significant areas of debate in a bourgeois democracy, in general, are those areas where members of the ruling class are debating among themselves.
In the past generation, the range of disagreement among the leading Democrats and Republicans has narrowed and shifted rightward. On issues of neoliberal globalization, military spending, and deregulation, the two parties march in lockstep. By last year, the differences between candidates Gore and Bush were minuscule. The second presidential debate in 2000 was marked by the constant refrain of “We agree on that issue,” by the two candidates as they discussed international economics and politics.
The events since September 11 have revealed, again in stark terms, the decrepit, appalling, and corrupt nature of bourgeois democracy in the United States, even in comparison to other versions of bourgeois democracy. Since September 11, the opposition Democrats have caved in to the Republicans virtually in toto and supported the war on terrorism with abandon. They have acceded to outrageous corporate bail-outs and frontal attacks on civil liberties. They have failed to do what loyal oppositions are supposed to do in bourgeois democracies: press the Republicans to establish that their policies would serve ruling class aims effectively, not to mention those of the population as a whole. The very notion of the “rule of law,” the self-professed centerpiece of liberal democracy, has shriveled.
Even compared to weak official opposition to the most recent U.S. wars—Kosovo, the Gulf War, Central America, and Vietnam—the conduct of the opposition party since September 11 has been pathetic. Recall that in the 1970s, for example, the Democrats led hearings in Congress to investigate the many crimes of the CIA. No doubt this capitulation can be attributed partly to the shock of the September 11 events. But even by that measure the degree of Democrat surrender is remarkable. Insofar as the news media rely upon debate among elites to get the sources for political coverage, this lack of debate has left the media regurgitating variants of the government position. The press coverage has been closer to that of an authoritarian regime than that of a credible constitutional democracy.
A striking example of the corruption of U.S. bourgeois democracy has just occurred. Since the fateful day in December 2000 when the Supreme Court stopped the vote count to assure the election of George W. Bush, a consortium of major news media and the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center conducted a ballot-by-ballot recount of the Florida vote throughout 2001. The results were to be announced in the fall. As that fateful day approached, however, the project was quietly postponed. As Richard Berke put it in the New York Times , the report was now “utterly irrelevant,” and “might have stoked partisan tensions” (September 23, 2001). About a month later, several leading Democrats confided to the New York Times (October 20, 2001), that they were indeed happy that Bush, and not Gore, was president, even if Bush had stolen the election.
When the results of the study were finally released in November, they confirmed that Gore won the Florida popular vote, albeit in a squeaker. Moreover, when the intent of the voters was taken into consideration—tens of thousands of probable Gore votes were not counted due to a number of factors that did not harm Bush nearly as much—Gore won the state by a more decisive margin. But the news media trumpeted the fact that the recount showed Bush the winner—if the recount only applied to the four counties in which Gore requested it be done. One could only imagine how the U.S. news media would have responded if the Sandinistas had claimed an electoral victory under such dubious circumstances.
So there you have it: a stolen presidential election and an extraordinary world war without limits launched with no more formal political scrutiny than took place in the Soviet Union when the USSR entered Afghanistan in 1979. The president is not an accountable democratic head-of-state, but a maximum leader to whom all must pay homage. The implications are clear: the rotten core of capitalist society has all but snuffed out the democracy in bourgeois democracy. We are in treacherous and foreboding times.
Our good friend Howard Sherman sent us the following email after a phone conversation with one of us in mid-October:
You mentioned the crisis and it led to the following thoughts:
First, the terrorist attack reveals the deep anger of the third world. So it is understandable, but NOT justified.
Second, it harmed the interests of the third world.
Third, it harmed the interests of the U.S. working class.
Fourth, it gave the United States an excuse to bomb Afghanistan and show that it is still the dominant military power among imperialists.
Fifth, it gave the U.S. ruling class an excuse to stifle dissent and get people to forget the deepening economic crisis.
We think Howard has hit the nail on the head.
It is horrifying to realize that the poison of militarism and imperialism threatens to bring undesirable changes in the political attitude of the United States….What we see at work is not an expression of the sentiments of the American people; rather, it reflects the will of a powerful minority which uses its economic power to control the organs of political life.
—Albert Einstein, Einstein on Peace, p. 343.
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