Long ago, a maned and hoary bard–America himself–tenderly counselled the ship of democracy thus: ‘Sail, sail thy best… Earth’s résumé entire floats on thy keel, is steadied by thy spars’. Were Whitman alive today, his riverine immensity would freeze over in horror. The grand old seer would stand aghast before the sight of his hallowed vessel, which lies corroded and sunken in its harbour. Meanwhile, far away on the glassy waves, its dancing helmsmen glide ahead on their argosy of megayachts.
In Britain, we are so accustomed to hearing politicians spout about Democracy that we accept as axiomatic their claims that we live in one. It is the object of this essay to interrogate these claims.
No such interrogation could succeed without some impression of what democracy really means. It is, of course, little use turning to politicians for assistance; most, as Orwell so rightly observed, resist defining the word, and ‘fear that they might have to stop using [it] if it were tied down to any one meaning’. It is all too often thus with politicians and language: they feed on splendour, draining it, and secrete sinister platitudes.
I should say one–and only one–thing in mitigation: it is undoubtedly very difficult to articulate a comprehensive vision of democracy, what with all the slippery particularities that attach to the concept. Then again, this cannot possibly absolve those who purport to represent us. After all, there is one glowing constant which abides in all that truly concerns this word, from its noble Grecian etymology to a fairly recent utterance of the rather less inspiring Nicholas Clegg: in a democracy, power rests with a free, aware and respected population. This is not the case in Britain.
Let us begin at the surface. The right to vote is supposedly the mainstay of any democracy; it is almost sanctified. We are led to believe that through it, the people become omnific, become some many-headed Lachesis with absolute power to call time on those who govern and on their operative creeds. In short, the right to vote, it is said, allows the man in the street to transform his society and thus the very conditions of his existence. Meanwhile, those whom he elects are legitimately empowered to serve him; they act on his behalf and in his interests.
The reality, of course, is rather different, and can in part be illustrated with data from the last three United Kingdom general elections. On average, just 62% of those eligible to vote actually did so. And thanks to a crude first-past-the-post system, the victorious party received a median share across the three elections of only 37%. So, in each case, less than a quarter of the electorate asked for the government that ended up in Whitehall. As far as democratic legitimacy is concerned, these simple figures speak for themselves.
But the crucial fact is that a great many people spurn the ballot box because they recognise that voting has no positive transformative effect whatsoever. In England, for instance, only three parties are large enough to be capable of constituting a government. One receives around half its funding from financial elites, who would never support anything inimical to their interests. The second is sustained by trade unions, for whose members it does nothing in return. The crusty, fusty Tory-Labour duopoly was broken in 2010 by the Liberal Democrats, but the rank opportunism of this third party will see it fall swiftly away, back into the penumbra. Ultimately, then, the right to vote consists in the choice between a maximum of three substantially identical political parties.
It would not be inappropriate to add here that the electorate is becoming increasingly attuned to the knavery and otherness of our feckless so-called representatives themselves. According to the Smith Institute, over a third of all Members of Parliament were privately schooled. A similar proportion of the present government’s MPs came to politics from the business world, with still more arriving at Westminster after careers in finance and public relations. Already it can be seen that these people represent us only notionally. Such an impression crystallises upon observation of the considerable power wielded by party whips, and that is to say nothing of the shadowy twin pests of corporate lobbying and Cash for Access. All the while, many Members of Parliament are tangled up in lucrative conflicts of interest that anywhere else would occasion accusations of corruption. Many more milk dry a disgustingly generous expenses system. And an unnervingly large number have perfected the art of gesture without motion, of appearing as like robots. When they speak, they may as well be chanting: ‘We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men/Our dried voices are meaningless’. At least, though, our MPs approach their public service with Platonic reluctance: the House of Commons seems always to be empty.
In any case, a significant portion of the electorate is growing tired. People are close to the realisation that choosing between two and a half lumps of ordure every few years is not democracy. They resent the fact that the insects which cling to such lumps are getting fatter, while they themselves grow gaunt. And an ever rising number are becoming aware of the yews and nightshades that the excrement is fertilising. The refusal to vote, then, is a silent revolt.
Yet millions and millions continue to mark with pride their futile ballot papers. These millions, as the Frenchman Mirbeau wrote, are
the sovereign people, those who feel drunkenness steal over them when they look at themselves and say, “I am a voter! Nothing happens without me. I am the foundation of modern society.
In fact, they vote from behind what Mirbeau called ‘the enormous, sordid, impenetrable veil of triumphant stupidity’. And nothing, therefore, ever teaches them anything–‘neither the most burlesque of comedies nor the most sinister of tragedies’. They vote, suffer, complain and vote again. Who, asked old Mirbeau, will explain ‘the anatomy and mentality of these incurable lunatics?’
Ultimately, though, it matters not whether one revolts in silence or continues in his obstinate stupidity. In either case, the Establishment smiles. It does so because the ballot box does not threaten its dominion. Governments come and go, but the Establishment at large remains unshakeable.
And in Britain, corporate elites are its backbone. No serious examination of power will ignore corporate clout; equally, none will treat the state’s executive branch as anything other than a solitary arm of the Establishment. This, incidentally, is why one ought never to trust the press, but we shall return to that later.
While it would be quite impossible to throw light on the whole of the corporate superstructure, we may begin to perceive its enormity by noting just how many essential goods and services are in private hands.
Together, gas and electricity are the lifeblood of British homes. Nowadays, both these resources are controlled almost exclusively by a small number of corporations rather than by any democratically accountable body. The Big Six, as they are known, continually drive up prices at a time when their consumers are already struggling terribly. Their profit margins swell, while many millions are left languishing in fuel poverty. Why, in a well-developed country, should thousands of people die each winter from want of warmth? Why do the Big Six spend so much on dividends and so little on storage? What on Earth could justify the soaring profits and continued existence of this rapacious oligopoly? Yet nothing shall change. The regulating body Ofgem is willingly impotent, and one has only to look so far as the peers and lobbyists Howell and Browne to realise that Parliament cannot be trusted to act in the public’s favour on this matter.
Energy makes for a suitable emblem, but corporate greed infects the provision of a great many other goods and services as well. It flows through our taps and hoses, for in England and Wales, about twenty companies control the supply of water at an ever-increasing cost to the person in the street. Corporate greed crawls forth — eventually — on our railways too: enormous public subsidies metamorphose into dividends, while fares climb and reliability falls. And it lives now in some of this country’s jails; one in every eight prisoners is in the care of G4S or some other loathsome company, meaning that their incarceration gilds the pockets of fat executives, and that it is in the interests of those executives to maintain environments that breed crime.
There are the Private Finance Initiatives, which, on the whole, have been disastrous. There is the creeping privatisation of the NHS, spearheaded by that grim crook Lansley, and the imminent flotation of Royal Mail. There are corporation tax cuts and corporate tax avoidance at the same time that individual taxpayers are pursued with grasping relish. There are the plans to privatise probation; there is Tesco’s unbreakable empery; there are news media that conform perfectly to Herman and Chomsky’s as yet unrefuted propaganda model, media that are owned and funded by corporate elites, and designed to obscure and misinform. One could go on and on. The crucial point is that great portions of people’s lives are being sold off to and controlled by totalitarian institutions that care only or above all for market shares and profit.
Two things remain to be said. Firstly, any disquisition on this subject would be hollow without some reference to the banks, which are monolithic bastions of greed and irresponsibility. In corporate Britain it is often the case that taxpayers bear the cost of corporate mistakes and misadventure. So it is with banks as well. We malign and are encouraged to malign those who receive welfare because they find themselves in desperate economic conditions over which they have no control. But in 2008, the government spent more money bailing out its bosom buddies in the City than it would on Jobseeker’s Allowance in one hundred and fifty years. This is called corporate welfare, and it is utterly obscene.
Secondly, it must be reiterated that a farcically close relationship exists between politicians and those more obviously of the corporate world. There is about us an extensive and infrangible net of MPs, peers, civil servants, bankers and lobbyists. These people trade positions effortlessly, and all are doing very well for themselves. Meanwhile, crony capitalism tightens around the poor and cheerless.
It is clear, then, that barely any power rests with the ordinary people of this country. It lies instead with corporate-financial elites and with their lackeys in Parliament. Some will claim that it is nevertheless the case that the citizenry is treated with respect by those in charge. But one need not look very hard to realise that such a claim is largely wrong.
The government’s programme of devastating public sector cuts is just one sign of its utter disregard for those it purports to represent. Let us leave aside the fact that austerity cannot stimulate an economy. Let us observe instead how it crushes, again and again, the most vulnerable members of society in the gravest of ways. The poor, the disabled, the elderly and children have been and will continue to be cruelly attacked by governmental measures too numerous to name. There are pernicious cuts to social care and legal aid; there is the Bedroom Tax; there is the impending abolition of the Independent Living Fund. When one truly thinks about the matter, one comes to understand that austerity demoralises and punishes the blameless.
Through its cuts, the coalition government has stripped thousands of their means of living. Meanwhile, a great many more have been fortunate enough to keep theirs, and continue to fester in the warehouses and factories and offices of Britain. This leads us to a question that transcends the policies of whatever government happens to inhabit Whitehall: how can a population be considered free and respected when it is forever engaged in what Marcuse called the ‘stupefying, enervating, pseudo-automatic jobs of capitalist progress’? Even today, Marx’s theory of alienation is relevant. In the currently subsisting system, a worker’s labour is external to his self; it belongs not to him, but to those whom he fattens; it mortifies and negates. His life is entirely bound up in it. In short,
the worker becomes a servant of his object, first, in that he receives an object of labor, i.e., in that he receives work, and, secondly, in that he receives means of subsistence. This enables him to exist, first as a worker; and second, as a physical subject. The height of this servitude is that it is only as a worker that he can maintain himself as a physical subject and that it is only as a physical subject that he is a worker.
Those who have never experienced alienation will pooh-pooh it. To them, surplus value and zero-hour contracts and the decline of unions mean absolutely nothing. They will claim with haughty disdain that it is better to be a worker here than in any one of the countries their ideology has despoiled for our benefit.
And they would of course be right. But even the most agreeable features of the British worker’s lot are ultimately suspect. For instance, the minimum wage is set high enough to muffle any strident concern, but it is far from adequate at a time when the cost of living is so exacting. Perhaps it only exists so that the worker may have enough money to purchase things he does not truly need, and thereby stuff another ravenous mouth of the capitalist hydra.
This last thought segues nicely into another: how can a population be considered free and respected when it has been conditioned by corporate capitalism to constantly consume? One might believe that one’s free time is one’s own, but in fact it has been invaded. Mass culture is not a place of escape; it is a tremendously important section of the capitalist apparatus. Technology is the principal culprit, as Marcuse knew:
The need for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares even at the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a “biological” need in the sense just defined. . . . [the people] have to buy part and parcel of their own existence on the market.
Is this not a sad state of affairs? Technology, for all its strong points, often stupefies and atomises; it can make us passive and servile; it prevents us from looking outwards. The same must be said of mass media in this country: of the artistically sterile, apolitical music churned out by moneyed record labels; of soap operas and reality television; of tabloid newspapers. And yet all these are consumed primarily and in large amounts by the poor, the working class. This is surely no accident. If they knew the full extent of what was being done to them, the oppressed poor would not suffer it. But as it stands, they lose their individuality in work and are estranged from themselves in leisure too. In perfect solitude, they might reasonably and quite forgivably lament as Southwell once did: ‘I live, but such a life as ever dyes/I dye, but such a death as never endes’.
It would be impossible to give a truly comprehensive account of British society in only three thousand words. Much has been left uncharted. Surveillance, which the American Norman Pollack described as ‘a clear first step in the conversion from monopoly capital to fascism’, is one such thing. An education system that neither identifies nor discusses the problems of modern society is another. An unelected upper house that teems with business leaders is still one more. There is a royal family whose enormous hereditary privilege we are encouraged to respect and adore. There is government secrecy and institutional racism and numberless lies and mangled promises. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the essence of ‘democracy’ in Britain has been satisfactorily conveyed.
To summarise, power in this country rests largely with the very rich, who effectively control almost every aspect of our lives. Such control is exercised primarily by corporations, which care above all for profit and also for maintaining in existence the prevailing order. Crucially, only a revolving door separates these elites from those that we elect. The sacred right to vote is nothing more than a trinket, and the bulk of the British people will continue to be abused. Marcuse, in a passage of astonishing power and concision, can furnish us with some fitting final words:
This society is obscene in producing and indecently exposing a stifling abundance of wares while depriving its victims abroad of the necessities of life; obscene in stuffing itself and its garbage cans while poisoning and burning the scarce foodstuffs in the fields of its aggression; obscene in the words and smiles of its politicians and entertainers; in its prayers, in its ignorance, and in the wisdom of its kept intellectuals.