Inequality and the Labyrinths of Democracy

By Göran Therborn
Published by Verso, 2020
Review by Tim Barton

Therborn has written on the problems of democracy over many decades, and this book brings several of his essays together in one volume. The meatiest, and – in this moment, and in this place – most relevant is the first, Dysfunctional Democracies. The essays later in the volume are older, and posit that our contemporary forms of ‘democratic’ ‘representation’ arose from ‘the contradictions of capitalism’. They lay out other theories, and relate to democratic institutions across the globe.

My potted version would include that a need for skilled and semi-skilled labour required, increasingly through the industrial revolution, a higher degree of literacy. That need exacerbated dissent from the rank inequalities inherent in the capitalist model of economics. A panacea, albeit one fought and died for, was a sliver of involvement in political decision-making. Clearly, this was done through a controlled and classist form of representation, and was designed to placate a working-class majority whilst maintaining a tight control over social and economic events.

Alongside these reforms, a chafing over too little economic democracy inevitably arose. The post-war economy empowered a smaller workforce who pushed for economic and social reforms. This was clearly expressed by the ‘Spirit of 45’ Labour victory over the Janus-headed war monger, and latter-day war hero, Winston Churchill. However, that was a short window for workers to influence power. Ironically, given his later stance on immigration, one Enoch Powell was given the task of bringing Jamaican labourers over to ‘fill the gap’. This redressed the labour shortage, eventually re-creating a labour pool of the unemployed, and thus successfully watered down the power of labour.

As a democratic forum, Parliament has never reflected the class balance of our society, but rather, the class balance in terms of power. Thus, throughout the ‘good times’ and the ‘bad’, an elite stratum of society has held the reins that subdue and steer the public, favouring the richest and most powerful. The labour disputes of the 1970s were a result of diminished worker power, and the next upset for the aristocracy and wealthy merchants was the rise of the City. This new ‘neoliberal’ battle saw a shift not only in the economic power of a small splinter of the upper-working-class and low-middle-class (primarily, from Essex and the East End), but opened up Britain to increased economic hollowing out by foreign corporations.

The City became a giant gambling den, as it remains to this day (although certain elements have relocated to Frankfurt due to Brexit). The cost for ordinary people has been more privatisation, an assault on welfare, and a mass loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas. Those who invested in this liberalisation agenda have become richer as others become poorer. Although now the less wealthy among them are feeling the pinch too, as more and more UK assets are under foreign ownership. ‘Globalised capital’ is a fundamental cause of wealth disparity and populist politics. The latter is steered into scapegoating those least responsible by a billionaire-owned media. But whichever way you cut it, there is an increasing awareness that we do not have a hand on the accelerator or brakes of society, despite the ‘promise of democracy’. A mass movement for change is slowly forming.

Both Left and (populist) Right see a need for fundamental reform, and democracy here is heading towards a crisis point. Whichever parts of our socio-political spectrum win out, we need to see a new vision of ‘democracy’, to replace a top-down control mechanism with a grass-roots bottom-up ‘people power’. This could come through local direct democracy, civil assemblies with real power, where larger geographical areas are run at the behest of localism, and with fully recallable representatives, chosen from known local people, with a limited remit.

Personally, I favour a responsible people power, where an educated citizenry is allowed to arise, and where our wishes are enacted proportionately to the support each has – preferably, with a constitution giving certain core protections to minorities. Currently, as the insular rightward swing represented in the dismissal of the, in continental terms, centre-left ‘social democratic’ ideals of the Corbyn manifesto; the little Englander extension of racially motivated hate; and the rejection of ‘experts’ demonstrates, we are heading toward the ‘wrong’ reforms. But either way, a change is gonna come.

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