- Owen Thomas Webb
You Do Not live in a Democracy
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
We are often reminded that we live in a democracy. Publicly owned news outlets, party political broadcasts, and studies of twentieth century history from a capitalist perspective, all work together to stop us from ever forgetting that. Perhaps one day it might be true.
When we refer to democracy, we are usually referring to a system where political candidates are selected by public ballot. These candidates stand for a political party and usually reflect the class interests and political theory which that party represents. Usually, there are multiple candidates to choose from in a given election, each offering the public one version of economic theory or public policy that is different from that of the competition. This, the process of selecting from a limited pool of candidates, is what we call democracy. The principle of democracy, of power to the people, is quite different though. Democracy can be defined as the principle of the public being the priority of a state. This sounds complicated, but what democracy represents should be a society where the public are not distinguishable from the government of their society. In practice, if the priority of the state is the public, then the public will be protected by the state as more valuable than any resource, as though they were themselves priceless. A democratic society would, by its very nature, offer a guarantee of rights and place to every citizen.
Occurrences like evictions are a statement by our society that poverty is equivalent to a crime. The criminalization of poverty in this country is a phenomenon which is inherent in capitalism. Poverty in this country is not a complete lack of material – many people in impoverished boroughs of this country own cars and many live in nice enough houses – poverty in the United Kingdom is the phenomenon of being criminalized for a lack of money sufficient to pay tax or contribute to capitalism, or both. This previous year saw a record number of people threatened with homelessness through no fault-evictions. This is a statement by British society as an entity that it does not consider people to be as valuable as money, and a definitive statement that the principle of democracy, of people before anything else, is secondary to the principle of capitalism.
In our society, it is therefore not the case that we value our public as the most important thing. Such a guarantee of a right to a place cannot be found in the modern definition of democracy because it is not a principle that governments stand by, or round which society organizes itself. Instead, contemporary democracy is a political process which is superimposed onto a society which organizes itself around an entirely different set of principles, which we call capitalism. Is capitalism compatible with democracy? In capitalism there are those who own the basic necessities of modern life – housing, transport, industries, or markets which provide sources of income – and there are those who do not own the basic necessities. They instead must pay the owners for their right to use them. We call this effect wealth inequality, whereby a small number of people wield disproportionate power over the lives of other citizens. The non-owners do so by paying out of an income which is given to them as compensation for their efforts in work. This labour contract can be negotiated in such a way that makes the worker themselves the property of an owner, by tying them to employment for the right to live, unless they work for the state or are compensated for dedicating themselves to an education. If in public service or education, one can expect to be provided with a relatively basic subsistence; just enough to subsist the financially governed cost of living. In a society such as this one, the reason public service workers are underpaid is because the public service classes do not participate in extracting financial wealth from others’ material contribution. Instead, they – teachers, nurses, and farmhands for example, key workers with below national median incomes – contribute labour to society and thus do not benefit from the financial system, which is based on extracting from society, as demonstrated by the phenomenon of investments returns and the profit of utility companies.
In our society, unless you have a monthly income, which pays for transport to and from that source of income, then your privileges to safe housing and food are compromised. You are considered by a capitalist society to be not worth the effort, because what holds intrinsic value in our society is money, not people. A high quality of life is a privilege, not a right in our society. This is a system which is incompatible with democracy because democracy is a principle that implies the public are the constituents of the state and are the state’s first priority. Furthermore, democracy implies that every member contributes equally to decision making. To this extent, democracy is incompatible with capitalism because capitalism bifurcates a society into at least two classes; owner and non-owner, and this compromises the principle of democracy. Without equal ownership of necessities, citizens cannot participate equally in society, and their rights are compromised by the need to gain money. The fact that evictions occur at all is proof that one has no rights without money.
Is the United Kingdom a democracy? If democracy is defined as a political system where leaders are chosen on a weekly basis by the paying membership of the Conservative and Unionist party, then certainly. But if we define a democracy as a society where, independent of the political process itself, the public are engaged in social and financial policy, by being always made the priority of the state irrespective of financial wealth, then we must acknowledge that we do not yet live in a democracy.