Our democracy is broken

Editorial from the Summer 2017 edition of The Socialist 

Growing wealth inequality has become the defining issue of 21st Century capitalism. Eight people now own and control the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. The neoliberal consensus that has determined government policy over the last four decades is unravelling. All over the world voters are rebelling against governments who have overseen the destruction of people’s living standards. In some place, such as Greece and Spain, people have abandoned establishment parties for new left formations. But overwhelming it has been the populist right wing – especially in places like the US, the UK, Europe – that has channelled people’s anger into electoral success.

The growth in popularity of right wing nationalism, stricter immigration controls and economic protectionism has been accompanied by a crackdown on democratic rights and a rise in racism and bigotry. Across the board people have lost faith in the political establishment to solve the crises confronting global capitalism. This has fostered a sense that liberal democracy has failed.

In Australia 40% of people now say they are “not satisfied with democracy”. The resurrection of One Nation, the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump has imbued people with an understanding that we cannot simply vote ourselves out of this mess. We are at an impasse as to what the current system can offer. People all across the world are seeking alternatives, for better or worse.

A government out of touch

The Turnbull government has found itself perpetually in crisis and the Labor opposition has not fared much better. There exists a growing divide between the policies of the major political parties and the expectations of voters. The recent parliamentary expenses scandal has reinforced the fact that politicians are simply pursuing their own interests and those of their wealthy benefactors. This political impasse can not be overcome by simply voting out governments as they inevitably disappoint. Representative democracy, in the context of capitalism, has always been tainted by the influence of corporate interests over the political process. Until we challenge the rule of corporates elites over our economy, the system will continue to be run in the interests of the rich to the detriment of ordinary people.

The priorities of the Turnbull government are not based on social need. Turnbull has committed to further tax cuts for the rich while one in three corporations pay no tax at all. The government has done nothing to address growing unemployment and underemployment yet is fixated on reducing the industrial power of workers through attacks on trade unions. There are plans to reduce penalty rates for Australia’s lowest paid workers as the gap between rich and poor grows. Massive funding cuts have been made to social services and those on welfare payments are being pushed further into poverty. The climate is changing faster than previously thought yet billions of dollars of taxpayers subsidies continue to prop up the fossil fuel industry. We are in the midst of a housing affordability crisis yet government policy continues to favour investors who artificially inflate property prices.  The deregulation of the education sector has seen private institutions reap enormous profits while the cost of education has become prohibitive to many. Public hospitals and healthcare providers are under strain yet the government wants to push forward with further privatisation. The government says it needs to reduce public spending yet continues to waste billions of dollars on refugee detention, private prisons and military equipment. Public sector workers are being sacked while unprecedented numbers of police patrol our streets. Aboriginal communities suffer third world conditions yet infrastructure is being cut off in remote communities. These policies are all designed to support business while working class people and the poor suffer.

Voter attitudes on key issues

None of the major political parties are proposing the policies that ordinary people want to see implemented. For voters, the most important issues (in order of priority) are ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system (43%), management of the economy (37%), employment (35%), ensuring a fair taxation system (29%), protecting the environment and addressing climate change (25%), addressing housing affordability (23%) and ensuring a quality education for all (21%). How, in a democracy, can governments be so out of touch with voter values?

An unprecedented 29% of voters are saying they will no longer give their first preference vote to Liberal, National or Labor. But the minor parties that have won seats in recent elections have done little to redirect government policy or truly represent the interests of ordinary people in parliament. None of these parties have an alternative to neoliberalism that can solve Australia’s economic and social problems.

Challenging the logic of capitalism

The crisis of political legitimacy facing the Australian ruling elite has been spawned by the downturn in global capitalism. When the global economic crisis of 2008 hit, the faith people had in the ability of capitalism to provide decent standards of living and social peace was shattered. For a long time Australia’s economic boom disguised the country’s growing disparity in wealth. As billions of dollars were being made from the mining boom, people hoped that some of this wealth would eventually trickle down to them. But as the rich became even richer through their exploitation of land and labour they used their economic influence to demand politicians further reduce their share of tax. On the rare occasion that politicians failed to oblige, like Kevin Rudd with his modest Mining Tax, they were swiftly disposed of.

Meanwhile, the impacts of decades of neoliberal policy – the destruction of the welfare state, privatisation of public infrastructure and deregulation of industry and trade – began to be felt by the working class and poor. The many thousands of workers who lost their jobs as manufacturing investment declined and public services were defunded had the rug of social security pulled out from under them. Young people struggled in a competitive job market and many older people saw their retirement funds diminished in the financial crisis.

Rather than heed off the further impoverishment of working class people, consecutive Australian governments have used the public purse to entice business to reinvest some of their immense wealth. But in an economic downturn tax breaks for business do not translate into higher wages for workers or lower unemployment. Tax breaks simply translate to higher dividends to be paid out to business investors which are then hoarded, often in offshore bank accounts.

As the rich recovered from the worst of the economic crisis, public revenue did not. Taxpayer funded bailouts of banks and businesses further drained government surplus and policies of austerity ensued. The harshest of the austerity policies pursued in Australia were driven by the Abbott government. The public backlash to Abbott’s austerity policies was widespread. Turnbull jumped at the opportunity of Abbott’s low voter approval ratings to take the leadership from him. But the Turnbull government has presided over the same policies Abbott introduced. The balancing act of meeting the demands of business and expectations of voters, as well as dealing with the minor parties represented in the Senate, has left the Turnbull government in a stalemate. Neither the Liberal/National Coalition or the Labor opposition have a solution to the problems facing Australian capitalism.

In their best attempt to divert attention away from the neoliberal policies that have devastated working class communities, both of the major parties now engage in anti-refugee hysteria and Islamophobia. This has fuelled the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, an effect that has deepened social divisions and intensified political instability. The unfortunate reality is that none of the political parties that dominate Australian politics have anything new to offer ordinary people.

The Greens, Australia’s only significant nominally left party, offers no challenge to the brutal realities of capitalism. Feel-good liberalism on social issues, while failing to address the class inequality that defines capitalism, is no alternative. Some Greens members recognise this and have embarked on a battle to drag their party to the left. But the Greens have never been an anti-capitalist party and the party’s leadership has no desire to move in that direction.

We need a new political approach

With 55% of Australians in favour of wealth redistribution, the question is: How do we achieve this? The tiny minority who wield wealth and power are not going to simply hand it over. Those who are hoarding masses of private wealth will only invest if they can be guaranteed profits. The last thing we need are more policies that protect business profits and further entrench the social and economic power of the rich.

Capitalism is a system that relies upon the wealthy investing their money to stimulate economic activity. The alternative to capitalism is democratic socialism. A socialist government would use society’s wealth, technology and skill the produce and build the products and infrastructure we all need. Government investment in housing, public transport, renewable energy, healthcare, education and childcare would quickly put an end to unemployment and improve the lives of millions of people. By retooling closed factories to produce socially necessary infrastructure, and expanding social services to meet community need, we would be putting public money to good use and people back to work. At the moment billions of dollars are wasted on public-private partnerships that see private companies reap profits while services diminish. Billions of dollars are also wasted on unnecessary expenditure such as refugee detention and private prisons. It costs $400,000 per year to keep a single person locked up in offshore detention, $239,000 per year in onshore detention and $100,000 per year in the prison system. By resettling those with proven refugee status and releasing non-violent offenders from prison, billions of dollars could be freed up to invest in jobs, homes and services for all. This would have the social impact of reducing crime and diminishing anti-refugee sentiment as all people would have their basic needs met. By bringing privatised public assets back into public ownership the cost of utilities, transport and other social necessities would be dramatically reduced. The research currently being done in public universities and state funded institutions would be used for public need, not patented out for private profit. This would immediately lower the cost of providing healthcare, education and training to all who need it.

A socialist planned economy must be democratic to ensure resources go where they are needed. Elected workplace committees would take over day-to-day management. Unlike capitalist democracy where we have no say over how the economy functions, under democratic socialism all aspects of the economy would come under democratic control. Planning on a national scale would see a zero-carbon economy implemented in record time and those who work in the fossil fuel industry would be retrained into non-polluting industries. The need to find scapegoats to justify social inequality would be gone and thus the driving force behind racism, sexism, bigotry, transphobia and homophobia would be eliminated. Instead of fighting over who deserves the crumbs that trickle down from the top, the enormous resources of society would go into finding new and improved ways of meeting all of our needs.

It is not humans who are too greedy for society to function, but capitalism that requires greed and creates disfunction. The social attitudes that already exists in Australia are far closer to the collective approach of democratic socialism than the individualist profiteering of capitalism.

When socialist solutions to the crisis of capitalism have been posed in a serious way, people have mobilised in their millions to support them. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have demonstrated that it’s not people who are afraid of socialism, but the political establishment and their corporate backers who will do anything to cut across movements demanding socialist policies. After all, socialism is simply a peoples’ democracy. The only people who have something to fear from it are those who don’t support the interests of the majority of people!

In Australia, socialist ideas have not yet entered the mainstream political debate. This is because no mainstream socialist party exists. With people wisening up to the chaos of capitalism many would enthusiastically get behind a new political party based on socialist ideas.

Building a new political party from the ground up is not a simple task. But trying to revive and reform a rotten system based on inequality and greed is far more difficult. If we want real democracy – an inclusive, collective socialist democracy – then we need to start fighting for it. If we don’t, the right wing populism of Hanson and Trump will continue to grow.

Exactly 100 years ago the famous socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote that “Capitalist society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” The early socialists failed to defeat capitalism and instil genuine democracy. If we learn from their mistakes, and revisit the successes they achieved, there is no reason why we can’t succeed this time.

Australian attitudes

Illustration by Lion Lee

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