A Critique Of Noam Chomsky’s Concept Of Drmocracy

There is much truth in what Noam Chomsky says in this quote that I included below. But, I believe there is need for much clarification and qualification than is given in this brief statement.

We can’t accurately discuss matters relating to class societies without factoring in the realities of class and class relations. Societies that we’re talking about are not homogenous, harmonious or classless and any discussion of democracy ultimately will have to include those realities. It’s like trying to discuss the effects of sugar on the body without mentioning sugar itself.

But, even before we can accurately describe what “restricts democracy” and how and why, as well as, how to prevent its restriction, we must first have a clear understanding of what we’re talking about, in the first place. For example, if your understanding of sugar is only what you buy at the store or add to your coffee in coffee shops, that understanding may not suffice for purposes of comprehending the effects of sugar on your metabolism and how to limit its effects.

There are basically two understandings of democracy: the first is a rather superficial one and is restricted to appearance and form rather than the means and methods for exerting real political influence for achieving social and economic ends. This understanding puts the emphasis on legality as it’s written on paper and is not result oriented. The second is everything the first isn’t; that is, rather than being limited to a superficial legal proclamation which without real political clout can and regularly is taken away at will by the class in power, it’s guaranteed, not just on paper by proclamation, but through real political and social presence, participation and influence.

I agree with Chomsky that decision making must be done by a body that directly represents the people. But, the qualification I would add is that that body should also be of and by the working class who are the majority within a society and have different interests than the ruling capitalists, if it’s going to be real and not fake and superficial democracy. The president and the Congress are supposedly in “public arena” and elected, but what they provide is continued rule of capital and a fake, limited and conditional democracy for workers, a kind of democracy that’s designed to keep workers out of power and capitalists in control.

If all we’re talking about is a superficial democracy (a democracy that’s superficial for workers and real for capitalists), then Chomsky’s statement is enough and complete, as stated: Kings and military juntas take away from workers even the superficial and limited democracy. But, if we’re talking about real democracy, based on real political power of the class in question, with the majority politically aware and on the scene and exerting direct influence through their organizations, then that statement doesn’t tell the whole story.

In a class society, naturally, only one class of people can be in power and that’s the class which dictates (as in “dictatorship”) its interests and objectives on the other. This arises from the simple fact that the two classes have conflicting and irreconcilable interests. What’s good for one class is most often bad for the other and vice versa. Wars, to give just one example, are bad for most people, but profitable for a few. Same with environmental protection and many others. The one who holds the state power will invariably dictate its will and get its goals met, at the expense and exclusion of the other.

But, although, by substance, both classes, given the chance, will exert their dictatorship over the other, their methods are not the same. Capitalist societies where, by definition, the capitalist class holds the state power – meaning, owns and keeps in its control the state with all its organs and apparatus, including all the branches of the government, the military, the police, the media, the textbooks, and even the culture and mindset – counts on and exists due to lack of class consciousness among the working class which is facilitated by capitalists’ superior power, status, money and ownership of the media. Basically, to put it in simpler terms, their continued existence is predicated upon deception of the masses.

Part of this deception, in post 18th century revolutions in Europe, is a superficial, limited and conditional set of freedoms, such as for speech, assembly and organizing. But, first of all, these freedoms which, as a package, constitute “democracy” as is understood in capitalist societies, can be and regularly are taken away when they’re most needed, such as during social movements. Secondly, in the absence of real political power, the superficial democracy doesn’t translate to any real change. What does have the chance of producing real change is a social, political and economic transformation which requires a movement that can accomplish the transformation only by overthrowing the class in power, in other words, through a revolution.

But, the class in power is not going to sit idly by and watch its power and wealth thrown out the window. So, it uses all it has at its disposal to prevent it: its spy agencies, its Homeland Security, its military, its courts, its media, etc. – to prevent such power swap resulting in systemic change. That’s why you can always count on them taking back those freedoms and crushing any attempt at making real change. Dr. King supposedly had freedom of speech, yet he was spied on, eavesdropped, followed and marked for elimination by the FBI and was eventually assassinated. The civil lawsuit brought by his surviving family found “involvement by governmental agencies” in his assassination. Likewise, members of the Black Panthers were attacked and shot. Activists of all kinds have been similarly spied on and pursued and peaceful protests are regularly attacked and dispersed and activists put in jail.

Even narrow and limited changes are often not possible. Thousands of families have petitioned the EPA to stop the oil and gas companies from a practice called fracturing or “fracking”, for short, for extracting gas from underground reservoirs because its extraction ends up poisoning underground drinking water and adds methane to atmosphere which ends up polluting it even more than coal does, even though it burns cleaner than coal. Yet, the EPA has taken no action. The reason? $774 million in campaign contributions by these companies. Can those affected families match that? In California, voters voted to have GMO products be labeled just to let the consumers know and decide for themselves to buy those foods or not. Monsanto and other chemical companies prevented its passage by flooding the airways with blatant and outright lies which science foundations and research institutes confirmed were lies. But, no matter. They won.

The deception also works by offering two parties to people with some differences in approach. In the US, for example, the differences between the two parties are mainly in the realm of social and cultural issues, such as women’s, gays, minorities and immigrant rights, rather than about policies affecting corporations, workers and their rights, corporate interests and operations overseas, wars and foreign trade. While such social and rights issues are important, the real battle against corporations and for workers is often forgotten by many liberals who spend all their time on those cultural issues.

It’s slightly different in Europe and Canada, but not fundamentally. They don’t have the cultural issues we have here, but, it’s common practice there to sell one of two or three capitalist parties to people as “socialist” or even “communist”, strictly as a form of deception. There too, party differences are about how aggressive or moderate the capitalist class should be – and sometimes how anti-immigrant and racist they should be – not which class to represent. That’s why regardless of which party wins the capitalist elections, they remain strategically allied with the US and within the imperialist camp under the leadership of US Empire.

Of course, there’s no denying that the European and Canadian working class have achieved much more in political clout and hence benefits than their American counterparts, but, there too, power and ultimate decision making is still in the hands of the capitalists. And that’s not without its consequences, either. As we’ve seen recently, when there is recession, it hurts workers and when profits go down, they impose austerity on workers. Banks and other large corporations still make their billions and still get away with huge frauds. The society still goes through booms which enrich capitalists further and busts which lowers workers’ standard of living. Workers still have to deal with persistent unemployment in most of those countries. And, the governments still go on promoting the interests of their corporations at the expense of much of the population of the world which also explains their strategic alliance with the US. Incidentally, much of relatively higher standard of living among the working classes of developed countries is due to imperialist plunder of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

So, not only is the democracy in capitalist countries superficial, it’s basically a sham. Even the freedom of speech is conditional and subject to secret spying and monitoring. And the limited democracy is afforded only and insofar as there is total lack of class consciousness among the working class and hence total acquiescence to rule of capital. The superficial democracy is quickly taken away as soon as awareness rises and workers begin mobilizing and rising up. The fact is, in a society with conflicting classes and one class holding power, there can’t be “unrestricted” democracy. One class dictating its interests onto the other, which is inevitable, is nothing but dictatorship and that applies to capitalist societies where working class is ruled through deception, as well as to societies where workers have grabbed state power (such as in Cuba). In that latter case, both classes will be competing for state power. This competition can’t be like two capitalist parties competing for public’s votes in a cordial and even friendly match. The competition after a socialist revolution will be hostile and militant because it’s now about state power, not a friendly likability contest between two parties of multi-millionaires, both backed by the same military and spy agencies. The victorious working class party can’t rule like the capitalists who rule with deception. That’s because unlike the working class prior to revolution, capitalists are very much class conscious, organized, experienced and still powerful and ready to come back to power. And in underdeveloped and small countries (such as Cuba), also supported and bankrolled by imperialism.

When workers do come to power through a party that truly represents their interests, to ensure unhindered building of socialism (such as is being attempted in Venezuela), it will have to exclude capitalist parties from power and decision making, including their attempts at organizing and mobilizing for the sake of reversing the gains of the revolution. As was the case when capitalists were in power, it will again be the dictatorship of one class over the other, except this time the roles will be reversed. But, that and only that has the ability to provide workers with real democracy backed with state power, just as capitalists enjoy real democracy backed by their state power. And just as their current democracy is dictatorship for workers, workers’ democracy will be dictatorship for them.

Now, let’s look at Chomsky’s statement again: when decision making is transferred to individuals or organs or agencies that are not in “public arena” and not directly accountable to the constituents, “democracy” will be “restricted”. This is true. NSA, the Pentagon, the CIA, CNN, NBC, ABC, the police, the drug companies, the oil companies, etc. are not voted in or out, and are not in public arena or accountable to people, so democracy of the first kind, as I described above, is restricted. But again, Chomsky here is talking about the first type, the superficial one. Real democracy is restricted not just by transferring decision making to such shadowy agencies as the NSA or CIA, but also by the virtue of the fact that corporations are and remain in power, irregardless. Real democracy is restricted, or rather prevented, by the fact that the capitalist class holds the state power and gets its way regardless of which of its two capitalist parties wins the elections.

Those individuals and agencies not directly accountable to people will make their decisions based on their class ideology and class affiliation because that’s who they report to and get paid by and that’s who has screened them at the time of hiring and trains them afterwards and reviews and holds them accountable. In fact, we can go even further back: the class in power trains the entire society to think like them and with’ their ideology. That’s why working class youth will go and fight and kill and get killed in wars they have no interest or benefit in, and workers routinely vote for their class enemies who turn around and impose austerity on them.

My point of contention with Chomsky’s statement is that he puts “party dictatorship” which could mean a party that is strictly by and of and represents workers, a party which excludes capitalist parties from participation in setting policy and forbids them from regaining power, together with kings and priests and military juntas and private corporations and fails to include the class character in each case which can mean a whole different thing. Kings and military juntas represent the most direct, transparent and honest form of dictatorship of a group – a small minority of super wealthy and powerful – over the vast majority. A typical capitalist democracy, too, is a dictatorship in nature and character, but with a superficial democracy afforded insofar as there is no real challenge to their rule and can and does throw away its democratic veil when it senses danger. A working class party, on the other hand, which has been born out of working class struggle and is made up of workers or their advocates and tries to lead a revolution towards victory and upon victory fights to keep capitalists out of power in order to build socialism, can’t be casually included with kings and priests and military juntas and corporations. Such “party dictatorship” may in fact be the rejection of fake and superficial democracy offered by the capitalists and the materialization of real democracy for workers. Yes, such party dictatorship is dictatorship as far as capitalists are concerned, but, it’s real democracy for workers because it puts them as a class in decision making power and control, albeit at and due to the exclusion of the capitalists.

By including “party dictatorships” with kings and priests and military juntas, Chomsky is making the assumption that if a party, regardless of what class and whose interests it represents, competes for people’s votes with another party in a capitalist style elections where money and power determines the outcome, as is done in US and elsewhere, is fair and does not restrict democracy. On the other hand, and on the contrary, if there is a single party of revolutionaries that sets policy to move the revolution forward at the exclusion of capitalist parties (such as in Cuba), then by his logic, it must be undemocratic.

If the party, somehow, mysteriously and outside of “public arena” and without people’s participation, emerges on the scene and somehow grabs power, such as a group of military officers through a military coup, then yes, it is an affront to democracy – both real and superficial. But, what if that party is the one which led people’s movement through a tough and protracted revolution with participation of the people that culminated in the overthrow of the capitalist class, a party which is of and by the working people and fights for them? Should the victorious party go back to the old days of superficial democracy and invite those parties which represent the capitalist class to equally and freely compete for people’s votes for both executive power and the old fraudulent congress so the democracy is unrestricted? Or maybe the working class should share the power with them and give them parliament seats? And what would be the purpose of that? Where would our responsibility be, meeting the needs of the working class or being “fair” and democratic to modern day slave owners? Why not also invite those who say the Earth was created 5,000 years ago to geology conferences, or those who believe in creationism to come and lecture us on biology? Why would people make so much sacrifice to make the political and socioeconomic transformation and then play Russian Roulette with their revolution and risk giving it all away again, especially knowing that the other class still is potent and dangerous and looks for an opportunity to return to power, as it often does? Were those who believed in slavery left free to organize and agitate for slavery again after they were defeated? Were the British and their allies allowed to have a say in writing the US constitution or participate in governance or even in elections after the American Revolution? Did the French let the old regime participate in their elections after the French Revolution? So, why would a victorious workers’ party after workers’ revolution be any different?

We must strive and fight for a government that’s as transparent and accountable to people and represents their interests as much as possible. We must insist on open decision making on all levels and try to make the government as responsive to people’s needs as possible, and that includes under capitalism, as well as under socialism. But, we must also not be naive about the nature of democracy under capitalism and must understand the need for a true working class party made up of workers and their advocates who are committed to winning state power and lead the society towards defeating capitalism and building socialism.

I know much of this discussion may seem academic at this point, but, I believe, it’s never too early to understand such concepts and be armed with a clear and correct working class ideology and consciousness.Image

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