A Misunderstanding about Democracy

By John Spritzler
March, 2012


There is a widespread misunderstanding about what democracy is. According to this misunderstanding, democracy is a way for all of the citizens of a nation, rich and poor alike, to peaceably reach agreements about important and controversial social questions, with every citizen having equal status in the process, and without resorting to violence. The idea is that everybody accepts a principle such as majority-rule or some kind of consensus rule, and people (possibly with elected representatives), in an effort to achieve a majority or consensus, “horse trade” with each other to reach agreements that get legislated as laws.


What Democracy is Not

What this notion of democracy misunderstands is that in a society riven by class conflict over fundamental values, controversial social questions are not, and indeed cannot be, resolved peaceably. Questions such as whether there should be economic and political equality or class inequality with a small privileged minority owning most of the wealth and exercising most of the power are always decided by force. The side that brings to bear the greatest force, including violence or the credible threat of violence, will prevail against the other. Even if there is a nominally democratic government with elected representatives and a majority-rule or similar principle, it is still the case that fundamental conflicts are settled by violent force or the credible threat of it.

Force and Violence When there is Fundamental Conflict

Today the class conflict over whether there should or should not be economic class inequality and its resulting political class inequality is, in reality, settled by force. It could not ever be otherwise, because neither side in this conflict would ever agree to let the issue be decided by a majority vote or a consensus. The billionaire class would certainly not agree to give up their wealth and power and become equal to everybody else just because some people voted for them to do so. They would no more do this than the slave owners of the American South would have agreed to free their slaves just because a majority vote somewhere said they should. Why in the world would they do so?

Force (a civil war and the ‘illegal’ flight of slaves from the plantations to the Union Army), not democratic procedures, resolved the question of slavery in the United States, despite the fact that all of the trappings of democracy existed at the time. Similarly, ordinary Americans used force against the upper class, in the form of militant labor strikes and boycotts and sit-ins, to win things like the eight-hour day and the abolition of Jim Crow laws, and they were not deterred by the fact that they had to break “democratically” enacted laws to apply this force.

In the United States today class inequality prevails, not because a majority or a consensus approved of it, but because the upper class of billionaires forces people to accept it. The force consists of a chain of coercion. At one end is the routine and very visible economic coercion that every employee experiences every day, knowing that failure to obey the boss’s commands will result in being fired. Being unemployed after one’s unemployment compensation (if any) runs out is disastrous; no income means no food or shelter or health care—a kind of death. The violence inherent in this everyday economic coercion—the violence at the other end of the chain of coercion—is only apparent when one considers what would happen to a person who refuses to be fired. What if a fired person continues to show up for work? She would be arrested for trespassing and hauled away forcibly by police. If she resisted she would risk being shot. If a large number of workers behaved this way then the National Guard or, if necessary, the Army would be called in to use whatever violence was needed to suppress the disobedience.

The police, National Guard and military virtually never receive orders to support disobedient workers; they only receive orders to suppress them. Why is this? It is because the American upper class of billionaires uses their money to control the electoral process and the government. They use the trappings of democracy to make the reality of their upper class dictatorship less visible and to persuade people that when the government enforces class inequality it is legitimate force because it is ‘of, by and for the people.’

Most people in the United State oppose class inequality. If we had a democracy in the United States that actually resolved fundamental conflicts peaceably by majority-rule or consensus, then the government would not enforce class inequality and the billionaire class would lose its wealth, power and privilege. The fact that this has clearly not happened proves that we do not have such a democracy. The fact that billionaires—or slave-owners or any class of people who aim to exploit, dominate and oppress others—will use force and violence to do so means that there cannot exist a democracy that resolves such fundamental conflicts peaceably. Whenever the claim is made that such a democracy exists, it is false.


What Democracy Is

But if fundamental conflicts are never resolved peaceably by democracy, then what is democracy all about? The answer to this question is that democracy, meaning a way for people to settle differences peaceably with every citizen having equal status in the process, can only apply to people among whom there is no fundamental conflict. Non-fundamental conflicts, in contrast to fundamental ones, can indeed be resolved peaceably by compromises worked out with some kind of majority-rule or consensus rule system.

Democracy, therefore, makes sense when applied to the vast majority of Americans who agree on the fundamental values of equality and mutual aid. Democracy should be thought of as the way people with these shared fundamental values make decisions with every citizen having an equal status in the process. It is the way they reach compromises when there are differing views. It is the way they decide how to shape society by their shared values. And it is the way they decide how to apply force, when necessary, against those who oppose their shared fundamental values.

In a true democracy, the people in it understand that it is based on certain shared fundamental values. They understand that their democracy is of, by and for the people who share those fundamental values; it is not of, by or for the people who oppose those values. To think that their democracy is of, by and for absolutely everybody would be a big misunderstanding.

A democratic revolution has the goal of creating a true democracy of, by and for the great majority of people who want to abolish class inequality and shape society by the values of equality and mutual aid. Equality means people have equal status both economically and politically: equal status with respect to enjoying the wealth of society and equal status with respect to making social and economic decisions that affect them; mutual aid means that people help each other as friends rather than compete against each another as enemies. Those who disagree with these fundamental values, who think society should have a privileged wealthy minority on top of everybody else, or that people should be pitted against each other to make them more controllable, are not welcome members of the democracy for which democratic revolution aims.