Why the US and Britain are not democracies

Focus E15 Mums occupy homes on the Carpenters Housing Estate in 2014. Jonathan Brady PA Archive/PA Images

Surely the United States and Britain are democracies. After all, they have free and fair elections and representative governments; freedom of speech and association means that dissent and demonstrations are tolerated; all citizens are deemed equal before the law; and individual civil liberties are respected.

In fact these countries are electoral oligarchies. Political power is closely allied with wealth and immigrants are regularly scapegoated for the inequalities fostered by state policies. Donald Trump’s recent ban on travel for citizens from Muslim countries is but the next stage in the increasingly obsessive and racist policing of those deemed foreign to the polity.

A cursory examination of the word democracy demonstrates that we no longer live, if we ever did, in democracies. True democrats must reject the exclusions and the inequalities which have become the acceptable face of liberal democracy.

Democracy against democracies

Let’s begin with the ancient Greek word “democracy”. The term does not denote a political regime as many have come to understand it. Monarchies and oligarchies are political regimes. They concentrate sovereign power in the hands of the wealthy few. In a democracy, by contrast, the people (the demos) – without qualification – govern. Who counts as a member of this group is an open question. Representative democracies of today, however, bound democracy to citizenship, and neurotically exclude those deemed to have no qualification. As the novelist Tom McCarthy recently argued, for the Athenians of ancient Greece a citizen was first and foremost a citizen of the world. As such they constantly put into question any attempt to restrict the demos.

Recent debates about immigration into Europe tragically confirm the terrible consequences of bounding democracy to a “legitimate” public, for those classified as foreign. Democrats must enact equality in the name of a common humanity, against political regimes which lay claim to the name of democracy.

The power exercised by the demos – or “kratos” in ancient Greek – signified the capacity to act politically, the collective ability to do good. For the ancient Athenians, public office, and representation, were very limited ways of exercising this power.

Democratic power rests on the presupposition that everyone is equal. It tests all political regimes, notably those which assume that democracy is only about voting. In both Britain and the US the representative system allows political parties with a mandate from only one third of the voting public to rule. Moreover limiting democracy to citizens who vote ignores the consequences of how citizens in the UK and the US live for distant others. Those who produce its food, are affected by its wars, produce the energy and goods – all the products which oil the wheels of Western lives. Democracy implies that such limits can never be justified.

Radical ways of thinking

The implications of this argument are radical and go well beyond considerations of immigration policy, although this is a salient place to start. It means that we should never simply equate democracy with existing political regimes. Liberal democracies radically limit the powers of the people. Freedom of information is restricted in the name of state security; every aspect of life is calculated according to the measure of profit, as value becomes almost completely monetary; inequalities of wealth and of pay are extraordinarily high; and equality is daily sacrificed on the altar of individual freedom while millions live their lives in debt, getting by from day to day.

Solon of Athens. Wikipedia Commons

It was no mistake that in 594BC, Solon of Athens insisted that Athenian citizens could not participate fully in public life if indebted. In Britain and the US today too many are marginalised by apparently poor credit ratings, and by state policies which privilege monetary rather than democratic accountability.

All democratic regimes undermine the equality they espouse. In securing borders they exclude others who might be deemed members of “the people”. In protecting against possible challenge and in institutionalising the “best” forms of rule these regimes police the equality which they simultaneously proclaim. It is an equality which rings hollow. Long before the revolutions against the Soviet Union and its satellite regimes, citizens of these states knew that the proclamations of those in power were ruses without foundation.

In the democratic regimes of the “West” today, citizens also live in a world of Orwellian double speak. A topsy-turvy world that tells us that the economy is growing, the stock market is at historic highs, satisfaction ratings have sky rocketed – yet these measures are a semblance which politicians use to pat themselves on the back. Our democracies are oligarchies which protect wealth yet blame those with nothing for the inequalities generated by their own practices.

What then is democracy?

Democracy takes place when equality is enacted in the name of the people. Those committed to democracy should ask themselves the question posed by philosopher Jacques Rancière: “What happens when we act as if all are equal?” To start with, the gross inequalities in wealth preserved by democratic regimes would be challenged. We would recognise that all are capable of participating in rule. Borders separating us “from them” are fictions which preserve inequality. We would reject a society which purchases the future of the young by tying them up in debt, and would ensure that everyone has a decent home not subject to the change in fortunes of a market in property – another one of those measures used to demonstrate the “health” of the economy.

There are instances when political regimes do foster such democratic practices, but these are few and far between. More interesting are the many instances, often unseen, sometimes banned and condemned, when democracy is enacted by the men and women of no property. In Newham in east London in 2014 the Focus E15 mothers’ group occupied housing owned by the local council, on the all but empty Carpenters estate. They were responding to the closure of a nearby hostel for the homeless, to cuts in housing benefit, and to a lack of affordable housing in the city.

The occupiers opened the empty “real estate” to the public as a social centre organising daily events and debates – much to the chagrin of the local mayor and his council who had proposed relocating the mothers and their families to Birmingham in the West Midlands and Hastings in the south. The campaign briefly gained national coverage as the mothers shamed the council into providing social housing on the Carpenters estate.

These women exercised extraordinary power. They did not ask the council for housing. They took what they claimed everyone is entitled to: a home. They refused to accept the council’s claim that there was no affordable housing. Having occupied the homes they engaged the wider public in a debate about the social cleansing of London. Their actions did not stop with this occupation. In the two years since they have lent support to immigrant communities victimised by racists. Other groups fighting social cleansing have sprung up across the south-east. They have lent support to those excluded from the bubble economy that is London, including Deliveroo workers demanding the right to unionise.

Having enacted the equality which democracy promises, these activists now have in their sights the equality distorted by Britain’s political regime. The test of democracy is that whether or not a practice enacts equality without limit in the name of a people unbounded by any prior principle. On this test the US and Britain are not, and never have been, democracies.


Read more in our series, On Freedom.

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