Issue 254 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
A demonstrator lies critically ill in a Gothenburg hospital, shot by police while protesting against the EU summit. The Irish electorate votes no to the treaty of Nice in a referendum, and is told by EU leaders to go back and vote again until it gets the right result. Tony Blair's government wins a second term, but on the lowest turnout since universal franchise was introduced and with nearly a million fewer votes than Neil Kinnock gained when he lost the election in 1992.
Three separate events of recent weeks highlight the flaws in capitalist democracy. They are also connected in two important respects. They demonstrate the remoteness of our rulers from the people they are supposed to represent, and the contempt they have for the democratic process.
The Irish and British votes with their high levels of abstention have been widely interpreted as showing wider discontent and dissatisfaction with their respective governments. Blair's Labour won because the Tories were so unpopular. But the level of non-voting, much higher in Labour heartlands than anywhere else, can only be seen as a protest against government policies, most notably the continuation with the neoliberal agenda.
World leaders dismiss demonstrations against these policies as a 'travelling circus of anarchists' hell bent on violence. They want to deny how popular protests are. But the demonstrations in Gothenburg attracted between 25,000 and 40,000 people, the vast majority from Scandinavia.
The main reason why summits attract large demonstrations is because in every case large sections of the local population are prepared to take to the streets against their rulers. In Nice 100,000 trade unionists marched last December. At least that number is expected in Genoa this July, made up of Italian trade unionists plus large contingents of workers and campaigners from the rest of Europe and even further afield. In Quebec City last April tens of thousands of mainly Canadian workers marched alongside young anti-capitalist protesters.
Everywhere the response is the same. Conference centres, and even whole cities, are barricaded to protect a tiny handful of world leaders determined not to listen to voices of dissent. After Gothenburg, Blair is talking about restricting travel to known 'troublemakers'. Teargas, batons and now live ammunition are used against protesters. The message is clear: government knows best and any dissent has to be hidden.
The authoritarianism which accompanies the neoliberal agenda is terrifying. It manifests itself in state repression of a much greater level of violence than is found on demonstrations, but also in a contempt for democracy. When the people respond in kind, with contempt for government, they are berated. After Blair's election there were calls from Labour politicians for compulsory voting. Surely it can only be a matter of time before that is extended to a compulsory vote for Labour?
The gap between government and people is illustrated both by the scale of the anti-capitalist movements, which are growing in many parts of the world, and by the increased left wing and protest votes against Labour and socialist governments. In Britain we are seeing the crumbling of Labour's base, with real discontent in the unions and among the grassroots. We are also seeing the building of an alternative with the Socialist Alliance. That movement has to connect to the growing protests against global capitalism if it is to help create a new alternative democracy based on the wishes and needs of working people throughout the world.