What is workers’ democracy?

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One of our readers recently asked, “You say socialism would be a system of workers’ democracy. How would that differ from how capitalism works today?” Our ‘Ask The Socialist’ column answers below.


Capitalist ‘democracy’ is not really democratic at all.

Opinion polls routinely show that politicians are completely out of step with most people’s views on important issues. On the question of climate change and renewable energy, 84% of Australians think “the government should focus on renewables, even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable”.

This has not stopped both major parties from supporting Adani and other destructive coal mines, with no serious plan to transition to renewable sources.

Equal marriage rights for same-sex couples were supported by 57% of the population as far back as 2007 in polling conducted by Galaxy Research. Despite this, all the major parties acted to block this basic right until public pressure after the plebiscite finally forced them to legislate it in 2017!

Individual politicians are no more accountable. Over 1.3 million people signed an online petition, more signatures than any online petition in Australian history, calling for the removal of fringe far-right Senator Fraser Anning following comments he made blaming Muslim immigrants for the Christchurch terrorist attack in which they were victims.

Under the current system, unless politicians are in breach of the Constitution, there are no mechanisms for even the most hated figures to be democratically removed.

Parliamentary elections clearly do not translate into ordinary people having any real say in government policy. The major parties, bought off with corporate money and intimately connected to the establishment, will say almost anything to be elected but always seek to put profits first when they are in power.

The vast majority of decisions affecting society are not made in parliament anyhow. They are taken on stock exchanges, in boardrooms and managerial offices. A tiny minority of ultra-wealthy capitalists, through their ownership of all the largest industries, finance houses and distribution networks, operates a de facto dictatorship of profit.

From the banks to the construction firms to the supermarkets, they decide what, where and how goods are produced and services are delivered, based solely on how much money can be made. Useless industries like advertising receive billions of dollars while many people’s basic needs are left unmet.

Utilisation of society’s resources is almost totally outside our control. Real power lies not with our vote but with the corporations that own and dominate the economy.

Socialists advocate for an entirely different system, based on a massive extension of democracy outside the walls of parliament and into people’s day-to-day lives.

This would start by taking the biggest companies into public ownership. These entities would be run as not-for-profit public enterprises subject to democratic control and management by the mass of people. This would enable us to plan production in the interests of working people rather than the super-rich.

Under a socialist democracy, committees in every workplace and neighbourhood would exist at a grassroots level. These local bodies would be tasked with electing delegates to broader industry-based, regional and national assemblies to coordinate planning across every sphere of economic activity. Decisions taken at higher levels would be subject to democratic oversight, control and feedback from the bottom up.

Accountability would be at the core of this arrangement. Special parliamentary privileges would be abolished. Full time representatives and officials would earn no more than an average skilled worker’s wage. Only bona fide expenses could be claimed. Positions would be re-elected annually, and every committee would have the right to recall any official that did not have their confidence.

A shortening of the working week would be required to give people time to engage with this system. Socialists call for a 35-hour week as a start, with no reduction in pay, and for work to be shared out to eliminate both unemployment and overwork.

These ideas are not utopian dreams, but have emerged out of real working class struggles throughout history. Democratic rights have never been guaranteed by capitalism – they have always been fought for from below.

Socialists say that this fight is not over. To achieve a genuinely democratic society we need an organised mass movement aimed at transforming the entire system and restructuring it on a socialist basis.


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