Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Ruling Class Doesn’t Believe in Democracy

Under capitalism, democracy is permitted as long as it doesn't fundamentally threaten the ruling class and their power – once that line is crossed, the democratic facade crumbles rapidly.

In 2020, fear seems like an appropriate outlook. Political developments from India to Brazil, Hungary to the United States, have led many to anticipate the rise of a new authoritarian right that will eliminate democratic freedoms altogether.

It’s unlikely that these countries will repeat the experience of Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany: too much has changed for that to be a plausible model. Rather than ask whether “X is a fascist,” it’s more useful to look at these trends from a different angle. Will any government of the radical right set aside the formal limits of democracy and impose a fully-fledged authoritarian regime? If not, how repressive can such governments be while remaining within those limits?

These questions have gained much greater urgency over the past decade. In Europe, the post-fascist right has broken out of the cages that formerly constrained its advance. In Hungary and Poland, ultranationalists have taken power through the ballot box. Far-right parties have joined governments in Italy and Austria without attracting the same hostility from neighboring states as the short-lived Austrian coalition involving Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party two decades earlier.

When Marine Le Pen reached the second round of the French presidential election in 2017, she was following in the footsteps of her father, Jean-Marie; this time, however, it was no freak occurrence, but an outcome foreseen well in advance. It would only require a small political shift to put Italy’s Matteo Salvini at the head of a new government: his Lega Nord party led the opinion polls throughout 2019.

Meanwhile, parties of the mainstream right have embraced ideas once considered beyond the pale: it no longer seems meaningful to describe the British Conservatives or Spain’s Partido Popular as “centre-right.” The most striking example of this rightward lurch, of course, can be found across the Atlantic, where Donald Trump has supplied the populist right with a champion in the Oval Office.

None of these cases fit the traditional image of an authoritarian regime. The movements in question have all had to run the gauntlet of competitive elections. Even in Hungary, which has traveled furthest down the authoritarian path, opposition parties and media are still able to function, though they face restrictions that make a mockery of genuine pluralism. In other parts of the world, right-wing strongmen like India’s Narendra Modi and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have also used the framework of representative democracy to advance their agenda. It’s easy to imagine Modi or Bolsonaro as the figurehead of a one-party system — their contempt for democratic values is unconcealed — but no right-wing radical has crossed that Rubicon so far.

The Shell of Democracy

In his book Marxism and Politics, Ralph Miliband warned that there was

a permanent Marxist temptation to devalue the distinction between bourgeois-democratic regimes and authoritarian ones. From the view that the former are class regimes of a more or less repressive kind, which is entirely legitimate, it has always been fairly easy for Marxists to move to the inaccurate and dangerous view that what separates them from truly authoritarian regimes is of no great account, or not “qualitatively” significant.

Miliband’s point has lost none of its relevance. But there’s also a danger of overlooking qualitative shifts in the nature of capitalist rule, because it preserves the formal shell of liberal democracy while stripping out most of its content.

The incentive to preserve that shell is much greater than it was in the past. During Europe’s interwar decades, fascist leaders openly derided liberal democracy as a failed system that was destined for the historical scrap heap. Both sides in the Cold War paid lip service to democratic ideals, but the Eastern Bloc explicitly rejected the idea of a multiparty system, while the United States gave unapologetic support to countries like Zaire or Indonesia, where a single autocratic ruler held power for decades.

That kind of regime has fallen out of fashion. Even a theocratic state like Iran pays homage to representative government with an elected parliament and presidency, kept in check by clerical overseers. The Arab counterrevolution has spawned at least one despot in the mould of Augusto Pinochet or Suharto: Egypt’s military ruler, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But the preferred model in the US sphere of influence is one that combines formal democracy with tight constraints on the popular will. Recent experience in Latin America shows just how tight those constraints can become when the chips are down.

‘Illiberal’ Democracy

Fareed Zakaria popularised the concept of “illiberal democracy” in a 1997 essay for Foreign Affairs. He stressed the need for limits on majority rule — praising the US Senate as “the most unrepresentative upper house in the world, with the lone exception of the House of Lords” — and made a fetish of judicial autonomy: “The ‘Western model’ is best symbolised not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge.”

Unsurprisingly, Zakaria offered only the slightest hint that capitalism and democracy might come into conflict: “Fifty years ago, politicians in the developing world wanted extraordinary powers to implement then-fashionable economic doctrines, like nationalisation of industries. Today their successors want similar powers to privatise those very industries.” The definition of “illiberal democracy” he set out could easily be used to stigmatise popular, democratically elected leaders such as Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, whose programmes were considered unacceptable by Washington.

Two decades later, in the wake of the great financial crash and its political outcomes, Zakaria still hadn’t detected any major flaws in the capitalist system, though he conceded that its virtues might have some limits: “I sometimes think to myself, if the college curriculum was determined entirely by market forces, would that be a good thing? I suspect not.”

However, the term “illiberal democracy” itself could be repurposed and applied more justly to some of the leading US client states in Latin America. The illiberalism in this sense comes not from an excess of democracy or popular power, but from the very “checks and balances” celebrated by Zakaria — not least his beloved “impartial judges.” It was the Honduran Supreme Court that supplied the pretext for a military coup against Manuel Zelaya’s government in 2009. The Brazilian magistrate Sérgio Moro turned his “anti-corruption” crusade into a partisan struggle against the ruling Workers’ Party (PT), clearing the way for Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral triumph. Moro then took a position in Bolsonaro’s cabinet.

This is the new model for antidemocratic regime change. These pseudo-legal maneuvers were more presentable for the international media than an old-fashioned coup, but the outcome was the same: a progressive government prevented from fulfilling its mandate by unelected power centres, with state violence on hand to crush any resistance.

The recent ouster of Evo Morales was another variation on the theme: dubious allegations of electoral fraud that only needed to stick for long enough to justify intervention by the military, followed by a handing over of power to right-wing politicians under a “transitional” flag. The elections that eventually take place in Bolivia may be rigged, as they were in Honduras, or they may be honest in the most restrictive sense, like the presidential vote in Brazil. However, the right-wing oligarchy will do everything it can to stack the deck before a single ballot is cast.

Colombia, in particular, shows how much repression can take place behind a democratic facade. Unlike most of its neighbors, the country has very little experience of military rule, with the norm being regular alternations of power between civilian presidents. Yet this model has been combined with relentless terror against the Colombian left that far exceeds the body count in Chile under Pinochet or in Argentina under Jorge Rafael Videla. The state subcontracted the job of terrorising its opponents to paramilitary death squads, giving its sponsors in Washington a fig leaf of plausible deniability as they pumped in military aid on a grand scale.

Zero Tolerance

Since the end of the Cold War, Latin America has tested the limits of capitalist democracy like no one else. The so-called third wave of democratisation celebrated by writers like Samuel Huntington relied on an unspoken consensus about economic policy: capitalism was the only game in town, and all capitalist states were converging around the same neoliberal model (the “Washington Consensus”). It was easy for corporate oligarchies to tolerate a multiparty system when they knew a change of government didn’t pose a threat.

Left-wing governments in Latin America disturbed that complacency. While the PT governments in Brazil earned praise from the Anglophobe business press for their gradual approach to reform, the Brazilian ruling class still responded as if it had been threatened with Cuban-style expropriation, proving that insurrectionary challenges were no longer required to set off a virulent response.

But it’s not just Latin America. If left-wing movements in the core countries pose a serious challenge to the status quo, they can expect similar elite backlashes. Indeed, we have already seen politics take on a distinctly Latin American character in a number of European countries, although none has yet reached quite the same pitch.

In the period following Syriza’s electoral breakthrough in 2012, the Greek right adopted a discourse that denied its left-wing opponents any political legitimacy. This was in a context also marked by the emergence of a neo-Nazi party with its own paramilitary squads and sympathisers among the Greek police. The high-profile confrontation between the government of Alexis Tsipras and the leading EU states obscured the fact that Tsipras also faced implacable hostility on the home front from the conservative opposition and its allies in the state machine (notably the governor of the Greek central bank). If Syriza had not caved under pressure from the European troika in 2015, this “Latin Americanisation” of Greek politics would certainly have intensified, with explosive consequences.

Greece could perhaps be dismissed as an exception to the Western European norm, with its experience of civil war and military dictatorship putting it closer to many Latin American states than to Scandinavia. But the same could never be said of Britain, a nation long renowned for its stability and moderation, which has not been through a revolution or civil war since the seventeenth century. The rise of Corbynism provoked a shift in the discourse of right-wing politics that closely mirrored developments in Greece after 2012.

That polarising discourse reached a crescendo in the 2019 general election campaign, when the Conservative Party, its media allies, and much of the self-styled liberal centre joined together to present the movement led by Jeremy Corbyn as an illegitimate “anti-national” force whose presence in government would resemble a foreign occupation. Retired intelligence chiefs denounced the Labour leader as a threat to national security; newspapers promoted far-right hit lists designed to incite violence against prominent left-wingers.

The primary goal of this onslaught was to head off the danger of a Labour electoral victory. However, if Corbyn’s party had defied the odds and bested the Conservatives, the ground would already have been laid for an even greater push to delegitimise its programme of social reforms.

But it doesn’t stop with Corbyn. The Scottish National Party is on a collision course with Boris Johnson’s government over its pledge to hold a new independence referendum. The most repressive turn by any West European state in recent years came in response to a Catalan independence movement led by centre-right nationalists, not left-wing insurgents.

Carles Puigdemont and his allies had no interest in disrupting the cycles of capitalism, but they still faced the might of the Spanish state, with political show trials, a violent clampdown on protest, and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid. Under Johnson’s leadership, the British state is perfectly capable of following the Spanish example.

The rise of a left-wing movement with an unacceptably radical agenda is not the only factor that can drive mainstream conservatism to the hard right. Poland and Hungary show that you can have strident anti-communism without any communists to rail against (not to mention antisemitism without any significant Jewish population). However, the existence of a perceived threat is most likely to inspire a reactionary backlash, during which the established boundaries between centre, right, and far right become increasingly fluid.

If socialists in Europe and North America want to build parties that can take power through the ballot box with a genuinely transformative agenda, they should be prepared for capitalist democracy to take on a form much like Italy’s during the Cold War. The Italian political system worked on the explicit assumption that the communist opposition could never be allowed to form a government, no matter how many votes it won.

The repressive core of the state routinely used lethal violence against left-wing protesters and collaborated with far-right terrorist groups (the Black Brigades, who had a much bloodier track record than their red counterparts). This shadowy ultraconservative bloc also made preparations for a Chilean-style coup if the Italian left ever did come to power by conventional means.

When Silvio Berlusconi, a one-time supporter of the far-right P2 (Propaganda Due) network, hosted the G8 summit in 2001, his government transformed Genoa into a police state for the occasion, complete with its own detention camps where the Carabinieri tortured left-wing activists and forced them to sing fascist anthems.

Supporters of Donald Trump have recently hijacked the term “deep state” and drained it of its original meaning. It once described the overlapping networks between repressive state agencies, the far right, and organised crime in countries like Greece or Turkey that had been ruled by military dictatorships in living memory.

But similar patterns of collusion can be observed in Germany, where the domestic spy chief — a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union — had to resign because of his publicly expressed far-right sympathies, after multiple scandals indicating that violent neofascist groups had been given free rein by the country’s intelligence service. The reluctance of local US police forces to crack down on white supremacist networks is also well documented. And the British state has a long track record of collaboration with loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland responsible for hundreds of sectarian murders. The “deep state” is a living reality, even in countries with unbroken traditions of constitutional government stretching back for generations.

For all the obvious differences between then and now, there are two obvious lessons from the experience of interwar European fascism worth bearing in mind. As Robert Paxton showed in The Anatomy of Fascism, there was never any “fascist revolution” against the established order: in every case, fascist movements came to power with the acquiescence of traditional conservative elites. And, having done so, they found the existing state institutions — especially the army, police, and judiciary — more than willing to cooperate.

In today’s context, the real far-right menace is likely to involve convergence rather than conquest, as the line between mainstream conservatism and its ultranationalist rivals becomes more and more hazy. Responding to that threat is one of our most urgent priorities.