The Decomposition of Democracy

Raúl Zibechi

There’s a consensus on the desirability of democracy and the rejection of dictatorship. But this consensus obscures opposing ideas about what we understand by democracy and where we place the emphasis: from those who prioritize the electoral system and suffrage, to those who understand democracy as a genuine egalitarian distribution of power (Immanuel Wallerstein).

The hegemonic (mainstream) media, the parties and the capitalists emphasize the periodic holding of elections to elect presidencies and parliaments, with freedom of the press, diversity of candidates and the possibility of rotation in these positions. They reduce democracy to the electoral act and the existence of certain civil rights, although the extension of these is usually left to the discretion of the governments in power.

The right to demonstrate, for example, is often severely restricted during economic and political crises, during health emergencies and whenever the executive branch imposes states of emergency. It has become customary for the police to set up cordons around demonstrations, whereas in the past they were set up at a distance to intervene only in case of incidents.

In this way, it intimidates demonstrators and seriously curtails the right to demonstrate. As Foucault pointed out, the police are the permanent coup d’état, so that the legal armed apparatus is used when the power and the powerful consider the time is ripe.

The right to strike is also often undermined by the imposition of a minimum service that neutralizes the effects of workers’ strikes, as is being debated these days in England, and before that in so many corners of the planet.

National Health Service strike in the UK in February of 2023. Photo: Democracy Watch

Something even worse happens with freedom of expression: the concentration of monopolistic media neutralizes a basic right, since access to communication is enormously unequal according to social class, skin color, age and regions or neighborhoods where each person resides. Media monopoly excludes anti-systemic political expressions and is one of the greatest obstacles to the functioning of a true democracy.

The exponential growth of inequality is revealing that democracy is a fantasy, because the concentration of wealth is occurring in full democratic operation, under governments of any sign and color, without the slightest interruption. The richest one percent had captured in the last decade about half of the new wealth; but since 2020 they seized twice as much as the remaining 99 percent of the world’s population, according to Oxfam (, with the blessing of democratic institutions.

Democracy is a factory of the rich, indeed of billionaires, because those who represented the workers have gone over to the side of the businessmen. US sociologist Heather Gautney argues in an interview with Truthout: The Democratic Party at a particular moment, before Bill Clinton, made a decision to cut ties with workers and build ties with corporations (

Gautney is the author of The New Power of the Elite, inspired by Wright Mills’ celebrated 1956 work The Power Elite, which offered a powerful critique of the concentration of political, economic and military power that influenced the movements of the 1960s.

After months of negotiations for paid sick leave, a Rail Workers Union strike was thwarted by a bill signed by President Joe Biden which made the strike illegal. Photo: Democracy Now

He argues that inequality is a class program that includes Democrats and Republicans, which in Latin America we should interpret as right-wingers and progressives, both bent on promoting the interests of the ruling classes and capitalism. Both currents promote large infrastructure works, mining and monocultures, which are the ways in which neoliberalism is manifest on this continent.

The sociologist adds that the manipulation of the population has grown dramatically: Today, a small number of people exercise more control over the media than any dictator in history. Without dismantling the power of the elites, and preventing the formation of new ones, there will never be structural change.

For the popular sectors, democracy has always been a means of defending their interests, never an end in itself. For Wallerstein, universal suffrage is aimed at integrating the dangerous classes, a point on which the historian Josep Fontana agrees in his book Capitalism and Democracy. He states that the cultural hegemony imposed by the bourgeoisie (in the 19th century) sought and succeeded in integrating the workers into its vision of society and history.

But democracy plays an additional role: it manages to hide the fact that capitalism needs the democratic game to colonize all the pores of society through consumerism. The electoral Left defends this camouflage, by transferring the conflicts of classes, sexes and skin colors to the institutional terrain, where they vanish in laws and regulations.

This article was published in La Jornada on February 10th, 2023.
English translation by Chiapas Support Committee Oakland and Schools for Chiapas.

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