This May Day there’s something in the air: an air of democracy which is running through the American primaries and the millions rallying behind the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders; to the Black Lives Matter two week occupation in front of police headquarters in Toronto, to the subsequent occupation of INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs) offices, beginning in Toronto and spreading across the country; to the Nuit Debout gatherings in city squares across France, which have recently been joined by strikes by French workers against the proposed changes to labour laws by French “socialist” president François Hollande.
It’s not the feeble democracy our leaders are always talking about, which doesn’t deserve the name. For them democracy is used as a way to shut up any criticism of their actions or to wage wars on other countries in order to bring them this democracy they are constantly touting. No, the democracy we are seeing in action is the opposite of this sham freedom our governments claim to bestow upon us. It is democracy from below. It’s the oppressed and exploited organizing themselves to challenge the racism, colonialism, inequality and injustice of a system where the 1% hold more wealth than the bottom 99%.
Feel the Bern
Even though Bernie Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in the New York primary the level of organizing by Sanders supporters was truly impressive. And it was not the kind of organizing that we often see where people are supposed to avoid talking politics but simply talk up their candidate in a totally apolitical way.
Sanders message, that what the US needs is a political revolution, is resonating with youth, with Blacks, with Latinos, with workers, with women—because he is challenging decades of the status quo under successive cynical Republican and Democratic politicians. He is saying things that many Americans know to be true through their own experience: that the banks and corporations were bailed out at the expense of ordinary Americans, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the richest capitalist country in the world not being able to afford universal healthcare for all its citizens, that young people shouldn’t graduate from university or college with life-long debt, for those who are even able to get there in the first place, that the US has the highest incarceration levels (particularly for Black men) in the world.
More than that, Sanders campaign has only been so successful because of the self-organization that it has encouraged among his supporters. He has raised more money in individual contributions (he has refused to take contributions from corporate America) than Hillary Clinton has managed to do with all her lucrative speaking engagements for companies such as Sachs-Goldmann behind closed doors. Bernie’s average campaign contribution is $27.00 and that money is hard won and hard-parted with by his working class and poor supporters.
But more than the money people are giving to support the Sanders campaign is the time, energy and hope they are investing in the possibility of a fundamental change in politics in the US. The rallies that his supporters organized in NYC were some of the largest in the history of American election campaigning. Of course they weren’t covered by CNN, Fox News, the establishment. This is another aspect where people are taking power into their own hands, by live-streaming his rallies on Facebook & other social media.
That is why it will be a criminal betrayal if Sanders tries to get his supporters to back Clinton in the event he loses the primary. A significant proportion of Sanders supporters have already said they will not vote for Clinton should she win the nomination. Everything Sanders has stood for is the exact opposite of the war-mongering, privilege-driven, corporate-backed Clinton campaign.
Likewise the Nuit Debout movement in France is another example of self-organization by the people themselves to take over public spaces and to challenge recent changes to French security laws. Beginning on March 31 thousands of people began meeting in the evenings at Place de la Republique, a central square in Paris. Nearby on the river Seine, a huge graffiti reads, “We would rather be on our feet at night than on our knees during the day.”
The gatherings can include book stalls, speeches, debates about feminism. The Nuit Debout protests are becoming a hub of bigger protests as workers and students are striking over the proposed changes to French labour law. They have also been a focus for the French government to try and divide and conquer using their preferred tool—Islamophobia—but so far they haven’t been successful.
When people organize together to challenge the way things are they can begin to build unity against the attempts by rulers and governments to sow division. In Toronto this was seen very clearly in both the Black Lives Matter occupation of police headquarters and the subsequent occupation of INAC offices. Black and indigenous activists supported each others’ actions, as well as drawing many others in Toronto to solidarity rallies.
In Egypt where the Arab Spring saw the ousting of Western-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 after 30 years of repression , the last few years have seen the return of military dictatorship under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But el-Sisi has no answers to the economic crisis and unemployment other than repression, torture and stamping out any moves by the people towards popular democracy.
However, protests in Egypt held in late April show that there is a growing confidence to take on the regime. These protests have been met with repression and arrests but they will not serve to stop people questioning and organizing.
Ultimately these movements for democracy and freedom can be a real challenge to so-called capitalist democracy, when they come together with a push for democracy in the heart of capitalism—the workplace. That is why the strikes by French workers and students should be supported whole-heartedly by the activists in Nuit Debout or the Verizon strikers in the US by those organizing around Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin describes the sham of democracy under capitalism this way: “Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich – that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the ‘petty’ – supposedly petty – details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for ‘paupers’!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc., – we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.”
May Day can be a powerful reminder of how much there is to gain in this democracy spring and how little capitalist democracy has to do with freedom for the vast majority.