A World to Win Summer School Wales 2011 –
People’s assemblies and reconstructing the state

Presented by Paul Feldman

Democracy, the state and People’s Assemblies

  1. Democracy has to be looked at in its historic time and context.
  2. It has to be associated with the kind of society and state we live under, in Britain and globally.
  3. Then we have to examine where this has got to in terms of its evolution and development in relation to the state
  4. Then discuss why to defend and extend democracy we have to deconstruct the state
  5. The role of People’s Assemblies in this process.

Capitalism and the State

1. The role of the state

The state machine and bureaucracy is the centre of the social system of capitalism. Without this, capitalism cannot function.

It provides the essential ideological, political, social, legal, educational and coercive frameworks without which capital in terms of corporate power cannot. It is a division of labour.

Real power, control and influence lie beyond the reach of ordinary people. Authority instead is concentrated in the hands of permanent structures that rule over, rather than on behalf of, society.

These institutions include central and local government administration, the central bank, legal and penal systems, the police, armed forces, secret intelligence agencies, monarchy and a whole variety of quasi-state bodies and bureaucracies.

The role of state is to protect private rights to property, including land, using whatever force is necessary at any given time.
The state has control over formative education, setting out what is taught in schools to ensure that the social contract of capitalism – employer and wage earner – is binding and permanent and that the notion of democracy reinforces the status quo.  

2. Democratic shell

A limited democracy is the political form that capitalism has assumed. We can also call it representative democracy but more precisely capitalist or bourgeois democracy.

We shouldn’t accept the present democracy as the last word on the subject but see in its historical and social context.
Political representation developed out of the bitter and long struggle against the ruling classes for the vote and basic democratic rights.

In Britain, it led to the creation of the Labour Party and eventually to reforms like the health service achieved through Parliament. 

It is both democratic and undemocratic at the same time, allowing certain freedoms while denying access to real power itself. 

3. Corporate takeover

Engels explained that however democratic the modern representative state was, its function was to maintain the rule of one class over another.

And that remains the case today in the democracies like Britain, the United States and France.

Democracy under capitalism is a sham, a façade behind which real decisions are made and power exercised over ordinary people. Some have likened it to a piece of theatre.

Except that the real action takes place when the curtains are drawn.


However, the fusion of capital with politics, particularly in the last 30 years, has undermined even representative democracy.

This has created a profound change in the relationship between the state and the population. Why is this important. Because the state has used representation to tie people into the system.

So long as it was possible to get some changes through Parliament, to improve the standard of living, people in general supported the political system.

When it no longer does this, there is a crisis of legitimacy and authority.

The Real Democracy Now movement that has flowered in Spain, immediately and correctly identified the merging of the political system with corporate and financial power as the source of the problem.

In Greece, the power clearly did not lie with the country’s parliament but with EU and IMF who told deputies what they had to do. A loss of national sovereignty.

Globalisation has reduced the control of the national state over the economy and thus eroded the basis for achieving reforms through elections. It was this process that in Britain transformed Labour – founded on reforming capitalism – into an outright capitalist party.

Each government as the temporary custodian of thestate increasingly resembles the senior management team of a corporation, with the prime minister or president acting like a chief executive.

Their role is to smooth the way for transnational corporations and banks to operate as freely as possible and to create new markets and profit-making opportunities in areas such as education, health and pensions.

The financial meltdown exposed the real power relations in capitalist society for all to see. Bankers lined up for state bail-outs, but working people are having their hours and pay cut, or losing their jobs and their homes. Essential services for all are being slashed.

In Britain, a Coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats that no one actually voted for, and that is therefore without a democratic mandate, is imposing the harshest cuts in public spending ever seen. 

In many countries, alienation from a political system that is in the pockets of big business is marked by large-scale abstentions at elections and an increasing distrust of governments and/or their ability to deal with issues fairly.

The Guardian/ICM poll of five European Union countries in March 2011 confirms that the sharp decline in relations between the political class and vioters. The survey revealed:

The economic crisis has intensified discontent. A new survey out today shows that Britain is pessimistic, more divided and sceptical about the future than at any stage in history.

In total, 78 per cent of the 1,000 people surveyed were "angrier nowadays" than ever, with almost half believing their needs were "ignored by the Government"


Question: the state is a kind of brick structure, shielding capitalism. Do we: go round it, work within in it, work parallel to it, or work to knock it down?  

In my view moving forward will without doubt require the dismantling of the present state which in innumerable ways maintains and sustains the status quo. As the democracy movement in Spain said: the present political system is in many ways an obstacle to human progress.

Opportunities for resolving this apparent puzzle are emerging through the movement of society itself in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and now Spain and Greece.

We have to go beyond demands for participation and transparency. Important as they are, they sidestep the question of the nature of the state itself. Beyond resistance.

People’s Assemblies

That is why PAs are so important, crucial even. They pose the question of a rival, alternative political power and implicitly accept that the status quo is not an option.

Arguing for and building people’s assemblies is a way forward in Britain and internationally.

They can build on the growing resistance to the ConDem government on a range of issues and practice democracy by seeking to represent the widest range of social and political interests.

They will challenge sectarian behaviour and undemocratic practices and discourage closed committees and pre-planning fixed agendas.

Assemblies established on a permanent basis can discuss the nature of the present democracy and what could be better; the nature of power – who’s got it and how do ordinary people win it. They can encourage sovereign decisions and direct action.

They are both a means to bring people together across sectoral lines as well as the potential means by which we can democratically transform society and replace the present state with a network of assemblies. 

In its place, the people themselves would develop a transitional democratic state that takes forward the achievements of the last 200 years. It would go beyond representative democracy, which actually dilutes and filters the aspirations of the powerless majority until they are acceptable to the ruling classes.

Assemblies can go beyond resistance and struggle for a democratic society based on co-operation and self-determination instead of profit and corporate power. A network of People’s Assemblies will challenge the lie that there is no alternative to a capitalist system in deep crisis.

What Assemblies can do:

A people’s democracy

Democracy can be extended in new ways. For example, all workers should have the right to democracy at work. Co-ownership and self-management should replace the present capitalist hierarchies of worker/manager/owner.
We need to take forward what human society has achieved in terms of the rule of law while abolishing the existing class-biased framework of private property and the wage-labour contract. 

The old institutions of the state will be dismantled and new ones created after discussion at a People’s Convention.
This includes, for example, the police.

We will need new a new approach to offending and to prisons

And to state bureaucracy which is used to direct people’s lives. And to the armed forces

Charter of Rights

A new constitution drawn up by a people’s convention could enshrine a Charter of Rights based on citizenship for all and include: