Mariah Parker: Why democracy is not possible under capitalism

Stop Cop City activist, labor organizer, and rapper Mariah Parker uses the experiences of people’s movements to illustrate why capitalism is inherently undemocratic

September 13, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Mariah Parker performs a song in front of a crowd at the Dilemmas of Humanity: A Socialist Horizon conference in Atlanta on September 2 (Photo: Yuwei Pan/The People's Forum)

In Atlanta, residents are using the existing democratic systems under capitalism to fight the construction of a multi-million dollar training ground for militarized police repression, and finding those systems lacking. Meanwhile, in socialist Cuba, the people and the government collaborated on formulating the world’s most progressive family code.

Is it possible to have democracy under a capitalist system? Under a different economic system, such as socialism, what would democracy look like? Mariah Parker, Stop Cop City activist, labor organizer with the Union of Southern Service Workers, and rapper, spoke to over 300 attendees of the Dilemmas of Humanity: A Socialist Horizon conference in Atlanta on September 2, as part of a panel discussion on Socialism and Democracy.  They reflects on the real life examples of people’s movements that help answer these questions.

Democracy is popularly understood as a system of governance. But under capitalism the desires of the greedy are what truly govern. You cannot have a political system without an economic system. And so when we talk about democracy, we have to not only talk about redistributing political power but economic power as well. In the words of a fellow from Atlanta named Martin Luther King Jr.

So what desires currently govern under capitalism? We think about the elites that rule this country, but even in our own lives we can think about the way capitalism governs. Fear governs. Fear of becoming homeless, fear of being hungry, fear of our neighbors and community violence driven by those first two things. Trauma governs so many of the decisions that we make because of the fear that we live in everyday. Because of the violence that working class people have to see everyday.

And for the elite, solidarity governs. I was waiting for somebody to throw something at me. Because I’m talking about class solidarity among the rich. Class solidarity among the rich looks like at the beginning of the pandemic, when people were without jobs, when people couldn’t pay rent, when people didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, Congress transferring trillions of dollars to the richest people in this country. To make sure the economic fallout did not impact their bottom line.

And that looks like PPP loans in that very same pandemic going to wealthy business owners, but when it comes to student loan debt those loans cannot be forgiven. Those loans for education cannot be forgiven. Solidarity for their own class governs the decision making of the rich in this country. 

So that’s what we’ve got going on under capitalism. We’ve got this feedback loop by which a smaller and smaller group of wealthier and wealthier people are making decisions that govern ever more people around the globe. I’m talking about imperialism and colonialism as well. I’m talking about the decisions of the extremely wealthy, and a smaller and smaller group of them, impacting not only fast food workers in Durham, North Carolina, and incarcerated people who are making garments and masks and hand sanitizer during a pandemic for free, I’m talking about the banana workers in Mindanao in the Philippines, and the lithium miners in South America and metal workers in South Africa too. Their reach has extended from the millions of people to the billions of people.

So that’s capitalism. Let’s talk about a socialist form of governance. So socialism is a feedback loop that strengthens democracy. Socialism is a system under which solidarity among the working class governs our decision making. 

Cause let’s be real, when we win socialism, and we will, it’s not gonna be beautiful overnight. In fact, democracy itself is a very messy and tangled up thing. When you get into debates with comrades, when y’all are deep in the thick of it, trying to decide what the future can look like and how we get there, it gets messy, it gets ugly. 

But as we redistribute economic power to evermore people, evermore people can participate in democracy.

When you ain’t gotta worry about how you gone keep your lights on, you might be more likely to go to that neighborhood meeting to decide how you want to keep your community safe. When you have affordable and comprehensive public transportation, you’re gonna get to that meeting on time. And when workers have control over their own workplaces and set their own schedule, they know they getting off work at five o’clock on the dot to make it to that meeting on time. 

So as under socialism we gradually eradicate hunger, we gradually eradicate poverty, we also gradually increase the political power of the people because we enable people who have their material needs met to be fuller participants in democracy. 

So I started to already go ahead and answer the second question, which is, what would people’s government do to encourage more political participation. We have to improve people’s material conditions, but we also have to invite participation in other ways.

As y’all may have heard here in the city of Atlanta, we have been undertaking a referendum process to bring the question of whether we want militarized police, and whether we want 380 acres of forest torn down to build a military police compound brought before the people of Atlanta to decide upon.

And this is something that the elite in Atlanta have fought tooth and nail, at every possible turn. But under a people’s government, government would actually invite the public to take part in direct elections on the matters that matter at the ballot box, and not only go out to vote on them, but actively be participants in constructing those proposals themselves.

This spring I had the great honor of traveling to Cuba with the International Peoples’ Assembly and learn about the Family Code that they passed last year in Cuba, which is…widely accepted as the most progressive Family Code in the world. Affirming the rights of LGBTQ, affirming the rights of children, of the elderly, affirming the rights for people to create any kind of family of their choosing. 

And they not only passed this code by a record amount of votes, but at every level people in their communities were invited to participate in robust debate over the code before it was passed. In order to make amendments, to make changes, to take things out if they wanted, but to talk amongst themselves about what they truly wanted to see in this code.

Right now, what we got is housing developers sitting behind closed doors with politicians making plans for neighborhood development that then are brought before the people to say yes or no on. And the answer is usually no. 

Right now, we have rich and powerful people in boardrooms, bringing proposals to Congress to vote on for the people. 

Rather than the people being [active participants] in the creation of those processes themselves. And that is what we have seen in Cuba and what we will see in America under a socialist government.

So the last thing I wanna hit on is the aspects of our political system that need to be immediately transformed…

Something that we should immediately, I think, implement under a socialist government, of having more opportunities for people to choose the folks that are making decisions about their lives and therefore more opportunities for debate around, what do we wanna see with healthcare? What do we wanna see with labor? What do we wanna see in our communities?

But as I said at the top, you can’t have a political system and an economic system be separate. And so when we talk about what we wanna transform with our political system, we talk about what we wanna transform with our economic system as well. 

And so one of the things that we gotta do immediately is tell all these landlords that these buildings that we live in, that we rent every single month, belong to us now. They belong to us now. So that tenants can start to learn how to work together, to govern their own communities themselves. Nice try with your lease agreement, we gone decide amongst ourselves what the curfew is for the loud noise violations. And whatnot. Cause that too is democracy.

And on that same type of point, we gotta get rid of not only corporate control over work as we know it altogether, but I’m thinking, first and foremost, the franchise system that we see in a lot of service industry work and fast food corporations. Where somebody, just because they have a lot of money, they can make decisions over the lives of people who actually make a restaurant run. In order to implement a system by which workers themselves can sit down together and say, ok, we bringing this much money, how do we wanna divide this up amongst ourselves, what do we want our schedules to be like, what do we want our healthcare benefits to be like, what do we want the restaurant [closing time to be] today so we can make it to that neighborhood meeting. We have to change that part of our economic system, so that we can have democracy in the workplace, and in all these other ways as well.

This text is part of a series, Voices of Dilemmas, which seeks to bring the perspectives and key debates of the different organizations, intellectuals, and political leaders that are part of the Dilemmas of Humanity process.