In capitalist society, it is the interests of capital that predominate, regardless of proclamations about the sovereignty of the people or of parliament.
The electoral franchise and other democratic rights are subverted by huge inequalities in wealth and power between different classes and sections of the population. Politicians and political parties are bought or intimidated, issues and debate are distorted by the mass media, the electoral system is often rigged against small, new or left-wing parties, and elected parliaments can be marginalised or dissolved.
The European Union (EU) represents a new model whereby monopoly capital can circumvent democratic representation and accountability. The EU parliament is elected by constituencies so large as to break any meaningful organic link between electors and representatives. It has few powers that it would dare exercise. The fundamental capitalist economic and political character of the EU is set in constitutional concrete. Any real sovereignty is shared between unelected and unaccountable bodies – the Council of Ministers, the EU Commission and the European Central Bank.
The essence of popular sovereignty, on the other hand, is that the democratic will of the people should prevail over the vested interests of a powerful minority and their state apparatus. This revolutionary concept originates in the English Revolution, with the Levellers and the soldiers’ parliament, and in the French Revolution with its constituent assembly and constitution. It was also seen in the Paris Commune of 1871, in the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets (councils) of the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions, and in all mass movements against exploitation and oppression.
In Britain today, for example, the struggle to exert popular sovereignty can be seen in the mass movement against imperialist war, in progressive campaigns against EU power and in local broad-based campaigns to defend jobs and public services. But popular sovereignty will only prevail when state power is taken out of the hands of the capitalist class by the working class and its allies, whose interests represent those of the people and society as a whole.
This lays the basis for the active involvement of the people in all aspects of decision-making. Such mass participation is the surest guarantee that democratic rights will be enormously more extensive and more real in a socialist society, free from the distortions of monopoly capital’s wealth and power.