Democracy is a powerful idea. Everyone gets an equal say, no matter your background or your wealth. It took a lot of fighting for – the landed nobility did not roll over willingly. Many campaigners were hanged, transported or killed in battle. The events in Washington DC this week show we can’t take it for granted.

Insurrectionists in the Capitol last week waved Confederate flags. The Antebellum South was a democracy – in the sense that it held elections. Of course, women couldn’t vote. And slaves were chattels – property. If you were a woman slave, your children were the legal property of your owner the moment they were born.

Even Ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, had slavery. Unlike the race-based slavery of the Americas, an Athenian slave had more legal protection. Striking a slave was illegal, and could be prosecuted. Killing a slave was punished with the death penalty.

In practice, there was little difference between a poor citizen and fortunate slave. Athenian slaves could run businesses, and give a share of the profits to their owners. Compare that with the modern practice of shareholding.

In Athens there was very little slave trading, and slavery was not hereditary. Debt bondage was a common route into slavery. If you were in debt, you were enslaved to your creditor until you could repay him.

The view that working for wages is akin to slavery dates back to the ancient world.

Said the Roman statesman Cicero,

“the very wage workers receive is a pledge of their slavery”. In today’s Britain, we may have the freedom to choose not to work, but the freedom to starve is no freedom at all. And many who do work still use foodbanks. 72% of children in poverty are from working families.

Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass – whose freedom was bought by the people of Newcastle – concluded,

“experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other”.

Two and a half centuries on, and wage slavery is still with us.

No discussion of wage slavery can pass up a quotation from Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s best drinking bud.

“The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly. The individual slave, property of one master, is assured an existence, however miserable it may be, because of the master’s interest. The individual proletarian, property as it were of the entire bourgeois class which buys his labour only when someone has need of it, has no secure existence.”

There’s the root of the problem. The drive, for the past forty years at least, for a “flexible labour market”, that no government of any party has challenged. I’ve never known any campaigner or trade unionist argue against increasing productivity or profitability. What they argue against is being forced into a marginal existence. Zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment are rife.

The North of Tyne, like many progressive organisations, has a Modern Slavery policy. You have to ask: what is wrong with our world that we even need such a policy?

Slavery today, as in Ancient Athens, is based on debt. Interest is a way of transferring wealth from poor people to rich people.

That’s why I stand in solidarity with the owners of small businesses, who are working their socks off, often to repay interest. They have to take life-changing risks, like putting their house up as collateral. Contrast that with our government who have allowed the three million #excludedUK – small business owners and self-employed – to fall through the gap during this pandemic. No wonder the Prime Minister is famous for saying, “f*ck business”. And it wasn’t “feck”.

The Labour Party has a massive opportunity here. The vast majority of businesses in the UK are precarious small businesses. Not just workers forced into self-employment, like in Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. But most small businesses are precarious, and many struggle to get paid on time by corporations.

Anyone who has to keep working to avoid penury is a worker. Even workers who are earning a good living have very little choice but to continue. To quote Fight Club, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need. We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t.”

As Noam Chomsky says,

“representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere.”

What does democracy mean to a care worker juggling two jobs on minimum wage who never gets to read her daughter a bed-time story? Or the owner of a small business who is about to go bust because a large corporate customer still hasn’t paid their invoice, 120 days after it was due. Or to parents who are financially secure, but worried about their son leaving university with £60,000 of debt just for getting educated? Not so long ago, education was seen as a public good.

Whole swathes of essential services and utilities are governed not by us, as citizens, but by the needs of distant shareholders, often based in tax havens. Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, said, “Abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.”

You got to vote for a government who’ve just decided that all those council keyworkers aren’t allowed a pay rise to match inflation. But you aren’t allowed a vote on whether the CEO of Ocado is worth his £58 million pay packet. The only way you get to vote on that, is to be rich and own enough shares.

The American philosopher of pragmatism, John Dewey, said that until “industrial feudalism” is replaced by “industrial democracy”, politics will be “the shadow cast on society by big business.”

Donald Trump’s climate change denying campaign was funded by fossil fuel companies. Jeremy Corbyn faced relentless assault from the British press, eighty percent of which is owned by a handful of billionaire tax-exiles who don’t live in Britain.

Economic democracy is a simple idea. It means the people who do the work, get paid for the work. And profits get reinvested, not extracted for financial bubbles like share buybacks.

That means more local business. A level playing field for small businesses. More cooperatives and worker owned businesses. And an active role for workers in the management of a company, through the role of trade unions. That means repealing Britain’s anti-democratic trade union laws. It means bringing our public services back into public ownership – democratic ownership, where workers and service users get to shape them. It means ending tax dodging.

But the first thing is to put economic democracy on the agenda. So little of this is ever addressed in public discourse. We argue about the personalities, and judge their media performances. Boris is good because he used three word slogans. Oh hang on, he’s now bad because he keeps U-turning. Meanwhile, the real power of money goes unquestioned.

Expect the guardians of the status quo to object to any debate that seriously threatens their source of power.

As the Brazilian priest Helda Camera said, “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor have no food, they called me a communist.”

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 11.1.21