“Not voting isn’t revolution, it’s surrender.”
For once I’m writing seriously, with no satirical tag. This is due to the above sentence, which I was invited to ‘like’ as a Facebook ‘meme’. I didn’t. I appended a comment, asking how long my friend wished to devote to the debate.
The thing about the claim that to refuse to vote in an election here in The West (which, for the purposes of this article I’m going to assume means, mainly, the United Kingdom and the United States, as those are the countries to which most of my readers belong) is not an act of rebellion, but one of apathy and complacency towards the result, is considered a truism. It is taken for granted that our soldiers, sailors, and airmen gave their lives in World War 2 so that we would have the right to vote; that the Women’s Suffrage movement engaged in a civil struggle for it; that our boys are out there, somewhere in the Middle East to ‘defend democracy’. If you do not vote, it is said, you give up your right to complain about the government’s decisions. Given that apparent truism, given that cultural background, given that view of historical and present conflict – given indeed, the perceived culture of those, such as the Third Reich and Islamicist extremism, against whom the struggles were and are made – to argue differently would appear to be a lost cause.
So let me say that the courage of those people cited above is not in dispute, nor that our world would be unrecognisable without them. Leave them out of this present debate, however; they would have no place in it, save one of rhetoric, and this is not a matter of rhetoric.
Government by the people.
In order to view this question of voting or not voting as competing forms of political engagement (and granting indeed that many people who do not vote are indeed apathetic, so they would not even bother to join this debate), rather than as one of engagement and one of non-engagement, we need to look at what democracy means. Let us take the obvious definition as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ as a starting point. It is a definition that no one who believes in democracy can really fault. The problem comes with its interpretation, and with the fact that it has been appropriated to refer solely to a single form of governance, namely the system(s) in place in the West, whereby an electorate periodically chooses people to serve in a representative body. Forget that for now. Let’s define ‘democracy’ from scratch.
I submit that the operative phrase in the definition is ‘by the people’. Once that condition is lost, then democracy falls, and whatever the system in place is, it fails the definition. The prime condition of democracy is – think about this and let it sink in, it is an unfamiliar concept to most of us, nevertheless it is essential and true – that the seat of power must be continually unoccupied. That is essential to ensure an equality of voice. Once the seat of power is occupied, then that equality of voice is lost; the occupier instantly becomes the one who has a voice, at the cost of the voices of the others. You could say that in the systems we recognise, we are allowed our voice to this extent: that once every four or five years we are allowed to speak one single letter – ‘X’! From the moment of his or her occupation of the seat of power, the occupier is alienated from those who have no further voice. That is not to say there is no contact between them, no public meetings, no ‘constituency surgeries’ – indeed Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party actively canvasses members of the public for questions to put to the Prime Minister in Parliament. Neither is it to say that the situation is not consensual; we consent to it by voting. It is, however, to say that in assuming that seat of power the occupier says, “Leave it to me, I’ll do what’s best.” He or she then takes on the role of a technocrat-manager. What that occupier does, along with all the other elected occupiers, is no longer politics. It is governance. It is management. It is certainly no longer government ‘by the people’, because the people has no voice, the people have no voices, only the technocrat-managers have voices. It fails the definition, it is not democracy.
It is not even politics, strictly speaking. Politics is what we do, right here, right now, at this level, at our level; it is what you and I do in our daily lives, how we interact, how we decide, how we cooperate. If we abrogate our political autonomy, then we surrender to that situation of rule by the technocrat-manager. This is neither an extreme view nor a perverse interpretation, it is simply how things are.
But surely our representatives do what we tell them to do?
That is not the case. By definition they are ‘representatives’, they make decisions on our behalf, they are managers. If they did what we told them, then they would be mandated ‘delegates’. Our systems, whether on Capitol Hill or in Westminster, are not systems of delegation and mandating, but of representation – though it has for so long been the custom in the United Kingdom for a Prime Minister, triumphant at the polls, to claim to have ‘a mandate from the people’ that the very word is changing, nay has changed, definition. Rather as ‘democracy’ has.
There is a further way in which our governments do not ‘do what we tell them to do’, that is actually disturbing. It is fashionable to click our tongues at the extent to which our representatives, individually and collectively, are ‘in the pocket of’ or ‘in the pay of’ large corporations. That does not really express the true nature of the government/business tie-in. What we click our tongues at is the thought that, somehow, some of our technocrat-managers are taking backhanders, but the tie-in I am talking about goes much deeper than that, to the actual matter of policy-making. Indeed it goes much deeper than the threatened ‘flight of capital’ if policies are enacted that big business does not like, though that kind of strong-arming is undoubtedly a significant factor. It is something crucial and fundamental to the policies that our representatives have made, are making, and will make for the foreseeable future.
The Private Finance Initiative.
Ever heard of the ‘Private Finance Initiative’? In the United Kingdom, this is an enacted policy that has continued and flourishes under successive Conservative, New Labour, and Coalition governments. It amounts to an ideological drive to lessen the engagement of the State, the government, in matters of social concern – in American terms, it is what is usually trumpeted by the misleading dictum of anti- ‘Big Government’. Instead of the State acting as a provider of various social welfares, such as health, housing, education, the penal system, etc., it contracts these out to businesses. The model on which the provision is made becomes, and now is, a purely business one. As a result of this, a whole, new, commercial industry has grown up, the industry of advice and consultancy, whereby quondam accountancy firms, whose business was once auditing and giving financial advice to large businesses – mainly about how to avoid paying tax – now advise the government on possibilities and models for enabling and enacting this private provision of the public weal.
In short, they formulate government policy.
Not only that, but the contractual periods for the private provision of the public weal are long-term. What this means is that this large-commercial dictation of government policy will continue, and there is little if anything that a government of any political hue can now do to divert this moving train, let alone stop or reverse it. To mix a metaphor, it is now deeply woven into how things are done.
The above scenario may be unfamiliar to readers in the USA, but only because your country has never been in a situation where it has had to dismantle a public welfare and services system – rail transport, telephones, the postal service, energy (electricity and gas), water, forestry, health, education, etc. etc. all of which have either been privatised or are being privatised whether overtly, covertly, in whole, or piecemeal – as you have never had a ‘mixed economy’ as such. In your country, commercial interests are supreme, and have been for two centuries; in 1825 Thomas Jefferson wrote to William Branch Giles about a “[…] vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of ’76 now look to a single and splendid government of an Aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and monied corporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry […]” going on to warn of that the situation would be the end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution. The American Revolution was never carried through to its democratic end. American governance was sculpted by landed gentlemen, was taken out of the hands of ‘beggared yeomanry’ – the people – and was taken over by vested interest, remaining in its tightening grip ever since.
But what matters is that they deliver results.
Even if, after considering all this, you are still in favour of voting; even if you still favour the notion of ‘small government’, an idea which does have a certain attractiveness; even if your reaction to this is “But surely what matters is the delivery of results?”; even if you still see all this as consensual, and it is to an extent, you must nevertheless acknowledge that it deviates from that operative ‘government by the people’.
I submit that it deviates to a great extent, and that it is in fact a hegemony. It is a dictation of how we must live, by a small, privileged elite of professionals, to the agenda of corporate interest. To consent to it – in effect to vote – is to surrender to that hegemony.
If you truly believe that what matters is that it delivers its promised results, then consider further. We live in privileged societies, closer to the centres of concentrated wealth. We exist in a buffer zone between the very rich and the very poor. We have traded our political autonomy for that relative prosperity and security. We are where we are by accident of birth. Sure we have worked hard, and we have our houses and our cars which, we feel, are reward commensurate with our effort, but we still could have been born somewhere else, in abject poverty, in a situation where equal or even greater effort would get us barely enough to stay alive on, let alone a commensurate reward. Are we truly that selfish that we consent nevertheless to believe the convenient lie of the ‘End of History’, that all the poor countries have to do is do likewise, catch up, and everything will be okay, and continue to give away our political autonomy, election after election after election?
I keep using this term ‘political autonomy’. What I mean is freedom. It is our freedom we have sold.