Don't vote. It only encourages them
My local village pub is a little Labour enclave in a Tory stronghold. If our rural Westcountry constituency ever returned anything other than a Tory to Westminster it would be proof that the universe had changed. Not being a Tory, therefore, my vote is of negligible relevance for anything other than statistical purposes – that is if I use it. However, whenever I tell them in the pub that I don’t vote they round on me as if it mattered.
The arguments that get pitched at me are the predictable ones. Our ancestors fought for the vote therefore you have to use it. I’m not female, but women often extend this ancestor stuff to the Suffragettes. As I point out, the vote was granted in a bygone era long before Rupert Murdoch was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, before the idea of the Society of the Spectacle was coined, and before what Noreena Hertz in 2001 aptly called “the silent takeover” – commenting on global capitalism and the death of democracy. Today’s world is so different from that of 1918 (men’s suffrage) and 1928 (women’s) that a clumsy system of putting crosses on bits of paper seems breathtakingly childish. (One for you, one for me…duh…) Surely, especially in this computer age, there has to be a more sophisticated way of calculating public preferences other than via a playground style popularity poll. Paring down the complex possibilities of individual socio-political opinions to a single, reductive cross on a voting slip may give an illusion of participation. In reality it shrinks such complexity down to a banal pseudo-decision. Anyway, as seems almost too obvious to point out, persuading voters where to put crosses on pieces of paper is more a matter of marketing and image rather than of principle. After the press’s destruction of Michael Foot in the 1980s, not to mention their love affair with the smiling, tabloid-friendly Tony Blair of the 1990s, who could possibly doubt it?
My pub friends, when cornered, exclaim that although all this may be true they simply couldn’t bear five years of Cameron and Osborne – and I’ll grant them that the scrubbed clean Old Etonian millionaire and the Old Boy from St.Pauls and member of the Ascendency are a ghastly prospect. But if, like me, you recoiled in horror from Mandelson and Blair, all the way from the abolition of Clause 4 to Iraq, you would surely admit that there is at present no vaguely socialist or leftish alternative on offer. Blair, indeed, frequently tried to consign left-right politics to the past. So the choice is between blue and pinkish blue, both being committed to the management of capitalism and only differing on the details of how it should be done and which sector of society to kick most in the goolies in the way of taxes and cuts. Hardly an ideological debate.
And capitalism is the nub of the argument. Universal suffrage in the early 20th century carried with it the possibility of a different vision of society that could be voted for. That made voting meaningful. And indeed once the working class got the vote (males first, then females) actual Labour governments did follow in 1924 and 1929. They were hardly fully socialist, but there was sufficient scope for debate within and without the party to make participation in elections viable and meaningful. In 2010, however, anyone with leftish leanings tends to scout around for somewhere to belong, for a thin thread of rationale for voting at all. In a constituency where the Tory is bound to win you could vote Lib Dem tactically, but tactical or protest voting are acts of despair, hardly calculated to induce feelings of involvement. Or you could vote Green – at least they have a reputation for having a critique of capitalism. But my pub friends howl when anyone mentions the possibility of voting Green, and it is true, notwithstanding small acorns and so on, that they don’t currently have a hope of ousting the main parties. As to the main parties themselves, I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a case of choosing the best of a bad bunch, again a woeful basis for any kind of so-called participation.
In any case, I go along with Fidel Castro: “I find capitalism repugnant. It is filthy, it is gross, it is alienating because it causes war, hypocrisy and competition.” But more than that: it is terminally (and I choose that word carefully) irrational. In the final analysis it is this irrationality that we vote for and therefore implicitly encourage by our collusion.
I try to convince my pub friends that capitalism, in particular consumer capitalism, is the problem. It is based on buying and selling commodities, and all commodities have a functional equality – uranium, internet sex, automobiles, air fares, junk food, health food, Katie Price, Beethoven, money itself, or rubber ducks for the bathroom. They’re all just – commodities. From a business point of view if you can sell them they’re OK. There’s no distinction between necessary and unnecessary. Old industrial capitalism traded in practical things like textiles, iron and steel, coal and chemicals. It is characteristic of consumer capitalism, however, that utterly unnecessary products assume increasing significance. Either way, investment for profit is the rule. This is the system we are being asked to vote for. I guess you either like it or you don’t. I don’t.
Unemployment is undesirable for capitalism because people without a part-way decent income can’t afford to buy the necessary and (more significantly) the unnecessary commodities the system produces. When the current recession first hit I remember Labour politicians (including Brown) suggesting that an important aspect of recovery would be to maintain people’s confidence in the high street. It has always been the case that when people spend too little recession can follow. But spending our way out of economic problems simply perpetuates the irrational system which gave rise to such problems in the first place, like shoving a sticking plaster on a broken leg.
The existence of vast quantities of unnecessary commodities implies further irrationality. They have to be made and distributed by a work force which, ergo, is involved in unnecessary work. Let’s be clear about what kind of thing is unnecessary, A moratorium on the manufacture of automobiles for at least the next five years would not therefore mean that we would lack the cars we think we need. A ten year agreement not to produce any more clothes other than the basics would actually harm no one. The absence of new computers, updated i-phones, games and all kinds of software would not give rise to starvation or threaten survival. Consumer capitalism depends, however, on a luxury society. It is based on unnecessary jobs producing huge quantities of unnecessary products to be bought by people who don’t need them often with money they don’t really have – although they may borrow it. This is what makes the money go round in the inexorable money-go-round of non-need. It is also what produces periodic recessions and downturns. In some (perhaps many) cases this unnecessary process also seriously depletes natural resources. If, in attempting to pay for your consumer purchases – or merely struggling to make ends meet, you go a few pounds over your limit you get threatening letters from the same banks that continue to pay out obscene bonuses to directors who, on recent showing, couldn’t organise a piss-up in brewery. This is the system we are asked to vote for.
No mainstream party wishes to seriously alter the basics of this system. Nor do the extreme right-wing psychotics such as UKIP and the BNP. In truth, these latter barely understand it and instead they blame the mess that results from this complex behemoth of irrationality on other people who happen to be not like us. As if that made any difference.
When politicians of all parties, even the Greens, talk about “jobs” or “investment” there is always the implied assumption that these are a good thing, never a word about pointless, boring, alienating, unnecessary jobs or immoral, exploitative investments. There’s never a hint that business or corporate interests – or even jobs - might be an impediment to a saner society. Despite pious mouthings about climate change (because it is now staring down our throats) no government, apparently, is prepared to act fast enough to make the necessary differences. We mustn’t interfere with business, manufacture and pointless jobs, after all.
Does this come over as a leftish rant? My friends in the pub probably think so. There may even be a yawn factor here. Yes, yes, yes, they may say as they order their next pint, we know all this, but even if it’s true - how is this irrationality to be abolished? This is the system we have. And in any case, how might a saner society be established? The big guns, the corporate world, the IMF, the banks, the forces of capital and its fans would never allow it. The army would be sent in. The role of the police would be politicized as it was in the 1984 miners’ strike. Big firms would pull out. There’d be chaos.
Precisely. This is my point. There is no choice. The system we live under is in the hidden final analysis maintained by force. Actual force itself, however, is rarely called on because consent is continuously manufactured partly via political propaganda – as at election times – and partly via the deeply embedded structures and values of so much popular culture. How often, for example, do we now hear about citizenry? Rarely. Rather, we’re all consumers, customers and clients, and as such our role is to purchase things from loo-rolls to university degrees. The bread and circuses of today were pinpointed in 2001 by Hertz: “A world in which Rupert Murdoch has more power than Tony Blair, and corporations set the political agenda, is frightening and undemocratic”. Nothing essential has changed since she wrote these words other than to get more so. This is the system we are being asked to vote for: market orientated, with consumerism being confused with economics, business-led, profoundly unequal (and globally dangerously so), ecologically disastrous, and too deeply embedded in its own myths to understand how others see it.
In the UK since Thatcher no one from any political party has seen fit to dismantle the effects of 1980s neoliberalism despite the fact that it patently doesn’t work. Nothing trickles down, unjustified wars take place either for phoney, invented reasons or under the guise of countering terrorism. We’ve had the worst recession for many years; there are hidden (and some not-so-hidden) crises everywhere, and banks have gone belly up. Even so, anyone proposing renationalisation is stigmatized like the Ghost of Politics Past – although, of course, when a bank does go squit it can be part-nationalised on terms favourable to the incompetents who got it in the mess in the first place.
Free market philosophy, of course, implies a weakening of the state’s intervention in trade and capital and all its related areas – economically, socially, and politically. Neither Blair, now worth around £20 million, nor Brown, despite his supposed commitment to equality, has seriously challenged the morally bereft, ignoble, incompetent basis of this central plank of Thatcherism. Given this, there is either an obvious flaw in the electoral system or a lie which continues to be peddled. If the role of the state is to be more hands-off in order to let everything find its own level, then why bother to vote for it at all? If it is no longer the central regulating body then surely we should be voting for whatever is taking its place. But, of course, we don’t get to vote for directors, moguls, managers and bankers. On the other hand, a real free market has never really been tried – not with gloves off and all forms of governmental controls wiped out. The truth is that Thatcher’s government, Major’s, Blair’s and now Brown’s (and without a shred of doubt whoever wins on May 6th) have intervened and continue to intervene. The idea that any of them – even Thatcher – ever aimed for the minimum state is nonsense. The fiction of the free market is maintained by governmental controls and actions designed to perpetrate the myth of freedom from constraint. So the free market turns out to be a lie, after all. So why vote for lies? Or, in the case of the more traditional Gordon Brown, if the residue of 1980s neoliberalism militates against a fairer, more equal society why not take greater steps to get rid of it, as Blair had the perfect opportunity to do in 1997?
The answer is that those who actually run the country are non-elected. Apart from business interests and corporate interests - the only significant ones being global - we are also run by the law, the press and media, bankers, civil servants, high level accountants and others whose names we are unlikely to know. At least trade unions have elections, not that they have ever run anything. Their position has always been defensive, although the moment they flex their muscles, having been balloted mind you, they’re condemned as undemocratic – including by Gordon Brown.
Capitalism’s bottom line for the election is that it gets a government with a mandate to carry on all the above fictions. It may currently prefer Tories. At least with Tories the class-lines are uncomplicated, but it will work with anyone. But the entire system is a mess. It is corrupt from top to bottom – as, in a small and not particularly surprising or significant way, the expenses scandal showed. It mainly attracts egotists who seem increasingly shallow with each election that passes.
Marx’s view of capitalism’s continual revolutions in technology and their impacts on social, cultural and personal life seems particularly relevant once more: “All that is sacred is profaned, all that is solid melts into air, and man is at last forced to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” One of the key things we should now confront with our sober senses is the utter idiocy of our electoral system, the banal and duplicitous politics which is built into it, the lack of democracy that it represents, the peculiar mentalities it attracts into its positions of status and illusory power, its so-called representative democracy whereby we get these other (unreliable) people to do things for us, the gross power of the press and media, structural unfairness even within its own framework (a quarter of votes cast in the last General Election were for Lib Dems), and – by no means least – the fact that the system as it stands offers no fundamental choice other than capitalism itself which I, for one, refuse to vote for.
Amongst the core values listed by the Green Party is one that reads: “Electoral politics is not the only way to achieve change in society, and we will use a variety of methods to help effect change, providing those methods do not conflict with our other core principles.” This makes them the only party that at least admits that after Election Day the contents of the ballot boxes lose significance and “a variety of methods” (for the main parties this normally includes lobbying, who-you-know, money, closed meetings, power and influence) become the major means of change.
Back to the pub. Making behind-the-hand grimaces to indicate that I’m a fruitcake or maybe that I think too much (!!!), the drinkers now somewhat feebly throw a few last punches. (It’s interesting that I put this in the language of combat. All I wanted was a pint…But say you’re not voting and they come down on you like a ton of bricks.) By not voting, they say, I make it easier for parties like the BNP or UKIP to get in via protest votes. This strikes me as a desperate attempt to shame me, a kind of threat, but fortunately an unfounded one. Firstly, its news to me that whatever I decide to do or not do with my vote could make any impact whatsoever on the votes cast for minority parties of the right – or the left for that matter. My refusal to collude in the system will not stop their supporters voting in whatever way they see fit. Would that were the case.
Secondly, the extreme right wing has been with us a long time. It has an established role in British politics as a kind of scare factor. From the days of high-profile National Front activities in the 1970s to today’s BNP the left has traditionally mouthed dark comparisons with how Hitler came to power, invoked the memory of Cable Street, and how fascists have to be defeated in the streets, and so on. However, historically informed comparisons that can be made between 1920s and ‘30s Germany and post-Blatcherite Britain suggest how different things are now, rather than how similar. I do have fears for Britain, but they are darker and much worse that the fact that a few obvious thugs and ignoramuses from time to time gain a seat or two on local councils. When it comes to General Elections they usually do spectacularly badly. Despite all the ballyhoo about the National Front in 1979 it received 0.6% of the votes cast. In 2005 the BNP got 0.7%. Anyway, much of the publicity and public knowledge of the ultra-right derives from the ultra-left’s protests.
One night it was yelled across the bar: “He doesn‘t vote. He’s an anarchist!” and I suspect that this goes to the heart of the problem people have with a non-voter. I have certainly read anarchist thinkers from Godwin to Kropotkin to Chomsky (which is probably more than my boozy critics) and find much to admire in them. That doesn’t make me an anarchist any more than reading the Bible – and finding some notable ideas in it - makes me a Christian. However, it was an anarchist thinker, John Moore, who proposed that one of the central ordering myths of Western civilization is what he called the God-Satan-Humanity trio – control, counter-control and the controlled. Or in other words, good and evil slug it out through human beings – a familiar enough theology and cosmology. In religious terms good and evil are absolute. In politics, however, they are defined according to position. To a traditional Tory the Labour Party represents the shadow side. To a Labour-voter this dark accolade goes to Tories. The reason why the Lib Dems will always have an uphill struggle is that they appear, and promote themselves, as a kind of reasonable middle ground. When it comes to good and evil, however, this is simply weak and inadequate. The same is true of independents, and as for the minor parties they are only extensions of the good and evil big boys.
To vote for the evil party (whichever it may be) can be less confusing and less threatening than having strong political views and principles but refusing to vote. Voting (either way) leaves the traditional pattern intact. This is comforting. There is good and evil, us and them, Labour and Tory. Moore, however, suggests a fourth force which can (and always does) exist. Invoking Milton, it is characterised as eldest Night, Chaos, Anarchy and Chance. The traditional threefold universe thus becomes fourfold: God, Satan, Humanity, Anarchy – control, counter-control, the controlled and the uncontrollables. I happily put myself in the last category without necessarily regarding myself as an anarchist. This is irritating, confusing and obviously threatening.
Less philosophically, the final argument that is usually flung at me when it’s getting late in the pub is: well what would I put in its place then? There are two answers to this. One is that I don’t know. When something is fundamentally wrong – like slavery, or like apartheid was in South Africa – there can be no excuse for perpetuating it. New ideas and systems emerge during the destruction of old, outworn ones, and we have to commit ourselves to this process. My second answer, though, is less optimistic. Like someone who is trying to come off an addiction, it may need something near fatal to kick-start the action and discipline really needed. For capitalism and its culture this could happen in the not-to-distant future, say within fifty years, and it will involve economic catastrophe that will make our current recession look like child’s play. It could involve ecological disaster, and most certainly will be preceded by a Roman-style social narcissism, which is, self evidently, already entrenched.
To a degree this is all suggested by the parliamentary expenses scandal. I wasn’t actually going to mention such a cheap shot. It’s of far less importance than has been made out. Even so, the idea of reforming the behaviour and ethics of MPs is reminiscent of the spouse who, on being dumped, feebly intones “but I can change, honestly…I will…” This is the system we’re being invited to vote for.
Those who are eager to administer capitalism, from whatever party, are those who will be craving our votes on May 6th. Would I vote for them – any of them? I’d see them in hell first. From the point of view of genuinely re-thinking our official political structures the best thing that could happen would be an outbreak of apathy.