“It’s not that I’m not voting out of apathy; I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now and which has now reached fever pitch, where we have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system, so voting for it is tacit complicity with that system.”
Russell Brand, October 2013
On Saturday June 21, 2014, Messianic-looking British celebrity (and, although it’s not really that important, ex-husband to recording artist, Katy Perry) Russell Brand took part in the 50,000-strong ‘No More Austerity Protest’ – a march against the economic austerity measures implemented by the current UK coalition government. While there, he took the opportunity to talk to the crowds and espouse the necessity for a (peaceful) revolution.
This was far the first time that Brand – a sort of pop culture Gandhi for the early 21st Century – has waxed philosophical on the need for political change. In fact, seeing him talk at the protest on the weekend made me go search out one other specific instance of Brand-brand political proselytizing: the controversial TV appearance in which Brand discussed his stance on the democratic system and, in particular, the process, function and ultimate value of voting.
In October 2013, Brand was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on the long-running BBC current affairs broadcast, Newsnight. Brand, who had then recently been invited to guest-edit the UK-based political publication, the New Statesman, was asked pointedly by Paxman why a man who “can’t even be arsed to vote” should expect people to listen to his political point of view.
After gently reminding Paxman that no one was, in fact, obliged to listen to him, Brand – who shortly afterwards during the same interview admitted to having never voted in his life – defended his position with the words you can see printed at the beginning of this article.
His argument – which basically boils down to ‘why should I vote for any of these people when clearly not a single one of them actually represents my interests?’ – is an interesting one, and one that resonates more than ever in these times of (for the most part) waxy, identikit politicians who appear to mouth nothing but ambiguous rhetoric and empty platitudes.
I agree that it’s hard – and getting harder – to deny that the political class is an often seemingly privileged technocratic elite that pays little more than lip service to the needs of the common man whilst simultaneously doing all it can to satisfy the voracious appetites of the neoliberal ideologues that run the ‘free’ market at the expense of the common man. (That in itself in a whole new discussion for another day.)
For a time, I would also have agreed with Brand’s assessment of voting as fundamentally a democratic sham. In fact, I used to refer to the political election process as ‘The Shit Shovel’.
The Shit Shovel goes like this: a starving man in the wilderness miraculously comes across a hut. Inside the hut is another man. The starving man begs for some food and the hut-man disappears into the kitchen, returning after a moment with three covered dishes. The hut-man has a choice for the starving man. He lifts the cover off each plate to reveal those choices: cat shit, dog shit and horse shit. ‘But,’ protests the starving man, ‘they’re all shit!’ The hut-man nods his agreement. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘but you still have to choose one of them.’ Not subtle, I know, but, hey, I was young.
Now, while I would readily admit that the Shit Shovel system still seems to hold sway, I also find myself lately believing that actually, yes, the vote is important.
There are a number of reasons why you should vote. First off – and this is pretty damn important – the crazies always vote… and they vote for crazy shit. Since the system we live in is democratic – it makes no difference if your philosophical perspective of the matter is that the system is only nominally democratic; the fact of the matter is that technically and actually it is democratic – those numbers count. The political class doesn’t give a monkey’s backside if only 40% – or 20% or even 10% – of the electorate cast their vote; it still allows them to claim validation.
The result is that politicians only need to address the voting few, which allows both ‘sides’ to maintain the neoliberal status quo of a modern system in thrall to the market and use the democratic process as justification. After all, they would say, the (insert nationality here) people have spoken. Except, of course, the (insert nationality here) people didn’t speak; seven of them did. But seven is all it takes. And if those seven happen to be the crazies who believe that socialist or progressive principals are Satan’s ass-gasses, well then, enjoy another four or five years of ultra-conservative, warmongering, gay-bashing and abortion-banning maniacs telling you what to do. And you should enjoy it, because it will be your fault. Not voting is also a choice in a democracy. The response from those in authority would be, quite rightly, well, you had your chance… you made your statement… now sit back and enjoy the view as we dismantle anything, anything, that smacks of the public good.
Non-voters may indeed believe that they are making a statement about the non-representational nature of modern politics by staying at home, but the current authoritarian status quo benefits from this disaffected opt-out.
To use democracy to affect real social change, we seriously need to understand the concept of voting and elections being a numbers game, and that getting politicians to finally act of behalf of the electorate (rather than the world’s most powerful CEOs) comes down to voting intelligently.
We’re not talking about book-smarts here; we’re talking about knowing what you really want, what’s really going to be of benefit to you. Essentially, what you want to do when you vote is mess around with the numbers game the mainstream ‘right’ and the mainstream ‘left’ (which, nowadays, should really be seen as the mainstream ‘not as right as the other right but still pretty right when all’s said and done’ if it is to be true to its present nature) have constructed between themselves.
Voter apathy is a product of a political game that ensures that free market ideology always wins. It makes no difference if it’s the Blues or the Reds that are sitting in the White House, it is always the market that remains in power. The only difference, depending on which color gets the most X’s, will be the degree to which the poor get shafted.
Yet, even though there’s all of that – that a vote for either side means just another vote for the market – those votes we cast are important to the people wearing those blue ties and those red ties. They still want their power; they still want the status and ‘respect’ that goes with office – not to mention the lucrative corporate contracts that inevitably follow – and they’ll do whatever they can to get it. Staying away from elections just means that, ultimately, those political candidates don’t have to do very much at all. As it stands, they can be sure of success as long as they pander to the lowest common denominator, to the gun-wavers and creationists.
The biggest irony in of all this is that it is principally those who claim to be most against government interference that actually vote.
Spoiling the numbers game requires a push away from the traditional bipartisan system that most of us are familiar with. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t hold the Tea Party up as anything but an example of what happens when you allow vicious, willful blindness to rule the day. However, forgetting for the moment that the Tea Party is a Koch-oligarchy-funded project masquerading as a grassroots movement, it has been breathtakingly efficient in pulling apart the old Republican Party – which used to have some socially minded principals at least – and making it nigh-on impossible for almost any prospective Republican newcomer to make it unless they can convincingly stand for ultra-conservative neo-Christian values and anti-empiricism.
Love them or hate them – and you shouldn’t really love them – the Tea Party well and truly messed up the numbers game (albeit for those who had, supposedly, been on their own side, up until the Koch brothers decided differently) and a lot of old school Republicans were washed away by the relentless tide of senseless vitriol. Again, think what you like about the TP, but suddenly, a certain kind of politician had to give the TP what it wanted or they could forget their careers.
That is the thing that needs to be repeated everywhere. Potential candidates must be forced to actually represent. For this to happen, the fringe parties need to make more noise… and people need to start casting their votes for those fringe candidates instead. Your candidate might not win – in fact they probably won’t win – but voting for them will most definitely throw a spanner into the works of the numbers game the bipartisan system has enjoyed until now. It is not a protest to stay at home (could you imagine an anti-war protest march where everybody stayed at home?) and not vote; the real protest is voting for someone else.
You can help things along by standing yourselves as Independents or even setting up your own specific-interests parties that focus solely on one or two issues. I’ve long advocated an 18-21 Party, for people of those ages who are, year after year, systematically screwed and demonized by the establishment. The Old Guard has the gall to make grand statements about the young being the future, that an investment in the young is an investment in the future, while at the same time ensuring that higher education is a pathway to debt, bankruptcy and penury. I suppose, technically, that still makes the young an investment, just not in any way that’s actually good for the young.
Of course, the establishment feels free to slap the young around because the young are famously apathetic when it comes to voting. But imagine if they weren’t. Imagine if the young turned out in droves to vote. There are a lot of young people. Maybe enough to shift the balance of an election result… certainly enough to mess up the numbers game should they so choose. If such a movement arose and took off, you can bet that very soon mainstream politicians would be falling over themselves to vilify the USD 60,000-a-year tuition fees people like Belle Knox have had to pay to their universities for the privilege of an education that should be a natural right.
An 18-21 Party would scare the living crap out of the current crop of Democrats and Republicans – or any other global variation of left and right. It would make the young matter. But it needn’t just be the millennial generation that mobilizes. Laborers, workers of all kinds, could mobilize too. Neoliberalism may have destroyed the unions in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean that a workers’ movement couldn’t be fully politicized. There might be laws that ban workers from striking, or penalize them if they do, but there’s no law to say a group cannot form a legitimate political party in the land of the free and run for government on a mandate of basic rights and protections for everyday laborers all around the country. In fact, such a party might do to the Democrats what the Tea Party did to the GOP. You could be damn sure it would put the fair and humane treatment of employees very much back on the political table again.
So okay, maybe the chances of such a party – be that a National Workers’ Party or an 18-21 Party, or even a Bring Back Sci-fi Cult Classic Firefly Party – taking power are slim to non-existent, but I’d bet it would sufficiently mess up the establishment’s numbers game to the point where mainstream political parties were suddenly forced to acknowledge the interests of the electorate as a whole rather than the tiny niches that used to ensure their constant paycheck. Politicians would find themselves in a system where the word ‘representative’ actually meant something, where they were finally obliged to serve the people that really gave them their power and not the corporate backers who simply paid for their ads.
Yes, such a change is difficult, but we’ve all got elections coming up in the next few years… What happens in those elections is up to us. It’s always been up to us. In the end, this has always been the beauty of democracy. The system isn’t dead; we’ve just forgotten how to use it. We’ve been hoodwinked by the folk who benefit from a disenfranchised public’s limited use of democracy. The value of democracy has been buried away from us like so much precious booty… but knowing how to use your vote is like knowing how to read the indications on a treasure map. The chest of gold that is true sociopolitical representation remains within our reach; we just need to recall how to dig for it. Remember, in voting as in treasure-hunting, X marks the spot.