There has some bluster lately on social media, and even at a house show I attended, about how we have a duty to vote. Supposedly by voting for suitable politicians we can save society and the planet from the ravages of capital. This rhetoric is that of being informed of rights and responsibilities that you are lucky to have. It’s about respecting freedoms gained by past struggles. In the Australian case, as no doubt elsewhere, some barely disguised nationalism is at work.
As ever, the promises of nationalism are false. Voting cannot and will not do what its passionate proponents think it can. Even turning up to a polling booth actually disguises a real lack of democracy. Casting a proper vote is full complicity in a lie.
Our loyal voters are no doubt ready to say that it is exactly because of missives like this one that voting does not do what it should. This is ridiculous simply because the authors of this missive do not control the flow of information in a deliberately dumbed-down society. The capitalists who do own the media can talk up candidates on the basis of their ability to serve the needs of capital at that time, and suitably vilify others. The manipulations involved have in the recent past have gone on to involve the mass murder of refugees. Just as in Israel the mass murder of Palestinians is often instigated around election time, in order to rally racist nationalistic sentiment. We must outright reject such murderous charades by refusing to be a part of the electoral spectacle.
True, the owners of our society are not omnipotent in their manipulations. In Britain, Brexit recently showed them the dangers of being overconfident. The capitalists running Britain will now require another referendum and an “information” campaign for the “right” result–or some other less obvious, but still potentially troublesome, machinations. The capitalist logic of staging a second referenda for the “right” result was rolled out by the Australian government in the First World War. After the defeat of the 1916 referendum on conscription the government and its supporters restaged it and were defeated a second time in 1917. The results were a definite sign of the radicalisation emerging amidst the working class during the war, and the movement from a banal and bloody nationalism of 1914 to a class increasingly angry and combative from suffering its masters’ political and economic machinations. The Australian ruling class learnt its lesson. Conscription was never again submitted to such a popular vote. Instead it was introduced democratically–through the parliament. Within twenty years the result of the referenda during the First World War was ignored, and conscription introduced for men over the age of 21. Australian conscripts would fight in the even bloodier Second World War, and then in Korea, and Malaya. A ballot version of conscription was still in place during the Vietnam War.
It is true as well that the owners of society can disagree over details, and over changes to these details, when it comes to the administration of capital’s infrastructure–aka the state. At the level of the commanding heights of political and economic control these are mere quibbles over how people are best exploited. At our level the consequences can be more terrifying and humiliating. This rightly suggests we as voters have no substantial control.
We should in this regard consider various manipulations such as gerrymandering, legalisms and sometimes more covert means. Overall, the owners of our society, and so too the owners of its chief communication channels, have a satisfactory if not foolproof control of the voting process.
We should not dignify the resulting three yearly charade with even a single vote.
Some of the bluster in favour of voting has taken issue with the proletarian commonplace that, keeping with the Australian example, the two main parties are in essence the same. Of course, the main Australian political parties are not the same in the sense that 2+2 is the same as 4. Nor in the sense that certain particles are so similar to each other that on some more speculative readings of physics these have been assigned numerical identity. The parties are the same in that all serve capital, even if in slightly different ways. That is what counts.
In the Australian context, one party has traditionally been entrusted with building the infrastructure of exploitation, the other with paring it back. One or the other is then more attractive to capitalists depending on particular variables–not just the capacities of individual politicians or coherence of the ruling party at a particular time, but perhaps even more importantly the disposition of class forces in society (consider, for instance, the defeat of John Howard’s Liberal government at the end of the mining boom in 2007). This is not a strict rule. If required, in terms of economic “health”, those who traditionally build or are supposed to build will pare back. This happened very clearly in the 1980s and 1990s with the reformist Australian Labor Party in government. Equally and conversely, in the 1950s and 1960s it was a conservative government that was required to undertake the task of building, especially around educating the workers of the future. What is strictly true is that massive interests largely determine how people vote. Even if people vote unpredictably, or the outcome is not ideal for every single capitalist, the outcomes are always about profit and exploitation. Voting disguises these determinants.
What promises are made, and which are kept, are determined by the abstract needs of capital rather than those of people and the environment. Whether or not the building aspect includes environmental reforms, it remains the case that the exploitation of people and broader nature must go on. Profit must come from somewhere. The different capacities of different individuals who make up elected or shadow parties does not change the overall functional identity of these parties. Hence, we find their policies, pronouncement and modus operandi, despite differing on points like the role of unions and organised labour, nonetheless share the ‘big picture’ view of economic expansion, and prosperity for some. This again correctly suggests voting is pointless, and the proletarian commonplace about the sameness of the parties should not be so condescendingly dismissed.
It is also impossible to understand how voting can confer any benefit when electoral promises are regularly broken. In Australia, this is over everything from transport and wages to the environment, and on every level of government. While anti-democratic, this breaking of promises does at least reveal the real nature of the political process. Here’s how. The promise is made, and a ghoulish representative of economic power who made it then takes office. Instead of implementing the promise, this ghoul then claims that political and economic conditions have changed. This leaves the poor voting sucker with the option of trying for another undead phantom who will do the same thing. In the meantime, at least, the real determinant of social life is revealed, namely the needs of capital.
If we examine the desire politicians have for power, and the belief that they should be rewarded for their good policies by keeping them in office, we must also consider the benefits of this afterlife. Under capitalism, money is the real social power that each individual carries in her hip pocket. Politicians like to pretend that they are making career sacrifices for the good of the nation, but this is nonsense. All politicians are interested in power, and so inevitably in money. Their wages and conditions are good–and, unlike the rest of us, determined largely by the politicians themselves.
Additionally, the more ambitious and influential politicians can be assured that even if they make an unpopular decision that leads to some public vilification, they will be later rewarded. Indeed, these unpopular decisions are invariably in favour of large companies. After leaving office, the ex-politician often walks into lucrative consultancies, bureaucratic sinecures, board positions, etc–often in that industry most tied to their former political life. Usually we don’t like to recognise the names of such ghouls since they are insubstantial in view of their interchangeability and redundancy–but two Australian examples will suffice. Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile both made unpopular decisions in favour of Big Energy and were richly rewarded after subsequently losing office. There is a robust sense in which politicians do not even care if you vote them out.
Keeping such folk honest from below will not work. Given what has just been said, even making investment portfolios public will have limited effect. The usual betrayals, scandals and disappointments are the most common results. Only a total fool who does not learn naively celebrates the grim duty of the polling booth, and a fresh round of punishment, ready to once again be disillusioned.
Surely though, voting means some promises are kept, and some dire exploitative measures are averted? To answer this question, readers should consider not the result of elections, but the pre-existing political management of class conflict–that is the level of exploitation generally acceptable in a society. This is changed and contested by direct action. If we consider for instance the short-lived Australian Labor Party government of 1972-1975, what we find is not the granting of reforms so much as the formalisation of gains already made elsewhere. One instance was the growing combativity of organised labour. Consider the general strike of 1969 over Clarrie O’Shea’s imprisonment. There was also the development of the anti-Vietnam war campaign, which was related to increasing student radicalism, and grass roots radicalism in pubs as represented in Sydney by the ongoing radicalisation of The Push.
The process formalising critical practices through parliament–and even business–is also a process of dilution–what the Situationists called the “recuperation” of radical critique. How else can one understand that it was this self-same reforming Labor government that in 1975 introduced “economic rationalist” legislation and budgeting under the charge of a vigorously and extremely conservative future Governor General? Similarly, the later Mabo legislation of the 1990s signified the watering down of initial proposals. Of course: how could we forget? Political and economic conditions had forced the hand of the erstwhile reformers.
There is no practical sense in which the needs of capital must be such a determinant of life. In fact, there are strong environmental and social reasons why these needs should not now and never be met. Only not voting makes the importance of a denial of these needs clearer.
However, it is true we have so far neglected certain practical considerations.
In Australia, many supposed progressives consider it just that a failure to vote incurs a punishment–a fine or even jail term. In fact, this incentive to vote presents an argument that deserves respect, especially if you can’t afford to pay the fine. No one wants to be even more exploited than they already are. Still, there are a couple of legit ways out of the electoral treadmill. If you have an illness, whip it out. There are other reasons too that you can give for not voting–like not being able to reach a polling booth. Otherwise try to stay off the electoral role. If you are forced to attend a booth, blank vote and perhaps print-up this article or one like it and leave it around in pamphlet form. Be careful if doing so. Discouraging voting remains basically illegal in Australia, though details of how vary across places and times.
The fundamental illegality of circulating this missive helps meet the objection that it could only have been circulated in a voting democracy, thereby under cutting its own point. Additionally, the objection is met by the fact that even in open authoritarian nations there is samizdat, zines, communiques etc. In more authoritarian nations such dissent is even more dangerous. It is hardly a mark of democracy that tolerance is exercised when all of those with the most significant audience–numerically speaking–say much the same. Where someone does start to make a real difference, they’re likely to wind up like Juanita Nielsen or countless Aboriginal activists: dead or imprisoned. As concerns anti-voting activism, to the extent that he was successful in the 1990s, Albert Langer, was fined and thrown in jail. In the early 2000s anarchist group FUCKED (Freedom Urban Collective Knowledge Expansion Division) were chased away from polling booths by Queensland Police for trying to convince punters to not enter. This missive is circulated against, not because of the idea of Australian democracy.
It was interesting to watch an attorney general desire to prosecute satirists Juice Media in 2018 for detourning the “Australien” coat of arms. Another political ghoul opposed and mocked him. Nonetheless, this ghoulish opposition is a choreographed dance, where each “side” benefits from the other. One looks tough, the other looks free. Good cop, bad cop. Both come to seem to be a part of an institution in which such a prosecution can be debated, and both implicitly thereby support misleading liberal nationalism. We are supposed to rely not just upon one or the other to keep society functioning, but also upon the dynamic between them. Such political debate and difference are in reality ghoulish phantasmagoria. We must reject both on the grounds that we need neither.
The idea that Australia is a democracy is in fact an utterly absurd security blanket cherished by those who cannot accept the fact that their lives are currently run by and for capitalism. It will not do, then, to favourably compare Australia with other nations even more obviously not democratic. Neither Australia nor these others classify as “true” democracies. Moreover, should we simply fetishize democracy in the abstract? We want direct creative control over our lives, and democracy is not sufficient for this, even if the principle of democracy is necessary and widely applicable in particular cases.
That is all the more reason to cease pretending that we have democracy now. We must not glorify the existing political charade by voting. It would be preferable to not participate. Or if we must, then it would be better to or engage in a public criticism of this democracy at the polling booth, or in some other way refuse to act as a good, faithful cog in a machine beyond our control.
We must never rely on politicians in community and wage struggles. We must take direct action for ourselves. On no account should struggles be used to bolster the electoral ambitions of a politician. If such a ghoul bandies about their political phantasmagoria, they must be combated with solid arguments like those we have presented here.
Editorial note: The first version of this article incorrectly claimed that the second referendum on conscription in Australia in 1917 was won by the federal government.–prole no prole, 14 May 2019