Whenever another election nears, the world fills up with paeans to the power of voting and doom-filled laments about people failing to do their democratic duty. Whenever someone suggests that people should actively avoid voting, no matter how they arrived at this conclusion, they are immediately hit by an immense amount of outrage, usually expressed through various adages about apathy and “getting the governments you deserve.”
When it comes to voting, it would seem, everyone believes that democracy is sacred. (Less so, one might observe, when it comes to basic rights like privacy.)
But democracy is a lot more than voting. In fact, the name itself doesn’t directly say anything about voting; it refers to the power of the people (the demos). Abraham Lincoln most famously described the nature of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” That is, a government not only controlled by the people and made up of the people, but also acting in service of the people.
It’s hard to argue that such a thing currently exists, or is represented by the current system of elections. In most cases, people are asked to choose between representatives of a financial elite whose interests are exactly opposed to those of the people. Frequently these candidates even form part of a political dynasty, being the second or third of fifth person by that name to rule the country. Choosing which quasi-aristocrat gets to be king is not democracy; it’s monarchy disguised as reality television.
On a fundamental structural level, the voting process is itself geared towards producing the desired results, as various complex, bizarre laws (from what is necessary for a party to be put on ballots to how votes are actually counted) give major advantages to the bigger, established parties. The details vary from country to country, but it’s rarely a clean, straightforward process.
To the degree that any democratic process exists, it is strongly distorted by the power of capital. With most of the world’s wealth owned by a minuscule fraction of the population, in a system that has profit as its core mechanism, the financial elite can push forward the candidates of its preference through mass media, tours, and direct corruption. When parties do exist that attempt to represent the interests of the people, their voices will simply not be heard, or campaigns of misinformation will portray them as dangerous or ridiculous. (Who can forget the media’s obsession with what sort of shirts Yanis Varoufakis wore?) Meanwhile, in times of crisis, when it appears that the regular political entities are not extreme enough in punishing opposition to the system, the financial elites will begin to strongly promote fascist entities, giving them airtime and slowly legitimizing their views.
Even when popular discontent is strong enough to push the establishment parties out of power, popular sovereignty is near to nonexistent. Vast swathes of policy are not determined by elected officials, but by unaccountable transnational organizations, corporate courts, trade agreements, and so on. In the EU, for example, it would be technically illegal for a government to implement any policies that fall outside of neoliberal capitalism. That is to say, not only would a change in economic system be forbidden, even if people vote for it, but even a different track within the same system (such as the various social-democratic paradigms Europe once espoused) are out of the question. The choice is only between various flavours of the same thing.
When an attempt is made to question such antidemocratic systems, the response is a mix of contempt and brutality. Voters are openly told by governing bureaucrats that they made “the wrong choice” and either blackmailed (as in the case of Greece) or just made to vote again (as in Ireland), all the while being terrorized by mass media predictions of doom should the vote not go as desired.
To describe such a process as “democracy” in any but the most superficial of senses is absurd, as is the notion that refusing to participate in this charade somehow constitutes a rejection of one’s rights as a citizen. If none of the things above were true, if there was actually such a thing as popular sovereignty, then perhaps the usual lament of “if only people voted!” would be accurate. Given the circumstances, it is not.
However, questioning the value of voting in the current system is not identical to abandoning democracy. If we keep to Lincoln’s definition of democracy – government of the people, by the people, for the people – then democracy can be fought for in entirely different ways. The people still run the entire machinery of industry. Everything real that is produced by our society is produced through the work of ordinary people. Financial elites, living off exploiting the labour of others, are by definition not indispensable. But without working people, nothing runs. That gives the people an incredible amount of untapped power, which can be harnessed not through voting, but through organization. The power of labour is the heart of democracy, and through it – through claiming power, not begging for it – the system can be changed so that it does truly become democratic.
Precisely because elites fear this power, society is regularly bombarded with a variety of misanthropic narratives. We are told repeatedly that people are stupid, that they cannot be trusted, that we should fear “the mob”. This notion, that democracy must urgently be regulated to safeguard it from ordinary people, has been repeated so often that it’s become something of a truism. In a world constantly on the brink of war, in the midst of an unending economic catastrophe and the biggest refugee crises in decades, we’re warned of the danger posed by the very people who have the least control over anything – or even better, we are told they are at fault, because they got the governments they deserve. It’s an incredible trick, to shift the blame from those wielding power to those suffering the consequences, but this profound misanthropy has been so tightly embraced, particularly in the largely middle-class world of academia and the arts, that it is rarely questioned.
(It’s not a coincidence that today’s art asks such “provocative” questions as “What if we must give up all of our principles to succeed against these horrifying but utterly fictional enemies?” and “What if everyone is secretly awful?” – these narratives are part and parcel of the decay of genuine democracy. Identity politics, with its focus on depicting oppression as something experienced by small, isolated groups of people and demonizing the broad masses of those who do not fit into these categories as the true oppressors serves to further alienate people from each other rather than realize their common democratic power. It is important to mention these two aspects, because the opposition to democracy does not come only from open reactionaries and fascists, but just as frequently from the liberal wing of capitalism.)
The current trend seems to be for political power to be transferred away from what we recognize as the classic capitalist State and towards largely opaque entities that are completely unaccountable. If voting was only a minor part of democracy before, it is increasingly not a part at all. So while it is possible that in some cases, voting will play a part in the struggle for a people’s government, genuine democracy will by definition never be given from above. It can only claimed by the actual demos.