Robert Webb’s appeal to Russell Brand is possibly the most childish and vapid response I’ve ever read to a critique of liberal democratic political systems.
Webb accuses Brand of “willfully talking through [his] arse about something very important” when in fact it is Webb who seems to have exposed us all to flapping butt cheeks.
Webb is alarmed and upset by Brand stating he doesn’t vote and that his 7.1 million mostly young readers shouldn’t vote either. He equates telling people not to vote with non-engagement with democracy. Unfortunately Webb makes two gross assumptions.
First, he presumes that voting is de facto engagement.
Second, he presumes that voting has anything to do with democracy.
Voting is not the same thing as political engagement. It‘s a once every four years kind of exercise, not unlike a seasonal oil change. Just because you’ve taken your car in to have its fluids replaced can you seriously say you’re engaged in the mechanical upkeep of your car? No. Certainly you’re interested, but that is not the same thing.
The other conceit of Mister Webb is the idea that voting and democracy are necessarilycoterminous. There are many different kinds of democracy. Liberal democracy is but one iteration, and its a fairly hollow one. As I’m fond of reminding my students whenever they talk about voting: citizens of ancient Athens, ignoring for a moment the sheer size of our societies, would have looked at our political institutions and rightly called us lunatics for calling it democracy. Which is not to dismiss the democratic elements of our own system, but rather to merely point out that voting itself is not democratic. It lends itself to the selection of the loudest, brashest, or best advised candidate, which comes down to money. Money as a deciding factor in political systems would define our own – in the eyes of those first democrats – as an oligarchy. This is no surprise to anyone who took a second year political science course in University, but since we tend to forget these things as we rush between job, appointments, and credit card bills and once every five-years the ballot box, it’s a nice reminder.
Then Webb does something truly, mind-bendingly stupid. He attempts to demonstrate that voting leads to meaningful choices by comparing Con-Dem austerity to Labour’s social programmes. The attempt to protect Labour’s legacy by appealing to its social programmes, while ignoring the misadventures of Iraq, Afghanistan, and oh, the bleeding spying, willfully ignoring the fact that even Labour is still a fucking shitty choice. ASBO orders anyone? All those useless CCTV cameras? So between the choice of voting Tory or Labour, I’d pick the only viable option as well: non-of-the-above. In fact this is precisely the same situation I find myself in over here in the Colonies.
Like the UK, here in Canada we have a simple majority, first-past the post electoral system which time and again returns skewed majorities and encourages majority leaders to disregard with increasing levels of intransigence the will of their so-called voting publics. That we occasionally have minority governments does not disprove the general trend of electing and re-electing the same pool of rather bleak political thinkers all of whom seem intent on alienating their publics. We speak now not of “the public” but “the base” the core voters of a political party and not the margins where victories were supposed to be won. Embracing those outside the party has become a thing of the past. As for the rest of us who don’t fall comfortably within the party, we have few options for “engagement” other than the sort Mister Webb would have us embrace.
“They’re not all the same.” Webb insists. Saying otherwise plays into the hands of the reactionaries. Indeed, but fooling yourself into thinking that Blair is somehow different from Thatcher is also intellectually dishonest. They are different animals if only by degree and even that allowance is pushing it. At some point Labour might have actually offered alternatives to the current economic and social framework, but that moment has been and gone and is unlikely to come again, no matter how often Ed trots Ralph’s corpse out for the party faithful.
Then there’s the argument that in order to challenge the TNCs and MICs we need more votes not fewer to shore up the legitimacy of parliaments. And here Webb may be right. The question is do we really want to legitimize those systems which perpetuate the very bad behaviours Webb ignores in his myopic praise of Labour?
Finally, there’s the bellyaching about the liberties afforded to us by the rights enshrined by Liberal Democratic systems. The claim that we wouldn’t enjoy these rights if it weren’t for these systems shows a breathtaking amount of liberty with the historical record. Webb seems to be either willfully ignorant or intentionally misrepresenting the fact that such reform has come not from the ballot but by sheer bloody violence. Perhaps he has forgotten that Mandela was arrested for bombing a car? Or that he was the embodiment of a movement whose anthem calls for its young men to run and fetch their machine guns. Indeed ask any black American how long it took for their rights to be recognized and whether that came from the ballot or civil protest? Voting only became a tool of the civil rights movement because it became a symbolic right before all others. The struggle to win that right came from marching, fighting and dying, and this was just to uphold basic rights which had been set out some two-hundred years before! Democracy isn’t born of legitimacy invoked at the ballot box, it tends to come from bleeding for it first. So to Webb let me be just as glib as he was in his attempt to defend voting: try not to be such a silly twat when inveighing against a rightful critique of voting and the choice not to indulge the fantasy that voting has some kind of magical power to make democracy work.