The Case Against Voting

I want to make it clear that I am not against voting per se. Under the right circumstances, and in certain contexts, voting can be an effective and meaningful form of democratic participation or collective decision-making. Rather, my argument is that at this present historical juncture – in this time and place, right here and now in New Zealand (and likely many other countries) – voting is largely a pointless activity. I suggest two main reasons for such a depressing conclusion.

The first main reason is that, as any reasonable assessment demonstrates, voting is no longer fit for purpose given the challenges currently facing us. That is, voting and the broader context of electoral politics is incapable of generating the kinds of deep and profound political and social change we need in order to deal with our generation’s challenges, and has largely lost its democratic content. In particular, I would argue that electoral politics can no longer deal with the deeply interrelated challenges of global climate change and wealth inequality. These two issues threaten our economy, our society, our social values and way of life, and indeed, our long-term viable existence on this planet. More importantly, they are highly complex problems that in order to meet adequately will require multiple, long-term coordinated actions (including sustained cross-party, and inter-state political cooperation), replacing the profit motive and perpetual economic growth as the central principles of capitalism, and either re-nationalising the banks, the energy sector, transport, and the like, or at the very least, regulating these sectors into compliance with an entirely new set of social, economic and political priorities.

So why can’t voting and the electoral system function effectively to meet these challenges? There are several rather obvious reasons. First, the structure and culture of electoral politics now prevents the kind of politics we actually need to meet these challenges. This is because, among other things, the electoral cycle creates incentives for presentism and buck-passing; democracies are ‘systematically biased in favour of the present’, as some pundits argue. It also creates incentives towards ignoring lessons and the rejection of evidence-based policy in favour of short-term electoral calculations. More importantly, the electoral system promotes centrism and ideological conformity, as witnessed by the broad acceptance of neoliberalism by virtually every single major political party in the Western world. In truth, the similarities between parties now outweigh and outnumber the differences between them, and electoral choice today is largely confined to either accelerated neoliberalism or a slightly slower, gentler neoliberalism (no party is offering to reverse or abandon neoliberalism for something else, for example). Another problem is that electoral politics is permeated by a culture of adversarialism, which is more than simply a sociological condition but is a direct consequence of the embedded pay-off structures in the system. Related to this, and more specifically, the process required to pass legislation can never go beyond dealing with single issues. As a consequence of all these characteristics, electoral politics is today only capable of the most minimalist reformism, which is actually more than simply irritating; it is harmful because it leaves the root problems intact to continue injuring people.

A second key problem, and one I need not labour here, is the well-known democratic deficit engendered by successive generations of de-regulation and privatisation. The consequence of this is that electoral politics is now structurally limited in its ability to control markets, capital and other special interests. Today, most parliaments probably could not act decisively in some crucial areas because they have ceded control to capital, markets, and other interests.

A third problem with the current political system lies in the influence of special interests on politics, which is itself a direct result of wealth inequality. Apart from the almost weekly media reports we read in New Zealand about ministers meeting with special economic interests behind closed doors, party donations scandals, and all the professional lobbyists among the 63 approved visitors with direct access to the Beehive, the international evidence gathered by Thomas Picketty and the Princeton Study on voter preferences – among others – shows that the political system responds to the preferences of the wealthy far more than to those of the less well off. It is in fact, more of an oligarchy than a democracy; political institutions have largely been captured by the wealthy. In conjunction with the democratic deficit caused by de-regulation, the kindest way to put this is to say that democratic institutions have lost control of capitalism, and are now in fact, controlled by capitalism. This perhaps explains why even a modest tax increase on the wealthy is so difficult for a major party to suggest.

A final key problem with the current political system is the increasingly unrepresentative nature of politicians: earning a minimum of $141,000 per year, MPs in New Zealand are in the top 2% of earners (70% of New Zealanders earn less than $43,000 per year; 50% less than $24,000). In addition, the rise of the professional political class has created a set of embedded interests which may not be the same interests as society (or the planet). This is a well-observed sociological phenomenon: once a professional class arises, its core interests lie in ensuring continued employment, career progress, and maintaining the conditions of its privilege. The same holds true for political parties. What this means is that the central driving purpose of the electoral and wider political system is now to maintain the overall arrangements and perpetuate its own survival as an institution and its place in the social hierarchy.

In the end, these are very serious, structurally-embedded problems which cannot be fixed merely by voting for the right politicians. The reality we must now face is that in functionalist terms, the electoral system is not just structurally incapable of dealing with certain challenges, but is part of the architecture by which the current system is maintained. Through reformism, minor adjustments and a legitimising ideological function, periodic voting ensures that neoliberal capitalism and its accompanying inequities and damage to the planet continues without serious challenge. Given that neoliberal capitalism created the problems of inequality and climate change in the first place, this suggests we cannot now look to it for solutions – at least in its present form.

To paraphrase Naomi Klein, at a moment in history when we need a collective approach to solve a series of interlocking collective problems, we are lumbered with an electoral system that promotes individualism, isolation and self-interest. At a moment when we need controls over corporate power and the regulation of capital, we are burdened with an electoral system in which ‘regulation’ is a dirty word and corporate power and the power of the market is greater than political power – and when we most require strong, determined and flexible political action, we find our politicians are tied down by the apparatus of ‘free trade’ and deregulation. At a moment when we need politicians to build public institutions and empower local communities, we find ourselves ruled by a political class who only seem to know how to dismantle and starve public institutions.

At a moment when we need politicians to work together in holistic, comprehensive and interlinked ways, we find we are stuck with an anachronistic, adversarial politics which can only deal with one issue at a time. At a moment when we need to move from a system based on individual consumerism to one based on sustainable communalism, we are forced to participate in individualistic electoral consumerism. At a moment when we need to adopt a long-term horizon, we find ourselves trapped in short-term electoral cycles. At a moment in history when we need a revolution in the way we live and produce material goods and make social decisions, we are stuck with a system capable only of more of the same old way of doing things.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, I want to suggest a second reason for pessimism, namely, that not only is voting no longer fit for purpose, voting is bad for you. Once again, there are a number of reasons for this. First, voting legitimises the status quo and a system in which the role of ordinary people is actually to endorse rule by the wealthy and for the wealthy. It is, in effect, allowing ourselves to be used as a means of elite rule and elite legitimisation. Second, as a method, voting is ambiguous and far too blunt an instrument of preference communication to be useful: you can’t really signal which issue you are voting on, but politicians can use your vote to justify policies which you might, in fact, actually oppose. Related to this, voting today creates cynicism and disillusionment, in large part because the system means that politicians have to promise so much to so many, knowing that they will be unable to fulfil them, and knowing that they will introduce policies they failed to mention during the election.

Third, I would argue that voting is ultimately assimilating and pacifying of citizens, and it socialises the voter into a belief system in which the act of voting represents democratic participation and a political system where their doubts and ideals are shaped into narrowly prescribed, consensus generating forms. In this respect, voting promotes a collective illusion, namely, that ticking a ballot form is a meaningful form of democratic participation, that voting is democratisation, and that voting involves the exercise of real influence. The reality is the opposite: voting is ultimately both disempowering and a mechanism for engendering psychological compliance with the current system. It is in fact, antithetical to the real promise of democracy, which is to enhance the capacity of people to exercise autonomy and control over their own lives and communities.

Fourth, voting is in many ways disempowering and de-politicising: it is both a formal and symbolic way of giving up our individual autonomy and responsibility to others. As such, it reinforces a culture of learned helplessness and dependency on a select group of (elite) others to run our lives. Voting reinforces the message that we cannot, we need not, and we should not be involved in important decision-making or building a better society for ourselves and our communities.

Fifth, voting reinforces the logic and basis of atomised liberal subjects by requiring us to make individual votes based on self-interest: it is a temporary, self-interested transaction in which we sell our votes to those who promise to give us something we want in return. This is simply the selfish, commodified logic of capitalist social relations in the political sphere, and is the same logic that has caused our current crises. Voting constitutes us as separate, atomised, individual (political) consumers, and reinforces the individual’s sense of self in terms of commodified social relations. More significantly, electoral politics divides and fractures local communities by competitively appealing to individuals and their interests, and by introducing winner-take-all contests into groups. Electoral politics reinforces the adversarial and individualistic logic of capitalism, as I’ve noted, at a moment in history when consensus and communalism would be more beneficial.

In the end, more than just substituting the form of democracy for the substance of democracy, it can be argued that voting actually impedes progress by legitimising the existing system, encouraging politicians to believe that they have a mandate and support from the people, reinforcing the alienation of individuals, and constricting the space for an alternative politics. In other words, voting just encourages them to more of the same!

Of course, this leaves us with some difficult questions: Can the electoral system be reformed? Are there alternatives to voting? I would argue that it is unlikely that the electoral system can be reformed in the short-term, or at least in time to deal with the current crises. Its problems are structurally embedded in the system. However, there are a number of positive reforms which would potentially improve the current system of electoral politics in New Zealand, including: institutionalising and enabling the right of recall and no confidence, especially in cases of broken promises; binding referenda on issues of national importance, including the economy, the environment, social welfare, education, health and the arts; alternative voting systems such as STV and the end of closed party lists; linking MP wages to the median wage; placing limits on how many terms politicians can serve; and prohibiting private donations to political parties and restricting lobbyists. A nation-wide direct consultation (a National Dialogue) in which citizens could participate, and from which binding recommendations on issues of national importance could come, would be another possible avenue for enhancing democratic participation, and a kind of extra-parliamentary form of democratic participation.

However, these are mostly reformist approaches which would likely do very little to make the current system truly democratic and effective. I want to tentatively suggest that there are undoubtedly other forms of everyday, subaltern political agency which are potentially more meaningful, and potentially more effective and empowering than electoral politics, and which may start to generate the kind of innovative, radical politics which could make a real difference. Part of the problem, however, is that neoliberalism and electoral politics have shrivelled our political imaginations and limited our horizon of possibilities. This makes is extremely difficult to think about alternatives to what currently exists. The following are just some initial thoughts about the directions we might take.

In the first place, we need a revolution of everyday life through the infusion of politics into the everyday – what James Scott calls ‘infra-politics’ – as an alternative to the current moribund national politics. Such everyday resistance and activism by citizens can sometimes lead to large-scale ‘refusal’ and eventual larger forms of political mobilisation. The value of practising everyday democracy is that it actually helps to create new forms of subjectivity in citizens. We should also think about the need to contest the idea of the state being the exclusive site of the political, and the need to construct autonomous movements, organisations and political spaces in order to re-situate democratic participation. This is what Abensour calls ‘insurgent democracy’. It is an idea defintiely worth exploring.

In the end, there’s no simple answer to the deep hole we find ourselves in as we think about the forthcoming election. It’s a long-term project of ‘reinventing democracy’ which begins by honestly facing up to the structural weaknesses of the current system. The key point is that we will never discover a better democracy while we cling to the old, broken democratic system.

In conclusion, as I mentioned at the start, I am not against voting per se, and I am not suggesting you shouldn’t vote in the upcoming election. You can vote if you like, but just recognise that it is little more than a rather pointless, symbolic gesture which won’t have any substantial effect – except more intensive neo-liberal capitalism if one particular party gets in, and slightly less intensive neo-liberal capitalism if the other one wins. Also recognise that it will function to reinforce the current status quo and will therefore probably do more harm than good – to you, to our society, to the planet, to the possibilities of real, individual democratic participation.

In other words, if you do decide to vote, please don’t just vote. Don’t stop at the polling booth: go and do something else as well. Do anything else that involves your active engagement with political issues – start a reading group to educate yourself, form a cooperative, join a union and volunteer to be on its leadership, launch a creative protest against consumerism, do some guerrilla gardening, launch an independent media centre, create a temporary autonomous zone in a squat, join or start an activist group – anything! I believe that it is only when we start to think and act outside of the narrow confines of electoral politics that we will find meaningful ways to expand the democratic space, discover new solutions and achieve a more meaningful political agency for ourselves and our societies. Sadly, but realistically, it is only outside of the current electoral political system – and outside the confines of the state – that individuals and communities can reclaim a genuine sense of democratic citizenship and perhaps start to deal with the serious challenges facing our generation.

About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently Professor of Peace Studies and the Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of pacifism and nonviolence, terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: The Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies (Routledge, 2016); Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. In 2014, I published a research-based novel entitled, Confessions of a Terrorist (Zed Books, 2014) which explores the mind and motivation of a terrorist.
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2 Responses to The Case Against Voting

  1. Richard,
    This is indeed a well argued and spirited defence of non voting or of voting plus. Well done. The debate itself was also spirited and lively… so lets see what happens on September the 20th… we do need to make sure that we do not have another 3 years of John Key and his merry band.

  2. wmmbb says:

    Hi Richard,

    Your recommendations sound to me similar to the Gandhian precepts of swadeshi, constructive “program” and satyagraha. The place to begin to start voting constructively might be at the local level. That level of bureaucracy can be quite challenging. I liked your essay.

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