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The Voting Fetish

Without Hope

by ELLIOT SPERBER

Walking past a polling site election night, I spotted one of my neighbors standing by the entrance. Dressed in a traditional outfit, he was easily recognizable as a member of a particularly conservative religious sect. Most noticeable, though, was the sign he held admonishing people not to vote. As far as I could tell, the gist of his argument was that the laws, because of their secular nature, are immoral; and since they are immoral, one should abstain from voting. It constituted a breach of the moral law to participate in an immoral system. Needless to say, it struck me as particularly telling that his message was so similar to that of many secular people who admonish others not to vote. Indeed, though he recently changed his position, the comedian Russell Brand recently stated more or less the very same thing: because by voting one tacitly consents to a wildly unjust system, voting inculpates the voter as much as the system. The religious man’s message struck me as curiously similar to these apparently secular, religiously-inflected (faith-based), political philosophies.

This, however, should not come as much of a surprise. With their hierarchies and traditions, politics and religion are very much alike. To the extent that they are based on dogma – as opposed to critical thought – and rely on theatrical displays, ritual, and other types of pomp, they are hardly distinct at all. In this light, it is worth considering the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphorism that “there is not enough religion to destroy even religion.” Rather than some simple contradiction, Nietzsche’s insight is that there is not enough genuine awe in the face of the bewildering mystery of Being to destroy the arrogance of dogmatic rigidity. This humility, in turn, gives rise to a radical skepticism – of a sort leading one to critically evaluate the surrounding world (that is, to inspect, and then to re-spect, the world, as opposed to cowardly fearing it) – which is the opposite of simplistic, religious thought. Of course, fear and respect are very closely related. And the degree to which they blend into and out of one another not only allows for their frequent conflation, it allows as well for rampant manipulation. Like religion, politics possesses this ambiguity, this double meaning. As such, this leads to the question: if religion in its truth destroys religion, is there a comparable political corollary? Is there not enough politics to destroy even politics?

The contemporary philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s distinction between ‘politics as police’ and an actual politics is relevant here. For what passes for, or appears to be, politics is often ‘politics as police.’ More interested in maintaining Order than pursuing justice – more concerned with dogma than critique – this type of politics is very much like religion in Nietzsche’s latter sense. And among the dogma, the assertions and articles of faith, and the rituals of this faith-based politics, one finds the institution of the vote. Fetishized, the vote is transmogrified into, and treated as, an idol. Emanating its mysterious powers, the fetish intoxicates those among the political left and right alike.

To be sure, too often one encounters the fallacious argument that one cannot criticize the system if one fails to vote. Just vote, these people plead. It doesn’t even matter what you vote for, they beseech. Just vote. Participate. If you don’t, in their eyes, you have waived your right to have a political opinion at all. You have no right to complain. Others, meanwhile, hold to the opposite position. Those consenting to a murderous war machine are in part culpable. Even protest votes legitimize a thoroughly harmful system. One should abstain. Yet, though the vote as an instrument does possess a variety of problematic associations and connotations, plutocratic determinations and limitations, one is nevertheless guilty of the genetic fallacy in insisting that these are not ultimately invertible. For, at least in theory, if a preponderance of people voted for a genuinely revolutionary proposal – or transfused the federal, state, and local representatives of the business class with representatives of a genuinely egalitarian, emancipatory politics – the system would be radically altered, and could be radically transformed. If one had sufficient representation, the constitution could even be fundamentally changed, or rewritten altogether; obstructionist judges could be handily impeached.

Basic rights to housing, education, health care, nutritious food, leisure, and a healthy environment, among other things, could be instituted. Poverty and homelessness could be eliminated. The wars – the drug war, the class war, and the war against the environment – could be ended. The hypertrophic military could be withdrawn from the rest of the world. Brought back to the US and fundamentally altered, stripped of its weaponry, it could be put to work farming, as well as repairing and building public transportation systems, sanitation systems, and cleaning up the mess made of the environment. Among other infrastructural projects, community colleges could be built in every neighborhood across the continent. These campi, in turn, could develop into interdependent loci of participatory political and economic democracy.

In cooperation with other community college departments, locally run agriculture departments, for example, could produce food. The colleges’ engineering departments could handle local engineering, transportation, communication, and other projects. In collaboration with these, architecture departments could attend to housing needs and housing problems. Medical schools and their clinics, freed from the compulsion to garner profits, could contribute to the actual health and well being of communities. Film schools, art schools, music schools, and athletic programs could flourish, competing among one another in regional, continental, and global festivals. Developing the human potential that the commodification of social relations today so brutally wastes, US society could be transformed into one that is actually just.

The word vote, let’s not forget, derives from the Latin votum, which means wish, or hope (not to mention the religious notion ‘prayer’). And as the philosopher Ernst Bloch argued in his The Principle of Hope, hope itself is ultimately a utopian concept. As such, utopian tendencies are latent in the concept of the vote. Indeed, it is just this aspect that confidence men like Barrack Obama (with his Romneycare health care law, written by the right wing Heritage Foundation, and his unprecedented aggrandizement of power – via NSA spying, drones, and his disposition matrix, to name just a few) continue to exploit.

As the newly-elected Democratic mayor of New York City, Bill DeBlasio (who not only prevailed with a crushing 73% of the vote, but is depicted as a far left Democrat) proceeds to assemble a transition team from, among others, the notorious school privatizer Edison Schools‘ Jennifer Jones Austin, and is considering appointing Rudolph Giuliani’s infamous police commissioner William Bratton (who implemented the discredited broken windows theory of aggressive policing) to head the NYPD, it would seem that, along with Obama’s precedent, the idea that the political parties of the business class are at all significantly distinct has been finally put to rest. And while it is obvious that these politicians are hypocritical in the commonly accepted meaning of the word, it is less apparent that they are hypo-critical in the sense that they are sub-critical. In spite of all of these dispiriting facts, though, no genuinely egalitarian political movement seems to be making headway.

While the Democrats (who in fact are plutocrats) and the plutocratic Republicans (whose name ironically means ‘the public thing’) cannot be expected to alter the collision course toward the ecological catastrophe that their policies are creating, one can’t help but look at the vote as a tool and wonder whether an actual, radical politics can arise from this.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson (that American sultan who, one can imagine, conjured the Declaration of Independence while surrounded by his harem of slaves), when a government becomes destructive of life and happiness (a word which, in Jefferson’s time, approximated something closer to eudaimonia, or human flourishing, than the birthday cake meaning it today enjoys), it is the right and duty of the people to abolish it and institute a new government – not necessarily a new state, but a new distribution of the public and the private. With state and federal governments (alike representing the interests of the wealthy and deranged) pursuing their militaristic, para-militaristic, and ecocidal policies, it leaves little doubt that the conditions triggering this duty have been met. How, though, can people meet this challenge? When state and federal governments – both tremendously unpopular – wield their unprecedentedly powerful police apparatus to not only threaten legitimate journalism (that necessary fact-finder) with charges of terrorism, but preclude the so-called right of peaceful assembly as well, how should people proceed? And though the Voting Rights Act was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, and fresh obstacles to the franchise are being written daily, one begins to reconsider the notoriously obstacle-ridden, institutionally unfair institution. Would enough people ever actually vote for a radically egalitarian political and economic transformation of society? Could this somehow work? Though it’s never happened before, to paraphrase Jefferson’s contemporary, the poet William Blake, many things that today exist were once only imagined. Perhaps, then, it could. Could it, perhaps, be party time?

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com. He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com, and on twitter @elliot_sperber