Comedian Robert Webb has now entered the ‘debate’ in the New Statesman (responding to Brand’s call to stop voting) and, while such an exchange seems pretty typical of what I am trying to avoid (are the fundamental questions of our society really best served by entertainers?), I nonetheless couldn’t help writing a response to Webb. This is because, despite not wishing to outright defend Russell Brand (who I have written about here and here), nothing could have made me feel more like we are screwed than Webb’s nauseatingly left-liberal response.
Webb begins by criticising Brand for ‘telling alot of people that engagement with our democracy is a bad idea” arguing that such a stance “just gives politicians the green light to neglect the concerns of young people because they’ve been relieved of the responsibility of courting their vote”. He therefore appears to be defending a system where ‘young people’ (including myself) voted for the Liberal Democrats to scrap tuition fees and found them tripled a year later; where MPs are more influenced by corporate necessity and perks of the job (such as expenses or a house in London) than their ideological stance; where the greatest protest in recent history was against war in Iraq.
This is a ‘democracy’ in which our current prime minister was not even voted in by the majority of the population. Indeed, if you add together all the other MPs, plus all the votes that were discounted in constituencies where they found themselves in a minority, plus all the people who exercised their right not to vote: then the Conservative party who are currently tearing apart our social welfare system start to seem less democratic and more despotic.
What the murky result of the last British election could actually be said to indicate was in fact a vote ‘for change itself’ where voters, not finding an alternative option on their ballot, simply voted for the lesser evil. Contemporary democracy is the carnival of ‘making do’ where the voter abandons any politics and instead seeks the party-of-best-fit and then, when they inevitably become put off by that party (which I guess happened at some point to Webb who has decided to re-join Labour), the voter can only defect by choosing the ‘other’, the only option available, giving the impression of change without anything changing (see Winlow & Hall 2012). A protest vote does not a political representation make.
The point, of course, is that there is no option for change. Webb restricts himself to the array of ‘freedoms’ that pre-exist, arguing that political parties “are not all the same… ‘they’re all the same’ is what reactionaries love to hear… it leaves the status quo serenely untroubled…” and discounting the fact that whichever government that is brought in will already have a pre-determined agenda based around neoliberal capitalism. Yes, they may have some slightly different policies, but none will dare to directly take on the injustices of the current social structure. Webb has it backwards: it’s precisely the X-ing of a box that leaves the status quo serenely untroubled.
By reducing the self-determination of the demos to election day “when we really are the masters”, Webb sounds a bit like the excited school-kid who is put in charge of handing out pens: while for him it clearly is enough, it certainly will not change anything substantial. One party might be brought in for another, but the co-ordinates which determine the situation remain steady. Its not about whether we “work for Cameron”, but we are definitely not working for ourselves, and surely this is the true definition of democracy? Our contemporary system is not power of the people, its a techno-managerial work-place in which – come election time – the candidates for the job line up to say they could run the same system ‘a little bit better than the other guy’ like some Apprentice-style TV show.
The only thing that votes give governments (like the tories) is legitimacy because they can argue that we put them there and that we back them up. It gives them the green light to pretty much do what they feel – as Eton-educated ‘experts’ – is in our ‘best interests’ (which of course, seeing as there’s “no rational alternative”, means neoliberal capitalism) allowing them to symbolically argue that they have dismissed all the other options and their way has come out on top. At the last election, all the main parties were in favour of some sort of austerity.
However, despite all these flaws, it’s actually what Webb argues at the end of his piece that really make my heart sink: when he dismisses revolution because “we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder”. Why would finding a new structure of society, one that is better for all and which will directly make injustices impossible, necessarily lead to regression?! Anyone?! Even Webb himself points out that there have been many progressive revolutions in history. Furthermore, parliamentary democracy doesn’t protect us from these travesties either! Remember: Hitler was voted in, the first concentration camps existed under British democracy, the Vietnam war, the atomic bomb and Abu Ghraib were all events in the name of democracy.
It is wrong to say that violence should always be avoided. In the way that “Ghandi was more violent than Hitler”, symbolic violence can liberate: changing the flawed structure of global neoliberal capitalism and parliamentary democracy and countering the everyday violence of the system. In contrast, it’s precisely Webb’s cynical pragmatism – his passive comfort – that leaves the status quo unchanged. Webb sees himself at the end of history, satisfied with his lot, Nietzsche’s last man immersed in shallow pleasures (such as voting), given up on the idea that we could have a better society and instead resigned to the ‘least worst’ system where at least we have “fluoride toothpaste”. Personally, I choose to believe that a better world is at least possible.
So in brief, and I say this with the greatest respect Rob, please read some fucking Zizek.