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.


5 thoughts on “Dear Robert Webb

  1. Let’s ignore for a minute your apparent misunderstanding of what the Lib Dems stood for in 2010, the fact that no prime minister (not just this one) is ever ‘voted in by the majority of the population’, and the realities of a coalition. This new structure of society, one that is better for all and which will directly make injustices impossible (!!!), any chance of some detail on that, because we didn’t get any from Brand? The funniest part is that this silly utopianism is more or less what Labour go into each election promising. You dismiss the idea of votes providing legitimacy. Is that a recognition that the details of what you propose may not actually be very appealing?

  2. Hi esjaybe,
    Thanks for an interesting post. I was looking around for what WordPress folks are saying about Slavoj Zizek, and found my way to your blog.
    I’m very sympathetic to your perspective. My question, though, is why do people who agree with Brand’s overall perspective on what should take place in the country not attempt to work within the democratic system? Is it impossible that a new party could form and make a difference? If everyone who seeks the sort of change you and Brand do (not to equate you) became politically involved, couldn’t huge change be made? Why not present actual viable political candidates for change?
    I think some people would say it’s impossible, but why? If the people who want these things can’t get out and vote in their own interests for a new type of candidate, then do they really want change that much?
    I didn’t mean to echo the other commentor, but maybe my question converges with his/hers at the end. Only I don’t see the desire for human emancipation as “silly utopianism.”
    Looking forward to your thoughts.

  3. Hi flabridge,

    Thanks for your well-targeted questions and I really appreciate the tone of your critique which aims at conversation (rather than simply shutting down interesting debates before they happen with the regressive ‘ok but what’s your alternative?!’ clause).

    The argument presented by Zizek (amongst others) is that voting (as it exists in parliamentary democracy) is complicity. By giving our ballot we are giving legitimacy to politicians who are then pretty much able to do as they wish in our name. Not in an explicitly oppressive way, you understand, but within the realms of neoliberalism which is protected by the structures of such a post-demos political system.

    In the last election, for example, the result of a coalition could have been said as an electorate expressing that it didn’t want any of them: it just wanted change (Winlow)! The people certainly didn’t want Brown (an old man who was unfairly scapegoated for wrecking the economy) but we didn’t want Cameron either (an elite representing a return to harshness). And even while Clegg managed one of the most successful Lib Dem campaigns ever, this was surely a protest vote?

    Personally, I think your suggestion for presenting candidates for change would be a good idea, but only because the left shouldn’t cede any ideological ground that is available. Any appearance of radical leftist candidates in public discourse would surely only spur conversations towards what kind of a cultural change we desire… but I think this would probably be the only advantage of such action.

    I would also argue that such candidates should explicitly not be leaders. The last thing the left needs is more elitist ‘experts’ (hence why I detest the accusatory question ‘what’s your alternative?!’ which suggests I should hold all the answers). Instead, I think horizontal discussion of what social structure we positively want (rather than settling for the ‘least worst’ system) and then a fidelity to an Event to bring it about (Badiou) is the answer. That’s not to say this wouldn’t involve leaders – if anything, Occupy has shown us that leaders are near impossible to eradicate – but finding leaders should at least not be an a priori aim. We should start with equality (Ranciere) and build from there.

    I wouldn’t argue that voting in-itself is not inherently bad, but within parliamentary democracy, it is certainly not change (only an ideological mechanism that gives complicit authenticity to the self-serving acts of neoliberal leaders). When we are presented with a ballot, we are presented with candidates for the same job (an administrator of neoliberalism) and as such it doesn’t really matter who wins. This is not political freedom nor the autonomy of the people.

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on my proposed answers to your questions. As always, I posit such ideas as suggestions up for horizontal (democratic) discussion and not as attempts at elitist prescriptions.

    • Hi esjaybe,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’ve also written something on my blog at ofthisthing.wordpress.com that you may find interesting. It was partly inspired by my interaction with your blog.

      I agree with much of what you say, but where I am confused is in the role of an alternative vision among those who call for radical change. You mention that “horizontal discussion of what social structure we positively want (rather than settling for the ‘least worst’ system) and then a fidelity to an Event to bring it about (Badiou) is the answer.” Would you be able to describe briefly how this would look in real life? I’m having a difficult time understanding exactly what one of Badiou’s Events would look like. I thought perhaps that any “horizontal discussion” before an Event would be rejected by Badiou as being within the current reality. Instead, change must occur organically (can we say?) and then fidelity to the Event of change will give it truth value.


      • Hi flabridge,

        I enjoyed your article so thanks for that.

        Where I think we might disagree (correct me if I’m wrong) is in your conflating of parliamentary democracy with democracy (which I would deem a common mistake promoted by contemporary ideology). The point is that democracy is supposed to be the autonomy (self-control) of the demos and is therefore precisely being foreclosed in contemporary ‘representative’ post-demos democracy.

        It shouldn’t be a concern that we are unable to picture Badiou’s event because he argues it is precisely not predictable. Any attempt to predict it or to ‘name it’ in advance will ultimately result in it being only rendered sensible by the current ideological order and therefore will not be a change. Instead, the event would redefine the very terrain that defines what is sensible, rational, possible (and therefore our current discussions need to be with what is deemed ‘impossible’ by the contemporary order).

        It’s in this way that an event is seen as a crime according to the current order and yet would retroactively be redeemed of such a label after the new framework is established. In terms of ‘burning cars’ this should perhaps be seen as an ‘impotent outburst’ which is precisely not a revolution because it gives the appearance of change without anything actually changing. On the other hand, revolutionary violence is much deeper on a symbolic-structural level (hence why Zizek argues that Ghandi was more violent than Hitler).

        I think the point you make about any ““horizontal discussion” before an Event would be rejected by Badiou as being within the current reality” is a good one. Perhaps we can understand his position on this through his book on ‘the rebirth of history’ where he models three types of riots: immediate, historical and the event. Immediate riots are impotent outbursts (UK riots; Paris 2005 etc.); historical riots locate these outbursts to a particular place and therefore forms a collectivity (Occupy; Indignados; Taksim square etc.); but the event is what then names the alternative and leads the collective to act in fidelity to that name. In this sense perhaps we could say the event is the end of a process, one which precisely was not achieved by Occupy; and one which meant no change occurred?

        Look forward to hearing what you think. Great to be having such a conversation in an arena where it can take place properly (other than Facebook/Twitter where these arguments do not seem to be able to happen in any meaningful sense).

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