Of the 328 million people in the United States, we’ve selected just two as contenders for one of the most powerful positions in the world. Most of us can agree that these man-children didn’t achieve such a feat based on some mythical meritocracy. A mixture of familial connections, personal wealth, luck and (most importantly)an allegiance to the ruling capitalist class propelled their careers forward.
Such an illusion of choice is tacitly understood, but it’s not usually blurted out loud. This year, as an increasing number of people aren’t voting for anyone, just against someone, the electoral process is nakedly exposed for what it is: a mechanism that ensures some people hold power over others in order to preserve the current racialized and economically stratified social order.
What if, in the face of unfit candidates, every one abstained?
Jose Saramago’s brilliant book Seeing opens with an indefatigable storm on Election Day. Party bureaucrats nervously await for citizens to arrive at the polling station in the capital city. For hours, no one shows. Finally, the blustery rain and wind calm and a line slowly forms. “Phew,” they exhale. The good People are at last performing their civic duty! But, to the bureaucrats’ utter horror, the vast majority of people cast a blank ballot. Furious, the politicians scold the electorate and reschedule the election for another day.
To their chagrin, it happens again; eighty-three percent abstain. The Interior Minister suggests it must be a global conspiracy, an anarchist plot. Despite the legality of abstaining, the State launches a full on assault against its populace, with mass interrogations and infiltration. Unable to produce a scrap of evidence, the officials and their foot soldiers (the police and military) plan to withdraw from the city. “This radical action will mean that the rebel city will be left entirely to its own devices and will have all the time it needs to understand the price of being cut off from the sacrosanct unity of the nation, he says, “and when it can no longer stand the isolation, the indignity, the contempt, when life within the city becomes chaos, then its guilty inhabitants will come to us hanging their heads and begging for forgiveness.”
While Seeing takes on a surrealist tone, it portrays an adept understanding of the nature of governance and the State: its ultimate concern is self-preservation, any threat to its grip is terroristic.
We are, of course, taught a more flowery picture of representative democracy from a young age. The people know what’s best for them, so they should be able to select their leaders and this process is the Ultimate Freedom. But there’s an infantilizing contradiction present within this governance structure: if the power rests within the hands of the people, why aren’t we at the very least provided with the genuine option to reject political, or even economic, authority?
The fact that the rhetorical question of ‘voting authority away’ is so absurd, says a lot in itself. The political and elite classes would never entertain such a policy because it is threatening.
Generation after generation we are told the world would fall apart without the authority of leaders (as if the world isn’t crumbling right now!) and that we are somehow lucky to live in a representative democracy. Immersed in a hierarchical world of borders and police and politicians and bosses, we can’t imagine any other way of organizing society and are actively encouraged not to do so.
But this year, in the wake of mass rebellions for Black liberation, increasingly delegitimized political parties, climate crisis and bullshit jobs galore, there’s some hope that younger generations will increasingly fight for their own self-determination. And win.
Anarchist author and orator Emma Goldman famously said: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Vote however you like, but we must try to unlearn that it’s not, in fact, the ultimate freedom. Having control over our own lives, and our own communities is, and the concept of the ballot box is antithetical to this aim.