Ten Thoughts on the Upcoming Election
The current political climate has been recast from the dimension of production to that of consumption. Production, and all that is implied within it – cooperation, contribution, participation – has long ceased to be the mode by which politics occurs. On the one hand, there is us; you, me, the everyday people who criticise, chide and circulate the content of our opinions online. On the other hand, distant both physically and psychologically, are a class of professional politicians who make the decisions which impact our lives, whether we approve of them or not.
Rather than production, it is consumption which forms the basis of contemporary politics. We are not called to participate in the making of policies, often we are barred from entry to the places where this participation takes place. The ideal citizen is one who engages in his individual pursuits and gets what he is given by the state, whether he asked for it or not.
Modern politics is not about decision but assent. To decide is to participate in a discussion where your opinions carry weight, despite how light that weight may be. Decisions, when dealing with public life, occur with others. But modern politics precludes both these things – participation and cooperation – within its consumer mode. It is not a matter of deciding but assenting. As J.M Coetzee notes in his Diary of a Bad Year
Faced with a choice between A and B, given the kind of A and the kind of B who usually make it onto the ballot paper, most people ‘ordinary’ people, are in the heads inclined to choose neither. But that is only an inclination and the state does not deal in inclinations…the state shakes its head. ‘You have to choose’, says the state: A or B.
You do not decide A or B. You are given the choice and no matter which you choose, A or B, you will assent to the decision made before you, made without you, made in your stead.
Producing, cooperating, contributing, participating – there is a further value tied up in all of these activities: responsibility. By acting in the world, you become responsible for your actions. The inverse of this is that if you do not act, or, you act but you see no power in your actions, or you see your actions as entirely inconsequential, then feelings of responsibility wither away.
It is hard to imagine the citizen feelings responsible for anything which happens in his name. His entire capacity for action becomes exhausted as soon as he casts his ballot paper once every 3 or 4 years. It is done with an expression of assent rather than participation, all the while watching, each night, what will become of his individual assent. Hospitals to be defunded? Schools shutting down? This is not at all what the voter imagined would come of his assent. All he can do now is wait another few years to cast a vote in protest, a blip in the screen, sure to go unnoticed by the data miners in the political parties. The citizen, when reduced to an individual consumer, cannot help be anything but powerless, and cannot help but not feel responsible.
The reduction of the responsibility of citizenship to casting a vote is not just the diminution of the citizen. It simultaneously allows the politician to function without constraint. The citizen who withdraws from politics and has their power reduced to casting a ballot every three years is the perfect rejoinder to the rise of the demagogue (Trump?) who promises to work out public issues by himself, freeing citizens of any responsibility to govern their own lives; requiring no serious political activity, merely outbursts of emotional reaction.
The poor no longer scare us anymore. In the past, the elites had to court the poor. The two were bound, not by choice but by necessity, to work together. Today, however, elites are under no such obligation. They make their money, not in the industrial factory, but in the global space of financial flows. The factory/office/worksite need not be in one place and if it is, not for too long. Unions? Strikes? Too bad, we will move the factory overseas. In this position, the poor will not speak up. Why would they? They have lost their voice.
In politics, the focus on women, on quotas, on equality and identity more generally highlight a point that becomes obvious by its very negation: nobody is representing the poor! There is not a single person in politics who claims to be there to defend and stand for the poor. There is a focus on everything but class and the poor are without a voice, without a narrative, and without representation.
The poor are nothing to us. We sidestep them physically on the street, economically with harsh anti-trade union laws, psychologically by denying them cultural space, and politically by denying them representation. Now, we believe, we can simply do away with them. This was not the case before.
One cannot even call them poor because ‘poor’ implies that, to some extent, they still engage in the social dialectics of power relations between labour and capital. We need a new word for them: they are the excluded, the debris, the junk of our society; a refuse to be treated as such. We may talk about them occasionally but we do not want them around. In this new social configuration of total exclusion, they are, to recall a memorable phrase by Jean Baudrillard, ‘without a shadow’. They are the blank space on the other side of the equation, denied a reality of their own. They become real to us only by their absence in the equation, unable to exert any force on reality.
Like a man who makes quite the show over his biceps, it is likely that we make such a song and dance over the election because we have very little else to offer. It is not a strained observation that there is a manifest impotence of available instruments of collective political engagement and action, along with a resulting diminution of the stakes that once, made political action so viable and attractive. With very little in the way of collective action, and dwindling anticipation of the result of that action, the focus on the election is not a sign of our democratic strength, but a masquerade we play to obfuscate our democratic weakness.
An interesting quote by Ivan Krastev,
Unsurprisingly, studies show that the advantages enjoyed by incumbents in Europe are disappearing. Governments are collapsing more quickly than before, and they are being re-elected less often. ‘No one is truly elected anymore’, the French political thinker Pierre Rosanvallon argues. ‘Those in power no longer enjoy the confidence of the voters; they merely reap the benefits of distrust of their opponents and predecessors.
We tend to see our politicians defined not so much by their power but by their impotence. Voting fails to capture the imagination of the voters because the citizenry no longer believes those in government are actually doing the governing. Once we voted for someone with the impression, however tenuous, that their promises would be fulfilled. Now, they rarely are. Excusing this, politicians explain to the beguiled voter that ‘macro-economic pressures’ preclude them from acting, or the ‘reality of the present financial situation’ make those action difficult, or even ‘the opposition stopped us from achieving our goals’. Governments prefer to trumpet the impotence rather than their power, donning the guise of the innocent fool.
Due to their impotence, politicians have very little in the way to offer in terms of actual policy. They prefer to manage the system and keep the gears turning for at least, this, they may be able to do. Alongside this is another, completely unrelated phenomena in our society, the television, which has given the news all day every day into the room of every Australian. However, television is a sensory stimulating piece of technology. The politician who has nothing to offer and the television – two separate occurrences – converge to produce the mediagenic politician.
It is wrong to call this politician the personality-politician, as so many do because it is the very negation of personality. Every handshake is choreographed, every photo opportunity crafted, every speech pre-written. It is an art form of the image, an exercise in acting.
Politicians are impotent and instead, revel in their ability to entertain us as actors. The citizen, unable and now uninterested in political participation, settles for the role of spectator. They may boo or hiss, applaud or turn off the television, but the influence is not there; they consume, passively, for there is no other way to consume.
The political struggle has turned into the competition of personalities. Consider Morrison’s bleating of ‘fair dinkum power’, and achieving records ‘in a canter’. The method to win votes is to appear more genuine and sincere, whether or not this is the case is quite beside the point. Just take Morrison’s ‘daggy dad’ marketing routine.
Emptied of any substance, political commentary must turn on the superficial or the banal. Because political struggle has been rendered vacuous and vapid, political commentary must also. Commentary consists of whether this or that speech worked as political theatre or whether voters were convinced, but not whether or not it was good policy or whether voters are being convinced by poor arguments.
It is all quite holistic. Politicians are no longer concerned with politics proper. The media establishment is happy to trade in sound bites and entertainment. The citizen has stepped away from politics, firstly because he feels disappointed at unfulfilled promises and through this, secondly, he sees his representatives as essentially incapable and impotent. The instruments of the democratic state appear to be faltering, a fact that the carnivalesque focus on the importance of the election will try to hide, but will only ever reinforce.