Beyond The Vote: The Crisis Of Representative Democracy
There is something profoundly wrong with our political system. Humanity is arguably facing its greatest challenge to date — a simultaneous financial, economic, social, political, environmental and spiritual crisis — and yet nothing ever seems to change. Somehow, it’s like we’re stuck in Groundhog Day, in an endless repetition of the same old rituals, over and over again. Like some neurotic gambling addict, we just keep shuffling around the same deck of cards.
As the global capitalist system starts to crack at its very core, political life has become like a terrifying nightmare: your house, engulfed in flames, collapses all around you, but no matter how fast you run, the door only seems to move ever further away. Gradually, it slips out of focus altogether and you fall down. You try to shout, but no one seems to hear. You shout again, but you don’t have a voice. There’s no sound. Just a clinging hand and a desperate hiss.
If you’re lucky, that’s the point at which you wake up, with a jolt, and realize that you were living a dream. A dream called representative democracy. A dream we’ve all been taught to believe in; an idea, planted inside our heads like a cunning inception; an idea from which we somehow find it impossible to part. A dream so beautiful that we went to great lengths to share it with the world. A dream so powerful we were quite literally willing to bomb it into people’s heads.
But as the pieces began to fall apart, the dream gradually turned into a nightmare. As the famous Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman put it, we are witnessing “the ever more visible divorce between power and politics.” With finance capital unfolding its wings over the world, politics (or “the ability to decide what needs/ought to be done”) has remained national, while power (or “the ability to get these things done”) all but evaporated into global flows.
Bowing Before the Power of the Market
As Bauman importantly pointed out, the powerful (i.e., those who control the international flows of capital) “are neither interested nor willing to reform the status quo,” while the nationally-elected politicians “would not be capable of undertaking, let alone see through a reform, whether it would or wouldn’t be fond of that idea.” National politics thus becomes a protracted exercise in deciding what ought to be done — without actually being able to do it.
And yet we keep shuffling around the same deck of cards, hoping that this meaningless exercise will somehow make a difference. Hope abounds when the US elects its most progressive President in decades — but even he ends up bailing out Wall Street at the expense of millions of families who lose their homes. Heck, he even keeps a personal kill list and forsakes his #1 election promise to close Guantanamo! In the UK, a Liberal leader pledges never to raise tuition fees — only to abandon this promise the moment he smells power.
Similarly, a sigh of relief resounds across Europe when France elects its first Socialist President in two decades. Surely his victory will hail the end of Merkel’s austerity pact for the eurozone? ‘Lo and behold: only a few months later Hollande is suddenly Merkel’s closest ally, happily “turning the screws on Greece” and quietly forgetting about his election promise to rip up the eurozone austerity pact. In the end, everybody bows before the power of the market.
Hating the Player, Not the Game
Clearly the divorce between politics and power has instilled great fear and confusion in the electorate. Like a flock of panicking sheep, voters head towards the political fringes, desperately clinging on to the idea that it’s the parties and their leaders who are at fault, not the system as such. Unwilling to face the reality of national governments that no longer possess true fiscal or monetary policy autonomy, voters continue to hate the player; not the game.
In the process, national elections are reduced to some meaningless provincial popularity contest. Like “survivors” in some stupid reality TV show, politicians try their very best to avoid being voted off the island. Election campaigns degrade into marketing campaigns as the electorate is bombarded with flashy Google and TV ads, party posters and random party paraphernalia in the streets. An election victory is celebrated like a World Cup win. Somehow everyone seems to believe that this is a completely natural way of organizing society.
Both ordinary citizens (those “too unsophisticated” for the spectacle) and critical thinkers (those “too sophisticated” for the new culture of one-liners) are filtered out of public view in a sort of quasi-natural selection process that systematically favors the technocratic mediocrity of bland career politicians over the great diversity and complexity of opinions that society has to offer. Given enough time, parliamentary politics automatically descends into some childish blame game that no one really takes seriously anymore.
Cookie-cutter election programs, cheap sloganeering, negative publicity and inauthentic, overly-manufactured interviews riddled with lies, insults and and clichés take all the creativity, joy and weight out of the art of public debate. Instead of talking about issues, we now talk about personalities. Representative democracy has long since ceased to be about competing visions for the future of society. With the owners out of reach, we are relegated to electing managers.
The Fetishization of the Meaningless Free Vote
Despite this near-total discrediting of the political establishment, most people continue to fetishize the free vote as such. Those who prefer not to vote and instead look for other ways to contribute to social change are immediately branded as apathetic chavs or useless anarchists whose abstention only benefits the ruling party. Despite the profound sense of disillusionment, no one seems to realize that the electoral spectacle itself has become thoroughly hollow and deprived of any meaningful content whatsoever.
Take Wednesday’s elections here in the Netherlands. Just a few months ago, the rabidly Islamophobic and euroskeptic proto-fascists of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party seemed poised to take “power” in the next elections. Then, two weeks back, the former Maoists of the Socialist Party were suddenly leading the polls in what seemed destined to become a populist backlash against EU-imposed austerity policies. But in the end, the same neoliberal party responsible for causing the crisis in the first place was voted back into office.
One could be forgiven for considering the Dutch electorate to be profoundly schizophrenic. While there is certainly some truth to this, the real problem is that the parliamentary system as such has become utterly dysfunctional. If a two-week swing in popular mood can make the difference between proto-fascism, socialism and capitalism, you can be pretty sure that these nomers themselves have almost entirely lost their meaning. And without the guiding orientation of a relatively stable set of internally coherent ideologies, the party-based system of representation itself is rendered impracticable at its very core.
The range of options considered for debate in representative democracy remains limited to policy — and a very narrow range of policies at that. No one even dares to discuss the flawed structure of capitalist democracy. The promise of worker-owned cooperatives; the socialization of the financial system; the wholesale transformation of the energy system; the collectivization of unused agricultural land; and the institution of direct democracy through popular assemblies, worker councils and other initiatives are not even being discussed.
Beyond the Vote: Confronting Power as Flow
Representative democracy, which is bound by the territoriality of the nation state, is fundamentally incapable of addressing the reality of power as de-territorialized flow. Once you recognize that power today consists in flows, you can see that contesting that power requires breaking, restricting or redirecting those flows in ways that can produce outcomes different from those generated by the naked logic of accumulation inherent to the capitalist system.
Since flows are by their very definition decentralized and dispersed, you will either need a higher form of centralization that encapsulates the entire space of flows and can therefore restrict and redirect such flows (i.e, a federal political entity spanning the entire globe), or you need to create new political spaces that operate outside of the sphere of capital flows altogether (i.e., break out of the cycle of accumulation as much as possible by refusing to participate in it).
The only truly revolutionary strategies today are therefore either to aspire to world socialism enacted by a functional global government (good luck with that!), or to develop alternative means of production and new modalities of social life outside of the sphere of global capital. The latter would require the reclamation of land to create new public spaces within which to situate alternative political subjectivities and form new collectivities. Such a quest for autonomy would inevitably involve the contestation of the territorial integrity of the nation state, and hence the legitimacy of its “monopoly on violence“.
This is exactly what the experiments of the indignados, the aganaktismenoi, and the Occupy movement were all about. It is also what the great revolutionary episodes of the Paris Commune, anarchist Catalonia, the Soviet Republic of Bavaria, and the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas tried to realize. Direct democracy has been successfully practised in the past, and continues to be successfully practised in the present; but, as John Holloway — “philosopher of the Zapatistas” — puts it, it can only function when we “live in a time liberated from the ticking of the clock and a space free from the measuring rod.”
Wake Up — Keep Your Voice to Yourself!
There is still something profoundly wrong with our political system. As global capitalism starts to crack at its very core, for millions of people, political life remains a recurrent nightmare. But this time, as your house collapses all around you and no one seems to hear your voiceless scream, you realize it’s all just a nightmare. You realize that, sometimes, what you have known all your life is not necessarily all that’s real. You realize that another world is possible.
Here in the Netherlands, the word for “vote” is stem, which also means “voice”. So on Wednesday, when the whole spectacle unfolded its meaningless essence once more, I decided not to give away my voice to some powerless career politician. Instead, I decided to keep my voice to myself and keep screaming from the top of my lungs. Not because I’m an anarchist, but simply because I consider my voice much too valuable to be given away to another person.
The bottomline is that representative democracy institutionally stifles political participation. As Howard Zinn put it, “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.” The liberation of new public spaces operating outside of the sphere of privately-owned capital; the co-creation of inclusive forms of collective decision-making; the development of new political subjectivities — these are our true democratic responsibilities as concerned citizens today.
In Athens, earlier this year, one of the coordinators of the popular assembly at Syntagma Square brought it all home to me in a few very simple words: “I was sleeping. I have to admit that first. I was sleeping. And I have to wake up. And what I will see when I wake up, I might not like it — but I have to do it. And once you are awake, you cannot go back to sleep again. That is my hope.”