Monday, 28 October 2013

Russell Brand, and the revolutionary act of voting

When one of my grandmothers was born, women my age didn’t have the right to vote in the UK. 

It was that recent. 

A few years before that grandmother was born, Emily Davidson died. She died because she believed that by excluding women from the ballot box, the British government were treating women as children, who had no stake in their country, who were governed and oppressed by men who refused to hear them. Her fellow suffragettes were locked up and effectively tortured through force-feeding and physical violence. They fought and they fought because they knew the right to vote was important. It was the signifier of a society that believed women had the right to a voice. 

It was not that long ago. It was so recent that I’ll repeat it. It was in my grandparents’ lifetimes that women my age didn’t have the right to vote. 

The Civil Rights Movement, who fought to end unequal application of voter registration requirements in the USA, was in my parents’ lifetime.

It was that recent. 

In my lifetime, women and men across the world are denied the right to vote. They are denied a voice in the way their society is run. They are dying and being imprisoned and being tortured for asking for the vote. 

Men could do with remembering that they haven’t always had a right to vote. The right for all men to vote in the UK isn’t that old – beginning with the 1832 Reform Act and extending from there. 

It’s very easy to not vote, when you have the right to. It’s very easy to be Russell Brand and say ‘don’t vote’ when we have the choice to or not. It’s very easy to forget how recently we were denied a political voice in the UK. It’s very easy to forget that this is a right many believed was worth dying for. Believe is still worth dying for. 

I have sympathy for Russell Brand’s anger at today’s politicians and I think he made a lot of good points – both on Newsnight and in the New Statesman  – about why people are disaffected with politics and why change is needed. After all, I am angry too. I want a revolution. I don’t like the system we have today. (I also don’t like Russell Brand’s diminishing of editors of national magazines to ‘beautiful women who ask him to do stuff’ – but that’s an argument for another day.)

But changing the system doesn’t happen by not voting. 

I believe that when you don’t vote, you take yourself out of the conversation. You might not vote because you don’t want to validate a political system that is led by someone as objectionable as David Cameron. But David Cameron doesn’t know that. He can shrug at that non-vote, and assume you didn’t vote because you can’t be arsed. And then he’ll disregard your non-vote, and carry on creating policies that trash the lives of those who they know traditionally don’t vote – i.e. under-25s.  

Not voting is not a political or revolutionary act because no one knows you’re not voting. No one cares about your reasons why you’re not voting. Sure, it might be a conversation point on a current affairs show. But the politicians in power don't care why you're not voting, as long as the ones who do, vote to maintain their status quo. 

For decades, voting has been the revolutionary act. 

It was revolutionary when the Chartists did it. It was revolutionary when the Suffragettes took to the streets. It was revolutionary when Civil Rights activists marched on Washington. It was revolutionary during the Arab Spring, as people took to the streets to fight for an end to dictatorships and demand the right to the vote. 

It was revolutionary when men and women fought and died for it. When they gave their freedoms and their lives. 

Not voting isn’t revolutionary. It’s a negative. It’s just a not. It’s not recorded, it’s shrugged off. It changes nothing. 

I know how bad politics looks today. Here in the UK, we have a bunch of politicians who argue amongst themselves, contradict one another to make political points, snuggle up to big business and have a list of principles you could fit on the back of a stamp. 

But that system doesn’t change by us taking ourselves out of the conversation. Not voting doesn’t change anything. 

That’s why they didn’t let us vote for so long. 

Voting is the result of revolutions and revolts.

I feel proud every time I vote. I feel connected to those brave women and men who fought for my right to mark the cross in that box, and I feel respect for those still fighting for that right. It is a right that was hard won and is easily removed. 

And of course I was furious when my last vote was betrayed by the Lib Dems. But it is too precious a right to throw away because of bad politicians. It is the badness of politicians that makes it even more important to preserve the rights we have to demand change. 

I’ll leave the last word to Hunter S. Thompson

Vote. It ain’t much. But it’s the only weapon we have against the greedheads.’


Anybody who thinks that 'it doesn't matter who's President' has never been Drafted and sent off to fight and die in a vicious, stupid war on the other side of the world--or been beaten and gassed by Police for trespassing on public property--or been hounded by the IRS for purely political reasons--or locked up in the Cook County Jail with a broken nose and no phone access and twelve perverts wanting to stomp your ass in the shower. That is when it matters who is President or Governor or Police Chief. That is when you will wish you had voted.’

Russell Brand has good points to make and he makes them well (when he's not patronising women). But he isn’t the one facing the bedroom tax. He isn’t the one whose life is being disregarded by politicians, because those politicians believe they don't have to care about certain demographics. After all, those demographics don't vote. 


Paul Trembath said...

Well said. Voting is the one tiny, precious lever they allow us to have and if we all pull together it can make a difference - not usually because individual votes make a difference, but because they know we are watching and fear that some of us will understand and remember.

Brand's not really a Messiah, even if he plays one on stage. He may actually be a revolutionary of sorts, but don't confuse him with Che Guevara. Who he is doesn't matter nearly as much as what he says. The MSM and some (you may think) unlikely allies want to cherry-pick and refute the things he said, or can credibly be presented as having said, about voting and revolution; those arguments were more nuanced than many of the supposed rebuttals. Voting may very well seem to be a futile exercise in the face of cynical, systematic oppression; we desperately need change that is at least somewhat revolutionary in scale and kind.

The message being smothered is that democracy is broken; the system is crooked and being deliberately made worse; and it does not have to be like this. Brand is pushing effetely against the Overton window so that more of us understand that we can talk about this; eventually it may become slightly more possible for the political establishment to work for the people and not quite so much for the wealthy and the powerful.

That's an effort that we need to applaud, support, and amplify.

liberationislife said...

With respect, I think these ideas undo important lessons of feminist struggle.

Voting is *not* revolutionary, and not voting does *not* 'take one out of the conversation', because bourgeois parliamentarism is not an institution of democracy. Its purpose is not to ensure that the say of the masses is taken into account, but rather to ensure a deluded compliance with the current state of affairs in which the capitalist class makes the decisions and the parliament serves that class by presenting a facade of democracy in which they always make decisions that benefit the capitalist class in some way. The 'say of the people' is limited to which person we elect to 'represent' us for three or four years, but those people are basically those which the bourgeois press and education system say we should elect: those willing to represent the capitalist class.

When women won the vote, this was an advance for two reasons:
1. People assume that bourgeois laws represent the ways things should be. So without the female suffrage, they are more inclined to assume women do not deserve even that meagre 'opportunity', and they assume this is because we are unfit to participate in politics.
2. It gave women the ability to advance *beyond* the bourgeois consciousness that tells us that equal rights under the law is all we need to end oppression. It enabled us to advance to seeing that getting the vote has *not* solved all (let alone much) female oppression, and that we need to think radically out of that box in order to advance the struggle.

This blog post effectively erases one of these gains of female suffrage.

I vote, because my vote marginally helps getting a few more progressive candidates elected, and these candidates slightly alter the 'voice' projected by parliament, and give material assistance to progressive campaigns.

But I know that the capitalist class will never allow a major transformation of society to occur via bourgeois elections, and so I don't put most of my energies into electoralism/ parliamentarism. This enables me to put them somewhere where I can make a difference - building mass struggles of the oppressed with a view to building institutions that genuinely support the oppressed and can one day supplant the organs of capitalist rule (organs which are also inherently male-centred, racist and female-oppressing).

Let's not delude ourselves that there's a point in 'conversing' with the likes of David Cameron. Our aim should not be to win him over, but to collaborate with the oppressed on building class consciousness so that we act, collectively and via organising, in our class interests.