The ballot box cannot contain our desires.
Government is not the limit of our imagination.
Most people have few hopes or fears for what a change of government can bring, and the common attitude towards politicians and politics in general is one of cynicism. Perhaps at most you might think one party might be slightly less bad than the others? The best of a bad bunch? After all, if you’re actually involved in one of the parties, you’d be one of a tiny minority, and if you even bothered to vote in some recent elections you’d have been in a minority too. Has it always been this way?
Perhaps people used to be more passionate about elections. The end of 18 years of Conservative rule in 1997 provoked at least a whiff of enthusiasm before the inevitable reality of business as usual set in – the business of inequality, exploitation and war under “New” Labour. But who has illusions of great things coming from the contenders for our votes now? What will come from the captains of industry who talk of a green economy, the war-mongers who talk of fairness, or from the petty racists of the ‘far right’ and bickering chieftains of the ‘far left’ who pose as the radical opposition? Most of us know the answer to that all too well, and it shows in our apathy to the whole charade.
Is this grey, cynical weighing up of the least bad all that political activity can be? We think not, and believe us, we don’t want your vote either. Politics has become a dirty word through the grubby pretence our rulers go through every few years of allowing us to choose between Pepsi or Coke flavoured government for the next half a decade. But everyday life is political too, whether we call it that or not. Every day that we go to work through financial necessity, unable to control what we produce, that is political. Every day our taxes are collected and used to wage war is a political issue. Every piece of sexist or racist abuse shouted on a street is political, no less than the advertisements we’re surrounded by, the contents of newspapers, of TV programs, of websites. So much, from the large scale to the small, is pervaded with ideas of power, of control, of exploitation. This is very much political, and so is what we do or don’t do about it. But if everyday life is political, then everyday life is also where politics must be discussed, worked out and sometimes fought over, not separated off into a specialisation, a profession, or an institution.
Limiting politics to the separate realm of elections and institutions serves to turn us into passive consumers of politics rather than active participants, much as we’re supposed to be in the rest of our lives. Under capitalism and democracy we’re seen as individuals with the freedom to choose, whether we’re choosing which car to buy, or which party to vote for in an election, or even whether to go on strike according to the allowed legal procedure. But how much power and influence do we have as individual-freely-choosing citizens in our supermarket society of ‘choices’? If nothing else, the fact that joining campaign groups and charities is popular shows that we mostly know the answer to that question. But if isolated individuals have no power over their own lives, no power to make changes, then the kind of coming together of isolated individuals you get in most campaign groups isn’t much better. Join the group, receive the newsletter, maybe elect the leaders if you’re lucky, and most importantly, don’t forget to pay your dues. Sound familiar? Perhaps its time to remember that we can’t change things for the better with a weak imitation of the structures that are busy making things worse.
We only stop being isolated individuals, stop being powerless, when we come together face to face to make decisions and act together. Whether its at work, in our communities, or maybe out on the streets to protest, we reinvent politics when we come together as equals and take action over the things that matter to us, and then see who else will come along with us. Instead of waiting for 51% of people to agree to our theoretical plans, we can start by doing.
Creating inspiring examples has a momentum all of its own: blocking a residential street used as a high speed short cut, occupying and running a nursery closed through council cuts, demanding better pay or just more respect at work and then going slow or walking out to get it, setting up a community garden where a supermarket wants to set up, stopping those who try and divide us with race. These are just a few examples around us right now of the kind of politics that can build confidence and collective power, getting results where delegating our power away gets us nothing, a multitude of starting points with the potential to grow and link up. And who knows where that could lead?
If you still feel the need to vote for the least bad option then go ahead. Who knows, maybe it really will be slightly less bad. Just remember that real politics lies elsewhere…