At least three Guardian columnists (to my knowledge) have recently responded to comedian Russell Brand’s dismissal of the value of taking part in elections. None, however, discussed the value of voting in the context of neoliberalism.
Across and around at least the leadership (past and present) of the three largest UK political parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat) there has coalesced a neoliberal consensus, marked by obsession with low taxation, deregulation of the corporate sector, (re-) regulation of the public, conversion of welfare to workfare and penal-fare, and privatisation. Since (at least) the 1970s, the political classes have become impelled by the inability – even immorality – of government as a means to improve the public welfare, or common wealth.
The public has been conditioned to believe – by politicians themselves, by thinktanks that produce them and think for them, and by a media which (almost) never questions any of this state of affairs – that politicians can only fail at best; or at worst, are in it “for themselves”. But then, in the neoliberal utopia, we are all “in it for ourselves”.
In a society where everything is to be mediated by money, it’s clearly absurd to expect politicians – indeed entire governments – to be motivated by public service which they sincerely believe to be wrong. It therefore makes little sense to retain old-fashioned notions of “the vote” as being something a citizen (subject, of course, in the UK) exercises in an act of civic responsibility or duty. The subject has no responsibility to the state, only to his/her selfish interests.
Our elites have in any case declared themselves (as did the Cynic so many of them studied in PPE) to be citizens of the world, sovereign like the global corporations they court, laundered together with their unpaid taxes). They are the elect, a higher state than the elected; above and out of reach of our state and its puny government.
The vote thus becomes, like the examinations certificate (see previous posts), a voucher, to purchase policies which meet our individual selfish needs. Everyone will seek to cash-in their vote for the politician who offers the best return. We reach the moral limit of the marketisation of politics.
Of course, we all know that our votes – even combined – don’t have purchasing power equivalent to the global corporate behemoths (either directly or indirectly through the lobbyists and thinktanks). If the elections since 1979 have taught us anything – and the Coalition is the most egregious example until its successor – it’s that our elections have been turned into a sideshow. Not even bread and circuses. No damn bread, no damn circus.
What we also know – not least because Oliver Letwin helpfully spelt it out for us in his book – is that our votes are exchanged for lies and not even for promises. Our Parties compile election manifestos to hide from us what they will do.
Neoliberalism is wholly incompatible with democracy as we think we understand it. Democracy is based on social and collaborative values; on civic virtue and civic responsibility: neoliberalism is based on selfishness and individualism.
As Costas Lapavitsas wrote – in the Guardian:
“Ultimately, financialisation will not be reversed without an ambitious programme to re-establish the superiority of the social over the private, and the collective over the individual in contemporary society.”
Substitute “neoliberalism” for “financialisation”, and say it again.