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September 25, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Trauma of the Non-Voter

Voter turnout has been declining steadily in Aotearoa since the mid-1950s. Turnout spiked in 1984; this was to be the high-water mark for voter participation, with 93.7 per cent of those enrolled to vote turning out at the polls. The 2011 and 2014 elections saw official turnout — the per cent of those enrolled who voted — fall into the low 70s. Just 69.6 per cent of those eligible to vote did so in 2011, with a slight improvement in 2014 to 72.1 per cent; the lowest and second lowest turnouts in Aotearoa’s history since universal suffrage was introduced in 1893. This downturn has been a consistent trend over the last several decades throughout almost all Western democracies.

This decline disturbs many. The liberals, in particular, are worried: the rising numbers of non-voters disrupts their democratic fantasy, their narrative of a harmonious democratic society. It also prompts a range of questions: why are people turning away from the polls? Who is the non-voter? What can be done about it? For the New Zealand Electoral Commission, non-voters are “not so much disillusioned with the political system as uninterested in it and disconnected from it.” For them, it is lack of interest and motivation that is seeing many neglect to enrol or cast a ballot. Non-voters come from all parts of Aotearoa, but are concentrated among the young, among Māori, Pasifika, and Asian ethnic groups, the materially poor or unemployed, and those with low levels of formal education. The response? For the Electoral Commission, “The values and culture that underpin [democracy] need to be learned and nurtured” — we must “encourage people to value their vote.” Outreach programs to increase the accessibility and attractiveness of voting have been common responses of the Electoral Commission, along with calls for better civics education. It seems this sentiment is almost universally echoed by liberals around the world — the Gareth Morgan’s have emerged, telling us to Care. Think. Vote.

But such understandings of the non-voter and the responses to turnout decline operate on a rather superficial level. They fail to look deep inside the system of liberal democratic capitalism, to consider its contradictions. They fail to think: could the non-voter perhaps represent a deeper problem in our liberal democracy, a wider failing at the heart of global capitalist society? The hype that has surrounded the 2017 election, the topsy-turvy polls, and a deluge of campaigns to get the vote out, will probably give us a slight bump in turnout this year. But the non-voter will remain, as will the inability of the liberal parliamentary system — a system subordinate to the “laws of the market,” to maintaining economic growth, and safeguarding the property of the wealthy — to represent the interests of the people in any real way.

So we should reframe the issue. It is not a matter of ironing out kinks in the existing system — it is a matter of confronting the system’s internal limits, of mapping both the actuality and the potentiality of democracy today.

* * *

So how are we to map the state of democracy today? A first port of call here should be the continuing fallout from the 2007 and 2008 economic crisis, or, as it’s sometimes called, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). This pitched Western liberal democracy, and the capitalist system at large, into a state of interregnum, characterised by instability and ongoing crisis. I like this word: interregnum — a situation in which the old is dying but the new cannot yet be born. It doesn’t just capture the political and economic situation, but the spirit of the times generally — the inability to imagine beyond our present horizon.

For some, this state of interregnum indicates we are in a period of hegemonic crisis. Global capitalism currently lacks a coherent project — a dominant logic under which to organise, and a dominant set of powers to steer it. Prior to 2008, we could say that global capitalism was organised under a coherent project — that of finance, of financialising everything — and there were relatively high levels of consent for this project. But the GFC undermined the stability and legitimacy of this hegemonic formation; it revealed, when states began bailing out the banks, the hypocrisy of the free market; it stripped away the myth that everyone benefits from globalisation, that everyone benefits from economic growth.

Within this hegemonic crisis, a fundamental tension has been exposed. Liberal democracy has long had to balance two conflictual commitments: “government by the people” and “government for the people”, or alternatively, “representative government” and “responsible governance.” The former refers to the popular aspect of liberal democracy that supposes citizen involvement in elections and so on; the latter refers to things like the maintenance of formally equal legal rights and the safeguarding of private property. With the turn towards neoliberalism and the simultaneous globalisation of capital, the past several decades have, in the words of another, “hollowed out” the representative component of liberal democracy. We have seen the ascendency of responsible governance over representative government. While there are many factors that have contributed to this shift, here I’ll just highlight three.


One: the interests of the market have replaced the interests of the people

Democratic capitalist states must negotiate between the interests of their citizen base and those of the capitalist market at large. From 1945 to the mid 1970s, governments were generally able to strike a balance between these two sets of interests, as markets were largely contained within states and labour was able to bring collective bargaining power to bear through strong trade unions. But the onset of stagflation (falling rates of economic growth combined with high levels of inflation) across capitalist economies in the 1970s saw capital shift to the neoliberal regime to ensure continued economic growth. This development of neoliberal policy and the rapid globalisation of capital from the late 1970s has seen markets shift outside the control of national governments.

This freeing up of capital via neoliberal-globalisation has meant that large corporations are able to pick and choose which states they want to invest capital in. States must now offer favourable conditions for corporate investment — they must respond to the market; they must responsibly manage the economy. This was largely achieved by reinstituting regressive tax systems and deregulating labour from the late 1970s onward. To do this, states had to borrow exorbitantly to cover their remaining fiscal spending. Later, loans were increasingly privatised, allowing states to consolidate their debt. The GFC, though, forced states to bail out bankrupt financial institutions in order to stabilise the market; again, debt was socialised. But this new round of borrowing has meant that states must once again look to consolidate their debt, to ensure the financial markets that they are trustworthy borrowers. Enter austerity policy: a political commitment by states to place their obligations to creditors above all others. So, the equation has flipped: states are now located in markets, and so responsible governance outranks representative government as the order of the day.


Two: power is devolving to the technocrats

Since 2008, technocratic institutions such as, in the case of the European Union, the European Central Bank (ECB), that are heavily insulated from democratic pressure, have been able to assume more control over economic policy. Because institutions such as the ECB are not subject to democratic processes, in times of crisis, when both the economy and public opinion is unstable, these institutions are able to further insulate themselves and emerge, according to one thinker, as “agents of stability.” In Europe, such institutions have managed to exert an increasing influence over the fiscal policy of sovereign states (see the shameless disregard for Greek sovereignty by the Troika and an austerity-mad Germany). At home, too, the Treasury and the Reserve Bank — both insulated from democratic accountability — wield a great deal of power. Under claims of maintaining stability and economic growth, these non-democratic institutions are able to siphon economic decision making away from popular oversight. Again, as economic policy is taken further out of their hands, states are less able to be responsive to their citizens.


Three: the rise of inequality, the rise of oligarchy

As is now commonly acknowledged, neoliberal-globalisation has also retrenched economic inequality both in Aotearoa and around the globe. One consequence is that, in contemporary liberal democracies, the ability of the working classes to pressure the state is increasingly limited, compared to the ability of those in the top ten per cent of earners. For instance, declining investment in the public sphere combined with the privatisation of essential services means that, because they have the material resources to do so, the middle and upper-middle classes shift toward the consumption of private services. Consequently, while declining fiscal investment negatively impacts the living standards of lower classes, it also has the effect of further entrenching middle and capitalist class demands for private sector development. As the public sector is further stripped away, the voting-bloc made up of higher-income citizens demands more private resources that the lower-income sectors of society cannot afford; as a result, governments are further incentivised to hollow out public investment.

More striking, perhaps, is the power that can be brought to bear by extremely wealthy individuals — the oligarchs. For Jeffrey Winters, oligarchs are “actors who command and control massive concentrations of material resources that can be deployed to defend or enhance their personal wealth and exclusive social position.” These actors are unified by their shared interest in “the politics of wealth defence.” Lobbying groups, right wing think-tanks, large teams of lawyers, and massive campaign donations to favourable candidates protect regressive tax policies and stonewall any attempts to impose asset taxes. While this is not nearly as entrenched at home as it is in other comparable places like the US and Britain, money still talks, and so the ability of governments to be responsive to their citizens further diminishes.

These shifts that we have seen, since the onset of neoliberalism, and accelerating since 2008, tell a particular story: that of the continued insulation of economic decision making — decision making on the fundamental material conditions of existence — from democratic accountability and pressure.

But the fallout from the GFC has also seen a rise in social unrest, some of which has spilled into the parliamentary sphere (Corbyn and Brexit in Britain; Sanders and Trump in the US; Podemos in Spain, and so on). There are some signs, then, that parliamentary parties are having to, in the words of one commentator, “relearn what responsiveness means.” At this point, Aotearoa is yet to experience comparable unrest; so far, dissatisfaction with the current status quo has only rebirthed lukewarm social democratic policies. This has been accompanied by a fetishising of the supposed golden years of liberal democracy in the ’50s and ’60s, years where a balance of sorts was struck between capital and labour. Missing from this rosy view of the past is the acknowledgment that then we had strong trade unions and collective workers’ rights generally, very high income tax rates on the wealthy, and a national economy that was far better insulated from the whims of the global market — all properly absurd notions in today’s political common sense (Jacinda, for instance, agrees that neoliberalism has failed, but doesn’t think monetary policy needs to be changed, and shares with Bill a distaste for strikes). So, despite the recent upheavals, it seems the spirit of interregnum remains. So far the collective response to this unpalatable present has been to simply turn our gaze back toward better times.

* * *

So where do we locate the non-voter in all of this? A first observation would be that they are perhaps not some apathetic, disinterested subject who shirks their citizen duties, but rather a symptom of a wider democratic malaise; a morbid symptom of a civilisation in which democracy has been “hollowed out.” But we should also pay attention to the present climate of crisis and hegemonic instability. While this has seen an erosion of democracy and democratic legitimacy, and the insulation of the economic from the political, it has also seen a return of popular discontent, a discontent that is unable to be managed by the parliamentary realm. What is particularly interesting about the present moment is that, while this enclosure of the economic from the political is more entrenched than ever, it is also increasingly visible; it is widely known that this is the case. And since 2008, the entire system appears to be at risk of imploding. So while democracy under capitalism is increasingly more of a joke, capitalism itself is looking increasingly less governable. But where there is instability there is opportunity.

Those who still have faith in the current system, those who are wilfully ignorant — in a word, the liberals — rightly fear this instability. They fear what declining voter numbers could mean. But when the voters deliver the wrong outcome — when Britain votes to leave the EU, or America elects Donald Trump — liberals’ supposed love of democracy is exposed for the lie it is. They hasten to blame the ignorant under-classes and disavow the legitimacy of such results. But they fail to see their own complicity in these events, they fail to see that their own blind faith in the project of neoliberal-globalisation was only ever the dream of a middle-class weaned on the promise of a revolution that they betrayed. It was never universally desired; it was never inevitable. So as this project comes apart, as fissures open up across it like so much baked mud, liberals must find a target for their scorn — they turn their fury toward those who didn’t vote or those who voted incorrectly.

Of course, they’re correct: democracy is in crisis. But they look for answers in all the wrong places. They refuse to recognise that maybe capitalism, liberalism, and democracy make for one really dysfunctional threesome, a clumsy attempt at polyamory.

Where, then, does the promise of the non-voter lie? Perhaps it is that their continued existence suggests there could be something more to politics than what the liberal democratic system can give us under capitalism — something more than a vote, than the reduction of one’s political being to pure opinion, to a simple choice between different strategies of management. That perhaps there is some element of the political not able to be captured by the liberal democratic apparatus, not able to be tamed and measured, to be quantified. That perhaps the political is not a system of management, of parliamentary governance; that perhaps it is the fundamental clash between different realities, between different life-forms. Even, perhaps, that politics contains some vital excess that cannot be grasped in parliament or by parliament, that there is a bodily vitality to politics that goes beyond the minimal levels we are currently afforded — something gestural. This all disturbs the liberals; it disrupts their fantasy of the harmonious democratic society, organised around the sensible accumulation of capital, around private property and the right of the individual to make their fortune; organised around periodically casting a vote for who you think will best manage the economy. And so, as some others write, “a world which believed it had completely insulated itself has discovered evil at its core, among its children.”


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