A fetish is an object or abstraction to which people attribute an unnatural, even mystical power. It takes on a symbolic and mythic value which goes beyond any measurable or practical value we can observe. It is something that we create which we believe has power over others. Money, brand names, flags and cars are all great examples. And while once upon a time religions served this purpose, for over a century we’ve seen ideologies, pseudoscience and rhetoric serve these mythic purposes without the aid of any supernatural forces or beings.
Over a century ago, Karl Marx coined one of his most famous terms, “commodity fetishism”, to describe the worship of production, products and money by the new capitalist class. And given the obscene focus we now see on amorphous concepts like “brand identity”, it’s hard to deny. There’s a sort of worship of jobs, investment and commerce which goes beyond any actual look at what’s being produced or why. But economics aren’t everything, especially when narrowly defined within the capitalist world of cash and investment. In the world of politics, and especially the state, one act, one system and one ritual have come to define freedom, democracy and legitimacy of power. This act is known as the vote.
Every single time an election rolls around, every mouthpiece of the establishment – schools, parliament, the media and others, begin to extol the virtues of voting. The fact that we get to vote once every few years for a handful of “representatives” proves that we have a free society. Voting becomes the ultimate act of political expression, and through it all things are possible. Voting is democracy.
This communal act of blessing extends to everything which the electoral process touches. Parties are democratic, parliament is democratic, the laws they pass are democratic, the ministries and bureaucracies they create are democratic, and everything done in the past is democratic too. Every aspect of the state and everything it does is mythically traced back to “voters”.
This proves, of course, that anything the government does to us is, in the end, our own fault. And this in turn means that when the system fails, it’s because we failed as a people, or because there’s something wrong with “democracy” itself. And when governments don’t do what we want, the solution we’re offered is more voting. If we performed the rain dance, and rains didn’t come, the obvious conclusion is that we did the dance wrong, and need to work harder next time, right?
Because voting is democracy, to criticize parliament, the way we vote, or suggest alternative means of political action becomes a tacit attack on democracy. It becomes taboo, and is shunned. If our political system is the epitome of freedom, it stands to reason that everything and everyone else must be less free. Other political models and their followers are frequently described purely in relation to this notion of democracy: socialists, Muslims and indigenous peoples must be radicals, militants and extremists. Anyone who doesn’t fit into one of these pseudo-terroristic categories is assumed to either be lying, or sadly ignorant of the true evil nature of their ideas. The solution most offered is to “move to Russia”, where apparently there have never been any elections.
One of the chief sins is not voting at all. Non-participation carries a stiff social penalty – “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain”. These taboos become ingrained because of the fear of “losing” elections. Because they’re so rare, and everything in society “depends” on them, we can’t dare risk the other guys getting in. We need to vote to appease the party-gods that rule us or we risk their wrath. And more importantly, we need to out-vote rival sects, or their gods will take power.
The two chief sects are the “Liberals” and “Conservatives”. Each claims ruin if the other is to “win” parliament, even though most of their policies are indistinguishable. There are also a few smaller sects which may win seats, but have never won power. Allying with one of the two major sects brings the policy equivalent of “good mojo”, where one’s region, business, and demographic get preferential treatment. This treatment is provided in favourable policies, tax cuts, subsidies, “jobs” and infrastructure programs. And as favouring one group this way tends to disadvantage others, it only deepens the sectarian differences.
Smaller sects are kept from rising to power by the way in which votes are counted and seats are awarded. If followers of one or the other major party shift their votes to a smaller party (such as the NDP, Greens, Bloc or Reform) which better suits their views, the seat is awarded to the other major party. This happens on both both the “left” and “right” in different ways – the NDP continues to hold many seats, as does the Bloc, but so far no coalition has emerged to challenge the Conservatives, who have held power as a result. On the right, by amalgamating the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Party, voters have in many ways been left with the worst of both – a direct importation of American-style republican politics. Most notably missing, of course, are Preston Manning’s proposed electoral reforms.
This partisan terror that “the other guys might get in” is a key element in the hold which voting has over us. It goes beyond how we vote into every corner of political action, theory and activism. If we don’t extol the virtues of voting to everyone we come across, we risk “our side” having a slightly lower voter turnout. Whether we’re enthusiastic or cynical, we need to beg everyone, all the time, to vote, or else. Especially in times of crisis, even when brought on by past failures of this very system.
When complaints get worse, particularly around how not democratic our supposed Democracy is, advocates of “voting” attack the notion of democracy itself. Because, as mentioned above, voting shifts the blame for bad policies and systemic failures to the voters themselves, it proves we are not capable or worthy of governing ourselves. When these ugly questions do crop up, the official position is that our system is as “democratic” as it can possibly be, perhaps even “too democratic”. To offer any more input to any more people would mean bringing our society to its knees at the hands of “special interests” and “NIMBY groups”. Since everything the government wrong is ultimately the fault of people who voted (or didn’t), it stands to reason that we can’t be trusted.
The ritual of voting, of course, isn’t actually terribly democratic. It offers about a byte’s worth of data (about as much as a single letter or number of digital text) every 2-5 years per person per level of government. At best we’re given a choice between five or ten candidates, only two or three of which have a “chance of winning” under our archaic voting system (first-past-the-post). Whoever wins gets a few years of virtually unchallenged power, the ability to govern as they wish (or as their party dictates) and lot of airtime. Every election is skewed by the presence of enormous private donations and helpful press in the privately owned media. And predictably, the choices of Parliament rarely reflect the views of Canadians in polls. Voting for parties and candidates conflates all the issues into a single decision. It is impossible to know from a single vote or a million how the people who voted actually feel on any given issue, or whether they still feel that way a year or two later. It gives the public, collectively, access to one lever of power, and then uses that “mandate” as a blank cheque.
Perhaps we need to vote harder.
To say that this ritual exists only to glorify and legitimize the state would be a mistake. The fact that elections are so popular only proves that the idea of democracy is unbelievably popular. For a modern-day nation-state, some form of voting is nearly essential to state survival. This basic equation of voting and legitimacy is used time after time to justify wars against “dictators” in the name of democracy. The question of “legitimacy” is more than academic – without a basic faith in the government, ruling a nation becomes very difficult. And without them, nations like China and Saudi Arabia are faced with the need for frequent ugly crackdowns on protesters and others at levels far beyond ours. Elections, like many workplace rights, exist as a crucial concession from those in power – just enough democracy to forestall revolution. The entire process of elections, parliaments and public consultations is geared to allow government to function in spite of the people, not of, by or for us.
I’m not saying we should never vote. If anything, we should vote much more often, in far more ways and over far more issues. But a few ballots granting one-third majorities to people widely recognized as corrupt, inept and dishonest only gives the illusion of choice. Our elections are far more an act of faith than logic – an act of token devotion to petty electoral gods, over whom we have little real influence. It’s a glorification of the system, which defines “democracy” exclusively in terms dictated by those with power over us. And there’s nothing democratic at all about that.
The first and most crucial step in actually gaining “democracy” is to shatter our illusions about our electoral system. Whether we vote, stay home, spoil our ballots or stand there and eat them in the middle of the polling station, we need to abandon our faith that any one of these acts will bring “meaningful change”. The state does not “work for” the Canadian people, it rules us. Voting doesn’t change that. And only an honest look at the government for what it is, not what it claims to be, can lead us out of the mess we’re in. If government functions in spite of us, then we must act in spite of it. States never have embraced this kind of change, and aren’t about to start soon. Power concedes nothing without a demand. So plant a garden, block a road, chain yourself to something or go on strike. Hold a sign somewhere, hand out some flyers or just grab a megaphone. But put your faith in people and not myths or idols. And certainly not in governments.