The case against voting

I think spoiling your ballot or not voting at all is always legitimate and often a good idea

To dispense with a caveat: I think Russell Brand is a twatmuffin. Any overlap of opinion is purely coincidental.

But I do think spoiling your ballot or not voting at all is always legitimate and often a good idea.

As it happens, I will be voting in this election. On careful consideration, I’ve decided that supporting the non-democracy-related activities of PBP is more important than voicing my objection to parliamentary politics, but I’d probably conclude differently if it were an AAA candidate in my constituency (not least because of their appalling record on sex workers’ rights).

Bear in mind, then, that the point I’m making isn’t necessarily that voting is objectively wrong. It’s that the case for conscientious non-voting is generally denied the open-minded consideration that liberal democracy claims to grant to everyone. It deserves a fair hearing, and this is my attempt to give it one.

The validity of refusing to vote is probably the most unpopular opinion I hold. (Well, among my Trinity friends, anyway; it’s funny how people benefiting from liberal democracy tend to be more invested in it.) In a large part, I’m writing this article because I’ve talked to lots of people about this strange little view of mine and it’d be nice to have something to just link them to rather than have to explain it over and over.

For reasons that will become apparent, I’ll be making an extended comparison to McDonald’s.

Say you’re ethically opposed to the slaughter of animals. Say you don’t care how free their range, how grass-fed their days, how sweet the lullabies the farmers sing to them at night. Say you think butchering a cow so you can munch on its fat is always wrong, and your aim is to achieve a society where cows are never butchered.

Do you concentrate your limited resources on getting people to go vegan and finding ways for them to feed themselves, or do you focus on getting McDonalds to buy pasteurised carcasses instead of their factory-farmed cousins?

I don’t think this question has a “duh” answer, but the first approach is worth sitting with for a moment. Fostering vegan communities, even on a purely pragmatic level, might make more sense than trying to make McDonalds behave. It makes a vegan lifestyle more accessible to people who share your convictions. It persuades people not yet on board that veganism is a viable way of running society that they should give some thought. Building up pockets of veganism in the world means that you don’t sound like a woolly Arts Block bohemian when you propose veganism to non-vegans. You have concrete examples to point to and you can explain exactly how these communities survive without meat.

By contrast, you might feel that McDonalds are always going to be pretty non-vegan. It’s in their DNA. You can shift the margins, but a small concentration of bleeding-heart lobbyists aren’t going to change a multinational’s core operations when the majority of their target market don’t care.

Moreover, you’re implicitly endorsing that the consumption of meat is inevitable. Aside from anything else, you need to sell people on your proposed reforms; jadedly pointing out that your current campaign focus is insignificant in the grand scheme of your ideology won’t get you very far. So your statements get chirpier and chirpier about the wonders of comparatively kind meat-farming, and harder and harder to distinguish from the rhetoric of meat-farmers.

Is the “Supporting veganism is better than reforming McDonalds” argument clear? Then let’s apply it to the state.

If your objection to the state isn’t that it should be nicer but that it shouldn’t exist, then cultivating alternative ways of running society might the most effective way to enact your views. Tweaking who runs capitalism might seem, to you, a bit like tweaking how much legroom the hens get before they’re squashed into nuggets. All the money and energy you pour into costly and often fruitless electoral campaigns could have been poured into spaces and organisations outside the state’s auspices: unions, homeless shelters, syndicates, squats.

This is especially the case if you believe that parliamentary politics have to change once the reality on the ground has altered. To get back to McDonalds, in an increasingly vegan society, they start to look out of touch if they’re the only hen-squasher. If they keep squashing hens, they might get the boot in a society increasingly sceptical of hen-squashing – so they start enacting the changes that the McDonalds-reformists wanted in the first place. So it mightn’t even be a case of giving up on electoral reform in favour of non-state organisation; plausibly, non-state organisation makes state reform happen sooner.

Not voting is relevant here because – still sitting with the view I’ve described above – you, as a socialist, might be distressed that socialist organisations are concentrating on trying to get people elected. Your one vote for socialism is a drop in a 4.596 million-strong ocean.  

Comparatively, that same vote carries more influence within socialist parties for the simple reason that there are fewer voters. Not voting could be an effective way of telling a socialist party that you’d rather they concentrate on direct means of enacting socialism (preferably accompanied by letting them know directly, of course).

I’ve started with a theoretical explanation because I don’t just want to preach to people who’ve heard that part of the argument, but let’s be clear that this approach has practical incarnations. Endorsing political candidacy is a decision to spend huge amounts of money on a candidate who’ll achieve little in office even if they get elected. That is potentially just as “champagne socialist” as not caring about abortion or unemployment benefits.

If there are people who don’t vote because they think ideological purity dissolves them of caring about marginalised people, that’s terrible and I disagree with them entirely. Rather, the non-voting justification I envisage is that using the money to directly achieve things you could work towards within the Dáil – compiling emergency travel funds for women needing abortions, or using it to support workers’ families when they go on strike – does two things: it benefits those people more directly in the here and now, and it makes it too embarrassing for parliamentary politics not to catch up with them eventually.

When groups outside the state are giving the population things the state cannot, that threatens the cosy assumption on which liberalism relies: that we need the state to organise ourselves. For that reason, the state will either start offering those things or collapse under its own ridiculousness. Either, to a socialist, is good.

I’ve foregrounded the pragmatic case for not voting because I know what 90 per cent of you have in the back of your minds: “It’s well for you in your Trinity bubble, prioritising your precious ideological purity over people’s lives.” I totally agree that it would be heartless to put notionsy pinko hygiene above other people’s material wellbeing, and that’s why I’ve emphasised the practical argument against voting.

Principally, I’m as opposed to authoritarian governance as a vegan is to the consumption of meat. Where I think voting violates this principle but makes the lives of vulnerable people incrementally better, I vote. But there’s a plausible case that it doesn’t always, and I hope you’ll give that case the same reflection most people are willing to show to beliefs that fit within social democracy.