Thursday, 7 November 2013

To Vote or Not To Vote: Looking At Russell Brand with a Theological Lens

Comedian and actor Russell Brand made quite a stir recently for an interview he gave to Jeremy Paxman in which Brand explained his reasons for not voting and his impassioned hopes for political revolution. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a link:

The interview created an enormous amount of opinion, both for and against. One of Brand’s most vociferous critics was another British actor/comedian, Robert Webb, who accused Brand of political ‘timidity’ for not voting and for calling on other people not to vote. Webb suggested that he should better educate himself by reading ‘some fucking Orwell’.

I don’t think it’ll be a huge shock to anyone to know that I think Brand is amazing in this video. His arguments and his delivery are incredible. It reminded me of Jon Stewart’s appearance on the CNN show Crossfire in October 2004, when he made hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala- as well as the entire format of the show- look hapless and tired. Stewart’s point- that head-to-head political argument shows (like Crossfire) were not simply benign but actually damaging to public debate- was scathing. This has interesting correlations with Brand’s criticism’s of Paxman and Newsnight. I also think it’s prescient that the Crossfire hosts- particularly Carlson- had the same reaction to Stewart that Paxman had to Brand: they discounted his argument because he was a comedian and an entertainer. But Stewart kept pressing his point, insisting that the show made little or no substantive contribution to a healthy democracy or an informed electorate. CNN cancelled Crossfire three months later.

Beyond mentioning my enjoyment and agreement, I’d like to comment on the issues Brand raised from two standpoints- as an anarchist and as a theologian.

Those who reap the most benefits of the political system as it is currently run- politicians, political operatives, the media machine- have a natural interest in maintaining it and insisting that it’s the only way to get anything done. I think that’s why they get so defensive when anyone raises the idea that the electoral system is actually quite dysfunctional and there might be myriad of ways of getting things done. And that’s what Brand seems to be saying- that voting isn’t doing nearly as much good as those with a vested interest in perpetuating it want us to believe.

In that sense, I think it would be false to believe that Brand doesn’t
want to vote; he does. He just wants it to matter more than he believes it does at present. 

In this, he mirrors an anarchist critique. The notion that anarchists are opposed to voting is actually an oversimplification. It’s more accurate to say that anarchists are opposed to electoral politics and representative assemblies, a small but important distinction. Anarchists have no problem with voting- anyone who has attended an anarchist gathering will know this. Actually, they often vote more than other political organisations, where the talking is done at the beginning, a vote is taken and the debate then ends. For anarchists, voting tends to be the precursor to more discussion and persuasion. Anarchists place more value on building consensus than on gaining a majority; they tend to value people’s beliefs more than a plan or a platform- or even progress. This is often frustrating and infuriating to people who hold to other political methods, who tend to want to vote and go immediately with the will of the majority, with the minority expected to get with the programme.

This is why anarchists oppose representative assemblies, the main method of organising democracies for well over a century. They do not see this method as empowering, but the opposite; surrendering power and influence to an individual to go to the assembly and then to perhaps vote, not as their electorate wanted but in ways that might simply be politically practical or expedient- or just what they think is best, regardless of what the electorate think. Anyone who’s ever opposed a military action and watched helplessly as their elected representative voted for it anyway, or laments the huge corporate influence over government regulations knows what I’m talking about. It’s certainly what Brand is talking about

This goes some way toward identifying Brand’s target. As I see it, it was the democratic system as it is presently constituted. His criticism takes practical form in refusal to participate in something so egregiously rigged against the people and issues for which he cares most. 

And it was for this that he has received so much vitriol. Voting is seen in most mature democracies as the main contribution- along with taxation- that a citizen can make. To not vote is seen as absurd and apathetic. This is often taken to the extreme of declaring that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about the government in any way.

The main question, as I see it, does not begin or end with whether or not one should vote. Rather, I think the first question should be framed as, ‘How do we empower people to help build a stable and healthy democracy?’ When we start the conversation there, voting is given its proper place- not an end in itself but a means to an end. We then are free to ask, ‘What does voting accomplish?’; ‘What effect does my vote have?’

This is the starting point, in my opinion, of an empowered populace. But it also opens up potentially difficult and uncomfortable truths. We might need to broaden our questioning into whether or not voting- in certain contexts- is largely an empty gesture… or might actually make things worse.

The nature of democratic governance and global social structures have changed so fundamentally since the advent of voting as we understand it as to be almost-completely unrecognisable. Most of the true influence and power that there is in the world is now held by individuals, groups and organisations that are nearly or totally unaccountable to any electorate. They function regardless of who wins or loses this or that election, and the policies which are made by this or that government are largely irrelevant to them.

Thus, It’s not- as some anarchists and apathetic cynics argue- that voting does nothing; but it does do increasingly little. It’s not that every political party is the same as all the others; it’s that political parties have less and less influence on so many of the issues that affect their constituents- and humanity in general.

As to Robert Webb’s criticism of Brand- intimating that to fail to vote is to risk totalitarianism- he does himself no favours in referencing Orwell. He’s obviously thinking of ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, whereas I’d encourage him to pick up ‘Homage to Catalonia’ or ‘Coming Up for Air’, which might shed more light on the point Brand is making. Simply, voting, as it is presently practiced, has done nothing to halt the spread of newer and much more insidious, but no less destructive, forms of tyranny- completely unaccountable corporations, banks, investment institutions, covert military bodies and intelligence agencies.

Put bluntly, the NSA will keep spying on you no matter how you vote;

the US military will continue to drone strike any country or individual it sees fit- regardless of international law- no matter how you vote;

publicly-owned assets and industries will be sold off to profit-making corporations, no matter how you vote;

the banks and the investment firms will pay their executives enormous bonuses, regardless of performance, ethics or morality, no matter how you vote;

illegal settlements will continue to be built in the occupied West Bank, emboldening the most intransigent and theocratic elements in Israeli society, no matter how you vote;

Shell will continue to bully and harass the people of Erris, Co. Mayo- with the full cooperation of the Gardai and the government- no matter how you vote;

the US military will continue to use Shannon Airport on Co. Clare- a civilian airport in a neutral country- to ferry troops and equipment to any number of locations around the globe no matter how you vote.

the concentration camp- I’m sorry, but there is no other term for it- at Guantanamo Bay will be kept open and the policy of illegal detention without trial will be kept in place no matter how you vote;

America will continue to expand its already-enormous national prison complex no matter how you vote;

British Aerospace, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin will still receive huge government subsidies to build and sell weapons around the globe no matter how you vote;

None of these issues is in any way affected by how anyone votes in any way. Indeed, the government would never allow them to be placed anywhere near public decision-making. As the spray paint on the walls so often says, ‘If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.’

Which brings me to my theological reflection on voting:

When thinking about voting through this lens, I’m always reminded of articles, blog posts and internet commentary that casts voting as a spiritual- as well as a civic- duty. American Christians in particular are very keen to have public and political influence, so voting scores very highly in their estimations.

I’ve often noticed, especially around election time, that this commitment to getting out the vote often takes the form of asking questions like ‘How should Christians vote?’ I’ve even seen the question asked as ‘How would Jesus vote?’ The answers proffered, from both the right and the left, are given as self-evident. From the left we are told that Jesus cared about justice and equality; he fed the hungry, clothed the naked and gave health care away for free. So a vote for a leftist or progressive is the obvious choice. From the right, we are reminded that Jesus was a strong ruler who valued human life above all else. He cared about Israel. And he cared about justice, so the only recourse is to choose a candidate who is pro-life, pro-Israel and in favour of the death penalty.

I’m probably not the only radical  Christian who is dismayed that the question is rarely stated as ‘Should Christians vote?’, at least in the mainstream discourse. But for the sake of this argument, I’m intrigued that the articles from right and left that seek to answer ‘how would Jesus vote?’ tend to overlook one important point:

Jesus didn’t vote. It wasn’t a statement on his part; he simply was never given the option to vote. Jesus was a poor man in a small country who lived out his life without ever having a say in the great issues of his day. He never lobbied the powers that be in Rome, never wrote to the emperor, and never traveled to Rome. He lived without any of the benefits of pluralism or democracy and his one encounter with political power was when it executed him.

And yet this extraordinary man, with only his message of the love of God for humanity, his vision of a kingdom of love, justice and righteousness, and his own ability to give love and care to whoever needed it, managed to start a revolution that changed the world. The incarnation of the Son of God in the human person of Jesus is- perhaps- the ultimate form of direct action.   

My Christian faith leads me to interpret the person of Jesus as our example of what can be achieved, regardless of power, prestige, influence… or voting. By saying what Jesus said- and to whom- as well as doing what Jesus did- and for whom he did it- we can work for the same radical, revolutionary social change that I believe is at the heart of Jesus’s vision of God and his justice.

It sure beats voting…

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