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On clowns, Macbeth, not voting and activism and such

My favourite cafe, where I spent the election morning, is fortunately located in Nimbin, where I live. There are many reasons to like it; it’s super-relaxed, humble, has great food, is the only cafe I know that can make decent tea, has good reading material, drawing materials, children are regarded as real people, and so on. Most of the other cafes I’ve ever been into seem to have instructed their relentlessly young staff to be uber-bubbly and call everyone ‘Guys’, as in ‘Hi Guys!!’ Also on their script is the dreaded exhortation, as the food and drinks are served up, ‘Enjoy!’

Enjoy is the ultimate command of consumer capitalism. Even when economies are collapsing, or skyscrapers being bombed into apocalyptic ruin, we are still urged to keep shopping, keep spending, to continuously enjoy the benefits of the marketplace. This will apparently maintain ‘business confidence’, and also ensures we don’t ‘cave into terrorists’.

The fundamental purpose of living has been identified and mapped out for us, and it is, Enjoy. That command echoes throughout every economic and political structure, and has percolated into our psyches I think, producing a kind of free-floating quotidian anxiety. If I don’t Enjoy, who am I? If I lack the financial wherewithal to Enjoy, life is difficult, perhaps unbearable.

The Command Economy of Pleasure exists by using democracy as a kind of sophisticated window-dressing. Governments consist of elected representatives of political organisations – the electable being first selected by those organisations – and representatives of various other power elites whose purpose is to facilitate the interests of transnational big business as those interests are defined by big business. ‘Freedom’ you may have noticed over the past few years has been increasingly equated with material affluence. Given that kind of massive and monolithic intention, and the mind-boggling greed and duplicity involved, the idea of ‘voting’ seems a little bit problematic.

There were more informal votes in this federal campaign than any of the last six, 5.65% in fact. That’s a staggering number. In other words, more of us are trying to make informal voting a kind of election option. Some of the arguments as to why we should not vote informally, or avoid the electoral process altogether, are frankly bizarre. As I sat in the cafe on Saturday morning, perusing the papers, I found an astoundingly patronising article by Stephanie Dowrick in the SMH’s weekend magazine admonishing those of us who see little point in voting. I’ve had a few arguments – or rather people have had them with me – that one is obligated to cast a vote because previous generations have suffered and died, or that many people in other nations can’t vote and therefore we should. I haven’t found either of those arguments very convincing. For starters, I don’t think people fight and die for the right to cast a vote per se. They fight for a whole lot of things, maybe for a participatory democracy, which is something else again, something I think of as a demos that radically constructs its own order while being aware that it is doing so. This would mean that we would have many more sites of a construction of democracy than we now do. For example, our workplaces, schools, businesses, political parties, institutions and so on are rarely democratic. It seems odd that we have a supposedly democratic society constructed out of a myriad of non-democratic structures. It’s as if we are all control freaks at heart.

I can’t remember who invented the phrase ‘tyranny of politicians’. I’ve been trying to recall all week. It’s an evocative phrase I think. For me it combines the sinister and the comical quite nicely. The recent federal election campaign seemed to me to be like a meeting of Macbeth and Twelfth Night, but without any jokes. It was something both brutal and surreal, like a Monty Python film scripted by Kyle Sandilands.

In Macbeth the power struggles occur in a vacuum – which I assume is the point. There’s no real sense of their being a wider world outside of the castles in which the murders and massacres take place. I imagine that this is pretty much the case in the backrooms of political parties. Power is what is at stake for them, and the only consequences that matter are those that affect the acquisition or loss of that power.

But Macbeth’s power as a play comes from the intrusion of morality and morality’s consequences into that vacuum where power rules. Morality creates fractures in the circumstance that Macbeth is trying to create, and even bigger fractures in his mind and that of his wife. In reality, in party-politics, there is no morality, and any consequences that morality might have are despised and ridiculed. Power for its own sake is all that matters and doing whatever needs to be said and done to maintain that power.

In last weekend’s federal election, the most significant national issues – the fact that we are at war, that the entire continent is teetering on the absolute brink of irrevocable ecological devastation, that our treatment of Indigenous people is almost too appalling to be described – barely rated a mention. That’s not just sinister, it’s positively psychopathic. The media rode along on the campaign trail as though they were reporting on episodes of Big Brother or Masterchef.

Of course, all this begs the question of what other political action one might take to make structural change. Jeff Sparrow said quite rightly, in his weekend Overland blog, that ‘the immediate future of progressive politics lies outside the parliamentary sphere’.

I think the options for action outside that sphere are many – if we remember what a democracy might be. I don’t want to start listing them because what I think activism is and how it should be carried through are particular to my own situation. But an urgent ongoing, all-consuming debate on a previously unimagined politics of activism, that disregards party politics and the politics of power, could begin to occupy our thinking, given that we face previously unimaginable problems. I don’t have a utopian vision myself, though I believe they are still fairly common among the politically active, at least on a rhetorical level. It seems we still can’t get enough of utopias, even though the 20th century was a graveyard of them. Whenever I hear someone of any political persuasion using utopian rhetoric to point us toward a bright and shining future based on some command principles, I want to reach for the clown make-up. In fact, the only party I’d sign up to vote for at the moment would be the one that insisted that all political representatives wear clown suits at all times. They can choose their own funny hats.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. He was writer-in-residence for the 2015 Mesmerism new music festivals. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also recently won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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  1. Great discussion of Saturday’s election, Stephen. It’s interesting and annoying that the little I’ve read of the high numbers of informal votes suggest they were the result of Mark Latham urging people to vote informally. Perhaps! However, I’m not sure that Latham is taken that seriously by large numbers of the electorate due to his own behaviour but also due to the media’s portrayal of him. Even should people have acted on Latham’s advice, it was probably because it touched a very disillusioned nerve. Surely, making a decision not to vote is equally as valid as lodging a vote. Better surely, than the first-time-voter queuing behind me who rang someone and asked who they reckoned she should vote for. The decision was made on which how-to-vote card was the most appealing. My other gripe is that the Green vote has been represented in a lot of the analysis as a protest vote. My reading is that a lot of Labor voters put a great deal of faith in the Rudd government at the last election thinking Labor would this time round be more compassionate and take action on climate change. When this didn’t come to pass they decided to vote for The Greens. Their vote was cast long before Saturday. I’m not hopeful of any great change but now that absolute power has been wrested from the two dominant parties, there is a little speck of light at the end of the tunnel.
    Thanks for the refreshing analysis.

    • Hi Trish and thanks. Yes, I too would be doubtful that hundreds of thousands of people would rush to cast informal votes on Latham’s urging. The informals seem to me like a kind of nationwide act of anger and despair.
      I agree with you on the Green vote. Rudd was obviously elected to take action on climate change and so on, and despite vast and solemn promises, did nothing, so obviously given Gillard’s non-interest in the issue people would desert to the Greens.
      The more I think about the media representation of the election campaign and now its aftermath, the worse it seems. Not just ill-informed and stupid and vapid, but so desperate to talk about anything other than what was actually taking place.

      • I also meant to say, re the Greens, that I’m betting that Labor would rather do a deal with Katter and his cronies than with the Greens in any way. If they team up with Katter, they’ll be able to more easily demonise and slander the
        Greens in the Senate. I’m guessing they’ll abandon the Green vote, seek to destroy it and fight with the Lib/Nats over the whatever they see as the floating conservative vote.

  2. Yes, great thoughts Stephen. You’ve perfectly articulated my sense that government these days here and in many other countries is all about facilitating transnational big business. That it’s democracy for capital, not for the people. And freedom is not just equated with material affluence but is focused on the free flow of capital and whatever else it is that capital wants. Hence the mining tax fiasco.

    Naomi Klein gives a good example of the power of capital over the political process in her discussion of post-apartheid politics in South Africa. The market proved to be the greatest constraint on Mandela’s new government. She says: ‘The rules were simple and crude, the electronic equivalent of monosyllabic grunts: justice – expensive, sell; status quo – good, buy.’

    And I think you’re right to say that the fact no serious issues were addressed in the election campaign is psychopathic. Again, I think this goes back to imperative of capital. For what it’s worth, when the behaviour of corporations – which have the legal status of a person – was tested against the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it was found to share many of the characteristics that define psychopaths. So it figures that if government is serving the interests of psychopathic transnational corporations, it will also be psychopathic.

    And I agree on the dangers of utopian thinking. As for what we need now to face previously unimaginable problems, I’m not sure it’s more debate on activism. I think it could be action itself that’s required.

    • Of course you’re right Jane, it is action that is required. My point is that given the calls for action, there seems – to me at least – to be something of a void sometimes as to what that action might consist of. Action and thought about action aren’t separate either, I’m thinking. I’m merely floating the idea that action might need to be rethought in some ways, and that the thinking we need might be a reinvention of some kind, given that we are in about as bad a situation globally as we can get, and what we have tried doesn’t seem tom have worked very well.I’m not suggesting we need more leftish speculation.

      • Yes, I especially appreciate your point that action and thought aren’t necessarily separate. And I wasn’t having a go at what you were saying. I like what you’re saying. I agree action needs to be rethought and it’s not clear what it might consist of.

        • You were making a very valid point Jane. I just didn’t make myself clear enough in the post.

    • Excuse me butting in here. Does Jane GW have a reference for the testing of corporate behaviour against the DSM? That’s hilarious, entirely plausible, and possibly says as much about the DSM as about the neurotic organization.

      • Gus, I agree it probably says as much about the DSM as it does about corporations. And that it’s hilarious. The test was done for the documentary ‘The Corporation’ by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan. I read about it in Raj Patel’s ‘The Value of Nothing’, which has a brilliant chapter on the corporation.

  3. I was driving past a polling station on Saturday and decided to drop in. I half expected my name not to be on the rolls. After it was found to be there and a line was duly ruled across it, I asked if I had fulfilled my obligations. Apparently not. I still had to take the ballot papers and deposit them in the box. This seemed a tedious formality but I complied. At least my action produced an informal vote, possibly contributing to the 5.65% and this had nothing to do with Mark Whatshisname.

    • Thanks Gus. I’d wondered about that actually. But obviously one has to be seen to go thru the entire ritual, it being assumed that no-one would want to deliberately cast an informal vote

  4. I agree, for the most part, though not so much on the utopianism aspect. Seems to me that we’re in such an impoverished political culture that any effort to imagine a future different and better from the status quo needs to be encouraged — or, at least, defended from the sniggers who know no other politics than organisational maneuvers and vote counting.
    I always liked Engels’ characteristic generosity on this question.In the context of his thoroughgoing demolition of utopian methodology, Engels stops to distance himself from the cynics, and writes: ‘For ourselves, we delight in the stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their phantastic covering, and to which these Philistines are blind.’

    • For myself, I think there’s a difference between utopian thinking or imagining or reverie and utopian actions and schemes. Utopian schemes often involve delayed futures and are usually dependent on adherence to specific methodologies: “When every child gets a computer then we will have adults who can be adapt to the 21st century workforce” and so on. If we can get some dynamic radicalism happening now, then the future will take care of itself I would think. Politically, my own concern is with a fantastic re-imagining of now rather than imagining the future we might have.

  5. I agree Stephen – that efforts to imagine a better future are different from utopian thinking – or need not entail utopian thinking. For me utopian thinking tends not to account for human fallibility.

    And I really like your quote from Engels, Jeff. I too delight in stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their phantastic covering.

  6. Stephen
    Isn’t one reason to vote, is to donate $ to the political party of one’s choice — I believe it’s about $2.50 per vote cast once a party has reached a certain minimum level of votes…
    And don’t the Greens capture/share some of what you are after?

    • Is that right? I hadn’t looked at it that way. Thanks though, it gives me a whole new option of political action.. It means that instead of voting, I can just send the Greens a cheque for $2.50

    • Thanks for that Jeff. I haven’t looked at the Oz for years, and I certainly didn’t expect such hilarity and paranoia disguised as rectitude. It’s logic has startling parallels with the witch-burning scene in Python’s Holy Grail – ‘If she weighs the same as duck..she must be made of wood..therefore…”
      I have to remind myself, that when rabid conservatives refer to the Greenas ravening pinkos seeking to pervert Australian core value for their own evil ends, they really believe it and really mean it.
      I’m reminded of the Ross Gittins article in the SMH a day or two ago, (http://www.smh.com.au/business/hollow-men-led-labor-to-disaster-20100822-13ash.html) on Labor’s defeat where he refers to the “unprincipled Sussex Street thugs” who are “uncomprehending bunglers of the first order”.
      I feel a blog coming on in stupidity in politics.
      Nah, no comedy could do it justice.

  7. Thanks for the link to the Oz editorial, Jeff. Do the contributing editors really believe this stuff or are they laughing all the way to the printers. The claim that the Democrats positioned themselves to the left of the ALP is ridiculous. While the Dems may have been socially progressive, when it came to the economy they were conservatives. Even with their strong commitment to addressing climate change, they opposed the shutting down of coal-fired power stations because of the economic impact.

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