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.