28 September 2011

'Voting is worthless'

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kulish contemplates a worldwide wave of protest spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to encompass India and Israel, Spain and Wall Street. He asks whether the young people leading these protests in the democracies are actually repudiating democracy, while it's clear that the real problem, as perceived by the protesters, is a failure of representative democracy. A Spanish protester claims membership in the first generation to realize that "voting is worthless." A "crisis of legitimacy" is declared when "we don't think they [i.e. elected representatives] are doing anything for us." Around the world, it's assumed that politicians and parties are more responsive to money and special interests than to the masses and the common good. While that charge is hard to refute, what do demonstrations and "occupations" like that under way on Wall Street do about it? Not every public place is Tahrir Square, where crowds can actually drive a government out of power. Representative governments retain too much of their traditional legitimacy to collapse as easily as the morally hollow Mubarak regime. Worse for the youngsters, many others in every democracy in this age of austerity see no failure of democracy in an unresponsive government. They say that government should not do "anything for us," and that we should not expect or demand it to do so. They see the protesters in their tent cities, their three-dimensional chat rooms and similar bubbles as nothing more than sore, spoiled losers -- and that impression is only enhanced when the protesters complain that the game is rigged. In countries with established democratic traditions, as opposed to Egypt's past parody, protesters cannot expect to stand aside and watch the establishment collapse before their eyes. There remain two choices: vote or fight. Protests like those Kulish describes are not exactly useless -- they often have great consciousness-raising potential -- but are they substitutes for voting or fighting? It's too soon to tell, but I remain skeptical.

5 comments:

d.eris said...

"While that charge is hard to refute, what do demonstrations and "occupations" like that under way on Wall Street do about it?"

I just came from another assembly down at Wall Street. There were at least 500 people there, maybe upwards of a thousand. Many people who were there for the first time. In response to your question, at least with respect to my experiences and observations at the Wall St. site over the last two weeks, I'd say what people are doing there is actually really easy to describe, despite the apparent willful obtuseness of so many in the corporate media: they are organizing. And they're doing it independently of sclerotic establishment institutions, and more or less on their own terms. I don't know what is going to come of this, but it seems to be getting bigger.

Samuel Wilson said...

d., I'll accept your description on the understanding that this organizing should ideally amount to more than an end unto itself. If they want to change the country, those people have to take political power, and I'd be interested in how they might try to do it.

Crhymethinc said...

Meaning no offense, but 500 or 1,000 people out of a population of nearly 350,000,000 is negligible. Unless every person there is willing to take a swing and connect with the Wall Street people they are protesting against, "organizing" and "demonstrating" are completely useless. If there is one thing history has shown time and again is that those at the top will NOT relinquish their power if there is no motivation for them to do so.

Samuel Wilson said...

In defense of the demonstrators, you have to start somewhere, with someone. A million-man flash mob is an unrealistic demand, but the people on Wall Street should also not declare victory too early.

Crhymethinc said...

Even a million is less than 1/3%. Vote-wise, it simply isn't enough to make politicians worry. On top of that, as you've so often pointed out, no politician is legally obligated to carry through on any campaign promise they may have made to get elected. Without direct action, I highly doubt anything on Wall Street will change in any meaningful or effective manner.