Part 3 of three part series on democracy in The Guardian

If democracy is broken, why should we vote?

By Warwick Smith

Originally published at, Thursday 18 September 2014 14.28 AEST

Some argue that only by withdrawing our participation from the broken system can we hope to fix it or build something better. Are they right?

A demonstrator shouts in Times Square. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Democracy theoretically puts the power of governance in the hands of the people. The origins of the word come from the ancient Greek words; dêmos, meaning people and kratos, meaning power.

However, many have argued that modern western political systems are closer to plutocracies than democracies. A plutocracy is ruled by money rather than by the people (ploutos means wealth). The costs of running a modern election campaign make it very difficult for candidates to win without substantial financial backing. Sourcing those finances is inherently corrupting because big corporate donors only give money in return for political favours. Combine this with the ice cream stall electioneering strategy of both major parties occupying very similar political territory, and you have a system ripe for voter disengagement.

The public’s faith in politics in Australia is at an all-time low with only 43% of voters in a recent poll believing that it makes a difference which of the major parties is in power compared to 68% as recently as 2007. Similarly dismal attitudes towards politics can be seen in the UK with only 33% believing the system of government works well.

In Australia, there is bipartisan support for many fundamentally antidemocratic policies such as pursuing so-called free trade agreements, which, at their core, are about ceding sovereignty to multinational corporations. There’s also bipartisan support for punishing asylum seekers who try to come here on boats seeking our protection, bipartisan support for following the US into any and all wars and bipartisan support for valuing economic growth above the wellbeing and sustainability of our society. The entire international trade and finance regime has substantially eroded government power, leaving immigration and national security as final frontiers where sovereignty remains pretty much untrammelled.

The degraded state of our democracies explains the popularity of figures like Russell Brand, whom I mentioned in my last column. He speaks directly to people who are politically aware but disillusioned, suggesting that if there are no candidates who represent our interests and our aspirations we should not vote. Only by withdrawing our participation from the broken system can we hope to fix it or build something better.

Russell Brand: “what’s the point of voting?”. Photograph: Karen Robinson/Observer

Devastating critiques of our current political and economic systems abound but almost always seem to become self-contradictory when they come to providing solutions. They claim that neoliberalism has fragmented the population and eroded sovereignty, making coherent political change more difficult. But at the same time, the solutions often rely on some nudge or tweak or restriction after which everyone will just be nice to each other. In other words, they rely on changing human nature.

This situation of disillusionment with the political economy combined with a lack of viable solutions has been around ever since the ancient Greeks experimented with different forms of democracy. The challenge has always been to develop a system that can’t be gamed or corrupted by power seekers or empire builders (ie people who have expansive ambition that trumps other concerns). Power seekers are a motley crew. Some are high functioning psychopaths, seeking power for power’s sake, some simply want to dominate a field of endeavour. Others have ideological reasons for wanting to change the world.

Power seekers can be a source of innovation and creativity. The challenge is to contain them, because, if not kept in check, they and their kin will corrupt or bring down just about any social or political structure that spreads power broadly through society.

Banners placed by demonstrators at Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. Protesters felt their demands were ignored by politicians. Photograph: Toni Garriga/EPA

I’m fundamentally anti-utopian in my political philosophy and believe it’s impossible to design social structures or political systems that are safe from capture by power seeking elites. The basis of social justice therefore has to be a state of permanent awareness, resistance and protest. The best you can do is to have an informed public engaged in a continuous struggle to maintain and improve on overall social welfare, human rights, human dignity and justice. In the absence of vigilance and protest, the rise of anti-democratic structures and barriers to social progress is inevitable.

A top priority in the permanent protest model has to be defending and strengthening protections for dissenters. The more weapons, physical, legal and ideological, the state has to quell dissent the more vulnerable society is to the power seekers. National security is the most common excuse for restricting political and social freedom and those who peddle such excuses should be treated with the utmost suspicion.

With permanent protest in mind, let’s turn back to the question that this column began with. Should we do as Brand advocates and withdraw our participation from the current political system with the aim of delegitimising it?

As I’ve argued elsewhere, each citizen needs to have a vision of what he or she wants our country and our world to be like. We should bring those visions to bear on our political engagement. If the major parties don’t sufficiently represent your vision, then vote for a minor party. If none of those represent your vision then sure, consider not voting as a part of a broader political strategy but don’t take the decision lightly. Simply taking your bat and ball and going home is unlikely to achieve anything on its own.

There is a huge range of options open for those who feel politically disenchanted or disenfranchised. What you choose to do might depend on your talents and passions but you could jump in the deep end and join a political party and work for change from the inside; join and become active in your union; create a political party; do postgraduate research on democracy and power; join a citizens advocacy group; write comment pieces for The Guardian or go all out and seek and advocate revolution. We need people doing all those things all the time because there are power seekers who are constantly pushing in the other direction and we mustn’t leave them unchallenged.

Much of what Russell Brand has to say is right on the mark. He is playing the permanent protest game and is doing his part to maintain political vigilance. For that I salute him – but I’m still going to vote.


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