I've always liked one thing about British comedian Russell Brand, aside from his face: Brand didn't vote. As he explained in a combative BBC interview in 2013, his stance on voting was not apathetic—he didn't vote because, like me, he would not give his mandate to a political system in which he had no faith. There are numerous ways to assert one's politics outside the ballot box—the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson are proof enough of that. But on Thursday, millions of Britons cast their vote in my home country's general election, and Brand was among them.
In a notable U-turn, the actor came out in support of the Labour Party. His shift was not necessarily a mark of fickleness, but reflected a current of panic that drove even committed non-voting leftists to the ballot box. Brand joined the swathes casting such desperate votes as a tactic to oust incumbent Conservatives, the re-election of Prime Minister David Cameron and his party's plans to cut £12 billion in welfare provisions for the county's vulnerable. The tactic failed, and the Conservatives won with an unexpectedly large margin.
It's a political moment resonant of 2004 and the re-election of George W. Bush. Bush's second victory was a bitter pill to swallow, not because there was much love for his opponent, John Kerry. From the center looking leftwards, the position of Democratic voters was, above anything, anti-Bush. It's a bleak "Anything But" politics, made all the more depressing when the enemy wins. Indeed, I'm not sure what's more painful: to watch the failure of something you support, or to watch the victory of something you fear and detest.
There is a lining, though, which I wouldn't go so far as to call silver: Elections like the one in Britain this year, or in the U.S. in 2004, in which the options appear to be Bad or Less-Bad provide a sobering lens on how electoral politics can stymie progressive social change.
Ahead of Thursday's election, my British writer friend Laurie Penny urged her readers to go to the ballot box to vote in opposition to the Conservatives and their war on the poor, and to oppose the odious far-right UKIP party with its vile anti-immigrant agenda. "Right now, there may not be much to vote for but there’s plenty to vote against," wrote Penny, fully acknowledging the sad spread of options. "The question is whether we want the next five years to be disastrous or merely depressing. The choice is between different shades of disillusion." The election results have delivered the "disastrous" result. Happily UKIP did not gain parliamentary seats, but they did win a troubling 13 percent of all votes, coming in second place in many seat races.
A Labour win would have been no time for celebration, even while the Conservatives’ re-election is reason to panic. The government is seeking to cut £12 billion in public spending, the details of which have not been made clear. Under the old canard of budget necessity, we can expect further hits to Britain's poorest, with cuts to housing, disability and child benefits. We will no see other, less cruel options implemented to balance the budget, like, say, increasing taxation progressively on the wealthy, or tightening regulations on tax evasion. But Labour's platform was little better.
Had the election delivered a "merely depressing" Labour victory, the time for serious reflection on the rotten state of politics would be equally necessary. Whether one chooses to vote or not, a political terrain that offers only The Worst, and the Not Quite Worst as the extent of options demands a radical challenge. A fulcrum of political engagement based on keeping The Worst at bay will ensure the maintenance of a grim status quo, foreclosing the space in which radical social change could emerge. The entire fulcrum hinges on the right wing—strong left alternatives don't emerge in the realm of party politics so long as an electoral raison d'etre is to oppose the right wing.
Those bemoaning the miserable array of options the British elections put forth would do well to remember that better choices don't arise from nowhere, conjured up by some political deus ex machina. It is a tired and hackneyed trope that non-voters like myself or the Russell Brand of old are apathetic or a-political. But something worse than apathy is at play when voting is an individual's only method of political engagement. Namely, a lazy trust in the existing political establishment to provide genuine options.
In this regard, depressing elections are more instructive than ostensibly exciting elections. Obama voters in 2008 were drunk on Hope and enamored with an individual—a generation of young liberals forgot for a second that they were still, at the end of the day, voting for something as ordinary as a president. Perpetual war, structural racism, gross inequality, mass incarceration would go on, from sea to shining sea. At least in an election in which no option offers promise, there's no illusion; the necessity of political action outside of an electoral framework is more obvious. Indeed I wish the question so constantly leveled at riotous protesters were posed to committed voters: Is it effective?
The hope of many British voters was that their ballots would be effective in staving off further Conservative cruelties. Voting in that moment could not affect serous political change, even if it could have been effective in avoiding further Tory-led harm. Everyone should have the right to vote—this is crucial—but the universal right to vote doesn't equal the absolute good or necessity of voting; like any other political act, it's a tactic among a diversity of acts directed at organizing and re-organizing our world. It can be far more violent than any riot.
"Vote today and change the world tomorrow," wrote Penny. But that was yesterday and the election is done. So now it must be time to change the world, or disturb the universe at the very least—the universe in which the Worst and the Not Quite Worst parade as our only options. Looking ahead to 2016, the U.S. will, I think, find itself in a similar circumstance to Britain now. Unlike the gushing Obama elections, it seems likely that Hillary will have a strong support base, but not an army of hope junkies. Many democratic votes will come not from active Hillary fans, but from those committed voters who vote against the GOP, the "Anything But Them" voters. We don't need another bleak electoral cycle to spin to recognize the urgency of of living politics outside the campaigns. Out of the ballot boxes, into the streets!