By Chris Shaw
With the recent election here in the UK, we see the barrage of comments that regularly follow it. It entails saying something along the lines of “if you don’t vote you can’t complain”. A statement so stupid and banal that it doesn’t deserve the credit it is given. Now that’s not to say you shouldn’t vote. Frankly I don’t care either way, and I’ll only vote if there is a candidate in my constituency worth voting for. But what frustrates me about this statement is the equivocation of voting with some kind of existential meaning, as if voting is the apotheosis of civic or political engagement.
In the current political context, voting is a relatively trivial affair. Unless you truly believe in the messages and policies of the major political parties, which with the levels of voter disengagement and the prevalence of tribal/generational voting patterns suggests many people don’t, voting is a meaningless task. If you live in a safe seat and don’t agree with the holding party, voting would be a waste. If you live in a marginal seat, and aren’t interested in the duopolistic choices, again voting is a waste. The fact that political engagement seems to have been stoked by the stupidities of the EU referendum should tell you everything about the supposed importance of voting.
Frankly, people who own and run allotment gardens are more politically engaged than the kind of morons who only become engaged when they vote. They are either being self-sufficient or providing a local service that can push against the monopoly of food services and sales. Developing counter-institutions or civil society organisations would be more useful than every few years deciding to vote for some lesser evil. In fact the real issue is that the decisions that will come from voting are so centralised and monopolised that voting only acts a legitimating mechanism, providing support for wider ideologies. Compared to the municipal and parochial systems that came before mass enfranchisement, current levels of civic engagement as measured by voting are laughable. As Lewis Mumford sums up, “the consolidation of power in the political capital was accompanied by a loss of power and initiative in the smaller centers”. The local and regional power of folkmoots, guild halls and the incorporated city where municipal taxes were collected, dialogue of all kinds was engaged in and confederated politico-economic power was maintained has given way to the centralised, coercive power of the state and its attendant international organisations. As Robert Cox has noted, with the advent of the 19th and 20th centuries there has been an internationalisation of the agency of the state, creating artificial levels of political and economic scale which remove any semblance of control from individuals and voluntary collectivities. The project of modernity has brought forth modes of centralisation which no form of democracy can counter.
Unless voting really can deconstruct this systemic creation, it is an exercise in futility. If anything, voting generally legitimates this system due to the constricted narratives that liberal democracy breeds, treating most subjects as apolitical and beyond the reproach of public questioning. The radical changes witnessed in most democratic countries has come about not through the machinations of the political process but through on-the-ground engagement, as seen with the Chartists, the civil rights movement and the trade union movement. Voting within the structures of the state, rather than being the end-process of these movements, has tended to quell their more radical demands, creating a bastardised form of reform rather than meaningful engagement and change. If political engagement is to mean anything, it should be to create multi-scalar counter-institutions that look back to the patchwork of local structures that provided meaningful political engagement. It should be to push forth with a social entrepreneurialism that aims to breakdown monopoly and remove the entry barriers that constrict the multitude of politico-economic possibilities. Voting, as the most pathetic and pointless form of civic engagement, will never accomplish this.
 Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale, 2007, 123
 Robert Cox, (1981) ‘Social Forces States and World Order’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies 10(2), pp. 126-55.