Every four years in American society, critical theorists are offered a veritable human circus of entertainment, as we bear witness to the farce of electioneering.

Every four years, for a month or so, the hum drum apolitical citizen becomes inundated with rhetoric of Country, platforms for change, criticisms of their opponent, and a host of carefully crafted messages designed to invigorate the populace for a short while—just long enough to vote, and then to once again disengage.  During these times, not only is the system tasked with self-regulating the choice of candidates presented to the voters, but there is also the issue of the larger system’s maintenance.  In this manner, the system must preserve its veil, because as Max Weber (1997, 325) notes, “all systems of authority…attempt to establish and to cultivate the belief in [their] legitimacy.”  If the population disengages and begins to call into question the legitimacy of the system, this presents a far greater challenge than any rogue candidate could ever offer.

In 1968, when the Paris Communards famously wrote on the walls, “If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal,” they were speaking from a moment of revolutionary clarity.  The moment this rejectionist sentiment becomes popularized, the system must once again adapt and co-opt, or face actual threat.

For me, the true deception of American electoral politics is the common belief that each election presents the nation with an opportunity; places it on the precipice of transformation, and if we vote just right, we can ‘elect in’ real change.  Many people believed this was the case with the 2008 election of the nation’s first non-white President, but four years later, the landscape looks quite the same.  Despite this pattern of expectation-disappointment-expectation-disappointment, this November, many voters are once again rushing to the polls, expecting the election to either: a.) drive the nation into a post-recession, new age of prosperity, or b.) plummet the nation into a rapidly accelerating spiral of destruction and national ruin.

Every four years the average citizen rediscovers that they are a political animal, and loudly proclaims their civic responsibility, as to not vote, to choose the path of rejectionism, is as un-American as communism.  This expectation-disappointment pattern brings to mind the often cited idiom, ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me,’ or to borrow from Karl Marx (who borrowed from Hegel), “All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” (Marx 1852)  This phrase is so apt to describe our era of [neo] liberal-democratic modernity that Slavoj Žižek titled his book after it [1], and it is from this neo-Marxist that we will explore the US elections with a bit more depth.  Approximately ten years ago, Žižek published an article, which offers some key insights applicable to a discussion of US electoral politics and if one desires, the larger neo-liberal, democratic order.

In his essay, “A Plea For Leninist Intolerance,” Žižek argues that modern society allows for the perception of freedom of choice, as long as those choices do not disturb the public’s social peace.  The relative freedom of neo-liberal pluralism presents the citizen with a great variety of options—options to modify and allow the citizen to “reinvent” themselves—yet these options must fall short of disrupting the “social and ideological balance.” (Žižek 2002, 543)  Žižek would argue (2002, 545) that at the precise moment when an idea is seen to be challenging the liberal (or neo-liberal) consensus, one is accused of abandoning the ‘objectivity’ of science and becoming an outdated ideologue.  This is of course framed in the negative, and instead citizenry is defined by:

Fidelity to the democratic consensus…[and] acceptance of the present liberal-parliamentary consensus which precluded and serious questioning of how this liberal-democratic order is complicit in the phenomena it officially condemns and, of course, any serious attempt to imagine a society whose sociopolitical order would be different. (Žižek 2002, 544)

Here, within Žižek’s logic, the theorist postulates that such “fidelity” to the Statecraft of liberalism is an integral part of the mechanism of control, thus to return to the 2012 Obama-Romney elections, the promotion of elections, liberal democracy and civic engagement of these sorts is actually an integral component of the system’s maintenance.  While elections are seen popularly as ‘people power,’ and one’s ability to engage with the proscribed methods of socio-political change, in actuality they are yet another manifestation of “write whatever you want on the condition that what you do does not effectively question or disturb the predominant political consensus.” (ibid.)

In asserting the “unfreedom” of democratic electioneering, Žižek continues within a long history of critical theorists such as Herbert Marcuse (1964) who argues that the State allows individuals to involve themselves with elections and other aspects of perceived choice in order for them to feel involved in the maintenance of their own lives.  Marcuse even warms about the perception that such freedoms are linked to liberatory change, writing:

The distinguishing feature of advanced industrial society is its effective suffocation of those needs which demands liberation…the need for maintaining such deceptive liberties as free competition at administered prices, a free press which censors itself, free choice between brands and gadgets…Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.  Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain controls over a life of toil and fear. (1964, 7)

Here, and throughout his larger work, Marcuse cautions against the perception of choice and the recuperative power of State hegemony at the social, political and psychological levels.  Similar notion regarding the false freedom of choice, were also presented by Slovenian psychoanalyst Renata Salecl, in her 2011 book Choice.  The basic psychological functions of the election process is to inculcate the citizenry within this logic of acceptable and unacceptable topics of debate [2]; what is up for negotiation and what is outside the horizon of acceptability.  This is one of the psychological and social functions of participatory democracy and the larger system of liberalism.

While the topics of debate remain constrained by the structure and historical context of the nation, the sheer similarity in the two candidates must cause one to stop and observe that a filtering effect is occurring far before the voter reaches the booth.  In the parties’ nominations prior to the conventions, all the way up to the series of primary contender debates, these similarities reek of unfreedom.  Returning to the idea of choice, the selection of the Democratic or Republican parties is akin to the ‘choice’ between Pepsi or Coke, Ford or Chevrolet, Marlboro or Camel, American Idol or The Voice.  With such pre-determined constraints, what does this mean for those of us who want to drink juice, ride bicycles, smoke pot, and read books rather than watch TV?  The problem is that a list of dueling similarities is not the same as choice, even if is presented as such. What does voting mean for those of us whose choices fall beyond the horizon of available candidates?

While the presence of options is experienced akin to choice, the pre-choice constraining of those options conceals the insidious denial of actualized freedom.  I am reminded of American comedian Bill Hicks, who in a 1993 comedy sketch said:

I’ll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here.
‘I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.’
‘I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.’
‘Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding up both puppets!’
‘Shut up! Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control. Here’s Love Connection. Watch this and get fat and stupid.’

Besides the dated references to the TV show Love Connection, the joke is still apt.  When faced with the Obama-Romney ‘choice,’ whom do you select if you would like to vote for a candidate that is not in favor of increasing US proxy ways in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America?  Which candidate do you choose if you want to oppose the drug war, the death penalty, the electoral college, political action committees, the corporate-State plutocracy, the absurdity of the privatized educational system, the military-industrial complex…  Who can I vote for to cut US support for repressive regimes abroad?  Who do you vote for with the platform advocating for the destruction of the State and capitalism?  When both candidates mirror each other in their preservation of systemic violence and structural oppression, a vote for either is an endorsement of the status quo, and a promise of four more years of increased wealth gaps, environmental degradation and to once again borrow from Žižek, the creation of ‘new forms of apartheid.’ [3]

Beyond constraining the horizon of options, the State also functions to coopt and recuperate manners of protest, using such ruptures as evidence of the rich democracy it manages.  In the latter portion of his essay, Žižek discusses how former President Bill Clinton’s handling of the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests served to deny those dissenters their “political sting.” (2002, 558)  Through Clinton’s actions such as “reminding the gathered leaders inside the guarded palaces that they should listen to the message of the demonstrators,” (ibid.) the former President was able to neutralize the dissent.  In the realm of electioneering, the ability to debate, campaign and organize, alongside the explicit encouragement by the State to ‘get out and vote,’ serves the same function.  The absence of Gestapo, physical intimidation, military checkpoints surrounding voting sites, etc. is seen as the presence of free choice, when in reality, to borrow from Žižek (ibid.), “The system is by definition ecumenic, open, tolerant, ready to listen to all; even if one insists on one’s demands, they are deprived of their universal political sting by the very form of negotiation.”

In the media’s narrative retelling of the WTO protests, the Marxists (and other political radicals such as anarchists, primitivists, etc.) manipulated “honest protestors.”  Thus from amidst this framing, and through the lens of Lenin, the problem becomes: How does one make this false claim a future reality, in other words, how does one organize a demonstration with a systemically-broad political demand, as were rallied that day in Seattle?  If the protest does not become a revolutionary demand, if it does not offer the participants the prospect of systemic challenge, then it is quickly co-opted as a marginal disturbance, or worse, it is organized into a NGO that can never serve to challenge the core issue at hand.  For example, if the protestors or voters fail to question speciesism, domestication and capitalist ecocide, the dissent becomes Greenpeace, not a revolution.  This is the failing of single-issue politics (e.g. women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights) as well as single issue voting (e.g. abortion, gun control, education).  When one tackles the environment, labor abuses, or other so-called “issues,” such tacticians are serving to exploit the working class’ discontent against the status quo without providing an actual challenge to the larger system.  To once again explicitly link this discourse to that of the 2012 ‘race to the White House,’ in the case of Clinton’s WTO presence, or that of Obama/Romney’s willingness to debate immigration, war, or a reworking of the domestic economy, the true strength of the system’s cooptation can be found in its willingness to listen to critique.  When Clinton told the WTO to ‘hear the protestors,’ he deprived the rioters of their politics.  The tolerant system, the system that is always ready to listen, denies those dissenters their politics of opposition.

Every four years we as citizens are allowed to be political players.  We are given the opportunity to release the steam through the spout of the boiling teapot; a spout that if kept sealed through the firm hand of repression, will inevitably lead to revolution.  To borrow a phrase from the infamous Theodore Kaczynski (2010, 197), this is “the system’s neatest trick,” and it is within this logic that elections “serve as a kind of lightning rod that protects the System by drawing public resentment away from the System and its institutions.”  Political control in modernity is maintained through the preservation of Weberian legitimacy and democracy.  If either of these is not present, one must resort to tanks and soldiers, and while the State is well equipped at this style of conflict, through the farce of elections and ‘participation,’ we are managed and maintained through the psychological and social manipulation—presented with a hundred choices, all of which have been preapproved.


In sum, why are revolutionaries from Žižek to the contemporary anarchists opposed to voting?  Because it is an ineffective manner of representation, deeply corrupted with corporate money and political maneuvering.  Elections and the party system serve as a mechanism for co-opting potential for legitimate change and integrating piecemeal reforms into a system of control.  With such critiques in mind, we conclude that participation itself serves to confirm legitimacy in a system that does not represent us.  In this way, not voting only serves as the final articulation of a sincere, politicized, informed, rejectionism.

So what is one to do with this misanthropic view of our contemporary representative reality?  Well, most will hear these words, and go about their day, voting in another member of the ruling class.  To that I say, ‘Fine, go ahead!,’ but if you think this constitutes the extent of your effective political involvement you are sadly mistaken.  Whether or not someone chooses to go out and vote is irrelevant in defining your political self.  To pull a lever in an isolated booth somewhere is the epitome of political irrelevance.

As the slogan so often reads scrawled on the walls, ‘Our dream can not fit into their ballot boxes.’  We can certainly dream much larger, and with a much clearer vision, than the false promises politicians make us.  A principled stance against voting, and against the entire farce of winner-takes-all electoral representation, is not a call for apathy.  In fact, it is a rallying cry to the 40-50% of eligible voters who do not vote.  In fact, if we judge the vibrance of a democratic system by what portion of the population chooses to engage, the 2006 Palestinian elections (75% turnout) that placed Hamas in power were far more democratic then the 2008 US elections (57% turnout) that placed Obama in power.  So to the massive non-voting population in the US—to these approximately 142 million [4] people—we are here to say that other options exist.  Our critique is against apathy, against apolitical consumerism, against complacency, and 100% for getting active!

So vote, or don’t vote, but either way, get active elsewhere as well.  In their 2004 propaganda towards direct democracy program, the “Don’t Just Vote” campaign wrote:

Voting is the least effective strategy for having a say in society.  You can vote once or twice a year, but it’s what you do every day that counts.  Don’t abdicate your power to so-called representatives—take responsibility for the ways you can change the world yourself. (CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective, 2004, 1)

So go out and vote, or don’t.  Tell your friends to vote, or encourage them to boycott.  But regardless of what path you choose, find other ways to endanger your political proclivities through actions that challenge State authority and lead us towards a brighter, more liberatory future.  Get political outside of the voting booth since the space inside is sapped of all known political power.

Gather friends together in your community and monitor the police.  Prevent them from murdering and profiling without observation.  Steal food from your local wholesaler and serve it for free outside of posh restaurants.  Develop your own political ideas, print them on paper, and post them all over the walls.  Organize free childcare for your block, neighborhood, or workplace.  Read, write, argue and debate.  Plan a riot, write a song, make a new friend or conspire against an age-old enemy.  Learn to be political outside of the voting booth—in the streets, in your classrooms, in your workplaces, in your bedrooms.  Instead of voting in a candidate who might fix healthcare, education or housing, begin to build counter institutions which offer new methods of promoting health, teaching one another, and housing us all.  Examples of such direct attempts at solving one’s problems abound:

When people start their own organization to share food with hungry folks, instead of just voting for a candidate who promises to solve “the homeless problem” with tax dollars and bureaucracy…When a man makes and gives out fliers addressing an issue that concerns him, rather than counting on the newspapers to cover it or print his letters to the editor…When a woman forms a book club with her friends instead of paying to take classes at a school, or does what it takes to shut down an unwanted corporate superstore in her neighborhood rather than deferring to the authority of city planners…(CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective, 2004, 2)

If you still choose to vote, make November 6th not just a day to pull a lever, but find time in that day to learn a new skill that might help you or your community.  Learn to knit a blanket, to cook kale chips, to grow your favorite legume, or to field strip a rifle.

Politics is the active space between complacency and change, so fill that space with critique, solidarity and revolt, and not simply ballots, PACs and fundraising.  If we are to believe that ‘the personal is political’ as we are so often reminded, find manifestations of political unfreedom in your own lives and work on changing them.  Let us take the apolitical space of the election and fill it with a re-politicized space where we examine how we relate to our neighbors, our lovers and our friends.  Let November 6th be a day when we ask ourselves: How do I contribute to violence, coercion, domination and alienation in the daily actions of my own life?

This form of introspection—along with its accompanying revolutionary behavior alterations—is a political act far more impactful for change then pulling a lever, shading a circle or writing in a protest vote.  Voting as political action is apathy portrayed as engagement and coded within a thin veneer of patriotism and responsibility.  If we are real patriots, let us remember the words of the early American Thomas Paine, who said:

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like [wo/]men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it…If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace…We have it in our power to begin the world over again.[5]

It is with the bravery and honesty that we must face the new day; not with a ballot and a vote, but with a revolutionary spirit, and a yearning for a new world in our hearts.

Against Apathy!
Against Complacency!
For Community, Solidarity & Liberation!


[1]  Žižek, Slavoj. 2009. First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. Verso.

[2] A similar argument of sorts can be seen in Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance” (1965) available via http://ada.evergreen.edu/~arunc/texts/frankfurt/marcuse/tolerance.pdf [date accessed 18 October 2012]

[3]  Žižek uses this term throughout numerous works including his essay “How to Begin From the Beginning,” located in:  Douzinas, Costas, and Slavoj Žižek, eds. 2010. The Idea of Communism. 1st ed. Verso.

[4] This number represents 45% of the current population estimates but does not account for the many people the system deems unworthy of voting rights including convicted felons (nearly 5.5 million people), undocumented citizens, “legal” resident non-citizens (i.e. Green Card holders) those under the age of 18, those deemed “mentally incompetent” by a court, residents of Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Guam…

[5] This is a cobbled together quote from three Paine texts, “The American Crisis No. 1” (1776),  “Common Sense” (1776), and “The American Crisis No. 4” (1777).

Works Cited:

CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective. 2004. “Don’t Just Vote—Get Active: A community non-partisan voters’ guide 2004.” Greensboro: CrimethInc. Press.

Kaczynski, Theodore J. 2010. Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, A.k.a. “The Unabomber”. Feral House.

Marcuse, Herbert. 1964. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. (republished by Marxists.org). http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/one-dimensional-man/index.htm.

Marx, Karl. 1852. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”. Die Revolution (republished by Marxists.org). http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/.

Weber, Max. 1997. The Theory of Social and Economic Organziation. New York: Free Press.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2002. “A Plea for Leninist Intolerance.” Critical Inquiry 28 (2): 542–566.

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