By: Paul Chislett
My friend Robert Mittag, who rocks the airwaves on the ShakeUp the last Friday of each month as Rockin Robbee, posted on Facebook yesterday a call to boycott the provincial election. He was challenged in what I read as a dismissive manner and I felt a need to respond.
Let me say first that I risk looking like I am speaking for Robbee – I’m not. I will be labeling him as a marginalized person – a member of the working poor – while using the problematic term ‘middle class’ to describe a wide swath of people with a steady income well beyond a mere living wage who inhabit the suburbs, shopping malls, and trendy shops in Walkerville-type areas. Many such people – maybe most – have a well developed social conscience, and I’ve met and been taught by many who are academics, union leaders, and so on. I make no judgments; I am trying to make observations based on my own experiences and what I have learned through union education, university courses and my own extensive reading. This means necessarily I must be blunt, honest, and respectful while saying what I feel I must.
What I am getting at here I suppose is the difficulty in arguing social and political ideas as strictly working class vs. the capitalist class. We live in a highly differentiated society where the middle class would never have come to be if not for the struggles of workers during the heydays of industrialization.
To the issue! Robbee makes the claim voting does not create change and he’s absolutely right. It was implied on Facebook that Robbee was abdicating his civic responsibilities by not voting. He was assailed and chastised on Facebook by two citizens solidly embedded in the middle class and told boycotting the vote is the wrong thing to do. Yet, he has displayed more than his share of political responsibility during Occupy Windsor and during his fight against an unreasonable and Charter-violating ban from city hall because of a petition he was circulating calling on city councillor Al Magnieh to resign – a perfectly valid political activity. The democratic process is far more than simply casting a vote and walking away for 4 years.
I was reminded of something I ran into years ago as an NDP candidate in the Sudbury Riding in the 1999 provincial election. I was a union local president and throwing myself into the effort to make change. I saw myself as a blue collar worker taking a social democratic political stand in a party that was created to be the political vehicle for the working class. I was also brought up in social housing subsidized by the government and looked forward to canvassing in those places.
My illusions of being the champion for the working poor sure evaporated on the street when I came across a guy in is 20s, and when I told him I was running for the NDP he couldn’t care less. What’s more, he had no intention of voting. When I urged him to consider that if he didn’t vote others will vote against his interests, he shrugged his shoulders and said he couldn’t see where any party was looking out for his interests. I tried to explain that I was a working class guy lucky enough to have a really good job, and hey, I lived in social housing for 11 years. I’m you, I said to this fellow and I want to represent your issues if elected. He didn’t buy it. He saw me as just another candidate shilling for a vote. Talk about ego deflation. Maybe I needed to hone my message. Maybe I had to get real.
Years later I now understand why people don’t vote insisting voting is not something they see will bring change. Consider this: Mike Harris came to power in 1995 largely through the vote of middle class blue collar workers who bought in to his hateful war on the poor. His government slashed social spending, and in 1999 he won a second term. If it was even possible to mobilize the working poor and those on social assistance, would Harris have won a second term? It’s likely since it’s become far too clear that it is the power of marketing and money that wins elections, not mass mobilization. And anyway, who will speak for the marginalized if organizing could occur and who will provide the means to do that mobilization? Party politics relies on money for marketers and focus groups. Unions focus on the needs of their members while doing what they can for the larger community (which is a lot). But we don’t even enumerate for the voters list anymore and as a canvasser in the past that is a huge problem. It takes money and a sense of social empowerment to mobilize. Too many working poor and those on social assistance simply use too much energy to survive a day and feel disempowered.
The typical middle class response to just go and vote really is a condescending platitude and ignores the real damage done by past voting. Those votes enabled the Harris regime to attack marginalized communities and keep in power the wretched Liberals who spent nine years managing the catastrophe created by the Harris regime, never restoring the cuts to social assistance and other social needs like hospitals and schools, all the while nursing their obsession with public private partnerships. The NDP party, notwithstanding many fine MPs, MPPs, and party members and so on cannot be counted on to be the champion for the working poor and marginalized communities – nothing the party leader says leads me to believe she won’t carry on exactly like the liberals. The only real choice we have is to choose a party that will do us the least harm and that isn’t a real choice and it’s sure as hell not democracy.
Here’s something though: in Ontario voters do have the choice to decline their ballot – I did that in the recent by-election in Windsor-Tecumseh. It’s a formal process where you tell the official you are declining your ballot. You have the opportunity to explain why on the ballot. The ballot must be counted so it is better than simply spoiling a one. HOWEVER! Having done that the really hard work to mobilize the ranks of the working poor and marginalized communities must begin in earnest along with allies across class lines. Make the point the existing system is a corrupt mess by declining a ballot, and then immediately set out to create a real people-driven alternative. If we are to have a functioning democracy no one gets off the hook!
A broad coalition of individuals and groups must begin to put together an agenda for change that might include forms of participatory democracy in budget making ( eg. fair, consistent taxation with wealth redistributed according to needs), electoral reform so all votes actually count in a multi-party system, and so on. What about democratically run work places that would rein in corporate power? That requires an activist government and that would get people voting and involved. Voting is only a sliver of what constitutes a functioning democracy.
We need to develop a new consciousness of solidarity; that if my voting decisions (tax cuts) cause pain to another citizen I now have a moral responsibility to make that right. So middle class voter, if I in a marginalized community vote to spend more on social needs will you too? Can we dove-tail our interests? Can we resist the framework, propagated by the wealthy and disseminated by the corporate media, of worthy/unworthy victim? (That is: beleaguered middle class taxpayer vs. the working poor soaking up tax dollars and sweeping streets of “undesirables)
The “sociological imagination” is a term sociologists use as a challenge to look at the world in a way where we can connect our personal selves with the wider society, and is maybe well described here: as “the things we do are shaped by the situation we are in, the values we have, the way people around us act, and how that all relates to some sort of outcome. Thus, the Sociological Imagination can also be considered as the ability to see things interactively, between the personal and the societal, rather than from the narrow lens of personal experience.” If we want elections that matter we have to more or less master the struggle between our personal experiences and those of the “other”.
Declining a ballot is a valid political response to the dreadful deadlock we see in all levels of politics where cronyism, vote rigging, big money, and negative advertising determines who will form a slim majority where policies are implemented that do more harm to the working poor and marginalized communities. The irony is if this keeps up where middle class voters see only through their own personal lens, maintaining the status quo leading to more oppression and austerity, they themselves will be joining the ranks of those they chastise for not playing along in a rigged system.
We’re interconnected and that’s always been a huge concern for the wealthy elites whose own interests are best served if we ignore our working class interconnected reality.