Why you ought to vote
by Sam Kriss
Here’s something that’s changed lately: people are no longer ashamed to speak to the world at large in the imperative mood. It’s normal, now, to give orders to perfect strangers: stop doing this, start doing that. This is extremely rude, but I think I only really grasped its full horror when I saw an infographic telling me, in the jolly strident tones familiar from social justice advocacy, to Stop Making Depictions Of Blobfish As They Appear In Low-Pressure Environments. Hey asshole, why don’t you mind your own damn business? Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t draw? I’ll draw blobfish wobbling on the peak of Everest if I want! I will draw blobfish in space! I will draw the unhappiest and most exploded fish you’ve ever seen, its guts forming a frozen halo in the void, its lumpy baby-pap residue of a face collapsing into expressions of glumness too wearied for you to even imagine! Because I know the pain of the rapidly ascending blobfish. I have suffered its agonies; this miserable sack of slime is my brother. But you know nothing. How could you, in your bright helpful world where you’re always earnestly trying to do the right thing, understand a blobfish’s horror of the sun? Please, you quail, no, don’t depict suffering, don’t make art out of wretchedness, save me, I can’t handle the truth. Ingrate: I should force you to look at my drawings! Endless chapbooks full of collapsing psychrolutids! A pastel Holocaust of weird saggy fish! Did you really think you could take away my God-given right to draw marine wildlife however I see fit? Did you really think this tyranny, this affront to Enlightenment values, this new abyssopelagic Bolshevism – did you really think it could stand? Fuck you! Do you not know that we are warriors for a holy truth?
And it doesn’t even end with the blobfish. The big command right now, of course, is to VOTE. If you want, you can spend $850 on a black cashmere sweater that says VOTE in big white letters on the front. Not loud enough? You can also get a turquoise long-sleeved t-shirt that says VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE on the front and VOTE VOTE on each of the arms and incidentally looks like absolute shit. If you want to tell people to VOTE while also reminding them that it’s possible to buy vaguely acceptable burritos from a popular fast casual chain, you can get a plain white shirt that says CHI-VOTE-LE for just $11.03. Naturally, this entire process is extremely asymmetrical. There are far more people stomping around instructing the world at large to VOTE than there are people earnestly wondering what civic activities will be on offer this Tuesday, or how to inoffensively depict a blobfish. There are no t-shirts that read PLEASE TELL ME WHETHER OR NOT I SHOULD PARTICIPATE IN ELECTORAL POLITICS. A vast overproduction of answers to a question nobody seems to have actually asked.
Obviously, I’m now going to get in on this grift. These are your instructions for how to vote in the upcoming US presidential election, and you can take them as seriously or as unseriously as you want.
If you’re legally entitled to vote in the upcoming US presidential election, and you feel like voting, YOU SHOULD VOTE. If you don’t meet both of these criteria (for what it’s worth, I don’t), YOU SHOULD NOT VOTE. If you really, genuinely want to vote for Donald Trump, there’s not much I can do to help you, but YOU SHOULD VOTE FOR DONALD TRUMP. If you really, genuinely want to vote for Joe Biden, then likewise, but nonetheless YOU SHOULD VOTE FOR JOE BIDEN. If you’re seized with the desire to vote but don’t want to vote for either of these two people, then YOU SHOULD VOTE THIRD PARTY, WRITE IN ANOTHER CANDIDATE (WHERE POSSIBLE), or DEFACE YOUR BALLOT.
That’s it. What I am not saying is that you should simply do whatever you were going to do anyway. You should only vote for Trump, or Biden, or any of the others, if that is what you really want to do. Not because you’re scared of the other choices, not as a compromise, not as the lesser of two evils, not because you feel constrained by the two-party system, not out of duty, not because you live in a swing state, not even because of the political consequences you think might result if your chosen candidate wins. Really, you should forget about politics entirely. It’s neither the time nor the place. Just vote because you want to, or else don’t.
In the past, in this space and elsewhere, I’ve had some unkind words for the empty liberal form of the vote. Our activism and our engagement should not be constrained by the ritual of ticking boxes every few years; it saps and neuters our political energy; we need to find ways of making a difference that aren’t already given to us. Which: yeah, fine. But the fact remains that for most people, voting is the full extent of their political activity, and it will probably remain so. This isn’t entirely terrible. A world where everyone is an activist, kvetching and clamouring about their chosen issue – it would be an unbearable nightmare. And give the empty liberal form of the vote its due: it really does manage to give people a brief moment of freedom.
When you vote, you vote alone. You’re accountable to nobody, watched by nobody, in the papery secrecy of your own desires. Capitalism likes to pretend that what it offers people is an array of endless choices, but market decisions are always invisibly constrained, even for the very rich. Here, at least, liberalism lives up to its utopian promise. You decide, and sovereign is he who makes the decision. We can dream about some future liberated society all we want; right here, in the present, this is the closest most people will ever get to any measure of real freedom in their own lives. An isolated, monadic freedom (Marx would call it one-sided), not the type I’d really prefer, but probably the best we can expect. Maybe this, more than any purely pragmatic fears, is what drove racist voter suppression campaigns, both in the Jim Crow era and today. The servile classes must not be allowed to experience this instant of total irresponsibility, this pure and arbitrary sovereign choice.
This is why I find the command to VOTE repellent: a forced choice is no longer sovereign. Just as much as the ones purging the voter rolls, you’re trying to take away someone’s freedom to decide. But lately, the line has changed. The critique of the blank command to VOTE has been absorbed; now, the busybodies are just as likely to tell you to VOTE, BUT ONLY IF YOU VOTE FOR BIDEN. There’s something very uncomfortable about the idea, as suggested by some of my friends, that Bernie Bro types really ought to tick the box for Biden, that they have a moral duty to prevent a second Trump term. Firstly, because it assumes that these votes belong to Biden by default, and that voting for anyone else – or simply not voting at all – is to rob this poor lonely man of that which is rightfully his. No: let’s accept this liberal institution on its own terms; your vote belongs to nobody but yourself, and if you don’t like someone you shouldn’t vote for them. And further, because what about the Trump voters? Do they share the same duty? It’s hard to imagine that they could, or how the presumption that their vote somehow rightfully belongs to the DNC could possibly hold. So: are you comfortable with an ethical system that simply doesn’t bother addressing itself to millions of people, that writes them off as something other than moral agents? Are people who disagree with you about politics reduced to wild nature? Do they have the same ethical status as lions or tornadoes? And if so, by what right could you possibly condemn them?
The only good reasons to vote in this election are non-political. As a personal experience, voting is defensible. As a mass activity, it’s horrific. If you follow Kant – himself a crucial figure in the history of telling other people what to do – then there’s still an argument for voting politically, even if your vote doesn’t really matter: imagine if everyone acted that way. (In fact, you don’t even need to imagine; Saramago did it for us in his Ensaio sobre a lucidez, which you should read.) But a Kantian would also be bound by the Selbstzweckformel: ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.’ Words to live by. Do you really think these candidates see you as an ends in yourself? Then do not make yourself their means.
The great democracies no longer conscript entire populations to die fighting each other in the trenches, but there’s still an echo of that age. An actuarial power, one that’s interested in counting and mobilising large numbers of passive and pliable people. White feathers for conscientious objectors. Each individual sacrifice is basically meaningless and changes nothing, but you’re forced to make it anyway. Cancel out a stranger on the other side. Something very, very different from the clamour of the masses or the cry of the oppressed. It was the French revolution that introduced universal suffrage, and also the levée en masse: these are just two different versions of the same thing.
In any case, politically, there’s nothing much at stake. This is not a popular idea; like every election, this one is supposed to be the most consequential of our lives. The only thing everyone involved seems to agree on is that it’s all incredibly important. In one voice, they insist that you should whip yourself into a gibbering frenzy about it. Aren’t we on the precipice? Hasn’t Trump (or Biden, delete as applicable) done horrific evil? Absolutely – but what do you think the Presidency is? It’s the position of symbolic war chief, someone to lob large rocks at the other moiety. In some non-state societies, political life is dominated by charismatic Big Men whose formal powers are hazy and undefined, but who exercise authority through their personal and kinship ties. In a way, this is a perfect Millsian representative democracy. (Deleuze and Guattari describe the schema perfectly: the grand paranoiac, surrounded by his perverts.) The Presidency of the United States is slightly more formalised, but however many parping trumpets and silly motorcades surround the institution, it’s still only slightly.
So, for instance, Trump is widely blamed for America’s devastating losses from the coronavirus. Chaos and mismanagement have certainly played their part, but chaos and mismanagement are endemic to American society, regardless of who’s in charge. France is governed by a Jupiterian technocrat, but it’s also a society in which a few joyously chaotic undercurrents still survive, and it hasn’t fared much better. Trump’s major impact might have been to muddy the waters among his supporters by casting doubt on various public health measures. So: vote him out, right? Sanity reigns once more. But the Big Man is a discursive, political leader, and voting out a Big Man doesn’t make him disappear. It’s funny: whenever they’re out of power, the Democrats tell you that electoral victory will simply wash away all the bad ideas forever. But as soon as they take the reins they can’t actually do anything, because of all the conservatives. (Obviously, this works in both directions. Vote for Trump to get rid of all the woke globalist postmodern neo-Marxism! Only – has this phantom been preying on you more or less since he took office?)
For the most part, the powers that these Big Men hold are the powers to do evil: to kill, to act senselessly and arbitrarily. That’s what power means. Kids in cages, assassinations on foreign soil. What you’re voting for, when you vote politically, is the right and privilege of supporting this evil instead of being forced to oppose it. (The technical term for this is ‘going back to brunch.’) The idea that you can vote for someone and then hold them to account is a nonsense; you’ve already sacrificed whatever leverage you had. The only way to hold a Big Man to account is to defect: join the sycophantic gaggle of perverts that surrounds one of his competitors. This is where your principles get you: trapped forever in the orbit of some big fat cretin, pleading for him to save you from himself. Crisis consumes everything, but the system is unperturbed and the stakes are always low.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that someone could put the entire system itself at stake. This was the best argument for Bernie Sanders: he could have been an effective Big Man, precisely by turning power over to his perverts; he could have penetrated the membrane enclosing politics, as an image or hologram of the independently organised and extrapolitical forces in society at large seeking to effect a more general change. But these possibilities are always brief, and if you don’t short-circuit the entire loop quickly enough the result is always the same. A few days ago, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the Labour party. Already, he’s become the centre of a black legend; the lies and libels are calcifying, hardening, taking on the impenetrable solidity of official fact. There’s no longer any point even that the whole antisemitism scandal was confected from top to bottom; we’re in the Kafka-trap stage, where disputing a slander only convinces people that it must be true. This is what happens when you try to make politics actually matter: they destroy you. They will turn all of your virtues against you, they will blacken your memory, they will fuck you so thoroughly that it’s not even about you any more, you’re a shell, you’re empty, you’re dead, and your name is now just a weapon, an insult lobbed against people who once dared to breathe your air.
Yes, it’s true that Trump is equally abhorred. But he’s also been in office for four years, and in that time the system has not broken open; he’s directed it further inward than ever before. In 2016, for example, he ran against NAFTA. His replacement, the USMCA, received bipartisan support. The only real difference between the two was that his version was a populist, heartland-themed neoliberal trade bloc, a piece of immiserating administration for our moiety and not theirs. The Democrats, who no longer want to include subjects like international trade in their discursive armoury, were happy to concede it. A set of commands to vote for Trump argues that he ‘represents the human party, even if bad humans, or even subhumans, whereas Biden is the avatar of forces which are not entirely human, but composed of abstractions or categories.’ It’s a nice line, even though I thought the post-Landian right were supposed to scorn all such mawkish humanism. But it falls apart in the end, because the other side believe the exact same thing. No, Hillary and Joe aren’t perfect, they have flaws, they’re only human, but they have stories, they’ve suffered, they’ve struggled, they’ve been brave, they persisted – and meanwhile Trump isn’t even a man, he’s just the nexus and embodiment of every structural evil: racism, sexism, imperialism, transphobia, an avatar of the transhistorical Straight White Male…
So: don’t vote to make things happen. Don’t vote to change the world, or the country, or the large-scale structure of society. This might be possible in another time or another place, but not today. Things will not get better. Things will not be normal. These are not the stakes. But vote, if you feel like it, because it might still be good for you. For a moment, you can be powerful, arbitrary and cruel, rampaging around the world, propelled only by your own desires. Following these instructions doesn’t actually do anything. There’s no way to distinguish your vote from all the others; like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, you’re outwardly indistinguishable from everyone else, without any ‘chink through which the infinite might be seen to peer forth.’ This is the entire point. There’s just one last problem. If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible to speak about our ‘authentic’ desires. What we want, even how we want, is always structured by our encounter with other people. And because the world is chaos, there’s always a rift of ambivalence right through the middle of every preference. How are you supposed to make the sovereign choice when you yourself are a contested territory? Don’t look at me; this one is for you to work out on your own. I’m not here to tell you what to do.