It was not, as some have claimed, Emma Goldman, the iconic anarchist thinker and activist, who said: ‘if voting changed anything they would make it illegal.’ She witnessed the bloody battle for democracy first hand and would not so easily forget it. Neither was it Mark Twain, George Carlin, Noam Chomsky or any other cult figure. Instead, the slogan originates in an obscure American newspaper from the 1970s, when disenchantment with the established political order was as rife as it is today, but before generations of collective apathy began to transform our democratic institutions into their current state of dilapidation. The phrase, often aerosoled onto crumbling walls, or emblazoned on cheap t-shirts, encapsulates exactly the type of cynical disengagement that has allowed authoritarianism and tyranny to rear its ugly head once again. The truth is, that since the dawn of human civilisation, and until only comparatively recently, those with power have withheld the right to vote from ordinary people precisely because democracy is the most radical force for change the world has ever seen.
Some arguments for abstaining the vote appear initially compelling. Our current democracies seem to offer only an increasingly narrow choice, and it is rare to find an elected representative strong enough to enact real change or challenge the prevailing social order. Under these circumstances, the vote seems to merely legitimise governments that broadly ignore the popular will of the people and pander to powerful interests. However, by not casting a ballot, it will not be governments that lose legitimacy, they have existed for centuries without votes and would happily do so again; no, it is the very notion of democracy that becomes illegitimate. An uncast ballot is a vote for dictatorship.
Nevertheless, parliamentary democracy, as we have it today, is a vastly faulty institution and the governments it provides have facilitated countless atrocities and injustices across the globe, backed by the apparent will of the people. Our inaction has allowed our national representatives to start wars, create famines, exploit natural resources, and repress communities. It is for this reason that to vote is no longer, and was never, enough. For the first time in decades, the Labour Party in Britain threatens to become, once again, the parliamentary representative of the people, and each of us, especially the young, need to insist on the Labour Party fulfilling this vision. We must join up and build a mass movement in our image.
We have never rid the world of tyrants and, as our lethargy deepens, their strength grows. In Turkey, President Erdogan is rolling back democratic rights to satisfy his paranoid and power-hungry agenda. In America, a reality-TV demagogue runs the most powerful political office on the planet as if it is his private corporation. In Europe, the failure of mainstream political parties to challenge the interests of global capital has facilitated the emergence of a rampant far-right. As the world seems to break down around us, there is only one solution: vote.