Why I burned my EU referendum ballot paper

You can listen to a podcast of this blogpost here. Otherwise, just read on 🙂

 

Dear reader,

Because I’m out of the country on EU referendum polling day, I received my ballot paper early, intending to vote by post. As you may have seen by now, yesterday I burned my EU referendum ballot paper.

burnt ballot paper

The photo shows a burnt ballot paper rather than a burned one. I was a bit inept. I took it outside to burn it and couldn’t destroy it. Turns out it was a serendipitous stroke because I’ve used it a bit more artistically now!

Those of you who have read my blogposts before will know enough about me to know that this was no flippant act of mindless petulance, but a decision and a plan that were the culmination of many weeks of reading and reflection. I have no delusions of grandeur. I didn’t assume anyone would watch it let alone think it would have any significant political effect. I’m not famous or powerful, but I, just like you, am just one person and I wanted to do the best thing I thought I could do with my one vote. All I had was a plan borne from deep reflection and a hope.
I still don’t know if I’m right. Even many of my closest friends think I’m wrong. I just wanted to put an alternative perspective out there. If, in time, I recognise the error of my judgment, I will openly come back and admit that as publicly as I burned my ballot paper.
With that said, I will now offer a list of reasons explaining why I decided to burn my ballot paper and what I sought to achieve by doing so. I’m going to give you two versions of my reasons – a very short version and a longer, more detailed version. If you don’t have the time or inclination, you can just read the short list of reasons. If you can, I ask you to read the longer version in which my arguments are given in far greater detail. The first reason I will give also explains why I didn’t give my reasons for burning the ballot paper immediately after doing it, but instead waited for a couple of days.

 

*****

The short version

Reason No.1: I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus
By burning my ballot paper I wanted to produce a work of art in the sense of producing something that provoked strong emotional responses in others. I wanted to create what Jacques Ranciere calls a ‘dissensus’, which is an act that disrupts the artificial and contingent ‘reality’ imposed each day upon us. I wanted to burn a hole out, to shine a light beyond, this spectacle of a society. This is a scary, brave move for me. I’ve never thought of myself as an artist before. I still don’t.

burning a hole through

Reason No.2: Rejecting the bullshit of both In and Out
The second reason for burning my ballot paper was as an act of protest against the shockingly brutal and cynical political culture I have experienced in this campaign. I’ve expected it from the right-wing Leave, but the poverty and irrationality of the arguments of the centre-left Remainers have shocked me. Their pathetic vision and tactics – a combination of scaremongering cold economism and mythological romantic nationalism could never seduce me and has reminded me of the futility of reformism.

Reason No.3: Liberating myself from an unbearable weight
The third reason is that I wanted to liberate myself from the unbearable and unfair weight on my shoulder foisted above me – a burden manifested as a binary choice between two unpalatable and toxic options. So, in danger of being labelled a cop-out, I’ve decided that I cannot and will not shoulder this burden. I will not drink from either of these poisoned chalices.

Reason No.4: Rejecting nationalism, rejecting anti-politics
I have been dismayed by how so many Remainers who would probably identify as left-wing use the pronoun ‘we’ to talk about the UK. To talk about the ‘we’ of the nation is to accept a myth as the foundation of our politics. And it is the myth that hides the real social war being perpetrated – the class, patriarchal, racist war in which fellow human beings are imprisoned, left homeless, hungry, and even killed every single day. The nation is the myth, the myth created not by the people, but by the ruling elites, to hide the social war. To talk of ‘we’ is to implicitly reject any future possibility of democracy and social justice. To vote in the referendum, for me, is to give implicit support to this myth and to the nation-state – the embodiment of all forms of social injustice – as the foundation of our political system.
We must transcend representation. We are not citizens; we are passive ‘constituents’ in an ‘anti-political’ system. Real politics, democracy, is the politics of citizens. Citizens are people who come together in their own communities to take control and ownership of local resources to decide collectively what to do. This is what we must start to develop. We already have begun.

Reason No.5: Attempting to take history into my own hands
On both sides, the referendum is portrayed as a monumental historical event. Events are very important, but politics is a process of struggle between antagonistic social forces and history is the unfolding of this process. Neither side offers a credible analysis of how this process produced this event. The referendum was caused by a split in the Conservative Party provoked by the rise of UKIP, but the rise of UKIP expresses the anger, fear, and hopelessness felt by millions of people discarded, exploited, and demonised by this economic system. To call all Leave supporters xenophobes and racists; to label them as unthinking fools; to even try to win the argument for Remain on grounds of economistic ‘reason’ is to entirely miss the point. But, social democrats, by ignoring or dismissing the fact of systemic crisis and by embracing the myth of the nation and the possibility of reform, cannot adequately respond.
Whether this country is in the EU or not, its economy must crash and its society must transform itself. This is the bigger picture that the referendum, in all its spectacular bullshittyness, totally obscures. The burning of my ballot paper is a symbolic burning of state politics – the politics of the capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal and racist nation-state. I reject it. It is a system that can and will only lead us to genocide and ecocide. I, and all of us, must take history into our own hands.

So, what is the alternative?
There is no roadmap for change. We make the road by walking. As my historical analysis shows, we first need to know where we’ve come from. But, we do need a sense of direction for the way forward too.
We should bury any minor differences and come together in our communities in dialogue to develop both minimal and maximal programmes for action. The minimal programme would detail what needs to be done immediately to meet the physical needs of everyone in our communities and of nature. The maximal programme would express our utopian vision for the world we ultimately want to create and live in. At its most fundamental, this means the reversal of privatisation of property and the reflourishing of common forms of ownership and management. Democratic dialogue must be the cornerstone of our new politics and society. Only human beings themselves can win their freedom. Whether it’s in or out we have to fight our own battles.
We stand again confronted by a choice between socialism and barbarism. Rather than engaging with this referendum, I believe that people with concerns for eco-social justice should, as Gordon Asher has put it, ‘be focusing our time, energy and resources on building and evolving broad networks of resistance and alternatives in the UK, in Europe, and beyond’. We must be brave; we must reject the status quo of state politics; we must become citizens and we must actively build our democracy and win our justice and freedom for ourselves, our children, our planet.

*****

The longer version

Reason No.1: I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus
What I sought to do by burning my ballot paper was to produce a work of art in the sense that I sought, through my creative labour, to engage other human beings by provoking a strong emotional response within them. I wanted this artistic act to be an act of what the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls ‘dissensus’.
For Ranciere, what we commonly understand as politics is really the ‘consensus’ – a reality that is constantly produced and enforced by the whole gamut of the state apparatus (government, party politics, media, university, school). An act that disrupts this reality and reveals the artificially enforced and contingent nature of the social order it maintains is an act of dissensus. Central to any political moment, to any instance of dissensus, is, as Stephen Corcoran puts it, a ‘particular kind of speech situation’, often short-lived, in which ‘those who are excluded from the political order or included in it in a subordinate way, stand up and speak for themselves’. Rancière describes this speech situation as ‘litigious’ because it ‘refutes the forms of identification and belonging that work to maintain the status quo’.
So, the first reason I want to give for burning my ballot paper is that I wanted to create an artistic act of dissensus that expressed my refutation of the forms of identification that the EU referendum imposes upon me and my unwillingness to maintain the status quo/consensus by being a good little voter. I’ll talk about these forms of identification later in reason no.4.
I was also inspired by the ideas of Guy Debord and the ‘Situationists’ who came to the fore in the student movement in Paris of the late 1960s. Debord described our society as the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ in which ‘the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life’. This (near-)totalised commodification of human experience is ‘spectacular’ because our experience of reality is overwhelmingly mediated semiotically via communications systems:

‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation’ (ibid: 132)

Drawing heavily on Marx’s theory of abstracted and alienated relations of labour and commodity production within capitalism, Guy Debord saw ‘separation’ as the ‘alpha and omega of the spectacle’ – a separation institutionalised within ‘the social division of labour, the formation of classes’ that ‘had given rise to a first sacred contemplation, the mythical order with which every power shrouds itself from the beginning’ (ibid: 152).
So, I see the incessant EU referendum media flow as evidence of our society as spectacle. I see how it unites us in division – in this case a strict binary division. And I saw and felt it as an almost absolute force out of which we cannot escape. But, this kind of fatalism is precisely the weakness in Debord’s theory for me. There is a way out, a way beyond. I sought to burn a hole in the spectacle to reveal some light beyond – for myself and, ideally, for others too.

burning a hole through

The reason for delaying giving you my justifications for my act is that I wanted to try to provoke that emotional response in you and I wanted to give you the time to feel that and to respond to it in your own way. I wanted to put that act of dissensus out there into our world and for people to make their own sense (or non-sense) out of it. I didn’t want to try to open up a space merely just to immediately close it straight back down again through explanation.
So, this was an artistic act. That might sound vain, but this is no egotistical act. It’s the opposite. Joseph Beuys said that all human beings are artists. I agree. I’ve never ever thought of myself as an artist before, still don’t. For me, in a polarised environment, this took courage.

Reason No.2: Rejecting the bullshit of both In and Out
The second reason for burning my ballot paper was as an act of protest against the shockingly brutal and cynical political culture I have experienced in this campaign.
I know the right-wing game – the consistent and deliberate lying repeated enough times to turn a lie into a fact; the playing on the fears of angry, scared, and hopeless people. What I wasn’t prepared for was the poverty and irrationality of the arguments of the centre-left social democrat Remainers. What a pathetic vision they have offered. Their arguments have either sought to claim that the EU is a bastion protecting workers’ rights, that only the EU can save us from the Tories or that it’s only thanks to the EU that we haven’t had World War Three. Then there’s the woeful ‘least worst option’ argument – we know the EU is undemocratic, but it’s not as bad as leaving. The more positive reformist argument is better, but wrong, I believe. I’ll explain why later.
The Remain argument has been broadly founded on a simplistic economism framing trade as virtually the object of life itself. This has been complemented by cheap, tacky videos aimed at disarming critical faculties by pressing emotional buttons by conjuring up words and images of romantic nationalism.

I’ve been shocked by how many people I know who would probably consider themselves on the left have bought this sugary bile. I have been told to tolerate some utilitarianism, but, for me, tolerating any utilitarianism means sacrificing reason and democracy. You can’t sacrifice those in their name. What we have learned from history is that in politics the means are the ends.

Reason No.3: Liberating myself from an unbearable weight
The third reason why I decided to burn my ballot paper was because I was sick and tired of the unbearable weight that I felt on my shoulders – a weight that was foisted upon me involuntarily and constantly increased by daily exhortations by Remain supporters about the profound, almost unparalleled, historical significance and possible consequences of the referendum. The nature of this weight is the apparent obligation to choose between two irreconcilable contradictions. I personally cannot reconcile the contradictions and reject having to shoulder that responsibility imposed upon me/us involuntarily. By contradictions, I mean that both options I am offered are hideously bad. Gordon Asher sums up this supposedly democratic choice eloquently:

‘…‘both sides are equally committed to deepening austerity and have collectively driven an agenda several steps to the right of anything emanating from Brussels’ (Hore et al., 2016) – and the nation state (Plan C, 2016). Neither ‘Lexit’ nor a left-wing Remain are likely outcomes…..given the sheer dominance of the traditional forces of international finance on both sides of the mainstream debate, talk of a Lexit or a Left Remain become highly misleading: There will be only a ‘Rexit’ or a right-dominated Remain’ (Murphy, 2016)
If the UK ‘Remains’ under present proposals there will be a further neoliberal intensification… – a deepening and expansion of ‘austerity’; of competition, privatisations, imposition of markets/market like imperatives, and ‘the rule of money’ (Holloway, 2016), alongside a continuation of attendant assaults on what little remains of democratic mechanisms, public services, collective protections and human rights.
If the UK ‘Leaves’ under present proposals, the left will have to contend with capital’s inevitable response exploitative of crisis: hostility of the markets, ratings agencies, corporations and financial institutions – as well as of other governments – due to the threat posed by such an example (Anastasakis, 2016). We have witnessed, most recently in Greece (and they weren’t actually leaving!), the response of the neoliberal system to those who would dare take a different approach (Varoufakis, 2016).’

So, in danger of being labelled a cop-out, I’ve decided that I cannot and will not shoulder this burden. I will not drink from either of these poisoned chalices.

Reason No.4: Rejecting nationalism, rejecting anti-politics
Earlier I wrote about an act of dissensus as a way to refute those ‘forms of identification’ imposed on me/us. There are two forms of identification I want to particularly reject here. The first one is nationalism. I have been dismayed by how so many Remainers who would probably identify as left-wing use the pronoun ‘we’ to talk about the UK. To talk about the ‘we’ of the nation is to accept a myth as the foundation of our politics. And it is the myth that hides the real social war being perpetrated. Each day we the people are being imprisoned, starved, and killed by this war in the UK. I am talking about the class war that renders increasing numbers of us homeless and hungry, some of us even desperate enough to kill ourselves or others, and many more of us depressed, anxious, and stressed. I am talking about a patriarchal war that excludes women from power and opportunity; that, through austerity, punishes women disproportionately; that, through the production of a misogynistic media and culture, objectifies women and creates social conditions in which women are subjected to physical and sexual violence; and that, through a male-dominated criminal justice system, rarely delivers justice. I am talking about a white supremacist war that demonises and criminalises people with darker skin, particularly black and Muslim people, constructing them as the dangerous other, the enemy within our borders and the savage horde beyond.
The nation is the myth, the myth created not by the people, but by the ruling elites, to hide the social war. The nation-state is the institution that perpetuates this myth – with every war and every memorial of every war; on every Queen’s birthday; through the media; through the teaching of history; and through the everyday language and images it uses. To accept this myth, to talk of ‘we’ is to implicitly reject any future possibility of democracy and social justice. This is not to say that peoples might not collectively agree to form as nations, but it will be as nations without the nation-state.
This leads me to the second main refutation of forms of identification – the entire current model of supposedly ‘representative’ politics. First, what we have is not representative. The arguments for this are well rehearsed – a system dominated by middle and upper class white men; an unelected upper chamber; an unfair electoral system; and the whole system dominated by corporate, financial, military interests. Beyond this, however, is my rejection of any model of state politics in which we are reduced to peripheral and part-time players. In state politics, we might be called ‘citizens’, but we are not. We are ‘constituents’ who are given a vote to choose which party we think will give us the best value for our money and who can seek to lobby our representatives to make better fiscal and distributional decisions. Fuck that! This system has no future. Instead, we all have to build a real democracy in which we are citizens. Citizens are people who come together in their own communities to take control and ownership of local resources to decide collectively what to do. This is what we must start to develop. We are already developing the ethos and methods of this direct politics. We now need to take power of our local councils. Clearly, then, I’m not saying we should shun the formal system completely. We need to engage with it to win power to dismantle it. But, this referendum is no such opportunity.

Reason No.5: Attempting to take history into my own hands
I am told that I must vote Remain to stop the racists. For me, this is an ahistorical argument: rather than seeing history as a process, it reduces history exclusively to events. The referendum has become this monolithic EVENT. Events are very important, but politics is a process of struggle between antagonistic social forces and history is the unfolding of this process. Neither side offers a history that clearly explains the process that produced this event.
So, let’s take a longer historical view of the process that got us into a situation in which the political class was forced to hold a referendum and in which it became possible for a majority of voters to choose to leave the EU. It is commonly said that the EU referendum was foisted upon us because of a split within the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party, being a broad alliance of divergent bourgeois interests (financial, commercial, agricultural), has long been divided over its relationship to European supranational institutions. What forced the Tory government’s hand was the rise of a nationalist, explicitly anti-EU party – UKIP.
Do we end our historical analysis there? No? Of course, not. What explains the rise of UKIP? It’s clear – UKIP is fuelled by the anger, fear, and hopelessness felt by millions of working and middle class people. Where do these feelings come from? They are the product of four decades of a political, economic, and cultural attack by the ruling class on our livelihoods, economic security, health, education, culture, and self-esteem. The globalisation of capitalism has meant the deindustrialisation of UK towns and cities. The neo-liberal agenda has meant the decimation and privatisation of social housing, healthcare, education, culture, and justice. Imperialist wars have provided doomed employment and escape for many, but have devastated those societies from which desperate refugees come and have brought home UK soldiers with broken minds, spirits, and bodies. The crisis in capitalist profitability fueled an unprecedented global financialisation that brought the system crashing down in 2008. Eight years later and the next, far bigger crash is only a matter of when not if.
We only have a referendum vote and a vote that Leave might well win because we have a capitalist system that has discarded and demonised millions of people in this country for decades nows. This is where the anger, fear, and hopelessness of so many people comes from. To call them all xenophobes and racists; to label them as unthinking fools; to even try to win the argument for Remain on grounds of economistic ‘reason’ is to entirely miss the point. But, social democrats, by ignoring or dismissing the fact of systemic crisis, cannot adequately respond. And this is why I reject their reformist position. Capitalism is a system of social relations structured in exploitation, oppression, and violence. It cannot be anything but. History shows us that reformers seeking change from within an institution end up themselves being changed instead.
We are at an historical moment of profound crisis expressed as an intensified social war in which the current system cannot reproduce itself any longer. It has reached its material, physical, evolutionary limits. 2008 was the first heart attack. This system has to crash again and soon. The crash will be triggered by an event. The event might be the referendum. I don’t think it will be, but it might be. But even if it is it would be a mistake to somehow blame the crash on Brexit. Brexit is the inevitable consequence of this current terminal neo-liberal phase of capitalism.
This is like watching the slowest but scariest car crash in history (Again! i.e. like being in 1930s and the only way out of that crisis was genocidal war). It’s socialism or barbarism again. And this significant event, Brexit, might just wake some on the left up about the actual nature of the historical situation we’re in.
Whether this country is in the EU or not, its economy must crash and its society must transform itself. This is the bigger picture that the referendum, in all its spectacular bullshittyness, totally obscures. The burning of my ballot paper is a symbolic burning of state politics – the politics of the capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal and racist nation-state. I reject it. It is a system that can and will only lead us to genocide and ecocide. I, and all of you, must take history into my own hands.

So what is the alternative?
‘There is no alternative’ is, of course, that infamous Thatcherite mantra that ruled supreme and imprisoned our power and imagination for three decades. When we look at the way more and more areas of politics and policy are being put beyond democratic control into the hands of ex-banker technocrats, we might feel that the ‘TINA’ era continues. The EU is the best example of this kind of ‘post-political’ institution. Nevertheless, the ideology of the supposed free market is no longer hegemonic and those with their hands on the levers of political power can make their moves, but their time is ending and their system is collapsing.
What shocks me is when I hear the TINA line from well-meaning liberal/social democratic types. A neighbour of mine actually said ‘I’m as anti-capitalist as anyone, but show me the roadmap’. As if there was ever a roadmap from feudalism to capitalism! Such notions betray a fundamental ignorance of history. ‘We make the road by walking’, as the Zapatista saying goes. And those of us who are building the new society that is already emerging out of the collapsing architecture of the current system have already begun down that path.
While Karl Marx was rightly adamant that there was no blueprint for the future society, we do need a clear sense of direction and we also need to know where we’ve come from in order to know where we can and should go. This means understanding our history. So, one central task is not to dismiss Leave voters as, as one Facebook ‘friend’ put it, ‘unthinking fools’, but to engage them, listen to them, and try to work with them to reveal an alternative, reasoned history for why they are suffering so much. The second task is to bury any minor differences and come together in dialogue to articulate a minimal and maximal programme of objectives and actions. The minimal programme would express what we believe is needed immediately to satisfy the material needs of everyone and nature in our community right now. The maximal programme would express our utopian vision of the world we ultimately want to create and live in. The next task is to decide on a political action plan for getting these things achieved. Some actions might require action within the system – winning electoral office to democratise power and change laws, for example; Many other actions can be done outside – for example, establishing new co-operative commonly-owned and managed ways of producing and distributing resources, energy, food, money, etc. The foundation must be new radically democratic ways for interacting, learning with, and deciding with each other. Dialogue is the corner stone here.
Both Remain and Leave campaigns are founded instead on an anti-democratic cynical view of human nature. This is clear for Leave, but by Remainers arguing that only the EU can save us from the Tories they betray a similarly cynical lack of belief in themselves and others – in our capacity to act. Only human beings themselves can win their freedom. The crisis has to deepen, the shit has to hit the fan. Whether it’s in or out we have to fight our own battles.

Last week, the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in an act of fascist terrorism. She was, by all accounts, a remarkable, beautiful, and wholly good human being. While I praise many of the stances she took, she was for Remain and within the Labour Party. I am neither of those things. I am a radical socialist. While this is a fundamental difference, it is a difference irrelevant to the far right. Above all, what we must recognise is that before the Nazis and much of the German population killed the Jews, the homosexuals, the Roma, the disabled, and others, they killed the trade unionists, the socialists, the social democrats. It is the murder of socialists, those who stand first and firmest against hatred and for justice, that paves the way for genocide. Once again, we are confronted with a stark choice between socialism and barbarism.

  6 comments for “Why I burned my EU referendum ballot paper

  1. richard gunn
    June 22, 2016 at 9:25 am

    I too am tempted to write ‘abstain’ on my ballot slip – the “democracy” involved being, in my view, a fake. But I intend to vote ‘Remain’, not out of positive enthusiasm – but because I am moved by the position of foreign nationals and non-nationals already in the UK. or them, a Brexit lash-back of, fundamentally, a fascist sort would be a disaster.

    I send this note basically out of interest. I go along with what, on the internet and elsewhere,, Gordon Asher has said.

    Good wishes –

    Richard Gunn

    Richard Gunn

    • June 28, 2016 at 8:15 am

      Thanks, Richard. Sorry for delayed reply. I appreciate your note of support.

  2. jandehamblett
    June 22, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Nice work, Joel. Puts me in mind of the liturgical approach to civil disobedience pioneered by the Berrigan brothers.

    John

    • June 28, 2016 at 8:16 am

      Thanks, John.
      I don’t know the reference you make, so I will check it out.
      Thanks
      Joel

  3. June 22, 2016 at 11:36 pm

    Excellent stuff Joel. Am reconsidering my own vote now. I also truly believe this matters not a jot. Coming in to witness a few weeks of this poison from our refuge abroad makes me thankful this is no longer part of my daily bread. I vote not Brexit, but ByeBri.

    • June 28, 2016 at 8:17 am

      Thanks, Jonathan.
      I hear you, but I’d imagine that most other countries suffer from a similarly toxic political culture right now.
      I understand the choice to leave, but I’m going to stay and try to help make it a better place.
      Thanks
      Joel

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