If there's one thing global justice activists have given up on, it's the vote. With citizens losing faith in party politics and Green parties far from power, over the past few decades activists and campaigners have increasingly turned to other tools like lobbying, protesting, occupying, petitioning and direct action.
But are they working?
We've certainly succeeded in raising public awareness about many important issues - the women's marches in January 2017 were among some of the largest in US history. But we'd be hard pushed to argue that we've made any substantive impact on the neoliberal juggernaut. Even the 2008 global financial crisis couldn't stop it, despite Occupy and countless petitions and protests.
So it's perhaps not surprising that some activists are beginning to question current approaches. As Micah White, one of the initiators of Occupy, ruefully reflects,
"It may be comforting to believe that Occupy splintered into a thousand shards of light. However, an honest assessment reveals that Occupy Wall Street failed to live up to its revolutionary potential: we did not bring an end to the influence of money on democracy, overthrow the corporatocracy of the 1 percent or solve income inequality."
What White and others are realising, is that ineffectual as voting may seem, protesting, petitioning and occupying don't work either.
As we reflect on this, there's one unexpected lesson we can draw from Brexit and Trump: that voting can be extremely powerful! Just when we thought globalising elites controlled the world, voters in the USA and UK defied them, pulling the electoral rug out from under their feet. Agree or not with the results, we cannot deny that the votes themselves worked. Despite the outcomes being generally against the wishes of global elites, voters are being respected: Trump is in the White House and Article 50 has been triggered. The vote has worked. And that should give us pause for thought. In fact, elites have always feared greater democracy for one simple reason: it delivers!
So how come activists have for decades shunned the vote? Since the 1980s the inability of our votes to effect real change has been evident, and we weren't slow to realise it. But we failed to see why it was happening. We failed to see that, under globalisation, the global free movement of capital destroys democracy because if forces all governments to adopt a competitiveness agenda. Fail to stay competitive and attractive to capital and it'll simply go elsewhere. So that means adopting a very narrow range of centre-right, business-friendly policies; policies that defend or enhance national competitiveness but, by the same token, disadvantage the middle-classes, the poor and the environment. Little wonder that whoever was in power, regulations continued to unravel, corporation taxes down-levelled and the gap between rich and poor continued to widen. With all parties in power constrained to much the same policy straightjacket, it didn't matter much which party we voted for or whether we bothered to vote at all; a phenomenon I've elsewhere described as pseudo-democracy.
Pseudo-democracy appears to justify shunning the ballot box, but we failed to see that it makes protesting, lobbying and petitioning equally ineffective too. Protest, lobby and occupy as much as you like, but no government will risk its national economic competitiveness! That, indeed, is why the neoliberal juggernaut only keeps rolling on.
But before we give up on voting, consider these two points: First, Trump and Brexit show that voting works. Second, you may not know that in the run-up to the last UK general election, a relatively small number of UK citizens decided to use their right to vote in a completely new way that turns pseudo-democracy on its head. The mainstream media failed to pick up on it, but this small pioneering group of citizens succeeded in getting over 600 candidates from all the main UK political parties to pledge to implement a range of global justice policies alongside other governments. Of those 600, 30 were elected to Parliament. While the Green Party still has only 1 MP, this new campaign already has the support of 30! In the most recent European, Irish and Australian elections comparable results were achieved by a similarly small number of citizens. A few voters thus caused a relatively large number of politicians to support their agenda. And the tool they used was the vote!
My new book The Simpol Solution explains how they did it. Voting isn't dead, then, it just needs fresh thinking. Instead of taking for granted that the only way to use it is to cast it for one party or another, the book explains that these forward-thinking citizens had other ideas. As Noam Chomsky said of it, "It's ambitious and provocative. Can it work? Certainly worth a serious try."
When we take on board that globalisation has rendered both protest and the standard way of voting substantially futile, the paradox is that the new way of thinking I outline in the book leaves us liberated and transformed: radically free to use our right to vote in a truly effective and powerful way. The Brexiteers and Trump supporters have already used theirs. For the sake of the planet, isn't it time we learned how to use ours?