After October 19

Being present for the election will take work, sticking around afterwards is more important
September 1, 2015

In so many ways, this election feels incomparably urgent. For at least a year, our news media, public debates, political strategizing meetings and private conversations have been saturated with stories of the destruction this government has reaped. Many of us are going to expend ourselves this month with hopes of producing change in Ottawa on October 19. 

We will be thinking of this government's cruel refusal to seriously investigate the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, or its disastrous embrace of an economic model that favours polluting extractive industries, its scandalous suppression of scientific knowledge, and a dogmatically free trade–focused and warrior-oriented foreign policy, to name just a few examples. 

Manifestly terrible policies have created a surplus of grief, fear and despair that will be especially strong among refugees and recent migrants, who find it more difficult to bring their loved ones to Canada, environmental, Indigenous and free speech activists slandered and threatened with persecution, and besieged workers fighting for just wages and equal rights.

With so many grievances, it is easy to be swept up by calls to mobilize the vote in order to elect a new government. At the same time, we should not lose sight of the broader setting for this election. The reality of protracted and deepening (global) crisis forces us to reconsider the prevailing idea that elections remain the horizon of politics, but it is not the only reason to do so. 

As political philosopher George Caffentzis explains, electing a representative is not a politics of presence but of absence. By that he simply means representative democracy is contingent upon our being absent from the arena of formal politics and the life-affecting debates and decisions that take place therein.

“Now for many of us busy, over-worked folk this appears to be a good deal. After all, sitting through long debates and getting trained to go over government accounts is time-consuming and tedious,” Caffentzis wrote, in 2012, of the U.S. Occupy Movement. “But in periods of crisis when you no longer trust who is presenting you again in your absence and when you no longer trust the whole apparatus of representation, the need to make your presence felt physically returns, i.e., to go back to basics and originally present yourself as a body in motion at a historic juncture ready to swerve the relations of power in your favour.” 

Enormous political capacities and energies were mobilized to achieve Barack Obama’s extraordinary electoral victory. The public elation was palpable, powerful, but fleeting as a financial crisis escalated. The ensuing rightward drift of the Obama administration was possible because of the timid response of an American left that was depleted from its epic effort to elect a president. 

In Greece, we can point to last year’s equally astonishing electoral victory of Syriza, a left-wing coalition that campaigned on a popular anti-austerity platform. Faced immediately with the difficult task of renegotiating the terms of Europe’s austerity program on behalf of the Greek people, the new government found itself impaled by the elected and unelected representatives of global finance. 

Irish journalist Collette Brown summed up Syriza’s conundrum in a tweet: “Troika message to Greece: you can elect whatever government you want as long as they implement our policies.” Greece now faces the devastating situation of a government elected on an anti-austerity platform being tasked with implementing an even more severe austerity program than the one forced on past regimes by European creditors. (Ed. note: Syriza Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras resigned in mid-August and called a late-September election.) 

And herein lies the recurrent danger, an established pattern in the history of electoral politics. Disappointed and demoralized, people need time to replenish their political energies. Once they have, they are asked to throw those energies behind another party that promises to be present so that they—the voter—can be absent from the decision-making process. 

The lesson here is that electing another party is not irrelevant, but neither is it much more than the tip of the political iceberg. Beyond mobilizing people to get to the polls to remove one government from power, there should be a long-term strategy of assembly that moves us closer to reclaiming the political realm more broadly. In so doing, we can begin to develop the capacity and energy for broader systemic change, not just electoral change. 

In a world in which we have developed the capacity to present ourselves, rather than being represented in our absence, the question of what party happens to be in power would matter much less than it does today. Because no matter who forms government after October 19, what it does with that power in Parliament should depend, to a much larger extent than it does now, on what we do outside of it. 

Fiona Jeffries is the author of the 2015 book Nothing To Lose But Our Fear: Resistance In Dangerous Times (Between the Lines, Zed Books). Follow her on Twitter @fionajeffries.