Election Thoughts [4] | The Problem of Apathy


Election Thoughts [1]Election Thoughts [2] | Election Thoughts [3]

In the previous post I concluded that the terrorising dimension of the pressure to choose is not simply down to our ignorance of what the choices might mean, or even our ignorance of what we actually want, but our fear of not really knowing who we are and who we want to be. Thus, when we are asked, as Zizek puts it, whether we’d like soft or hard pillows in our hotel room, we are unsure what sort of person we are trying to be, and whether that person ought to be a ‘hard pillow’ or ‘soft pillow’ person. Fortunately, pillow choices are trivial. Unfortunately, political choices are a more significant bed-fellow.

However, even though the choices we are going to make are profoundly non-trivial, our energy levels – outside of the political class- in making those choices are fantastically low. But simply: most people couldn’t care less. More people will vote with more passion – and having given more focused attention to their choice over a number of weeks – about a reality TV show than about how they are to be governed.

This has been the cause of huge consternation to political theorists. Marxists in particular are generally furious with the working class for not rising up from their apathy and joining the revolution. As Zizek notes:

Why is it that the working class does not complete the passage from in-itself to for-itself and constitute itself as a revolutionary agent? This problem was the main motivation for the turn to psychoanalysis, evoked precisely in order to explain the unconscious libidinal mechanisms which were preventing the rise of class consciousness.

We are likely to see this frustration played out even more as delamination from politics continues, and thus more likely to see politicians turn to national-psychoanalysis to try to work out why people don’t really want to engage. This could be one of the fulcra of this election, as Cameron runs on a ticket of giving power back to people – people may well turn round and say ‘we don’t want it, we’re too busy watching Pop Idol,’ and vote Labour instead.

The answer that the shrinks in the media ought to give is that this ‘terrorising dimension of the pressure to choose’ – from hundreds of breakfast cereals when we wake up to scores of television channels and millions of websites when we get home – is causing people to retreat. Rather than helping people to extend themselves and find out something of the answer to the question ‘who do we want to be,’ the over-abundance of choice simply leaves us exhausted.

What does this mean for us as we approach the election? Well, if you are reading this you are probably of a class of person who is already more engaged politically than the norm. So make it your business to read manifestos carefully, question your prospective representatives closely and reflect for a while on the sort of community and country you want. Once you’ve done that, lament the fact that, in all likelihood, a majority of people in this country will vote without having done any of this:

Voters were asked to say which party had proposed eight key manifesto pledges. They wrongly identified four: reducing the increase in national insurance contributions (naming Labour not the Tories); allowing unsuccessful schools, hospitals and the police (the Tories, not Labour); tightening up takeover rules (the Tories not Labour); and requiring foreign workers employed in public services to speak fluent English (the Tories not Labour).

In only one case, the £150-a-year tax break, did more than half of voters (60 per cent) correctly identify the party making the proposal.

[Source: The Times]

Who’s to blame for that is another matter. But with all parties having been caught with the snouts in the trough, and with so little done on issues that matter, it appears politicians have really only themselves to blame.


One response to “Election Thoughts [4] | The Problem of Apathy”

  1. Can’t help but wonder if this really shows a clear picture of what creates apathy. People constantly try to convince us that too much choice creates apathy, but I’d argue that it’s choice without clear, transparent information that really creates apathy over choosing. If we really knew the benefits of each different breakfast cereal and we could rely on the sources that explain their benefits, might we not be more inclined to take our choices seriously? As the majority of us have little to no scientific background to help us determine just how beneficial different nutrients are and everyone who does know what’s really beneficial is constantly spinning the facts to increase their profits, we suffer apathy, caused by a lack of real knowledge and control over our choices. The same theory can be applied to politics.

    So, as always lack of reliable sources and lack of real education on the issues is a big problem. I’d say apathy is almost always created by not knowing enough and by not having enough independent sources to help us navigate the information put out by the main parties (because reading the manifestos will only tell you if you agree with what they plan to do, it doesn’t tell you if their goals are achievable). The fact that we have to navigate our choices on our own, because those selling them obviously want profit/power at the cost of our ignorance is also what induces apathy. It’s not the amount of choices, but the amount of work required by us to navigate these choices because there aren’t enough reliable, straightforward, transparent sources to help us.

    Comparing elections with reality tv shows is hardly comparing similar competitions. Just because both involve voting, doesn’t make them comparable. Reality tv is a much more public, visceral, regular experience, it’s much easier to identify with reality tv contestants than it is with politicians (they’re like the voters, while never mind where politicians come from, once they reach a point where they’re publically visible there’s a veneer that separates them from the public) and it makes a much stronger connection between the public choice and change (politicians talk a lot about ‘I will make sure…, our party will change…’, while reality tv talks about how ‘your vote decides…’). When it comes to something like X Factor you can see the difference it makes. Kid goes on to have career in music/kid returns to normal life, based on how you vote. What immediate, noticeable change do voters see after election time? I’d say it’s hardly surprising people are more eager to vote for reality tv, because it gives them a great sense of control, which is unfortunately lacking from the political process.

    Now that’s not to say it isn’t awful that more people don’t vote in elections, or that I’d like to see elections totally mimic reality tv (yuck) but it’s lazy to say that people will reply to Cameron’s message about people power with ‘we don’t want it, we’re too busy watching Pop Idol’. The point is people get a taste of what feels like powerful change through reality tv and the chance to change the lives of people like themselves (ok it’s not, but it’s sold as the power to change someone’s life). They recognise the difference in the kind of power Cameron offers them (the power to pick a representative very removed from their own life and then, well hang about and like whatever they do). If we want to see greater interest in politics then perhaps main party representatives who really represent the people would be an idea.