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Against Referendums

Referendums give people little say over what happens after the polls close.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. Ivan Valencia

2016 was the year the people made their voice heard, a year of great referendums. Among others, we saw the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, the mass rejection of the peace agreement in Colombia, Hungary’s refusal to accept EU refugee quotas, Thailand constitutionally solidifying its coup regime, and the rejection of the Italian government’s proposed constitutional reforms. But in so many cases, it seems hard to stomach what they’re saying.

For the Left, there’s a vague idea that we ought to quite like referendums. The yes-or-no choice represents a kind of popular self-determination without any of the usual excrescences of the political: no gurning, grinning, awful electoral figureheads with a filmy residue of malice glossing their TV-ready faces; none of the antidemocratic abstractions of parliamentary seats or electoral colleges; no need to choose the lesser evil — nothing but the people and their sovereign decision.

After all, wouldn’t any real, direct, non-representative democracy look something like rule by referendum; the Athenian council reconstructed, possibly using some kind of app, in the shining postmodern enlightenment of the twenty-first century?

So it’s sometimes baffling how many of these referendums seem to be going so badly wrong.

Italy is an outlier. Its referendum result does seem to be genuinely progressive. But despite this it could still be claimed as a victory for the far right. Watching recent developments in Italy through the international press, something very strange quickly became apparent: nobody writing about it seemed to have any idea what the referendum was actually about.

This wasn’t just the media’s usual ellipsis, although that was present too. (Renzi’s attack on workers’ rights in Italy was almost invariably shrouded under the name of “economic reforms,” and the trashing of the Constitution — an antifascist text, constructed in the rubble of World War II to hold back executive power — needed to push such measures through Parliament was just a dry piece of wonkish tinkering).

The victory for “No” was vast but vague. Voters were clearly saying no to something, but it was hard to say what they were saying no to. Clearly it wasn’t just the revision of Title V of Part II of the Constitution, or even the sitting government. That “no” gained a life of its own, becoming a soaring “no” to everything in existence, to be filed alongside all those other “no”s of 2016 that had grown to engulf the original question and unbalance the world.

But what comes out of that “no”? The new Italian prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, is not a radical socialist; the assault on the Italian working classes is unlikely to let up. There are shades here of last year’s referendum in Greece, in which the overwhelming majority of the population voted against the troika’s austerity measures, only for the Syriza government to then submit a set of proposals that mirrored them in every detail.

It might be time to start questioning seriously what good referendums really can do for the Left, and how democratic they really are.

There’s an established liberal critique of the referendum: these things bypass the orderly representative institutions; they’re unstable, it’s mob rule, an unstable excess of democracy. But the reality is in many ways precisely the reverse: the referendum is not at all democratic, but far too stable and too orderly. Democracy is rule by the people, and the referendum doesn’t give sovereignty to the people, but to the abstract principle of number.

If we are to have any conception of the people as a collective subject, it’s something that brings itself into being through communal struggles. Ten thousand people sitting at home and bickering about politics with their families are just the public, a low, undulating field of opinion and indifference. Bring them all together in a central square to fight for the same thing, and they might plausibly lay claim to being the people.

In a referendum, struggles usually don’t emerge out of people’s actual experiences of life and capitalism — they’re ordained by the state. Governments rarely call a referendum unless they expect to win: it’s the invention of a plastic and prosthetic collective subject, and victory is simply a matter of having the biggest number. Instead of the urgency of the demand for justice, you get a glorified census, a math problem.

Rule-by-numbers obscures all human subjectivity behind its arithmetic. In Colombia, for instance, those living in areas affected by the civil war — who lost the most from continued battles between the FARC and the government — overwhelmingly voted for a peace settlement, but their votes were cancelled out by the urban bourgeoisie, swayed by the far right who had little to lose.

Referendums approach every human being as a single, fungible monad. They hide all the political determinations that structure our lives; they pretend, briefly, that everyone is free. But we are not. Everywhere, people are still denied basic autonomy over their own lives. All the domination that surrounds us doesn’t suddenly disappear when we walk into the polling booth. When we vote, our powerlessness just takes on a different form.

Of course, people do still sometimes fail to vote the way the state wants them to. In 2016, they’ve done it with greater fury and viciousness than ever before. But the results haven’t been pretty. For a left which has spent years fighting against the pale non-politics of neoliberalism, austerity, and globalized financial capitalism, this last year has been a shock: in referendums and elections, voters have rejected these things in droves, and yet something far worse is growing out of its corpse.

The Brexit referendum saw the rejection of the European Union’s cosmopolitan vampirism, a banker-built liberalism that talks about tolerance and pluralism while letting thousands drown in the Mediterranean. But the independent Britain of the future looks likely to be just as repressive and bureaucratized — and openly racist. In Italy, the dry and rational brutality of neoliberalism has been dealt a symbolic blow, but the likely beneficiary will be the furious, hot-blooded brutality of the fascist Lega Nord and the quasi-fascist Five Star Movement (M5S).

These referendums threw the capitalist world order at our feet, in all its gruesome totality, and asked: yes or no? We said “no.” But a “no” is meaningless unless it’s followed by an “and.” The form of the referendum is structured to leave that “and” out.

This is what Hegel calls “abstract negation,” where what is negated simply vanishes. Everything is cancelled out, and it doesn’t really matter what was there beforehand. The referendum ballot, with its two blank and empty boxes, invites you into this dance with nihilism: you affirm everything that exists, or, as Hegel puts it, you “declare it to be a nothingness.”

But this is not how things really work. The present state of things never simply vanishes: something else has to take its place. The real struggle is over what that will be.

In any referendum, the blankness of that “yes” or “no” is unavoidably filled with identifiable characteristics, and these are never chosen by the people. This is how these moments of abstract freedom reproduce our real domination, and why referendums don’t actually present us with any kind of choice.

The Brexit campaign is a perfect example. Well in advance of the vote itself, the entire binary was staked out by the right wing: the European Union would always be intrinsically capitalist and repressive, but leaving meant neither freedom nor possibility but a shambling intensification of state power. To vote to remain was a vote for high finance, vast and implacable big business, and racism; to vote to leave was a vote for petty resentment, jagged and vicious little capitalisms, and racism.

Somehow, both “yes” and “no” became impossible answers. Like many others, I found myself wishing for a third option.

None of this was democratic. Nobody outside the state-media complex had any say in what would actually happen next. We had no control over the “and” and haven’t for a long time. The Left as it currently exists has accustomed itself to this situation: it tends to like the idea of carving out spaces and opening gaps, the idea of an alternative, something else, something different. In other words, saying “no.”

We should approach all this with deep caution. What capitalism loves, more than anything, is empty space into which it can expand. It produces its other, but only as an alternative without any actual qualities. In other words, a helpless “no” of protest, the “no” of someone being dragged away by the cops.

It’s not working. We need something better than abstract negation. We need something better than the referendum, in which everything we do is always on the enemy’s terrain. We need to negate the negation: to be not just against neoliberalism, against austerity, against the European Union and Brexit and Trump and Renzi, but for communism.