Don’t Vote

If you call yourself a socialist and are neither an ultra-left anti-electoralist, nor a meta-left Trump supporter, then in all likelihood you are in the unenviable position of being an “undecided voter.” Now the same culture industry that once treated your vote as in equal parts contemptible and irrelevant now alternately courts and bullies you toward the ballot box. But unlike your fellow undecideds — the country club Republican, the never-say-never Trumper, the bewildered Floridian — your decision is not between Biden and Trump but between Biden and fatalism. Either hold your nose and “vote blue” or stand back and let Fortune decide.

The arguments for and against casting a vote for Biden are well known. The “for” case is simply that Biden is not Trump, and therefore his administration can be expected to be less reactionary and incompetent than his rival’s, particularly as regards the Supreme Court, climate change, coronavirus, and so on. The “against” case is equally simple. Biden is the neoliberal ancien régime incarnate: half-dead, two-faced, and the source of every problem it promises to fix. To be undecided then is to be unconvinced by either side of this bland antinomy. To break out of it, we might see what case can be made for fatalism—as a distinct position with its own merits. 

The fatalist does not add or subtract players from either team; they simply never show up to play.

However, it is not a truth universally acknowledged that fatalism is in fact a distinct position. Commentators like Noam Chomsky have said that, “failure to vote for Biden in this election—in a swing state—amounts to voting for Trump.” If this were so one wonders why we bother holding elections at all: instead we should ask each citizen not to vote for their least favorite candidate! Let us grant that by not voting for Biden, one “takes one vote away from the opposition [which is] the same as adding one vote for Trump.” But voting for Trump takes one vote away from the opposition and adds one vote to his side. Even this, however, is counterfactual enthusiasm. Talk of taking votes away from Biden presupposes that our votes belong to him by default, which they certainly do not. Although Chomsky tells us, “you can debate a lot of things, but not arithmetic,” by his arithmetic 0 equals 1. The fatalist does not add or subtract players from either team; they simply never show up to play.

Where commentators do not deny the distinctness of fatalism they affirm its immorality. “How,” they ask, “can anyone be indifferent toward something of such grave importance to vulnerable people?” But the very question presumes the existence of a course of action that is best—a presumption which returns us to the antinomy between Biden, the Not-Trump vs. Biden, the neoliberal ancien régime incarnate. To consider fatalism on its own terms we must accept its presumption that there may be no such course of action. We live under the powerful prejudice that, in the realm of politics, one is always in a position to do something, to advance a political goal. History refutes this prejudice. Instituting equality before the law in ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, or Medieval Europe, for example, was plainly impossible. Anyone whose heart bled over the disenfranchisement of the vulnerable people of these civilizations was either a fatalist or entirely out of touch with the material potentials of the time. History only provides fleeting chances for any goal, no matter how noble. Choosing fatalism on some delimited question does not commit one to stoicism, which does often veer into immorality, rather, it is often the most honest position available, and so the most moral.

A vote for a neoliberal like Biden violates the principles of socialism, regardless of his opponent, and the fatalist refuses to compromise.

Fatalism in the 2020 election means first and foremost practicing an uncompromising attitude toward principles. A vote for a neoliberal like Biden violates the principles of socialism, regardless of his opponent, and the fatalist refuses to compromise. For that reason they are called a narcissist, or one who puts their abstract principles, pride, and moral pretensions ahead of the common good. But it is especially dangerous for socialists to get into the habit of compromise. Socialism is not an actually existing reality; it is a collective hope and dream, an aggregate of subjectively held principles. Compromising on our principles is compromising on socialism, plain and simple.

By practicing fatalism we will also gain emotional detachment. Voting, by contrast, presupposes that the ballot is a viable medium for one’s political agency, and so it involves a minimum of identification with the political system. The situation resembles that of a spectator who identifies with a sports team or a celebrity. When a country elects a leader or a team wins a championship the first concern of the spectator is not how this will affect anyone materially but rather how it affects the spectator’s relationship to its object of identification. Fatalism assumes the opposite standpoint. The fatalist affirms his alienation from the political system: he treats the affairs of his country with the same detachment as those of other countries and of history. Emotional detachment protects one from being driven by impulse, on the one hand, and opens them to greater compassion, on the other, by checking spectator-narcissism. Above all, such detachment protects the fatalist from identification with politicians. After all, to identify, to any degree, with Joe Biden is to do a certain violence to one’s dignity. 

Our political system derives its legitimacy from our taking it seriously. To take the system seriously now, when it has selected a pair of clowns as contenders for the world’s highest office, is to take it very seriously indeed. It is also to reward the system for behavior which, one would hope, we do not want it to repeat. Fatalism, conversely, does not tempt the system to test our credulity at even higher extremes. It may not starve the beast, but it at least refrains from feeding it.

Our mendacious era finds us in desperate need of clear-sighted critique of the present and evaluation of the future. This is especially true in the case of politics, where attachment entails choosing sides and thus adopting all manner of cognitive biases. Just as the system thrives off our credulity it survives off our mystification. The person voting for Biden will be compelled to make excuses for his policies and past behaviors, on the one hand, and exaggerate Trump’s deficiencies, momentous though they are, on the other. The fatalist, by comparison, can take in the facts as they arrive. Without that clarity of thought we will not be able to address those problems towards which we must not be fatalistic.

To be uncompromising in our principles, to be detached in our emotions, and to be clear in our thinking are the essential conditions for our success. Each political event is an opportunity to practice those qualities. By voting for Biden we practice their opposites—we make ourselves into a movement that compromises on its principles, identifies itself with that which is contemptible, and willfully muddles its own mind. Trump is, after all, no anomaly. Our socialist perspective teaches us that Trump is merely the return of the repressed under neoliberalism. If we give now, on the grounds that Trump is too great a risk, then we prepare ourselves to give at every turn, because there is another Trump waiting for us at every turn. No matter what the social conditions, the project of human emancipation relies on individuals that are capable of carrying it into the future. We must mold ourselves into such individuals.

In November, that means not voting.