Most women who show reluctance at the prospect of the ballot box are met by a no-nonsense chorus of “people died for your right to vote.” You must vote, no matter who you vote for, because after all: no vote, no voice. They are of course right that suffragettes, workers suffrage movements and black suffrage movements alike faced death for their say in who stalks the halls of Westminster. They’re of course right that such gains were inestimably important. But with such grim fare on offer, “they died for your right to do this” sounds less like a politically meaningful gesture and more like a cautionary tale told by the smug to the despondent. It’s that grating, insidious little past tense. As though the dirty work of democracy has already been done – and that we, oh golden few, live in the clean and comfortable present for which these martyrs fought so hard and gave so much.
Bit embarrassing really, for the homeless E15 mothers of London, who occupied the empty homes their local councilors were trying to sell off. Likewise for the protesters in Baltimore revolting for the possibility to walk the streets without fear of state-sanctioned murder, and receiving for their efforts a rain of batons and rubber bullets, a mire of gas. Don’t they know they live in a democracy? That they are already free?
A vote in this sense becomes not tool but an affirmation of its own intrinsic goodness. A holy ritual consecrated by the blood of past struggles, the altar wetted again by each new vote. even those cast in favour of parties that promise disenfranchisement and death to the same folk in whose name we are expected to skip gaily to the booths each polling day. The poor, the female, the minority, the migrant, the queer, the disabled. Even for those who, with craven bloodlessness, watch them do it and say nothing. It is all good, all testimony to the righteousness of this privilege that history affords us. Rejoice!
So, I hope you voted. Or I hope you didn’t. Or I hope you chained yourself to the railings of your church hall as your neighbours queued in mild bemusement for their pencils on strings. Or I hope you joined a union (they died to give you that right as well). You’re a grown up, and quite capable of deciding for yourself the political expediency of particular political tools. But whatever you did and whatever you do, don’t do it for the dead. Do it for those who, after five years of austerity and many more of neoliberalism, threaten to join their number. Do it not to affirm that we live in a democracy, but because we could.
The dead aren’t around to claim their debt of gratitude. And if we were to thank them unequivocally for a choice between different flavours of brutal, deadly, capitalist austerity – I hope they’d be a little insulted. I hope they’d say that the real struggle starts here. I hope they’d say that our voices are more than the extension of two crossed lines in a little black box every five years. And as for the suffragettes – I hope they’d remind us of the little fact to which their success stands in stark testimony. That is – that when constitutional formalities fail; when the powerful refuse to be shamed, persuaded, or cajoled into offering justice or a scattered handful more crumbs from the high table: that militant direct action is an awfully good way of making your voice heard.