José Saramago’s Seeing tells the story of the strange events in the unnamed capital city of an unidentified democratic country. When the election day morning is marred by torrential rains, voter turnout is disturbingly low, but the weather breaks by mid-afternoon and the population heads en masse to their voting stations. The government’s relief is short-lived, however, when vote counting reveals that over 70 percent of the ballots cast in the capital have been left blank. Baffled by this apparent civic lapse, the government gives the citizenry a chance to make amends just one week later with another election day. The results are worse: Now 83 percent of the ballots are blank.
Is this an organized conspiracy to overthrow not just the ruling government but the entire democratic system? If so, who is behind it, and how did they manage to organize hundreds of thousands of people into such subversion without being noticed? The city continues to function near-normally throughout, the people parrying each of the government’s thrusts in inexplicable unison and with a truly Gandhian level of nonviolent resistance. The lesson of this thought-experiment is clear: the danger today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to “be active,” to “participate,” in order to mask the vacuity of what goes on. People intervene all the time. People “do something.” Academics participate in meaningless debates, and so on. The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw. Those in power often prefer even a “critical” participation, a dialogue, to silence, because just to engage us in dialogue, is to make sure our ominous passivity is broken. The voters’ abstention is thus a true political act: it forcefully confronts us with the vacuity of today’s democracies.
This, exactly, is how citizens should act when faced with the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. When Stalin was asked in the late 1920s which deviation is worse, the Rightist one or the Leftist one, he snapped back: They are both worse! Is it not the same with the choice American voters are confronting in the 2016 presidential elections? Trump is obviously “worse.” He enacts a decay of public morality. He promises a Rightist turn. But he at least promises a change. Hillary is “worse” since she makes changing nothing look desirable.
With such a choice, one should not lose ones nerve and chose the “worst,” which means change—even if is a dangerous change—because it opens up the space for a different more authentic change.
The point is thus not to vote for Trump—not only should one not vote for such a scum, one should not even participate in such elections. The point is to approach coldly the question: Whose victory is better for the fate of the radical emancipatory project, Clinton’s or Trump’s?
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times on November 6th 2016.]