With just 48 hours to go before we get to vote in officially the most boring election in history, the great and good are fretting over the apathy of the little people.
We’ve seen the emergence of Poets Against Apathy — a group of northern scribes keen to shake the public out of its anti-political stupor — and numerous newspaper articles bemoaning the apathy of the masses. A whole section of the Guardian website is devoted to ‘Voter apathy’, featuring Owen Jones, Polly Toynbee, Charlie Brooker and others shaking their liberal heads over the disengaged. Brooker even refers to them as ‘idiots’ who say ‘Bah to everything. BAH BAH BAH.’
This handwringing over public apathy sums up the political class’s contempt for the great unwashed. For apathy is no neutral term, merely meaning ‘switched-off’ or ‘otherwise engaged’. It is a stinging barb. To be apathetic is to be, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘without feeling’. It is ‘insensibility to suffering, passion or feeling’. It is to live a ‘passionless existence’. It is to suffer from ‘indolence of mind’ and ‘indifference to what normally excites emotion or interest’. Make no mistake, when the political classes brand the blob apathetic, they’re writing it off as unfeeling, uncaring, and in essence cruel, comprised of creatures who lack the capacity for empathy and reflection enjoyed by the likes of Brooker and other enlightened people who don’t say ‘bah to everything’.
Well, I’m not voting on Thursday, and don’t you dare call me apathetic. It isn’t indolence of mind — ‘sluggishness, laziness, love of ease’ — that’s keeping me out of the voting booth. On the contrary, it is an agitation of mind, a love of difficulty, that’s making me withhold my vote.
I, like many others, want my politics hard, existential, frightening even, addressing the biggest questions facing humanity: freedom, progress, morality, war, the future. But all we’re being offered is a choice between managers, primarily of Britain’s economic decline. ‘Who will YOU trust to shave the public deficit?’
The sluggishness, the love of ease, exists among the political elite, not the plebs. It is they, not us, who have hoovered all the big stuff out of politics, reducing what was once — even in stiff-lipped Britain — a passionate clash over different visions of the future of society to a contest between suits whose frenetic tweeting and occasional shouting cannot disguise the fundamental sameness of their political and moral outlooks.
Even the more lingo-conscious sections of the observing classes, who refer to the public as ‘the disengaged’ rather than ‘the apathetic’, tend to see our indolence as the problem. They’re forever dreaming up technical ways to engage with us, such as by putting voting booths in supermarkets, because of course we love to shop, us indolent, passionless fools. Or they employ celebs to try to prick our lazy consciences, even believing Dickensian eejit Russell Brand might act as a kind of guru-like conduit of their messages to the sleeping throng. Perhaps this long-haired warbler of phoney wisdom could stir the slumbering passions of the plebs — that’s the thinking.
They reduce what is fundamentally a political problem — a glaring, historic absence of substance — to a technical problem (‘maybe those idiots don’t know how to vote?’) or a communication problem (‘maybe if we spoke in mockney, they’d listen to us?’). With nothing of importance or depth to say, they obsess instead over how they say things. Which leaves unaddressed the underlying problem, the true cause of what they call apathy and what I think we should call the public’s repudiation of the political class: which is the lack of ideas to be sensitive or passionate about.
For those of us who are seriously interested in big politics — not in simply finishing HS2 but in building flying cars; not in ‘balancing the books’ but in creating a futuristic world of plenty — the problem today is that we are technically enfranchised but politically disenfranchised. That is, we have the vote, but we have little to vote on. Our ballot has been robbed of its clout. That’s why many of us don’t vote — not because we’re unfeeling but because we feel politics is about more than this.
‘But people died for the right to vote!’, the apathy-haters cry. They died for a vote that meant something. As the most rabble-rousing suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst said, activists like her ‘did not want the Vote for academic reasons’; they wanted it in order to have ‘an equal chance to share in controlling the destinies of the nation’.
Now, the vote is merely academic, a slip of paper that determines who will inhabit No.10 but not the shape or growth or future of the nation. It isn’t non-voters who have demeaned decades of struggle for the right to vote — it is the political class and its abandonment of politics.