Democratic Action: Why I Will Not be Voting in this Year’s National Election (An Excursion)

Posted: 10 September 2012 in Faith and Life
Tags: , , ,

Part 1, Part 2 (to be read after this excursion) and Part 3 of this series.

Finally, I have arrived at this maxim: “Think globally,

act locally.” This represents the exact opposite of the present spontaneous procedure… (W)e have the spontaneous tendency to demand centralized action, through the state, through a decision center that  sends down decrees from above; but this can no longer have any success.  The human facts are too complex… (I)f you really want to act, you must do it beginning from the bottom, on the human scale, locally and through a series of small actions… these actions can accommodate all the human potential… (Jacques Ellul in In Season Out of Season: An Introduction to the Thought of Jacques Ellul)

…I always apply a motto: “Think globally, act locally.” By thinking globally I can analyze all phenomena, but when it comes to acting, it can only be local and on a grassroots level if it is to be honest, realistic, and authentic. (Jacques Ellul in Perspectives on Our Age: Jacques Ellul Speaks on His Life and Work)

An initial post on “why I will not be voting in this year’s national election” elicited some questions as to what I was actually calling for, or doing, in choosing not to vote.  Some were concerned that I was calling for withdrawal from political engagement—a kind of quietism borne out of frustration over the direction of the national political process. Let me state unequivocally that was not my intent and I hope to clarify that I am not calling for withdrawal or inaction—quite the contrary—as the following will bear out.

My argument in the initial post was actually quite narrow.  I am choosing, if you will, to protest the manipulation inherent in, and dissimulation that characterizes, the current national political process by refusing to participate in its machinations.  Another way to say this—an idea I will explore in much more detail in the fourth post in this series—is that by not participating in this election I am choosing to ignore the powers that seek to capture my allegiance for their ends.

So let me be clear: I will not be voting this year in the national elections but I will redouble my efforts to act within the democratic system in which I live. However, that action will occur not at a national scale, attempting to find global solutions to the many challenges our society and world face. Rather, I will act in the nearby, in the local—in the small scale.  This is critically important because I am essentially saying I will eschew working at a systemic level—the national level in this case—in order to work for positive change in spite of the constraints imposed upon me by decisions made at this “higher” level. Allow me to try to explain the kind of action I plan to participate in in this excursion away from the question of voting.

French jurist, historian and sociologist Jacques Ellul[i] is widely credited with being the first to articulate the, by now, well known maxim (bumper sticker!) “Think Globally, Act Locally”.  The two quotes above give some sense of his meaning and I would like to briefly delve into his thinking as it relates to “democratic action.”

Ellul’s maxim has largely been adopted by the environmental movement as a way to express the need to understand the effects of our collective actions on the global environment but to attack the problem by engaging in local acts that reduce waste, pollution and carbon emissions. This interpretation of the maxim is only slightly related to what Ellul actually had in mind I believe.

Ellul was concerned (one might say “singularly occupied”) with what he viewed as the inexorable spread and domination of “Technique” in modern society.  Technique (not merely “technology[ii]” as his usage of the term has too often been translated) is “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency… in every field of human activity” (The Technological Society). And,

Technique is the extreme development of means. Everything in the technological world is a means and only a means, while the ends have practically disappeared.  Technology does not develop toward attaining something.  It develops because the world of means has developed, and we are witnessing an extremely rapid causal growth.  At the same time, there is a suppression of meaning, the meaning of existence, the meaning of “why I am alive,” as Technique so vastly develops its power.” (Perspectives on Our Age. Note in this quote I have substituted Technique for technology)

Space does not permit a full explanation of Ellul’s writing on Technique but one can summarize a great deal of his writing on technique by saying that Technique is a global process that produces prodigious means for solving problems but is dehumanizing in its effects and presents solutions that add to systemic complexity.

The problem of prodigious means is that they have become ends in themselves.  I have written elsewhere in some detail why this is a problem in relation to our industrial food system. To summarize my argument: we have the means to produce amazing amounts of food and for many this is an end in itself: food production.  But arguably, the end we should seek is reduced hunger and the healthy lives that come from a varied diet.  Thus, even while our industrial food system produces amazing amounts of food (prodigious means) we are left with the outcome (end) of continued high levels of hunger and food insecurity in some places, high and growing levels of obesity in others and enormous food wastage everywhere.  This illustrates the problem of Technique’s confusion of means with ends.

The fact that human thriving is not the end sought by our industrial food system provides an example of how Technique is also dehumanizing.  It is also dehumanizing, however, because it does not (cannot) value the labor of the people who work within it, treating them as disposable parts of a broader production machine.  Its outcomes and processes are thus dehumanizing.

Finally, the solutions offered by technique increase the complexity within a system.  This is true because technicians are trained to provide solutions that work within the narrow confines of their specialty but cannot account for the effects of their solutions on the broader system.  As these effects are felt, further solutions are required to confront the new challenges they introduce and complexity increases.  Others (see writings by James Howard Kunstler or John Michael Greer for example) have written about the problem with increasing complexity within systems but suffice to say that it leads to great brittleness and when such systems fail they fail catastrophically (think of the bursting housing bubble of 2005-07 and its knock-on effects within the broader overcomplexified financial system).

What does this have to do with action?  Well to get back to Ellul’s maxim, he believed that to seek system-wide solutions to the many challenges we face in our modern world is impossible because Technique dictates narrow, particularistic solutions that only increase complexity, fail to really focus on the ends desired and end up hurting people for whom the solutions are ostensibly designed.

Thus, when he said “think globally” what he was calling for was a careful analysis and an unblinking understanding of the systemic complexities so that one might avoid seeking the “talisman” of systemic change, which he believed to be a foolish and ultimately failed approach. Further, when he said “act locally” he was calling for actions that could be undertaken at a level that allowed for the flourishing of human potential and solved real human problems within a given context in which the consequences of the proposed action could be more carefully considered.

Indeed a better rendering of Ellul’s maxim might be: “Think systemically, act at a human level”, or “Understand fully the systemic complexity of Technique, act at a level that releases human potential.”

And so, this is what I am going to try to (continue) to do as my democratic duty and in lieu of voting.  In relation to his maxim Ellul added this interesting (given what I am talking about in these posts) point: “I do not believe in global actions. I do not believe in actions on the level of the president of the Republic”  (Perspectives on Our Age).

I concur.

In practical terms this means I will continue to study and try to understand the complexity and results of (for example) our dehumanizing food system and national health care policies and act to improve the health and nutrition of people in my nearby by 1) working with school children to increase bicycling and walking; 2) helping grow a variety of healthy food that is consumed fresh and locally; 3) working within local farm-to-school efforts to help children have healthy food offerings in breakfasts and lunches served at schools; 4) challenging local politicians about the need for health services—including locally available drug and alcohol rehabilitation services—for poor and homeless individuals; 5) writing for local publications on the state of our community’s health and calls for action to create dialogue around potential solutions.

What this list should make clear is that I plan to engage in direct action as well as public policy advocacy to bring about changes in the health of local people.

What should also be clear at this point is that I take as given that I will seek change within the constraints imposed upon my community by the decisions made at higher levels.  I assume that this will bother some.  “Why not act to change laws that will make it easier to do all these things?” some might ask.  My response: see the foregoing arguments about complexity.

Some might also wonder whether I feel that life will be basically the same for us no matter who is elected president this year (or which parties control the House and Senate).  After all, if I feel that one candidate might implement “better” policies shouldn’t I vote?  Am I not saying that it does not matter who is elected?  I am not saying that at all.  I firmly believe that things could be very different for me depending on who is elected.  But my response will be the same: I will continue to act locally (at a human scale), given the systemic constraints imposed by the decisions made by others–whatever they might be.

This is democratic action in the sense that it is about broad participation in the social and economic realities of the nation.  I would invite you to participate in the same way.  Put away your need to effect a “big political” change, the results of which will solve little and introduce more complexity.  Live democracy in the day to day actions of your nearby.

One final word: I spent nearly 25 years working in what one might refer to as “community-based development” (with a focus on maternal and child health). I worked on the margins to try to improve the ability of children and mothers to thrive in terribly constrained environments.  Progress was slow but change at the local—community—level did occur.  In all those years I, and the many colleagues with whom I worked, took the systemic reality in which we found ourselves—extreme income disparity, lack of infrastructure, a plethora of infectious agents, unscrupulous public officials—as givens.  Despite these severe constraints we were able to work with dedicated local people for lasting change. Now, I am merely trying to do the same in my own nearby.

In my next post I will return to the specific question of why I am not going to vote and focus on what, for me, is the most critical issue: the violence carried out in our name by those we elect.  I will then close this series of reflections with a Christian theological (not for all tastes!) argument for how I desire to live vis-à-vis the state.

[i] Some may wonder why I am appealing to Ellul here (“Who is he?” might be a reasonable question).  Ellul lived at a time of great ferment in Europe first through World War II and then through the many dramatic changes (scientific and political) that characterized the entire Cold War period (he died in 1994). Some scholars suggest that he developed a completely new school of sociological thought grounded in his view of the critical role of Technique. Whether one accepts this or not, it is clear that Ellul’s thinking has been inspirational and a critical grounding for many of his contemporaries and those who have come after. His writings on technique (perhaps especially in the areas of government, bureaucracy and propaganda) have proven prophetic.

[ii] Ellul was not against technology; he was not Luddite. He was not even against the use of rational approaches to problem solving and the tools of a given technical orientation to solve problems.  His concern was with what he saw as an all-encompassing commitment to Technique that had the effects laid out here. He viewed it as a kind of “spiritual” power that, rather than lead to human flourishing, enslaved and objectified humanity. In his writing or speaking on Technique one senses a near personification of the concept—an entity that has agency and a goal.  Technique transcends the many technicians that serve it and has, as it were, a force that is greater than the sum of their individual efforts.

  1. Jack Young says:

    I understand. All the above is why I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and still don’t regret doing so. We have 2 ballots we vote on 1) every time we do something with our $$$ buy, deposit, save whatever. This is the ballot that really matters. 2) Once every few years there is another ballot called an “election.” This ballot, although having some weight has far less weight than the first ballot.

    As a society we vote for Wall Street 365 days a year and then when the “election” comes around many of us vote in a manner that is totally inconsistent with the first ballot.

  2. You had me at “Ellul.” 🙂 Great post, Robb. You likely know Yoder’s thoughts regarding local democratic action vs. national political machinery, and Ellul’s work on Technique is an excellent lens to bring to this question. Looking forward to the rest!

  3. Mike Mitchell says:

    Although I understand the desire to not participate in our electoral process, I wish that everyone who chooses not to vote for the “lesser of two evils” would instead find a third party canditate who matches their beliefs and vote for them — no matter how little that canditate’s chances. Only by showing that third party candidates can win votes can we get out of this disfunctional two-party system. I fear that the withdrawl of thinking people from the electoral process plays right into the game plan of some, and, cynic I may be, I do believe things can get worse, making it harder, and possibly impossible, for us to participate democratically at any and every level.

  4. […] highly thoughtful blogposts on why he is not going to vote in the presidential election (part one, excursion, part two—part three is promised soon). Robb’s general perspective is terrific, I think. He […]

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