This issue of M/C Journal asks what’s your vote worth? And what does citizenship mean now? These questions are pressing, not only for the authors and editors of this special issue, but for anyone who contends with the challenges and opportunities presented by the relationship of the individual to the modern state, the difficulty and necessity of effecting change in our polities, and the needs of individuals and communities within frameworks of unequally representative democracies. And we think that’s pretty well all of us.
Talk of voting and citizenship also raise further questions about the relationship of macro-level power politics to the mundane sphere of our everyday lives. Voting is a decision that is decidedly personal, requiring the seclusion of the ballot-box, and in Australia at least, a personal inscription of one’s choice on the ballot paper. It’s an important externalisation of our private thoughts and concerns, and it links us, through our nominated representative, to the machinery of State. Citizenship is a matter of rights and duties, and describes all that we are able or expected to do in our relationship with the State and in our membership of communities, however these defined. Our level of activity as citizens is an expression of our affective relationship with State and community – the political volunteerism of small donations and envelope-stuffing, the assertions of protest, membership in unions, parties or community groups are all ways in which our mundane lives link up with tectonic shifts in national, even global governance.
Ever since the debacle of the 2000 US presidential election, there has been intensified debate about the effects of apathy, spin and outright corruption on electoral politics. And since the events of the following September, citizens’ rights have been diminished and duties put on something of a war footing in Western democracies, as States militarise in the face of ‘terror’. (“Be alert, not alarmed”). Branches of cultural theory and political science have redoubled their critique of liberal democracy, and the communicative frameworks that are supposed to sustain it, with some scholars presenting voting as a false choice, political communication as lies, and discourses of citizenship as a disciplinary straightjacket. But recent events have made the editors, at least, a little more optimistic.
During the time in which we were taking submissions for this special, double issue of M/C Journal, the citizens of Australia voted to change their Federal Government. After 11 years the John Howard-led Liberal Government came to an end on 23 November, swept aside in an election that cost the former PM his own seat.
Within a few weeks the new Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd had, on behalf of the nation, ratified the Kyoto protocol on climate change, apologised to the indigenous ‘stolen generation’ who had been taken from their parents as part of a tragically misconceived project of assimilation, and was preparing to pull Australian combat troops out of Iraq. Australia’s long-delayed Kyoto decision was being tipped at the time of writing as an additional pressure the next US president could not possibly ignore. If the Americans sign up, pressure might in turn build on other big emitters like China to find new solutions to their energy needs. Pulling out of Iraq also left the US looking more isolated still in that seemingly interminable occupation. And the apology, though not enough on its own to overcome the terrible disadvantage of Aboriginal people, made front pages around the world, and will no doubt encourage indigenous peoples in their separate, but related struggles.
After so many years of divisive intransigence on these and many other issues, after a decade in which the outgoing Government made the country a linchpin of an aggressive, US-led geopolitics of conflict, change was brought about by a succession of little things. Things like the effect on individuals’ relationships and happiness of a new, unfavourable balance in their workplace. Things like a person’s decision to renounce long-standing fears and reassurances. Things like the choices made by people holding stubby pencils in cardboard ballot boxes. These things cascaded, multiplied, and added up to some things that may become bigger than they already are. It was hard to spot these changes in the mundanity of Australia’s electoral rituals – the queue outside the local primary school, the eye-searing welter of bunting and how-to-vote cards, the floppy-hatted volunteers, and the customary fund-raising sausage-sizzle by the exit door. But they were there; they took place; and they matter.
The Prime Minister before Howard, Paul Keating, had famously warned the voters off his successor during his losing campaign in 1996 by saying, at the last gasp, that ‘If you change the Prime Minister, you change the country’. For Keating, the choice embodied in a vote had consequences not just for the future of the Nation, but for its character, its being. Keating, famously, was to his bones a creature of electoral politics – he would say this, one might think, and there are many objections to be made to the claim that anything can change the country, any country, so quickly or decisively.
Critical voices will say that liberal democracy really only grafts an illusion of choice onto what’s really a late-capitalist consensus – the apparent changes brought about by elections, and even the very idea of popular or national sovereignties are precisely ideological. Others will argue that democratic elections don’t qualify as a choice because there is evidence that the voters are irrational, making decisions on the basis of slender, or incorrect information, and as a result they often choose leaders that do not serve their interests. Others – like Judith Brett in her latest Quarterly Essay, “Exit Right” – argue that any talk of election results signifying a change in ‘national mood’ belies the fact that changes of government usually reflect quite small overall changes in the vote. In 2007, for example, over 46% of the Australian electorate voted for another Howard term, and only a little over 5% of us changed our minds.
There is something to all of these arguments, but not enough to diminish the acts of engaged, mundane citizenship that underpinned Australia’s recent transformation. The Australian Council of Trade Unions’ ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign, which started in 2006, was a grassroots effort to build awareness about the import of the Howard Government’s neoliberal industrial relations reform. As well as bringing down the Government, this may have given Australia’s labour movement a new, independent lease of life. Organisations like GetUp also mobilised progressive grassroots activism in key electorates. Former ABC journalist Maxine McKew, the high profile Labor challenger in Howard’s seat of Bennelong, was assisted by an army of volunteer workers. They letterboxed, doorknocked and answered phones for weeks and were rewarded with the unseating of the Prime Minister. Perhaps what Keating should have said is, ‘by the time you change the Prime Minister, the country already has’. By the time the community at large starts flexing its muscles of citizenship, the big decisions have already been collectively made.
In the media sphere too, there was heartening evidence of new forms of engagement. In the old media camp, Murdoch’s The Australian tried to fight a rear-guard campaign to maintain the mainstream media as the sole legitimate forum for public discussion. But its commentaries and editorials looked more than ever anachronistic, as Australia’s increasingly mature blogosphere carried debate and alternative forms of reporting on the election right throughout the year leading up to the long campaign. Politicians too made efforts to engage with participatory culture, with smart uses of Facebook, MySpace and blogs by some leading figures — and a much-derided intervention on YouTube by John Howard, whose video clip misguidedly beginning with the words ‘Good morning’ served as an emblem for a government whose moment had passed.
There is evidence this year that America is changing, too, and even though the current rise of Barack Obama as a presidential contender may not result in victory, or even in his nomination, his early successes give more grounds for hope in citizenship. Although the enthusiastic reception for the speeches of this great political orator are described by cynics as ‘creepy’ or ‘cultish’, there are other ways of reading it. We could say that this is evidence of a euphoric affective reinvestment in the possibility of citizenship, and of voting as an agent for change — ‘Yes we can’ is his signature line. The enthusiasm for Obama could also simply be the relief of being able to throw off the defensive versions of citizenship that have prevailed in recent years.
It could be that the greatest ‘hope’ Obama is offering is of democratic (and Democratic) renewal, a return to electoral politics, and citizenship, being conducted as if they mean something. The mechanics of Obama’s campaign suggest, too, that ordinary acts of citizenship can make a difference when it comes to institutions of great power, such as the US Presidency. Like Howard Dean before him, Obama’s campaign resourcing is powered by myriad, online gifts from small donors – ordinary men and women have ensured that Obama has more money than the Democrat-establishment Clinton campaign. If nothing else, this suggests that the ‘supply-chain’ of politics is reorienting itself to citizen engagement.
Not all of the papers in this issue of M/C Journal are as optimistic as this introduction. Some of them talk about citizenship as a means of exclusion – as a way of defining ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, as a locus of paranoia. Some see citizenship as heterogenous, and that unequal access to its benefits is a deficit in our democracy. The limits to citizenship, and to the forms of choice that liberal democracy allows need to be acknowledged. But we also need to see these mundane acts of participation as a locus of possibility, and a fulcrum for change. Everyday acts of democracy may not change the country, but they can change the framework in which our conversations about it take place.
Indeed, democracy is both more popular and less popular than ever. In our feature article, Brian McNair explores the ‘democratic paradox’ that, on the one hand, democracy spread to 120 countries in the twentieth century while, on the other hand, voter participation in the more established democracies is falling. While rightly cautioning against drawing too neat an equivalence between X Factor and a general election, McNair considers the popularity of voting in participatory TV shows, noting that people will indeed vote when they are motivated enough. He asks whether the evident popularity of voting for play purposes can be harnessed into active citizenship.
Melissa Bellanta questions the use of rhetoric of ‘democracy’ in relation to participatory media forms, such as voting in reality TV competitions or in online polls. Bellanta shows how audience interaction was central to late-nineteenth century popular theatre and draws provocative parallels between the ‘voting’ practices of Victorian theatre audiences and contemporary viewer-voting. She argues that the attendant rhetoric of ‘democracy’ in such interactions can divert our attention from the real characteristics of such behaviour.
Digital artist xtine explores a ‘crisis of democracy’ created by tensions between participation and control. She draws upon, on the one hand, Guattari’s analysis of strategies for social change and, on the other, polemical discussions of culture jamming by Naomi Klein, and by Adbusters’ founder Kalle Lasn. Her paper introduces a number of Web projects which aim to enable new forms of local consumption and interaction.
Kimberley Mullins surveys the shifting relationships between concepts of ‘public’ and ‘audience’. She discuses how these different perspectives blur and intertwine in contemporary political communication, with voters sometimes invoked as citizens and sometimes presented with entertainment spectacles in political discourse.
Mark Hayward looks at the development of global television in Italy, specifically the public broadcaster RAI International, in light of the changing nature of political institutions. He links changes in the nature of the State broadcaster, RAI, with changes in national institutions made under the Berlusconi government. Hayward sees these changes as linked to a narrowing conception of citizenship used as a tool for increasingly ethno-centric forms of exclusion.
Panizza Allmark considers one response to the 7 July 2005 bombings in London – the “We’re not afraid” Website, where Londoners posted images of life going on “as normal” in the face of the Tube attacks. As Allmark puts it, these photographs “promote the pleasures of western cultural values as a defense against the anxiety of terror.” Paradoxically, these “domestic snapshots” work to “arouse the collective memory of terrorism and violence”, only ambiguously resolving the impact of the 7 July events. This piece adds to the small but important literature on the relationship between photography, blogging and everyday life.
James Arvanitakis’s piece, “The Heterogenous Citizen: How Many of Us Care about Don Bradman’s Average” opens out from a consideration of Australia’s Citizenship Test, introduced by the former government, into a typology of citizenship that allows for different versions of citizenship, and understandings of it “as a fluid and heterogenous phenomenon that can be in surplus, deficit, progressive and reactionary”. His typology seeks to open up new spaces for understanding citizenship as a practice, and as a relation to others, communities and the State.
Anne Aly and Lelia Green’s piece, “Moderate Islam: Defining the Good Citizen”, thinks through the dilemmas Australian Muslims face in engaging with the broader community, and the heavy mediation of the state in defining the “good”, moderate Muslim identity in the age of terror. Their research is a result of a major project investigating Australian Muslim identity and citizenship, and finds that they are dealt with in media and political discourse through the lens of the “clash” between East and West embodied on the “war on terror”. For them, “religion has become the sole and only characteristic by which Muslims are recognised, denying them political citizenship and access to the public spaces of citizenship.”
Alex Burns offers a critical assessment of claims made, and theories advanced about citizen media. He is skeptical about the definitions of citizenship and journalism that underpin optimistic new media theory. He notes the need for future research the reevaluates citizen journalism, and suggests an approach that builds on rich descriptions of journalistic experience, and “practice-based” approaches.
Derek Barry’s “Wilde’s Evenings” offers a brief overview of the relationships between citizen journalism, the mainstream media and citizenship, through the lens of recent developments in Australia, and the 2007 Federal election, mentioned earlier in this introduction. As a practitioner and observer, Derek’s focus is on the status of citizen journalism as political activism, and whether the aim of citizen journalism, going forward, should be “payment or empowerment”.
Finally, our cover image, by Drew, author of the successful Webcomic toothpastefordinner.com, offers a more sardonic take on the processes of voting and citizenship than we have in our introduction. The Web has not only provided a space for bloggers and citizen journalists, but also for a plethora of brilliant independent comic artists, who not only offer economical, mordant political commentary, but in some ways point the way towards sustainable practices in online independent media. Toothpastefordinner.com is not exclusively focused on political content, but it is flourishing on the basis of giving core content away, and subsisting largely on self-generated merchandise. This is one area for future research in online citizen media to explore.
The tension between optimistic and pessimistic assessments of voting, citizenship, and the other apparatuses of liberal democracy will not be going anywhere soon, and nor will the need to “change the country” once in awhile. Meanwhile, the authors and editors of this special edition of M/C Journal hope to have explored these issues in a way that has provoked some further thought and debate among you, as voters, citizens and readers.
Brett, Judith. “Exit Right.” Quarterly Essay 28 (2008).