What do we mean by voting for the ‘common good’?

Apparently many of my friends and peers are bored of tactical voting, for the ‘lesser of two evils’. Many think, why not vote for the common good, as the ideal society we (or, I) want to live in. However, even though I once would have subscribed to this view, I have decided that this is an idealised (if not also naïve) understanding of the world, which I will argue, is removed from the actual present and thus also antithetical to the actual common good.

So, how do we define this term the ‘common good’? It appears to take on two rather different understandings and I will demonstrate this by putting it into the context of the Labour leadership contest. It seems that many of the Corbynites, have this attitude of voting for someone who appears to stand up for the common good. And why not support Corbyn and his thorough rejection of neoliberalism (boo!) which has been dominant for over the past 30 years? He supposedly represents collective people power over selfish individualism. Right? Well, this leads to me to the alternative definition of the common good. Might the common good also be to actually to vote for someone who will fight to be a leader and to be an actual representative, who is willing to compromise some ideal principles of the common good, in order to be representative. The common good in this second sense, involves not choosing someone who think best reflects specific views on specific issues, but who will seek power to prevent a greater harm to our society.

Compare this attitude of electability to the first definition. For many of Corbyn’s followers, regarding his potential lack of electability come 2020, is that it does not matter if he is electable, he just has to be ‘right’ about how bad capitalism is and how much harm it causes for everyone – there is no other criteria of which is considered as important as this. Many of his supporters want to vote for him regardless of whether or not he can win a general election, what remains of the utmost importance is that as individuals, they can vote for him because he projects (for them, at least) the image of the common good.

So which one of these understandings of the common good should we be working with when we vote: common good in terms of principle, or common good in terms of practical representation?

The primary issue that I would take with the former, is its dependancy on an idealized understanding of what the common good should be. It appears in this sense that the common good is being defined outside the immediate – immanent– reality and towards a kind of idealism. As Žižek observes, this kind of propensity to idealism within the Left tradition has come from Marx himself.  Žižek writes that underpinning Marx’s understanding of communism, is a futuristic eschatological mode of understanding history, thus the emphasis on ‘events’ is taken away from the actual present. The fault in this futuristic, idealised thinking is that is dependant on events to come, which in reality is likely to lead to disappointment. Of course it’s a good feeling when we protest, because we feel that we are working towards fulfilling a prophecy, the ‘downfall of capitalism’. Similarly, Žižek has also written in his 2014 book ‘Trouble In Paradise’, history should be understood as open-ended – there are no rational guarantees of what is to come – where we become actively engaged agents within the historical process[1].  Here there is no resignation to liberal-democracy, because it is subject to collapse and failure, as is any left-wing movement also [2].

This is why I do not think it is unfair to say that Corbyn’s supporters are thinking in fantastical terms – they view him as the candidate of what the Labour party (and the rest of the country?) ought to be like. The shift away from thinking within our immanent reality, towards the idealism of ought to be, I believe is harmful to the common good. While the poor and vulnerable (and women too) remain either unrepresented or underrepresented in Government, because the Labour party is subjecting itself to ascetic torture, the likelihood is that things will continue to get worse. Here in the present, people’s lives are being badly affected by this right-wing Conservative government. Who really benefits from a Labour which aspires to moral purity, over engaging with the entire electorate and delivering and election winning strategy? The person having their benefits sanctioned by the DWP? Or wealthy persons like Mike Ashley, whose company shares increased when the Tories won the election in May?

For me, the common good, as it should be defined, is that which is the good in our present situation – not based within some potential hypothetical idealised reality we wished we lived in. Perhaps what is also concerning in this situation is the individualism. The “don’t want to have to vote for Labour to keep out the Tories”, is symptomatic of the postmodern individualistic era we live in. It is this dismissal of tactical voting to keep out the true enemy, which prevents us from helping those who need it now. People having benefits cut actually need representation now in government, as representation is power. Thus, I contend that those who have voted for Corbyn as a representative of what the common good should be like, have not in fact voted for the actual common good at all.

  1. Slavoj Žižek, Trouble in Paradise, 2014:129
  2. ibid.
  3. We also don’t have to deny ourselves the ‘smaller’ opportunities to break the liberal-democratic neoliberal hegemony see TIP p. 111
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