‘Question everything, including the notion of freedom itself’ – Slavoj Žižek

Given the widespread disillusionment with the monolith of capitalism, are we liberated citizens in the run-up to the UK Election? Aside from celebs, May’s election is what a lot of us are talking about, and I’ve been told repeatedly that the UK should be proud because it’s a democracy. How does it work then that in the constituency I live in, Basildon and Billericay (Essex), the only MPs I am able to vote for in our first-past-the-post (FPTP) system are John Baron (Conservative), Gavin Callaghan (Labour) and George Konstantinidis (UKIP). Where are the Lib Dems, BNP, the Greens, the SNP, Left Unity or a legitimate left-wing alternative? How can we say with any authenticity that the parliamentary system that currently operates in the UK is a representative democracy?

In an essay called ‘The English People’ written back in 1943, George Orwell noted even then how the FPTP system ‘usually favours the Conservative Party’. If our system permitted it I would be voting for the Greens, for the nationalisation of railways, for greater investment in sustainable sources of energy, for raising the minimum wage to £10 an hour and for meat-free Mondays. These are all pretty fair things I feel most of us could get on board with.

‘That’s just the way it is. At least we’re not in China‘ is the rebuttal I often receive to such facts. To this we should consider an idea discussed by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek , that in ‘China the limitations of freedom are clear to everyone, with no illusions about it. In the US, however, formal freedoms are guaranteed, so that most individuals experience their lives as free and are not even aware of the extent to which they are controlled by state mechanisms’. He has a valid point. The uproar that spread across the West when we learned of what the likes of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning had to say is, in my eyes, historic due to the polarised opinions it triggered. On the 7th of April the Daily Mail ran a front-page story calling Snowden a ‘traitor’, a man who risked his life in order to expose US state secrets, whilst others call this a heroic act. What Snowden taught us goes beyond the content of the state’s secrets; he taught us that many do not even want to know what is going on, that the belief of democracy is enough.

In an age full of franchises, we have never been more disenfranchised. The revelations of Edward Snowden and the leaks of celebrity photos are testament to the strength of today’s state surveillance programmes, which we are told is for our ‘security’. Bound by paperwork, applications and the need for identification everywhere, bureaucracy has in certain fields surpassed Franz Kafka’s exaggerations. For evidence of this see John Oliver’s skit on how a donkey from Afghanistan was able to obtain a visa into the US faster than a local translator, a man called Srosh, who risked his own life by translating messages for troops in order to prevent them being killed by IEDs. Is this the liberation Uncle Sam promised?

Over Easter I rewatched American Beauty (1999), and in Sam Mendes’ masterpiece we can see perfectly the effects of our reigning politico-economic system when viewing the relationship shared by Lester and Carolyn Burnham. Living in a middle-class suburban neighbourhood, where Lester experiences what many would perceive as a ‘mid-life crisis’ (falls in love with a teenager, quits his job in the advertising industry, buys a vintage car), Carolyn (a real estate agent) is subsumed by the pressures and social expectations that come with living as a modern member of America’s middle-class, constantly quoting the words of her business rival Buddy Kane; ‘In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times’. In reality we’d conceive Carolyn as a powerful and liberated woman thriving under capitalism, but what we see over the course of the film is a woman torn apart by expectations (her daily maintenance of the front garden, refusing to sexually engage with Lester in case they ruin the silk on a $4,000 dollar couch) and subsequent decisions (cheating on her husband with Buddy Kane, the real estate ‘King’, hitting her daughter and listening to a self-tape telling her she is ‘not a victim’), that cannot be defined as liberating.

Aside from putting us in a position where no-one has to use food banks, will the election of May the 7th rid the middle-class of such enslavement? In many ways both the UK’s working classes and middle classes are suffering from a similar issue; detachment from decision-makers and from their community.

Furthering this point on our relationship with our communities, BBC2 recently aired a show called The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop, a documentary about KFC, and it is a perfect example of how a lack of regulation from the state on private business is damaging our communities. The series’ first episode details the story of how KFC representatives overcame the wants of local residents to win planning permission from Rochdale council to build a new branch. What this highlights is a terrifying trend: the wants of a big business being prioritised over those of the common people. All KFC would gain from adding another store is a higher profit margin – and that is its sole aim, not to contribute to the community’s people or local business.

One of the representatives claimed ‘economic development’ as their reason for building the store, and this is laughable. Being told by a multinational corporation that their focus is a town’s economic development is completely false; they want internal economic development for themselves. If they wanted true economic development they would invest in community projects and education schemes. The question here then is this: are the townsfolk of Rochdale liberated? All they have now is, as is the ‘go-to’ answer for capitalist expansion, a greater ‘choice’, whilst the few kids that get a job (while never getting to be known or valued by KFC) might be able to save up for the Reading and Leeds Festival. And on minimum wage that’s a lot of slaughter to serve.

When I think of liberation, I think of the civil rights campaigns we’ve seen over the last few years, the passing of same-sex marriage acts, sporadic marijuana legalisation and increased rights for women – all worthwhile and liberating movements. But look at what has happened simultaneously; inequality has never been greater, a reported 1 million people in the UK have to use food banks and multinational corporations continue to put profit margins ahead of the health of its workforce resulting in the world’s richest 85 people holding more wealth than the rest of the population.

Inequality on a global level has contributed to disillusionment in poorer regions and the snowballing of support for the militant ideologies of groups like Boko Haram and ISIS. And while more and more people can afford an iPhone, a night out or new clothes, our lives are evermore ‘disposable’ and we can’t afford rent, a car or a family. Just like when Carolyn Burnham attends a shooting range, our releases from the stress of work are made more affordable than life itself. We can wear what we want and have sex with who we want, but this does not free us from the inherent power structures that come with global capitalism and, more immediately, the banality of the UK’s upcoming election.

If future historians were to look at the movies and books we are producing today, they would notice how we find it easier to dream of a world-ending apocalypse than a slightly altered political system. On the nature of politics, the French writer Albert Camus once wrote of how ‘Every time I hear a political speech or I read those of our leaders, I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human’. It would be wrong to say that many of us, young and old, do not feel too dissimilar today. Short of upstaging, overthrowing or impeaching the state until a truly representative party and/or voting system comes into play, within the next month, Cameron, Miliband and Farage, you are all that the people of my constituency can vote for. Given the amount of ‘choice’ we are meant to be offered by capitalism’s inherent competitiveness, it seems a bit ironic to me, that our most limited choice is when it really matters; in our undemocratic election on the 7th of May.

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