On October 14, 2023, Australia voted in a referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, an attempt to enshrine consultation with Indigenous peoples in the Australian constitution. The proposal originated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, adopted by the First Nations Constitutional Convention in 2017, which reads in part:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
Despite the backing of the ruling Labour Party, who took the idea to the previous election and energized significant numbers of younger and progressive voters, the no vote was 60 percent. After the result became clear on the 15th of October, a statement published on the Uluru website signed by Indigenous Australians who supported the Voice Referendum thanking those who did vote in support noted that:
The referendum was a chance for newcomers to show a long-refused grace and gratitude and to acknowledge that the brutal dispossession of our people underwrote their every advantage in this country…The truth is that we offered this recognition and it has been refused. We now know where we stand in this our own country.
The anger and chagrin felt by First Nations people was accompanied by a deep sense of shame on the part of settler Australians who had supported the Voice, but had failed to secure recognition, despite the generosity of the Indigenous offer.
The no campaign was characterized at first by scattering legalistic doubt about the Voice’s position in the constitution—a question of implementation that had been explicitly postponed until after the principle had been established. Rapidly the campaign picked up in vituperation. Disinformation campaigns on social media amplified themes from the official campaign. Only the decision of Indigenous elders to observe a week’s silence after the result stopped the rift in the population becoming critical.
Deeply affecting as this result has been for us in Australia—and there’s much more we could say about its specifics—it is typical of the recent politics of referenda. The 2016 Brexit referendum was driven from the opposite end of the political spectrum, a far-right faction of the ruling Tory Party, and split the country down to the level of households. A more closely comparable case, the Chilean constitutional referendum of 2022, sought to enshrine Indigenous rights in a new constitution set to replace the 1980 document written under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. With the highest electoral roll in the country’s history, 80 percent of Chileans voted in favour of re-writing the constitution in 2020. The electoral process was followed by the election of a constitutional assembly–a mandate led by Mapuche academic and Indigenous rights activist Elisa Loncón. The preamble to the proposed text reads as follows:
Nosotras y nosotros, el pueblo de Chile, conformado por diversas naciones, nos otorgamos libremente esta Constitución, acordada en un proceso participativo, paritario y democrático.
[We, the people of Chile, made up of diverse nations, freely grant ourselves this Constitution, agreed upon through a participatory, gender-equal, and democratic process.]
In September 2022, the constitution faced a significant rejection, with 62 percent of Chileans voting against it.
How can a country that approved writing a new constitution by an overwhelming majority reject it two years later? Some blame the progressive nature of the text, where Indigenous sovereignty and plurinationality proved to be particularly controversial issues; the right accused the ambiguity of the document and its potential to divide the nation; the center-left was hesitant until the end on whether to approve or reject the constitution; misinformation proliferated on social media; and huge financial differences created unevenness between the two electoral campaigns, with 89 percent of all private donations going to the rejection campaign. In Australia and Chile, the grassroots energy was all on the side of progress and change, yet the conservative and fearful forces carried the vote.
Both votes show that a politics of emancipation gaining parliamentary power loses its transformative energy. The recent referenda are establishing new enclosures of the commons with digital forms of governance shaping political discussions and the popular will. “People”, says Kant (181), “have the power of being the cause and author of their own drama.” But if plebiscitary democracy doesn’t seem to be an appropriate name for this egalitarian spectacle, then what is? What comes next in the political imaginary?
We are in the early stages of collaborative research into disaffection and cultural politics. Observing these referenda makes clear to us that passionate engagement and apathy are not polar opposites in the field of cultural politics. On the contrary, disaffection and rage are symptoms of the same estrangement from democratic norms. Rather than apply a model to these campaigns and results, we want to see what they can tell us about broader trends in contemporary political culture. We have however found some preliminary ways of thinking through the problem that may be helpful for others trying to work through similar challenges.
However idealized it always was, the idea of communicative rationality and informed debate no longer operates as a norm of democratic process. Plebiscites and referenda present a politics of immediation—a challenge to communication in social and political life. Referenda and “direct democracy” are populist tactics intended to shatter liberal settlement: the populist incites and contains affects differently from the norms of democratic liberalism. Recent populist referenda campaigns demonstrate new enclosures of the commons, with digital communication shaping political discussions and the popular will. The Right catalyze a set of affects—fear, anger, resentment—against the proposal. The failure of initially popular progressive proposals to translate into final success—like the Chilean reversal, the Australian referendum had strong support twelve months before the vote—appears to come from circumventing older channels of political communication, with newer forms appealing in their visceral immediacy; meanwhile, the Left have failed to build equally compelling modes of communication. It may have been a mistake to think that progressive campaigns could succeed on a terrain where recent history suggests the right has such a significant advantage.
Second, immediacy has become a fetish of recent times; it’s the very style of too-late capitalism, where middlemen are mocked, loathed and tossed aside, as are deliberation, institutionalisation and representation. Immediate responses are prized from social media and reality TV to the plebiscite. Baudrillard earlier observed in Symbolic Exchange and Death that “we live in a referendum mode” where “the question induces the answer, it is designated in advance” (83). Like/dislike, love/hate, thumbs up/down, yes/no, approve/reject. It’s always a demand, an ultimatum.
Third, as critics of neoliberalism have long observed, the initial goal of the hard right appears to be state capture, to be followed by dismantling selected areas of state operations such as regulation for health, safety, and equity while strengthening others, such as policing of property law. Or: roll back and roll out. To achieve state capture, absolute majorities are not necessary. Occupying a strategic position in a party traditionally dependent on electoral majorities can deliver a mass vote that appears to be driven by factional policy options. This scenario played out in machinations within the British Conservative Party that engineered withdrawal from Europe to void European regulation of business and, especially, financial practices. Engineering mass support for minority policies requires what we have begun to call plebiscitary democracy. (To our own surprise, Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989) is, beyond its headline account of publicity, a critique of plebiscitary democratic forms that Weber had described as “charismatic domination” (407) concealed by claims to popular legitimation.)
Notoriously, referenda always split a population. That is not the tragedy of referenda: it is the tactical reason for calling them. Hard-right factions know they can never win sufficient electoral support for positive policies of deregulation and other agendas, such as increasing incarceration and defunding public services. By splitting populations, the necessity to prove the value of a policy is diminished. In its place, the split defines an opposing side. Support for the faction can then be mobilized not based on its policy, but on distrust and fear of its opposers. In the later stages of the Australian campaign, “no” campaigners distinguished “activists” that they blamed for instigating and supporting the Voice, in what appears to have been a successful attempt to isolate the 40 percent of the population who supported it as culturally different from the “ordinary Australians” they appealed to.
Plebiscites construct the illusion of an unmediated “popular will,” but they fall prey to “confusing the autonomous activity of a general will with passive submission to the dominant whims of a ruling clique, ” Peter Hallward writes. The imagined “will” of the people is already split, once by exclusion of migrants and other non-citizens and twice by calling a referendum in the first place. So to claim a result as the result of a single will is wilful deceit—self-deceit first and foremost (the “we” of the victors derives its truth only from its efficiency). The increasing incidence of claims to hold a mandate after an electoral win places every election under the banner of plebiscitary “will.”
The plebiscite is an ambivalent political technology, although it always seeks to address a crisis of democracy. In German politics, this is apparent when Die Linke (the Left Party) and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) both advocate for referenda or direct democracy to check elite political power. The AfD favors one form of “direct democracy”—Switzerland’s model, aimed at increasing participation and promoting compromise. The AfD, like many neoliberals and right-libertarians, look lovingly at the Switzerland’s endless referenda, but always, in their nationalist-austerity imaginary, in the direction of lower taxes, decreased spending, and xenophobia.
Die Linke, meanwhile, proposed direct democracy stemming from the tradition of socialist council systems. In their 2017 election manifesto they recommend a “democratization of democracy,” “to expand the public sphere and involve citizens more: a new solidarity and democracy from below.” Ostensibly similar to the AfD’s populist participation, Die Linke has a different end in mind:
We want to expand democracy: by creating more direct influence of citizens on political decisions. We need more direct democracy and referendums at the federal level as well. We want to defend and expand citizens’ rights. We want democracy to take precedence over economic power once again. And we want to strengthen democracy in everyday life: through participatory budgeting, through democratization of the economy, through a democratic public sphere based on solidarity. Everyone must participate equally effectively in decision-making. This requires everyone to live free from fear of losing social, economic and political security. We want to promote a democratization of democracy, state, society and economy.
Die Linke and AfD suggest citizens are angry about thin conceptions and practices of democracy, as well as a condescending steering of democratic will. In 2017, after the Brexit and Trump results, we saw an odd bipartisanship on at least the political form needed to break through democratic deadlocks and crises: Volkentscheide (referenda) für alle.
It’s fitting, then, that William Davies identifies a key source of the plebiscitary idea in the German tradition:
The public should not be expected to deliberate or exercise power in the manner that liberals hoped. But they can nevertheless be consulted, as long as the options are limited to ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’ The public can ‘express their consent or disapproval simply by calling out’, Schmitt wrote in Constitutional Theory (1928), ‘calling higher or lower, celebrating a leader or a suggestion, honouring the king or some other person, or denying the acclamation by silence or complaining’. ‘Public opinion,’ he continued, ‘is the modern type of acclamation.’
Mandates arise not from consensus but from consent—to be ruled.
We have grown accustomed to criticisms of neoliberalism’s anti-democratic tendencies—its desire to undo the demos, restrict protest, or abolish representative government (“demos bound”). But as Quinn Slobodian has observed, other impulses are at play among governing and insurgent neoliberals, including for more democracy but less government, for more mobilisation of the demos—inciting revolt over election results or initiating/stymying political change (“demos veto”). In some contexts, as with the AfD, this is about using local democratic “voice”—direct democracy—against supranational bodies (UN, EU) or governments who can be described as too distant from the polity.
Around 2000, as the anti-globalization movement regularly assembled outside the meetings of the WTO, the IMF, and G8 to protest the anti-democratic economic binding associated with “globalization,” the public choice theorist James Buchanan gave a speech in Santiago, Chile. At this Mont Pelerin Society meeting, Buchanan spoke to outline the place of referenda in neoliberal political strategy. This theme emerged among neoliberals after the Cold War: referenda proposals to constrain policymakers. Plebiscites had the added benefit of short-circuiting criticism of their means as anti-democratic: what could be more democratic than asking a population whether it wanted to pay more or less tax? This approach drew on a current of thought circulating among the ascendent Mont Pelerin set as they sought to resist the fetters of the emerging European Union as well as countering the “fiscal state.” Conservatives had long tried to constrain democratic control of parliaments and economies—an impulse that Die Linke continues to fight against in the manifesto quoted above. But referenda and plebiscites opened an ostensibly new flank in the approach to sovereignty, democracy, and the masses.
Speaking at the Mont Pelerin Society in 1984, economist Harold Demsetz suggested that “the remedy may not lie in reducing the political power of the majority,” but “to the contrary, the remedy may lie in making the unorganised majority more effective politically, at least relative to organised special interests.” The referendum, for Charles Blankart, later an academic advisor to the founders of the AfD, offered a “collective veto function,” slowing the role of empowered policymakers. Indeed, whatever else this strange post-Cold War conjuncture has heralded, it contained a strong turn against “elites,” “technocrats,” and “lobbyists.” Not a small part of the “no” vote in the Indigenous referendum stems from accusing the “yes” case of alignment with the media-political “elite,” the inner-city “knowledge class,” universities, and large corporations (major banks and sporting leagues) promoting the “yes” vote).
Plebiscitary democracy has long provided an alibi for the absence of politics, as the terrain of desire for change backed up by the means to achieve it. The assault on “activists” and “elites” is designed to break the link between means and ends and to deny the possibility of action while maintaining the absolute rights of sovereignty. The result of claims that sovereignty is absolute is clear from the actions of the Israeli Defense Force in Gaza and of extremist settlers in the West Bank. A rival claim of sovereignty, such as those launched by Palestinians, Indigenous Australians, and the Mapuche peoples of Chile, instigates politics on the agonistic model espoused by Mouffe and by Rancière’s argument that politics begins when the excluded demand a voice. War is the most extreme form of reaction to the emergence of politics: it happens in legal and para-legal suppression of protest as well as the claim that binary choice can define popular will and legitimate dictatorship. The irony is that those who most fervently assault the state are the most entrenched defenders of its constitutional status quo. Seizing constitutional power is only one step on the revolutionary road, but as Die Linke’s otherwise ambiguous stance suggests, it may be a necessary one.
Cover image: Polling Booth at the 2023 Voice to Parliament Referendum. Courtesy of Creative Commons.