Patrick Neveling: “Vote like humans”: Elections in a posthuman political economy

This post is part of a feature on the 2017 UK elections, moderated and edited by Patrick Neveling (SOAS, University of London).

As I left Bournemouth train station this afternoon, a homeless man approached me and asked for some change. Shelters in Bournemouth and elsewhere in the United Kingdom charge money to rough sleepers on a per night basis. The going rate is currently four British pounds in Bournemouth, and it is certainly a common experience for commuters returning from Southampton and London to this southwestern English seaside town to be asked to for a contribution to those fees at the train station. In fact, the local council adds further pressure to an anyhow pressurized population of homeless in Bournemouth. As the current Tory government has cut several welfare packages, the number of homeless has risen dramatically across the United Kingdom in recent years.

While the homeless population is growing and competing for an ever smaller number of places in overnight shelters, the council has allowed downtown businesses to roll out a small army of Town Rangers who police the central square and other areas targeted for gentrification and send any rough sleepers away. Around the train station, the public toilets are now closed overnight when they used to stay open late for the many passengers disembarking the National Express coaches arriving until early morning from all over the country. And where there used to be fairly convenient shelters at the bus station and in the garage of the nearby supermarket, these are now policed as well or clad in purple light and sometimes covered in a wall of sound from Scottish bagpipes that is supposed to scare rough sleepers away.

As it was election day today, I encouraged the homeless man who had asked me for cash to go and cast his vote for the Labour Party at his polling station so that his situation might improve in the coming years. Yet while he clarified that he would certainly vote Labour, he was adamant that first he needed to get four pounds for the shelter, as it was pouring with rain and fairly cold. I had already donated the cash I had, which was less than two pounds, and so the question did not arise whether I should top this up to enable him to cast his vote.

The tension evident here between someone having to secure their immediate livelihood if not survival and thus having to forego an opening to actually change their long-term future is one that has struck me as emblematic for the political economy of the United Kingdom since I moved here in 2009. Hugely inflated prices for basic goods and services from housing to fuel for heating and cooking to public transport and everyday foodstuffs create pressures that require many inhabitants of this country to devote a considerable share of their capacities to simply surviving on a day-to-day basis.

As this absorbs all their agency little if any of that energy remains to reflect on their situation or to get a larger and critical view of the nation’s political economy and how this enriches few individuals and families and the multinational corporations they control or are affiliated with as shareholders or leading service personnel. The ambition to act on the hugely unequal political economy is crushed. This leaves no option for many to join political initiatives of wider scopes and larger scales that target the widespread and to some extent government backed practices of tax evasion and of asset-stripping, publicly owned corporations such as the National Health Service or Royal Mail, which, in turn, create further inflated prices for other basic services.

These are some of the variables that make the United Kingdom’s political economy posthuman and that possibly encourage many to identify political leadership narrowly, with certain bullish gestures to the electorate that obedience might be rewarded with patronage in the form of financial subsidies that attract capitalist exploitation, and thus jobs, to a particular region that would otherwise offer no employment prospects at all.

The most striking thing during the past weeks of escalating election campaigning was that these pressures did not seem to matter, at least to some extent (and certainly they were persistent in everyone’s everyday life). When Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn walked out to a crowd of well over 10,000 during a rock festival on 21 May and told them that his party would revive the arts and sports at grassroots level and start collecting taxes again from multinationals and billionaires so that the very basic services would be affordable again, he also offered a way forward that would allow the population to engage with the longer-term prospects of the nation’s political economy again.

Jeremy Corbyn – Onstage at The Libertines / Reverend & The Makers, 21 May 2017

The one intervention that possibly captured best what has happened in the United Kingdom in recent weeks came from performance artist Mark McGowan, who has been campaigning via his Twitter account for Labour under the pseudonym Artist Taxi Driver and commented on the party’s manifesto, “Vote like humans.”

Artist Taxi Driver promoting the Labour Party election manifesto.

We shall soon find out how strong and stable the networks backing the posthuman political economy in the United Kingdom are.

Patrick Neveling teaches Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and is Associate Researcher at the Historical Institute of Berne University. He has published widely on the global history and anthropology of capitalism with foci on export processing zones and special economic zones, neoliberalism, colonial and postcolonial transactional orders, the invention of tradition, tourism, and others. Patrick is also a leading editor of FocaalBlog.

Cite as: Neveling, Patrick. 2017. “Patrick Neveling: “Vote like humans”: Elections in a posthuman political economy.” FocaalBlog, 8 June.