The recent UK election handed the socialist leaning Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn a minor though not insignificant victory. Once again many on the left are discussing the tactic and value of strategies focused on voting and electoral change and advocates for this are eager to present the moment as a major break through. But we think it’s important to understand the counter arguments and especially given the recent memory of Syriza in Greece – the “Coalition of the Radical Left Party” which ran on a platform of anti-austerity and once in power quickly caved in to demands from the EU and bankers. This article is by our comrades with the Workers Solidarity Movement in Ireland.
By Fionnghuala Nic Roibeaird
Voting has just ended in the UK election. Many people are consumed with hope that Corbyn could win and implement his reforms “for the many, not the few”. For those of us who work with the broad left, it is inevitable that the topic of elections and voting will come up. Heated debates can occur between those of us who would rather ignore the electoral circus and those who strongly believe in using it as a vehicle on the road to a new society.
Before beginning, it is important to clarify the misconception that anarchists are against voting. We have absolutely no problem with voting – how else could we make decisions? We are against a system that allows for us to tick a box every four or five years which gives whoever received the most X’s to make decisions that affect our lives in a fancy building miles away from us. Politicians once elected do what they like because we can neither mandate nor recall them.
This is a system that divides us into a massive majority ruled by a tiny minority, and that allows for power, wealth and privilege to be concentrated into the hands of that minority. We believe that this democracy is a farce devoid of any real choice; that this form of voting creates the illusion of change while simultaneously reinforcing our current oppressive system. Rather than us being against voting in this system, it is more accurate to say that we are against peddling the belief that any lasting meaningful change can be achieved through engaging in something that has been designed to constrain us.
Genuine radicals who campaign for Corbyn do so under the illusion that his election campaign will significantly boost social movements in a way that putting their campaigning work into workplace, community, and other organizing would not. Not only is there no evidence for this but the experience of previous electoral campaigns is that failure often demoralizes and demobilizes such movements, as happened after the failure of Bernie Sanders, and success often demobilizes and then demoralizes such movements when the moment of disappointment or betrayal arrives, as happened with Syriza.
The huge amount of energy invested might mean something can be harvested for the future. However the past suggests that only slim pickings are left when the that energy shifts elsewhere. Counterexamples that are sometimes cited, such as Chile under Allende prior to the coup, are not movements built out of electoralism but rather movements which opened up the space for electoral success as a consequence of their own strength.
The nature of an election campaign means there is little space to prepare activists for defeat or betrayal. All hope has to be entrusted in the candidate and even soft criticism has to be avoided lest it deter voters. Elections are not fought and won around the slogan of ‘our candidate although flawed is somewhat better than theirs’ but through insisting that yes indeed they can perform miracles.
This article has been written in response to a piece written by Paddy Vipond titled “Anarchists, It Is Our Duty To Vote”. Throughout I have summarized his arguments before I have dealt with them and so it is not necessary to read his article to understand this one. These headings have been taken from his article and follow the same structure.
The most common argument that anarchists make about elections and their legitimacy is that a vote represents a vote of confidence in this system. This is one of the weaker anarchist arguments against voting, one that any electoral leftist could argue against with ease when issues such as damage limitation come up, and so I was surprised that it did not appear in this article. Instead it argues that the anarchist belief is that voting legitimizes the government – rather than the system. His argument against this is that “governments take their legitimacy regardless of voter turnout”. This is very true. However it is also an argument I have never seen an anarchist make. I am thus not familiar with it as an anarchist argument against voting.
Of course if you vote for the Tories and they make it into power then that is legitimizing the Tories. But if you vote against them and they make it into power anyway, that is hardly legitimation. No one, let alone any anarchist, would argue against that because it is a basic logical conclusion. Rather, as anarchists we argue that through voting you are legitimizing the system. Through voting you are expressing faith in the “democratic” systems put in place. If the Tories win despite you voting for someone else you are required to respect the “democratic process”. Of course, there are many other reasons, systemic reasons in particular, why the Tories could very well win this election and many more, effectively argued by Andrew Flood in this article.
Vipond next goes on to illustrate a strange hypothetical scenario where the voter turnout is at 0%. In this scenario, the 0% turnout means that the ruling government remain in power and therefore that a dictatorship takes hold. Not only is this hypothetical situation unhelpful in being unlikely in the extreme, but anarchists don’t aim for as few people as possible to vote. In the US, only 40% of the population vote in the elections. While there are a variety of reasons behind this, active and deliberate disenfranchisement being one of them, much of it is because people simply don’t see a purpose in voting. If a real aim of anarchism were to reduce voter turnout, then the face of every anarchist should be completely covered in egg as it would be bizarre for anyone to claim that the US is a shining model for anarchism. In reality it is a country where the masses have been driven to despair and apathy; we have no interest in this kind of society. As anarchists we don’t want 0% turnout, it’s not our aim. Our aim is a society where we are transformed from passive observers to active participants in making political decisions about our lives.
Further along this section Vipond claims that any principled refusal to engage in electoral voting, is “a selfish badge of honor”. He claims that through not voting we are trying to absolve ourselves of any responsibility of the political mess we find ourselves in. I would like to assume positive intent on his behalf here, and so I’m left with no alternative than to believe that this argument is based on the author’s personal experience with anarchists local to him. This attitude is certainly not one prevalent in the Irish anarchist scene. This seems to be a description of an attitude the author dislikes rather than addressing any positions we hold as anarchists against voting in electoral politics, though.
In this section of his article Vipond does not actually offer any solutions to the unfairness of the system, which he acknowledges. Instead, Vipond makes arguments about how withdrawing from the system does not make it fairer and does nothing to change it. This is hardly a groundbreaking observation. However anarchists do not argue for withdrawal from the system; we argue for its dismantling instead.
Oddly Vipond claims that anarchists argue we should abstain from voting because of the time required (i.e. the cost) to educate yourself on parties, policies and representatives. I am concerned again about the personal experiences that this writer has had with other anarchists as it hasn’t been an argument made by any anarchist organization I am aware of. Organized anarchists spend quite a lot of their time organizing in opposition to the current order. This includes familiarizing ourselves with ruling – and otherwise – parties, policies, and representatives. We know this system very well, it’s why we oppose it and work towards a new world. It would be ludicrous for us to want people to have no knowledge or understanding of how broken and oppressive the system of the ruling parties is. Only through this understanding of the system will people struggle against it..
When discussing elections and costs, an argument that is typically made by anarchists is that if we were to engage in them, and perhaps even to use them as a platform for our ideas, it would come at too high a cost. This is a cost associated with electoralist campaigning rather than personally voting, and has nothing to do with investing time in researching our opponents but rather in reinforcing the idea that “someone else will fix it” which is rampant in our society. As argued by Alan MacSimoin in this article: “Elections are about leaving the vast majority of people in the role of passive observer of political life rather than active participants. Anarchists want to see working class people take an active role in bringing about change in society. Participation in electoral politics has the opposite effect. The cost is too high a price to pay.” I highlight this as yet another major omission and lack of understanding on the part of the author of what the anarchist arguments against voting are.
In this section the author argues that “the reality is that voting does change things and there is absolutely no denying that.” On the contrary, we can deny that. Voting attempts to provide the population with the illusion of change while in reality it reinforces the current system. A policy here and there may change, the faces may change, but the system of a wealthy minority ruling a poor majority remains.
So then what happens when voters in England are faced with two opposing choices between a socialist and a bloodthirsty Tory? A situation we now see with Corbyn and May. How could a broke anarchist student possibly resist the allure of supporting someone who would scrap university fees? I’ll admit, I’d probably vote for him if I lived in his constituency simply because I can’t afford my university fees and I will do anything to try to get out of paying them. I remain unconvinced, however, that he can deliver any lasting and meaningful structural and political change, especially with the Blairites in his party who might as well be Tories who will attempt to thwart him at every opportunity.
True power does not rest in parliament. Members of Parliament (MPs), Teachta Dála (TDs – elected members of parliament in Ireland) and otherwise are little more than the “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The markets dictate what decisions are made in parliament rather than parliament dictating to the markets. We cannot elect the revolution because capitalism has a backup if any of its opponents do make it to parliament. This backup comes in two forms: the first is the soft force of economic terrorism (the markets), and the second is the much harder force of a military coup orchestrated through the secret state. These arguments have been articulated in more detail by Andrew Flood in this article on Syriza.
I’m also cautious of this being seen as unchecked pessimism, as this is not my motivation. Capitalism is all about quick fixes, about the speed of service, about receiving something in an instant, this is deeply ingrained within us. So when we are presented with a quick fix, a vote to make all our problems disappear, of course we are going to be viewed as pessimistic when we maintain that it’s not going to work, that we have to build a more sustainable resistance. Rather, we would prefer people didn’t spend their time getting sucked into this system of parliamentary democracy in the first place and instead fought against it and for a new world.
To return to the article, Vipond makes an astounding claim that voting has played a major role in social change since the beginning of the 20th Century. This is not true. It is a shocking erasure of the mass movements that lie behind every great social change. Societal change occurs in our mass consciousness long before it is reflected, through the pressure of those masses, in parliaments and other ruling class institutions. In these instances it was not voting that was effective, but the work that occurred on the streets, within homes and workplaces and other places in changing opinions.
So, Why Vote?
In this section Vipond argues that non-voting protects the state, therefore implying that voting weakens it. I don’t see how participating in something that makes people believe that their vote every four or five years gives them any input into their lives does damage to a system based upon the furthering of this belief. The author seems to think that stating that voting is “a right enshrined by law” would convince anarchists to vote. Given the widespread awareness of the unfairness of the rule of law in anarchist circles, which has seen many anarchists imprisoned for acting against it, I think Vipond is barking up the wrong tree with this argument.
The author then proceeds to make an argument for damage limitation, and of course if you are in a constituency where it is a neck and neck competition between a UKIP candidate and Labour candidate no one could blame you for voting for Labour and if I was in such a situation I would probably do so. But to do so without actively fighting – capacity permitting – against the conditions that has led to such a dangerous level of UKIP support is shirking of the highest order by anarchists.
This argument naturally leads to one of choosing between the lesser of two evils. We saw very recently in the US where voting for the lesser evil eventually gets you. It led to a choice between a “pussy-grabbing” living breathing manifestation of all oppression and a war-mongering symbol of capitalism and imperialism. When all you can envisage as your role in changing society is constantly choosing between the lesser of two evils in this society, it allows for those who represent that evil to push their boundaries. Instead of the levels of evil decreasing the opposite occurs.
Vipond goes on to make an attempt at pragmatism by advocating “evolution through the ballot box whilst awaiting the necessary conditions to enact a revolution in society.” Organized anarchists don’t sit around “awaiting the necessary conditions to enact a revolution in society”, we work very hard to try to create them. History has shown us that when fighting for these conditions to be realized with electoralism as one of those tools, we see fighting becoming subservient to electoralism. Those of an electoral persuasion involved in campaigns are forever on the lookout for opportunities to get their profile out there, or are trying to find ‘leaders’ who could perhaps contest the next election. This isn’t necessarily done out of ego, it is done because those who subscribe to this ideology believe in using the platform of elections to advance their own ideals.
The remainder of the article is an argument for the benefits of reform and pushing parties to the left through voting. This reinforces the illusion that there is power in your vote. Fighting this illusion is a cornerstone of anarchist belief and action.
The article lacks a comprehensive understanding of how this system operates and how voting ties into it, as well as a basic understanding of the anarchist arguments surrounding voting. In many instances he argued against arguments that no anarchist organization would ever make. When we argue against voting we don’t mean that abstaining is the route to anarchism. We make this argument to try to highlight the scam that is voting and to encourage people to make political decisions and actions in other ways and to become directly involved in building communities of resistance and support. We have absolutely no interest in encouraging apathy. Yet Vipond seemed to imply this was the aim, or at the very least a direct consequence of anarchist campaigning that we are willfully neglectful of.
The most dangerously inaccurate statement made in this article is the claim that “voting in elections is not only a duty of anarchists, it is the single easiest weapon at our disposal”. After highlighting all of the negative effects that voting can have – of course exceptions can be made such as the case of UKIP vs. Labour that was mentioned – it is clear that voting in parliamentary elections is far from our single easiest weapon. Indeed it is clear that it is the single easiest weapon of the ruling class in fooling us into thinking we have any say in this society.
Whoever is voted in tomorrow, we still have a world to win and that fight will continue until every institution and manifestation of oppression is dismantled. While institutions of oppression remain we have a fight on our hands; while we’re still placing an X in a box every couple of years in the belief that this is true power or democracy we are not free.
Here’s to solidarity among all those who suffer and who struggle for change: “It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
– Audre Lorde
This article originally appeared as “Anarchists, Is It Really Our Duty To Vote?” and the spelling has been modified for a US audience.
If you enjoyed this piece we recommend the similarly themed pieces: “The Lure of Electoralism: From Political Power to Popular Power.” Additional articles can be found in our “Electoralism” and “Strategy” tags.
#BuildMovementsNotElections #BuildPowerFromBelow #Corbyn