No Vote Counts: Avoiding the Trappings of Democratic Socialism

While the debate rages about how anarchists should actually engage social movements, those who work in mass movements constantly butt up against the possibility of electoral work and the arguments for or against. The most recent polls lead this conversation to happen once again, with the opposing side taking on a broad democratic socialist perspective on how systemic reform is possible. Colorado came in by leveling a 25% sales tax on recreational marijuana, while also having three cities officially banning fracking. Portland, Maine finally stepped in front of Portland, Oregon on the liberal-o-meter with full legalization of Marijuana, and progressive democrats like Bill de Blazio and Cory Booker are giving people hope on the east coast. Even on the republican side you have Tea Party right-wingers being defeated in Alabama. What does this say to anarchists? Mainly that we are going to have to hear another lecture from liberal friends that democratic socialism has a new face.

The reality is that so many on the high-profile left have taken on the socially democratic role, offering a middle ground that allows them to critique capitalism and the lack of true democracy without banking in on revolution. We hear this from some of the loudest voices on the left, many of which are highly respected like Naomi Klein, Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, Elaine Bernard, Cornel West, and others, all offering hope in Venezuela and allowing conventional arguments for leadership taking hold. In our own social movements, many people begin operating basically as anarcho-social democrats in our quest for reforms since the ties to revolutionary potential of their organizing are often much more amorphous than we would like.

So how do we avoid the trappings of social democracy? Democratic socialism, which is a reformist movement hoping to vote in socialism using the existing state apparatus, often comes from some of the same libertarian communist impulses many of us have. Instead, they refuse to see revolution as necessary for fear of the potential for violence and authoritarian coercion. This is, at its core, a respectable hesitancy. For those of who have already resigned to the fact that complete reform is not possible, or even desirable, we have to be able to counter those arguments in practice.

1. It is important to keep in mind how a social movement utilizes reforms. If we are working within a sector and see a positive reform come through, such as the reversal of austerity measures, we often see this as a success. The question is: how did that reform come about? If it was simply from putting pressure on electoral rulers or finding a friend in public office, then it may end in a positive outcome, but it will not bring us much closer to revolutionary potential. If, on the other hand, it comes by literally forcing the change happening through popular power, then the reform shows us that our working class potential can completely reshape the world we live in. Our goal is to use our reforms as stepping stones to revolution, and therefore we have to make sure that those reforms come directly from the force of our powerful social movements. If we lose sight of this in our daily organizing then we essentially operate as social democrats while having an internal position slanted towards revolution. This orientation needs to be explicit as much as possible, and to keep the revolutionary transformation as a consistent endgame.

2. Electoral work is not the same as engaging in a social movement. While electoral campaigns through organizations like the Green Party (the “cool” democratic socialists) may raise issues, it leaves the people mobilized around those issues standing cold when the only form of action offered to them is voting. It is great to raise certain points of agitation during their campaign, but we know that they either will not get elected or will be unable to actually enact the kind of sweeping changes they are discussing. This is simply not the way the state functions, no matter how many of them pack the chambers. Instead, that time and money would be better used on actual movement building. All the benefits you get from a liberal electoral campaign you could get in putting the same effort toward a social movement, except the end result is a functional on-the-ground movement that can continue to push reforms with popular power.

3. We do not want benevolent rules. We are not in this simply to have the weight of capitalism and the state alleviated, but to have it smashed entirely. Instead we want a directly democratic society based on self-rule, cooperation, and solidarity. This is simply not possible through a representative system where a ruling class still determines things in secret for the rest of the peons. Quite often a sort of “hero worship” runs through their popular discourse, discussing how other leaders throughout history have ran things a little better than the current lot. This often runs traces of elitism where by the division between today’s rulers and those who have been mythologized is their intelligence, which indicates that it is only up to a special class of people to coordinate society’s functioning. This is not even a critique of the people involved in these circles as they are often well meaning and hold similar values. Positions of power are always abused by their design, not just because of who is in the seat. About 31% of the regular electorate actually votes, which clearly displays the country’s lack of confidence with the capacity of politicians to make substantial change.

4. Democratic socialism has always been a current within the more wealthy and educated people on the left. Instead of taking on a serious role in revolutionary movements, you will often find this ideological segment taking a counter-revolutionary position in times of conflict. This is because, fundamentally, they are opposed to social revolution. They see revolution as authoritarian in that it literally forces a change through power rather than the democratic system (which they seem to think the U.S.A. is). Ironically, we often share many of these values when critiquing Marxists for their use of vanguard parties and proletarian dictatorship, rather than avoiding the staged socialist approach altogether. What this means in practice is often that democratic socialists are divorced from social movements and have a completely different conception of what organizing is to accomplish. Often times this means that they assume social movements are strictly there to act as a sort of “aggressive lobbying” action to influence politicians. This could also mean that they want to embolden big labor as a way to influence the state now that labor participates within it as a lobbying agent. On any random Tuesday it may be a fine idea to force a politician’s hand or get a union into another workplace, but those two things do not make revolution. Instead, they are a path to reform that breaks the chain between the movement and the possibility of real social transformation. Often times democratic socialists even critique these systems and offer organizing strategies that are incredibly radical, yet they do not continue those ideas to their logical conclusions in their own personal politics.

5. Democratic socialism is usually a lay-over to some other political position. Whether it is the stopping point between revolutionary Marxism or anarchism into a more “left-wing of capital” position, or in the other direction from liberal to radical, it is rarely a movement that keeps people from year to year. You can see this by the revolving door in the Democratic Socialists of America, but also the lack of any forceful candidates in their many failed electoral attempts. The same is true of many in the revolutionary Marxist organizations that continue to field candidates, but at least in those cases they usually say outright that electorally based socialism is a failure. This is not always true of the Green Party, but there are so many big names that come in and out of the party that it is hard to really assign it a character of any consistency. Since the majority of left third parties run on similar principles to the DSA, we are just lumping them together for the purposes of this discussion. Obviously there are variances, and several have unique positions that separate them from the crowd.

6. It is nice to take a quick reminder as to how elections actually go statistically. Money almost always determines elections and ballot measures, which has been a fact of the U.S. political machine for the last hundred and fifty years. Let’s look closer at the Alabama race. A far-right Tea Party candidate was defeated in one of the most entrenched red states. He openly said that same-sex marriage was an abomination, that Obama was born in Kenya, that the Affordable Care Act was creeping socialism, that women do not have the right to “kill their babies,” and generally a laundry list of Tea Party favorites. The reason why he was ultimately defeated rests with the Chamber of Commerce. After seeing that the sheer Tea Party stupidity during the government shutdown could end up being bad for business, they sunk millions of dollars to elect a GOP loyalist. In Washington state, Monsanto and other corporations put in $22 million to defeat an incredibly popular bill to label genetically modified foods. All except for $550 came from corporations outside the state. The reality is that money buys elections, and this is a fact that we often lose sight of in the plastic optimism that comes along with electoral campaigns.

7. The largest dissident candidates in recent memory have not been on our side. People often like to cite Dennis Kucinich, Rocky Anderson, Ralph Nader, Jill Stein, and others as great examples of what we have to offer and how great their successes have been. When it comes to dissident,s either within the major parties or in the third parties, it has been an almost exclusively right-wing sport. In the 1990s we got the rise of Pat Buchanan making White Nationalism a mainstream form of discourse, first within the Republican primaries and then with the Reform Party (Ralph Nader sadly ran in the Reform Party just a few years later). Ross Perot had the largest showing in the 1990s with a bizarre mix of reactionary rhetoric and a lot of personal money to throw around. The biggest shocks of the 1990s came from the success of the David Duke Louisiana State Legislature campaign, as well as the bizarre success of certain followers of Lyndon LaRouche. Most recently the highest profile “dissident” politician has been Ron Paul, who, even after it was proven that he associates closely with White Nationalists in the American Third Position Party and has openly homophobic and sexist political positions, still seems to capture much of the youth vote because of his positions on drug legalizations and the Middle Eastern wars. The Tea Party is the only “dissident” movement of the 2000s of any reasonable size, something the Green Party has never even dreamed of. So what does it mean for us? That the right does the “radical electoral” mission a lot better than we do, and there is no track record of any mass success for dissident left-wing electoral strategies in any recent memory.

8. Social democracy is where radicals go to retire. Struggle and organizing is hard work. It is especially hard when fighting against the odds continuously while arguing a position that most people on the street think is akin to a UFO cult. It is easy to get burnt out over years of this, and often times people position their career to coincide with their politics in some way so that they can retreat into it when organizing becomes overbearing. Academics, journalists, artists, non-profit organizers, attorneys, and a lot of other positions allow for this kind of retreat, where you remain marginally involved in the social movements without really contributing in the day-to-day functioning. An example would be the academic who writes a book on the history of anarchism, but rarely gets in the streets anymore, or the attorney who defends exploited workers, but no longer attends rank-and-file meetings. While all of this tangential work is important and commendable, it is obviously only useful in support of an on-the-ground movement. It is easy for people to get burnt out, and if they are to retreat into their career entirely they usually have to modify their positions enough so that they can continue to be successful. It is rare for an author to be openly opposed to both capitalism and the state and continue to sell books in a big way, or for a filmmaker to advocate revolution and still get offered another project. Instead, they coat their language and ideas in enough code-words that they lose sight of the actual core of their revolutionary trajectory. There is no clean answer here since the reality is that it is difficult to continue as a revolutionary, but what it can mean is to pace yourself throughout your life of organizing so you can stay connected to the movements without being absorbed into mainstream left politics entirely. This means maintaining conviction while finding ways of translating those politics in ways that are not alienating rather than simply taking on political positions that are just more palatable.

9. Keep in mind the role of counter-legal action in social movements, which are not a part of the electoral logic. Barney Frank recently proclaimed that “activism” and “protest” only has a place until you get appropriate legal frameworks established and sympathetic candidates in office. This is not a vacant point since this is the fundamental logic of the American electoral system. An electoral campaign inherently absolves itself into the state in its effort to join it. Social movements come up against the state apparatus directly, creating conflict with those that operate within it. There has been no social movement that has ever succeeded using purely legal or state sanctioned means at any point in history, and there never will be. This means that working counter to the state’s expectations is a basic element of engaging in social movements that see real change. This logically concludes that those in electoral positions, even as supporters, are somewhat adversarial to the movements that force progress. If you are absolved within the state you are forced to work counter to the expectations of your position if you are going to support a movement that attacks problems at their root. This means that the politicians that have actually supported these movements are actually “bad” politicians, and are serving poorly at their job since they should have convinced the electorate that social movements are no longer important because a representative is in office making their case for them. An electoral campaign is helpful when it aids the growth of a social movement, but this is often counterproductive to the actual functioning of their elected office. The point here is simply that when seeing a fully realized social movement, you cannot simply work within what the state allows you. Therefore engaging in electoral work has serious limitations since, by its very definition, it is acting as a part of the state and within its constraints.

10. Anarchist-communism is more likely to occur than actual democratic socialism, and we are not talking Scandinavia here. This means ramping up reforms and electoral success so dramatically that we actually vote in complete democratic socialism. Not only would that take a catastrophic shift in consciousness that is more profound than what is usually required for anarchist ideas, but given how elections take place and how the government responds to internal change it would be next to impossible. Quite literally, revolution is more likely than that level of internal reform. When we are looking at where the actual options are for seeing the world we envision, we have to have a realistic expectation of what the state can offer. It cannot offer, for example, its own expulsion. The main principle of any dominant institution is to maintain itself, and the state, as a tool for class dominance and suppression, will not go voluntarily. Even if, for some reason, the entire electorate shifted and began nationalizing industries and voting in socialists, a coup would be initiated by the propertied classes almost immediately. Our track record in places like Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Korea, and other nations where left wing revolutions or reformist movements are taking power has been to crush it before it really has a chance of shifting the institutions. There is no reason to think they wouldn’t do this internally as well. To see a shift of this magnitude you have to smash the state entirely, not make it friendlier.

This does not end up being a question of whether or not our movements can be free of creeping reformism since they are founded on revolutionary principles. Instead, we must consider how to counter those impulses as they come in as external arguments or personal compromises. In our organizing, we have to focus on exactly the process we see as having the capacity to develop a free and equal world. Anarchism is built on a few common principles upon which there is a lot of variation, but none of those variations include absolving one’s politics entirely into the left-wing of the state. Instead, these reforms are just leverage along which we raise consciousness about the power of the working class.

In the housing justice movement, we can see this with incredible clarity. One of the most attractive elements of organizations like Take Back the Land and Occupy Our Homes is that they use direct action to exploit a fundamental contradiction in housing: the large number of vacant homes compared to a growing homeless population. Here, there are a number of state reforms that could be advantageous. Increases in public housing subsidies, expansion of Section 8, increased foreclosure protections, broad-based banking restrictions, and even moratoriums on evictions are all great options we should see as successes, but the fact is that direct action movements are what make the real difference and mobilize class power in the neighborhoods. It is this change of organizational power that fundamentally plants the seeds of a new world, and we will never get an entirely new model for housing simply by appealing to the state. Instead, these concessions are intended to give us a sense of power as we head in a direction that will hopefully strip the state of its ability to control these sectors entirely. This is a revolutionary change, and it can never be granted from above.