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(en) Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland): Anarchists, Is It Really Our Duty To Vote?
Mon, 12 Jun 2017 22:04:59 +0300
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 organising would not. Not only is there no
evidence for this but the experience of previous electoral campaigns is that failure often
demoralises and demobilises such movements, as happened after the failure of Bernie
Sanders, and success often demobilises and then demoralises 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” (1). Throughout I have summarised 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
legitimises 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 legitimising
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
legitimising 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 (2).
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 honour”. 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 organisation
I am aware of. Organised anarchists spend quite a lot of their time organising in
opposition to the current order. This includes familiarising 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
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 (3):
“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. MPs, TDs 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 (4).
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.”
Organised 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 realised 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 organisation 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 wilfully 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
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