Don’t vote, organise – the reasoning behind the slogan
It is a long-established truism that anarchists are opposed to electoralism. A myriad of slogans such as “whoever you vote for, government wins,” “don’t vote, it only encourages the bastards,” and “if voting changed anything they’d abolish it” have entered the public psyche. So much so, that they are taken up by cynics and the disenfranchised as well as by the anarchist movement.
The downside is that, by most people across the political spectrum, not voting is seen less as a conscious withdrawal from the framework of mainstream politics and more as apathy and ignorance. Anarchism, by extension, is dragged into the same category. It only helps reinforce – in the minds of our detractors – the myth that we are just mindless hooligans out for a riot, who neither have nor want a positive alternative to the status quo.
As such, there is one anti-voting slogan which remains exclusive to anarchists: don’t vote, organise!
It’s simple, to the point, and emphasises the bit that advocates of the electoral system always gloss over. Not voting is not proof that we don’t care or have no answers. Anarchists do espouse an alternative to the present system. As that alternative is one wherein people take control of their own lives, the ritual of picking someone to govern you is entirely contradictory.
Making this argument is often self-defeating. The usual forum for such a debate is some kind of gathering of various left-wing tendencies, where the idea of not going to the polls and marking an “x” in a box is vociferously attacked by somebody of a Leninist (or even left-liberal) persuasion. It is not so much a case of preaching to the converted as preaching to those not for turning. It is tiring, and our zeal for it is soon sapped by the self-defeating repetition of left-wing political circles.
But those who are working tirelessly to
increase their numbers, fill their coffers, and get people to sell their papers build up the “new workers’ party” or a similar electoral vehicle were never our target audience. The people we need to be making this case to are the voters themselves. We need the rest of working class on side, not those who profess to be our revolutionary leadership.
It is with this in mind that I delve back into an argument as old as democracy itself.
The principles of electoral abstention
Before anything else, there is one important point to get out of the way. Anarchists are not against voting in all situations.
A vote is neither a good nor a bad thing in and of itself. In certain situations it can be useful. For example, when an organisation needs to make a collective decision, or choose a delegate to carry out or voice such decisions at a federal level. This is part of the practice of direct democracy, and thus of the way anarchist organisations are usually run.
What we are opposed to is not the very act of voting, but the practice of electoral politics. That is, the system wherein a cross-section of the public gets a say in who runs a given body – party/union executives, local councils, national governments, etc – but that body, once elected, holds autonomy to make decisions as it sees fit, regardless of the will of those it theoretically answers to. This is bourgeois or parliamentary democracy, and to anarchists it isn’t actually democratic at all.
What it boils down to is not decision-making by the people, but the people delegating that decision-making power away to persons assumed to know better on such matters. This is not exercising power, but surrendering it.
Those who get this power from our ballots operate within the framework of a system built and fine-tuned to serve a specific class interest in our society, and it is not ours. The differences between the various mainstream political parties, in any country you care to pick, are strategic – reflecting differences of opinion amongst the ruling class. Those who diverge from this narrow spectrum are sidelined and condemned, ultimately either pressured into conformity or forced to abandon the political arena.
The same is true of individual candidates from beyond the mainstream spectrum. That is, if they are elected. Most voting systems are set up in such a way that such third-party candidates don’t stand a hope in hell. And where that’s not the case, coalition – thus sell-out and compromise – is required for a taste of power.
As to the common refrain from socialist organisations about building “a new workers’ party?” Forget it. Firstly, the realities of secularism and the continual, infantile squabbling amongst different sectors of “the left” makes such a dream unlikely. Then there is the point that, in most capitalist countries, the heavy weight of the free-market propaganda model is against a mass embrace of socialism. Especially since there isn’t much active organising going on. Where significant resistance movements do spring up, their success is entirely separate to the ballot box and lies in their being built from below. The kind of leadership required for a party or electoral front is almost universally a demobilising factor.
This is not to mention the practical experience of parties on the authoritarian left gaining power. “Democratic centralism” is autocracy by another name, and the workers’ party does not serve the interests of the workers but rather puts a different ruling class in charge of them.
The slogan “whoever you vote for, government wins” is entirely true. Ultimately, the working class remain under the yoke of one or other set of bosses out for themselves.
Where voting leads us in practice
This is not just fine rhetoric, asserted a priori. Anarchist arguments against parliamentary “democracy” have only been strengthened by its practice. Taking Britain as an example, it is now clearer than ever that, whoever is in power, working class people face the same attacks.
Labour, in opposition, are on the warpath against “Tory cuts.” But in power all they offered was a different time frame. The Tories blame Labour for making the cuts necessary, but they’re the ones implementing them – and this is not the first Tory government to do so.
Many people voted Liberal Democrat as the “nice” party, in contrast to Labour and the Tories. But even before the election they were a pro-business, anti-worker party. In 2009, they were the first to argue for a public sector pay freeze. They support even tougher anti-strike laws than those implemented by Thatcher. Their councils are fond of using scab labour to break strikes, and their Welsh Assembly members condemned those who respected PCS’s picket lines.
Looking across Europe, we can see that even greens and socialists – once in power – defend capitalism as ruthlessly as liberals and conservatives.
As the Brighton Solidarity Federation argue, in relation to Green Party leader Caroline Lucas entering Parliament;
It is true that Caroline Lucas shows her face at campaign meetings for more than just a photoshoot and some self-promotion (yes, we’re looking at you Nancy Platt), but history shows that wherever the Greens have got into power they have behaved just like any other capitalist party.
In Germany, the Green Party in government sent riot police against protesters trying to stop nuclear waste being transported through their communities – precisely the kind of green activism they had once supported. In 2001 they supported the invasion of Afghanistan as part of a coalition government. In Ireland too the Green Party went from vocal supporters of the ‘Shell to Sea’ movement against the Corrib gas project to actually implementing it. Green minister Eamon Ryan is now in charge of the project, the Greens having dropped their election promises in order to enter a coalition government.
Much the same can be said of the new Trade Union and Socialist Coalition. We all know what happened the last time a party of union bureaucrats got into power: the Labour Party. And we should dispel any nostalgia for ‘Old Labour’ from the off – they supported imperialist wars, opposed strikes and imposed austerity measures on the working class from their very inception: just like every other party that finds itself trying to balance the budget of the capitalist state.
The closer politicians get to power, the more like the rest they become, however well-intentioned and full of integrity they may start out. If Caroline Lucas does get in, she’ll be a lone voice of dissent. This will do her credibility on the left a lot of good, but will mean she’s not able to actually deliver any of her election promises. That would require a larger contingent of Green MPs… and if we got that, we’re back to the ‘power corrupts’ German/Irish scenario.
In short, the reality of political parties – including “workers’ parties” lives up to the principles which anarchists cite for not voting. But, of course, if voting will ultimately fail to bring about the changes we want to see in society, we need something else that will.
Building the alternative
One other problem with electoralism is that the associated campaigning – for certain political parties or candidates, or even to get people to vote at all – takes an enormous amount of energy, time, and resources. All of this effort could be much better spent building practical alternatives to the current system.
No doubt, that is why politicians and the ruling class are keen to encourage voting. (Or to ensure that abstention is only of the apathetic kind.) For those of us who want real change there is a better option.
In a pamphlet (PDF) produced for the 2010 general election, the Anarchist Federation explain what this means;
So what alternatives do anarchists suggest? Most of what we propose can be described as “direct action”. This is exactly what it sounds like: people acting together to solve their problems directly, without relying on anyone else to do it for them.
Perhaps the best-known and most obvious type of direct action is the traditional workplace strike. There are many examples of strikes winning real victories quickly, from the Tower Hamlets College staff who saved jobs through strike action last year, to the low-paid tube cleaners who managed to win a living wage by bringing the London Underground to a halt in 2007. How many examples can you think of where people have improved their pay or saved their jobs by asking a politician for help?
Traditional strikes aren’t the only way to take direct action in the workplace. There are also “good work strikes”, which are designed to minimise disruption to the public while putting as much pressure as possible on employers. At Mercy Hospital in France, instead of endangering patients by going on strike, staff just refused to fill in the paperwork to charge them for treatment. The hospital’s income was cut by half, and the bosses gave in to all their demands in three days. In New York, restaurant workers took strike action and lost, so instead they started giving customers double helpings and undercharging them for their meals, until the restaurant owners gave in to some of their demands.
But direct action isn’t just something that happens in the workplace. For example, when the local council threatened to close down a school in Lewisham, parents reacted by taking direct action: they occupied the school building and forced the council to back down. Another example of direct action is when people refuse to put up with unaffordable rents and decide to squat instead. Direct action can also be taken against high prices, such as in Italy in the 1970s when people in large groups would go into supermarkets, take what they wanted from the shelves, and pay what they considered to be a fair price instead of what the supermarket was asking. And one of the most famous examples of effective direct action on a massive scale here in the UK was when Thatcher’s poll tax was beaten in the 1990s. Many people at the time were claiming that the only way to stop the poll tax was to vote Labour, but it was scrapped years before Labour got in, thanks to a massive campaign based around people simply
refusing to pay.
Everything I write on this blog, and everything I do as an activist, is built around the presumption that ordinary people do not need to look to politicians, bosses, or other figures of “authority” to take care of our problems. By organising together and taking direct action, we can fight our own battles. That, indeed, is the basis on which 150 years of class struggle has shaped the world we live in today and the (relative) freedoms we enjoy.
But as long as people continue to participate in the electoral system, they are validating the same governance that we are fighting against. If voting changes nothing, and that is exactly the point I have been arguing, why freely offer the ruling class the pretence of a democratic mandate? Why expend so much energy on the process?
Electoralism is nothing but a dead-end road. Especially now, as we once more face a heightened period of class struggle and austerity measures, it has the potential to be the pressure-release which completely derail active resistance. If people want change, they need to reject the ballot box and get on the street to make it for themselves.