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News ::
Direct Action Versus Electoralism
03 Aug 2002
Anarchists engage in direct action as opposed to voting. This anti-electoralism (or anti-parliamentarianism) may seem strange and even perverse to many. After all, virtually the whole left believes in the importance of voting. In the US, liberals and state socialists have voted for the Democrats with a steadfastness that is almost religious, even as the Democrats have steadily moved to the right. In Western Europe, they have voted consistently for the Socialist or Labor Parties (social democrats), or Communist Parties, or, more recently, ex-Communist Parties.
As a reward, in 1997, 12 out of the 15 members of the European Union were governed by left parties--including Britain, France, and Germany--or by coalitions with left parties in them. In the words of the old British Labor Party hymn, did they build a New Jerusalem? Was Europe on the verge of a new age of equality and justice? To ask the question is to answer it. Within two years, the social democrats showed by their actions that they were just another face of the status quo. Throughout most of Europe they cut back on the welfare rights of the poor, decreased the rights of labor, and took part in the USA’s war against Serbia. Personnel had changed, but the state remained.

People throughout the world have fought and died for the right to vote. It took great suffering for the Russian people and the Black majority of South Africa to win the ballot. The fight for African-Americans to be able to vote in the South is a tale of heroism and blood. These were important victories which loosened up systems of tyranny and make it easier for the oppressed to organize. Anarchists supported these struggles and participated in them. Not because we valued the vote, but because this is what the people wanted. However, we do value the increased openness of capitalist democracy which makes it easier for the oppressed to organize.

They won the right to the vote. But anarchists point out the limitations of such victories. The peoples of Russia and South Africa, for example, now have the vote, but this has made no improvement in their living conditions: their extreme poverty, high unemployment, and threat of famine. US Blacks gained much by the end of overt Jim Crow, but they are still on the bottom of US society.

Anarchists are not always opposed to voting, and have occasionally participated in elections as anarchists (usually at a local level or in referendum) from Proudhon to Bookchin. What anarchists generally reject is voting as a strategy. However the question is not voting in the abstract, since they may expect to vote under anarchist democracy, inside communes or councils. The question is voting in the capitalist-racist-patriarchal state. Specifically, socialist anarchists reject the belief that the basic problems of society can be solved within the framework of democratic capitalism. The issue is not, “Is it good for the Russians (South Africans, US Blacks) to be able to vote?” but “Can the problems of Russia (South Africa, the US) be solved by a market economy under a bureaucratic state with representative elections (in other words, capitalist democracy)?” Anarchists do not believe that voting can be used to change democratic capitalism into socialism (what has been called “the parliamentary road to socialism”).

The state is their arena. It is the agency of the corporate rich and the power elite. To participate in elections requires money, status, and a willingness to play by their rules. By its very nature it encourages passivity and elitism. It requires people to campaign for a politician (even someone who starts out on the workers' side) who will act for the people, who will get into office and represent and lead us. Instead direct action--strikes, demonstrations, etc.-- rely on peoples' ability to act for themselves, without being limited to respectability and legality. It depends on the people's strengths: numbers, organization, the ability of workers to shut down industry, the ability of the people to disorganize the smooth functioning of the social machine.

Under capitalist democracy, voting has several related purposes. It binds the people to the state, letting them feel that they are free. Actually most people usually dislike both candidates and rarely feel any enthusiasm for either. But by being offered a “choice” they feel that they are masters of the state. (It is as if people were being offered either peppermint or pistachio ice cream, instead of chocolate or vanilla or cherry, and then told that this was a free choice.) Many are disaffected with the elections and do not bother to vote, but most are still proud to believe that they live in a democracy. It legitimatizes the state. (And it is fair to call it a capitalist democracy, as compared to various types of capitalist dictatorship, such as fascism, military rule, or Communist state capitalism. Both aspects are correct-- capitalist: the rule of a few through market mechanisms; democracy: the political rule of this capitalist minority through mechanisms of representative elections.)

Elections are also ways for the people to blow off steam, to express their dissatisfaction, especially when they get very dissatisfied. In the US, this is mostly done through insurgent candidacies within the two parties, although occasional third parties have surfaced. In the rest of the world, people can vote for socialist parties. If people are really unhappy, they can force the rulers to make some minor concessions. But the system works best at bringing the dissidents into the fold, getting them involved in working the system rather than fighting it.

This is not to say that elections are simply frauds (although there is a lot of fraud involved). Elections are also ways in which competing factions of the ruling class fight out their disagreements over state policy. The corporate rich and their paid agents have internal differences: shall they beat back the poor or throw them some crumbs? shall they expand military spending a lot or a little? shall they emphasize international trade or internal development? shall they bring a layer of Blacks into the system or push them all to the margins? and so on. Through elections, these disputes can be settled without bloodshed (usually). Of course, the real disputes are rarely openly discussed. Rather the voters are offered political entertainment to attract them to one faction or another.

Continued at . . .
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