An Anarchist Response to “Anarchists, It Is Our Duty To Vote In Elections”

Date:

As the title suggests, this article has been written in response to this article which was written over two years ago just before the last UK General Election and as Hillary Clinton was beginning her campaign for US presidency. Coming from my own knowledge and beliefs on voting I was surprised when reading fellow anarchist Paddy Vipond’s article that he omitted major anarchist arguments against voting. In addition to serving as a response to Vipond’s piece I will discuss what he left out under his headings and address some issues that have become apparent during this current election campaign particularly with the hope that Corbyn’s Labour has sparked among the UK electorate and indeed further than that among the international electoralist left.

 

I will follow the same opening structure as the author and address his arguments in that manner as well as incorporating some currency into this article as I write this on the eve of a snap election.

 

Before I begin, I feel 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 got the most x’s to make one-sided decisions that affect our lives in a fancy building miles away from us. A system that divides us into a massive majority ruled by a tiny minority, 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 voting creates the illusion of change while simultaneously reinforcing our current oppressive system. Rather than us being against voting in this system, it would perhaps be 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.

 

Legitimacy

 

The most common argument that anarchists make specifically in regards to elections and 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 leftists 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 the author slightly misses the point and argues that the anarchist belief is that voting legitimises the government - rather than the system - and his argument against this is that “governments take their legitimacy regardless of voter turnout”. This is very true, it is also an argument I have never seen a single anarchist make and am 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 a literal legitimation for the Tories. But to vote against them and they make it into power anyway that is hardly legitimation either and no one, let alone any anarchist, would argue against that because it is a basic logical conclusion. Rather, if you were to argue that through voting you are legitimising the system then this is an easier argument to make. Through voting you are expressing a belief in the “democratic” systems put in place, so if the Tories win despite you voting for someone else well, that’s “democracy” for you. Of course there are many other reasons, systemic reasons in particular, why the Tories could very well win this election and many more which has been more eloquently argued by Andrew Flood in this article.

 

To return to what Vipond did include in his piece, he goes on to illustrate a strange hypothetical scenario where the voter turnout is at 0% in his attempt to argue against the anarchist distaste of electoral voting. 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, but anarchists don’t aim for as little people as possible to vote. In the US, only 40% of the population vote in the elections, and while there are a variety of reasons behind this, active and deliberate disenfranchisement being one of them, a lot of it is down to people simply not bothering to vote. If the author’s understanding of anarchism and voter turnout was correct 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. The reality is it is a country where the masses have been driven to despair and apathy; we have no interest in this kind of society. We don’t want 0% turnout, it is 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. Vipond is quite correct that a lower turnout can be a signifier of higher levels of apathy, but he is disingenuous in claiming that this is an anarchist aim.

 

Further along this section Vipond claims that this argument of legitimacy is wrapped up in feelings of self-indulgence, or as he describes it, “a selfish badge of honour”. He claims that through not voting we are absolved of any responsibility of the political mess we find ourselves in. In assuming positive intent 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 as this attitude has not travelled to the Irish anarchist scene. Rather than this being an argument against voting it appears to be an observation of arrogant behaviour and slightly misplaced for an article meant to tackle arguments.

 

Fairness

 

In this section of his article Vipond does not actually make any points that address the unfairness of the system, which again can be found in the previously linked article by Andrew Flood. 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 and once again, it is not an argument that anarchists make.

 

Costs

Unfortunately, yet again no arguments are made about costs in this section. Rather, Vipond claims that anarchists argue we should abstain from voting because of the time taken (i.e. the cost) to educate yourself on parties, policies and representatives. I am yet to see a single anarchist organisation make this argument and once again I am concerned about the personal experiences that this writer has had with other anarchists. 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 of how much ruling parties hate and have policies reflecting that hate.

 

When discussing elections and costs an argument 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 that it would come at a cost that is too high for us to pay. This cost is nothing to do with investing time in researching our opponents but in reinforcing the idea that “someone else will fix it” that 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.” Again this is not an argument that Vipond argued against but it is important to highlight it as yet another major omission and lack of understanding on his part of what the anarchist arguments against voting are.

 

Effectiveness

 

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 even 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 massively opposing choices between a socialist and a blood thirsty Tory, a situation we now face with Corbyn and May. How could a broke anarchist student possibly resist the allure of supporting someone who would scrap university fees, especially when it doesn’t look like a revolution will happen by the time she finishes her degree in two years? 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. Again these arguments have been much better articulated by Andrew Flood in his article on Syriza and I am conscious of the length of this response.

 

I’m also cautious of this being seen as unchecked pessimism, 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 and it is shocking erasure of the mass movements that lie behind every great social change. Societal change occurs in consciousness of the masses before it is reflected 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’m not so sure how participating in something that makes people believe that their vote every four or five years provides them with any say or control over their lives does damage to a system that is all about trapping people within a false consciousness in order to exploit them. Shockingly the author seems to think that by stating that voting is “a right enshrined by law” this would convince anarchists to vote. The law of the bourgeoisie you mean? The same law that has seen many of us and our comrades in its courts for legitimately 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 capitalist imperialist hegemony. When you constantly choose 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 campaigning for these conditions to be realised is combined with electoralism as one of the tools we see campaigning 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 done out of ego of course, well it’s certainly not a leading cause, it is done because those who subscribe to this ideology believe in using the platform of elections to advance their own ideals, something I have already dealt with throughout this article in particular in the costs section.

 

The remainder of the article is essentially 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. On a superficial level there certainly is, you get to have a say in who fills the seat, what they’ll look like, what excuses they are likely to give when they renege on an election promise, but ultimately you do not get a say in what kind of system we live in. The system we live in is supported by farces such as parliamentary democracy, it has been well honed and crafted to serve it well. Are we really arrogant enough to believe that we can take such a system of preservation and subvert for our own ends? That after hundreds of years of being divided between rulers and ruled we can curb the tide of history by using one of the very mechanisms that has kept us locked into it?

 

Throughout Vipond’s article he lacked a comprehensive understanding of how this system operates and how voting ties into it as well as an 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. To become directly involved in building communities of resistance and support. We have absolutely no interest in encouraging apathy yet in many instances Vipond seemed to think this was the aim, or at the very least a massive consequence that we were directly responsible for and willfully neglectful of. The most dangerous statement made in this article that really reveals the poverty of his knowledge on the subject is where he claimed 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 is 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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