The traditional anarchist admonition "Don’t Vote!" falls a bit short. It is not an explicit attack on representative government per se but only a call not to participate in it. It implicitly leaves the electoral system intact and merely assumes a passive stance with regard to it by withdrawing participation. This won’t do.
The practice of electing leaders to national parliaments is one of the main mechanisms through which the ruling class has maintained its control over the rest of us for the past couple hundred years. In the United States, the rollback and defeat of the radical democratic currents of the revolution of 1776 was formalized with the adoption of the federal constitution in 1789. That constitution was explicitly designed to perpetuate ruling-class control. Similar things happened elsewhere, as the parliamentary system spread throughout the core capitalist countries of the developed world and even to some third world countries. This system has rarely been seriously threatened (never in the United States), and where it has been, as in Germany and Austria in 1919, and Spain in 1936, it survived and reconstituted itself without too much trouble. Parliaments were overthrown in Russia and other communist countries in favor of single-party authoritarian regimes, but this had nothing to do with the establishment of real democracy (or real communism, for that matter).
During the welfare state phase of capitalism, because of massive pressure from below, ruling-class- controlled parliaments were forced to do a few good things for average people. That phase has now ended. The internal dynamics of capitalism will no longer permit it (i.e., the rate of profit is not sufficiently healthy for the ruling class to be able to indulge this expense). Of course, there was never any possibility that national parliaments that were temporarily dominated by liberals, progressives, or even socialists could actually dismantle and destroy capitalism itself, because those institutions are an integral part of capitalism. The parliament belongs to capitalists, not to the people, and they know how to use and defend it.
We have to face up to this. Any time or energy put into winning elections will always fall short of achieving our true objectives. We cannot afford this waste. Time is short. We have to stop fighting for what we can get and start fighting for what we want. We have to reserve our energies for those strategies that will destroy capitalism and create a new world. Revolutionaries who argue that we have to do both, that we should be electing socialists or at least progressive liberals to office even as we are building alternative institutions and attacking the system in other ways, just aren’t being realistic. You can spend decades of your life trying to build a new labor or progressive party, but what have you got even if you succeed? Not what you really wanted!
Too many revolutionaries, for too long, have poured their lives into electoral politics. We might recall that universal suffrage wasn’t given to us; we had to fight for it. It was won largely through working-class, feminist, and civil rights agitation. As it happened, though, elections were turned long ago into a controlling mechanism by the ruling class to be used against us. There were revolutionaries, of course, from the mid nineteenth century on – namely, anarchists – who warned against trying to use elections, parliaments, and the state to win our freedom. They said it was a bad strategy, a dead end, and that it wouldn’t work. Now, 150 years later, it is all too painfully clear that they were right. We should make a clean break with electoral politics and start taking direct action to destroy the system that is killing us by the millions.
Instead, what we do with almost every election is to trot out the usual objections to voting, such as: it perpetuates the illusion that we are living in a democracy or at least a quasi-democracy, it legitimizes the system, running for office is an option only for the very rich, and so on. You may recall the anarchist quip that if voting could change anything it would be illegal. There is a bumper sticker that reads, "Don’t vote! It only encourages them." It’s true that to refuse to even cast a vote, mostly for the lesser of two evils (the "evil of two lessers"), is an act of resistance. It is a conscious rejection of capitalism, a refusal to be bought off with crumbs, and as such is a step toward building an opposition movement. But we need much more than this.
What we need is a massive campaign to discredit representative government itself, and this can only be done by promoting direct democracy as an alternative. But we are nowhere near to being able to make the case for direct democracy effectively. We don’t even have solid theoretical works explaining and defending it. We don’t have a clear picture of how it would work across communities, on a regional level. We haven’t yet collected and studied the historical cases where direct democracy has been tried. It will be next to impossible to discredit representative government if we can’t put a plausible, workable, alternative decision-making procedure in its place. So we must close these gaps. Now is especially the time to try.
Let’s consider a few cases of what might have been. Take, for instance, the great Polish revolt of 1980-1981, where hundreds of councils were established throughout the country, in the factories, on the farms, in the mines, in the universities, and even in the bureaucracies. But instead of welding these councils into a network, a national association, to take decision making away from the rulers, the rebels got derailed into electoral politics, into the campaign to elect Lech Walesa. Big surprise! Walesa the politician turned out to be a very different guy than Walesa the union leader.
In the revolutionary movement in Chile in the early 1970s, massive takeovers of factories occurred throughout the country. But instead of building on these factory occupations, the movement got sidetracked into electing a socialist president, Salvador Allende, who was promptly killed in a classic CIA-backed military coup. Once a movement has placed all its chips on an elected leader (or on any leader), it is easily beheaded.
In the spectacular revolt in Argentina beginning in December 2001, neighborhood assemblies were established throughout Buenos Aires and some other parts of the country too. Numerous factories were seized. People were fed up and said that "they all must go" (the politicians). But what happened? Before long they found themselves voting for Nestor Kirchner for president. Their neighborhood assemblies withered; most of the factories were repossessed by capitalists; and they were back to square one. National elections succeed in derailing radical social movements again and again.
In the equally spectacular revolt in Algeria beginning in April 2001, revolutionaries attacked everything connected with the government, including election offices and polling places. They burned the ballot boxes. They boycotted elections and physically prevented others from voting. The government managed to turn this last action against them, saying that they were preventing others from exercising their right to vote. So we see how the ideology of elections works against revolutionaries who are fighting for real democracy. The Algerian rejection of electoral politics has been stronger and lasted longer than most, but as of spring 2004 there was only a handful of holdouts. Elections will soon be back to normal there. The Algerians had established an impressive network of local assemblies and had even federated these into regional assemblies (in Kabylia, where the revolt was centered). If they had generalized this system to the whole country and also extended it to workplaces, the outcome of their revolt might have been different.
Think of all the effort that went into electing Lula da Silva as the president of Brazil; he was a "radical" who promptly turned coat and started playing ball with neoliberal capitalists.
In Haiti, a massive grassroots radical movement flourished throughout the nation, in the cities as well as the countryside. But instead of building local power, through village, farm, neighborhood, and factory assemblies, radicals put their energy into an electoral political movement to make Jean-Bertrand Aristide president of a typical parliamentary system. Nothing could have suited the imperialists more. All they had to do in this case was send in a plane with a handful of soldiers, kidnap Aristide, and fly him out of the country, exiling him to Africa. He was so easily deposed. The imperialists were so sure of themselves that they didn’t even have to kill him. Then they set about slaughtering the members of the Lavalas political movement, pretty much destroying it for now. The movement wouldn’t have been so easily defeated if it had been based on direct democracy at the local level, with no leaders. These are just a few of the more recent cases where electoral politics has helped undo radical social movements.
Radicals have always scoffed at the claim by the U.S. government that it is devoted to promoting democracy abroad. The United States is perfectly willing to work with the most brutal dictators, provided that they are in the U.S. camp. As for democracies, the United States supports only those that are procapitalist and endorse the corporate neoliberal agenda. Otherwise, the U.S. government seeks to overthrow any parliamentary democracy if it opposes these policies. It tried to overthrow Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (even though he has handily won seven elections), but failed, in a rare defeat (at least so far; efforts are ongoing). It succeeded in overthrowing Aristide, although he was a legitimately elected leader, because he wasn’t playing ball, just as it overthrew Allende thirty years ago, another legitimately elected leader in Latin America’s oldest parliamentary democracy. In 1953, the U.S. government overthrew the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in order to install Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi.
The United States is also quite skilled at subverting elections, rather than simply deposing already- elected leaders it doesn’t like. There are numerous examples, like the U.S. intervention in the Greek elections immediately after World War II to prevent the communists from coming to power – an election the communists otherwise would have won easily. It has also honed the skill of fomenting popular uprisings in order to install leaders it prefers. It does this by pouring millions of dollars into the country to support particular groups, bribe officials, finance publications, pay demonstrators, train insurrectionists, pay for media coverage, weapons, and opinion polls, and so forth. Recently, it has used this skill to great advantage in three countries in rapid succession: Yugoslavia, Georgia, and the Ukraine. In each case, the result was that a procapitalist, pro-Western, neoliberal leader came to power.
In Afghanistan recently, we could see the ideology of elections at work in its starkest form. In a certain sense, it is perhaps true that the United States is interested in promoting democracy abroad, if democracy is defined as voting in an election for a leader. Evidently for many Afghanis, this was the first time they had ever voted in a national election. Thus the seed was planted that democracy equals elections. Naturally, the candidate chosen by the United States won. The capitalist ruling class is skilled at manipulating elections and parliamentary democracy in general in order to stay in power and get what it wants. The United States is trying to do the same thing now in Iraq. Elections and parliamentary democracy provide a veneer of legitimacy for capitalists – something they need very badly, more so now than ever before, because they are losing credibility everywhere.
So how is it, in light of all this, that radicals continue to suffer such ambivalence about participating in elections? How is it that so many of us continue to be seduced by the lesser of two evils argument? It is said that voting only takes a few hours, so why not? Why not try to use the election to make things a little better for ourselves? Actually, though, voting takes a lot more than a few hours (hours that could be spent setting up our local assemblies). We end up discussing and debating the candidates and the issues (or lack of issues) for months. And then after the election, we spend weeks analyzing what happened.
If the choice in an election is between an outright fascist and a regular ruling-class executive, the argument for voting is especially seductive. But it is naive to believe that a fascist regime already in power can be removed through an election, as was proved in the United States in 2004 when the fascist Bush regime easily and openly stole the election. Yet many people, including most progressives and even some anarchists, thought that it might be, or at least that it was worth a vote. I believed this myself, although I also simultaneously thought that the Bush cabal would never give up power. Doesn’t this just show how deeply the ideology of elections has sunk in? Isn’t it evidence that a strong identity has been established in our minds between elections and democracy? This is perhaps understandable for conservatives and liberals (and social democrats too), who actually believe in representative government. But for anarchists, who hold no such beliefs, it is more puzzling. It seems that most of us instinctively expect honest elections at least, even though we know that the whole electoral process is rigged from top to bottom, and that the government that comes to power as a result of the election will not be ours.
I have come to believe that we should take an uncompromising stance toward elections at all levels. We must reject elections not only on the city, state, and national levels but also in small groups and our voluntary associations. We should never elect leaders. Instead, we must fight consistently and vigorously for direct democracy. This is the way forward. This is the path to real freedom and democracy, and to a world without governing elites and ruling classes.
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Last update of this page: August 4, 2005