Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Least You Can Do is Not Vote

With elections creeping up swiftly next month, what is an anarchist to do? For many of us the obvious thing to do is simply not vote. However, there are still those of us out there who believe anarchists should vote in self-defense. After all, we know that either John McCain or Barack Obama will become the next ruler of the United States, and that our anarchist system isn’t right around the corner. We know that a third-party candidate doesn’t have a chance of winning the election this time around and probably never will within the US political system. So even if we know that voting for the lesser evil is still supporting evil, is it reasonable to accept that it is still better than nothing? It would be extremely hard to look a struggling single mother in the eyes and tell her not to vote for a politician she hopes will make her life easier—even if it is just a little bit. Maybe we believe that one candidate is more likely than the other to start yet another war. So some people may consider who will become president a matter of life and death. From what privileged perch can we tell such a person not to vote? After all, most of us are already made hypocrites by the necessity of surviving within the current system. We are all unwillingly helping sustain what we abhor because we are currently dependent upon it.

We can look at these facts and see that anarchists really need to be careful about not becoming too detached from the pressing needs and concerns of the general population. Even though many anarchists are against participating in elections, we must never take a dogmatic stance against those who do—especially those we are trying to help. We must understand that until we start providing viable alternative organizations for self-help and self-management, it is going to be extremely hard to gain more support from those most oppressed by the system. The more dependent people become, the harder it becomes to break free. Instead of focusing so much energy on the protest end of things, anarchists should probably focus much more time and energy creating alternative support networks that can genuinely connect with the common everyday individual.

While we can accept that some people must pragmatically seek charity when their survival is at stake, we still have to help those same people realize that handouts from the state-government and capitalists only serve to sustain an oppressive system of dependency. Most people want to be independent because they know it means freedom and equality. They intuitively know that dependency is the opposite of liberty. These people want self-government and self-sufficiency. It must be made clear that relying on handouts from the oppressors is not an improvement, but a barrier to the creation of much-needed radical change. In the end, such help from on high isn’t about justice. At times accepting charity may be necessary for survival, but ultimately it serves to maintain the exploitive system by making injustice more palatable. Such so-called “charity” is designed to protect the parasitic ruling class.

I do still personally believe that voting can accomplish nothing in furtherance of anarchist goals. Voting is also statistically meaningless. You do have a better chance of winning the lottery than actually having an impact on the election results. The logical retort is “If everyone thought that way…” Well not everyone does think that way. For some people, not voting suddenly becomes akin to the familiar argument against littering. Your little bit of litter won’t do much harm, but if everyone thinks that way, than everyone’s little bit of litter ends up mattering a lot. That is true, but is not voting really bad enough to be likened to littering? The funny thing is that if everyone actually did think that way and didn’t vote, then it would actually be a good thing for anarchists. It would mean that disillusionment with the system would have definitely reached critical mass. Maybe we should be more worried about opposing an unjust system instead of worrying about whether Obama or McCain will temporarily be at the top. Not voting is akin to littering only if voting is inherently a good thing even within a corrupt system. I’m not convinced that my not voting is going to harm someone. Whoever wins this upcoming election is inevitably going to be doing the harm. In my opinion, those who think not voting amounts to littering have it backwards. After all, our state-government is both figuratively and literally the world’s largest polluter.

The reality is that people will inevitably show up to vote by the millions, and your vote will still be statistically insignificant. So it is pointless to worry that those who choose not to vote will make any real difference. The outcome won’t be significantly affected by those choosing not to vote. When you disagree with all the choices available, not voting should be considered a legitimate part of having a democracy. By not voting, I am participating as much as anyone else. I reject the system and all of its choices, so my vote is for nobody. Why do so many look down upon the right to do so? Here we should also note that meaningful reform of a corrupt system must often come from outside pressure instead of from within. For the even more radical change that anarchists desire this is especially the case. Voting too often deludes people into thinking that their desired change can be approached from the inside, but this almost always corrupts the person trying. The truth is that democracy simply cannot function on the large-scale we have now because it has become far too bureaucratic and detached from the people that it is supposed to be serving. The agency problems become far too great. The more hierarchal and centralized, the worse things become. The state-government is there only to serve itself at the expense of the people.

For those of you worried that my not voting helps John McCain, consider that we can’t even be that sure that Obama will actually be all that much better than John McCain. In Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope” he can be quoted as saying, "The Founders recognized that there were seeds of anarchy in the idea of individual freedom, an intoxicating danger in the idea of equality, for if everyone is truly free, without the constraints of birth or rank or an inherited social order - if my notion of faith is no better or worse than yours, and my notions of truth and goodness and beauty are as true and good and beautiful as yours - then how can we ever hope to form a society that coheres?" That’s not exactly something I’d expect anarchists to be able to grit their teeth and bear supporting. Obama is clearly being funded by Wall Street, and is trying to appease the ruling elite by reassuring them that he won’t threaten the status quo. All the talk of “hope” and “change” becomes quite laughable. Obama likes portraying himself as the anti-war candidate, but he has voted for every Iraq war appropriation bill—totaling around $300 billion. If he was genuinely worried about the various false justifications for going to war with Iraq, why would he vote to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State when she was one of the very architects for “Operation Iraqi Liberation”? Obama even voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act, which is easily one of the worst attacks on civil liberties in the last half-century.

Obama even went out of his way to campaign for Senator Joseph Lieberman who faced a tough challenge from the anti-war candidate Ned Lamont. Lieberman has been called “Bush’s closest Democratic ally on the Iraq War.” Obama has repeatedly stated that he wants to add 100,000 combat troops to the military and that he doesn’t want to completely remove troops from Iraq. In response to a question posed by Tim Russert, Obama refused to commit to getting our troops out of Iraq by January 2013. Obama even appears ready to "redeploy" the troops he takes out of the unpopular war in Iraq and send them to places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. He also refused to be photographed with San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom for fear it'd be interpreted that he supported gay marriage. Obama also voted against single payer health care, and proposes a plan that would keep control in the hands of the same insurance companies that have been screwing people over. Obama joined Republicans in passing a law called the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), which shuts down state courts as a venue to hear many class action lawsuits. Here Obama is plainly seen favoring banking, creditors, and other corporate interests. Obama even voted against capping predatory credit card interest rates at 30%. He supports the death penalty, the Israeli war machine, and the fence on the US-Mexican border. In light of these facts, isn’t it a little silly to worry that much about Obama beating McCain? Obama’s list of horrors just goes on and on. I can’t bring myself to support such an individual, and I find it hard to believe that any anarchist could feel good about doing so.

Democracy must start at the very lowest levels of society and extend from the bottom-upwards. It must reside at the human-scale where an individual can become sufficiently informed about the important issues and have direct participatory control over the decisions that will affect his or her life. Anarchists are necessarily against the very idea of having representatives, so it seems quite counter-productive to support any so-called “representative” even if some small good might potentially come out of it. It still won’t be any significant move in the direction anarchists want. Any improvement in people’s lives made by the state-government will almost assuredly be gained at the cost of individual freedom and equality. My prediction is that under an Obama or McCain administration, the US will still commit human rights violations around the world, the police state will continue increasing, censorship will remain, the rich will still get richer, and the pace that the environment is being ruined will not reverse or even slow down significantly. The reality is that we don’t truly have a say in the election outcome or the resulting policies, so why should we bother participating in such a farce? All our “choices” have been pre-chosen for us. Participating is futile for anarchists. Every anarchist must recognize that our fight must predominately be waged from the outside. Trying to fight the beast from the inside just means that you have already been swallowed.

You’d have to organize a huge mass of people to have any bargaining power in our electoral system, but doing so would still contradict anarchist principles. So far it doesn’t seem like politicians are all that worried about the anarchist vote, so I don’t know why any of us would be looking for representation. Obama might be slightly better than McCain in some ways, but I know that neither of them can actually represent me in any meaningful sense. Regardless of whether or not a candidate comes close to my political beliefs, my conscience won’t let me participate when there are so many factors thwarting the will of the people in our system. We all know that the Electoral College is there to make our vote even more meaningless than it already is, so once again we see the will of the people subverted. Anarchists that vote tend to go for Democratic candidates because they are slightly closer to being anarchists than the Republicans. However, let’s recall the superdelegates of the (un)Democratic Party. I just don’t know how I can in good conscience support anyone from a political party that selects nominees in a manner even less democratically than the Republicans. We are still worlds apart from the Democrats. On principle I’m against trying to impose my will upon anyone through a coercive hierarchical system anyways. If I voted for Ralph Nader and by some miracle he won the election, shouldn’t I then feel bad about having used an unjust system to impose my will upon the anarchists who voted for Barack Obama? Trying to work towards anarchist principles within the very system we oppose becomes increasingly silly in light of such questioning.

If the will of the majority isn’t even being expressed in our political system, then it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to bother voting. Even so-called majoritarian voting has trouble actually representing the will of the majority. Kirkpatrick Sale points out the following interesting paradox concerning majoritarian voting in his book “Human Scale”:

One-third of the legislators prefer A to B to C
One-third B to C to A
One-third C to A to B

Therefore, if A vs. C, C wins, then C vs. B, B wins
if B vs. C, B wins, then B vs. A, A wins
if A vs. B, A wins, then A vs. C, C wins

Therefore any outcome is possible, theoretically representing the “majority will,” depending merely upon the order of the vote.

I try to convince others not to bother voting, but I don’t hold anything against anarchists who decide to engage in what they believe to be strategic voting. I think that voting is futile and unproductive, but I am not going to be exclusionary and call someone “un-anarchist” for having voted. We must all individually pursue what we believe is best. Regardless of my being strongly against anarchists voting and encouraging others to vote, I can understand the strong instinct to act in self-defense that compels people to vote for the lesser of two evils in spite of everything. People desperately want to feel some kind of relief for the burden they feel living in an imperfect world. People don’t want to feel so incredibly helpless. Voting makes people feel like they are doing something, but that is often the problem. They want to feel like they did their small part in an attempt to make the world a better place. Voting may be an understandable act of desperation in our system, but we must be keenly aware of the danger of people being co-opted and absorbed into the system where they can forget or quit caring that a vote for the lesser evil is still voting for evil. If people are going to vote, they must be made aware that it can’t be where their political action ends if they want real change.

For me, resigning yourself to the belief that you have any real control over the political process when you vote means that the state-government has won a victory over you. It is precisely the issue of control that should make us feel queasy at the thought of lending even one measly ounce of support for any of the “lesser evil” candidates claiming to represent us. If you vote for Obama or anyone else, then you are telling most of the world that a state-government politician is actually capable of representing you. I know that is not what voting anarchists actually believe or want to hear, but most people view voting as a sign of your consent. It is why so many supporters of the status quo get worried when voter turnout is so low. It is the very reason why supporters of the State often get very flustered when they encounter someone taking a principled stance against voting because of the system itself. For them, it would be much better if you didn’t vote because you were lazy or apathetic. Also notice how those who think voting is so important often don’t have a problem with your not voting if you were planning on supporting that other candidate. It shows that their real concern lies with being able to impose their will upon others and not with giving people control over the decisions that affect their lives.

We must be careful of defeating ourselves with this idea that we won’t have our preferred anarchist system this time around. It may be true, but we must always have the attitude that we are going to do our best to make it happen this time around. Or we at least have to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities presented when the system weakens or begins to collapse. We can’t just say that we are going to vote this time because the final goal isn’t currently around the corner. We must remember that as anarchists we shouldn’t even believe in a final goal. The struggle is forever. We have to try our hardest to be the change we want to create. If your vote doesn’t really count, then voting or not voting ultimately doesn’t matter. Taken in isolation, they are both examples of inaction either way. What our voting or not voting does outside of our opposed political system is what really matters.

As anarchists we already know we can’t rely on the system, so whether we vote or not shouldn’t make much of a difference in what we do. How our thoughts and actions affect ourselves and those around us is of greater significance. If participating causes us to abandon projects outside of the system or it convinces others not to take us seriously, then we have a problem. As anarchists what are we really telling state-government supporters when we bother participating in their system? At the same token, even if it were possible to get nobody to vote, those in power would just point to the fact that people still have the option of expressing themselves through the proper electoral channels. They aren’t going to let go of power just because people have stopped voting. Therefore there is even a danger of inaction for those anarchists who don’t vote. Anarchists encouraging people not to vote isn’t going to accomplish much of anything by itself. Our more important projects involve things like starting co-operatives, local currencies, squats, self-help groups, radical self-reliance training, social networks, intentional communities, affinity groups, etc. So the need to take action outside of the political system is not really something any anarchist disagrees with. Voting or not voting only really amounts to doing what makes you feel good. When I don’t vote in a system I find corrupt to the core, I feel satisfied. Others evidently feel content trying to support candidates that will hopefully allow some growing room for anarchist projects. Some feel like they should vote because the outcome could decide life and death for some people, but I don’t vote precisely because I reject having a state-government’s president monopolizing power over life and death. All we really want is the freedom to live and die in the manner of our own choosing.

So the least you can do is not vote. How you interpret that statement is up to you.


Jeremy said...

Good article, well said. Although I'm one of the anarchists who finds voting to be useful some of the time, I agree with everything you've written. The point is not whether voting is right or wrong; the point is that it is totally irrelevant to the real task at hand. Obsessing about "the anarchist position on voting" arguably gives it more credit than it's due.

Cork said...

I have a confession to make: I'm still tempted to vote. Not because I care who the next president is, but just because there's a lot of stupid shit on the ballot in my state that would, if passed, expand government control to insane levels.

Silent Radical said...

Thanks for the feedback! Yeah, I must admit that I do still find myself wavering on the seemingly predominant anarchist position that we shouldn't vote. On the one hand, I want to do whatever could potentially reduce injustice for people--even if it is just a little bit. If my vote really does matter or make some difference in people’s lives, I’d reluctantly resign myself to doing so. However, I’m still unconvinced that it does. Then I also worry about anarchists appearing uncaring or selfish because of their reluctance to bother voting for the “lesser of two evils.” We know that an anarchist society probably isn’t around the corner and that it may never come, but does that mean that we should bother pursuing some minarchism from the inside? We’ve got people yelling at us for being unrealistic, impractical, unreasonable, and having our standards set way too high. “No representative can ever be perfect,” they say. “That’s why we are for direct self-representation,” we say.

I almost convince myself to vote, but then get to thinking about how weird it would be to exclaim that "I voted for Obama, but I don't support him!" I begin to look at the injustice supported and perpetrated in the past by the so-called “lesser evil” candidates and rapidly lose faith that I can support even a small ounce of justice by voting. Injustice stems too much from the state-government itself that it appears futile. The lesser evil just ends up looking far too evil for me. Even though there are definitely some differences between Obama and McCain, the more I look, the more similar they start to appear. If I vote for Obama, it still feels like I’d be sanctioning whatever evil he does even if there is some good mixed in there somewhere. I’d rather be able to say, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote.”

Even though I can accept the well-intentioned anarchists who vote, I must admit that I find it worrisome that these anarchists could potentially be reinforcing the Statist propaganda that “it is our duty to vote.” It’s not good if voting anarchists are unwittingly promoting ideas such as: “if you don’t vote, then you have no right to complain.” I think it is very misguided if anarchists are going around promoting the troublesome notion that abstention from voting isn’t a good or even acceptable choice. We must always make it clear that it is perfectly reasonable not to vote when you personally can’t tolerate either candidate. Don’t vote if the candidates don’t appear significantly different from one another or they are simply too far from your own beliefs for you to endure. Don’t vote if you believe it won’t aid the cause of justice, liberty, and equality. We still shouldn’t dogmatically shun those who do vote, but anarchists on both sides of this issue must fight the widespread notion that not voting necessarily makes you a bad, lazy, apathetic, arrogant, or uncaring person.