Saturday, October 02, 2010


Elections in the USA (and the City of Winnipeg) come at an interesting time of
year. Near enough to Halloween to compete in scariness, and near enough to Christmas to remind one that an actual gift is more than a promise. While it hasn't been an invariable tenet of anarchist thought to refuse participation in all elections (whatever some anarchists may think) it is a fact that anarchists have always been critical of the electoral process. Here's one thought provoking example from the Bureau of Public Secrets.
Roughly speaking we can distinguish five degrees of "government":
(1) Unrestricted freedom
(2) Direct democracy
(3) Delegate democracy
(4) Representative democracy
(5) Overt minority dictatorship

The present society oscillates between (4) and (5), i.e. between overt minority rule and covert minority rule camouflaged by a facade of token democracy. A liberated society would eliminate (4) and (5) and would
progressively reduce the need for (2) and (3). . . .

In representative democracy people abdicate their power to elected officials. The candidates' stated policies are limited to a few vague generalities, and once they are elected there is little control over their actual decisions on hundreds of issues -- apart from the feeble threat of changing one's vote, a few years later, to some equally uncontrollable rival politician. Representatives are dependent on the wealthy for bribes and campaign contributions; they are subordinate to the owners of the mass media, who decide which issues get the publicity; and they are almost as ignorant and powerless as the general public regarding many important matters that are determined by unelected bureaucrats and independent secret agencies.

Overt dictators may sometimes be overthrown, but the real rulers in "democratic" regimes, the tiny minority who own or control virtually everything, are never voted in and never voted out. Most people don't even know who they are. . . . In itself, voting is of no great significance one way or the other (those who make a big deal about refusing to vote are only revealing their own fetishism). The problem is that it tends to lull people into relying on others to act for them, distracting them from more significant possibilities.

A few people who take some creative initiative (think of the first civil rights sit-ins) may ultimately have a far greater effect than if they had put their energy into campaigning for lesser-evil politicians. At best, legislators rarely do more than what they have been forced to do by popular movements. A conservative regime under pressure from independent radical movements often concedes more than a liberal regime that knows it can count on radical support. (The Vietnam war, for example, was not ended by electing antiwar politicians, but because there was so much pressure from so many different directions that the prowar president Nixon was forced to withdraw.)

If people invariably rally to lesser evils, all the rulers have to do in any situation that threatens their power is to conjure up a threat of some greater evil. Even in the rare case when a "radical" politician has a realistic chance of winning an election, all the tedious campaign efforts of thousands of people may go down the drain in one day because of some trivial scandal discovered in his (or her) personal life, or because he inadvertently says something intelligent. If he manages to avoid these pitfalls and it looks like he might win, he tends to evade controversial issues for fear of antagonizing swing voters. If he actually gets elected he is almost never in a position to implement the reforms he has promised, except perhaps after years of wheeling and dealing with his new colleagues; which gives him a good excuse to see his first priority as making whatever compromises are necessary to keep himself in office indefinitely.

Hobnobbing with the rich and powerful,he develops new interests and new tastes, which he justifies by telling himself that he deserves a few perks after all his years of working for good causes. Worst of all, if he does eventually manage to get a few "progressive" measures passed, this exceptional and usually trivial success is held up as evidence of the value of relying on electoral politics, luring many more people into wasting their energy on similar campaigns to come. As one of the May 1968 graffiti put it, "It's painful to submit to our bosses; it's even more stupid to choose them!"

--Excerpts from Ken Knabb's "The Joy of Revolution."
The complete text is online at
* * *
My intention in circulating these observations is not to discourage you from voting or campaigning, but to encourage you to go further. Two years ago, I wrote: "Like many other people, I am delighted to see the Republicans collapsing into well-deserved ignominy, with the likelihood of the Democrats recapturing the presidency and increasing their majorities in Congress. Hopefully the latter will discontinue or at least mitigate some of the more insane policies of the current administration (some of which, such as climate change and ecological devastation, threaten to become irreversible).

Beyond that, I do not expect the Democratic politicians to accomplish anything very significant. Most of them are just as corrupt and compromised as the Republicans. Even if a few of them are honest and well-intentioned,they are all loyal servants of the ruling economic system, and they all ultimately function as cogwheels in the murderous political machine that serves to defend that system."

I don't think I need to take back any of my words. The Democrats did indeed recapture the presidency and increase their majorities in Congress, but their accomplishments since then have been as pathetic as could be imagined. Some people will say that they are still better than the Republicans. But being better than a party of sociopathic demagogues and gullible ignoramuses is hardly much of an achievement. And being so lame that you risk getting defeated by such a party is an achievement of a wholly different order.

During the last two years we have seen the consequences of relying on political representatives to act for us. If the antiwar movement and other more or less progressive currents had put even a fraction of the immense amount of time and energy they invested in election campaigns into more directly radical agitation, the situation would be very different today. As a side effect, such agitation would actually have resulted in more liberals being elected. But more importantly, it would have shifted the momentum and the terrain of the struggle. The liberal politicians would have been under pressure to actually implement some significant changes (such as ending the wars and inaugurating free universal health care), which would have invigorated their base while putting the reactionary forces increasingly on the defensive.

And that momentum shift might well have inspired even more radical actions and aspirations -- not just protesting against this or that particular outrage, but calling into question the whole absurd and anachronistic social system. The side that takes the initiative usually wins because it defines the terms of the struggle. If we accept the system's own terms and confine ourselves to defensively reacting to each new mess produced by it, we will never overcome it.

We have to keep resisting particular evils, but we also have to recognize that the system will keep generating new ones until we put an end to it. By all means vote if you feel like it. But don't stop there. Real social change requires participation, not representation.
P.O. Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA

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