USA, now that you’ve had your midterm elections, I’d like to say a few words about electoralism and voting.
First, let me say that I am not overly bothered about whether people vote or not, so I am also not interested in trying to shame people into doing either. I don’t think there is any merit to moralizing about it either way. If it makes you happier to vote – then do it, if you feel better not participating, then go right ahead and ignore it. Neither really affects your possibilities to organize and change the world around you in a positive way.
But here is the thing. Voting as a concept, and the idea that real, tangible change can be accomplished by voting – or even that voting is a sort of damage control or harm reduction – are all propositions that, in my opinion, overestimate the power of voting and elections. The problem with that, is that it can have the effect of tricking people into a false sense of accomplishment when they do vote.
Most countries, and especially the US, are inherently tied to financial interests and big capital elites in terms of what they can do policy-wise. In the case of the USA, in fact, serious research institutions have come to the conclusion that the country is, more or less, a type of oligarchy. Or, put in academic terms:
“Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
This is further underlined by the fact that pretty much none of the significant indicators such as income inequality, wealth inequality, situation for minorities, incarceration rates and so on is in any way correlated to any particular party being in power – be it federal or state level. The fact that one of the most important movements in recent years – Black Lives Matter – formed as a result of repression of black folks under the first black president ever is but the most ironic of many examples that together show a trend – it doesn’t really matter very much who is in power, because power is in power. No matter who you vote for, the government always wins. And the government, it turns out, pretty much ensures business as usual for itself and for economic elites.
Ok, but what about all the times that congress or state legislature actually passed progressive laws that helped poor people out? Surely this cannot be denied, and shows that despite all, there is change to be had within this political system? This might be a tempting proposition because after all, it’s there, right in front of our eyes. We can see the politicians smiling, signing off on one or another bill that actually helps folks in their everyday life, be it in economic terms, lgbtq+ rights, anti-discrimination or something else.
I once thought so too. Then I picked up – almost by accident – a copy of Howard Zinn’s amazing book A People’s History of the United States. That book clarified many things for me, but the most astounding was that I started to see history from a bottom-up instead of a top-down perspective. Instead of putting the spotlight and cameras on government men in suits, the idea of change that the media tries to sell us, I started to see change as the result of social movements fighting for it – in the streets, in the neighborhoods, in workplaces – in every corner of our everyday lived experiences.
This made me realize that in seeing governments, politicians and laws as the source of change I was getting things backwards – I was confusing cause and effect. The laws, oftentimes forced upon governments and legislatures, ware caused by all these people fighting for them. For every good thing that has happened, for instance in terms of legalizing gay marriage, trans rights or other important lbgtq+ issues, there’s been a Stonewall. For every civil rights gain there was a Rosa Parks, a Martin Luther King and a Malcolm X. For every immiserated neighborhood or minority there was a riot, for every change they managed to affect there was a social movement. Without these movements, there is nothing. But without these politicians in power, and the capital owning elites that mostly have them in their pockets, there would be, what?
We don’t need them, but they need us.
Stepping back again, regardless of what one thinks of the efficacy of voting, there is an inescapable aspect of alienation about it. Voting is an inherently individualized and isolating thing. It doesn’t build any movements, it doesn’t create solidarity or bring us closer to people around us. It is just the ceremonial act of signing off on which group of powerful elites gets to decide over our lives for the next few years. The change it promises, as we’ve seen above, rarely materializes, and even in best case it is supposedly done for us, not by us, and not where we’re at.
Organizing, on the other hand, can have immense effect on our everyday lives and experiences, even before we’ve seen the change we’re working on. Getting together with people, establishing networks of mutual aid and solidarity, building affinity, empowers us and gives us a social meaning in our everyday lives. While your vote floats off into an intangible abstract political landscape, our everyday organizing, no matter how modest in scope and limited in time, makes real tangible change in your life and the lives of others, and when we succeed with something – winning a conflict with a landlord, a workplace struggle, providing food or security for our communities, etc – it is immediately felt and experienced by us and those around us.
Or, to sum up and put all of this more eloquently:
“Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are, rather, forced upon parliaments from without. And even their enactment into law has for a long time been no guarantee of their security. Just as the employers always try to nullify every concession they had made to labor as soon as opportunity offered, as soon as any signs of weakness were observable in the workers’ organizations, so governments also are always inclined to restrict or to abrogate completely rights and freedoms that have been achieved if they imagine that the people will put up no resistance. Even in those countries where such things as freedom of the press, right of assembly, right of combination, and the like have long existed, governments are constantly trying to restrict those rights or to reinterpret them by juridical hair-splitting. Political rights do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace. Where this is not the case, there is no help in any parliamentary Opposition or any Platonic appeals to the constitution.” – Rudolf Rocker
Now, in an honest attempt to strike a balance, some people will inevitably say, “but why not both”? And this really leads us to the core of my issue here. Of course, as I’ve already expressed I don’t mind the act of voting as such. Since my entire argument is that, especially on a personal level, the act in itself is near enough meaningless, it shouldn’t matter much whether people vote or not, and if it actually has the slightest thrust, then why not do all these other things, and also vote?
The problem I have with this line of reasoning is connected to the problem I see every time an election nears. And this is the overestimation of the power of voting. “Why not both” puts organizing and voting on a sort of equal footing, as if we’re talking about a two pronged strategy. But a vote on an individual level has at best such minuscule influence, that it is an act of mystification to compare it to organizing. I could just as well be arguing that a steady breakfast is important, to have energy to be able to organize during the day. In fact, I believe a steady breakfast is probably more important than voting. There are probably thousands of things I could think of that are more important. So “why not both” is actually a rigged question – it is a symptom of the fact that even people that on some level understand how little – if any – difference voting makes, still act as if it made more difference.
This can have the effect of making people complacent, because if seen this way, voting in itself becomes an achievement, when in fact one of the main effects of the spectacle is precisely to act as a safety valve, redirecting popular anger and dissatisfaction into a sphere where it can safely be contained and worn down, like an animal stuck in quicksand. One highly unfortunate way in which this already happens in a very material way is union funds being funneled into political campaigns instead of used as leverage to express and expand workers’ power at the point of production.
In the end, there is no shortcut to affecting significant and lasting social change. It is a slow process of movement building at the grassroots, of experimentation, of failure, and of victories and gains. For those of us that want to build a new world, we have to stop looking at others and start building it ourselves where we’re at. If history has taught us anything, it is that such change can only come from us, and last only as long as we can reproduce it as a habit.
So no matter whether you vote or not, don’t let that process enclose the way in which you are political, straitjacket your activism, and curtail your imagination. From the point of view of electoralism and those in power, those of us that want to see a radically free and egalitarian society are demanding the impossible. But from our own perspective, such a society is not only possible, but increasingly necessary, if we want any sort of future at all. I don’t see how one can be any more realistic than that.