To Vote or Not to Vote?

Posted: November 2, 2014 in Capitalism, Livin' in the USA, Politics
Tags: , , ,

Anarchist Cookbook front cover(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)

 

Politicians, the corporate media, and the miseducation system routinely present voting as the only legitimate route to political and social change.

But is it? Because of if its very nature, voting cannot lead to fundamental change. No matter who you elect, no matter if you elect “better people,” there will still be some giving orders and others forced to take them, because of the threat, and often the application, of institutionalized violence (police, prisons, the military). When you vote, all you’re doing is choosing who’s in charge of the inherently repressive state apparatus. If your goal is a noncoercive, free and equal society, you cannot get from here to there; you cannot get there through voting.

A brief glance at the Western democracies confirms this. No one in his or her right mind would contend that centuries of electoral politics have brought anything approaching full freedom and equality to the US or the UK. The best that voting seems capable of producing is the social-democratic systems of the Scandinavian countries. But even there, you still have government (organized coercion) and capitalism–an ecocidal system of economic inequality, with some giving orders and others forced to take them–overlaid by a veneer of social welfare measures.

Of course, this veneer matters. It reduces–but doesn’t come close to eliminating–the economic inequality inherent to capitalism. Publicly funded healthcare, education, childcare, food assistance, public transit, unemployment benefits, and retirement benefits all make the day-to-day lives of poor and working people in capitalist countries much more bearable than they would otherwise be. But at the same time, such social welfare measures are almost certainly at the outer limit of what electoral politics can deliver. Centuries of cumulative experience in dozens of electoral democracies strongly suggest this is so.

If you’re content with that, fine. But don’t pretend that that’s freedom and equality. Even in the best social-democratic system, you’ll still have a relatively small number of politicians, bureaucrats, and capitalists giving orders and the vast majority of people forced to take them. In other words, you’ll still have ruling elites.

Given this, is voting a useless or worse-than-useless activity? No. It’s silly to pretend that it is. The social welfare programs mentioned above are worthwhile, and were achieved in good part through the electoral process. As well, initiatives and referendums–for example, on marijuana legalization–can clearly be of public benefit. One might also ask, if voting is useless, why are theofascist Republicans so intent on denying black people, latinos, the poor, and young people the right to vote?

At the same time, belief that voting is the sole legitimate means of social change is harmful. It induces many idealistic young people to waste huge amounts of time on political campaigns. A great many, probably most, eventually recognize the ultimate futility of electoral politics and burn out. Believing that there are no other means to social change, they lapse into cynicism and inactivity. This cycle repeats decade after decade after decade.

But that’s not to say voting is entirely useless. It can produce limited reforms. Recognizing its marginal utility, Howard Zinn once remarked that voting takes five minutes, so why not?

Just don’t waste much time on it, and don’t expect it to fundamentally change anything.

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