‘If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.’
‘Whoever you vote for, government wins.’
‘Don’t vote: it only encourages them.’
‘If you think it’s humiliating to be ruled, how much more degrading is it to choose your master?’
‘A change of rulers is the joy of fools.’
So yeah: there’s an election coming up apparently. In fact, it’s LESS THAN 100 DAYS AWAY (September 14)!
Generally, when it comes to elections, I tend to focus on the margins: who are the kookiest candidates, which single-issue group has newly-registered, which media celeb or law-talking guy or gel will be the new voice of labour — and just how many votes did the Socialist Alliance get? I’ve also generally assumed that articulating a critique of voting in a democracy such as Australia is unnecessary given that such a critique has been around, in one shape or another, since the beginnings of the modern era and the emergence of mass democratic politics in the late nineteenth century. Certainly, anarchists and other radicals have been banging on about the limitations of ‘democracy’ for long enough. Of course, there’s democracy and then there’s democracy. Of the distinction between representative and delegate democracy, Ken Knabb writes:
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 delegate democracy, delegates are elected for specific purposes with very specific limitations. They may be strictly mandated (ordered to vote in a certain way on a certain issue) or the mandate may be left open (delegates being free to vote as they think best) with the people who have elected them reserving the right to confirm or reject any decision thus taken. Delegates are generally elected for very short periods and are subject to recall at any time.
In the context of radical struggles, delegate assemblies have usually been termed “councils.” The council form was invented by striking workers during the 1905 Russian revolution (soviet is the Russian word for council). When soviets reappeared in 1917, they were successively supported, manipulated, dominated and coopted by the Bolsheviks, who soon succeeded in transforming them into parodies of themselves: rubber stamps of the “Soviet State” (the last surviving independent soviet, that of the Kronstadt sailors, was crushed in 1921). Councils have nevertheless continued to reappear spontaneously at the most radical moments in subsequent history, in Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary and elsewhere, because they represent the obvious solution to the need for a practical form of nonhierarchical popular self-organization. And they continue to be opposed by all hierarchical organizations, because they threaten the rule of specialized elites by pointing to the possibility of a society of generalized self-management: not self-management of a few details of the present setup, but self-management extended to all regions of the globe and all aspects of life.
But as noted above, the question of democratic forms cannot be separated from their economic context.
Money talks bullshit walks.
Briefly, then: periodic opportunities to vote for parliamentary representatives offers a radically impoverished vision of democracy; the limits of political debate are highly constrained; the reduction of ‘politics’ to the squabbling for power by a small segment of middle-class apparatchiks thrills me now even less than it did when I was a student. Expressed as cynicism, these sentiments are widely shared, but a social movement committed to and capable of realising radical democratic forms — let alone anarchy — is noticeable only by its absence.
Recently, however, I’ve been struck by the importance accorded to the battle between Joolya and The Mad Monk for the title of Prime Minister by some of the folks I follow on Twitter and also by some of the issues raised by Ben Pobjie in his post Seize The Defeat (June 12, 2013). In essence, Ben reckons that those on the nominal ‘left’ should not only adopt lesser evilism (in choosing between X and Y one should choose the better (or less evil) option) but should also (re-)commit themselves to promoting principled policy-making (“let’s rediscover our integrity and commit to standing up, in all circumstances, for what we really believe, for what we think is RIGHT, rather than desperately trying to rationalise support for better-than-Abbott”).
Which is, I suppose, fair enough — as far as it goes.
As far as the True Believers are concerned, one of the few remaining priests outside of the trade union leadership who remains voluble is Bob Ellis — worshipped by Marieke Hardy and also, apparently, responsible for a never-to-be filmed script of Homage to Catalonia — who a few days ago confidently predicted that his party would win in a landslide. Be that as it may, while Labor is represented by Thinkers like Bob and Doers like Paul Howes and Rich0 (below), I can’t see it successfully recapturing that much support between now and its seemingly-inevitable defeat come September.
Beyond this, there’s been a good deal of disco about The Fate of Teh Left recently, and a lotta hand-wringing over its absence in the Labor party WHICH IS STILL NOT AS BAD AS THE COALITION et cetera (Dr Tad blogs regularly on this subject). This time last year, Preston’s Own Christos Tsiolkas warned of The Toxicity of Smugness; last month, Helen Razer discovered that Teh Left was indeed dead.
I’ve never really felt a part of the left, in almost any of its forms, a fact which lends itself to a tendency to be derelict in my democratic duties (aka periodically ratifying in advance the decisions made by politicians). I also think that the contemporary Australian left is a fairly unattractive figure, and the debates over voting — especially insofar as they consist of barracking for Gillard against Abbott — have only made me feel more estranged: if I’m gonna be parochial, I’d rather it be in relation to something silly like sport.
So… to vote, or not to vote?
Each election, for the last 30 years or so, Uncle Joe Toscano has thrown his hat into the ring, not because he has any expectation of winning, but because such occasions provide him with an opportunity to raise the profile of anarchism (just as Engels argued of elections with regards state socialism). Other anarchists (both in Australia and many other countries) have engaged in anti-electoral campaigns, denouncing parliamentary democracy as a sham and proclaiming instead the necessity of social revolution. (If memory serves, former PM Bob Hawke was once pitted by troublemakers against a rat in his seat of Wills.)
In the 1980 federal election the late, great anarchist poet Jas H Duke wrote “Hang Fraser” on the House of Representatives ballot paper, “The Road to Excess Leads To The Palace Of Wisdom” on the (much larger) Senate paper, and then wrote a poem about it. Duke was foremost a boomingly witty poet and a very demonstrative activist, one who sure knew his Blake and his Bakunin.
Apart from Clive Palmer’s Uniting Australia Party, among the other new parties scrambling for your vote in 2013 are the Animal Justice Party, Bank Reform Party, Bullet Train for Australia, Pirate Party and Rise Up Australia Party; the AEC also maintains a list of those parties which have ended, stumbling bleary-eyed into the harsh light of political reality. As far as achieving social reform is concerned, a seat in parliament can be a worthy goal – the election of Julian Assange would be a curious thing – but for those of us who wish to really change things the struggle, as ever, is on the streets.
[TO BE CONTINUED…]
I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.
Nice, ending the piece with a Eugene V Debs quote. I heartily approve. Perhaps there should be a campaign to get a rodent to run in the federal election? Perhaps a rat on the slogan: Honesty, Integrity, Cheese. I leave you with this prescient article by Bob Gould on Julia Gillard in 2006. Here are some of the highlights:
Says it all, really.
Historical struggles have provided us with the modest, but sometimes important, privilege of participating in the selection of governments. In some historical periods the differences between contenders in elections have been substantial (e.g., Spain 1936, Chile 1970, Australia 1972). There are sufficient differences between parties in the current Australian elections. Until popular, self-managed organisations achieve enough social power to start running things better than government does then I’ll keep turning out to vote for those I think can do those jobs best. The mere act of voting doesn’t preclude you from carrying on with your usual grass-roots activity. Neither does it make you a hypocrite. It just shows that you’re pragmatic and non-dogmatic.
Yeah… there are policy differences between Labor, Coalition, Greens and others – their number and extent are another matter I suppose. Actually, I just spent a few moments searching for a comparative analysis but have not found much of use: the terms I’ve used seem to only bring me news about the NBN. So… while I agree that the few hours perhaps it takes to cast a vote doesn’t stop anyone from spending some/much/most/all of the rest of their time doing other things to change stuff, a few points:
1. Yes, the franchise – the privilege, sometimes viewed as a right, of participating in the selection of governments – can be understood as a concession by the powerful, made as a result of historical struggles. Conversely, it can also be understood as operating as a brake on those struggles, as a concession aimed at and having succeeded precisely in their termination.
2. I think Knabb was right to characterise elections as follows:
“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.”
This is, truly, a modest achievement, and may be considered even more modest given a) the development, during the twentieth century, of a very sophisticated and powerful propaganda system in democratic societies and b) the wealth of other possibilities for social organisation that currently exist and whose implementation may in fact be a prerequisite for any future society. Uncle Noam:
3. You refer to three episodes from history as evidence that… voting is a worthwhile, valuable activity (you may like to expand on this)? You may be right, but in some ways I think they can be read as leading to the opposite conclusions. Thus in Spain 1936, what gave the July election particular importance was the existence of a mass, revolutionary movement. It was this movement which not only successfully defeated the Nationalist uprising in many parts of Spain – the victory by Republicans triggering an attempted military coup – but which also carried out a social revolution. What makes this period especially significant, in other words, was inter alia the fact that the ‘historical contenders’ extended far beyond the ranks of the political parties to embrace the Spanish masses. In this context, it’s also worth noting that the liberals and the Republicans and the (parliamentary) socialists refused to arm the workers; armed with a healthy contempt for and informed by many years of betrayal, a sufficient number of workers thought and acted likewise, and seized whatever means they could to defend themselves and their class from the uprising.
I’m not sure precisely what the significance of Chile 1970 is – other than as constituting the necessary background to the CIA plot to remove Allende in 1973 and impose a military dictatorship. As I see it, the history of Central and South America is replete with examples of US-sponsored military coups used to unseat popular leaders and governments – if US and Western imperialism and colonialism weren’t such a ubiquitous feature of modern history, it would be possible to describe these as extraordinarily bloody and horrific crimes. Of course, the construction of the modern Australian nation-state is based on a similar, genocidal logic and practice: and while the Whitlam government ended 23 years of Conservative rule – ushering in a range of progressive social reforms – it was arguably only made possible by the many years of extra-parliamentary activity which preceded it (and of course subsequently also witnessed the Indonesian invasion of East Timor – which Whitlam supported – and which was itself made possible by the Portuguese revolution of 1974).
Sometimes the results of elections can set in train events that will surpass the reform intentions of the Left victors. This is what Spain ’36 and Chile ’70 had in common. They were similar events in that both constituted electoral victories by popular front coalitions, and both activated spontaneous grass-roots activity that sought to take the official reform process into more revolutionary realms. Of course, the process was accelerated tremendously in Spain by the sudden fascist uprising, not long after the election, whereas in Chile there were three years of relatively low-level sabotage by reactionary elements that was met with expropriations of workplaces and other property by workers and the poor. These unofficial expropriations did not initially have the sanction of the government, but the latter was forced to accede to them by the momentum of the, by then, revolutionary process. Having said all this, both events resulted in the complete victory of fascism and the near-total destruction of the revolutionary forces, so there’s no positive exemplar of any sort to be held up here. All that can be said is that revolution is a very dangerous business and not for the faint-hearted, and frequently it backfires with terrible consequences.
To my brief list of ‘elections that mattered’ I could’ve also added the ’72 presidential election in the United States where a victory by McGovern, the American Whitlam, may have seen some very interesting developments. Without the direct support of Nixon and Kissinger the coups in Chile and Argentina may not have occurred.
I certainly don’t want to argue with the radical left critique of bourgeois elections, nor do I want to ignore the role of the media in manipulating voting intentions, but I think there’s more to the story as to why levels of discontent are kept within bounds that don’t challenge the system. The main reason I think is because the majority is doing reasonably well!! On the odd occasion when members of this majority encounter The Left, and experience its extravagant revolutionary verbiage and fervour, they do not feel as though they’ve encountered kindred spirits. Likewise if they should stumble upon a member of that endangered species, The Anarchist, and hear his or her obsessive, anti-state and anti-election rhetoric. The anti-systemic Left, in all its forms, does an excellent job of keeping itself on the margins of social change – it needs no help from the ALP, the Murdoch press or the system of compulsory voting. Its irrelevance is assured by its own inability to relate to the ‘masses.’ People who are of a natural anarchist disposition, if there is such a thing, tend to gravitate towards the Greens, a party that has successfully melded grass-roots activism, anarchist methods of consensus democracy and electoral politics. Perhaps the Greens are the true inheritors of the anarchist tradition under conditions of liberal democracy?
I have to say it wasn’t my intention to make the case that anarchists should vote. They should do as they please, and I’m sure they will. I only wanted to state that sometimes the results of elections matter, and if an anarchist votes, he or she shouldn’t feel as though they’ve betrayed themselves or some nebulous, hard to pin down, anarchist principle or cause. When the classical anarchists wrote their vociferous anti-state diatribes, back in the 19th century, the state was a very different beast from today. It was often an outright autocracy or, at best, a democracy with a highly restrictive franchise. In either case, its routine practice was to murder, judicially or otherwise, rebels and revolutionaries who challenged it. It’s no wonder these writers were so implacably anti-state. These days the state is a different creature and it’s possible, to some extent, unlike a hundred and fifty years ago, to enter into relations with it that may result in an amelioration of some of its more oppressive features and an augmenting of its, dare I say it, liberatory potential. To be sure, the state is still a dangerous beast, but it no longer needs to be opposed in the absolutist manner that once seemed to be the only way.
Thanks for the comment anarcho-pessimist: I’ll reply later.
Anarcho-pessimist, you should check out the writings of Nicos Poulantzas. I think you will find a lot to agree with. While I’m not greatly familiar with his writings, his political approach seems to be one of ‘in and against the state’ and he devoted most of his attention to the problem of the state, what it is, how it functions, etc. Here’s a brief explanation of his views from someone who knows about it a lot more than myself:
“He…maintains that the working class must build structures of rank-and-file self-government to challenge liberal democratic forms of representation. But this is as much to apply pressure to the capitalist state as to develop alternative, socialist forms of democracy. The strategic perspective that follows from this mediates between reform and revolution. Perhaps it says something that the only place where something like this strategy has been implemented and yielded some gains – not socialism, of course – is the highly exceptional case of Venezuela where the struggle of the popular classes really has traversed the state right to the top with no serious reversal as yet in sight. (Poulantzas as a co-author of “21st Century socialism” – anyone?) But I think that if Poulantzas’ superior insights are taken seriously, their logic is revolutionary.”
Thanks, LeftInternationalist. I like that phrase, ‘in and against the state.’ An anarchist equivalent might be ‘boring from within,’ which originally applied to methods of work within ‘official’ unions but, in my view, is applicable to all social institutions.
Pingback: 2013 Australian federal election : far right and far left | slackbastard