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Don't Just (Not) Vote  

Richard Hindes


 

Yet again the mish-mash of self-interested organisations which passes itself of as a revolutionary left in this country is once again turning on itself as we are encouraged


 

to vote for this or that party. This or that "unity coalition". This or that anti-war candidate. Perhaps even the Labour Party. No doubt this is all very exciting for the participants, but not for me.

 

As a “self-described anarchist” (to borrow the phrase so popular amongst corporate media journos) I have no problem dismissing the whole charade as the largely irrelevant exercise it is. Which serves as a very good excuse for avoiding the whole thing.

 

No doubt, in light of all this many readers will expect me to encourage you to abstain come the election or perhaps to spoil you ballot. In fact my approach to voting is more nuanced than that. Perhaps it might initially be useful, however, to rehearse the arguments against voting.

 

Anarchists are by definition anti-state. It follows that they reject the concept of elections, considering the institutions to which candidates are elected to be fundamentally illegitimate. They point out that even genuinely decent people entering the system will be unable to effect serious change and will be forced to compromise in order to remain within the locus of power. The Green Party's experiences in government in Germany, support this analysis. It can also be pointed out that nearly every progressive development brought about by Parliament (or indeed any legislative institution) has in fact been forced on them by movements beyond its wall (witness the successes of the suffragettes, the gay rights movements, the anti-hunting campaign etc.).

 

Much of this analysis is shared by others on the left, even amongst many Marxists. Further, the turn-out at recent elections suggests that the fundamental truths which is expresses are becoming increasingly obvious to huge numbers of ordinary people.

 

We have established then that the system is fundamentally illegitimate and that participation in it is of little if any value. Taking this as a starting point, anarchists usually argue for a boycott of elections, calling instead for people to engage in direct action and mutual aid. (That said, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon did sit in the National Assembly in France, but the exception merely proves the rule.) The problem with this approach of course is that it is far from clear that the structures of power care if we don’t vote, rhetoric to the contrary aside. This is a particular problem in light of the decision to no longer count spoilt ballots. A large scale co-ordinated boycott campaign might be able to surmount the problem, but is hardly realistic in the present political context.

 

I think the Don’t Just (Not) Vote campaign around the Presidential Elections in the States last year were probably right when they argued that elections

are the reddest of red herrings. Liberals have been so fixated on them as to forget most other means of applying power; losses in elections have demoralized and disempowered the Left in general. Anti-authoritarians, on the other hand, while claiming not to recognize the sovereignty of any officials, elected or not, have nonetheless developed their own mythology around voting, attributing to it the mystical power to “legitimise” authority figures thus elected. But it is not voting that gives power to politicians, just as it is not not-voting that could take it away from them; they have power because we place our power in their hands, because we fail to apply it deliberately ourselves.

The question then is not who you do or don’t vote for, but what you do during the period between the quadrennial spectacles.

If you want to go and vote, that’s your choice. Even I may do so, if only because I’ve never done so before. But don’t con yourself – or anybody else - that it makes any real difference. If you want to see the world changed then you’re going to have to get out there and do it yourself. Nobodies going to do it for you. No matter how impressive their manifesto sounds.

 

March 2005

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