By Paddy Vipond
Sep 4, 2015
As another election season approaches, we are faced with the age old anarchist dilemma: To vote or not to vote.
I do not expect this article to answer this question once and for all, but I do expect it to change a few people’s perceptions on the issue. As anarchists it is our duty to question everything, even our own decisions, and as with any set of political beliefs if they remain unchallenged they become dogma.
As I grew up and discovered the principles and key thinkers of anarchism I slowly began to turn my back on mainstream politics and their parties. Once I had read what I had, the seed had been planted, and it was a seed that did not need chemical fertiliser in the form of propaganda in order to develop. It grew naturally because what I had read and discovered made sense. I did not need to be coerced and persuaded, or attacked and threatened. Quite simply, anarchy was logical.
Within this logic, time and again I encountered one moot point. It was a point that every anarchist had written about, and it was a point that was at odds with the logic inherent in anarchism. What frustrated me about it was that rather than question it, as we are told to do with every other belief and system, we must instead accept it. An anarchist has no place voting in an election.
Great writers and thinkers of the past have argued it, posters plastered on the walls of buildings around Brighton were stating it, and fellow anarchists online were writing about it. Anarchists should not vote, and they should be proud of not doing so.
As you may have guessed by the title of this article, I disagree. It has taken me a few years to reach this decision, but now that I am here I am wondering why I ever opposed the idea. Voting in elections is not only a duty of anarchists, it is the single easiest weapon at our disposal.
Before I continue discussing why voting is beneficial for anarchists, let’s challenge the arguments as to why we should oppose it.
All anarchist arguments against voting seem to fall under four main topics. These are legitimacy, fairness, cost, and effectiveness. My counter arguments are quite some distance from the eloquent words of historical anarchist thinkers and philosophers, but unlike mainstream politics, which all too often focuses purely on aesthetics, anarchy is about substance. My words may not match the beauty of those by Elisee Reclus, but housing an average product in an extravagant box does not make it any superior to a good product housed in a poor box.
Anarchists that oppose voting on the issue of legitimacy argue that by participating in the election process the government are then legitimised in their role, making them the valid and rightful rulers of the country. The fact that it is possible to vote against a winning party or candidate in an election seems to be ignored here, and more importantly so too is the fact that governments take their legitimacy regardless of voter turnout.
I cannot recall a single case in history whereby a government has refused to rule a country because the number of people voting was not high enough. In the UK in 1950, 83.9% of the population voted, a government was elected, and the country ruled. Despite a significant drop in voter turnout, in 2001, when just 59.4% of the population voted, a government was still elected and the country ruled. It matters not how many people vote in an election, a government will be legitimate regardless. Voting’s only impact is on deciding which government this will be.
To take the “legitimacy through voting” argument to its logical conclusion, let’s imagine a scenario whereby nobody voted. If 0% of the population cast a vote in an election the ruling government would remain in power, and this scenario has been a reality for many people across the world. This system would be a dictatorship, and if anything would make the rulers even more legitimate because, they would argue, nobody opposed their rule at the election.
As with many of the arguments given for why anarchists should not vote, the legitimacy argument seems to be no more than a selfish badge of honour. For the non-voter it seemingly offers a get out clause allowing them to state “well, I didn’t vote for them”, to which the only response can be, “yes, but you did not oppose them either.” It allows for a warm feeling inside the non-voter, but little else outside of that.
Another of the more common arguments against voting surrounds the issue of fairness. Many say that it is an unfair system and that “the game is rigged”, points which in truth, I cannot argue against. The system is unfair, it is biased, it is corrupt, and at times the game is even rigged, but withdrawing yourself entirely from the game does nothing to change it.
If the game were a sport such as football, and once you withdrew and your participation stopped you would no longer be involved or effected, then I would encourage you to do just that. Fed up of hearing about the latest scores, the ludicrous wage demands, and the unethical nature, you can remove yourself from the game and have nothing to do with it. It will no longer touch you.
Unfortunately, voting and politics is a different sort of game. Corrupt as it sometimes may be, unfair as it undoubtedly is, if you choose to withdraw from it you will still feel its effects. Whether you participate or not it will impact on your life, for better or for worse, and more often than not, the latter.
If it were a game whereby when you choose not to participate you are spared its effects, then I would not be opposed to disengagement, but this game does not take such a form. Decisions that are made effect and inhibit us, whether you believe it to be fair or not you are still going to get taxed, you are still going to be subject to the rules and laws of the land, and you are still going to be governed.
There are many things in life that are unfair, but when faced with such a situation, we as anarchists strive to improve it, not to ignore it. Improvement cannot come without participation.
Perhaps the weakest of the arguments put forward as to why anarchists should not vote, and the easiest to dispel. It is said that the time taken educating yourself on the parties, the policies, and the representatives would be better spent elsewhere. This can also be the argument for the physical act of voting itself.
Immediately I would say that educating yourself on the political landscape of the country in which you live is never time wasted. If you do not understand the situation you have no hope of changing it, and if you do not know anything about your enemy you have no hope of defeating them.
An intelligent and informed populace who are aware of the policies and political decisions being made is far better than having an apathetic populace who turn their attentions to tasks other than political education. Even if, instead of voting, the other activities you are encouraged to participate in are political in their nature, there is no reason why you cannot do both. It is never, and will never be, a case of voting or volunteering, or voting or activism, they are two separate tactics and weapons that should be used in conjunction with one another to bring about the desired goal. They are not mutually exclusive.
It is said that Emma Goldman once stated that “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Like “long-term economic plan” or “support our troops”, it is a wonderful line to spin if you are more interested in catchphrases and slogans than actual facts. The reality is that voting does change things and there is absolutely no denying that.
Admittedly the change may be slight, it may be slow, or it may be a change for the worse, but voting does change things.
Since the last election in the UK the bedroom tax has been introduced which previously did not exist, benefits have been cut and sanctions imposed, university tuition fees trebled, NHS funding has fallen, homelessness and foodbanks have increased in number, and income tax for the top earners has fallen. Those are just a few of the changes that have occurred since the last time the UK voted. If voters had chosen other candidates it is highly unlikely any one of these changes would still have happened.
Incidentally since Goldman used that phrase people have been voting all over the world, and today is a very different place to what it was at the start of the 20th century. Quite obviously voting hasn’t been the cause of all of this change, but as I made clear above, it has played a major role.
Individually non-voters argue that their single, solitary vote will never decide an election, and is therefore meaningless. On the face of it, this fact does appear to be true, as, to my knowledge, no election in history has ever been decided by a single vote. However, this thinking has both a flaw by logic, and a flaw by hypocrisy.
Logically we know that during elections votes matter, the more votes someone has, the higher their chances of winning. So our single, solitary vote combined with a number of other single, solitary votes can in fact provide victory for our chosen candidate. Elections are not individual events, they are societal events, and so our vote has to be seen in the context of voters as a whole. We are a percentage of that whole, a team if you will, each individual member of that team has perfect equality in that their vote is just as important as one of their peers.
As I stated, no election, to my knowledge, has ever been won by a single vote, but there have been elections that have been won by incredibly fine margins. One of the most famous, and most recent, was that of Bush vs Gore in Florida. One vote would not have settled the election, but 538 votes would have completely changed the future of the United States and quite possibly the world. If that day 538 non-voters decided that their vote was in fact meaningful, collectively they would have been the difference between a Presidency of Al Gore, and the disastrous Presidency of George W Bush.
I am fairly confident that for those who say their vote is meaningless hypocrisy can be found throughout their day-to-day life. “It is only one vote, it won’t make a difference”, that would be their argument but if they truly believed that to be the case then they would follow that principle in other aspects of their life. They would not sign any petitions, because they are only one name, what difference would it make. They would not stop eating meat in order to save animals lives, afterall they are only one person. They would not shout support for their sports team, they would not participate in demonstrations or protests, they would not boycott products or shops, and they would not buy lottery tickets. If the actions of one person are meaningless in the case of elections then they are meaningless also in a huge number of other collective tasks.
So Why Vote?
In 2007, Peter Gelderloos wrote a book titled How Nonviolence Protects The State. By that same token we can say that non-voting protects the state also. The governments most critical opponents, and the ones that are feared most alongside terrorists and communists, are anarchists and yet the one legally binding opportunity whereby anarchists can legitimately harm the governments continued existence we choose not to do so.
If I had not read the anarchist arguments against voting then I would have taken the whole idea as nothing but a coercive government project to silence its most vocal critics. Persuading ones most resolute opponents not to participate in voting is a coup that any government would kill for, and some do just that. With anarchists choosing to abstain from voting, and large numbers of the population deciding against voting anyway, the task of getting re-elected is made considerably easier for the government in power.
As I mentioned previously, I see voting as the easiest tool to utilise in the anarchist arsenal. It is a right that is enshrined in law, it is open to a person no matter of race, gender, sexual preference, height, ability, age, weight, working pattern, or financial status. Marking an X in a specific box on election day can inflict a small cut to the ruling government, with enough Xs and enough cuts the government can be defeated. In the space of perhaps 48 hours a government, who anarchists have been campaigning against for nearly five years, can be removed from office entirely.
The argument here would be that though one government would be removed, another would soon take its place. This is true, but in this instance it would be a government that the anarchists have played some role in electing. It would represent the lesser of the evils available, and though this government would not be the utopian vision many of us would want, and it would not represent the revolution that we desire to see, it would be a small step in the right direction.
Democracy and progress is a painfully slow process, but even minor victories and minor achievements should not be baulked at. Necessary foundations can take many decades of work, and we must be prepared to play the long game. With an idea and a vision in mind, we should work towards that goal as often as we can, whether that is taking great strides through political reform, or creeping forward at a snails pace through the electoral process. As long as we are moving towards the end goal it does not matter how slowly we are travelling, though quite obviously the faster the better.
At each and every election the lesser of all evils should be voted for. The party or candidate that would enable the most progress to be made towards our desired goal. Once that party or candidate has delivered what we need them to, we move again to the lesser evil. At one election we could choose to support a party who opposes nuclear weapons, once they have been elected, and nuclear weapons abolished, we would then throw our support behind another candidate, perhaps this candidate would support the abolition of the monarchy. Once they have been elected, and the monarchy abolished, we would move on once more. Each election taking gradual steps towards our goals, small victories that through the decades soon begin to add up.
In essence I would advocate evolution through the ballot box whilst awaiting the necessary conditions to enact a revolution in society. Both the evolution and the revolution are not ends in themselves, but are means towards an end which consists of our collective goals and aspirations.
Anarchists exist to oppose governments, authority, and tyranny. We have a duty to shape a better world, and if one of the methods of creating this better world, and one of the arenas of opposing the government is through the ballot box, we should not be ashamed to use it. We participate in boycotts, petitions, demonstrations, strikes, and activism, all of which a government can survive, but governments can do nothing if they are voted out of office.
Let’s use the system against itself. Let’s make governments fearful of a large anarchist voting presence at elections, rather than comfortable with the knowledge that anarchists will fail to show up.
The Effect of Voting
Quite clearly the action of voting alone is not going to bring about the change that we want to see. It is just one of a number of tactics that needs to be used in the struggle for freedom and autonomy. I wont deny that through voting we are effectively electing our master for the foreseeable future, but this master will be one that we are to use just as much for our own agenda, as they will be using us for theirs. Remember that whilst we live in a society where the political landscape is dominated by leaders and parties, we must make the most of a bad situation. As that situation gradually improves so too does ours, and when the time is right, the system will be done away with in its entirety.
Non-voters in the UK made up a larger percentage of the population than any of the parties supporters at the last general election. This group of people have the ability to radically alter the shape and future of the country, and yet, for a number of reasons, they do not. There is tremendous power here, but it is not being utilised.
The effect of not voting has been disastrous in the UK and I imagine around the world. Not only does it directly impact on who governs the country, it also effects the entire political landscape of that country, across all parties and political manifestos.
According to polls conducted on the electorate of the UK the public at large support policies that are far more left wing than any of the mainstream parties. Large numbers of UK citizens believe in the nationalisation of the railways, the Royal Mail, and the main energy companies. They also support a substantial increase in the minimum wage, oppose the bedroom tax, and wish to legalise euthanasia. In order for these interests to be met however, the public must demand them.
The easiest method of demanding these policies is to vote for parties and candidates that support them. If the votes don’t occur, the parties manifestos don’t change, and so our societies do not progress in the direction we wish them to. Even if the candidate or party that anarchists choose to support does not win the election they are competing in, the views of those that voted will be recognised and will then impact on other parties policies.
In the UK the toxic anti-immigration debate has been so central to all political discussions because of the rise of UKIP, and the so called “Green surge” impacted on Labour’s policies, forcing them to stop their right wing trajectory and shift back towards the left. If anarchists voted in large numbers, and actively supported those parties and candidates that best met their desires it could send shockwaves throughout the political system.
For the numerous reasons listed above, that is why I will be heading to the polling station come the day of the election and placing an X in the box beside the most left wing candidate available. I would encourage you to do the same.
Recommended Further Reading:
Laurie Penny’s excellent piece in the New Statesman. “There may be nothing to vote for – but there’s plenty to vote against”. Here she eloquently presents some of the arguments that I was trying to put forward in my piece above, and she is fully aware, just as I am, that a vote in an election is a vote to choose your enemy. “Vote against bigotry, hatred and fear. Vote today and change the world tomorrow. We are not as powerless as they would have us believe. Choose your enemy and choose wisely. Good luck.”
As well as this piece by Another Angry Voice who highlights the futility of the “just don’t vote” crew.
Tim Hjersted also wrote a piece advocating voting in elections, echoing some of the comments I have made here myself. “I certainly don’t put much faith in voting. But saying it never will or never has made a difference is pure belief. A more accurate belief in my opinion is that voting is currently the least effective tool in the activist toolbox, but it can still have its uses.”