Anarchists are often characterised as being opposed to elections or the vote. Yet anyone that has spent any time in an anarchist or anarchist inspired organisation will tell you that voting is our favourite pastime, one which we take almost any opportunity to undertake. Rather than being opposed to elections we would love nothing more than to see them expanded throughout all levels of society. In fact anarchists should be considered as the most strident proponents of elections and the vote.
Capitalism is not Democratic
Anarchists do not take issue with democracy (although some may dislike the term), rather we take issue with the fact that the society we live in is far from democratic. While we may have the right to vote once every few years for the politicians that will then make decisions for us, the working class lives in a perpetual state of dictatorship. Each day when we go to work we are completely controlled by the authoritarian ruling of our boss or manager. Every moment of our working lives is dictated to us by tyrants with complete control over our ability to financially support ourselves. Even outside of the workplace it is hard to argue that we live in a truly democratic society. The working class may elect politicians every couple of years but once that singular act is done the people are largely swept from the scene of political decision making. One only has to look at how rarely a politician, once elected, makes a decision based on the actual will of their constituents to see that the idea of them ‘representing’ anyone in parliament is a sham. It is arguable how much of a voice these politicians really even have, when in reality they serve as little more than mouth pieces for the forces of global capital.
We maintain that capitalism and the state are irreconcilable with a genuinely democratic society. For democracy to exist in reality, rather than simply on paper, it must be a direct democracy. Federalism, term-limits, instant recallability and delegation rather than representation. These are all vital components for actual existing democracy. Genuine democracy would require a social revolution to make a reality.
How then should we view the phenomenon of elections in capitalist ‘democracy’?
In short, elections serve as a useful distraction, a way to convince the working class that they have a say in how society works. Elections convince people to believe they have a stake in the very system oppressing and exploiting them. We may have a range of parties which we can choose from, but very little changes. There is no option to vote capitalism away, or the state, or even to have a say when it comes to acts such as going to war, or spending billions on nuclear submarines. Our two main parties are virtually identical on most of the major issues, and history shows that even ‘progressive’ minor parties slowly shed their veneers of radicalism as they progress closer and closer to power. For the rare few that don’t, capitalism responds with their destruction - either through violent and bloody coups, or through economic assassination, utilising mechanisms such as the world bank and IMF.
Some may respond with the contention that a majority of people do not currently wish capitalism or the state to disappear and that therefore our inability to vote these things away is not really an issue. Instead elections allow us to vote for non-systematic changes which we want to see. This is partially correct. Some small changes can occur through elections and it would be remiss of us to say that things cannot improve slightly by replacing a party like the LNP with some other alternative.
However there are some issues with this line of thinking. The first is that we live at a stage of history where minor changes are not enough. The climate crisis is escalating rapidly, global inequality is skyrocketing, people are becoming worse-off by the day, while the existential threats of fascism and nuclear war are resurfacing with rapid speed. These are all factors which capitalist ‘democracy’ has shown itself as utterly incapable of resolving. We cannot vote these issues away, only international revolution can begin to resolve them.
The second issue to consider is the effectiveness of achieving any meaningful change through the electoral system. History has shown many times that it is militant mass movements and direct action which create meaningful change, not elected politicians. Reforms can and have been won from conservative governments, while so-called progressive governments have taken them away. The central factor is the level of organisation and power of the working class. This last point comes back to the role of elections in capitalist society. They exist to funnel energy away from direct action, militant organising and the growth of working class power towards door-knocking, electioneering and lobbying politicians. They exist to make sure our energy and our desire for change is funnelled into a mechanism which is incapable of threatening capitalism, the state and the other forces in our society that oppress us.
It should also be noted that elections also serve as a useful battleground in which the capitalist class can play out their internal conflicts and competing interests.
Elections as Harm Reduction
It is also worth touching on the common argument of elections as harm reduction. That is that either the incumbent government, or a party trying to become the incumbent is simply too evil and too harmful to be allowed to win the election. Therefore even though there is an understanding that elections aren’t the main battlefield, and are even counter productive - they have to be the focus just this once in order to ensure the lesser evil wins. This is a particularly understandable argument. As anarchists we will rejoice should the LNP lose the upcoming elections, and we accept that it may improve conditions somewhat for oppressed and exploited groups in Australia. Fundamentally however, the root causes of oppression will remain unaddressed. The issue is that every election is seen in reformist circles as 'too important', with the promise that after focusing on an election 'just this once', next time things will be done differently. But this will never be the case. Instead radicals and militants will continue to be told that now isn’t the time, that getting x politician into or out of power is the only thing that matters. The struggle for real change is always pushed back to the distant future in lieu of the most important election ever. Whether out of naivety or a desire to maintain control, these claims that we must put our energy towards elections are inherently reactionary in their defence of the status quo. The clearest expression of this phenomenon is the recent US elections. Despite the removal of Trump, the US military machine continues wreaking havoc, sabre rattling has increased with China, children continue to be placed in detention camps & exploitation and oppression continue unabated. In short little has changed.
Our positions should not be construed as a stringent argument against voting. We maintain that calling for abstention from voting is an argument with little relevancy for us in Australia. Rather this is a call to consider where we place our energy and our effort. It must also be noted that while we consider Australia to be a largely undemocratic country, we maintain that the few democratic freedoms the working class do possess need to be defended, maintained and expanded wherever possible. This is not a legitimation of parliament on our part, rather it comes from the understanding that the working class must wherever possible be encouraged to fight for and conquer greater freedoms for itself, freedoms which then create more fertile terrain for further victories. How these democratic freedoms are won matters, they can’t be given to the working class. They have to be conquered by our own efforts.
Politicians Won’t Save Us, We Have to Save Ourselves
This all leads us to the core of the issue of elections in capitalist society; they train us to see politics, decision making and creating change as the realm of a small minority in parliament, rather than something which must be undertaken by the entirety of the working class at all levels of society. It trains us to look for saviours in the guise of charismatic and progressive candidates acting as apparent representatives of the people. History has shown us that politicians are not going to save us. Not a single progressive party in history has been capable of truly resolving the oppression and exploitation baked into the capitalist system. What’s worse is that experience has also shown that progressive parties once in power will use that power to attack the movements which got them there in the first place in defence of the very capitalist system they claimed to be reforming. The situation we find ourselves in is too dire for us to continue placing our hopes in saviours, who even if well intentioned are structurally constrained to take on the role of oppressors once elected. But we can rejoice in the fact that the working class has never needed a saviour, rather it needs to understand the power it holds to reshape all of society, and to directly win the changes it seeks through its own actions.