Can Politics Be The Answer?

That depends, I guess, on what the question is.

The “freedom movement” — a broad movement which exists here in the US and around the world in every country not yet ruled by governments so degenerated into totalitarianism that they crush actual or prospective dissent at an exceedingly granular level — has always been split on the issue of whether participation in electoral or party policits is an appropriate, moral or effective approach to seizing liberty.

Among “minarchists” (those who desire a much smaller, less powerful role for government), participation in electoral politics is usually regarded as a morally acceptable activity. Libertarian political parties, or libertarian caucuses within existing parties, constitute a visible and powerful part of their activities. Some minarchists do, however, raise the question of whether this approach is effective, and may opt instead to pursue education or propaganda efforts without themselves putting up or endorsing candidates for public office.

Anarchists, of course, want to do away with political government entirely: To smash the state and create a society in which there are no “public offices” to support the election of candidates to. Surprisingly, however, some anarchists do support “political activity” in pursuit of a stateless society. I’ll get to why they might do so in a moment, but first I’d like to briefly explain the opposite position.

Anti-political anarchists advance a number of convincing arguments against participation in electoral politics.

The argument from effectiveness is fairly obvious: The state, they say, will never allow itself to be voted out of existence, and participation in its institutions is therefore not only a dead end road, but a distraction from the first important task of raising “revolutionary consciousness” among the masses.

From the standpoint of morality and propriety, the anti-political argument is that participating in the state’s rituals of self-legitimization undermines the argument for a stateless society and corrupts the advocates of that argument. To vote or to run for office is to implicitly consent to the continued existence of the state. Should an anarchist actually win office, he or she will be caught in a conflict of interest — a duty to support the state on one hand, advocacy of its dissolution on the other.

One of the standard anarchist arguments in favor of political involvement, advanced by libertarian philosopher and strategist Murray N. Rothbard, is the “self-defense” argument. The state exists, said Rothbard, and it does bad things. If it is possible to use its own tools to slow it down, to minimize the harm it does, to fight back against its depredations, then there’s no moral problem: One is effectively in the same position as a man under assault. He does not act immorally if he seizes his assailant’s weapon and uses it to defend his own life.

My own two favored arguments in support of “political activity” by anarchists are as follows:

First, because political activity is the established and widely accepted avenue for discussing “social questions,” it constitutes the most direct avenue to the ears of those interested in such questions and in answers to those questions.

A libertarian political party, even if (perhaps especially!) if it never gains power, has the potential to reach people who, as indicated by their interest in politics, are already interested in the “social questions” … and reaching them is a prerequisite to radicalizing them.

Secondly, a libertarian political party can act as a gateway to a different approach by, in action, graphically demonstrating the inefficacy of its own activities.

In case this sounds perverse, let me re-phrase it: By offering sound (in other words, pro-freedom) solutions to the “social questions” and then demonstrating through failure at the polls that those solutions will never be implemented through the political process and political institutions, a libertarian political party can open the eyes of precisely the people who are in, and need to be led out of, or at least convinced to think beyond, that process.

If the question is “how do we do away with the state?” then politics is not the answer. If, however, the question is “how do we demonstrate that the state should be done away with?” it may well be an answer.

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