To Vote, or Not to Vote?

Electoral politics is among the most contentious topics of discussion between anarchists and liberals or Progressives. In a recent online discussion I told someone that, if my only choice was between the “viable alternatives” available in electoral politics today, I’d be on a chair in the attic, attaching a noose to a rafter. Her response was that there are real, pressing differences between the parties — like reproductive freedom for women — and that, despite her admiration for anarchist writers like Kropotkin, such ideas aren’t even in the picture right now.

Fair enough. I don’t object to voting on principled grounds (like, for example the late Sam Konkin, founder of the Agorist movement and author of the New Libertarian Manifesto, who spelled it “v**e” out of respect for his readers’ sensibilities). I don’t believe voting is immoral, because it somehow sanctions or legitimizes the state’s coercion — any more than not voting means “you don’t have a right to complain.” Be it active buy-in through voting or passive acquiescence through non-participation the state will deem whatever you do “consent” to its rule.

If you see some strategic utility in voting for the lesser evil, out of self-defense, more power to you.  Both major parties share an agenda centered on alliance between big business and big government, and most of the 20% or so of stuff they disagree on has nothing to do with the fundamental structure of the corporate state. Both parties are all about state-forced privilege that redistributes wealth upward in the form of monopoly rents for the super-wealthy.

If you think it’s worthwhile to vote for a party that wants to re-redistribute a larger (but still miniscule) fraction of this wealth back to the underclass, in order to avoid politically destabilizing levels of starvation and homelessness, then knock yourself out. And if you want to vote for politicians who aren’t for trans-vaginal ultrasound or the criminalization of birth control, believe me, I don’t blame you one bit. Heck, I still even vote myself, for all the good it does me.

At the intermediate level, activist campaigns pressure the state from outside. I think these clearly do some good. States frequently retreat in the face of overwhelming public pressure, when they judge the cost in popular resistance to some new coercive inroad on liberty as more than it’s worth. For example I’m convinced that if it weren’t for Internet activism, SOPA would have passed both houses by a 90% margin last year. ACTA would have already passed the EU without a peep in the press.

But no matter how important such action may be, it’s still just secondary action to keep things from getting worse. It shouldn’t be our primary focus. All the things we do that really matter, for building a better society, will be done despite the state. As Howard Zinn said:

“Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes — the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth. But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools.”

People whose agenda for building a better society depends on electoral politics are like rubes in a carnival audience, so distracted by the pretty assistant that they don’t pay attention to the magician’s hands. The real action is the stuff people are doing outside the state, without waiting for the state’s permission, to create the building blocks of a new society. They include proxies and encrypted routers that protect us against surveillance by the state and ISPs, local wireless meshworks and open-source social media that can’t be shut down by the state, cheap neighborhood micromanufacturing facilities, permaculture and other local intensive forms of food production, low-overhead, home-based microenterprises that enable people to meet their needs through self-provisioning and trade with their neighbors, encrypted barter currencies, unschooling and libertarian alternative schooling, distributed power production, solidaristic social institutions for mutual aid and the pooling of costs and risks — and many, many more.

The more we build these things for ourselves, the less the state matters. The more we create the kind of free, fraternal, peaceful and human-friendly society we want to live in, without the state’s permission, and the more we render the state’s commands and prohibitions unenforceable, the more irrelevant the state becomes to us. It increasingly resembles a shrinking man, whose shouts become shriller and angrier the more he fades into insignificance.

So go on and vote, if you think it does any good. And then get back to our real work.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory