Voting is Still the Least of Our Struggles

Anarchist agitprop

As each election comes many of us foolishly believe that this time voting will matter. But it's a lot like a sign I saw in a bar: "Free Beer Tomorrow."

??I said this the last election, and the election before. And nothing has changed: voting is the least of our struggles.

Too often our focus is on electoral politics as a tactic to bring about much needed change. This focus clouds out other possibilities, and over time leaves us ignorant to our real social power: struggle.

How many times have you had or seen this conversation?

President Obama may not be perfect but he is better than the other guy and he deserves our support because . . .

Actually, Obama is nearly indistinguishable from the lowest common denominators known as the Republican Party because . . .

Okay, if not Obama then who do we vote for?

This is a facepalm moment, for this person is simply clueless about our history and our power.

Notice the only imaginable tactic is to vote. It's like those stickers people put on their cars: If you don't vote, don't complain.

The problem is not only that voting is hardly our only tactic, but in terms of efficacy it has a horrible track record.

Slaves did not vote for abolition.

Women did not vote for the right to vote.

Workers did not vote for the eight hour work day, or minimum wage.

Blacks did not vote for civil rights.

In fact, our history is littered with progressive moments when change—maybe not as radical and far-reaching as we would have liked but real none-the-less—became a reality. Not one example was the product of voting. Our greatest achievements were won by popular struggle via organizations and movements we directly controlled.

When has Obama ever sided with labor, or the environment, or the poor and downtrodden, over capital? When has he collaborated with working class activists and advocacy groups to shape policy? When has he responded to Republican obstructionism by calling on the population to mobilize and take action to defend their rights and their welfare? While he is having $39,000 a plate fundraisers in Houston the rest of us are struggling to live. The reality is that Obama is not on our side. Period. End of story.

Worse, in terms of our two-party politics system, no one is on our side. The Green's and other parties do not stand a chance. The electoral system is rigged to keep them out. They struggle just to get on the ballot, and almost always fail to achieve that. And they sure as hell don't have the cash to finance public relations campaigns that can compete with that of the Republicans and Democrats.

Anyway, electoral politics is a lot like what Tom Wetzl said to Michael Albert on ZNet:

In regard to electoral politics, I think we already know enough to know that it creates the wrong dynamics, tends to focus on leaders, tends to bureaucratize movements, discourages direct collective action. Look at the way the union bureaucrats in Wisconsin were able to push advacing actions such as strikes off the table by pushing people into electoral politics, via the recall.

But it is only thru participation and collective action that the working class can develop its own social power. And only through developing mass organizations that the oppressed & exploited control directly. And thru this development of direct working class social power, people can overcome fatalism and develop relevant skills and so on.

In economics there is a useful term to consider here: comparative advantage. There are varying forces competing against each other. Not all are the same, or on equal footing, but sometimes one may be stronger in an area where another is weaker.

The reality of our political system is there are basically two groups: the Have's and the Havenot's. Or in modern jargon: the One Percent and the Ninety-nine Percent.

Politics is the language of power, and there are two dialects. The power of money, and the power of people.

It so happens that the One Percent account for the bulk of our wealth. That is to say, their dialect is the power of money. They have the disposable income to influence government via campaign donations, and the lure of promising careers in the private sector. It is not a secret that money has considerable influence in politics. Most of Congress is made up with the wealthy. Many U.S. Senators are in fact millionaires. And it is no secret that any successful run for office requires lots of money, where elections become very marketized. You literally vote with your dollars, and those with the most dollars have the most votes. The comparative advantage of the One Percent is that their wealth translates into political power.

But as their name suggests, they are a minority.

The Ninety-nine Percent, on the other hand, cannot compete with the One Percent when it comes to wealth. We do not have the disposable income to bribe government. We cannot afford to buy $5,000 dinner plates at a political fundraising event. We are struggling to survive. We are unemployed, losing our homes, watching our schools deteriorate, fearful of a doctor visit that could prove financially disastrous, and so on. It is no secret that government ignores us. But where we don't speak the power of money, we do speak the power of people.

There is a line in Kurt Vonnegut's novel, The Sirens of Titan, where he writes that, "There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization."

It's that one word. Impregnated in that one word is a world of possibilities for the Havenot's to triumph over the Have's: organization. The product of being organized.

But let's be honest. The Ninety-nine Percent are very disorganized. Even in our own communities we are atomized from one another. We get up, go to work, put in our eight hours, come home and bury ourselves away in front of a television or computer or cell phone, go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again. And on the weekends we mow our lawns, go shopping, and about the only interaction we have with our neighbors is a nod hello, or an empty gesture at sociality (i.e., we might rhetorically ask, "How about this weather?"). Even children spend more time indoors playing video games than being outside playing games.

If we are serious about radical change we have to be conscious of our predicament. The health care crisis continues despite Obamacare. The Empire rages on with more and more wars. The environment is still being laid to waste and future generations will pay the costs. Our society is still fractured along racial, gender, and class lines, and, as noted, our neighborhoods have become centers of isolation and self-imprisonment.

Our comparative advantage of people power is a muscle unexercized because we are disorganized. Instead, we are under the spell of "voting is the end all" of civic duty. Voting does not require any organization. It does not require us to be involved with others, and to participate towards the realization of shared goals. It does not require building new social institutions to aid us in our long, hard struggles. It involves us periodically punching a button, or filling out a piece of paper, after which we return to our home-prisons and think we have contributed to the flourishing of a democratic society that exists more in our imagination than in reality.

The most radical thing we can today is to rebuild our communities; to re-establish bonds of solidarity, to realize that voting is the least of our struggles, and that we can triumph over the Have's, the so-called One Percent. But we have to look to ourselves. We have to develop our own social power, and we can't do that via the electoral system. One of the most inspirational quotes on this topic came from labor organizer and socialist, Eugene Debs:

I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the Promised Land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.

It's time we stopped chasing our tails, and remembered:


P.S.: My wife made this button for me, so please distribute widely! Make into t-shirts, or actual buttons, or profile photos.

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