Anarchism and Democracy - To vote or not to vote?


Election time is almost upon us again. In the South local elections will take place in June. At the same time, both North and South, elections to the European Parliament will be held. Once again anarchists will be discouraging the electorate from taking part. Kevin Doyle looks at the questions involved.

Why are anarchists against voting in the forthcoming elections?

We are against voting in local, general and European elections - for two main reasons. Firstly our vote in these elections is largely symbolic, and has no real effect. In many ways, general and local elections make a mockery out of what we feel is a very important idea, our right to have a say in how this society is organised. Our vote is meant to be about giving us a say, but in practice it doesn't lead to this at all. The choice offered to the electorate is minimal, and in any case, once elected, the politicians do what they want anyway. As everyone knows a politician's promise is pretty worthless.

Where voting does have an effect and when it is part of a proper democratic organisation, anarchists always participate. We believe in the idea of democracy and we argue for democracy in any work we do. An anarchist organisation like the Workers Solidarity Movement is democratic and uses voting and elections all the time to run its own affairs. So we are not against voting per say, rather we're against taking part in a sham election process - the forthcoming local and European elections.

The second main reason we won't be voting (or standing candidates) it that we don't believe in the fundamental idea at the heart of local or parliamentary elections - this is the idea that we should elect someone to sort out our problems for us. The solution to the problems we face in this society lie in our own hands.

Most people don't see things like that. If asked most people would say the local and general elections are democratic and are worth taking part in.

The idea that "most people" have any choice or have weighted the matter up is questionable. Let's face it, most of us have only heard one side of the story - at school but also on the media - and that is that voting at local and general elections is our duty and is worthwhile. But analyse the matter closely, weigh up the various issues involved, and look at it from a class point of view, and you'll find a very different story.

"Parliamentary" democracy of the sort we have here in Ireland - North or South - has disenfranchised people, not empowered them. You'll always find that when significant change does happen, it comes not through parliamentary action but through direct action.

So rather than encouraging people to elect councillors or TDs, we argue the effort should be put in to building a movement based on direct action.

At the same time it must be difficult. Do people really hear the anarchist message given the fanfare and hype that surrounds electioneering?

You're absolutely right about the fanfare. The media loves an election. And of course the politicians are turned into'personalities' and there's lots of drama. All this attention serves an important purpose - to make local and parliamentary elections look important and appetising to the electorate. We see a lot less attention being paid to the aftermath, the broken promises, cutbacks, the fact that all the political parties in recent years have implemented the same policies irrespective of how they presented themselves to the electorate!

So if you ask is the anarchist message being heard? Well the answer has to be, yes. Over the last few years the WSM have put a lot of effort into getting our arguments heard on this issue. This time around we'll do the same. But for us, the major limitation on whether our message is heard or not, has to do with our size - we are still a relatively small organisation. So no matter what we do, we can only reach a certain audience because of that. For the present our aim it to convince the people we do know and do come into contact with in our political work, to raise the issues with these people.

What is incontrovertible is that the anarchists are the only ones raising these issues right now in Ireland, and that is something. We are bringing a new view to this matter, and we are having an effect, albeit a small one for the moment. Let's face it, a lot of electorate is disillusioned with these farcical elections, the problem is they don't see an alternative. Our aim it to get that alternative more known - the power is in your hands, that is our message.

The remainder of the left will be participating this time around - particularly in the local elections, what do you make of this?

It's no surprise. The parties to the left of Labour - the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party - but also parties like the Greens and Sinn Féin; support the idea of Government, of ruling over people. We don't.

The style of democracy that we argue is necessary to real socialism - participatory democracy - cannot come from electing "socialist" TDs or MPs or councillors. Anarchists are fighting for a society that is based on participation, on activity through autonomous workplace and community councils. This is radically different from the aspirations of the rest of the left.

That sounds good but what about right now? There's a housing crisis, wages have hardly risen despite the boom, and there are still huge waiting lists in hospitals. People are looking for solutions.

Well, how will solutions come? Will they come through electing local councillors (and TDs) or will they come through organising for direct action?

Anarchists are very clear on this, and we will argue it to the line with anyone: direct action gets the goods (apart at all from the fact that it encourages participation and builds confidence among people in their own abilities to change things).

Right now, in practical terms, this is a key area for anarchists. In any campaign work, on almost any issue you care to mention, there is a clique that advocates the line "let's run a candidate" at election time. This has happened in many areas, on environmental issues, over hospital closures. Of course the great example was the anti-water charges campaign a few years ago.

To us the "let's run a candidate" strategy is one of the quickest routes to a dead end. Sometimes it seems like a cute move, particularly if some establishment politician is going to lose out because of it, but in practice it can have a very negative effect on a campaign. Ultimately "running a candidate" discourages participation and direct action. And of course the establishment loves it, because what can one person do, if elected - absolutely nothing.

So, for us, the issue of non-participation in council and parliamentary elections has a very real practical edge - it is not just a question of principle. We are active as anarchists and workers because we want to keep the focus in any campaign on participation and direct action. We don't want to see our own efforts or the efforts of genuine campaigners turned into cheap publicity slots for the next election.

You mention the anti-Water Charges campaign as being an example - what do you mean? Are you saying that campaign was hijacked by electoralism?

The anti-water charges campaign was won by the time the Socialist Party ran Joe Higgins in the Dublin West by-election. Everyone, even Joe, knows that. The water charges campaign was a success precisely because it involved thousands of ordinary people - PAYE taxpayers, tenants, householders. Those who joined the Campaign refused to obey the law - that was the strength of the movement. The Socialist Party, like all election machines, just used the situation to further their own ends.

However, looking back at the campaign, it does show the dangers. At a different stage, the candidacy of Joe Higgins might have damaged the real vitality of the anti-water charges movement. That's why we, as anarchists, were in there arguing for grassroots democracy and direct action. Our experience is that if people get a chance to hear the anarchist argument against elections they will give it a hearing, and more importantly a lot of what anarchists say does ring true with people.

Do anarchists identify with the mood of 'apathy' that is often evident at election time?

'Apathy' is a difficult thing to quantify. Clearly an element in the electorate is fed up with the whole game of elections and does believe that their vote is worthless. But, adopting a policy of non-involvement is no solution. Apathy still means that the bosses are laughing all the way to the bank - apathy allows the system to continue.

Sometimes the anarchist policy of opposition to local and general elections is viewed as one of 'apathy' but this is a mis-representation of where we stand. The WSM always puts its policy on elections alongside an otherwise activist programme. Essentially we are saying that real power does lie in our hands - most voting citizens are workers, and it is our collective power as workers that is the key to bringing radical and far reaching change to this country.

Right now the workers movement in Ireland is divided and weak. It has no vision and there is no sense that we can unite and change things for the better. As we see it, this is something that could be changed with work and effort. What we need is a long-terms strategy, one that emphasises grass-roots democracy, solidarity, and class struggle.

In the long term our aim as anarchists is to shift the political focus among activists away from its current direction - general and local elections - to the very place where we are strong, at work. This was the strategy of the Spanish anarchist movement and as we well know, it paid huge dividends. In the Ireland of today, maybe this is what we are saying to all activists on the left - let's rebuild the workers movement, let's make it the democracy movement.

You said early on that voting at local and general elections makes very little difference, where is the evidence?

There's plenty of evidence, but again you'll hear little of it if you only read the bosses' newspapers or you listen to RTE.

Take one good, and to my mind, tragic example - South Africa. We all know the elections in 1994 marked the end of apartheid. They were a great occasion and the vast majority of South Africans rejoiced. There was dancing on the street when the results came in - a massive and decisive win for the ANC.

If you remember the ANC promise to "transform South Africa" if elected. So, with a majority in the parliament and the will of the masses behind them, it would seem like a straightforward matter.

What has happened? In reality, the ugly and violent trappings of apartheid have gone, but massive (and I mean massive) inequality remains. Right now, nearly five years on, there has been no transfer of wealth back to the workers in South Africa. Oddly (or is it that odd?) the ANC has been quite conservative in its approach - in many situations it has sided with the old white big business establishment rather than with its electoral constituency, the black working class.

Even more tragically, this has led to widespread disillusionment and cynicism among workers and the electorate. People struggled for so long and against desperate odds for the ending of apartheid. They placed their faith in the electoral process and now they've been left high and dry.

Is this a massive case of the worthless politician's promise?

It is that, but is more besides. Years of hard work and effort went into building the movement to overthrow apartheid. It was a mass movement, and it was an overwhelmingly working class movement. There were periods in the struggle when the overwhelmingly working-class and direct actionist elements within the anti-apartheid movement were in the ascendancy. The formation and early years of the COSATU union federation were inspiring - great examples of what a workers' movement is capable of.

But there was always a huge tension in the anti-apartheid movement. The middle-class and elitist elements of the ANC (along with the South African Communist Party) always sought to reassert the primary idea of "electing a Black government" as being the solution. Needless to say this was an appealing idea to the masses as well, especially after the era of White dictatorship.

In a very understandable way, the majority of South Africans saw justice in exercising their right of "one person, one vote". To some extent this explains the massive and celebratory turnout of voters in April 1994.

But "electing" a Black government (led by the ANC) turned the anti-apartheid movement away form direct action and from challenging the economic ownership of South African society by a small white rich elite, towards one of "electing Black MPs". Black workers were encourage to "leave" the economic issues to Mandela and others - that they would "look after" the interests of the black working class. Worst of all, the masses had no comeback on the ANC once the ANC was ensconced in power.

It's the old story - once elected, the ANC government began taking its orders from 'big business'. Just like here, a lot of corruption and broken promises have followed the wake of that historic election.

It is very much a case of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory - the black working class have been the main losers.

Is the South African example applicable to here?

The case of South Africa is important because of what it shows, even when the mandate given by the electorate is overwhelming, it makes no differences. The system of 'parliamentary democracy' just throws out the same result: the status quo.

Electoral reality in Ireland is somewhat different in that we rarely get to be asked to chose between any real alternatives. The big issues never make it to the table in Ireland. At election time, the choice given to the electorate in never "are you in favour of giving the top 1% in Irish society getting another huge tax break?" or "are you in favour of starving the health system of money?" The system as it has developed here is too sophisticated for that. Elections in Ireland rarely present us with any clear choices, and this of course benefits the status quo.

Also, here in Ireland, we're often not told what is going on anyway - so how could we vote on whether it is good or bad! A good example of this is the so-called "Reform by Stealth" policy which has been implemented throughout the EU since the mid-1980s. This policy has never actually been voted on by the electorate and for obvious reasons, since it involves diverting resources and money away from social spending - areas that we all benefit from.

The "Reform by Stealth" policy got its name because a lot of the savings made by Government would be made quietly and without us noticing. The Economist humorously described "Reform by Stealth" as "a nibble here, and a nibble there", but a more accurate description would be daylight robbery.

Essentially "Reform by Stealth" involves the siphoning of money out of the social and health services by the extension of means-testing, attaching restrictions to benefits, and so on. It was a policy decided on at the highest levels - in the boardroom and among the economists. The concrete effect of it in Ireland is that the proportion of the GDP that is allocated to "social spending" has been declining since 1985.

Was anyone ever asked to vote on "Reform by Stealth"? No! Yet every political party that has been in power since 1985 has participated in this business, and that includes the laughable Rainbow Coalition as well.

In the forthcoming elections both the Socialist Party and the SWP are running. Would a vote for them mean something?

The system thrives on the underdog and that has always been the case. Go anywhere in the world and you'll find genuine' socialists exhorting their members forwards - we'll show them, we're honest, we won't sell out! It's part of the game, and the establishment - more than anyone else - loves it. After all, a few 'genuine' sods out there at the hustings just adds to the veneer of choice and reality.

This is not to take from the reality that some (or is it many?) in these left parties harbour real hopes of "rocking the system". As with anything it takes commitment to get out there and trudge from door to door on behalf of an 'anti-establishment' candidate.

But if we take the idea of "rocking the system" more seriously and we examine whether the system has ever been "rocked" by an electoral outcome, then I think the evidence is overwhelming - it has not. 'Parliamentary socialists' need to examine their own history first - it is a catalogue of broken dreams, wasted efforts and sell-outs. Why should the socialist parties of this era be any different? Are they somehow more special. If they are, maybe they should explain to us, how are they different?

Have you an example in mind?

The 1980s and early 1990s was the era when almost all the main socialist parties in Europe got to power - in fact the UK was the only major exception. Everywhere these socialist parties reneged on their promises and did the bosses' work. But even among this ragbag, the French Socialist Party stands out.

Tiny and divided after the revolutionary situation in France in 1968, the French Socialist Party regrouped and fought the long and hard electoral battles that saw it reach power in the election of 1981. There's absolutely no point in playing down the enormous effort and energy that was diverted into this long haul - it was massive. On election night there was the usual rejoicing in the streets of Paris, with red roses flying everywhere.

The initial programme of government of the French SP was moderate, but it was reform oriented. However in a typical move, the business community in France refused to co-operate, and there was "a flight of capital abroad". Shortly afterwards France entered "an economic crisis". This "crisis" forced the Socialist Party to backtrack, and not coincidentally led to the balance of power within the Socialist Party shifting back towards a more conservative line.

Less than two years later, the Socialist Party's about-turn was complete. In subsequent years the SP presided over historic attacks on the working class. Wages fell, conditions worsened, the unemployed even saw their meager payments getting cut. During the reign of the French Socialist Party, the levels of inequality reached an all time high in France. It was of a case where the "saints became demons".

To sum up: when anarchists say "don't vote in the forthcoming elections", we mean it. Our view is based on a hard analysis, it is something we've thought through, and we believe there is good reason for it. But in encouraging people not to vote, we do so with this one proviso; get stuck in - where you work or where you live, or anywhere in fact where people are struggling. Ultimately a 'don't vote' policy is empty unless we build a revolutionary movement that is a real alternative to present system.

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 57 published in March 1999