Elections and Anti-War Struggle
juliohuato at hotmail.com
Fri Nov 1 22:05:42 MST 2002
Thanks for your reply. I cannot vote in the US. Still, those who can
should. I don't have a clear sense of local politics in the US, which
should matter in a concrete decision, but I insist on my general advice:
Vote for candidates who oppose -- or are more likely to oppose -- the war.
This entails voting for the Democrats where necessary.
Let me address some substantive issues you raise. The nature of a society,
the nature of bourgeois democracy, etc. are not mere speculative questions.
The Left cannot settle them once and for all. They evolve. Also, the
truthful answers that matter are always concrete. So, for instance, even if
you think you have pinned down an essential trait of capitalist societies,
and based on that you declare wars to be "an integral part of capitalist
life," that helps little to answer the specific questions on the next war.
But, the main reason why these cannot be settled in a definitive manner is
that, ultimately, they are PRACTICAL questions. A society reveals its "true
nature" when masses of people are actively engaged in transforming it. And
in so doing, the masses wind up transforming themselves, their beliefs,
their assumptions, and more importantly their behavior and mutual relations.
For the most part, social structures reveal their "laws of motion" on a
The true social nature of US capitalism will evince itself -- so to speak --
as direct producers struggle through their self-emancipation. Also, what we
"know" about bourgeois democracy will remain a hypothesis, an idea in
embryo, for as long as bourgeois democracy stays around.
The historical limits of capitalism and bourgeois electoral politics will
not get into the workers' heads and hearts by revelation. Banning radical
epiphanies and other miracles, the Left will have to walk the walk with the
workers -- to engage in US electoral politics EFFECTIVELY, as workers enable
themselves to overcome it and replace it with something better. This will
not necessarily be a gradual process. There'll be quantum leaps, but
they'll have to be painstakingly prepared first. Bourgeois democracy is to
be practically overcome, not speculatively dismissed.
Of course, if the political system in the US were an untested, flimsy,
historically artifact with shallow or no roots, AND a roaring mass movement
were clearly arriving in a position to set new, better mechanisms of mass
political participation in a vacant political landscape, then the task at
hand would be different.
The issue is not whether some intellectuals or workers "understand" in their
heads that electoral politics is insufficient to meet more radical needs.
You can take that for granted. The real issue is whether masses of people
are so actively engaged in the process that they are actually capable of
replacing electoral politics with a higher alternative. To use up the
Left's little credibility to tell workers to abandon electoral politics
without showing any clear, feasible alternative for them to defend positions
and advance is -- to put it bluntly -- irresponsible.
If US workers with radical demands are massively building now alternative
ways of democratic participation, if these ways are capable of challenging
-- in terms of concrete social authority and control -- the rotten and
corrupt institutions of electoral politics, then of course calling people to
vote is a distraction. Worse, it is reactionary. But that's not going on
Mike, I don't know if you are against voting IN GENERAL, or just in this
case and for the Democrats. But the article you linked by Pierre Tristam
("In Defense of Not Voting," Counterpunch) does try to make a case against
voting in general. So, I'll examine his arguments.
His point is basically this: Do not vote BECAUSE a true majority of people
does not vote. A majority of people OF VOTING AGE does vote, but suppose
he's right. It is obvious that this CANNOT be a valid reason for people not
to vote. If something doesn't work, reasonable people stop doing it and try
another approach. The Left is supposed to help people figure things out
with ruthless social analysis, even if the conclusions are not always
flattering. Even Snow White's stepmother has a mirror that tells it like it
is. What's the point of telling people that whatever they are doing they
are doing right? That's pandering -- not leading.
As for the reasons why people don't vote, Tristam gives several reasons,
some of them contradictory. First, he says that nonvoters' behavior "is
less a reflection of their apathy than a reflection of the choices they are
offered." But, since when are people supposed to wait for the system to
"offer" them anything? The whole point of communism is for people to
overcome passivity, to take over the world, to turn themselves into
conscious agents of history.
Tristam blames the politicians for the lower turnout. Nonvoters are not at
fault here. Politicians are boring, corrupt, sleazy, etc. No wonder some
people withdraw. Nonvoters are not lazy or ignorant or apathetic. People
who vote are the ones who should do some self-examination. That's supposed
to be a profoundly radical thought. But, as enlightened as nonvoters might
be in Tristam's imagination, the fact is that they are letting the
politicians get away with what they want. The voters -- naive or not -- are
at least trying to make a difference. So, Tristam's is not a radical idea
-- it's a reactionary idea. Moreover, Tristam's practical implication is
that people should wait for politicians to clean their act. But that will
never happen. Political impotence rationalized as witty politics.
Second, people are over-worked and over-informed. They cannot vote. Don't
have time. I'd think that the "over-worked" argument is based on an
analysis of facts, that workers with jobs are shown to be less likely to
vote than jobless workers. But the fact is, in November 2000, 55 out of
every 100 people in the civilian labor force voted. That's an average that
includes the unemployed. 35 out of every 100 unemployed workers did not
vote. So, without the unemployed, the average turnout of employed workers
would be even higher.
I'd think that the "over-informed" argument refutes the idea that nonvoters
are as politically witty as Tristam believes. After all, theoretical
thinking evolved because human practice makes it indispensable to
discriminate what's essential from what's merely apparent. Neuroscientists
say that animals evolved nervous systems because they help them to ignore a
barrage of confusing stimuli from the environment and narrow down their
focus to the most urgent and important. That's an interesting way to view
the task of the Left in the workers movement. But no. With the
"over-informed" argument, Tristam is making a case for the Left to abdicate
its raison d'être.
Third, people don't vote because the system is a club of the rich that
excludes them. It works only for those who have money to fund campaigns.
But, the money spent in campaign funding is to make people vote for a
particular candidate. So it's the vote they are after. Politicians and
their sponsors spend millions for that vote. The vote must be very
valuable. The vote must be very powerful. Shouldn't the people use the
value and power that emanates from their vote for their own cause? Of
course they should.
Tristam says things that can only sabotage his conclusion. Things like:
"This is no longer a representative democracy. It is a vote-owners'
association whose members tend to be richer, older, more educated, more
conservative democracy's equivalent of a gated community, with most
Americans outside the gate. No wonder Republicans are in control." This
statement clearly implies that the Republicans being in control is worse
than other possibilities, like Liberal Democrats being in control. This is
as sinful as anything I've said here.
But let's look at the main point here. The system wants you to vote
massively. At the same time, the status quo benefits both ways -- even if
you don't vote. There is no logical contradiction here. Suppose there's a
bourgeois conspiracy to exclude workers from voting. Is this a reason to
accept the exclusion? In some states, people who are deprived of voting
rights after convicted may have no choice. But for the rest, if voting
makes sense for workers, why not fight for better conditions for the
workers' vote to be cast. No reason to wait and keep abstaining. No reason
to let them push you to the fringes of the political system. It's a reason
to push back.
That poverty, powerlessness, and political paralysis often go together
should not surprise us. But to take people who are disengaged from
political life, i.e. people who have deeply internalized the ideology of the
oppressed, and turn their attitudes into paradigmatic political behavior
pointing the way to the Left is going backwards. It is the Left's
obligation to help these disenfranchised people lift themselves out of their
political impotence. At the point they are at, electoral participation
would be a direct, concrete experience that will empower them and educate
As much as Tristam would want us to think that elections are increasingly
irrelevant in the US, he ends up his piece with this statement: "The wonder
is that 100 million Americans still have the heart to vote." He wonders
because he doesn't get it. What a way to undo his own argument. In fact,
the figure for 2000 -- the year that according to Tristam the turnover was
"dismal" -- over 110 million Americans voted. Over 77 million people in the
civilian labor force voted, including unemployed workers.
Everyone who has ever tried to make a group of people do something slightly
detached from their own immediate self-interest should know how remarkable
this is. Everyone who has ever tried -- with no bribe or threat -- to
persuade her child to do her bed or pick up after herself should also know
it. In a country of 282 million people (including children), many with
deep-rooted individualistic values, all exposed daily to oceans of
commercial individualistic propaganda, making 110 million of adults vote is
a remarkable political feat. That's still more than the Left is able to do.
This points to the strength of the US political system. It is up to the
Left to turn it also into its main, fundamental weakness. The Left can only
advance if it recognizes reality as is and plays its hand the best way it
The US Left should not abdicate its historical duty. With the anti-war
movement, the Left can inject substance to the elections. The Left should
give it a sense of urgency, participate, enlighten, get engaged, lead.
I'd gladly contest other points you make, but this is already too long.
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