Not Voting: "Unhelpful & extreme"?

This article defends the established Anarchist position of not voting for political parties. It arose as part of a dialogue with a self-declared Anarchist who claimed this view is "unhelpful and extreme".

Submitted by LAMA on February 12, 2020

This year Aotearoa will be experiencing an election. The various political parties will be expecting people to vote for them and many will. Aotearoa Worker’s Solidarity Movement (AWSM) members will not be doing so. We hope that other anarchists will decide not to either. However, we are aware that some avowed anarchists don’t agree with us. We recently interacted with such a person who argued our approach to this issue is “extreme and unhelpful”. We feel this is wrong and since there may be other people who have that view, we would like to address this point with a wero/challenge in the form of a few initial considerations and questions:

1) Calling our position extreme depends on what you’re comparing us with. Looked at next to the current crop of political parties our stance is extreme. Though…so what if it is? ‘Extremist’ is used pejoratively by the mainstream as if the established centre is intrinsically the best position to be in. We prefer what we see as the appropriate position regardless of how anyone may categorise it. It is what it is, regardless. In addition, the extremist tag is often applied with the assumption it obviates the need to engage in any debate once you have attached that label to somebody. It’s an attempt to use words as a weapon by those who currently wield authority over us. That it can be adopted even by somebody claiming the anarchist name, shows how effective unacknowledged assumptions can be. Fish don’t think about water…but with the literal and figurative water becoming more polluted, perhaps you should?

If you stand outside the dominant paradigm but within anarchist theory built up over centuries, our position is very much the middle-of-the-road, orthodox one. Traditionally nearly all anarchists both as individuals and organisations, theorists and activists have abstained from voting for political parties. There have been historical exceptions. For example, the Anarcho-Syndicalist union in Spain, the CNT did have supporters who voted in favour of the Popular Front in the early 1930s, in order to obtain the release of its militants from prisons. While we are aware of such examples the more relevant point is, such instances are rare enough to highlight that their opposite represents the norm. So, calling for a non-vote is the normal, long-established standard view, not an extreme position.

Therefore, we have to ask our interlocutor and like-minded folks whether they are arguing from outside the anarchist perspective in reaching their claim by accepting the view pushed by the political parties regarding non-voting? If they are claiming on the contrary, that they have reached that point while still being an anarchist, we would like to know how the fundamental, long-held position has failed and theirs is preferable, while still being consistent with anarchism?

2) On a daily basis in order to survive, there are all sorts of compromises that have to be made in accommodating to the current system. It’s not hard to think of examples of times where we put up with shit just to be able to eat and pay rent. Not voting is one of the few times you can opt-out and make a principled protest and not suffer punitive legal sanctions (try not paying your taxes and see what happens!). So why would you not take the opportunity to do that? Why would you commit an unforced error?

3) There’s also a slippery slope argument. If you can find enough in what the parties are doing (whatever that would be?) to vote for one of them, then why stop there? You can use the same justification to begin canvassing for them, donating money, becoming a member and a whole bunch of other unnecessary compromises. It’s no accident that we have had two ex-anarchist Green MPs (Metiria Turei, Nandor Tanczos) in this country and a whole bunch of anarchists who have ended up doing work for the party in its administration. So this is not a point of exaggeration, it has happened.

4) Epistemologically, on a practical basis what criteria would you set to establish which political party is ‘better’ than the others to the point you are prepared to vote for them? For each ‘good’ point a particular party may adopt, it is sure to have a ‘bad’ one that would cancel that out. And there are points that the ‘bad’ parties make that are sometimes ‘better’ than those the ‘good’ ones adopt, such as the Centre-Right National Party increasing unemployment benefits under previous PM John Key. Labour improves funding for roads (good?) while increasing the number of cops (bad?) while the Greens have banned plastic bags (good?) while accepting Labours increased road funding (bad) etc. What about policies they all agree with across their spectrum? The more policies you compare the more complex and contradictory it becomes. So how do you finally determine that a) you should vote and b) for which party? What method can you apply to reliably identify what the ‘lesser evil’ is in the first place?

5) Add to number 4) the short-sighted approach of voting for a particular party based on the current, single election. In doing this you can fool yourself that the differences are somehow crucial and your action in voting will make some kind of historical earth-shattering effect because “this election will decide the future of the planet” or some such politician’s rhetoric. However, if you stand back and look at the overall effect of the alternating parties over the past 100 years you see that there isn’t much between them. The conservative ones have always been upfront about supporting capitalism. The Left -wing ones have eventually given up all pretence of trying to overturn the system, in preference for sharing power with their Right-wing colleagues. When does it reach the point that you can no longer keep making excuses for them and decide that a better way is worth exploring? By voting, you are doing your small but important part in helping prolong the current system. It’s like claiming you are trying to help a meth addict by repeatedly ‘only giving him/her a small dose this time’ and expecting a different outcome from the last time he/she took a hit of the drug.

6) We are not advocating a no-vote for negative “unhelpful’ reasons. If that was the sole extent of what we were about, there might be an argument there. We aren’t anti-social nihilists. Not voting is only one component of a deeper, well-considered, positive political theory. Anarchism works practically to offer a way out of the fucking mess capitalism and all its parties have put us in and that we as anarchists haven’t actively contributed to. We do lots of helpful stuff, on a daily basis. For example, by helping people understand we can work together to get out of this system on a theoretical level through websites, pamphlets and so on, or by practical mutual aid and volunteer work in our community etc on a material level. You have to look at the action of not voting in a broader, fuller context of what we are doing and why we are doing it. If we are unhelpful to anybody, it is the various power mongers and their parties and their system that we are being unhelpful towards. We think that’s a good thing.