Voting As "Harm Reduction"?

criticizing the vote as a strategy of "harm reduction"

Submitted by Ivysyn on November 23, 2019

Much stock is put in voting since the "democratic" claim of many states in the capitalist world rests on the franchise; the ability of the population to vote for representatives that will then staff the state apparatus. Achieving the franchise was a hard fought struggle by many groups who were marginalized by states, thus not considered "full citizens". The centrist liberalism of the 19th century held that such rights and enfranchisement should be meted out very slowly and only to very specific recognized status groups. Thus the struggle for the vote has been a long one that the victims of capitalism have been historically faced with. Most people in democratic states would probably assume that they have some amount of control over state policy because of their right to vote. In the United States it is often seen as one's "civic duty" and most of those active in politics view it as the primary mechanism of political change.

However, beyond being a democratic right, the franchise serves essentially no purpose, but for the legitimization of the state. Voting will not bring social change, it can not bring social change. It is not even in the arena of social forces that contribute to change; positive, or negative. The immediate response to this might be something like "well what if a Fascist gets voted in!?". The problem with this objection is that Fascism is not produced by votes for a Fascist politician, or party. For those votes to be a cast a nascent Fascist movement must already exist to appeal to voters. Voting does not even determine who comes to power in the final analysis. That is determined by what social forces are able to muster political appeal.

Even antisystemic radicals who should have a fundamental critique of the capitalist state buy into the logic of "vote for politician > politician enacts things I want". Accordingly many radicals argue for "lesser evil voting", or "voting as harm reduction". The idea behind this is that if we get a choice between politicians and we can determine which of them will carry out the least, or most anti-social policies, then we should vote for the former. This "harm reduction", or "lesser evil" approach is not essentially different from the very old two step antisystemic strategy; "take state power > use it to change society". There were even "revisionist" socialists who thought that the transition from capitalism to socialism would simply entail the election of socialists to democratic capitalist states. Undoubtedly radicals advocating harm reduction electoralism would object.

"I don't think the democratic capitalist state can be used for social change, I just think electing the right officials will lessen anti-social state policies". However, there isn't really a distinction between this and the fundamental assumption of the two step strategy. In both cases the assumption is that state officials can use the power of the state to enact social change, the only difference being in this case the "social change" is enacting less anti-social policies then another administration would. The two step strategy has fallen apart wherever it has been tried. This is because the assumption behind it was false, that state power can be wielded to change society.

This assumption ignored the nature of the capitalist state, or the state in historical capitalism. The assumption went that since historical capitalism dominates culture, politics, economics, and social relations the only option would be to leverage the power of the state to break that domination. This overstated the ways in which the state could be used for power leveraging against historical capitalism.

To put it simply for space considerations the state needs capital. The state needs taxes, the state needs to buy military equipment, the state needs imports and exports.If the state leverages some kind of power against the capitalist world economy and it's state system then all of these things will be deprived it and it will face the wrath of the rest of the states organized into the interstate hierarchy of the capitalist world. So even the "least evil" state officials will be confronted with the same pressures and special interests that the "most evil" officials are.

Lets take a real world example. Many people believe that Hilary Clinton would have been preferable to Trump in the case of the 2016 election. Trump's first term is now nearing it's end and it has produced lack of investment and more breaks for the very rich, the de-facto destruction of the process of asylum seeking, a travel ban targeted at Muslim countries, massive and ongoing detention of people for the crime of entering into the country without documents, or to seek asylum, the separation of children from their families for being immigrants, dismantlement of protections for trans people, and the destruction of the nuclear deal that was actually keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons. A horrendous record for sure. How much better is Hilary's long time record as a politician?

Hilary has always been aggressive toward Iran and voted for the wars in the middle east. As Lance Selfa notes in "Democrats: A Critical History" it was Hilary and her husband that kicked black single moms off of state assistance. She has also in her career been party to a US backed coup in Honduras that killed scores of people and her support of LGBT people has waxed and waned. She even started politics as a Goldwater girl and apparently still looks back on it fondly. Is this really much better than Trump's four year record? Would immigrants, Muslims, workers, and queer people be really that much better off under four years of Hilary? Are we really going to see any end to the worst of Trump's policies simply as a result of him not getting elected this year?

Then there is the ever condescending assertion "voting takes like..pff..ten minutes, why not vote?". Let's ignore the fact that time is money for working people for a second. If voting is such a trivial act then how could it possibly deliver anything of political value? Political change is a struggle, so how is taking ten minutes to vote suppose to contribute to that struggle? The people who think voting is important clearly don't share this idea that it's a trivial act. Unions in the United States spend millions of dollars on elections.

If radicals really want to make a difference in people's lives, here and now, to "reduce harm" then they have to reckon with their illusions about what the state will give them and involve themselves in the class struggle with the victims of capitalism. There is no shortcut, no alternative. One old white politician is not going to be better for them than another old white politician.

Reference: Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism.