Voting: “The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.”
Why I Won't Vote
1. TED KAVANAGH
THE SAYING THAT “only a fool would put a loaded gun into the hands of an idiot” is an especially apt analogy of government. An idiot (usually well-meaning) considers himself clever enough to run the affairs of a large number of people by taking a seat in parliament. A large number of people, acting like fools, vote for his party’s policy then spend the next few years grumbling about the results. The error in approach is that the voter thinks that he will get what he voted for. If he could vote for those who in fact control the country, say the Governors of the Bank of England, the directors of the industrial corporations and those behind the ministries, the illusion of democracy would be more understandable.
The real centres of power lie far beyond the people’s influence at elections. These remain constant whatever Party is “in power”. In the terms of centralised “democracy” the only possible argument to justify voting is that marginal benefits may be gained. The state only incidentally attends to the well-being of its subjects. Its main concern is its power relation to other states, of which the most perfect expression is in war.
I am on the side of people anywhere who are prepared neither to live nor die for something that in the long run can only militate against survival and the conditions that make life worth living. Our immediate action must, by its nature, be to oppose that pathetic gesture, voting. It must be direct action. We can learn to live as free men and women only by organising against the condition we are in.
The Tenants Association, Consumers Association, and Direct Action in industry all provide opportunities for people to experience directing their own lives in positive ways towards positive ends.
Only by direct involvement in society can the individual hope to transform himself and his world. Freedom cannot be given, it must be taken; and the free society can only grow from experiments in the problems (ethical and organisational) of community.
Voting does not, and cannot, mean government by consent. By voting, one acts on the assumptions that certain men are fit to govern, and that a majority is necessarily right. Also should the state, acting in the name of a (frequently fictitious) majority, declare war, the individual loses the right to live, if he ever had it.
To me, voting is complicity with the State and a negative action, therefore I do not vote.
2. CHARLES RADCLIFFE
WHEN THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE Liberation held a which-way-shall-we-vote survey in October 1956, the alarming thing about the contributions was the combination of insight into the nature of American society and liberal totalitarianism and the startlingly naive and irresponsible courses of action proposed. The effect General Elections have on some anarchists is similarly alarming. The letters page of FREEDOM illustrates this, as the Liberation survey did, though it is only fair to say that the non-anarchist Liberation contributors were reasonably sophisticated in their stupidity.
Some people, who for four years out of five remain impeccable libertarians, seem to go mad as the General Election approaches. They ask us to vote, as though we might have some effect on the collective insanity by choosing some of the insane as leaders. We can acknowledge that there are people who cannot help wanting to make decisions for others but there is no reason why we should encourage them. Those who ask us to vote Labour forget that the 1945 government used troops to break strikes and started the independent manufacture of the British atom bomb; that parliament is a cypher and the real power in society lies elsewhere, increasingly uncontrollable and secret; that, even if real power did lie in Parliament, they should, as anarchists, reject Government and coercion in favour of direct action and mutual aid. In short they forget that anarchism is not primarily a word or a label but a way of behaving and, above all, of reacting. They forget this at a time when anarchism can be shown as a coherent and deeply felt objection to the way in which our society does things, and as an alternative to the chicanery of the “electoral fulfilment of social and democratic responsibility”. I don’t believe the General Election is an opportunity to chose enemies. I oppose contemporary society rather than the people thrown to the top by it. I don’t recognise the distinctions between the different brands and different packagings of the authoritarians.
I shall not vote because I believe the General Election to be marginal in our social and political life: it does not represent an opportunity to change the horse, or even the jockey, but simply to sack, and replace, a few stable lads. At a time when we should be attempting to persuade more people of the value of direct action and ad hoc groupings for specific ends, it is sad that some anarchists should wish to divert our energies by persuading us to follow the herd into public displays of undiscriminating lunacy. (I apologise for my intellectual
fascism, but people who behave with all the characteristics of sheep are deserving of sympathy but no more).
Liberation argued that “most electoral contests are struggles between groups that have substantial vested interests in ‘office holding’ between machines which provide jobs, money and prestige to fairly large numbers of people.” This is true of Britain, also. The issues which divide the parties are artificial: questions of management rather than basic policy. The election is primarily ritualistic. The real issues of the day—increasing centralisation and state control, the arms race and the like—are not usually put before the people. They are not put because they cannot be put and they cannot be put because even a programme of “democratic” seizure of administrative power has no room for policy lessening State power. Even when such issues are put, they are put according to a traditional pattern, to be applauded not because they are worth applause but because applause has always been accorded them. Liberation analysed this ritual. Mentioning the flag waving, drum beating, exploitation of war records and the visions of the ship of State floundering on the rocks of creeping socialism it said “… all this serves the purpose of creating a feeling of identification, a sense of excitement and participation. Politicians and opinion makers exert strenuous efforts to fix attention on the ritual and create the impression that it is the ritual act itself—in this case the casting of the vote—which is efficacious. Voting as a result becomes an isolated, magic act set apart from the rest of life, and ceases to have any political or social meaning except as an instrument by which the status quo is conserved”. Election pageantry serves the same purpose as Roman circuses—the beguilement of the populace. The voter is reduced to voting for dazzling smiles, clean teeth, smooth voices and firm handshakes—playing the role of a shaking puppet manipulated by the party image mongers.
The least anarchists can do in such circumstances is to make an attempt at tangling the strings so that the puppeteers find them less easy to manipulate into the correct postures. People who compromise their ideas for a liar’s promise are fools and it is hard to see how such anarchists can tell other people that they reject power and government and authority, if, once every five years, they elect someone to exercise power and authority over them. It all seems rather too paradoxical.
I’m not convinced that withholding my vote, as such, is very constructive. I’m not convinced that the General Election is very important either. I don’t think we need a change at the top—either as a change of enemy or for the health of society’s sake. I’m not going to contribute to the change. I do my voting every time I get a new idea, or talk to friends about things that really matter, or every time that I convince someone that anarchism is a viable “here-and-now” thing. I try to cast “my whole vote, not a strip of paper merely”; I go on demonstrations—which I hate—because it’s worth the effort and I write inadequate articles to convince people that there is something in anarchism. I listen to music, read books and do the shake at Jazz clubs. It doesn’t sound much [but] it seems a lot better than a five yearly compromise with the authorities.
3. JACK STEVENSON
I SHALL NOT BE VOTING IN THE NEXT ELECTION, and the reason I give is that of the old farmer who said, “At doan matter oo e votes for. Cos a government allus gits in.”
Yes a government always gets in. A government which governs with the same apparatus as the government before and the government that will follow them. The police that help old ladies across the road sometimes, and put bricks in people’s pockets other times. The judges that are always calling for some poor bastard to be hanged, and when you are up before them on a charge which involves principle, tell you that justice is NOT their business, they just administer the LAW, The army that is to fight the enemy that is always at the gates, and if the enemy is not at the gates, to back up the police.
I shall not be voting because I do not believe in this system I live under, called capitalism. Where one man is pitted against another, where competition is the norm and money is god. Where people sell themselves, and each other, chasing after an illusion. The illusion being that if they can gain more things, they will be better than other people. To vote for any party would merely carry this on, with my blessing.
If you believe that something is evil or stupid, it is ridiculous to take part. Government takes people’s power to think and to make decisions away from them, and it never gives them back. All governments are composed of men who look down on the people that they govern with scorn. The only time the government cares what people think is at election time, when they have a vote.
Finally for the most important reason of all. The people that you elect don’t rule the country. Does anyone really imagine that a man can be Chancellor of the Exchequer one day, Prime Minister the next, and something else the day after, if he really ruled the country. If he did, there would be chaos under these kinds of conditions. But they don’t rule. They are the puppets, but others pull the strings: those who own the economic wealth of the country. It doesn’t matter who gets in, the capitalists will still rule.
The crimes of all the parties that are competing at the next election are far too many to count. Others will point them out, and they will point out each others. They are all the same types of crime because they are all committed for the same reason, and usually, come to think of it, by the same people.
4. TONY GIBSON
I WON’T VOTE SIMPLY BECAUSE THE ACT OF VOTING will not accomplish anything which I would like to see accomplished. I am not baptised and I do not intend to be baptised, because I am sure that that too would be equally futile. I know plenty of people, really intelligent people, who have their children baptised and who also vote in parliamentary elections. They are prepared to justify their actions on grounds
of both reason and faith, and we must agree to differ. It would be a mistake, and a very big one, to suppose that there is any essential difference in the motivation which leads people to baptism and to voting.
Having said this I am aware that it would take an anthropologist from a wholly alien culture to demonstrate clearly and concisely the exact “functional” significance which baptism and voting have in our culture. The task is beyond me; I am too enmeshed in my own culture to make a wholly clear analysis of its institutions. Having raised my head above the water and announced, “I can see that it is utterly futile”, I sink down below the waters again and wallow in my own anti-baptismal, anti-voting prejudice. The moment of truth is there; I can see quite clearly that both practices are beside reason and are different in kind from actions like stoking a boiler, ploughing a field, seeing a film or learning to swim. We do not judge the un-reasonable action by any practical outcome: people do not turn to Judaism if Christian baptism does not lead to desirable results, nor do they begin to vote Tory if voting Labour brings no happy outcome. They may justify a change of religion or political affiliation by pointing out some real or supposed defection of the sect of their choice, but the switch or allegiance tends to be brought about by such personal matters as a new girl-friend, a new job or winning the pools.
Having had my moment of truth, having grasped that baptism and voting are un-reasonable actions and lead to no intended results, I then build up my own crazy superstructure of prejudice. I’ll not be baptised because I’m cussed—and I enjoy being cussed. Politicians are conceited bastards and I get a kick out of frustrating their purposes. Some people I know would like to live in Hampstead so they could vote for whoever—rascal, oaf or nonentity—whoever opposes Henry Brooke; but I know that Henry Brooke and his kind would be far more enraged if nobody voted at all! And the bloody insult of godparents promising all that stuff about a child before it is hardly human—and the slimy sods take care to confirm the kid before he is old enough to think things out for himself! “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, but vote!” “It doesn’t matter whom you pray to, but pray!” This is the kind of swill they would force us to swallow. When you grab them by the throat and force an argument, they retreat, they squirm, they make concessions to reason, they protest that the masses must have an over-simplified case put before them, that they personally have mental reservations, that they are entitled to a faith to cling to, something to trust.
So you see, our hypothetical anthropologist from outer space would have a grand time studying all the ramifications of the emotional reasons why I, personally, do not vote or take part in the rite of baptism. But never let it be said that I “suffer from prejudice”; I do not, for I enjoy it.
There is an old Jewish myth that if, by chance, there comes a moment, a single moment, when everyone happens to be behaving righteously simultaneously, then God had promised that we will all live in utter happiness and harmony for evermore. Our statistical friends will point out the fallacy of this hypothetical simultaneity of one kind of action occurring among so many, so God, like many mathematicians, is only having a dry little joke at our expense. But can we look forward to a time when no-one votes at a general election, and therefore has to do something about creating a different sort of society? This is, of course, a myth of equal whimsicality. When the poll drops low enough, society will already have moved on to achieve new forms of political action.
We have already reached a stage of development when few people seriously care a damn whether infants are baptised or not. Our freethinking ancestors risked very real persecution in the stand they took against the church and some success has attended their rebellion of ideas. “Of course they were right—but who cares now?”, is a common attitude today among liberal minded people. Perhaps the anarchists of today who rage against the sham of parliamentary democracy will be dismissed as lightly in the future. But we, the living, thinking, protesting generation of our time, do not really care all that about the future generations who will look upon us with like patronage. What we are concerned with is our world. We do not like being insulted. We do not like to live in cities where monstrous lies, religious and political, appear upon the hoardings that deface our streets. We do not like to see ordinary sane people worked upon until they babble like fools under the impression that they are serious deciding “the fate of the nation”. Let them support Arsenal or Spurs, Oxford or Cambridge, and they know that it is just a bit of fun, but at election time they think they are being grown up.
Now I come to think of it, when I was a little boy I horrified my school-mates by declaring that I just didn’t care whether Oxford or Cambridge won the boat-race. I said that I didn’t see that it mattered. Perhaps that is why I don’t vote today.
5. RITA MILTON
THE EXASPERATED PARTING SHOT OF ONE FRUSTRATED CANVASSER, who came knocking at our door, that we should be forced, albeit democratically, to vote for one party or another, is typical of the confused elector. Befuddled by the great political hoax he believes that the ballot box confers upon him a say in government policies and decisions. It is argued that those who actively oppose the democratic system of “choice” are failing in their duty, and therefore do not deserve the services provided by a benevolent state.
It does not seem to have occurred to our blinkered citizen that if his party fails to get power it makes nonsense of the system of choice. He may support a party on the basis of its nationalisation programme, with no choice but to accept a party dedicated, for instance, to free enterprise. The fact that millions of people may be yearning for a ruling party of one political colour, but are prepared to accept one of a slightly different shade, means that a government can legislate on important issues even with a minority vote. It would seem that the majority of people feel it essential that they should be governed.
As for the over-rated social services, these are paid for out of taxation and the essential work is carried on, not by government officials, but by nurses, doctors and dustmen. But whatever government is holding power, it will never consult the voters before waging war; or ask how much of the “national income” should be spent on armaments, or even give a choice in the selection of enemies! Is their opinion sought in the shaping of laws and punishments? Do economic priorities express the general will on the pittance paid to old age pensioners and the unemployed?
Whoever heard of a government enquiring as to the relative importance, from any point of view, of research into welfare, disease and food production, as against research into defence problems (war), space probes and motor car production? These are only a few of the issues which affect the lives of everyone in varying degrees, and on which governments make decisions without consulting the people who keep them in power.
The majority of people seem to hold a contradictory set of beliefs about the nature of government and their own role in relation to it. They argue that government is necessary even when they disagree with many of its policies, but say, “there is not much we can do about it”. At the same time they vote in their millions, convinced of their own importance in the shaping of national decisions. They are in fact only important as numbers, the sum of which will decide which set of rulers will govern in any way their please. The ballot box is a gigantic prop for the collective ego.
But this is not a plea for a greater measure of say in government policies. If the people expressed their real power it is doubtful if they would act differently in any significant way and there would be no substantial change.
I will not vote because I do not want to be governed; because no government can create the kind of society I want—without national boundaries, war or hunger, prisons or privilege—therefore to me, voting would be pointless and hypocritical.
I can exercise my responsibility in a positive way be refusing to take part in war or preparations for war, by refusing to be used by any government for ends which have nothing to do with the needs of mankind. I do not have to vote in order to support the positive social trends on which a free society may really be built.
If I were committed to a political party, my loyalties would be limited to that party’s aims, and my right as a free agent would be thrown into the voting pot. From this position it is a small step to the concept “my country right or wrong”, inherent in the whole system of government, which by its very nature creates the divisions which set one against the other.
6. JACK ROBINSON
Every five years, providing you have a vote
You have a choice of voting for a party
That is, for a man chosen by the party
(Who may or may not support
A policy agreed by the party)
Which they may or may not continue
Dependent upon circumstances, possibilities or policy
Providing they get a working majority
Always dependent upon the wishes of
our dominant allies (now or in the
future) and upon the diplomatic necessity
for continuation of foreign policy and
maintenance of existing commitments.
AND hingeing upon technical progress
Always providing that our rulers are
wise, beneficent and sane:
we may get good government
AND always providing that YOU are not a
clergyman, a peer or insane, when you will
not be able to enjoy this privilege.
IS IT WORTH IT?
7. PETER TURNER
DURING THIS GENERAL ELECTION YEAR, there will be a number of people who, although over the past two or three years have called themselves anarchists, will nevertheless put a cross on a ballot paper. I do not mean the anarchist who, for instance, will vote Labour because they did at least introduce the National Health Scheme, but the person who, when it finally comes to it, gives his support to a political party, the “between elections” anarchist, as he is called.
At the time of the General Election of 1955, I knew one such person very well. He called himself an anarchist, but when it came to the “Voting season”, he started talking about giving his support to the Labour Party. At that time, I was not an anarchist, but called myself a Socialist, supporting the “Left-wing” of the Labour Party. However, my friend had often talked to me about anarchism, given me his copy of FREEDOM and lent me pamphlets on the subject.
I can remember what I thought when the Labour Party came to power in 1945. To me it was the revolution, as it was to most of the kids at my school. We all hated the Tories to such an extent that on one occasion we expressed our hatred by throwing stones at cars which displayed their posters. To me at that time, a Labour Party victory meant a free health service, no more unemployment and a say in the running of industry for the. working man. Most of us had heard our fathers talk of the time before the war when, due to the scarcity of jobs, there were enough men waiting outside factories to fill any vacancies caused by sackings several times over.
In the years after 1945 it must be said that there were not very many people on the dole and we did get a free health service, at least for a time. Clause 4, the nationalisation clause, looked fine on paper. Apparently the working men were going to have a chance to run things for themselves, but in effect, it only meant changing one boss for another. Slowly I realised that the sort of society I had envisaged would never be achieved by the Labour Party, nor any other political party.
When taking up the anarchist position, I rejected all idea of voting. The whole process of voting for someone to represent you became a complete waste of time. The idea which some left wing “revolutionary” parties, such as the Independent Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Great Britain have, of winning a General Election and once in power bringing about the revolution, seems to be quite crazy to me. For one thing, if there were enough people who accepted the revolutionary programme of these parties, I am quite sure that they (the people) would not wait for victory in an election, but would carry out the revolution themselves. If on the other hand, these parties could only increase their number of votes by watering down their revolutionary programme, then, by the time that they would be able to gain a majority, their policy would have altered completely.
If you are against Government in any form, it is logical that you will boycott the election of Government, for whichever Party wins the election, nothing really alters for the electorate. There are no vast changes, no big improvements, but only more promises that if we work harder now, things will be better in the future. It is funny how we never manage to catch up with this better future.
As far as I am concerned, it matters very little to me which party is in power. What is important is that people organise themselves to achieve the things which the politicians have been promising for years. Only by ordinary people working together on an equal basis, can any real gains be made. It is more often the unofficial strikes or negotiations that gain the increases in pay and improvements in conditions, rather than the full-time officials of unions. When bad housing conditions exist or threats of increases in rents are in the offering, it is not by writing to your Member of Parliament that you get things done. He either shelves the whole thing or if he happens to put himself out, more often than not it is too late. It is only by forming your own associations that you will be able to combat these things.,
It is organising on a voluntary basis, with each individual playing his or her own part, that to me is the positive alternative to voting and one which, at the same time, will lead to improvements in all spheres of our social conditions.
8. PHILIP HOLGATE
UNLIKE MANY OF MY COMRADES I am not a very enthusiastic abstentionist at elections, and I even find some anarchist anti-election propaganda embarrassing. For instance, I do not think that everyone who votes is a fool, or imagine that they are “depositing their individuality in the ballot box for five years”, while in some miraculous way the reward of non-voting will somehow enable the abstainer to avoid the consequences of the fact that some government is going to rule over us for the next five years. I do not feel any emotional attachment to mere anti-parliamentarianism such as that of Guy Fawkes and his heirs who want to impose an even less free way of life on us.
I do on the other hand feel that I am on the same side as thousands of Socialists who support the Anti-Apartheid Movement, CND and the Committee of 100, Civil Liberties, and generally take the part of youth and people against authority, but who are committed either to Labour or a minority candidate, and who feel betrayed by the militant anti-electioneering of the anarchists. Moreover, since I personally dislike propaganda activities, writing articles, speaking at meetings and going on demonstrations, I would dearly like it to be true that socialism, peace and freedom could be attained by making a cross on a bit of paper, and would make mine the minute the polling booth opened.
However, after taking all the possibilities into account, I conclude that non-voting, combined with clear and relevant propaganda about why we are not voting, is the least of several evils from which we have to choose on election day.
Anarchism has had much more publicity during the past couple of years than during the preceding decade and more people recognise it as an intelligent social movement which has nothing to do with the “bomb-thrower” myth. However, I suspect that most of them still think of anarchism in terms of an ideal free society in the future, and are reluctant to accept it as a method of getting results here and now. Possibly that is because all the socialist, communist and social credit movements are dedicated to the ultimate achievement of a stateless society, after their leaders have attained power!
What distinguishes anarchism is its insistence on the rather obvious point that if you want a free, communist society, in which social relationships are based on mutual agreement and co-operation, and the state and its authoritarianism have been banished from their parasitic and poisonous rôle, then the only sensible way to carry on is to start working towards your goal here and now.
Supporters of political parties do not expect their parties to win at the first election they contest. They are content to vote for them even when it is hopeless, with the idea of building for the future, knowing that, say, the growth of the Labour Party is bound to modify the policy of the Tories and so on. Nor do they expect the entire programme of their parties to be implemented in a single act, but they welcome reforms here and there.
In a way, the anarchist case against voting for anyone is analogous. We support all kinds of movements whose aims are partial or reformist, provided they are the kind of movements that awaken and develop people’s sense of importance and responsibility, their desire and ability to co-operate on as wide and profound a scale as possible without creating, and submitting to, any corrupting authority. The files of FREEDOM and ANARCHY will witness to our advocacy of housing associations, progressive schools, community living, shop stewards’ movements, direct action against military plans and housing evictions. All these activities can achieve their immediate objects, and they can build a sense of independence among people who participate in them. They achieve some concrete results and suffer from many limitations, but most readers of ANARCHY will agree that the stronger these independent movements are, the freer will be the people and the more restraints will be imposed on the state.
At the same time, while we give as much support as possible to these positive movements, we should not forget the virtues of good healthy negativeness. We want to get rid of the state, and the weaker we can render it, so that it doesn’t feel secure in launching out into military adventures, supporting employers against workers, introducing more repressive legislation against freedom of expression and union activity, the better off we will be. With that in mind, the most effective reply to the state on election day would be massive abstention, telling whatever government that was formed that they did not represent the people and that the people had no intention of lying down and being ruled in the interests of power politics and capitalism. It certainly won’t happen at this election, and it won’t happen all of a sudden, but as I suggested above, like any other social movement, anarchism has to work gradually towards its aims.
Therefore, while I can sympathise with those who feel that the tiny differences between what a Labour government might do and what the Tories might do, justify trying to help the former into office, I consider the building up of a strong anti-authoritarian, anti-state movement of far greater importance, not just to satisfy some abstract ideological ways of thought but in terms of hard day-to-day reality.
So it will be two fingers and not a cross, on election day.
The strength of the old order lies not so much in politi-cal power as in the fact that it is generally approved. We must influence men so that this approval may cease.