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Right-thinking Leftists and the Drive to Vote

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.



Go Dexter!

The race to decide Nova Scotia's next government is now in full flight. Depend on it that, as election day draws near, the province's right-thinking leftists -- whose helpful suggestions and exasperated criticism have alike been ignored by the Dexter administration for the past four years -- will issue furious exhortations to all decent folk, charging them to get out and save the New Democratic Party from itself.

Of course, it is easy to mock and on first examination Dexter's drum-beaters do seem to have a point. In our society there are two overarching loci of power: big business and the state. While there exists no institutional mechanism by which the general public can direct the former, capital is in theory subject to the sovereign authority of the state. Given that, through the electoral process, the population as a whole determines which political party will assume command of the governing apparatus, it would seem that voting offer a means by which the people can exert a measure of control over both state and capital.

Of the three parties that could potentially form government in Nova Scotia -- the Ne w Democrats, the Liberals and the Conservatives -- the NDP is the only one that is bound by its internal constitution to uphold social democratic values. While there do exist some smaller parties whose policy recommendations might better match the preferences of progressive or radical voters, none of these formations has any real chance of winning so much as a single seat in the legislature. Hence, casting a ballot for any one of them is seen by bien pensant leftists as sacrificing the opportunity to help elect an acceptable, if flawed, alternative (the NDP) for the romantic satisfaction of making an empty symbolic gesture. Thus the duty of all right-thinking leftists is clear: to vote for the NDP without fail -- even if one needs to hold one's nose while doing so.


The received theory of the liberal democratic state

This argument for voting NDP is formally valid but, as with any syllogism, the correctness of its conclusion depends on the soundness of it premises. A key assumption in the present instance is that, under a liberal democratic regime, the government that the people get is (at least to a first approximation) the government the people want. A further supposition is that once an elected administration takes office it is more or less at liberty to introduce such measures as it sees fit so long as they do not violate the fundamental laws of the polity.

It is probably safe to say that most of the bien pensant left not only accepts this conception of the liberal democratic capitalist state but conceives of it as a matter-of-fact description of reality. Indeed, it would be surprising if this were not the case. The classical liberal view of the democratic state is the received wisdom in our society and the only criticisms of it that the majority of Canadians are likely to be exposed to are far right jeremiads against excessive personal autonomy, lack of respect for authority, and so on. Far from undermining the liberal position, complaints of such a character will tend to increase its attractiveness for the bulk of the population.

Though many even on the left in Canada seem not to realize it, Marx subjected liberal political theory to a withering attack more than 150 years ago. Marx confuted the notion that the primary purpose of the state is to impartially guarantee the rights of all citizens. Marx concluded that the actual raison d'etre of the state is the preservation of the class structure of society; or, to express the matter more exactly, to facilitate the extraction of surplus value from the labouring masses by an elite stratum.

In most prior forms of social organization the characteristic mode of economic exploitation involved the openly coercive appropriation of a greater or lesser proportion of the productive activity of the lower orders (slaves, serfs, etc.). A unique and (for the ruling class) very useful feature of capitalism is that its production process gives the appearance of consent by all economic actors: unlike slaves or serfs, proletarians under capitalism are formally at liberty to sell their labour if and to whom they choose. Marx showed, however, that the superficial impression of the worker's freedom to choose is illusory. The truth of the matter is that the worker must sell her labour in order to live; in reality she is confronted with the Hobson's choice of taking the wage that some capitalist is willing to pay her (assuming in the first place that she can find one who cares to employ her) or of being left with no means of acquiring the necessities of life.

Liberal democracy is in a sense the perfect political form for this mode of production because it too creates the impression of real choice and thereby legitimates itself. This appearance of neutrality means that under normal conditions the democratic state does not need to use coercion to enforce the privileges of the ruling class. Instead, in conjunction with other organs of society such as the mass media and the academy, it relies on persuading the population that the current system is the best -- or at any rate, the only feasible -- form of social organization.


Marx's critique of liberal democracy

Since virtually all intellectually "serious" people in Canada adhere to the liberal political theory of democracy, they are able to present their position as the established truth and defy students of Marx to prove them wrong. Conveniently, this is an impossible task given that no thesis of this kind is susceptible of definitive proof.

Foreseeing this tactic beforehand, Marx grounded his arguments in the historical record, demonstrating that his explanation was far more consistent with actual events than that which was propounded by the liberals. The developments of the intervening decades have only buttressed Marx's position. Thus one can reasonably inquire of those who cleave to the liberal view: can you point to a single instance over, say, the past 30 years in which a Nova Scotian government has taken any action in the public interest that required serious impingement on the profitability of capitalist accumulation?

Note that this is not the same as asking whether a government in Nova Scotia has acted against the stated wishes of the business lobby. The Dexter administration raised the provincial minimum wage despite vocal disapproval from employers' organizations. However, mainstream economists were agreed that this measure would not retard private enterprise in the aggregate; the opposition came from business owners who feared that their own personal profit margins might be eroded.

All this is perfectly in keeping with Marx's analysis. Indeed, Marx stressed that one of the principal functions of the state is to regulate in the overall best interest of the capitalist system. This is the case when it becomes evident that a certain practice is debilitating to capitalism as a whole. It may be that all firms will eventually be harmed by the practice and therefore have an interest in changing it, yet each individual capitalist will see it as rational to let other firms absorb the cost of implementing the change while she secures a competitive advantage by continuing on in the old way. (Philosophy's "prisoner's dilemma" in real life.) Such free riding can only be circumvented through coordinated action: viz., state regulation, which can be applied equally and simultaneously to all enterprises.

Neither is this to suggest that the liberal democratic state never acts other than in the direct service of capital. As seen in recent decades, governments can, for instance, be brought to intervene on behalf of members of society who are disadvantaged due to to their identification with a stigmatized group. It would be absurd to suppose that the legal recognition of same-sex marriages, to take one example, was brought about for the benefit of capital. That being said, neither is there anything inherently anti-capitalist about such measures. No doubt, individual capitalists have their prejudices but capitalism as a mode of production is not dependent on any particular form of discrimination. To the contrary, as Marx sardonically noted, the capitalist marketplace is "a very Eden of the innate rights of Man."

In an earlier stage of capitalism legal barriers to full civic participation by, inter alia, non-white men along with women of any ethnicity helped to secure the allegiance to the system of (relatively) privileged white male workers. Under the altered conditions of post-Fordist production all but the dullest and most bigoted capitalists recognize that such strictures will tend to undermine the moral authority of the system while preventing talented individuals from giving their all to the goal of capitalist accumulation.

Marx's critique makes clear that the liberal theory of the state is nothing more than ideological cover for the continuance of the status quo. What is less readily apparent is that those who accept the validity of Marx's analysis are thereby logically committed to not exercising their franchise. There exist at least a brace of responses that admit of Marx's position on the nature of the state while still maintaining the importance of participating in elections.


Capitalist "leftists"

No doubt a considerable number of Canadians who think of themselves as being on the left would accept Marx's contention that the primary function of the liberal democratic state is to foster capitalism. However, it would seem that far fewer would agree with Marx in judging that capitalism is fundamentally irreconcilable with human thriving. Accordingly, there need be no contradiction in accepting Marx's account of how liberal democracy really works but still considering it important to take part in elections. Granted, for many this may be contingent on a belief in the state's willingness to regulate capital in the public interest. If so, recognition of the fatuity of this supposition ought logically to lead them to conclude that capitalism is irredeemably flawed and therefore needs to be superseded by a superior mode of organization. All the same, in such cases a person might still feel it important to vote because, as noted above, even under capitalism there do exist policy areas in which government seemingly can take enlightened action without fear of placing itself in direct conflict with the dictates of capitalist accumulation.

More radically, many soi-disant leftists have shown themselves quite comfortable with laissez-faire economics; indeed, virtually all supposedly social democratic parties the world over have explicitly embraced this orientation. For such people the state's refusal to attempt the bridling of capital is all to the good: for these anabiotic liberals the market is sacrosanct and must be given maximum freedom to perform its own unique brand of magic.

Under this regime, voting assumes a double importance. For one, it is crucial to elect politicians who will act "responsibly" in office -- that is to say, won't muck up the efficient operations of private enterprise by enacting measures that impede capitalist accumulation. Also, as in the more traditionally left wing cohort discussed above, these latter-day social democrats still see government action in the social sphere as appropriate. Indeed, in some ways this assumes still greater importance, for if the public cannot look to the state for relief from the importunities of capital it thereby becomes yet more urgent to award the state some other positive function, lest the masses come to regard the whole system as a bad bargain.

Here the born again capitalist social democrats can be set to one side since they understand the nature of our political economy quite well and are happy to accept it on its own terms. There remains the question of how to respond to leftists who accept that no mainstream political party can be relied on to introduce radical and positive change to the capitalist mode of production but at the same time hold that government possesses significant freedom of action on issues that do not directly affect accumulation.


The change that capitalism permits

To start with, it is important to recognize that capital's sphere of interest is both expansive and ever-expanding, so that there are very few (if any) areas of public policy that capital regards as completely outside its remit. As discussed above, there may be cases that capital determines to be of insufficient importance to be worth fighting about or, indeed, where a relatively humane stance may be consistent with capital's requirements. However, a decision by capital to take the progressive side on a given issue will itself tend to give rise to problems since in all such instances capital's interventions will canalize the consideration of solutions into channels that work to preserve the existing intrinsically inequitable social order.

Consider the issue of racism. Capital can agree in principle that racial discrimination is wrong and support various types of action against it such as education campaigns and even affirmative action in hiring. This is because such approaches tend to operate on the level of the individual -- e.g., by striving to change people's ideas about race or by trying to ensure that non-white applicants are not denied opportunities on prejudicial grounds. Systemic action, however, is precluded since capital can never countenance responses based on the recognition that racial stratification is a functional element of capitalism.

As Marx revealed in his analysis of the constituent elements of the reserve army of labour, capitalism requires the existence of a substantial underclass that is excluded from all but the most irregular and tenuous forms of employment. In Canada and the United States this stratum includes a huge number of racialized individuals. At the same time, a disproportionately large percentage of certain racialized groups -- notably First Nations and people of African descent -- falls into this underclass.

While capitalism requires there to be an underclass of more or less permanently underemployed persons, the demographics of this stratum are, in principle, irrelevant. Facts, however, are stubborn things, and as a legacy of colonialism it so happens that race plays a significant part in determining the make-up of the underclass in our society. To alter this fact it would be necessary either to adopt a form of social organization that is not contingent on the existence of such a stratum or to leave the stratification in place while altering the racial composition of the underclass.

For capital, the first alternative obviously does not come into consideration at all since this would necessitate doing away with an indispensable element of the capitalist mode of production. However, capital is scarcely better placed to countenance the second possibility as this would entail candidly acknowledging that it is impossible for capitalism to live up to the claims of its promoters, thereby bringing the system into dangerous disrepute.

One of capitalism's principal selling points is that it holds out the promise that all of us can achieve a fair measure of economic success under its dispensation. As this is manifestly not the case the system's apologists need to show cause that the fault does not lie with capitalism itself.

Conservatives account for widespread failure to prosper by stating that certain people are intrinsically useless -- born losers, as it were. Thus for the conservative the fault is not with capitalism but with the innate inferiority of certain individuals (or, for the more overtly bigoted, with certain groups of people). For conservatives then, the admission that capitalism cannot provide a good life for all is no indictment of the system. For liberals, however, such a confession would destroy any claims capitalism has to legitimacy.

Liberals suppose that the reason why many people remain impoverished or otherwise experience difficulties under capitalism is that opportunities are not equally available to all. Liberals imagine that everything could be made right if only it were possible to elect a government that would offer the appropriate range of programming (life skills development, job training, higher education, etc.) while simultaneously taking a firm line against discrimination.

Liberals often bemoan the difficulty of persuading the state to take such action but what they fail to understand is that their objective of substantive equality is utterly incompatible with capitalism and that to implement a regime of this sort would require a prior revolution in social relations. Were liberals ever to recognize that it is not only a matter of overcoming capital's inevitable resistance to expansion of the public sector, but that capitalism literally could not function without an underclass, then they would be compelled to admit that their professed goals cannot be realized under capitalism.

At all events, if ever it were openly acknowledged that capitalism, by its very nature, demands the sempiternal existence of a body of systemic casualties, it clearly would be ludicrous to expect that whites, in the spirit of fair play, would be willing to renounce the historical privileges conferred on them by their skin colour and volunteer to do their tour of duty in the underclass. To the contrary: with it clear once and for all that capitalism is a zero sum game, working class whites would either cling the more tightly to their systemic advantage or -- as is profoundly to be hoped -- would join with their racialized compatriots in striving to overthrow this wretched system. This latter is hardly a development that capital would in any way wish to encourage.


Let history judge the NDP

Some leftists may accept all that has been said to this point but argue that it is important to vote nonetheless. While allowing that no party can be expected to undertake progressive action that in any way conflicts with the imperatives of capital, this faction would urge that the New Democrats are less apt than the Liberals or Conservatives to gratuitously throw ordinary citizens under the wheels of capital as propitiatory sacrifices to Mammon. This canard -- as with the foundational myths of liberal democracy -- is best addressed by adverting to the historical record.

The NDP has traditionally talked a pretty good game while occupying the Opposition benches but in office the party's record hardly distinguishes it. Even in the radical 1960s the NDP government in Saskatchewan gave its full backing to uranium mining in the province despite detailed knowledge of the devastating health and ecological effects of these operations, and in full awareness that the primary use for the ore was in arming US nuclear warheads. Later NDP administrations have followed the same pattern, whether supporting forestry multinationals in British Columbia, industrial pig farming in Manitoba or -- in the case of our own nearly departed Dexter -- aquaculture and mining.

Nor should one make the mistake of supposing that these choices indicate a bias for "jobs over the environment" and reflect a pro-union stance on the part of the NDP. Bob Rae was perfectly willing to tear up contracts with Ontario's entire public service sector and in Saskatchewan Roy Romanow did not hesitate to use heavy-handed tactics in an attempt to suppress the nurses' strike of 1999. It is true that Dexter brought in compulsory arbitration for first contract bargaining but on issues that are far more crucial to the future viability of organized labour, including automatic certification based on union card count and banning of the use of "replacement workers" (i.e., scabs) during strikes, he took no action at all.

Ofttimes both the NDP's supporters and its detractors tend to assume that the party is beholden to organized labour in the same way that the Liberals and Conservatives are captive to corporate lobbies. In reality, the New Democrats share the same primary allegiance as the other two parties. The main difference is that the Liberals, and even more so the Conservatives, are reflexively opposed to unions whereas the NDP is willing to tolerate them so long as they mind their manners (not least because, during election campaigns, the NDP relies heavily on logistical support from organized labour).

The reasons why this may not be immediately obvious are, first, that the right-wing media -- which is to say, all mainstream news organizations, including the CBC -- constantly harp about how the NDP is in thrall to "big labour"; and, second, because the union bureaucracy itself -- going back well over a century to Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor -- has long understood organized labour as a junior partner in capitalism. Thus, except when the NDP treads directly on union prerogatives in the manner of a Bob Rae, the "House of Labour" typically lauds government action that promotes capitalist accumulation. In such cases union leaders can flatter themselves that the NDP has enacted a given policy for their benefit when in actuality the measure was put in place to suit the needs of capital.

To sum up the argument thus far: first, it is axiomatic that no elected government, including one formed by the NDP, will undertake to challenge the rule of capital. Second, there is a very limited range of issues on which the state can take any sort of positive action without running afoul of capital in some degree -- and perhaps none at all if the intention is to address the cause of a given problem rather than its symptoms. Third, there is no basis for supposing that a New Democrat administration in Nova Scotia will prove significantly more enlightened than a Liberal or Conservative one.

Given these premises it must be concluded that there is no foundation for the bien pensant leftist claim that voting for the NDP is a matter of urgency. At the same time, if there exists no compelling rationale for voting NDP, still less is there any reason to mark one's ballot for one of the minor parties. The preceding analysis was not adduced to show that New Democrats are all and uniquely afflicted with some sort of strange condition that causes them to go rogue whenever they form government. Rather, the point is that liberal democracy systematically selects against any party (and very nearly any individual politician) that offers even the mildest critique of capitalism. To have any hope of attaining office a party must purge itself of any outward manifestation of such heterodoxy, whatever its nominal ideological roots may be. At most, a member of the government may be permitted to continue to cherish progressive or radical notions so long as they are kept strictly in petto.


The bien pensant left's attachment to the NDP

If, as has been argued here, it scarcely makes any difference which party one votes for, why does the bien pensant left continue to make a fuss about the matter? Many, no doubt, are taken in by our society's mystification of how liberal democracy really works, but at least some of these right-thinking leftists are definitely conversant with arguments of the type rehearsed in this paper.

Part of the answer is that while left voters may in theory hold that the established order brooks no dissent, in practice they find it hard to keep faith with such an abstraction given that concrete reality looks quite different. While the Conservatives have always taken pride in their subordination to the corporate sector and the Liberals slide opportunistically and oleaginously around in the self-serving centre (which in the current election seems to mean channelling some admixture of Steve Jobs and Richard Florida), the NDP alone has historical links to social democracy.

Perhaps more importantly, NDP candidates are vastly more likely to have a distinguished record of service in the labour movement or community organizations than are individuals who stand for any other party. As a result, many if not most left-wing activists will have at least some direct acquaintance with NDP candidates. These left voters would hardly be human if they weren't inclined to believe that, however universal might be the tendency for politicians to bow to the dictates of the system, the NDP candidates whom they personally know, respect and admire will somehow prove themselves immune.

Many leftists are not simply involved with but employed by unions or in the non-profit sector. The institutional culture of such organizations places enormous emphasis on professional expertise and service provision, and on dealing with concrete, focussed and immediate problems. Such a perspective has a clear affinity with the technocratic orientation of the modern liberal democratic state so it is only to be expected that people who work in reformist institutions will consider the colour of state action a matter of pronounced importance. Careerist individuals will perceive the election of the NDP as affording opportunity for personal advancement while a more civic-minded person may regard the NDP as more likely than other parties to sanction decent policy in her particular sector. Even if someone in such circumstances resists this conception of politics she may still conclude that in so far as her employment obliges her to work with government she is apt to obtain a more sympathetic hearing from the New Democrats than from other parties; her recommendations may be no more likely to be approved but at least they will probably be received more graciously.

Amour propre is another contributing factor, which expresses itself in more than one way. A goodly number of bon ton Nova Scotian leftists, particularly those in the academy, have relocated from outside the province. Given Nova Scotia's somewhat rustic reputation, many are anxious to persuade both themselves and their friends in more metropolitan locales that not all Nova Scotians are rubes or rednecks. These politically informed individuals may themselves see the New Democrats as scarcely better than neoliberals but since the mainstream media still cast the NDP as progressive. Accordingly, the electoral success of the party suggests to bon ton leftists the cheering thought that many of their less sophisticated fellow citizens must lean left. Similarly, a pleasing fringe benefit of being governed by the NDP is that this serves to convey the idea to people from outside the province that Nova Scotia is something more than a sink of rural conservatism.


Vote NDP even if you don't think that'll change much

A more substantive reason that right-thinking leftists give for voting NDP is that, be the expected benefits of exercising one's franchise ever so meagre, they can only add to, not detract from, the results of other forms of political activity. In other words: you can keep on doing whatever else you're doing, but why not cast a ballot as well?

This suggestion seems reasonable enough on its face but it will not bear close examination. To begin with, if we take seriously the idea that there is in principle no difference between the NDP and the other parties, supporting the New Democrats may turn out a tactical error. The NDP must constantly strive to prove to the establishment that it has no radical intentions whereas this is a given with the Liberals and Conservatives. Paradoxically, then, the latter twain often find it easier to act in the public interest, at least in minor ways.

Consider, e.g., Danny Williams's tough stand against AbitibiBowater's absentee ownership. Big business made relatively little fuss about the matter because it was understood that such actions, coming from a millionaire Conservative premier, in no way indicated a desire to fundamentally alter economic relations. If the New Democrats ever tried something similar, however, they would be hysterically denounced from all quarters as "loony leftists" who were out to strangle free enterprise.

Moreover, parties historically associated with the centre left often serve very effectively as Trojan Horses for capitalism. Consider Tony Blair's New Labour, Bill Clinton's Democrats, the Social Democratic Party under Gerhard Schroder -- or Bob Rae's New Democrats in Ontario. All introduced trenchant neoliberal "reforms" which, suitably appreciative capitalists noted, would likely have met with much greater public resistance had they been enacted by right wing administrations.

The upshot is, one might say, a crap shoot. Since there is no way at all of predicting how any of the three major parties will behave in office there is no rationale for voting for any of them. Contrary to the aforementioned supposition that casting a ballot for the NDP represents a risk-free (if not necessarily major) increment to any other political action a leftist cares to involve herself in, it can be seen that voting is quite as likely to do as much harm as good, no matter for whom one votes. Under such circumstances, even showing up at the poll (perhaps with the intention of spoiling one's ballot) can be seen as counterproductive since this could be interpreted as indicating that one believes that the election offers voters a real choice.


The nuclear option

Confronted with such Marxian socialist objections, a right-thinking leftist stumping votes for the NDP will have no choice but to go nuclear. The best defence being attack, the NDP proponent will demand of the abstentionist: "Then what do you propose to do? Will you simply abandon the parliamentary sphere to the forces of the right? You don't want to dirty your hands by getting involved with government but how else can you change things for the better, or even stop them from getting worse?"

Faced with such a barrage, all but the stoutest (or most obtuse) abstentionists are apt to wonder if their objections to voting are a touch precious. It is one thing to give up the state as a bad job when the barricades have been erected in the streets and insurrection is in the air; quite another, in less climactic moments, to behave as though true socialists need not besmirch themselves with the tawdry business of acknowledging our society's mechanisms of governance. The present reality is that we live in a capitalist liberal democracy. Since, as noted earlier, capital and the state are incomparably the greatest sources of institutional power in systems of this type, socialists cannot afford to ignore either one.

To maintain with one breath that it would be fatuous for leftists to take sides in the current election, while averring with the next that socialists ought not to leave the state out of their politics, will strike many as contradictory. In reality, however, these two pronouncements are perfectly consistent and it is a mark of how effectively elite discourse has circumscribed the general understanding of politics that voting can be conceived of as the indispensable centrepiece of parliamentary activity. Marx, certainly, would have been astonished (not to say appalled) by such a notion.


The state matters -- that doesn't mean voting does

As noted earlier, Marx observed that a vital role of the state is to introduce certain types of reform that are beneficial for capitalism as a whole but that could never be achieved through the voluntary action of individual firms. One case that he examines at length is the statutory shortening of the English working day. Without this measure capitalist production in England might well have foundered due to the physical debilitation of the working class occasioned by the impossibly long hours of labour demanded of workers by their employers. Equally, there existed the distinct possibility that workers might revolt if capital's exactions were not reduced. Thus it may be seen that there were excellent reasons for the capitalist class as a whole to limit the standard working day. Yet, this could only be accomplished through centralized coordination, for if any given concernment had unilaterally cut its hours it would simply have been run out of business by competitors pursuing the individually rational strategy of maximizing their own profits without regard to the future of the overall system.

Marx emphasized that though there were obvious reasons for the British government to order the shortening of the working day with a view to safeguarding capitalist accumulation, state action, when it came, did not result from cool-headed ratiocination. Rather, the government acted because the insurrectionary ferment of the working class forced its hand; and the capitalist class showed little gratitude thereafter for the state's safeguarding of their interests. The initial reforms of the 1830s met with vociferous criticism from the capitalist ranks and were only indifferently enforced. They were for the most part overturned in 1848 when the defeat of the revolutionary working class across Europe emboldened the upper echelons of British society. It took a renewed upsurge of proletarian resistance in the 1860s to persuade the British government once and for all that restricting the length of the working day was a necessity for achieving any significant measure of social peace.

In all of this discussion there is no hint that Marx was dismayed by how the workers' agitation issued in the government enacting legislation to meet their demands. Evidently he did not make it a matter of principle for socialists to avoid contaminating themselves by engaging with the state. He makes it clear, however, that the proper form of working class engagement with the state is the application of pressure; he does not suppose that the workers, even if fully enfranchised, could ever hope to elect representatives who would do right by the working class out of conviction.

One of the main reasons that Marx was skeptical about what could be achieved via the ballot box was that he perceived that capital and its supporters held enormous practical advantages in the electoral field. In addition to business as such, all of the principal institutions of society -- the academy, the church, the press, the professions -- had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Radical politicians not only faced direct and uniform opposition from all of these powerful sectors but had to contend with alarmist rhetoric that sought to persuade the general public of the folly of supporting the rascals who aimed to disrupt social harmony. Since Marx's time these tendencies have for the most part only been reinforced; e.g., there is no longer a mass circulation labour press and the leaders of the labour movement itself now understand their role to be the support of capitalism, not its undermining.

However, there was a second and more fundamental reason why Marx held elections to be of relatively little account. While he considered it possible that a genuinely reformist or even revolutionary party might, under propitious conditions, achieve power through the ballot box, he held that neither type of formation would be able to accomplish its program unless the masses were willing to put their very lives on the line in support of the government's actions. In such an instance, voting as such is more or less beside the point; what really matters is the prior radicalization of the people and, later, their concrete actions in holding the line against reactionary attacks on an administration that is carrying out the wishes of the working class.

Hugo Chavez's presidential career provides a good example of this. All indications are that Chavez was an extraordinary individual: compassionate, caring, charismatic, intelligent and a committed leftist to boot. He was first elected in the wake of the Caracazco, a massive uprising against Venezuela's corrupt mainstream parties, and received well over 50% of the popular vote. However, despite his great popularity and his remarkable personal qualities, Chavez did not initiate or even propose a single major reform during the early part of his initial mandate. It was not until after the coup against him was defeated by enormous street demonstrations that Chavez was emboldened to commence radical action.

It is equally significant that while Chavez eventually brought about many positive changes in Venezuela, and in South America more generally, the capitalist mode of production remains firmly in place within the country and the region. There are also indications that Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's successor, is likely to roll back rather than extend Chavez's reforms.

This would come as no surprise to Marx: he considered it impossible for the working class to achieve a true and lasting improvement of their condition under capitalism since, "in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse." That is to say, while the working class might realize certain gains under capitalism, their overall condition was bound to deteriorate: "Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole."


The proper goal and appropriate forms of socialist political action

For Marx the proper goal of all political activity was the achievement of a mode of social organization that would afford every opportunity for all human beings to develop to the fullest of their emotional, intellectual and physical potential -- a world in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." He showed that this was impossible not only under capitalism, but in any form of class society; at the same time, it defined the very essence of communism (or socialism, which in his idiolect was the same thing). The catch, as it were, is that communism could only be attained by the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

The initial step in Marx's reasoning on this point was the observation that since power is never surrendered voluntarily, it is nonsense to imagine that capitalists would abandon their privileges simply because the rest of society requested them to do so; instead, force would be required. However, as Marx saw all too well, the power of capital is both enormous and entrenched. Accordingly, the countervailing might required to vanquish it would need to be of truly heroic proportions.

Marx perceived that the only force that could possibly answer in this regard is the working class -- that is to say, that immense majority of the population who own no means of production and can only survive by selling their labour to capitalists (or by being supported by other people who sell their labour to capital). Furthermore, Marx urged, capital can only be defeated if the working class becomes conscious of being "a class for itself." This means that workers need to recognize that they share a collective interest with one another that is irreconcilably opposed to the collective interest of the capitalist class.

Marx deemed this anagnorisis essential to mobilize and solidify the only real asset that the working class can bring to bear against the enormous advantages of capital: strength of numbers. Yet, though Marx held that the working class could not hope to overcome the capitalists without first becoming a class for itself, he warned that even a successful revolution conducted purely on this basis would merely serve to transfer power from one group of individuals to another. The domination of one part of humanity over the whole would not cease; there would simply be a new ruling class.

History has borne out this verdict. At the utmost what this type of revolution has brought about is the creation of a different species of class society reliant on its own peculiar method of extracting surplus value from workers; a model first developed in the Soviet Union following Lenin's seizure of power. While it can be argued that certain formations of this type do represent an advance on capitalism -- Cuba being the outstanding example -- all the historical evidence puts the lie to the propagandists of "actually existing socialism" who claimed that such systems would naturally evolve into communism. Indeed, any such notion flies in the face of Marx's analysis since the first assumption in his chain of reasoning was that the puissant do not give up their power without a fight; why, in this respect, would a nomenklatura be any different from capitalists or feudal lords or any other ruling class?

The reason that Marx believed that the working class could not only wrest control of society from the capitalists but, uniquely, refound it without class is that the working class (defined in the broad sense given above) constitutes the immense majority everywhere. Once the capitalists were expropriated, Marx observed, everyone everywhere would stand in exactly the same relation to the means of production -- but this would remain true only so long as the revolution was carried out not simply in the name of "the people" but by the people.

Returning to Marx's insistence on revolutionary activity as the only valid form of politics, it can be seen from the foregoing that this does not mean that Marx thought that socialists ought to devote all their energies to inciting workers to blow up banks or throw incendiary devices at the gendarmerie. Rather, "revolutionary activity" describes any form of action that builds the capacity of the working class to overthrow capitalism. This would include, inter alia, organizing workers, discussion of ideas and improving the objective conditions of working class people through solidaristic endeavour.

Marx celebrated the restriction of the English working day because, as a compassionate person, he was horrified by the inhumanly long hours employees were routinely forced to work. However, the principal reason that he celebrated the reduction as a signal political victory -- he called it "the modest Magna Carta of the legally limited working day" -- was that without it, "all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive." Lacking this statutory protection workers would be so exhausted from their labours -- in the case of the baking trade, e.g., routinely 18 hours per day, six or even seven days a week -- that they would have no energy to undertake collective action against capital.

As indicated earlier, Marx taught that the state is ipso facto illegitimate; it is by definition an instrument of domination wielded by the ruling class. Yet, as shown by his remarks on the legal reduction of the working day, he clearly had no scruples against the working class using the government as an instrument for its own purposes. However, there is a crucial difference between Marx's position on the role of the state and that of the bien pensant left. Marx understood that when elected governments enact relatively enlightened policies this is not because the members of the administration in question are competent technocrats, and still less is it that they have the best interests of the citizenry at heart; instead it is always popular agitation that is the cause.


The poverty of electoral politics

All this having been said, it is at length possible to again take up the question of voting. At the outset what needs to be clarified is that there exists no objection in principle to taking part in the current election. Unlike, let's say, absolute monarchy, liberal democracy is not intrinsically evil. However, conceding that voting is morally permissible in no way obliges one to agree that casting a ballot is a crucial political act. To the contrary, voting is typically -- and certainly in our present circumstances in Nova Scotia -- the least significant element of politics.

As demonstrated by the example of Hugo Chavez, no elected political leader can ever be expected to take significant action unless buoyed by the direct and massive support of the people. Indeed, anything else would in any case be useless and quite likely suicidal. Conversely, the most reactionary of politicians can be compelled to enact progressive reforms under the right circumstances. Richard Nixon was firmly committed to conservatism but citizen mobilization led his administration to create the Environmental Protection Agency and to negotiate peace with the North Vietnamese.

The problem, then, is not with the act of voting as such but with the undue importance accorded to it by right-thinking leftists. Elections become an occasion of magical thinking where if only the right left wing party can form government then all our problems will be solved -- or at least we'll be better off than if the wrong right wing party comes to power. Such claims ignore not only the record in office of the parties in question, and Marx's cogent analysis of liberal democracy, but the entire history of this form of the state. Such wilful blindness is either an act of moral bad faith or a declaration of despair.

There certainly are occasions when voting can make a difference: Hitler, after all, was elected. The key point is less that there is not much to choose between the Nova Scotia NDP and their Liberal and Conservative counterparts (though this is true) and more that the real issue in politics is not who gets in but what the working class should do regardless of which party is in office. Hitler, after all, would likely never have achieved power if the social democratic left had not paved his road by sanctioning the use of state violence to crush the communist movements that were most energetic in opposing Nazism.

Too much ado about elections, in other words, is a formula for maintaining the current order -- i.e., an ingravescent capitalism -- while keeping one's conscience clean. Once the ballots are counted the work of the bien pensant left is done: should the bad guys get in and matters go from bad to worse (as they will), the left can comfortably put the blame on the benighted electorate; if the good guys get in and matters go from bad to worse (as they will), then right-thinking leftists can express pained surprise and say, "Well, we did our best."

Marx's analysis shows why the liberal democratic state cannot be used as a means to achieve a truly just society, and by the same measure why such structural reforms as may be enacted under liberal democracy have been due to unrelenting agitation from the working class. Under most circumstances, voting will be at most a tertiary concern for those who accept Marx's position (here the primary consideration would be to build a revolutionary movement of the working class; a secondary one that pressing the state to act may be a useful tactic in a given situation). However, even those unpersuaded by Marx's critique need only examine the empirical evidence to perceive that a party's avowal of principles is an indifferent guide to how it behaves in office, while even the most ideologically antipathetic administration can sometimes be made to serve the purposes of the working class if sufficiently heavy pressure is brought to bear.


Do as the capitalists do

By design or otherwise, the bien pensant left has muddied the issue of voting with a touch of Thatcheresque "there is no alternative" logic. We are told that we must vote because this is an important -- perhaps the most important -- way in which we can intervene in politics; but it turns out that the main determinant of state action in any given instance is the degree to which capital and the working class, respectively, are willing and able to put the government under strain. We are told that we must vote NDP in the current provincial election because government by any other party would be disastrous; but it turns out that there is nothing to suggest that the New Democrats are likely to be much different. We are told, if we are very obstinate, that we ought to cast a ballot because it may do some good and, at worst, does not detract from our ability to engage in other forms of political action. However, since it is impossible to say whether one party ought to be preferred to another -- or even on what grounds such a determination could be made -- choosing not to exercise one's franchise might well be thought the most responsible option.

In the end, whether one votes or for whom is of relatively little moment. What is of far greater importance is, first, the bien pensant left's misrepresentation of the NDP as a progressive force and, second, the inappropriate emphasis given by right-thinking leftists to elections generally. Not by accident, these tendencies direct left wing politics into channels that lead nowhere but allow the leftist political caste -- not merely candidates for office but union leaders, academics and journalists -- to control the flow.

The nuclear weapon of the bien pensant left is the claim that abstaining from voting is a refusal of politics, and that this is a luxury only the comfortable can afford. The reality is the opposite. Making wishes upon the ballot box is a renunciation of true politics. The state is not a guardian angel that will shield us against capitalism. It is an instrument of power to be wielded by whichever class is able to assert its mastery -- for as Marx observed, "Between equal rights force decides."

The ultimate hope, and goal, of socialists is to bring about communism, a society without class and therefore without the state. We understand that the only way to do this is by helping to forge the working class as a class for itself. As Marx showed in his discussion of the struggle to limit the working day in England, at times this may require making demands of the government. However, what socialists must at all costs avoid is falling into the bien pensant left's error of supposing that the state (or other established institutions) can do anything for the working class. Instead, what must really happen -- and it is absolutely crucial that we understand this -- is that the working class must always be the autonomous author of its own activity. In some circumstances, and for some purposes, government can be the instrument of the working class -- but never its benefactor.

To state that it scarcely matters for whom one casts a ballot in the current election is not at all to suggest that the state should simply be ignored until such time as the revolution puts paid to it. Rather, it is to say that socialists need to understand that government, no matter by which party, is always a creature of the ruling class; but a creature that can, under strong compulsion, occasionally be forced to act in the interest of the working class. As capitalists appreciate with great clarity, the actions of the state seldom bear much relation to the outcome of electoral contests; but they have everything to do with the Machtpolitik of class warfare. It is past time for the left to awaken to the same reality.

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Interesting essay...

Interesting essay. A couple of points for your consideration below, I'd be interested in your response if you have the time:


  • Reading through I was wondering if you would mention Venezuela or Latin American events and you did...Chavez said himself that he was basically a “third-way” adherent when he was first vying for election, and it is true that he radicalized a lot more as things went on. However, his central campaign promise during his first election campaign in 1998 was that he would hold a constituent assembly to rewrite the country's constitution. Other things aside this was quite a radical thing to propose and if he had not done this the legal framework for much of what has followed in subsequent years, which has been important, would not be there. As I imagine you are aware the new constitution was formed and approved via a pretty democratic process in 1999. To be sure Chavez was propelled in this direction by social need, however, it did matter that it was him that got elected president – he was the only one proposing it. It seems to me unlikely that the other candidates at the time would have held a constituent assembly, among other things, even under public pressure, as your essay seems to imply? Given the overall positive changes that have happened following liberal democratic elections in Latin America over the past decade or more it has always seemed to me (or at least since I was put on the scent!) that even for the more radical of leftists it is worthwhile to participate in said elections.

  • Even on the other end of the spectrum such as in the US where elections are extremely managed charades where little substantive choice actually exists, it seems to me that it can still be justified to participate, even if it does in part “feed the beast”. One essay that I read in the lead-up to the November 2012 presidential election argued this quite well I thought, it was by Greg Wilpert, who, incidentally, is the founder of Venezuelanalysis.com. http://gregwilpert.net/2012/10/19/can-progressives-bring-democracy-to-th... Have you read it, if so what do you think? His ultimate conclusion, at least regarding the election participation side of things, is that while elections in the US are relatively unimportant due to all of the constraints, as opportunities arise, people still have a moral responsibility to prevent harm, even if no opportunity to do good actually exists, and as such have a responsibility to vote for marginally “better” candidates.

voting -- maybe; campaigning -- no way

Thanks for the correction with regard to Venezuela, Steve. When I wrote of Hugo Chavez not taking radical action until after the coup I was thinking largely of his economic program, but you're right to point to the constituent assembly as a significant move since it sought to restructure power relations within the country. Still, having acknowledged that my claim was inexact, I stand by my main contention that radical mobilization of the Venezuelan people was the cause, not the effect, of Chavez's election victories, and that even with all his other advantages Chavez did not raise the question of socialism until the defeat of the conspiracy against him demonstrated the strength of his popular support.

On your second point, naturally I agree that we have a moral duty to prevent or limit harm to others when we can. However, in many instances it is less than clear how we can expect to observe this principle through voting. A thread running through my essay is that, in the current provincial election, it is impossible to say which party would be worse. We have to expect the usual discrepancy between what candidates promise when they're on the hustings and what they do once in office and are subject to the limits to action placed on them by capital; limits that, as I point out in the essay, tend at all times to circumscribe the NDP more fully than avowedly capitalist parties.

In addition though, the abyssmal record of Dexter's NDP in office, along with their lacklustre platform and their outrageous conduct of the current campaign (e.g., an advertisement posing as a news story on the cover of _Metro_) leave me unable to distinguish any reason why we should dignify them even with the tawdry consolatium of being deemed the lesser evil. Please don't mistake this as saying that I see any redeeming features in the Liberals, still less the Conservatives; what I mean is that as little good can be expected to come from the NDP as from any either of the others, so I can see no reason to vote for any of them.

A related point that perhaps I ought to have made in the essay is that there is a big difference between choosing to cast a ballot and openly supporting a party during an election campaign. The standard for the first, I would suggest, is much lower than for the second, for two reasons. One is that no one needs know whom you've voted for, which allows one to maintain a useful degree of independence even from the party of one's (presumably reluctant) choice. The other, and much more important element, is that voting is nearly effortless while engaging in election work requires the investment of far greater energy. Casting a ballot is easy to do but campaigning requires enormous resources that could be put to vastly better uses.

Electoral politics are an easy way out. Everything is already laid out for us and all we need do is follow the script. If the results are unsatisfactory we just wait another four years and do the same darn thing all over again. The main thesis of my essay is that real political work consists in building the working class "as a class in itself." This is a hugely challenging and multi-faceted project for which no clear blueprint exists and the success of which may be difficult to gauge outside of periods of acute crisis. Nevertheless, it is at once the only hope for ultimately achieving a classless society and also the best means of dealing with our present quotidian challenges -- including, to the extent possible, electing a government that tilts towards the working class. The point, though, is that the movement must come first; and manifestly any such movement in Nova Scotia today is effectively non-existent.

In the absence of such a movement, voting -- and, to a vastly greater extent, partisan campaigning -- is nothing more than a way of pretending to ourselves that we're doing our best when really what we're doing is abdicating responsibility. We must stop kidding ourselves that anything will be delivered to us gratis by a government helmed by Dexter or anyone else under the current political dispensation (or that it would do us any good if it were), and set about tackling the far more fundamental and important task of developing a working class that is capable of strong, vital and autonomous action.

Delayed reply

Thanks for your response Antoni. I don't think I disagree with much of the essay for the record.

It seems to me that liberal democratic elections are, due to the influence and pressures of capital, almost always highly stage-managed events where little choice actually exists for people. In my opinion usually the only justification a person can find to participate in an election is to (try to) minimize harm, and that ultimately much more important than casting the ballot every couple of years is organizing and other political activity.

On the point of trying to minimize harm via your ballot, you mention the difficulty or even impossibility of judging which way each party will hop once elected. Obviously none of the parties in the province here are above a bait-and-switch, but, while difficult, I think it's not impossible to determine what the general directions of parties will be once elected, here or elsewhere. Party membership, party leadership, internal organizational structure, constitutional documents, records while in power...depending on what the makeup of these kinds of things are, I think, in part determines how much individual parties will be able to acquiesce to capital's demands, and how much they will be open to public demands.

The really interesting question in my view is: to what degree can elections be used in a process of transformative change? The challenges are huge, and it is necessary for social movements to gain formalized political power and use corresponding governmental institutions as an instrument to combat these challenges. Given that it is possible for more radical parties to enter the liberal democratic electoral arena and win - or more accurately perhaps, for grassroots social movements to utilize liberal democratic electoral processes to gain political power - and put through thoroughgoing reforms, as examples in Latin America over the past decade demonstrate, I find it frustrating that groups elsewhere want to completely write off the process. If it's possible to straightforwardly have real representatives of labour in government to institute reformations, why not do it? To be sure, the radical mobilization of the Venezuelan people was the cause of the MVR/PSUV's electoral victories, but the point is that the people were able to use existing electoral processes to gain formalized political power and actually reshape the liberal democratic state. What is possible in one country may not be possible in another, but if this is achievable somewhere, I don't think the radical left elsewhere should completely close the door on the electoral route.

Even given the apparent viability of an electoral strategy in conjunction with social movements in the South, it might still be asked why anti-capitalists should pursue an electoral route. Why not another method for the left that won't involve entering the whole game? Again it seems the example of Venezuela is instructive. When other methods of trying to harness state power were tried, they failed. When people rose up against right wing policies in 1989, they were shot and killed in the Caracazo and the establishment largely just carried on as usual. When taking power by force via coups was tried, they also failed. No substantial changes were made in the country before state power was assumed by the leftist movement in 1999. So what method was left to try? To have denounced the electoral strategy would have been to set up an artificial barrier for citizens there, and who knows where the country would be now if it hadn't have been tried?

autonomous mobilization

Thanks for contributing further, Steve.

As a libertarian communist I am committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the institution of socialism, and I feel that nothing short of this can produce a truly just and ecologically sustainable mode of existence for all people. Naturally, then, voting will always seem to me of subsidiary importance in the final analysis.

That being said, I hasten to add that not only does such a revolution not seem to me imminent -- and certainly not in Canada -- but I see no obvious means of hastening the day. Yet, as you and I and Richard would presumably all agree, the world's problems are very much with us and cannot simply be ignored until the chiliastic Coming of socialism.

Both you and Richard consider that government holds too much power over the populace to simply be left to its own devices, and thus each of you argues that giving up on electoral activity surrenders ground unnecessarily to regressive forces. Even setting aside my Marxist parti pris against liberal democracy in general, I would again urge that one can accept the premise without agreeing with the conclusion.

I am greatly interested in your statement that "more accurately perhaps...grassroots social movements [have utilized] liberal democratic electoral processes to gain political power." I think this expresses very well what has taken place in various South American countries such as Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela. The results have been positive overall, if somewhat mixed. Moreover, as recent events in Brazil remind us, these popular movements must always keep up the pressure on government, even when the party in power is an offshoot of their own organizations (the MST in this case).

As a libertarian communist I have deep-seated reservations about relying on the state to make the world a better place. Accordingly, my impulse is to ask how people can address their problems collectively and directly rather than how can they elect a government that will undertake to do so on their behalf. I recognize, however, that this is very much a minority position even among Marxists, to say nothing of the wider left. Still, you don't need to subscribe to my particular brand of socialism to see that -- as your quote above makes clear -- whatever good one might expect to come of electing "our kind of people," the movement of the masses must come first. In other words, to the extent that elections are important their importance is directly proportional to the prior mobilization of the people for their own autonomous purposes and not simply as foot-soldiers for one or other political party.

As I observed in my reply to Richard's post, activists do not have an unlimited supply of energy. If we continue to hive off some of our resources -- and in the case of the unions, a very significant part thereof -- for electoral activity, we will have that much less for what should be the prior work of building a mass movement. Prior, I should note, temporally but also logically. The MST, e.g, did not initiate its struggles as a means of developing a constituency for the Workers' Party they would eventually found. Rather, the MST's land occupations and other actions were organized on their own merits. I say, let us do something similar here and if the day comes when the movement feels that the next logical step is to found something like Brazil's Workers' Party, time enough to think about elections at that point.


Bloody-minded pragmatism

As any student of the history of philosophy soon learns, the urge to cleave reality into two sharply distinct realms goes back a very long way.

Wysocki weakens his otherwise very strong argument by straining so hard to prove that voting makes no difference. He would have been better served with a more nuanced, and more bloody-minded, pragmatism about how to deal with the electoral arena.

I agree with his argument that on anything having to do with economic issues and governmental power in general, we can expect there to be little difference between what any of the three major parties do once in power, as we saw so vividly in the behavior of the late NDP government.

And I have no quarrel with Wysocki’s argument that to the extent that governments enact any new policies that ameliorate the conditions of the working class, those actions only occur because the working class has found some means for bringing pressure on the system.

But in trying to make a categorical argument against the efficacy of elections, Wysocki damages the credibility of his argument. Contrary to his assertion that elections make no difference, there are occasions in which voters may very well have significant power over whether their lives, collectively, get better or worse.

One has only to look at the United States, for example, to see an example of why people might choose to engage with the electoral process, regardless of the fact that both of the country’s political parties are in bed with corporate interests in regards to fiscal and economic policies. (Or as the late Gore Vidal liked to say, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party ... and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.”

In this case, look at the attitudes of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party towards women. The Democratic Party has chosen to align itself with a set of policies that give women more control over their lives, starting with integrating women into the governance of the party itself. On the other hand, the Republican Party has waged an unrelenting war on the rights of women for several decades now, from equal pay to access to contraception. There is absolutely no doubt that any electoral strategy, like not voting at all, that would increase the probability of a Republican victory would have strong negative effects on the lives of millions of women.

I understand the attraction of the categorical argument, especially in light of the very strong social consensus that liberal democracy is the best of all possible worlds. But in the end, Wysocki’s all-or-nothing approach may unfortunately turn people away from his deeper insights into the workings of capitalism.





The lesser of two intolerable evils is still intolerable

Thanks for commenting, Richard. I agree that, at different times and in different polities, there may be significant divergences in the position of contending political parties.

Your example of the RepubliCrats is illuminating, and the quotation from Vidal most apropos. I would observe though that one of the principal reasons that the Democrats nowadays posture as more socially enlightened than the Republicans is precisely that, as Vidal observed, both are equally creatures of big business.

As I'm sure you know, from the Civil War until the 1960s the Democrats were no more progressive on social issues than the Republicans. Indeed, it was the Democrats who instituted and maintained the Jim Crow laws of the South. By combining this with moderately pro-labour (but simultaneously Red-baiting) policies in the North they were able to largely dominate US politics.

Ultimately, however, LB Johnson realized that American apartheid was giving the Soviet Union too great a moral advantage in the Cold War and forced through desegragation measures. Richard Nixon saw his opportunity and won the next presidential election by appealing to the racism of white working-class men. The Democrats realized that, to win back these voters, they would either have to make truly substantive concessions to labour or find some new way to market themselves.

After a lengthy period of confusion the Democrats saw that they could distinguish themselves from the Republicans by fighting the "culture wars." This was made all the easier as the Republicans -- previously a more rationalist outfit than the Democrats (consider, e.g., Eisenhower's farewell address on the military-industrial complex) -- increasingly aligned themselves with fundamentalist Christianity. Thus both parties were able to shill ever more openly for corporate interests while supporters on either side of the divide made much of the distinctions between the parties on issues like abortion.

I am not trying to trivialize questions of civil rights and I agree that a party that promotes equality for (inter alia) women and non-heterosexuals is a decidely better proposition than one that opposes such measures. However, to return now to the current context, I see no such sharp distinction amongst the major parties in Nova Scotia. I will confess that I didn't study the party platforms carefully but my impression was that the Liberals were, if anything, campaigning to the left of the NDP while even the more avowedly free market Conservatives were careful to avoid giving any impression of chauvinism.

Returning to the American forum that you reference, you are clearly correct in saying that a Republican victory is to be expected if progressive and radical voters spoil their ballots or vote Democrat but otherwise refuse to become involved in election campaigns. I think it's also reasonable to assume that this would have painful consequences for many people.

That being said, Obama's presidency has been the most reactionary in US history. His foreign policy has been at least as bellicose as Bush's, he has presided over an unprecedented expansion of the surveillance and security apparatus of the state, he has persecuted more whistleblowers than had all previous presidents combined, he has asserted the right to jail and even kill anyone in the world merely on his say-so -- the list goes on and on. On what basis can we assume that fewer people are being harmed under Obama's dispensation than they would be under a Republican administration? More to the point, even if the Republicans would somehow be worse, the Democrats are completely intolerable. If you have one party of pro-abortion fascists and another of anti-abortion fascists how can you in good conscience support either?

The basic point I was trying to get across in my essay is that the only route out of this moral quagmire is to remove the focus from elections. As noted there, this does not mean that I am counselling leftists to ignore the political sphere but to see pressuring politicians as both vastly more important and far less ethically fraught than campaigning on their behalf. As adverted to above, one cannot in good conscience vote for the milder brand of fascists, but there is no moral compromise entailed in taking action against whichever fascists happen to be in office.

To come back, again, to Nova Scotian politics: I need hardly say that of course none of the parties in this province come close to being fascistic. Supporting the NDP is not the deal with the Devil that backing the US Democrats amounts to. Nevertheless, the fundamental logic remains the same. Activists have only so much energy. The more we expend on elections the less we have for everything else.

Electoral activity -- under current conditions though certainly not in all conceivable circumstances -- is a losing game because the whole political spectrum keeps shifting ever further to the right. Manifestly we cannot expect to change this endogenously. Instead, by switching our focus from who gets into office to what we do about them once they're there we can hope to influence events directly. Curiously enough, to the extent we prove successful in this strategy we would thereby increase the chance that voting might, at some future point, become a matter of greater consequence.





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