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How I Became an Anti-Voting Fanatic

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Why bother voting for any politician? Antoni Wysocki explains why he continues to tilt against electoral windmills. Photo Matt Jiggins / Flickr
Why bother voting for any politician? Antoni Wysocki explains why he continues to tilt against electoral windmills. Photo Matt Jiggins / Flickr

No Damascene moment

In the past 11 months I've posted a baker's dozen submissions to the Halifax Media Co-op. All of them bear more or less directly on the subject of electoral politics. By now, I imagine, some of the folks who've been keeping tabs on my account must be wondering what drives me to keep harping on the importance of not voting. Others likely don't care what spurs me on but just wish I'd shut up and go away.

I'm afraid I don't have any comfort to offer those in the second category―I don't see myself abandoning the topic for a while yet. However, this time out I've decided to take a bit of a different approach. Rather than continuing to construct arguments, as in my previous essays, I thought I might be able to make my perspective more explicable if I provided an account of what started me on my anti-voting spree.

Now it might be supposed that someone who trots out his hobby-horse as frequently as I do must have a long history of engagement with the issue at hand but such is not the case. Actually, it's more like a manifestation of the evangelical fervour of the recent convert. Though I couldn't say just when I decided that elections weren't worth the bother I know that it was fairly recently―a couple of years ago, perhaps? In contrast, I can readily identify what prompted me to start preaching this idea as doctrine.

As it happens, I used to subscribe to a position rather like that outlined by Solidarity Halifax (hereinafter SolHal, for short) in the group's statement on the 2013 provincial election. In that document SolHal expresses a desire for profound systemic change while cautioning that this cannot be attained through the ballot box. All the same, SolHal maintains that voting matters because its members believe that, within the constraints of the political economy that we have now, the New Democratic Party can be relied on to govern more progressively than opposing formations.

For many years I held a similar view. I believed (and I still believe) that the world can never be set to rights under capitalism but that the communism we need can only be attained through insurrection of the masses. While we're waiting for the people to rise up en masse (an event I'm not expecting in the very near future―let me just say that I wouldn't advise anyone to quit her job in anticipation of the incipient demise of wage slavery), there is certainly something to be said for making the best of our present circumstances.

I never considered voting especially useful even for the latter purpose but since casting a ballot involves such a minimal expenditure of effort I figured it made sense to do it anyway. Nor was I in any doubt about which party to support. While I didn't expect the New Democrats to do much good I thought that at least they were likely to do less harm than the Liberals or the Conservatives. Heck, over the years I even went so far as to volunteer to work on a few campaigns in which I held the NDP candidate in particularly high esteem.

 

Change of heart

I began to see matters differently during the Dexter administration. I had never supposed for an instant that an NDP government would oppose itself to corporate interests. All the same, I was taken at unawares by the administration's unrelieved Babbittry. What surprised me the most was how incredibly conservative the New Democrats proved. Not in the political sense primarily―I had always expected Dexter to govern from the right―but in their absolute lack of original ideas, or the willingness to apply them. Rather than casting about for innovative initiatives that could serve the public interest in some small way without arousing the wrath of capital, the New Democrats spent their entire term pandering to big business―and, to a much smaller extent, organized labour―according to the most tired and tiresome traditions of Nova Scotian politics.

I was annoyed with myself for getting caught out. After all, at a theoretical level I already knew that politicians are about the most risk-averse group of people around―and none more so than the New Democrats, who are always under pressure to prove that they're "safe hands." In this light, it should have been easy to predict that Dexter's overriding priority would be to convey the impression that he was going to keep everything exactly as it always was while perhaps managing it slightly better.

If I have an excuse for my lack of foresight it was that I had always attached so little importance to electoral politics that I hadn't really bothered to think through what could be anticipated from an NDP administration. I suppose, too, that I hadn't properly made the adjustment from supporting the New Democrats in the expectation that they would be on the opposition benches to a scenario in which they formed government. Whereas in the former instance they could be relied on to at least occasionally stake out a mildly progressive position, once in power it was only to be expected that they would immediately abandon any such posturing.

Most embarrassingly, I think I made the jejune mistake of supposing that the presence in the NDP caucus of capable, intelligent and principled leftists like Howard Epstein and Gary Burrill would have to count for something. Here, too, I simply neglected to apply my general analysis to the particular situation. If I had done so it would have dawned on me that, for every Epstein or Burrill, there would be a dozen NDP candidates that lacked even the most rudimentary analysis of class, or who would be content to shift with the political winds, or that simply couldn't engage in a critical thinking exercise if their lives depended on it. In short, a pack that would be happy to hold all and only those opinions given to them by the party Leader.

As for the latter―well, other than in the most marginal political formations, you don't get to be the boss by being principled or having original ideas. You become Leader through a combination of single-minded determination, ruthlessness and the ability to convince the backroom boys that you're exactly like everybody else, only more so. (Jack Layton seems to have been a bit of an exception in this regard, probably because his background was with the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, in which advancement through the officer ranks occurs automatically after a certain point.) Needless to say, such a Leader will always take the path of least resistance which, given capital's overwhelming preponderance, will naturally be a congeries of whatever positions are acceptable to big business interests.

 

Having no reason vs. having a reason not to

Other than wounding my vanity by drawing attention to my slipshod thinking, the realization that even my chthonically low expectations of the NDP had been too high didn't change much for me. Having never assigned more than minimal significance to elections I didn't have to make any great adjustment to my political perspective. I decided that I wouldn't bother to vote next time and then put the subject out of my mind.

Some indistinct period of time passed. Dexter's term of office was drawing to a close and he could not much longer delay a visit to the lieutenant-governor. Frightened by the abysmal numbers the NDP was polling party stalwarts in the labour movement and elsewhere now switched over from stylized criticism to shopworn expressions of support for the government. That union leaders would line up behind the New Democrats was no surprise but when Solidarity Halifax threw in with them too I once again found myself caught on the hop. (As will be clear by this point, my talent for incorrectly predicting the future rivals that of the economics profession.)

To be sure, Solidarity Halifax prefers the label "anti-capitalist" to that of socialist (communist, of course, being out of the question), but I had previously reckoned the political perspective of most members of the group to be broadly similar to my own. Assuming that to be the case, and seeing that even someone as slow on the uptake as I am had eventually managed to work out how futile it was to support the New Democrats, I took it for granted that the majority of people in SolHal would already have arrived at this conclusion. Wrong as usual. To the contrary, the group came out swinging in defence not only of the importance of electoral politics but specifically of the NDP.

In rapid succession SolHal brought in a politician from Québec to talk about the importance of elections, produced the 2013 statement referenced above, and contributed two of three authors to an assessment by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives of the Dexter government's record. This review conceded that the New Democrats had been a disappointment in many ways but nonetheless concluded that, on balance, the Dexter administration had been a Good Thing.

If I was surprised by the discovery that SolHal members still thought voting worthwhile I was truly taken aback by the energy the group put towards supporting the NDP. Only then did it occur to me that, yet again, I had managed to overlook what was perhaps the most crucial point of all.

The experience of NDP rule had disabused me of the notion that voting mattered. It made me recognize that any differences in the way this or that party governed were apt to be so minor, and so unpredictable moreover, that casting a ballot amounted to taking a shot in the dark. Really, why bother?

My reflections had more or less stopped at that point because I hadn't seen elections as terribly important to begin with and therefore had never devoted any great energy to them. Most radical leftists that I knew seemed even less concerned about electoral politics than I was and I had―incorrectly, as it turned out―generalized this attitude to Solidarity Halifax as well.

SolHal's springing into action on behalf of the NDP alerted me to what I'd been missing. It brought home to me that most left-wing activists actually took elections quite seriously and were prepared to devote significant personal and institutional resources to contesting them.

This revelation, which ought to have long since been screamingly obvious to me, profoundly altered my thinking on the subject of elections. I had made no public stir when the Dexter administration put me off voting. This was partly because I had arrived at an abstentionist position gradually, and not by dint of conscious reflection, and partly because it seemed to me a private matter that would be of no consequence to anyone else. As noted above, I expected that other leftists would recognize the futility of voting as I had without requiring anyone to point it out to them―and even if they didn't, what was the harm? If casting a ballot was simply pointless then it made no real difference whether one voted or abstained.

SolHal's stance on the 2013 provincial election forced me to reconsider my position. While voting might be as harmless as it is useless, campaigning is quite another matter. The amount of energy expended on filling out a ballot is negligible; not so the time, money and other resources put towards trying to elect candidates.

Fired up by this insight, I set to work and and in September of 2013 produced an essay entitled "Right-thinking Leftists and the Drive to Vote." I concluded the piece by stating: "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."

I wrote the essay with the idea of generating a discussion amongst Nova Scotian socialists about electoralism. I hoped in particular that it might prompt the members of SolHal to reconsider the subject. While the piece did generate some thoughtful responses in the online comments section none of these were from anyone associated with SolHal and the group made no public acknowledgment of my arguments.

This failure to engage was very disappointing for me but I saw no point in writing more at the time, since I felt that I'd said what I had to say on the matter. I made no remarks on the NDP's crushing defeat in the subsequent election. I even refrained from comment when Maureen MacDonald, who had assumed the interim leadership of the party in the wake of the rout, attributed the NDP's loss not to any failings on the part of the Dexter government but to the New Democrats' neglecting to talk up their "brand" with sufficient intensity via social media.

 

Diminishing returns

What brought me back to the subject of elections was noticing the escalating intensity of the Left's rhetorical assaults on Stephen Harper. Needless to say, it wasn't that I thought Harper was hard done by; what irked me was that the criticisms were so obviously partisan. I perceived that, this time on the national level, the Left was once again setting up a false dichotomy between the NDP, who are Our Guys, and the evil Other.

What I also realized was that this was a far more serious affair than what had occurred in the waning days of Dexter's administration. I felt that those who had supported the NDP provincially were deeply misguided and that it was a shame that they were squandering their energies and treasure to no purpose, but that was the worst of it. By contrast, I could scarcely conceive of a more fundamental and catastrophic error than the Canadian Left's decision to turn federal politics into an epic contest between Harper's forces of turpitude on the one side and the legions of enlightenment (led, of course, by the NDP) on the other.

There has never been a time when a socialist could support the NDP with a pure heart, if only because the party has always dedicated itself to the maintenance of capitalism, which is an intrinsically immoral way to structure social relations. If you wanted clean hands it seemed that you had to steer clear of the political fray altogether―but one could only do that at the cost of foreswearing what appeared to be the principal instrument of change in our society. In practice, nearly all socialists (myself included) have always accepted some degree of guilt by association with the lesser evil of the NDP in order to keep at bay some of the greater evils that menace us.

Over the years I began to see this trade-off as increasingly suspect. For the first long while my main concern was the decreasing returns: with each election cycle neoliberalism became more deeply entrenched, regardless of which party came to power. There was nothing accidental or arbitrary about this, of course: it was the natural reaction to capitalism feeling its oats in a world where it knew no rival. I responded by further emphasizing autonomous mobilization (most recently by instigating the founding of the libertarian communist group, Stand), which I had always deemed more important than electoral politics anyway.

As outlined above, under the Dexter administration I came to the conclusion that the returns had effectively ceased to exist. The state, obviously, was no less important in our lives than it had ever been but our ability to influence it by our choice of elected representatives had become nugatory. Thus equipoise was reached: there was no real reason to vote and equally no real reason not to (campaigning, as I have been at pains to point out, being a different matter, of course).

 

(Fools') paradise lost

The Left's depiction of Harper as darkness visible made me realize that I had lost sight of the other side of the pact. As is only natural on a capitalist planet, where returns are expected there is a price to be paid; and in the case of electoral politics, that fee is our moral and intellectual integrity.

Of course Stephen Harper is a rotter―he's never pretended otherwise. I'd say it's a good bet that he's the nastiest prime minister Canada's ever had. So what? Reacting to Harper as though he is the problem―rather than just a particularly unpleasant symptom of the problem―is like saying that Marc Lépine was simply a disturbed individual and that his murdering a group of young women had nothing to do with the patriarchal nature of our society, or that the 9/11 hijackers were merely religious fanatics whose actions bore no relation to US foreign policy.

So what is the problem? Why, capitalism triumphant, of course, which has now fully colonized the entire body politic not only in Canada but in every polity in the world, excepting a handful of states in Latin America. Harper is but one head of the Hydra; cut it off and others will spring up in its place.

Afire with all these ideas, I posted three pieces to the Media Co-op in rapid succession beginning with "There Are No Devils that We Don't Know" in January, 2014. I strove to communicate the idea that it was pointless for the Left to concentrate on beating Harper at the polls because any possible successor would be, even if not equally bad, nonetheless unacceptably bad. In particular, the NDP and the Liberals had, as much as the Conservatives, signed off on policies―like the global surveillance of the Five Eyes network or Barack Obama's global kill list―that made nonsense of the very idea of liberal democracy.

There is nothing new in the New Democrats'―still less the Liberals'―support for the US imperium. What has changed in quite recent times is that the White House has all but ceased to dissemble its role in the world. In an incredibly twisted development, while the United States more and more brazenly exposes itself as a fascist state the political establishments of its vassals have been subcontracted the job of praising the emperor's dazzling democratic clothing for the benefit of all who can bear to listen.

This behaviour is not only craven and immoral but frankly suicidal. The US and the capitalist order it keeps in place are goose-stepping the world towards the abyss and the New Democrats, like politicians of all parties virtually everywhere, jealously vie for the privilege of leading this parade of fools.

 

Roosting chickens

I had hardly published the last of the three pieces when, as if on cue, the situation in Ukraine exploded. Neo-Nazi gangs chased the country's president from power at the apex of a destabilization campaign planned out and financed by the United States over many years. At Washington's insistence the newly formed junta incorporated these fascist elements who immediately set to work overawing potential opposition through threats and open violence. Thomas Mulcair's reaction? Pitching a tantrum because Stephen Harper refused to bring Mulcair along on a state visit to hobnob with the Nazis.

Before long, tensions in the country turned into bloody civil war. Washington and its minions asserted that Russia was behind the insurgency and demanded that Russia stand clear. Thomas Mulcair saw eye to eye with Stephen Harper on the need to escalate the drama, turning Moscow into the villain of the piece while praising Washington's visionary leadership. Unattended, World War Three loomed in the background.

This whole episode―which isn't over, and will not end even when Kiev eventually succeeds in suppressing the rebellion in Donbass―demonstrates for those who have eyes to see that Canada has passed the last station on the liberal democracy line. When the country's ostensibly social democratic party is so eager to prostrate itself before US imperialism that it will unhesitatingly steer the planet in the direction of nuclear apocalypse in defence of the prerogatives of neo-Nazis, liberal democracy in Canada is no more than an ambulatory corpse.

So, finally, why do I keep beating the anti-voting tattoo? Not to mince words: because I think our lives depend on it.

Hugo Chávez once said: "I believe that it is not given to us to speak in terms of future centuries...we have no time to waste." He was thinking primarily of the ecological havoc capitalism is wreaking on the planet and the evidence is rapidly becoming overwhelming that, indeed, humanity has at best a few decades to address these accumulating environmental crises or face extinction. However, the situation in Ukraine shows that we should consider ourselves very lucky if we are afforded even that lease of life given the monstrous nuclear brinksmanship that has become standard operating procedure for the United States.

I would not for a moment suggest that the political program I recommend, of which boycotting elections is one component, is sure to save us―or even likely to do so. To be honest, I don't fancy humanity's chances of living out the 21st century (never mind beyond) no matter what we do at this point. That said, I believe that continuing to play the completely rigged game of electoral politics is tantamount to jumping off a tall building and hoping we develop the ability to fly before we hit the ground.

This leads me to the other reason why I continue to tilt against electoral windmills. I have said that our lives depend on this in the sense of physical survival. I also believe that our lives depend on it in the sense of giving meaning and moral integrity to our existence during whatever span is granted us.

No one who is paying attention could doubt that humanity is in the most desperate and imminent peril―if we don't get incinerated in a nuclear war in the next few years we have the joys of global warming to look forward to. Meanwhile, insiders at the very top of the capitalist hierarchy, like Laurence Summers, admit that the global economy is likely to fluctuate between recession and crisis from here on out, with no possibility of any long term fix―to which the response of the US military is to make preparations to suppress any opposition the indigent might offer to this state of affairs. With blanket surveillance of the entire globe and a president who's proclaimed his right to kill without trial anyone in the world that crosses him, they're well on their way.

I fail to see how anyone could be cognizant of the above facts―and innumerable other equally baleful truths about our situation―and yet maintain that electoral politics could possibly speak to either our current reality or the future in any meaningful way. Which seems to be the point: the NDP apologists in SolHal and elsewhere cannot engage with me publicly because doing so would draw attention to facts that would make their position untenable. Could anyone contend with a straight face that it makes a difference which party you vote for when the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats alike all regard promoting World War Three as an acceptable path to power? How can it possibly matter which party forms government when all of them alike slavishly back every brutal move that Washington makes?

 

Odd man out

I seem to have strayed rather far from my professed intention of recounting what caused the shift in my views on electoral politics, instead falling back into rant mode. In my own defence, it's difficult to resist the temptation to soliloquize when no one else seems keen on dialogue.

My Media Co-op postings were not written with a broad audience in mind. I did not expect or attempt to reach liberals or social democrats, given the disjuncture in our epistemic premises. Instead my intention throughout has been to address other socialists. While I have sparked some discussion with a few people, I seem to have been brushed aside as an irrelevance (or at most an annoyance) by most of the radical Left in Halifax.

I don't relish being ignored or dismissed any more than the next person but I see there being much more at stake here than my bruised ego. I don't know: perhaps doughtier souls or steadier intellects can dismiss the lengthening shadow of nuclear Armageddon as irrelevant to their political calculations―if so, I wish they'd explain to me why it is that I shouldn't fret about such matters. So long as Halifax's anti-capitalist Left remains silent on this and other objections I've raised to electoralism, I can only conclude that they have no answer to make. If that's the case I wish they would give some genuine consideration to the position I've been advocating. I'd like to think they might find it accords surprisingly well with their other convictions. 


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Comments

Elections and Politics: Learning to draw correct conclusions

 

Those interested in this topic may want to read Elections and Politics: Learning to draw correct conclusions.

I have written a response to

I have written a response to Christopher Majka's piece under the title "When One Man's Neo-Nazi is another's 'national conservative.'"

Changing the direction of political vehicles

 

This is an important discussion to be having. I'm working on an article for Rabble that will touch on some of these issues. Watch for it.

In the meantime:

Issues such as climate change and economic equality certainly indicate that the political and economic changes required if we are to survive as a civilization are substantive. ;~> Tweaking the present system will not suffice. 

As I briefly mention in Elections and politics: Learning to draw correct conclusions, in my view Thomas Piketty provides the most comprehensive and an incisive analysis of how economics actually has been conducted that has every been done. And based on that new understanding, he makes extremely far-reaching proposals of how market economics can be fundamentally reformed in such a way as to make it fundamentally and structurally mmuch ore egalitarian, meritocratic, democratic, and social democratic. Would that satisfy everyone? Clearly not. Can it be accomplished? We shall see.

In that context, in Working Class Politics after the NDP Hurley advocates abandoning the NDP since he considers it in insufficient vehicle for arriving at the socialist changes he is interested in seeing. Is that correct? In the context of the substantive changes required (see above), and the agenda that Piketty proposes, the NDP's current positions certainly don't go far enough. Does that require jettisoning the NDP and creating a new socialist vehicle for getting there. Perhaps. En passant, I would only point out two things:

1) Until we achieve electoral reform and proportional representation (PR) in Canada, splitting centre-left support even further by the creation of yet another new political party is highly counterproductive. Under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, this just makes life easier for Conservatives or Liberals to continue with the status quo. If PR can be achieved, then it's a whole new ball game. Bring on new parties and let them compete in on electoral field where every vote counts!

2) The NDP is a political vehicle like any other in that can be driven in any direction if there is sufficient pressure and support. Indeed, the NDP and Green parties are inherently more democratic than Conservative or Liberal ones in that, in the case of the former, policy resolutions are binding on the leadership; in the case of the latter they are simply advisory. Hence, if you want the NDP to move more firmly towards socialism, muster support and make it so!

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