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Voting: not just pointless, but harmful!

"The real Utopians are those people who imagine it is possible today to achieve a greater satisfaction of human needs through the reform of capitalism, and not its complete overthrow." - International Communist Current, part one of The Perspective of Communism
"Capitalism rules the world and makes our statesmen dance like puppets on a string." - Werner Sombart, 1886

This is a didactic and long-winded dialog with a friend about why I don't vote. Given the way I dominate the conversation, it should be no surprise that the friend is imaginary. The bulk of it was written in fall 2016, with small updates now and then.

Why don't you vote?

It's a practical matter, and not just one of principle. After all, as Lenin supposedly said, all that matters in politics is expedience. (Never mind that this quote is almost certainly a right-wing fabrication. There's some truth to the sentiment.) Anyway, I think participating in capitalist elections does the working class much more harm than good.

Whoa -- Lenin, working class, capitalism? Are you some kind of Marxist?

Yes! And do me a favor. This conversation will go quicker if you take it for granted that I believe a few things.

First, that capitalism is a dead end for humanity. That despite the tremendous material wealth it has engendered, it is incapable of satisfying even basic human needs. More than that, it is actually endangering the future of all life on Earth.

Second, that the working class is historically unique in that it is the first exploited class without any form of property to defend. It is also the first to have been welded into a collectivity by the process of production. As such it is the first class that has an interest in abolishing property generally and socializing production. It is the first class that can realize communism (although all past oppressed classes aspired to it in their periodic revolts).

Third, that the working class can realize communism only through organizing as a class, seizing power, and holding down and expropriating the capitalist class. This is the dictatorship of the proletariat. This revolutionary process will lead to a society without classes, the state, property, or production for profit -- communism.

The point is, I believe that a radically different world is possible and necessary. If I didn't, maybe I'd vote.

Okay, whatever. But what does that have to do with voting?

I said voting does more harm than good. Let's start with the good it does. I see precious little of that.

In capitalist democracies we can debate which countries to attack, but we can never debate the logic of imperialist war. We can debate the minimum level of health care we should receive (if any), but we can never debate stopping capitalist production from polluting our minds, bodies, and the environment, making us sick in the first place. We can debate a minimum wage, but we can never debate the necessity of handing over the better part of our daily life to enrich somebody else. We can debate what policies to set to reduce or halt climate change, but we are powerless to actually intervene in production to reach those goals.

In short, everything is up for a discussion -- except the capitalist system itself.

The left and the right vow to solve all our problems by regulating capitalism a little more or a little less. By doing so, they promise to restore a golden age that disappeared the moment their rivals took power. Donald Trump tells us he will make America great again. Hillary Clinton tells us it's already great (her party is in power, after all). Trump counters that it isn't great for the millions who are poor or unemployed -- as if such misfortune is a novelty!

"Making America great again" or "restoring democracy," if it means anything, means idolizing the post-war period, when six years of world war and the literal destruction of Europe and Asia left American capitalism momentarily without competitors. The Pax Americana was built on blood, but also lived on blood. If this was the time of full employment and high wages, it was also the time of the racist terror of Jim Crow, anti-"Communist" witch-hunts, and the imperialist rivalry between the US and USSR. Asia, Africa, and Latin America were battlegrounds and all of humanity lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Some golden age!

In short, voting means putting your faith in somebody to magically right the problems endemic to the capitalist mode of production.

Hold on there. Nobody ever said voting would overthrow capitalism. But voting still matters. This year [2016] especially. Trump is disgusting! If nothing else, vote to keep him out.

Even if I wanted to trade the possibility of real change for some meager reforms, why should I expect the Democrats to provide them?

Democrats said Bush was worse than Hitler. Now Republicans say that Obama is worse than Stalin. Realistically, the two administrations are indistinguishable. The trajectory established under Bush (or Clinton before him, or the first Bush before him, or...) has continued unabated. There is no reason to believe that a Trump presidency or a Clinton presidency would deviate from that trajectory.

And so on.

2020 update: Well, fuckface, how do you feel now? The last four years were pretty awful. Don't you wish you Clinton had won? Don't you feel bad for not voting?

I'm not totally indifferent to who wins in 2020. Trump's a repugnant human being and I would like him to face any and every misfortune. Losing to "Sleepy Joe" would be a good start. But this is about politics, not personalities. And politically? Trump and Biden are only vastly different when you have a very narrow view of what kind of politics are possible.

For centrists and the Democratic establishment, the criticism of Trump boils down to his insufficient xenophobia and militarism. He is soft on Putin and Kim Jong Un. He disregards the FBI and the CIA. He sneers at veterans and generals. He erodes "American leadership" in imperialist military blocs. He tolerates foreign meddling in American politics. All of these complaints reveal that the left and the right ultimately tend towards one foreign policy: war, nationalism, jingoism, and servility to the military and secret police. Democrats and Republicans quibble over tactics, targets, and timing. Neither party can possibly break with the logic of imperialism, which is inborn in an economic system dependent on new markets, military production, competition between states, and drowning internal dissent in orgies of patriotic bloodletting.

I'm more sympathetic to the complaints about Trump's retrograde attitudes and policies for anyone who is not a white man. But here, too, the Democrats can't offer any real change. Both parties find it useful to play up racial divisions. Look at the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020. Trump and the right dampened interracial solidarity by inventing scary stories about mobs of black rioters heading to the suburbs. At the same time, Democrats tried to keep blacks off the streets with intentional, outright lies that the riots were the work of white outsiders (McFall, 2020). On questions of race, gender, sexuality, etc., the right sticks its head in the sand and insists "we're all Americans." The left takes the opposite tack, fixating on gender, race, sexuality, etc. But both right and left approach oppression in a way that has exactly the same result -- to completely obscure the centrality of class to oppression and exploitation. This defends capitalism. And in capitalism, as with any system of exploitation, an exploiting minority constantly invents and reinforces animosities among the exploited so as to keep them divided. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other noxious practices cannot be overcome within class society. They will always be dredged up again by the exploiters.

Now let's talk about COVID-19. Trump believes that by doing nothing, he won't be blamed for anything. Which, uhm, no. But again -- and you can guess what's coming -- the entire capitalist system deserves blame. Trump's non-response wasn't even exceptional. But more on that in my review of The Monster at Our Door.

Certainly, Trump is a narcissistic sociopath and, fortunately, an incompetent idiot to boot. Without doubt, his administration has gleefully enacted many bad policies. And there's no denying that he has intentionally appealed to the darkest instincts in the American public psyche. But let's look at the big picture. Consider the environment as just one example. Here the Trump administration has passed some of its cruelest, most reactionary policies (even while Trump proclaims himself the greatest environmentalist since Teddy Roosevelt). For instance, by 2018, Trump's administration had reversed 67 environmental laws. Just these initial rollbacks alone will lead to at least an estimated "80,000 health-related deaths in each of the next decades" (Keating, 2018). That's to say nothing of damage to wildlife! But have Democrats fared any better? If so, not by much. No matter the party in power, the environment is under relentless attack. This is true in the U.S., but also globally, where parties are generally more leftist than the Democrats. Here are just a few data points:

So we can see that on the environment, the differences between the two parties don't amount to much. This holds true on other issues as well -- war, inequality, health, etc.

Okay. So most Democrats have failed us. But if we could just get money out of politics...

Indeed, money is a problem. The capitalist class is able to control the state by the exercise of its massive wealth and influence. They can buy candidates or pay lobbyists, who often go so far as to write the laws the lawmakers themselves are supposed to draft. This is the kind of influence that reformists wish to abolish with laws. But the capitalists are just as capable of influencing politics indirectly in ways that cannot be legislated against. Capitalists can indirectly influence politics by mobilizing voters to through their control of the media, by organizing smaller donors (so-called bundling), by threatening to move jobs and profits away when threatened with unfavorable legislation, by funding Think Tanks and astroturfing campaigns, by offering favors such as cushy jobs after a term in office, and so on.

All of that is to say nothing of the fact that our politicians are themselves members of the richest strata. Today 35% of congresspeople are millionaires (Roll Call, 2015). That proportion grows higher as you reach the pinnacle of power. About 80% of Presidents are or were millionaires ("List of United States Presidents by Net Worth," 2020).

But let's imagine that, through magic, you could "get money out of politics." What then?

Maintaining and growing tax revenues, creating a business climate that retains and attracts capital, preventing unrest due to unemployment or over-exploitation, fostering technological innovation -- these are the objectives of any state. To meet these objectives the state must ensure the smooth operation of capitalism. The state ends up pursuing policies that favor capitalism regardless of its attitude towards capitalists.

Consider a simple example, one you've probably seen in your hometown. The mayor invites in a new business by offering a tax break. Is this mayor corrupt or in even overly sympathetic to business? No. The mayor is just bringing tax revenues and jobs to the town. Everyone wins -- just some a little more than others. I've seen this happen in my hometown with Amazon. Residents of Burlington, Vermont saw it when the "socialist" Bernie Sanders ran for election by criticizing sweetheart deals for property developers. Turns out as mayor he made the same deals himself (Jaffe, 2016).)

At a larger scale there are many examples of impersonal market forces determining politics. Most dramatically, these forces can compel politicians in one ideological camp to adopt policies championed by their ideological rivals. As Britain and the US turned right in the 80s, France turned left and elected its first post-war "Socialist," Francois Mitterrand. Mitterrand increased wages, taxes, and vacation time. The result was capital flight. As one author notes, "unemployment continued to grow and the franc had to be devalued three times; by 1983 the government made a decisive move in the direction of neoliberalism and focused on fighting inflation" (Mattick, 2011, pp. 73-74).1 Thus the "Socialist" joined the ranks of Thatcher and Reagan, not of his own volition, but because of the forces of the market. The same thing happened in the 2000s as the right-wing government of George Bush spearheaded one of the largest state interventions in history in response to the Great Recession (Kliman, 2012, p. 183). At the time state capitalist strongman Hugo Chavez erroneously mocked Bush as a fellow socialist (Reuters, 2008).

One lefty economist succinctly describes this inherent power of capital:

When push comes to shove, businesses exert enormous political influence simply through their investment decisions. Investors and executives can "vote with their wallets" in response to unfavorable political or policy changes -- cutting back investment (in what might be called a "capital strike" by business), and slowing down overall growth. This threat does not require any deliberate, planned "conspiracy." It can merely reflect the combined impact of many individual decisions to shift investment to other jurisdictions (or just hoard money, rather than re-investing it) until more business-friendly conditions emerge. In any event, the economic consequences of DISINVESTMENT are frightening, to both governments and voters. Usually the mere threat of disinvestment is sufficient to shift policy back onto a pro-business track. Really, to forestall this kind of problem, most left-wing political parties today (at least those with any realistic hope of winning an election) go out of their way to pacify businesses ahead of time -- but then, perversely, this ties the hands of progressive governments even before they are elected (Stanford, 2015, p. 272).

The bottom line: capitalism is not controlled by politicians. Rather capitalism controls politicians. This is why, whether we elect right or left politicians, they all seem to end up pursuing the same policies. Is it any surprise that the 2016 US election cycle has focused so little on ideas and so completely on personalities?

I take it, then, that you don't see much point in supporting third parties.

That's right, for the reasons I just said. These parties wouldn't and couldn't deliver on their promises. And I would rather they didn't.

The self-styled radical parties running candidates are grotesque monstrosities. On the one hand you have the parties repacking with a radical label European social democracy. On the other hand you have Stalinist parties that continue to perpetuate the lie that modernizing, state capitalist regimes such as Cuba or Vietnam had and have something to do with marxism and communism. And by calling for weak reforms at home and supporting third world dictatorships in the name of anti-imperialism, the various Trotskyist parties have adopted both of these delusions.

So no, I won't vote for these parties.

Alright. You don't think voting makes things better. But it can't make things worse, surely. So where's the harm in voting? If nothing else you'll even get out of work to do it!

Voting is not harmful because it is useless. Voting is harmful because it is useful -- to the capitalist class.

Here are just some of the ways elections strengthen the capitalist class's ideological and political dominance.

Is it any surprise, then, that the British Prime Minister Gladstone remarked that the great problem of the 19th century was "to get the working class working within the pale of the constitution)?" (Aptheker, 1967, p. 14). A surprise that one hundred years later Hungarian Stalinist Janos Kadar, in the midst of the 1956 uprising against state capitalism, remarked that "workers' power can be killed not only by bullets but by ballots?" (Sebestyen, 2006, pp. 286-287). A surprise that the US state countered the 60s radicalism of blacks and students by lowering the voting age and passing legislation to safeguard the right to vote (Ginsberg, 1986, pp. 16-17)? A surprise that today a billionaire would go to the trouble of taking out a full page ad in the New York Times calling on his fellow plutocrats to protect the right to vote (Froomkin, 2013)?5 A surprise that the more than over 70 companies are volunteering over 250,000 employees to staff polling places, and that another 800 corporations have formed the Time To Vote coalition to ensure that workers have paid time off to cast their ballots (Steele, 2020).

It was for good reason that the Second World Congress of the Communist International thunderously declared: "National defense and democracy -- here are the solemn formulas of the capitulation of the proletariat to the will of the bourgeoisie!"

So are you against democracy in general?

No, and neither am I for it in general. But this a bit tangential, so let's talk about that later (see the postscript below).

Fine. You won't vote. What do you propose to do instead?

Whether you agree or not, I believe capitalism has outlived its usefulness. In the last 500 years capitalism has socialized production; created a working class that comprises most of humanity, and which has no material interest in continuing class society; and increased mankind's productive capacity to the point where there could be material wealth for all. But there isn't. Production for profit is completely out of touch with human needs. In the so-called developing world millions still starve. Even in the capitalist core most are just a layoff away from ruin (70% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings (Williams, 2016)). Meanwhile, factories churn out equally useless dollar store trinkets and billion dollar bombers.

So I believe that communism is possible and necessary. Literally necessary for all life on the planet.

The rub is how we get from here to there. The process begins when the working class discovers its identity as an exploited class. That means we have to break from the illusory community of the capitalist state. Refusing to vote is one part of that.

Now some other self-styled radicals will say that by refusing to vote, we are putting "ideological purity" ahead the well-being of real people. But I would turn the accusation around. They are the selfish ones. I concede that not voting might, in the short term, lead to worse outcomes for many people. But by voting, by satisfying your own selfish desire to feel good about "doing something," you're fucking over the future of the entire world (Monsieur Dupont, 2006).

Postscript: so are you against democracy in general or what?

First, what do you mean by democracy? Do you mean the modern democratic state? I am absolutely against this kind of democracy.

Democracy is inseparable from capitalism. In the capitalist economy, individuals interact as free, equal, and competing possessors of commodities, each seeking to sell. This finds its reflection in the capitalist state, in which individuals interact as equal citizens, each with their own agenda, but each with the same right to vote and to participate in the management of affairs. Yet in both instances the equality is only formal:

The inner untruthfulness of political democracy is not an artful trick invented by deceitful politicians. It is the reflection, hence an instinctive consequence, of the inner contradictions of the capitalist system. Capitalism is based upon the equality of citizens, private owners, free to sell their commodities -- the capitalists sell the products, the workers sell their labor power. By thus acting as free and equal bargainers they find exploitation and class antagonism as the result: the capitalist master and exploiter, the worker actually the slave. Not by violating the principle of juridical equality, but by acting according to it the result is a situation that actually is its violation. ... So it can give no surprise that the same contradiction appears in its political form (Pannekoek, 1946).

Formally, capitalist democracy grants everyone the right to vote and participate. In practice, the participation of the working class is limited by its relative poverty (politics is expensive), by its crushing daily life which leaves no time for politics, by its relative difficulty in obtaining education, by its lack of communications media, and so on (cf. Lenin, the State and Revolution chapter 5, section 2). But because this exclusion is simply the result of real life processes outside the state, the democratic state remains an "illusory community" that unites all people, of all classes, in perfect equality. A society divided into hostile classes is re-unified in the democratic state.

The democratic state, this illusory community, is a great bulwark of capitalist domination. As La Guerre Sociale (1978) wrote, "The dictatorship of capital doesn't lie in the existence of the F.B.I. or the K.G.B. It lies in the attempt to give everyone an illusory power, to make them participate in making decisions which, have already been taken in any case, because they are inscribed in the logic of capital...". But sometimes workers assert their class interests. Before the state resorts to jailing or shooting such workers, it will that appeal to the illusory community. Strikes are banned as threats to the "national interest." "Patriotism" becomes the watchword of the day. "Democratic norms" are stressed.

Thus Marx and Engels (1846) could write that "the illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well."

Now the goal of the communist revolution is not to perfect the shortcomings of capitalist democracy. Far from it. The revolution will be anti-democratic or it will not be. In taking power, in abolishing the their property and prerogatives, the workers will face a reaction whose fury is unknown to history. The working class must cast aside democracy -- the formal right of all to participate in the state. This is a survival measure, first and foremost, but it also reflects a new reality.

After its conquest of power by violence and terror, the proletariat does not need democracy, not because classes disappear from one day to the next, but because there must no longer be any masking or mystification. Dictatorship is required to prevent any return of the opposing class. Moreover, the accession of the proletariat to the State, is its own negation as a class, as well as the negation of the other classes. It is the beginning of the unification of the species, of the formation of the community. To demand democracy would imply the need for conciliation between classes and that would amount to doubting that communism is the solution to all antagonisms, that it is the reconciliation of man with himself (Camatte, 1969).

So the working class does not destroy democracy to aggrandize an individual or party, to torment its rivals, or even simply to survive reaction. It destroys democracy because it is a relic of a time when individuals were divided up into competing, atomized units, united in a state but not in a real community. In forming the real community, in abolishing classes, communism abolishes all states -- democratic or dictatorial.

There are, of course, other definitions of democracy.

What of democracy as a simple means of making a decision? That's fine for some things, like deciding where to go for dinner. But why accord any particular reverence to this method? There are times when a majority will reach an incorrect conclusion. This is especially important to remember when it comes to political action in class society, where the ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. Revolutionaries will always be a minority early on. Only through action will they win the rest of the class to their banner.

How about democracy as a formal system in which a minority agrees to be abide by the decision of a majority. Will this form of democracy flourish in the communist society? Not in the least! What use will we have for this kind of subjugation? Imagine a town where some people want to build a tennis court and others want to build a swimming pool. How to decide? Don't. In communist society, there are resources enough for all endeavors. Let each group pursue its inclinations. If these inclinations happen to clash, come together to discuss and debate. Perhaps an impassioned minority will convince a less enthusiastic but more numerous majority to accede. Perhaps not. Perhaps a vote will be called in some cases. But by and large there will be no need to coordinate divergent interests -- to do politics of any kind.


Footnote 1: Something similar happened under the Popular Front in France in the 1930s. Capital flight forced the leftist government to roll back previous concessions to workers and led to several left-wing governments falling, to be replaced by successively more conservative ones.

Footnote 2: Per Ginsberg (1986, pp. 13-14), it was usually conservative parties representing the aristocracy -- hostile to the bourgeoisie -- that expanded suffrage, since they felt that the proletarian masses would be natural allies. For example, Bismarck introduced universal suffrage in Germany, the conservative Disraeli pushed for greater suffrage than liberals, and in the U.S. the southern Jeffersonians were more favorable to increasing voting than were the northern Federalists. Ginsberg notes that in countries with very strong bourgeoisie, the aristocracy was never able to enfranchise workers (e.g., Netherlands) and suffrage expanded there only very late. However, it's important to note that democracy is not inherently dangerous for the bourgeoisie. Ginsberg writes that "after the enfranchisement of the working classes, of course, the bourgeoisie learned that their superior economic and institutional resources generally permitted them to dominate electoral and parliamentary processes despite their relatively small numbers."

Footnote 3: This book contains an entire section of Roosevelt quotes on class conflict. He consistently argues that capitalist democracy must annihilate class consciousness.

Footnote 4: Ginsberg (1986, pp. 24-30) details how the masses who had previously feared and hated the state come to see it as their servant. This development in turn strengthened the state such that it can now effectively disregard the wishes of citizens.

Footnote 5: Ginsberg (1986) argues that despite fears to the contrary the capitalist state is dedicated to making voting as easy and widespread as possible. As of the book's writing, the US state spent a billion dollars a year promoting voting.


An illustration of a a ballot dropping
into a ballot box; the ballot reads legitimacy and the box says
Capital's Dictatorship.
"Bourgeois electoral democracy seeks the consultation of the masses, for it knows that the response of the majority will always be favourable to the privileged class and will readily delegate to that class the right to govern and to perpetuate exploitation." - Amadeo Bordiga, Party and Class