Voting: not just pointless, but harmful!
"People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises." - Vladimir Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism
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. It was written in fall 2016.
Why don't you vote?
It's a practical matter, and not just one of principle. After all, as Lenin said, all that matters in politics is expediency. 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.
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 past oppressed classes haphazardly aspired to it).
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 will lead to a society without classes, property, production for profit, or the state -- communism.
The point is, I believe that a radically different world is possible and necessary. If I didn't, I'd probably 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 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.
- When Bush left office in 2009 the United States had military forces in about 60 countries. Obama brought that number up to 75 in just two years. By 2015 that number reached 135 (1). Under Bush the US attacked four countries. Under Obama the US attacked seven countries. The most the US spent on the military during Bush's presidency was 696 billion dollars in 2008. Under Obama defense spending reached 721 billion dollars in 2010. Defense spending has since gone down marginally, but not enough to bring it back down to the levels seen during the Bush administration (2)!
- Economic inequality has increased since Obama took office. In 2001 the poorest 50% of Americans owned 2.8% of the country's net worth, while the richest 1% owned 33.4% of the country's net worth. By 2013 the poorest 50% saw their share of the country's net worth drop to just 1.05%, while the richest 1% saw their share increase to 36.6% (3). Similarly, under Obama the ratio of the average CEO's salary to the average worker's pay reached a record 373 to 1 (4).
- Massive government surveillance has not stopped, despite its shocking depth and breadth becoming public knowledge during Obama's tenure. Obama even signed extensions to the so-called Patriot Act.
And so on.
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 (5). That proportion grows higher as you reach the pinnacle of power. 80% of Presidents are or were millionaires (6).
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 courts a new business to town by offering a tax break. Is this corruption or deference to corporations on the mayor's part? 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 (7).)
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" (8). 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 (9). At the time state capitalist strongman Hugo Chavez erroneously mocked Bush as a fellow socialist (10).
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 (11).
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 (e.g., the Socialist Party USA). On the other hand you have those 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 (e.g., the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Socialist Workers Party, Workers World Party). 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.
- Voting limits the working class's options for political action. How many times have you heard some variant of "if you don't vote, you can't complain" -- meaning that the vote is the beginning and the end of political activity. Yet in the 18th and 19th century, the vote was limited. (It was often extended to the working class by the aristocracy, who hoped to find an ally in its fight against the rising bourgeoisie (12).) This was no impediment to political action. Far from it. Without the vote workers had to take politics into their own hands. They assembled, they rioted, and sometimes they even launched desperate attacks on the state. Today, long tutored in the supposed importance and value of voting, workers patiently and peacefully await the appointed opportunity to pick one of the two candidates the capitalist class has selected (13).
- Voting breaks the working class down into a mass of atomized individuals. The state is perceived as a community of equals -- one citizen, one vote -- with all the same rights and responsibilities. This illusory community, the nation, obscures the reality that society is divided into antagonistic classes. Every vote is a vote for nationalism, for class compromise, for mystification of our exploitation and oppression. As Teddy Roosevelt said: "One of the most important lessons to be taught and to be learned is that a man should vote, not as a representative of a class, but merely as a good citizen, whose prime interests are the same as those of all other good citizens" (14).
- Voting makes us feel as if the state "represents us." The more we imagine the state acts in our interests, the freer, the more enabled, the state is to pursue its own agenda. The state goes unchallenged. This leads to a situation the political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg calls "the captive public" (15).
- Voting encourages workers to look beyond themselves for aid, to delegate responsibility to others. There was a time when men hoped gods would come down and provide for them. Now, in our infinitely more enlightened age, we pin our hopes on politicians. To quote the song of the workers' movement, the Internationale: "There are no supreme saviours / Neither God, nor Caesar, nor tribune. / Producers, let us save ourselves."
- Voting encourages the idea that the state is reducible to a handful of individuals up for election, when in reality the state consists of millions of functionaries and millions of armed men (16). The state is a massive entity. Voting obscures the continuity that exists between elections. This encourages the idea that everything could be different if another party were to come to power. Elections are thus a chance for the state to wipe off its bloody hands ... so that it can bloody them anew.
- Voting encourages the idea that the state is the master of society, that capitalism is an economic system subject to human control. Voting encourages the delusion that "the economic laws of society are controlled by oratorical battles" (17).
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 (18)?" 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 (19)?" 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 (20)? 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 (21)?
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, but neither am I for it in general. Voting can be useful for making decisions, but nothing about voting ensures reaching a correct decision. This is especially true in class society. The capitalist class's tremendous propaganda power ensures that its ideas dominate. Given this, respecting "democracy" or "the will of the people" usually means binding workers to some consensus that favors the capitalists. To hell with that!
Fine. You won't vote. What do you propose to do instead?
Capitalism has outlived its usefulness. In the last 500 years capitalism has socialized production, created a working class that comprises most of humanity, 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 (22)). Meanwhile, factories churn out dollar store trinkets and billion dollar fighter jets.
The future of humanity depends on the communist revolution. I don't know how, or even if, we'll get from here to there. But one thing's clear to me: voting in capitalist elections can only be a barrier.
1. Turse, N. (2015, September 24). U.S. Special Ops Forces Deployed in 135 Nations. Retrieved October 2016, 11, from link.
2. Military budget of the United States. (n.d.). Retrieved October 11, 2016, from link.
3. Baum, R. (2016, February 26). During Obama's Presidency Wealth Inequality has Increased and Poverty Levels are Higher. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from link.
4. Bedard, P. (2015, July 23). Wage gap hits record 373-to-1, Obama efforts to curb 'minimal' Retrieved October 11, 2016, from link.
5. Roll Call. (2015, November 2). Wealth of Congress Index. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from link.
6. List of United States Presidents by net worth. (n.d.). Retrieved October 11, 2016, from link. 34 of 43 (80%) of Presidents were or are millionaires when their estimated net worth is adjusted to 2010 dollars.
7. Jaffe, H. (2016, January 16). Bernie Sanders is no socialist: Socialism is his brand, but he's a Democrat in every way but name. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from link.
8. Mattick, Paul. Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism. London: Reaktion, 2011. Pages 72-73. 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.
9. Kliman, A. (2012). The failure of capitalist production: Underlying causes of the Great Recession. London: Pluto Press. Page 183.
10. Chavez says "Comrade Bush" turns left in crisis. (2008, October 15). Retrieved October 11, 2016, from link.
11. Stanford, J. (2015). Economics for everyone: A short guide to the economics of capitalism (Second ed.). London: Pluto Press. Page 272.
12. Ginsberg, B. (1986). The captive public: How mass opinion promotes state power. New York: Basic Books. Pages 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."
13. Ginsberg, B. (1986). The captive public: How mass opinion promotes state power. New York: Basic Books. Pages 54-57.
14. Roosevelt, T., & O'Toole, P. (2012). In the words of Theodore Roosevelt: Quotations from the man in the arena. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Page 67. This book contains an entire section of Roosevelt quotes on class conflict. He consistently argues that capitalist democracy must annihilate class consciousness.
15. Ginsberg, B. (1986). The captive public: How mass opinion promotes state power. See pages 24-30, which detail 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.
16. United States federal executive departments. (n.d.). Retrieved October 11, 2016, from link. The US executive branch employs 3 million soldiers and 1.2 million functionaries.
17. T., W. (1935, October). "Revolutionary Parliamentarism". International Council Correspondence, 1(12).
18. Aptheker, H. (1967). The nature of democracy, freedom, and revolution. New York: International. Page 14.
19. Sebestyen, V. (2006). Twelve days: The story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. New York: Pantheon Books. Pages 278-279.
20. Ginsberg, B. (1986). The captive public: How mass opinion promotes state power. Pages 16-17.
21. Froomkin, D. (2013, October 19). Billionaire William Louis-Dreyfus Calls On Fellow Rich To Battle Voter Suppression. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from link. Ginsberg, cited above, argues that despite fears to the contrary the bourgeois 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.
22. Williams, S. (2016, October 9). Nearly 7 in 10 Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from link.