To defend the franchise?

To defend the franchise?

Many people with anti-state and anti-electoral views will nevertheless organize around the defense of social programs when they are under attack. Should the same orientation hold for the right to vote?

I usually find it pretty easy to avoid electoral politics in everyday life and in organizing. Yet every four years the pointless pageant of the U.S. electoral cycle fills the airwaves, blanketing meaningless slogans across the landscape, and threatening bitter estrangement from even my closest of liberal friends. As always, this year we get another dose of pathetic 'lesser-evillism' (vote Obama without illusions!) because, you know, this election is the most important one ever. And every cycle so much of the energy that we've helped build in our workplaces and communities gets sapped away into this yawning abyss.

Anyone familiar with American elections knows how trivial the whole extravaganza is. There is a very narrow political spectrum (always safe for capital and its state) open for debate. The real battle takes place in tightly choreographed stagecraft, poll-tested soundbytes and the carrot-and-stick demagoguery of two big party apparatuses. Within the Democratic party, the purest of pathos is reserved for the so-called 'progressive wing', which stalks sadly around the seat of power, at once courted and also reviled by the party establishment. It is from these beautiful souls that we get the brunt of the lesser evil pragmatism. It is also from these progressives that we get the most ardent and deluded defenses of an irrational political and economic system that becomes more destructive every day.

Since the results of U.S. elections hinge so greatly upon voter turnout - this is partly, of course, because only about 50% of eligible voters even bother with the damn thing - both parties use various legislative, financial and organizational means to fully tap their base and undermine that of the other. In a race where two candidates like Romney and Obama hold so much in common, a bare percentage point in a key swing state from a vote eliminated or coerced away can mean the difference between victory or defeat. An extra $10 million dollars from a casino tycoon in Nevada could possibly do the trick as well.

It is no surprise, then, that the chief defenders of the purity of bourgeois democracy, the progressives, are very alarmed about the state of the franchise in the current election. They can point to several recent developments in U.S. electoral law:

1) The Citizen's United v. Federal Election Commision ruling prohibited the restriction of donations by corporations and the unions. Since the latter is small and shrinking and the former is in the driver's seat, it's clearly a corporate money advantage. Citizens United also lifted a ban on corporate political advocacy in the workplace. The effects of this have been dramatic, as at least three incidents have occurred where workers were directly solicited by their bosses with political messages.

2) Various states have implemented new voter ID laws, the burdens of which fall mostly on poor Americans more likely to vote for Democrats. These laws are currently wending their way through the court system and causing a lot of confusion about how much these restrictions apply in this election. Nevertheless, there is great fear about how this will affect voter turnout on November 6th.

3) California has a proposition on the ballot that would ban political spending from paycheck deductions. This would land almost completely on business unions. This would threaten their mutually self-destructive relationship with the Democratic party because that unholy alliance relies on workers' dues being passed, without question or accountability, to the coffers of liberal politicians.

The combination of these three electoral shifts are, indeed, frightening for the liberal class as it undermines their messaging, funding, turnout and the energy of their political base. It arguably gives strength to the right wing of capital in an crisis period where attacks on the working class are rampant.

So the question that arises is: should we - libertarian communists, anarcho-syndicalists and the rest of the anti-capitalist milieu - seek to defend the franchise?

I find this to be a complex question because of the role that suffrage has played in past working class struggles. On the one hand, I think it has been shown that, in the words of the famous U.S. labor historian Herbert Gutman, "the ballot box was the coffin of class consciousness" in the 19th century. A modern day example of this same effect would be the spectacular recuperation of the uprising in Wisconsin last year. I don't think I need to preach to the choir on the limits of electoralism on this site.

On the other hand, we have seen numerous examples where the struggle for suffrage overflowed its narrow bounds or combined with other more radical currents - in the Chartist Movement of 19th century Britain, in the overlap between the labor movement and the suffragette movement in the early-20th century U.S., and later on the great Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that held the vote high on its banner, but gave strength to many radical struggles in its wake.

In some ways, the issue today is analogous to the ways in which many of us would agitate and organize around other state-centric issues like cuts to public education, health care and public transportation. In defense of these past gains, many hope to open a broader debate and help organize as a class. Similar demands are put upon the state when we fight to retain some semblance of the rights to protest, unionize, strike and utilize public space.

Is there something fundamentally different, tactically or logically, about organizing around the franchise? Have we moved on from a historical point where suffrage can be rallying point around which diverse peoples can come together around something more meaningful than the vote? Is bourgeois democracy so bankrupt and bloodstained that to enter this arena would entail sullying our pure anarchist hands? If more people were to gain the vote, could anything positive come of it?

These are only some of the questions that arise from this, I'm sure there are plenty more. To be honest, I've been grappling with this question as electoral season moves forward. I would hate for my aversion to a particular form of politics to become a knee-jerk reaction or some dogma that keeps me from recognizing opportunities to organize with others. At the same time, I think history has proven well that there is no electoral road to working class emancipation, in the U.S. or elsewhere. So, at the most, latching onto a suffrage campaign would seem to me like some sort of opportunistic pandering.

One thing that I'm sure of is that I would not lament the passage of laws like Prop 32 in California.

There are some out on the left that still think the business unions in the AFL-CIO can be reformed or that their money provides a necessary balance to corporate power. All I know is that when I first joined my union a few years ago, the AFL-CIO sent me a big package in the mail with a financial disclosure. This included their budget for the year in a huge binder. In the index I saw a line for "Solidarity Fund" and instantly became intrigued. Was this money for strike funds? For organization drives? For solidarity with other unions?

Nah, it was for millions of dollars in campaign contributions to the Democratic party. Solidarity?!? Every time I see the dues checkoff taken from my paycheck I think of the money that goes off to those scum. (Not to mention undermining workers struggles and working with the CIA in Latin America, India and elsewhere). I don't even mind that conservatives feel the same way about this. Good riddance!

Anyways, one of the nice things about writing in a blog format is that you're excused from the obligation to dot all your p's and q's. For this reason, I'm content to leave these questions hanging out there and see if other people want to have a discussion about it.

Posted By

Oct 19 2012 09:25


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Oct 19 2012 16:47

This is an intriguing blog piece. I have been having these kind of thoughts and questions myself. Two things seem important.
1 There is a difference between defending a ruiht, and exercising that right. Example: Nobody will deny me the right to marry just because I am gay. I defend same-sex marriage as a right, without wanting to marry. If there is to be marriage, nobody should be excluded on the basis of their sexual orientation. Just like nobody should be exluded from the franchise because the colour of their skin. So yes, I defend the right to vote, without seeing the point to vote myself.

2 The clash between bourgeois pretences and bourgeois reality sometimes can be quite a mobilizing force. The Iranian state orranizing elections in 2009, pretending democracy and then iposing their own preferred candidate against the expessed wishes of an apaparent majoriy of voters through fraud led to millions protesting on the streets.I would say: if there is to be a vote, people are entirely justified in demanding that the state respects the outcome of the vote m When George Bush stole the White House in 2000 through dodgy ballots, blocking vote recounts and the Supreme Court interference, people protested on the street.

I think libertarian communists should be part of such protests, not because we are interested in the candidates but because in an idirect way, people express a desire for more freedom and outrage against political oppression. It is a form of opening-up of minds, and may lead to a broader expression of disontent as people start making connections. We should be part of the cry against unfreedom, and we should contriuter to thast connection-making process. We dont's support candidates. But we DO sometimes stand on the same side with people who do.

Oct 19 2012 18:46

Interesting piece. I guess any efforts at trimming back or blocking "democratic rights" can be a the sense of the State and its allies are really further enhancing its own power and abilities. While these sorts of things don't advance social revolution, they probably moderately---and very moderately at that---semi-keep in check those wanting to further control the mass of society. I'm not sure I would jump on any bandwagons, but I would support things along voting or mainstream lines, prolly more out of principle and more to say to the next person: {there's got to be
a better way" an attempt to open the door to other more radical conversations.

Oct 20 2012 01:04

woops, screwed up my post. It was 3 paragraphs long too, shit.

Basically, I don't think we should care all that much. Our democracy is as democratic as any other, in that it's not at all. I think we should just ignore all these right wing attacks on universal suffrage, impartiality, anti-corruption, etc. We need a working class mass movement, not a bunch of people talking about needing to restore the TRUE DEMOCRACY that got Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton elected.