A few thoughts on the recent elections and the latest instalment of the age-old voting/not-voting debate (note: this is written as a response to the voting/not-voting debate in general, but in particular these two articles from the CWO on not voting and anarcho-Corbynism. Also, this focuses a lot more on the arguments that got made for not voting – the smug sanctimonious liberal arguments about why everyone has to vote are still wrong as well, but they’re wrong in the same ways they’ve always been, and I couldn’t think of much interesting to say about them this time round.)
Personally, I spoiled my ballot, partly because of my MP’s record, and also because I (correctly) guessed that there was no chance of the tories winning where I lived. If I lived somewhere else, I might have done differently; certainly, if I lived in, say, Hastings, and I’d abstained, I’d probably be regretting it now.
I suppose this is a stance that might prove unpopular with both sides of the argument: for sanctimonious liberals, the fact that I didn’t vote means that I’m personally responsible for everything the Tories/DUP do from now on, no matter how comfortably Labour won in my seat; and for purist communists, the fact that I can imagine conditions under which I would vote Labour means that I’ve abandoned all principles and am helping to bind workers to the hope of reforming capitalism.
Generally speaking, I think arguments against voting (and probably ones for it, for that matter), can be broadly classified as “hard” principled ones and “soft” pragmatic ones. “Hard” principled arguments, that voting goes against anarchist/communist ideals, are fine as far as they go, and tend to be pretty consistent, but they’re also not that likely to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with them; softer pragmatic arguments might be more convincing – they’re certainly the ones I’ve concentrated most on making in the past – but the other side of that is that they need to respond to specific circumstances more. Our principles might be the same as they were in 2015, 2010 or 1917 for that matter, but that doesn’t mean the situation we’re trying to apply them in is.
If I wanted to sound like a Marxist, I suppose I’d say that the point is to defetishise voting, not to fetishise not voting; or, in less jargony terms, I suppose the point is to not make a big deal out of voting and stop treating it as if it were some super-effective magic spell, not to make a big deal out of not voting and treat abstention as if it were some super-effective magic spell.
Generally speaking, people aren’t going to do a thing or not do a thing because of what I tell them, and, of the limited energy I have for trying to persuade people to not do things, there are many, many things that are more important to argue about than voting. Thou shalt not cross picket lines, thou shalt not grass people up, thou shalt not sanction people’s benefits, thou shalt not co-operate with the Home Office’s attempt to make everyone in the country into a border guard, thou shalt not do anything to help out bailiffs or debt collectors – all of those are much more important principles to maintain. In comparison, voting seems like a much less serious breach, the sort of thing that’s easily sorted out with a few Hail Bakunins.
When it comes to making arguments that actually address our current situation, I think it’s important for those on both sides of the argument to bear in mind that “the Labour Party” isn’t a thing, it’s a name that refers to, at the very least, four different things. There’s 1) the leadership, 2) the Parliamentary Party, 3) the local councillors who, unlike the MPs, are actually able to make decisions at a local level, and 4) the base – which can then be broken down further into members, people who fancy paying three quid or twenty quid or whatever to vote in internal elections, members of unions that are affiliated to the party, people who don’t fall into any of those categories but went out volunteering for them in this election, people who voted for them, people who post stuff about Corbyn being good on social media, people who like said stuff when other people post it, and so on.
This is important, because I think arguments against Labour tend to focus on levels 2 and 3 – and the past, pre-2015 actions of level 1 – and arguments for Labour tend to focus on the current state of level 1 and level 4, and so a certain amount of people talking past each other tends to go on. An argument that can actually respond to reality needs to be able to deal with the fact that all four exist, however contradictory they may be.
Ultimately, none of these arguments are true or false in a vacuum; anarchist and ultra-left ideas are the product of certain historical experiences, and I remain broadly convinced that they’re the right lessons to take from those experiences, but I can see why ideas taken from the experience of 1917, or 1937, or even the 1970s, might not sound that convincing to people who haven’t lived through those experiences. It is true that Labour and other social democratic parties have often been a obstacle to workers in struggle, a limit which it’s been necessary to break or else fail; but it’s also true that most of the time, most of us aren’t part of any struggle that comes anywhere near those limits, especially not since 2010. I can see how, in Durham or those areas of London that have seen real fights over social housing stock, it’d be possible to make a really convincing argument against the Labour party that doesn’t rely on abstract principles at all; but for those of us outside those areas, the arguments are inevitably going to sound a bit more abstract.
For those reasons, I think the most useful thing we can do is to try and develop situations to a point where it’s necessary to confront Labourism as a limitation. Outside of those situations, there is a certain sense in which we are all Corbynists now, no matter how reluctant, anarcho or ultra-left we may be: when watching the news as isolated individuals, of course we tend to root for the goodies, because what else can we do? Besides, the actual practical difference between an isolated individual who votes Labour and one who abstains out of principle is pretty neglible. It’s only when we start to form communities of struggle that anarchist or ultra-left ideas can have any real meaning.
It’s on this point – how we get from here to there – that I’ve found some recent articles, particularly those from the ICT/CWO, really lacking.
In “Don’t Vote, Prepare the Resistance”, we’re told that what we need “…begins in the everyday resistance to increased exploitation, to worsening living conditions. It develops via the solidarity of workers in one struggle with workers in other struggles, and it culminates in the setting up of workers’ councils.” Which sounds grand, except that the only practical example they give of what that looks like is from 1917.
Similarly, the article on “Anarcho-Corbynism” advises “the desire to play some sort of a role within the movements which attract significant working class support and channel the very real discontent which the trajectory of the capitalist crisis is brewing is one we can identify with. However, that participation, that intervention, can only be within precise limits which concede nothing to the snares and illusions hiding behind sugared phrases and “old men bearing gifts”.
For revolutionaries, withdrawal into isolated theoretical work (if that) is no solution. The point however, is not to commit political suicide, kneeling before the five-minute fashions and the momentarily popular, but to find ways to intervene as revolutionaries, defending revolutionary perspectives, on the difficult terrain which is presented to us by capitalism’s trajectory.”
Again, this sounds lovely, but it would be nice to have some kind of an idea as to what this looks like – what exactly are these precise limits? What does it actually mean to intervene as a revolutionary? Things like the Picturehouse dispute, the Durham TAs, the current wave of cleaners’ struggles taking place through grassroots unions or the organising efforts at Deliveroo – are these things trapped in the capitalist prison of the reformist labour movement, and if so, what would them not being trapped in a capitalist prison look like?
Certainly, things are rough at the moment, we’re a long way from where we’d like to be, and it would be delusional to think that we can change that through a sheer act of will. But at the same time, if we don’t have some kind of strategic idea as to what our medium term goals look like, and what we can practically do here and now to move us closer to the situation we’d like to see… if the most practical thing we have to offer is “form workers’ councils”, then the liberals are right, and we really are just passive quietists.