The Limits of Electoral politics : Ken Knabb
THE LIMITS OF ELECTORAL POLITICS
Roughly speaking we can distinguish five degrees of "government":
(1) Unrestricted freedom
(2) Direct democracy
(3) Delegate democracy
(4) Representative democracy
(5) Overt minority dictatorship
The present society oscillates between (4) and (5), i.e. between overt
minority rule and covert minority rule camouflaged by a facade of token
democracy. A liberated society would eliminate (4) and (5) and would
progressively reduce the need for (2) and (3). . . .
In representative democracy people abdicate their power to elected
officials. The candidates' stated policies are limited to a few vague
generalities, and once they are elected there is little control over their
actual decisions on hundreds of issues -- apart from the feeble threat of
changing one's vote, a few years later, to some equally uncontrollable rival
politician. Representatives are dependent on the wealthy for bribes and
campaign contributions; they are subordinate to the owners of the mass
media, who decide which issues get the publicity; and they are almost as
ignorant and powerless as the general public regarding many important
matters that are determined by unelected bureaucrats and independent secret
agencies. Overt dictators may sometimes be overthrown, but the real rulers
in "democratic" regimes, the tiny minority who own or control virtually
everything, are never voted in and never voted out. Most people don't even
know who they are. . . .
In itself, voting is of no great significance one way or the other (those
who make a big deal about refusing to vote are only revealing their own
fetishism). The problem is that it tends to lull people into relying on
others to act for them, distracting them from more significant
possibilities. A few people who take some creative initiative (think of the
first civil rights sit-ins) may ultimately have a far greater effect than if
they had put their energy into campaigning for lesser-evil politicians. At
best, legislators rarely do more than what they have been forced to do by
popular movements. A conservative regime under pressure from independent
radical movements often concedes more than a liberal regime that knows it
can count on radical support. (The Vietnam war, for example, was not ended
by electing antiwar politicians, but because there was so much pressure from
so many different directions that the prowar president Nixon was forced to
withdraw.) If people invariably rally to lesser evils, all the rulers have
to do in any situation that threatens their power is to conjure up a threat
of some greater evil.
Even in the rare case when a "radical" politician has a realistic chance of
winning an election, all the tedious campaign efforts of thousands of people
may go down the drain in one day because of some trivial scandal discovered
in his (or her) personal life, or because he inadvertently says something
intelligent. If he manages to avoid these pitfalls and it looks like he
might win, he tends to evade controversial issues for fear of antagonizing
swing voters. If he actually gets elected he is almost never in a position
to implement the reforms he has promised, except perhaps after years of
wheeling and dealing with his new colleagues; which gives him a good excuse
to see his first priority as making whatever compromises are necessary to
keep himself in office indefinitely. Hobnobbing with the rich and powerful,
he develops new interests and new tastes, which he justifies by telling
himself that he deserves a few perks after all his years of working for good
causes. Worst of all, if he does eventually manage to get a few
"progressive" measures passed, this exceptional and usually trivial success
is held up as evidence of the value of relying on electoral politics, luring
many more people into wasting their energy on similar campaigns to come.
As one of the May 1968 graffiti put it, "It's painful to submit to our
bosses; it's even more stupid to choose them!"
--Excerpts from Ken Knabb's "The Joy of Revolution."
The complete text is online at http://www.bopsecrets.org/PS/joyrev.htm
* * *
My intention in circulating these observations is not to discourage you from
voting or campaigning, but to encourage you to go further.
Like many other people, I am delighted to see the Republicans collapsing
into well-deserved ignominy, with the likelihood of the Democrats
recapturing the presidency and increasing their majorities in Congress.
Hopefully the latter will discontinue or at least mitigate some of the more
insane policies of the current administration (some of which, such as
climate change and ecological devastation, threaten to become irreversible).
Beyond that, I do not expect the Democratic politicians to accomplish
anything very significant. Most of them are just as corrupt and compromised
as the Republicans. Even if a few of them are honest and well-intentioned,
they are all loyal servants of the ruling economic system, and they all
ultimately function as cogwheels in the murderous political machine that
serves to defend that system.
I have considerable respect and sympathy for the people who are
campaigning for the Democratic Party while simultaneously trying to
reinvigorate it and democratize it. There are elements of a real grassroots
movement there, developing in tandem with the remarkable growth of the
liberal-radical blogosphere over the last few years.
But imagine if that same immense amount of energy on the part of millions
of people was put into more directly radical agitation, rather than (or in
addition to) campaigning for rival millionaires. As a side effect, such
agitation would put the reactionaries on the defensive and actually result
in more "progressives" being elected. But more importantly, it would shift
both the momentum and the terrain of the struggle.
If you put all your energy into trying to reassure swing voters that your
candidate is "fully committed to fighting the War on Terror" but that he has
regretfully concluded that we should withdraw from Iraq because "our efforts
to promote democracy" there haven't been working, you may win a few votes
but you have accomplished nothing in the way of political awareness.
In contrast, if you convince people that the war in Iraq is both evil and
stupid, they will not only tend to vote for antiwar candidates, they are
likely to start questioning other aspects of the social system. Which may
lead to them to challenge that system in more concrete and participatory
(If you want some examples, look at the rich variety of tactics used in
France two years ago -- http://www.bopsecrets.org/recent/france2006.htm .)
The side that takes the initiative usually wins because it defines the terms
of the struggle. If we accept the system's own terms and confine ourselves
to defensively reacting to each new mess produced by it, we will never
overcome it. We have to keep resisting particular evils, but we also have to
recognize that the system will keep generating new ones until we put an end
By all means vote if you feel like it. But don't stop there. Real social
change requires participation, not representation.
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