Every four years, Americans are subjected to a painfully long election cycle. It is January of a presidential election year, and that means that we can anticipate another ten months of mainstream media coverage that manages to simultaneously overwhelm us with its volume and leave us with no novel or useful information (did you know, for example, that Dr. Ben Carson was a rageful and violent nerd growing up in Detroit? Or that Donald Trump is a shameless blowhard whose racist, classist, and sexist rhetoric appeals to a sizeable group of racists, classists, and sexists?). My boss loves to play CNN in the office as background noise, but my proximity to the television means that I know a lot more about Martin O’Malley and Carly Fiorina than I ever needed to.
Inherent in the decision to enact non-stop coverage is an assumption that all of this election stuff really matters, that who you support and ultimately vote for can have a tangible effect on the lives of millions of people. We are taught from a young age that our right to vote is a tremendously precious one, and further that failure to participate in the election process is a failure of civic duty. We are Americans, god dammit, and it is our responsibility to uphold justice and liberty and democracy through our voting process.
From a pragmatic standpoint, there is actually some truth to this idea. It is, from a purely practical point of view, smart to vote for the lesser of two evils. Hillary Clinton is less likely to impose anti-Muslim immigration reforms than is Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders is considerably less scary and objectionable than are the cackling hyenas who comprise the Republican field.
In the IWW, though, we can’t only think in terms of pragmatism and practicality. We are a revolutionary anti-capitalist union, and it can be convincingly argued that active participation in electoral politics is not only counterproductive for our organizational goals, but counter-revolutionary. After all, no major party candidate will ever advocate for the dissolution of our capitalist economy and the establishment of a worker run society. Voting third party in a presidential race may be more morally justifiable, but barring tremendous social and political upheaval, a third party candidate will never take the White House.
So what do we do then? Do we vote as a practical measure to prevent things from getting worse, or do we refuse to vote because it ultimately represents capitulation to the status quo? I sent this prompt out to a number of Wobblies- Is participation in elections (national, state, and local) ultimately a capitulation to a system that actively works against working people? Or is it a pragmatic tactic to ensure that those in power are as minimally objectionable as possible? What bearing does this have on the IWW? How should we talk to people we are organizing about voting? A few notes:
- I have changed the names of the FWs for the sake of anonymity.
- I have edited the responses for style and grammar, but have not changed any of content.
- This article is not intended to portray any official IWW stance on voting, nor is it intended to encourage the establishment of such a stance. Rather, it is meant to begin conversation on an important subject that will only become more relevant in the coming months.
- The opinions and political stances of the FWs below are theirs alone.
In my own personal philosophy of anarchism, I believe that, in general, voting is a waste. That being said, I have voted in national elections several times when I thought something very bad would happen if the Republican candidate were to win office. Maybe it truly doesn’t matter? They’re all generally alike. I’m not sure. Voting in federal elections may not matter at all anyway because once someone holds office it doesn’t mean they actually have any power. They are still controlled by the military-industrial complex and the capitalist system.
The reason I don’t vote in local elections, however, is due to a lack of faith in the entire system. I don’t believe in reform. I don’t trust the government to create any positive change that’s good enough for the people. I don’t want to participate in an election when the results just mean more of the same. Maybe voting isn’t so bad sometimes, but I think the more you start to participate in electoral politics, the more you risk falling victim to the false belief that things will change if we only get the right people in office. That seems counter-productive. It’s also a belief that most of our coworkers have, and I believe only education can really solve this issue. People just don’t know the truth–at least our truth–about capitalism and true democracy… the list goes on…
I studied public policy in school and was on track to participate in local and state politics to try and influence social change, specifically in public schools. I abandoned that pursuit because I didn’t want to be a part of our political system. I didn’t want to work in a field dependent on electoral and general politics. Trying to do research and write reports that politicians may or may not even read, let alone consider, seemed like a huge waste of time. I felt my time and resources would be used better elsewhere. If voting took up a large amount of my time, there is no way I would ever participate. I came to believe that the power of the working class could change the system; that we should be organizing the working class and promoting class struggle, because class effects absolutely everyone, and most people are workers.
Now, when you think about it, the Social Justice Education Movement is working within the system. For them, there seems to be no way out in order to win battles for workers and students alike. Attending school board meetings and organizing around issues not directly related to working class solidarity is a different approach than what I’ve seen most campaigns do in the IWW. However, they aren’t pulling for any specific people to be elected to the school board or engaging in political action that requires voting.
I see voting as a primarily defensive act. Sure, there are benefits to preventing the obviously harmful candidates from obtaining public office. But I don’t see any productive outcomes from voting. Our political system is set up in such a way that even if a candidate truly set out to enact drastic reforms of the Capitalist system, they would be prevented from doing so through perfectly legal and “democratic” means. That’s why I think in the end, the best defense is a good offense.
The danger in accepting the “least awful capitalist” is the potential for increased apathy. People see a politician doing all of these “progressive” or even “radical” things and think, “Yea, maybe just a few more years of X politician or X party, and things will really start to turn around.” But guess what: That’s what we’ve been saying since the bourgeois revolutions dumped the monarchies in favor of “democracies” run by a slightly larger body of the ruling class.
Listen, Wobblies can and should vote as little or as much as they want. I usually go to my polling station, grab a ballot, and drop it in the box without even looking at a pen. No matter what the outcome, the IWW’s mission and tactics remain the same: the revolution of the working class against Capitalism through direct action and industrial control.
When I talk to my coworkers about voting, I treat it as any other conversation. Above all, it is important to give your honest opinions to anyone you are seeking to organize in order to build trust and accountability. If they want to vote, I generally encourage them to do so, while also explaining my issues with voting. If people are going to vote, I’d rather them be an informed and critical voter than one who is just a step (or less) away from drinking the Kool-Aid.
I love telling people that I’m not going to vote in the next election. Watching their eyes double in size, listening to the stammered phrases of anger and disbelief. Then I explain to them why, and often they think for a while and then say “Oh, yea, I guess that makes sense…”
I’m openly hostile to electoralism. To vote in a representative “democracy” is to give away power. Our power lies in our numbers, solidarity and direct action. Voting as a way to pursue a progressive agenda is the strategy of social democrats and liberals. But, I don’t try to stop people from going out to vote, I mostly try to convince them that we must do much more. Arguments can be made that voting could improve some things here and there within the capitalist system, but it’s not a strategy for building mass movements capable of carrying out social revolution.
My thoughts are that the discussion is vital and needs to be had, and be had in ways that move away from what I think of as posturing. Yes, representative government is bad; no it cannot be a tool in our revolutionary toolbox (it will destroy us if we try, by transforming us into what we loathe). But simply shouting “I don’t vote” and getting claps on the back from fellow radicals is not enough. There are good moral reasons for avoiding voting – including the sense that participation in the system affects a person’s moral fiber, as well as registering you for jury service, to determine a fellow worker’s potential freedom or liberty. There are good strategic reasons for not relying on voting – it cannot actually progress our agenda. But many of the arguments I hear are silly – it takes too much time (really? unless you’re campaigning, it doesn’t), that it’s completely rigged (a conspiratorial perspective that collapses the ways in which the system is genuinely rigged with a fantasy about a cabal of people manipulating the vote; the vote is rigged far before anyone gets into a booth), etc. I think we need to discuss ways to move people from relying on representative structures of decision-making to reliance on ourselves and each other. But lecturing people about voting with poor and transparent arguments are not useful.
I always vote. I think I have only missed one election, both state and national, since 1966. I missed one because I was too sick to go. The pervasive cultural indoctrination of the 50’s and 60’s probably has something to do with my participation. I view it as a pragmatic tactic, I guess. When possible, I vote for communists or socialists of any stripe, hoping that my vote shows up in a chart somewhere and registers as a vote against the norm. Pretty pathetic. I don’t think I have ever tried to get a worker to vote.
There is not a clear answer to the dilemma of voting. To some, it will always seem at best a waste of time and at worst a capitulation to the capitalist state. To others, it is a sound defensive tactic whose utility is increased because our ability to go on the offensive is curtailed by our small numbers and relative obscurity. One thing I think we can all agree upon is that this is an important issue that’s worth discussing at length. As FW Brett mentioned, “simply shouting ‘I don’t vote’ and getting claps on the back from fellow radicals is not enough.” We need to talk about voting and electoralism amongst ourselves so that we are prepared to talk about it with our decidedly less radicalized coworkers. When the dominant narrative says that voting is important and everyone should do it, anti-capitalist revolutionaries like Wobblies should have thoughtful, well considered responses to challenge it.
I encourage Wobblies and fellow radicals to consider the issue of voting and respond with thoughts and ideas. Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org!