Elaborations on Anarchism


January 18, 2009 by Jason Brown

Recently on this blog there have been two issues raised. 1) Whether or not Mormon and anarchist are a contradiction in terms, and 2) whether or not anyone who professes to be an anarchist can participate in the electoral system of the state. In this post I would like to address the second idea.

One commenter cited the following website: http://www.infoshop.org/faq/secJ2.html#secj22 I would recommend that everyone read it. It contains a wonderful amount of information and quotes by well known and respected political thinkers. However, despite the excellence of the INFOSHOP website, they do not pretend to encompass all the many strains and persuasions of the anarchist tradition. I certainly do not condemn people who refuse to vote on political grounds, but to condemn someone for voting for a third party candidate that has renounced corporate crime such as Ralph Nader seems counterproductive. After reading the infoshop site, I was satisfied with their argument against voting, but still believe that I would be justified in choosing to vote strategically; here is why:

At one point the INFOSHOP page states: “Voting legitimates the state framework, ensuring that social change will be mild, gradual, and reformist rather than rapid and radical.” This is the most common argument against reformist social democratic and green party strategies. Once the party has been elected it is sucked into the state framework it is inevitably forced to compromise with the state and becomes “reformist.” Unfortunately this is true not simply because the state favors capitalist structures, but because the constituents that the other parties in the system represent are not anarchists. In fact, radicals are a pretty slim minority in most countries. So, if for some reason a radical party does get elected, it will inevitably have to compromise. For me this is a vital tension within this debate. Do we hold fast to the purity of non-negotiation with the state, or do we engage it on its own terms in order to push it in the right direction. Or do we as many anarchists have done, declare war on the state? This unfortunately has the potential of creating a backlash against radicalism that ironically does not hesitate to use the apparatus of the state to guarantee security. This is exactly what happened during the 1960s with radical groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Weather Underground, which arguably gave us Richard Nixon. Again I am not taking a passionate position against non-voting, I am simply adding complexity to the debate.

Another problem I have is that if it were true that anarchists had actually achieved “rapid and radical” changes worth noting, I would celebrate the strategy. But it seems to me that though they present a legitimate critique, if we do not participate in the electoral system we equally risk legitimizing the “reforms” that take place on issues that we oppose. I for one, believe voting could be a very effective strategy for getting universal health care, a living wage, action on climate change, corporate accountability, etc. But then where do I draw the line? And at what point do I become serious about abolishing the state? I guess I am simply not satisfied with the tactics and options available, and do not see a revolution coming any time soon. I am also not sure a revolution is desirable considering how the French and Russian revolutions turned out. I am of course in favor of direct action as a tactic, but for example, many of the gains by workers in the 1930s and 40s through direct action were complemented by radical, small parties that ran candidates and challenged the two-party system inside the electoral arena. This is why Ralph Nader was relevant to this group; not because The Mormon Worker endorsed him as a candidate, but because he represented an authentic voice for radical changes that were not being addressed by the major parties.

I appreciate this discussion, and value the contributions that anarchist have made to social and environmental causes throughout the years, but I reserve the right to consider myself an anarchist and to participate strategically in the electoral system. Let’s continue the discussion, and I hope to learn from you all as what practical and realistic yet radical steps we can take to improve life for all.


3 thoughts on “Elaborations on Anarchism

  1. J. Madson says:

    I have to seriously ask because I know alot of people including contributors here feel like a vote for either party is a vote for the establishment. But just because we dont get the ultimate change we want does that mean that we should not participate at all.

    As a member of the modern Roman Empire my vote matters not only for my fellow citizens but for my fellow brothers and sisters throughout the world. Do any of us doubt that the Bush presidency has had disastrous effects for the Iraqi people. What about torture? Would the world be different if someone else had won the election. Dont get me wrong I think most change comes on a grassroots level but presidents decide when to wage war and that matters to so many lives.

    I look at Obama and can say hey, I dont like alot of things and am reminded of the great line from The Who “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” but then I see the news today. There is real movement to shut down guantanamo. This stuff matters. People are not going to be tortured anymore, we may actually leave Iraq, God willing Obama will get enough sense to pull out of Afghanistan, and miracle of miracles we will spend our money to actually help rebuild Iraqi and Afghani infrastructures, but at least there is some change, even if small.

    I see the new Office of Legal Counsel staffed with people that believe in curtailing executive power, believe the president’s war powers should be minimum. its not an anarchists wet dream but hell its something better than the nonsense weve had for the past 8 years. I just hope we dont just get back to where we were before Bush but make some serious strides. time will tell. maybe God willing we will prosecute for war crimes and have a open, transparent form of national repentance. It is time for America to not just ignore its sins but repent and be born again.

  2. fishstilldie says:

    Hey Josh, That is the question I am thinking through in this post if you noticed. Anarchism rejects state politics as inherently hierarchical and corrupt because they are designed to facilitate the capitalist system and are based on state coercion. BUT as I say in the post, there are good reasons to participate in the system beause incremental change is better than no change. Anarchists want revolutionary change, but that many times means no change, or change in the oposite direction as the Bush years prove. But that mentality creates a paradox: if you commit to participating in the system no matter what because incremental change is better than no change, how long before the two major parties no longer feel accountable to their constituency and we end up with what we have now, two corporate owned parties. So although we should not ignore the system, there has to be a line where we are no longer willing to vote for the two parties. That is why I didn’t vote for Obama.

  3. J. Madson says:

    I get your point but at the same time I think there are actual lives at stake in some elections. This is particularly true for me when we are talking about issues of war and peace, torture, etc.

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