Thursday, 3 November 2016
If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal
I first came across the quote in the headline above when Ken Livingstone published a book by the title in the late 1980s. I didn’t read the book, but I later learnt that Livingstone was quoting the anarchist activist, Emma Goldman (attributed to her anyway), but it got me to thinking about this issue for the first time. I am from a traditional Labour voting background, and voting (Labour) was just what my family did. It didn’t stop Livingstone standing for election of course.
To set it in the context of the political times, we were getting on for ten year’s into Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, and it struck me that the government elected into power in 1979, had changed things considerably from the post second world war welfare capitalism settlement. Of course the welfare capitalism of the time had been driven by the threat of the USSR, offering an alternative economic model, albeit not a good one, but it was credible all the same. By the late 1980s the USSR was crumbling and finally collapsed in 1989.
The changes brought by Thatcher were essentially a regression to the pre-second world war days, and all in favour of the capitalist class, in a rolling back of the welfare capitalism year’s gains for most people. It is true that the Labour governments, in 1945-51, 1964-70 and1974-79, did achieve many good things, but the situation was favourable, because, as I say, the USSR worried the capitalist establishment, so they played along, although rumours abounded in the 1970s of an army coup, to quell the trade unions. In general, the situation was tolerated.
Capital was doing well in western countries, with continual growth in the post war period, and inequality for people reduced. Succeeding generations were getting wealthier, and the Tory UK Prime Minister in the late 1950s, Harold MacMillan, coined the phrase, ‘you’ve never had so good.’ But by the 1970s the Keynesian economic system was in crisis, and was pushed even further by a steep rise in the price of oil. A new term emerged to describe our economic woes, stagflation.
The capitalist’s saw their chance and began expanding their markets into what was previously publicly owned companies, crushing the trade unions and changing the culture of the country along the way, to one of individualism. Growth was restored, and profits increased. Tax on corporation and wealthy individuals was reduced. All introduced by an elected UK right wing government.
But nothing like this has happened on the left of politics, not by electoral means anyway. In South America, some gains have been made by socialist governments, but they are constantly under threat of overthrow by the forces of capital, that it is an uphill battle. The circumstances in South America, with large populations of indigenous people, make this a situation very different from western countries though.
Emma Goldman (1869-1940)
So, we might conclude, that in some quite unique circumstances, some positive change can be delivered from the left of politics, by electoral means, but this is piecemeal and fleeting. Capital’s hold over our politics is too strong to be transcended completely by government policy which aims to reduce the profits of the capitalist class.
Elections then amount to a choice between Coca Cola or Pepsi, so what is the point of participating in them? When Russell Brand encouraged people not to vote, he was rounded on by the media establishment, and forced into changing his advice, but Brand was only really reflecting what was happening anyway, with voter turn outs at elections in the UK falling, since 2001. That year’s general election, was a record low 59% turn out, and that only of registered voters. How many don’t even bother to register?
The local anarchist’s in my area tell people not to vote, but are very active in putting pressure on those who do get elected. Their argument for not voting, is that it delegitimises the election, and I guess if turn out was very low, then it would do this. Whether this would bother the politicians too much is open to debate though. There would probably be some hand wringing, but I wouldn’t have thought they would resign if less than half of the voters participated. After all, local council politicians are often elected by only around 30% of the electorate, and they seem perfectly happy.
Going off subject a little, one place where abstentions do seem to concern the leadership is with workplace staff surveys. Nothing seems to wind up the management as much as their staff not bothering to complete the survey. They prefer a negative response to none at all, as they seem to sense that their staff have tired of giving them the response they want to hear or even telling the truth, as experience teaches that nothing changes anyway. Might as well wind them up by not participating, what is there to lose?
This is always an area of debate on the socialist left, reform or revolution? Reformism is capable of only limited change in a leftward direction, but socialist revolutions have produced only autocratic, centralised governing bureaucracies. Maybe revolutionary change doesn’t have to be like this, but history teaches us that has been the outcome. I guess I’ll carry on voting and continue to agitate for rebellion and ecosocialism.
Here’s another quote from Emma Goldman, speaking about anarchism and free association:
"It seems to me that these are the new forms of life," she wrote, "and that they will take the place of the old, not by preaching or voting, but by living them." (Quoted in Wexler, Intimate).