Listen to the Episode — 48 min
Election day approaches, and America sits transfixed, like the audience at a horror film: it’s too revolting to watch, but we can’t look away. The 2016 presidential race seems calculated to produce maximum disdain for politics, and if so, it’s working. As the networks and Twitter feeds distract us with gossip, competing with tidbits to make us cringe anew at one noxious candidate or the other, no one is talking about anything that really matters. No one even pretends to have solutions to the problems that confront us: grinding poverty amidst affluence and waste, escalating racist police violence, an ever-expanding prison system, surveillance and control seeping ever deeper into our daily lives, and impending ecological catastrophe.
Yet the entire presidential hullabaloo encourages us to believe that not only does our vote matter, it’s the most important decision we could possibly make. Few of us can even fake the enthusiasm we’re supposed to be feeling, except in our contempt for one or both of the candidates. But when we throw up our hands in disgust and point out that our vote makes literally no difference anyway, we’re accused of being apathetic, of throwing away our civic responsibility. We’re being gaslighted on a massive scale, and we know it. But what else can we do?
A lot, actually. As anarchists, we think that no one is better qualified to determine how we should live our lives than we are. The whole election spectacle is designed to obscure the reality that the power presidents wield is nothing more or less than our combined agency, which we symbolically sign over to them every four years. Well, we’ve had enough. It’s time that we took responsibility for our world and own lives, without parties or politicians to manage them.
Perhaps you’ll dismiss this as a utopian dream. We’d reply that nothing could be more utopian than thinking that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will do better at getting us out of the mess we’re in than we could do by working together without them. And do you really believe that the system that produced them as our two best options is worth keeping? What if we decided not to delegate our power to representatives, and instead we joined together to use it ourselves, to act directly to address the problem’s we’re facing?
In this spirit, the Ex-Worker podcast offers you this audio zine, including selections from a variety of texts challenging voting, electoral politics, and representative democracy from an anarchist perspective. It offers tools for challenging the myths of the politicians and their defenders, and strategies for building new worlds of our own design and desires. Our dreams will never fit into their ballot boxes. Perhaps yours won’t, either. If so, you’re not alone.
INTRODUCTION: ANARCHISTS AND VOTING
Anarchists have always critiqued representative democracy, and the notion that voting is an expression of freedom. I don’t know whether Emma Goldman ever actually said, “If voting changed anything, it would be illegal,” but in any case, it reflects longstanding anarchist wisdom. The Russian rebel Mikhail Bakunin wrote as early as 1870, “The whole system of representative government is an immense fraud resting on this fiction, that the executive and legislative bodies elected by universal suffrage of the people must or even can possibly represent the will of the people.” Peter Kropotkin criticized elections and representation in his discussion of the Paris Commune. The French geographer Elisee Reclus put it in simple, strident terms: “Everything that can be said about the suffrage may be summed up in a sentence. To vote is to give up your own power. To elect a master or many, for a long or short time, is to resign one’s liberty… Instead of entrusting the defense of your interests to others, see to the matter by yourselves. Instead of trying to choose advisers that will guide you in future actions, do the thing yourselves, and do it now! To put on others’ shoulders the responsibility of one’s actions is cowardice. Don’t vote!”
Here in the US, Thoreau was beginning to advance a proto-anarchist critique of voting in 1849 in Civil Disobedience: “Even voting for the right” - meaning what’s good, not the right wing - “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.” Emma Goldman railed unrelentingly against electoral politics, especially in her discussions of woman suffrage.
When it comes to undermining the legitimacy of electoral politics, anarchists haven’t hesitated to make their point through mockery. In 1900, Zo d’Axa tells us, French anarchists ran a donkey for office, parading it through the streets of Paris while handing out flyers purporting to be its campaign literature. They read, “Think carefully, dear citizens. You know that your representatives are fooling you, have fooled you, will fool you — yet still you go to vote. So vote for me! Elect the ass!…I’m not any dumber than you.” Carrying on this proud anti-speciesist tradition, in 1968 the Yippies nominated a pig named Pigasus as their presidential candidate, outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Here at the CrimethInc. Ex-Worker’s Collective, we’ve taken up this tradition with gusto. Our earliest documented intervention - before my time, I’m afraid - involved endorsing Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, for president. This was in 1996, shortly after his manifesto, which lays out a thorough critique of industrial civilization (and its liberal opponents), appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post.
In 2000, CrimethInc. operatives participated in the Democratic and Republican National Convention protests, and took part in a support campaign for arrestees. After Bush’s election, the PATRIOT Act, and the second invasion of Iraq, a large left/liberal/progressive/radical coalition emerged from the anti-war movement and assembled under the banner of “Anybody But Bush.” To counter this narrative, a newspaper was released for distribution at rallies and voting sites titled, “It’s Not Just Bush, It’s the System.” Anarchists participated in force in the 2004 convention protests, especially in New York, where in a march of hundreds of thousands, a notorious incident involving a burning green dragon
Also in 2004, we undertook the “Don’t Just Vote” campaign, producing stickers and a deceptively designed “Community Non-Partisan Voters’ Guide” titled, “Don’t Just Vote, Get Active”. Elements of this project later reappeared in the pamphlet “Voting vs. Direct Action”, which has circulated widely since. In conjunction with or inspired by the campaign, numerous actions took place, including a riot in Raleigh, NC that included an attack on a Republican Party headquarters and the torching of a two-headed Bush/Kerry effigy.
After two terms of George W. Bush, activists mobilized with renewed ferocity to convince us that Democrats could truly save us. In 2008, we targeted that specific presidential election, in which Obama’s “hope and change” rhetoric made us nauseous, with “False Hope vs. Real Change”. That year on the morning after election day, in over 20 cities, eager citizens woke up to find copies of USA Today in newspaper boxes wrapped with an ingeniously designed spoof cover page, featuring the headline, “Capitalism Wins at the Polls, Anarchy Brewing in the Streets.” The action was claimed by the Unconventional Action Journalism Department, a project that spun off from the nationwide anarchist mobilization against the Republican and Democratic conventions that year. Also around this time, the pamphlet “The Party’s Over”, drawing on previous CrimethInc. writings to introduce a critique of representative democracy, began to circulate.
In the aftermath of Occupy in 2012, we developed this critique of democracy further, and for the presidential election introduced the “VOTE HERE” sticker campaign for toilets, trash cans, and other creative placements, complemented by the “Democracy is Bankrupt” website.
This year, we’ve seen a handful of actions and gestures, but not a concerted anti-electoral campaign; the leading candidates themselves have done more than we ever could to cultivate disillusionment and disgust with electoral politics. Many anarchists have taken part in anti-Trump actions, often within an anti-fascist framework. A few, but not many, protested the Republican or Democratic conventions - we’ll discuss that more in a future episode. This year, we at CrimethInc. released our most developed critique of democracy yet, moving beyond a focus on voting and elections to include many different manifestations of democracy, including direct and consensus variants - this marked a departure from some of our previous arguments, such as those in “The Party’s Over.” Check back to Episodes 47 and 48 to hear all about that.
But even as we expand our horizons and sharpen our critiques of all forms of authority, we want to take a moment to acknowledge the importance of demystifying voting and elections. As any of you listeners in the US will know, the nauseating political spectacle is on full intensity saturation, 24/7, everywhere. There’s no escaping it. The media environment created for us encourages us to think that it is truly inescapable, that our only meaningful agency exists within electoral politics. And this idea is reinforced by many activists and social movements, which look back to the achievement of equal voting rights as the most important victories in their history, and insist against all our instincts that we treat this pitiful and disempowering ritual as a sacred duty. Whether motivated by blind faith against all evidence and reason, or simply a cynical resignation that it’s all we can do and that something is better nothing, the authorities all across the political spectrum are agreed: this is what we have to do. Vote: it’s the American way.
Which is exactly why we at the Ex-Worker say: FUCK THAT. So in that spirit, we offer you a selection from CrimethInc. texts over the years that have challenged voting and electoral politics. We hope you’ll enjoy it, and we especially hope that you’ll share it with folks who are still invested in the political charade, and mine it for arguments to use against those who’ll tell you that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain. Whether or not you vote - and let’s be clear, we don’t give a fuck whether you do or not; we could not possibly care less - we hope you’ll do far more than complain. Whether or not you vote, you can resist. And you can do that 365 days a year, without waiting for the authorities to choose your options for you.
WHY FREEDOM WILL NEVER BE ON THE BALLOT
We’ll begin with an excerpt from “The Party’s Over”, laying out some basics about what’s wrong with representative democracy, and why freedom will never be on the ballot.
Every little child can grow up to be President!
No, they can’t. Being President means occupying a position of hierarchical power, just like being a billionaire: for every person who is President, there have to be millions who are not. It’s no coincidence that billionaires and Presidents tend to rub shoulders; both exist in a privileged world off limits to the rest of us. Speaking of billionaires, our economy isn’t exactly democratic – capitalism distributes resources in absurdly unequal proportions, and you have to start with resources if you’re ever going to get elected. Even if it was true that anyone could grow up to be President, that wouldn’t help the millions who inevitably don’t, who must still live in the shadow of that power. This imbalance is intrinsic to the structure of representative democracy, at the local level as much as at the top. The professional politicians of a town council discuss municipal affairs and pass ordinances all day without consulting the citizens of the town, who have to be at work; when one of those ordinances displeases citizens, they have to use what little leisure time they have to contest it, and then they’re back at work again the next time the town council meets. In theory, the citizens could elect a different town council from the available pool of politicians and would-be politicians, but the interests of politicians as a class always remain essentially at odds with their own – besides, voting fraud, gerrymandering, and inane party loyalty usually prevent them from going that far. Even in the unlikely scenario that a whole new government was elected consisting of firebrands intent on undoing the imbalance of power between politicians and citizens, they would inevitably perpetuate it simply by accepting roles in the system – for the political apparatus itself is the foundation of that imbalance. To succeed in their objective, they would have to dissolve the government and join the rest of the populace in restructuring society from the roots up.
Is the freedom for which so many generations have fought and died best exemplified by a man in a voting booth checking a box on a ballot before returning to work in an environment no more under his control than it was before? If so, then the heritage our emancipating forefathers and suffragette grandmothers have left us is nothing but a sham substitute for the liberty they sought. For a better illustration of real freedom in action, look at the musician in the act of improvising with her companions: in joyous, seemingly effortless cooperation, they create a sonic and emotional environment, transforming the world that in turn transforms them. Take this model and extend it to every one of our interactions with each other and you would have something qualitatively different from our present system – a harmony in human relationships and activity. To get there from here, we have to dispense with voting as the archetypal expression of freedom and participation.
Freedom is a quality of activity, not a condition that exists in a vacuum: it is a prize to be won daily, not a possession that can be kept in the basement and taken out and polished up for parades. Freedom cannot be given – the most you can hope is to free others from the forces that prevent them from finding it themselves. Real freedom has nothing to do with voting; being free doesn’t mean simply being able to choose between options, but actively participating in establishing the options in the first place.
No one can represent your power and interests for you – you can only have power by wielding it, you can only learn what your interests are by getting involved. Politicians make careers out of claiming to represent others, as if freedom and political power could be held by proxy; in fact, they are a priest class that answers only to itself, and their very existence is proof of our disenfranchisement… When we let them prefabricate our options for us, we relinquish control of our communities to these politicians in the same way that we have ceded technology to engineers, health care to doctors, and control of our living environments to city planners and private real estate developers. We end up living in a world that is alien to us, even though our labor has built it, for we have acted like sleepwalkers hypnotized by the monopoly our leaders and specialists hold on setting the possibilities.
But we don’t have to simply choose between presidential candidates, soft drink brands, television shows, and political ideologies. We can make our own decisions as individuals and communities; we can make our own delicious beverages and social structures and power; we can establish a new society on the basis of freedom and cooperation.
VOTING VERSUS DIRECT ACTION
So if not voting, then what? This excerpt from the pamphlet “Voting versus Direct Action” originally appeared in the 2004 “Don’t Just Vote” campaign newspaper.
People in the U.S. are preoccupied with voting to an unhealthy degree. This is not to say that everyone votes, or thinks voting is effective or worthwhile; on the contrary, a smaller and smaller proportion of the eligible population votes every election year, and that’s not just because more and more people are in prison. But when you broach the question of politics, of having a say in the way things are, voting is just about the only strategy anyone can think of—voting, and influencing the votes of others.
Could it be that this is why so many people feel so disempowered? Is anonymously checking a box once a year, or every four years, enough to feel included in the political process, let alone play a role in it? But what is there besides voting?
In fact, voting for people to represent your interests is the least efficient and effective means of applying political power. The alternative, broadly speaking, is acting directly to represent your interests yourself. This is known in some circles as “direct action.”
Direct action is occasionally misunderstood to mean another kind of campaigning, lobbying for influence on elected officials by means of political activist tactics; but it properly refers to any action or strategy that cuts out the middle man and solves problems directly, without appealing to elected representatives, corporate interests, or other powers.
Concrete examples of direct action are everywhere. When people start their own organization to share food with hungry folks, instead of just voting for a candidate who promises to solve “the homeless problem” with tax dollars and bureaucracy, that’s direct action. When someone makes and gives out fliers addressing an issue that concerns him, rather than counting on the newspapers to cover it or print his letters to the editor, that’s direct action. When someone else forms a book club with her friends instead of paying to take classes at a school, or does what it takes to shut down an unwanted corporate superstore in her neighborhood rather than deferring to the authority of city planners, that’s direct action, too. Direct action is the foundation of the old-fashioned can-do American ethic, hands-on and no-nonsense. Without it, hardly anything would get done.
In a lot of ways, direct action is a more effective means for people to have a say in society than voting is. For one thing, voting is a lottery—if a candidate doesn’t get elected, then all the energy his constituency put into supporting him is wasted, as the power they were hoping he would exercise for them goes to someone else. With direct action, you can be sure that your work will offer some kind of results; and the resources you develop in the process, whether those be experience, contacts and recognition in your community, or organizational infrastructure, cannot be taken away from you.
Voting consolidates the power of a whole society in the hands of a few politicians. Through direct action, you become familiar with your own resources and capabilities and initiative, discovering what these are and how much you can accomplish.
Voting forces everyone in a movement to try to agree on one platform. Coalitions fight over what compromises to make, with each faction insisting that they know the best way and that the others are messing everything up by not going along with their program. A lot of energy gets wasted in these disputes. In direct action, on the other hand, no vast consensus is necessary: different groups can apply different approaches according to what they believe in and feel comfortable doing, which can still interact to form a mutually beneficial whole. People involved in different direct actions have no need to squabble, unless they really are seeking conflicting goals (or years of voting have taught them to fight with anyone who doesn’t think exactly as they do). Conflicts over voting often distract from the real issues at hand, as people get caught up in the drama of one party against another, one candidate against another, one agenda against another. Through direct action, on the other hand, the issues themselves are raised, addressed specifically, and often resolved.
Voting is only possible when election time comes around. Direct action can be applied whenever one sees fit. Voting is only useful for addressing whatever topics are current in the political agendas of candidates, while direct action can be applied in every aspect of your life, in every part of the world you live in.
Voting is glorified as “freedom” in action. It’s not freedom— freedom is getting to decide what the choices are in the first place, not picking between Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Direct action is the real thing. You make the plan, you create the options; the sky’s the limit.
Ultimately, there’s no reason the strategies of voting and direct action can’t both be applied together. One does not cancel the other out. The problem is that so many people think of voting as their primary way of exerting political and social power that a disproportionate amount of everyone’s time and energy is spent deliberating and debating about it while other opportunities to make change go to waste. For months and months preceding every election, everyone argues about the voting issue, what candidates to vote for or whether to vote at all, when voting itself takes less than an hour. Vote or don’t, but get on with it! Remember how many other ways you can make your voice heard.
This being an election year, we hear constantly about the options available to us as voters, and almost nothing about our other opportunities to play a decisive role in our society. What we need is a campaign to emphasize the possibilities more direct means of action and community involvement have to offer. These need not be seen as in contradiction with voting. We can spend an hour voting once a year, and the other three hundred sixty four days and twenty three hours acting directly!
Those who are totally disenchanted with representative democracy, who dream of a world without presidents and politicians, can rest assured that if we all learn how to apply deliberately the power that each of us has, the question of which politician is elected to office will become a moot point. They only have that power because we delegate it to them! A campaign for direct action puts power back where it belongs, in the hands of the people from whom it originates.
SIX COMMON DEFENSES OF VOTING, AND WHY THEY’RE BULLSHIT
Next, we’ll share some common defenses of voting offered in response to anarchist critiques, and our responses. These originally appeared in “False Hope versus Real Change,” and was written during the 2008 presidential campaign.
My vote is my voice, so I should use it. We should be grateful that we live in a society where we are allowed a voice in our government.
If democracy in America means we’re only permitted to speak once every year or two, while the decisions made by those politicians who claim to speak for us impact us every single day, then having a “voice” doesn’t correspond to having any self-determination in our day-to-day lives. Voting in elections is an expression of our voicelessness, an admission that we can’t find any way to speak other than mouthing the words of our rulers at their appointed intervals. Of course we can and must use our voices—but why limit our vocabulary to such a flawed and indirect language? When the only voice they offer us is about which wealthy politician can best further US capitalism’s imperialist, ecocidal agenda, it’s no wonder that more votes go to no one in every US election than to any candidate. But the disillusionment that fuels voter abstention offers just as little resistance to the violence of the status quo as futile ballot-casting, unless it’s accompanied by the kind of voice that speaks louder than words (or votes) ever could: direct action.
Remember, if voting changed anything, it would be illegal—but the same goes for not voting, too. Whether we vote or not, the ruling class wants us to remain docile. Let’s bring the struggle to their front steps, and build the worlds we want to see ourselves, here and now.
*My vote alone might not make much of a difference, but by joining a campaign and mobilizing other people to vote, we can make an impact and show some real power.
Voting is a demonstration not of our power, but our powerlessness: it acknowledges that we can only approach the resources and capabilities of our own society through the mediation of an elite ruling class. When we let candidates create our options for us, we give up control of our world and abdicate our agency in shaping it. The more people that vote, the more confidence politicians will have that the voters they represent will remain committed to this political and economic system, from which they profit at the expense of their constituents—not to mention everyone else who will never be allowed to vote in a US election.
And real power can never be delegated, nor lived through anyone else. Real power means individual and collective self-determination, our ability to decide for ourselves how we’re going to live. Many of the models used in political campaigns do effectively mobilize us: grassroots organizing, connecting with our neighbors, and engaging folks with common interests. But when we use those tactics to reinforce the politicians’ power over us, we’re not really using them—they’re using us. Instead, why don’t we use those tactics to cut out the intermediaries and solve the problems we see in our communities and our world ourselves? For instance, if environmentalist canvassers stopped trying to get voters to the polls to support eco-friendly candidates (whose interests will always align more with the factory owners than the communities breathing their smog) and instead spent that energy actually dismantling coal-fired power plants and polluting factories, we’d have cleaner air and water and a greater sense of our own power.
Even if our candidate doesn’t win, we can impact government policy by showing that we’re concerned about the issues our candidate stands for.
If all you can imagine to do about an issue that concerns you is to vote for a candidate—and even if your vote for them actually mattered statistically, which is improbable beyond belief—the best that an election “victory” would ensure is their place in power, not what they will do with it. Votes don’t give politicians incentive to take action; when people bypass the established means of change and act directly to transform society, politicians must then scramble to catch up and show their relevance by confirming the changes that the people have enacted. And the belief that we can hold politicians accountable through the threat of withholding our votes in the next election rests on the fallacy that being voted out of office actually poses a threat to a member of the ruling class.
Rather than investing our energy into electing the least objectionable candidate, we can organize social movements that more effectively pressure whatever ruler comes along to make the changes we prioritize—or, better yet, make those changes ourselves.
Of course I want equality and full self-determination, but it’s just unrealistic in the world today. We should push for progress by electing the best candidate available.
Political parties do not offer any kind of progress beyond consolidating their own power. Sure, the parties differ over exactly how much to repress personal freedoms or spend on bombs—but do we ever get to vote on issues of how power is distributed? Do we ever get to vote on who controls “public” spaces such as shopping malls, or whether workers are entitled to the full product of their labor, or any other question that could seriously change the way we live?
In such a state of affairs, the essential function of the democratic process is to limit the range of what appears possible to the narrow spectrum debated by candidates for office. This demoralizes dissidents and contributes to the general impression that they are impotent utopians – when nothing is more utopian than trusting representatives from the ruling class to redress the grievances caused by their own dominance, and nothing more impotent than accepting their political system as the only possible option.
Whether or not I think it’s a good system, we need to vote because the reality is that politicians make the decisions that impact our lives.
The decisions made by politicians (or any other gang of thugs seeking to control our lives) only become reality because we recognize and enact them. Republicans and Democrats can vote for all the wars they want, but not a single bullet can be fired without someone mining the ore, smelting the iron, manufacturing the gun and the casing, transporting it across the world, and donning the soldier’s uniform. At every step in that process, people wake up, go to work, and make daily choices to keep the gears grinding.
Of course, none of those choices could be called “free”—from the miner whose family could be evicted if he doesn’t bring home that paycheck, to the truck driver who can’t find a better paying job without a college degree, to the soldier whose family pressured her to go to college and had no other means of getting the money. Each and every one of us forms a strand in this web of coercion keeping the machines of war and death and industry running. And every day provides us an opportunity to resist the dictates of our rulers simply by refusing to follow the orders of our bosses who answer to them, and supporting each other in our refusal.
Beyond that, even those of us outside of those spheres have the power to disrupt every step in the process. From sabotaging the munitions factory to blockading the mines, from bringing food to the striking dockworkers to housing GI resisters, we can call upon an infinite array of tactics to resist whatever tricks the politicians think up next. Instead of hoping (naively, if their voting records indicate anything) that electing a Democrat will stop the next war, we can devote the energy and resources to directly stopping it ourselves.
And who knows, in the process we might forget why we thought we needed politicians in the first place.
The president represents our whole country, whether you like it or not—if you don’t vote, you can’t complain.
The president can only claim to “represent” us in the absence of passionate, visible resistance outside of the electoral process. So long as we confine our participation to voting and accept a system that delegates our power and agency to representatives, we are accountable for whatever crises our government creates, because of our failure to resist them. But when we directly challenge the authority they claim to hold over us, we rupture the illusion that politicians, or anyone else, can speak on our behalf. If we’ve handed over responsibility for our society and our lives to our rulers, then we shouldn’t be surprised when they act in their own interests instead of ours, as they always have. If all you do is vote, you can’t complain!
When were you ever offered a choice about whether or not you wanted to be ruled at all, rather than simply voicing an opinion about which ruler is best suited to appropriate your power? We didn’t consent to this system, and we refuse to validate our own disempowerment—but instead of just complaining, we can take back responsibility for our own liberation by acting directly to interrupt injustice and create better ways to live.
DEMOCRACY IS BANKRUPT
This text comes from the “Democracy is Bankrupt” website, which first appeared in 2012 as the Occupy movement was declining.
What happened to all the optimism of the last election season, all that business about hope and change? For decades, we’ve pinned our hopes on one candidate after another, but now it seems like people are finally giving up on the whole charade. The only ones who still take it seriously are the protesters playing democracy in the street.
Why has democracy failed us? Is it the Electoral College, voting machines, gerrymandering—the sort of thing that could be remedied by electoral reform? That wouldn’t explain why we’re still disappointed with the results even when our favorite candidate gets in.
Is it corporate influence perverting politicians’ agendas and controlling the media? Sure—but when power is distributed according to who rakes in the most profit, that can’t help but affect politics. As long as private property exists, the rich will always have more leverage over our society, whether or not they can literally buy votes.
Is it just a matter of scale? Would the same procedures work if we only practiced them at town hall meetings and general assemblies? Anybody who has lived in a small town knows that while small-scale politics may be more personal, that doesn’t keep them from being alienating. Likewise, letting an arbitrarily constituted general assembly determine what you can and can’t do feels even more ridiculous than getting bullied by cops and tax collectors.
Maybe the problem has to do with democracy itself. Honestly, when has it fully delivered on its promises? In ancient Athens, when women and slaves were prohibited from participating? In the days of the Founding Fathers, some of whom also owned slaves? Today, when everyone supposedly has a say but self-determination feels further out of our hands than ever?
We keep blaming specific politicians and political parties, as if it were just a matter of personal failings. But any system that doesn’t work unless the people using it are perfect is a bad system. What if some politicians really do mean well, but there’s nothing they can do? All the good intentions in the world won’t help if the structure is broken.
So let’s try another question: Why do we talk about changing our rulers when we really want to change our lives?
The answer is obvious: because our rulers have more control over our lives than we do. But changing rulers isn’t going to fix that. Is getting to choose the lesser of two evils really the best of all possible worlds?
Imagine if we could have complete control over our own lives. That’s something that will never appear on a ballot. What kind of decisions can be made by voting—and what kind of structures does it take to impose them?
Think about what goes on in the Pentagon and the Kremlin and the offices of every town hall. Those day-to-day activities are the same under Democrats as under Republicans; they’re not much different today than they were a hundred years ago. Whoever happens to be operating it, the machinery of the state imposes its own logic: administration, coercion, control. Politicians promise us the world, but their job is to keep it out of our hands—to govern it.
Our ancestors fought hard to overthrow the kings who ruled them. When they finally succeeded, they kept the structures the kings had established—the same ministries and courts and armies—imagining that these could be run for the common good. But whoever is on the other side of that apparatus—be it a king, a president, or an electorate—those on the receiving end of governing experience the same thing. The laws, administrators, and police of a democracy are just as impersonal and coercive as the laws, administrators, and police of a dictatorship. The problem is the institution of government itself, which keeps the governed at a distance from their own power.
As Oscar Wilde put it, democracy is “the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.” The essence of democracy is not just collective participation in decision-making, but also the apparatus to force decisions on everyone whether they voted for them or not. If we make our ideal a miniature version of this—“direct democracy”—it will never deliver the freedom we desire. We have to dream bigger, looking back to how our ancestors did things before they were ruled by kings, and around at all the parts of our lives that are still free from top-down political control.
Let’s do away with representation; the gulf is always too wide between what we would do ourselves and what is done in our name. Let’s do away with the idea that there can only be one legitimate decision-making body, one bottleneck through which all decisions must pass. Let’s build new structures that promote autonomy and free association, making decisions by consensus where we choose to come together and retaining our independence otherwise. Freedom means nothing less.
Decentralizing power means that all of us can take our lives in our own hands and realize our potential as we see fit. When our social structures are voluntary, only the ones that are truly in everyone’s best interest will persist. This might not be easy at first, but it beats pandering to the fear-mongering of those who benefit from control and hierarchy.
Wait, let’s be pragmatic here! All this sounds great in theory, but doesn’t it leave us on the sidelines? Maybe democracy is rotten to its core, but it’s the only game in town. How can we have any influence in our society if we refuse to participate?
Again, let’s ask this question the other way around. What incentive do politicians have to grant us what we want if we only ask nicely? Corporations will always have more money with which to buy them; back-room deals will always be more appealing. The only way we can get leverage on the ones who hold power is by threatening to take that power away from them.
This has to mean more than shuffling back and forth between different parties. When we build our own grassroots momentum, developing the capability to make the changes we need directly, politicians are forced to hurry to keep up with us, scrambling to grant our demands before they lose legitimacy altogether. If we want to have leverage on the government, the most effective way for those of us who aren’t millionaires or party bureaucrats to do that is to bypass the established channels and contest their authority. So the same principles that could take us beyond democracy—direct action, mutual aid, liberty and autonomy—are also the only ones that can help us wield any real power while it persists.
Beggars can’t be choosers. When we only petition, we give up the power to determine what the choices are in the first place. Let’s stop reacting to our rulers and set our own agenda.
ANARCHY & ANARCHISTS: WHO WE ARE AND WHAT WE WANT
And this final excerpt, taken from the conclusion to “False Hope versus Real Change,” lays out who anarchists are and what we want beyond the world of elections and voting.
Anarchism is the word we use to express our passionate desire for a world on our own terms. Everyone from capitalists to communists uses the word “freedom” as some catch-all term for what their way of running the world can bring you. Democracy, Justice, Liberty, Freedom, Revolution—they’ve all been co-opted by everyone from tyrannical governments to the makers of cell phone commercials, almost to the point they don’t mean anything anymore. When we speak of freedom here, we don’t mean to parrot the same vague and empty rhetoric. We mean a world without rulers, a world without borders, and a world where freedom for anyone requires freedom for everyone, not just those within a particular nation, class, race, gender, or religion. We want to break down such divisions altogether.
Anarchism describes both the type of society we envision as well as our process for creating it, based on mutual aid, voluntary association, autonomy, and cooperation. We didn’t come up with this word through testing it on focus groups, and it doesn’t concern us whether or not you use it, or any other label, to describe your own frustration with the status quo or your desires for something different. We don’t want to take power in order to impose what we believe would be more just rules and restrictions. We don’t want to run the world; we want everyone to run their own lives together. Whether as an anarchist, a Democrat or Republican, or anything else, what’s important isn’t what you call yourself, but how you resist oppression and create alternatives.
Direct Action is the term we use for the path out of the world we live in now into the ones we desire. In taking direct action, we bypass the established channels for political expression, and address problems and accomplish goals directly by undertaking them ourselves. For us, it’s not just about disagreeing with the stances of one or all of the candidates we’re offered—it’s about questioning whether any politician can represent us or create a world in which we can live freely. While some might be willing to bite their tongues for a more progressive Democrat or cross their fingers on a third party candidate, many of us have dreams that will never fit into ballot boxes. And we’re writing to invite you to participate alongside of us.
Unlike presidential elections and the shelves of chain stores, where your consumer choices are neatly pre-selected and laid out for you by people you’ll never meet, amongst anarchists you’ll actually have to think for yourself. No one will ask you what your stances are on “the issues,” as defined and framed by the politicians and the experts. Instead, we want to know: What are your desires? What kind of world do you want to live in?
No one can sell you any fashionably packaged solutions to your alienation from the political system—least of all anarchists! Our goal isn’t to become candidates and convince you to vote for us or our positions. We want everyone to articulate their own visions, and to have the tools and the agency to enact those visions for themselves. We want to completely leave behind the world of partitioned “issues,” the consumerist illusion of choice, and the idea that anyone can represent us. In its place, we’re creating relationships of affinity with those around us who share common interests, similar alienation, and compatible visions of a way to live without ruling or being ruled.
Sure, there are glimpses into other worlds of possibility that inspire us… but ultimately, anyone who lays out a formula for the Revolution with a capital R plays the same game as the politicians who claim to offer us salvation through their expertly designed plans to manage our discontent. Anyway, the point isn’t to have it all figured out; the point is to act. Freedom is not a commodity, it’s a process; we become free by acting freely, and no one can do that for us.
When we step outside of the trap of voting in elections into the vast universe of possibility that exists through direct action, we hold the keys to all of the worlds we’ve only dreamed of, the worlds we never saw in the carefully worded questions of the pollsters or the polished rhetoric of the lesser evils. We have worlds to win beyond the electoral system, worlds that are beginning to unfold around you even now. Let’s reclaim our lives from the empty promises of the ballot boxes and start realizing our dreams, right here and right now.
This audio zine was a production of the Ex-Worker, a monthly podcast of anarchist ideas and action. You can find more audio zines like this, as well as episodes including interviews, news, reviews, and other features, at crimethinc.com/podcast.
Links and references from this episode of The Ex-Worker:
This audio zine draws on several previously published CrimethInc. texts that address voting, elections, democracy, and direct action, including “Don’t Just Vote, Get Active: A Community Non-Partisan Voters’ Guide” (2004), “Voting vs. Direct Action” (c. 2004), “False Hope vs. Real Change” (2008), The Party’s Over" (c. 2009), and the “Democracy is Bankrupt” website (2012).
In the introduction, we quoted a variety of historical anarchist critiques of elections, voting, and representative democracy, including: Mikhail Bakunin, "On Representative Government and ; Peter Kropotkin, “Revolutionary Government”; Elisee Reclus, “Why Anarchists Don’t Vote”; Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”; Emma Goldman, “Woman Suffrage”; Zo d’Axa, “He Is Elected”; and the Yippies’ nomination of Pigasus. You can find many more anarchist critiques on these themes via The Anarchist Library.