Anarchism Doesn’t Fit in Promoting Their Ballot Boxes

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by Cindy Milstein

A bunch of years back, the “Don’t Just (Not) Vote” anarchist initiative emerged from a panel that I pulled together at the former (wonderful) National Conference on Organized Resistance — in conversations that a bunch of us had later that day. It’s premise was that it only takes a minute to fill out an electoral ballot, if you decide to go that route, but “What do you do the other 364 days, 23 hours, and 59 minutes of the years?” That’s what counts! The idea was to not spend hours, days, and months debating electoral politics, but instead use the space created by the sudden visibility of what passes for politics in the United States to illustrate other ways of self-determining, self-organizing, and self-governing.

At the time, and to this day, I think it was a leap forward in anarchist thinking and organizing, difficulties notwithstanding in the actual initiative.

Now, it seems, social media has created a whole new electoral arena for anarchists to spend way, way, WAY too much time on the ballot box part of this season.

I’m not one to judge whether individuals choose to vote or not vote on Election Day. That seems a personal decision, quietly made and quietly done, if one holds to a liberatory politics of antistatism. Personally, I mostly find it a meaningless act, so if someone puts some check marks on a paper or electronic statist ballot, it doesn’t seem to much matter.

What does seem to matter, to my mind, is anarchists and like-minded others — those fundamentally, in principle and practice, opposed to statecraft — becoming active advocates, campaign workers, and enthusiastic FB promoters of electoral politics, especially as individuals. One could argue that in limited, specific moments, when there’s a mass movement, some sort of collective vote might make sense, such as the referendum recently in Greece on whether to say “NO” (OXI) to austerity and top-plan measures to further strangle those living in Greece. It could be contended that the OXI vote, in that case, was less an electoral moment then a cry from a majority of that society that “enough is enough!” — thereby signaling the power of social struggle, social movement, and solidarity projects in direct contestation to a state that people no longer believe in within Greece. (One could also counter that argument, as I heard during my visit to Greece recently, that even engaging in that referendum was charade, and was followed by a deepening of depression and thus lowering of engagement.)

But it seems to me disturbing that so many “anarchists” and “antistatists” this year, via FB and Twitter and other social media, and on the ground, have signed up to spend hours upon hours doing electoral organizing, which is always a trade-off for the work they were doing beforehand of “in the streets” or “among neighbors” self-organizing and direct action. We will always be a minority, so somehow it seems extra crucial to me that we maintain a principled stance that brings a critical eye to bear on society, reframing debates to illuminate other ways of thinking, being, and acting. And that we also, equally, spend whatever time we have for organizing in projects that embody our ethics, that at least strive to be counterpowers to the logic of domination and hierarchy. And that we at least aspire to hold up and experiment with a world premised on (as three comrades said of Kobane/Rojava) the three pillars of antistatism, anticapitalism, and feminism (and in the United States, the abolition of white supremacy). If we are indeed always small in number, picking our fights carefully is essential, especially and including to better bring out the values we embrace as near and dear into this cold, cruel, rotten world where power-over seems increasingly to damage all, including too many of us.

I don’t judge one’s individual decision to step inside a voting booth today, nor the despair that leads us all to have to make awful decisions among awful “alternatives” — including all sorts of “compulsory” engagements with the state, such as whether to pay taxes, or use public libraries that kick out those without homes, or send kids to public schools now guarded by cops, and ad nauseam. But I do weigh heavily — or at least question and mourn — what it means for “anarchism” in the so-called United States that many calling themselves anarchists have become campaign managers for state and capital. It’s less about labels — after all, one isn’t “an anarchist” but rather is always, I trust, seeking to be more anarchistic in everyday practice — than how we choose to behave as people, symbols, movements, mentors, compass, beacon.

Or to repeat the magical and accurate words of an Italian comrade I met in Greece:

“Freedom is too beautiful to fit in their ballot boxes”

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