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Commentary :: Government & Elections

Beyond Voting: electoral politics, anarchist organizing and developing strategy

Beyond Voting: anarchist organizing, electoral politics and developing strategy for liberation

by Chris Crass

Presidential elections are often the terrain on which radicals and anarchists debate the merits of electoral politics. This election season is no different. Social movements around the world and in the United States are declaring Bush's defeat at the ballot box a top priority. As radicals, we have consistently opposed the policies of the Bush administration and have mobilized our opposition repeatedly to the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. We know that the Democratic Party shares the majority of the Republican Party's platform. Both candidates represent ruling class worldviews and institutions of domination. What do we do?

There are many discussions about how to vote out the Bush administration.[i] I want to urge us to step back and talk about electoral politics and larger questions of strategy. For anarchists, voting and electoral politics spark intense debate because they bring fundamental questions to the surface. How do we believe revolutionary transformation happens? How do we build movement? Where does power come from? How do we act in the world? Does our organizing matter? From there we ask more specific questions. How do we as radical organizers, left activists and anarchists relate to elections and electoral politics in general? Are the elections an opportunity for strategic intervention or a waste of time? At the heart of all of these debates is the question of strategy.

Questions of strategy are always on my mind. Where are we going and how are we going to get there? I want to reflect on my personal relationship to electoral politics as an anarchist, because I think the presidential elections often get us debating tactics when really we need to think about strategy. The essay is based in my experience, because the most useful anarchist theory and strategy is often embedded in our practice. It is not a coincidence that the most widely read and cited anarchist text in the US is an autobiography called Living My Life by Emma Goldman.

Often I am not even aware of the assumptions and commitments embedded in my practice. I think we need to examine our practice so we can be clear about what our theory and strategy is in order to engage it and develop it. Our theory and strategy is embedded in our practice because we believe that the means lead to the ends, that how we engage in struggle is pre-figurative of the society that we want to live in. For anarchists, direct action is not just a tactic. Direct action is an expression of a deeper understanding of revolutionary transformation in which we take back our power and remake the world. Through direct struggle confronting institutions of injustice, we develop new understandings of ourselves and the world. These understandings help us build communities of empowerment, equality and mutual aid. Through communities of resistance we work to bring down systems of oppression in all their forms. By working to implement our visions of the future society into our everyday lives and in our counter institutions, we seek to build the new world in the shell of the old.

I have often heard the argument that you cannot be an anarchist if you vote or participate in electoral politics. Voting is a tactic. As a tactic I know it is connected to core values about power and decision making, but if we’re to develop meaningful strategy all of our tactics need to be evaluated and updated where need be. I’d like to make a distinction about core beliefs and tactics or actions that express core beliefs. For me, anarchism is fundamentally based in a belief in the capacity of people to share power with each other and through relationships, families, organizations, communities and institutions build societies based on having power with people rather then over people. Power with people forms the base of societies organized on principles of self-determination, cooperation and justice. Many of our tactics have been useful in expressing our core beliefs, but overall we are still far from being a meaningful challenge to the ruling order of domination and exploitation. I want to think about our tactics, strategies and theories not only in terms of how they express our core beliefs, but how they help move us to living our core beliefs. We are largely successful practicing this in groups and communities of dozens. Our tactics, strategies and theories need to deal with societies of millions.

To read the rest of the essay download as a pamphlet at:

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