Should Anarchists Vote?


Chris Dixon ends his recent book Another Politics:  Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements with a series of questions that are meant to confront and guide the direction of future organizing projects.  Some of these questions have to do with electoral politics:  How should people dedicated to anti-authoritarian politics relate to this sphere?  How should such organizers relate to the millions of people that are mobilized by political campaigns?

For a long time, the answers to these sorts of questions from an anarchist perspective has been to suggest withdrawal from any kind of activity that continues to prop up what many believe to be a corrupt, oppressive, state apparatus.

We recently asked Anarres Project contributors to comment on whether people with anarchist leanings should participate in electoral politics.  Here are a couple of responses:


Lani Roberts:

For folks who might identify as anarchist, does it make some political sense to participate in electoral politics?

This question is quite complex so I’d like to clarify where I am coming from in my reply.   I am an anarchist philosophically, like I am a Buddhist philosophically. I don’t do the practices so I hesitate to say, “I am an anarchist or I am a Buddhist.” Thus, for me, anarchy is the ideal toward which I aim.

I realized I had to put it this way because for years I worked in one of the most hierarchical institutions in our culture, a university. I was mortified to realize this fact and, in order to continue doing my work there, I was required to accede to the hierarchy as do all folks in these and most other employment contexts. This meant that I could not “be” an anarchist but rather aspire to instantiate anarchism whenever it was possible. And it was possible in certain contexts.

Given this, I aspire to anarchism and I vote.   I do not think these are logically contradictory. A democracy, also in its ideal form, would not necessarily have to be structured in a way that power was yielded over others.   I take it that it is within anarchist principles that a group of folks could ask one of them to be a point person, or spokesperson for the group, e.g., without granting any power to this person over the group. To serve a group of folks does not necessarily entail power over even though it often devolves to be such, if the group permits it.

Granting that my vote in national and statewide elections are, for the most part, about power over, I still vote. I especially think it important to vote on ballot measures on a statewide and local level.   By this same reasoning, I find voting in local elections important to do. The smaller the group of voters, the more my vote counts.


Christian Matheis:

As someone with anarchist intentions, I think I should vote so long as I remain involved in anti-authoritarian work (e.g. organizing, education, labor-sharing, etc.). Voting on its own does not have operative power to dismantle arbitrarily consolidated institutional authority. Paired with anarchist activities, however, voting can provide “withering power.” That is, participation in voting can advance candidates and legislation that may help to wither, or forestall, regressive efforts at greater consolidation of resources and authority. For instance, voting for local anti-regressive property and corporate income taxes to fund education and social welfare services here-and-now can advance the dignity and quality of life of people living in poverty. Doing so, mitigating the precarious conditions that leave people dispossessed and derogated, on its own provides only limited respite in the long-run. Direct-action organizing to foster food security, food-sharing collectives, and to reduce food waste makes those votes operative instead of leaving votes episodic.

I take this as some version of Le Guin’s comment in Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995) that “You can’t change anything from the outside in. Standing apart, looking down, talking the overview, you see pattern. What’s wrong, what’s missing. You want to fix it. But you can’t patch it. You have to be in it, weaving it. You have to be part of the weaving.”

Unless I commit myself to ongoing anarchist efforts in tandem with voting, I hollow out the withering power of my vote thereby making it inoperative. Votes for anti-regressive candidates and change, even somewhat conservative changes, would probably turn out as wasted efforts. I cannot justify imposing that on anyone else, but only on my own choices. Furthermore, I can imagine cases in some societies wherein refusal to vote benefits anarchist interests more than voting for the kinds of withering purposes. Here, in my circumstances, I can weave voting and anarchism as a coherent strategy.

Chris Crass:

Emma Goldman famously said, “If voting changed anything they would make it illegal.” The history of ruling class efforts to deny, suppress and disenfranchise Black voting power answers her rhetorical statement. Voting, when part of a larger liberation vision and strategy is an important tactic, to deny this is to play into ruling class hegemony. Let’s be strategic, let’s be visionary, let’s organize to win, in electoral efforts and far beyond.

To Goldman’s credit, the flip side of this, is believing that electoral politics and voting are the only legitimate methods of working for social change, which also squares with ruling class hegemony. We can be dialectical, and unstoppable!


2 thoughts on “Should Anarchists Vote?”

  1. Biography Bibliography Collected Works Commentary Graphics
    From MOTHER EARTH (ed. Emma Goldman)

    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.

    Call it an absolute monarch, a constitutional king, or a simple M.P., the candidate that you raise to the throne, to the seat, or to the easy chair, he will always be your master. They are persons that you put “above” the law, since they have the power of making the laws, and because it is their mission to see that they are obeyed.

    To vote is befitting of idiots.

  2. This survey of three “anarchists” (one anarchist and two “aspiring” anarchists, read: liberals?) seems woefully inadequate on a variety of levels.

    Since the only one of the three responses that has so much of a pretense of not being utter garbage is Chris Crass’, I want to take a moment to respond to it.

    Goldman’s maxim remains true – regardless of whether or not its inversion is true. One can point to scads of proscribed activity with no revolutionary potential whatsoever. Punching a baby, for example, is illegal. It’s not illegal because baby-punching poses a serious challenge to the status quo.

    Similarly, it’s not that the end of formal Jim Crow constituted a serious blow to capital or the state – that anyone could posit something so stupid while Obama is president should be enough to discredit them entirely. None the less, I’ll entertain the notion for the moment. There are obviously real political interests in disenfranchising Black Americans (and immigrants, and felons, and so on) – they tend to be the interests of particular sections of the ruling class. Insofar as there wasn’t a mass struggle which threatened the state, it made perfect sense to deny Black Americans the vote – a particular brand of white supremacist capitalist in the South benefited nicely from it. With the advent of the civil rights movement, this relatively small sectional interest of some southern capitalists was less important than the stability of the white supremacist capitalist power structure in America as a whole: ergo, legislative reform. Capitalism adapts.

    If there were, for example, a mass militant movement to legalize marijuana – a legitimate demand with potentially anti-racist implications given the disproportionate targeting of racialized people for possession and trafficking – it is likely that marijuana would become legal. This doesn’t mean that marijuana is radical. The flip-side being that it doesn’t mean a movement to legalize marijuana couldn’t be radical in some sense (if it were able to transcend its ostensible demand, as the civil rights movement certainly did).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.