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Dispencer, "Voting, The Great American Hoax"

NorthStar Anarchist Collective, FRAC writes:

"Voting: The Great American Hoax"


Direct democracy vs. electoral politics, an anarchist look at voting by Dispencer, who is a member or the Northstar Anarchist Collective in Minneapolis, and has been in Anti-Racist Action since 1998. (A response to "Beyond Voting," by Chris Crass in Clamor, Communique 42.)]

It is inevitable. As an Anarchist you will always encounter people who will want to engage you in debate on the topic of voting. It may be a co-worker, or perhaps a friend, a fellow activist, or a stranger on the street. Most Anarchists know that they do not believe in the capitalist system, or in the electoral process. We believe that the system is built to have the illusion of freedom while keeping a boot firmly on the throat of the lower- and working-classes, and particularly, people of color in the US and worldwide.Contrary to popular belief, Anarchists do vote. In fact we probably do it far more often than most Americans. Voting is central to the belief in Direct Democracy, which is one of the base principals of Anarchism. Direct Democracy is the idea of direct control over decision-making and policy by the people these policies affect.

That said, it is not Anarchist principal to embrace the capitalist / electoral system in the US. It is understood that as residents we have to accept that this is the current political system in power, and that for the time being we must find our way to survive within it. We do this while simultaneously trying to erode that very system, and working toward a brighter future. Participation in State or Federal elections does nothing to achieve this.

Anarchists use voting as a tool, not as a means to gain political power, as is the case with current electoral systems in the US and worldwide. This so blatantly laid in front of us, with no shame, in these election seasons. Anarchism uses voting along with discussion, to move forward politically and helps make decisions. When Anarchists pass the point of what we have to do to get by under this current system, into the realm of what we are told we can do to “change” the system, we are not gaining anything. In fact, we lose. Lose our integrity.

Historically, and in countless modern examples, Direct Action has succeeded where American Politics and activist participation in them have failed. The pamphlet Beyond Voting by Chris Crass is an in-depth, well-thought out essay around the politics of radicals and voting. Unfortunately, it has used anarchist and anarchism throughout, where activist and activism would have been more appropriate. It aspires to convince Anarchists and other radicals that they can vote in the heart of the beast and still retain, or better yet improve, their revolutionary goals. It goes so far as to suggest that Anarchists should become politicians, and run for office. I hope to offer another perspective.

The Anarchist Vote?

I am not here to tell you what you can or cannot do as an Anarchist. I do however, hope to make people think seriously about what they stand for, what that means to them, and if voting will advance that position.

Anarchists are often pigeonholed as wild youth that are bent on “smashing the state”, often by other activists and Anarchists, as well as the rest of today’s society. This remains one of the main stigmas facing Anarchists even within their own movements.

Beyond Voting explains how voting is a tactic that Anarchists must realize is a tool to become “a meaningful challenge” to the powers that be.

In this essay, Chris Crass goes on to say that, “I know that thousands of Anarchists around the country vote”, and that an analysis of this “is still largely absent from what is considered Anarchist theory”, and footnotes several Love and Rage articles. What’s interesting is that Love and Rage did have an opinion of voting;

“We deny that improvements are made through elections, neither through the Democratic Party nor through a new progressive or labor party.”

It should be obvious to everyone worldwide that the presidential elections in the United States are a farce, our suspicions validated in the 2000 Bush/Gore election. The sheer amount of illegal activity and political maneuvering that was revealed shocked average Americans as well as radicals across this nation. Democrats acted shocked as well, but made little effort to hold anyone responsible.

The electoral system is a problematic, and corrupt one. It is not a representation of the consensus of the people; it is more a playground for corporate interest, lobbyists, and the desires of the super rich. As was shown to the world in 2000, our electoral systems are fallible, manipulate able, and ultimately never in the hands of the people.

This is of course an example of political corruption on the highest of levels, and this type of thing doesn’t really manifest itself in the small scale, local elections, does it? Sadly, the reality of the system is that all progressive gains can be, and most often are, overturned or at the least watered-down to a point of near insignificance.

Even if we overlook all of our presidential electoral systems failings, we are then left with two non-choices. On a more local scale, candidates, propositions, and bills that might be on the ballot could much more directly effect a community then the minor differences between two sides of the same coin vying for the white house. These local issues are where many radicals find their dilemma. I don’t believe in voting, but this issue is too important and too close to home. I believe the answer is fairly straightforward; if the issue is important to you, then organize around it. Make sure your efforts live up to the feeling in your heart. Then, if your personal political views are important to you, do not vote. Instead, hope that your efforts were enough to sway the community to make the better choice. Just because you are not personally going to cast a ballot, does not mean that you can’t organize against a bill that reduces rights of women, restricts immigrant rights, workers rights, or would otherwise marginalize any community.

We do not need to sacrifice our politics. We are far more powerful than a vote, and we have proven this time and again throughout history and today. More often then not, public outcry in the form of rallies, poster campaigns, riots, or strikes, have had a far more dramatic effect on the shape of the world then our votes ever would, and that’s assuming, of course, someone counts them.

The most common argument against Anarchist non-participation in elections is the idea that: “If you don’t vote, then have no right to criticize what the government does”.

If you do not vote and do not work to create change, then this statement is true. If you choose not to participate in, nor justify the existence of a capitalist agenda, while simultaneously working toward a vision of a world that is better on all fronts for everyone, then I believe we will come out ahead. We all know that you cannot beat the house at its own game, that knowledge is what brought most of us to find Anarchism in the first place. It is why we take matters into our own hands, why we take to the streets, why we fight for a way of life we may never even see in our lifetimes.

Anarchists in Community Movements

Anarchists in the US tend to be young, white and middle-class. Often we are criticized for not being accommodating to people of color, or not reaching out to communities of color. Taken at face value this is true. We are for the most part, a bunch of white kids with parents and other resources at our disposal, and little to lose from sticking our necks out.

That would seem to make us the perfect front line in a street level struggle.

Ideally, we could build a movement that was made up of all people. People of color, women, queer, and transgendered / genderqueer people. We should always struggle to overcome our own sexism, racism, and homophobia to create spaces, scenes and movements that accommodate all people, and provide community and safety. We are all aware that there have been far too many cases of situations where police single out, arrest and brutalize people of color, queer, or trans and other demonstrators. It is my belief that because I am unjustly granted privileges in life simply because of my skin color or gender, then the least I can do is abuse them as much as possible. If I am arrested at an action, I think “better me then someone that might not have the resources or time to hold out in court until these charges get dropped”.

It is not surprising that communities that are being attacked from all sides by capitalism, be it police repression, racist landlords and rental policies, or crime and drug influences in the neighborhoods they live in, are not jumping at the chance to place themselves in harms way by choice. It’s also somewhat insulting to assume that we, as white Anarchists are the only one organizing in our communities, and that communities of color were just wait for us to come along and help them. I see these as the main reasons our movement is so white. A good case-in-point would be Anti-Racist Action, which, although not an Anarchist organization, has the same problem. As can be drawn from it’s name, ARA is straightforward with it politics, and would seemingly be something that communities of color would be interested in being involved in. Yet, despite its efforts, ARA remains a mostly white organization. Without doubt, ARA, Anarchist and other social movements should always be working to keep our scene open and available to women, people of color, and all others. But we should not be surprised if it takes and amazing amount of struggle against this system, and huge sacrifices on our side, before we are taken seriously by these communities. We are, as of yet, unproven.

When Anarchists find themselves involved in community movements, and looking to legitimize our movement to community members who may have never heard of Anarchism, or if they have, are likely to have a negative opinion of it from the media, it doesn’t make a good argument for Anarchism as a viable system if we are not true to our own core beliefs, such as participation in this government and it‘s functions.

To cite one of the major examples of Anarchists involved in a community mobilization used in Beyond Voting, let’s examine the fight for housing in the Mission District of San Francisco during the dot com boom of the late 1990’s. This was a multifaceted effort by activists from many different communities, cultures, ages, and political affiliations. It was exactly the type of coalition Anarchists had been dreaming of, and it was well documented in the movie BOOM! The Sound of Eviction. I’ve lived in the Mission District, and although I moved to California after the dot com bubble had burst, you could still see the telltale effects that it had had on the neighborhood. What sticks out to me most about the film, is that while many people focused on getting officials elected into office to wait and hope to see if they followed through on their promises to the community, one family took matters into their own hands. With their landlord threatening to have them evicted to make way for the money the dot com’s and gentrification would bring, they were at the edge and about to be pushed over while legal and electoral processes plodded along. This family decided not to go out without a fight. They gathered up as many friends, family members, and supporters as they could, and marched from their home to the landlords business. They jammed his store full of loud, desperate and angry people who would do whatever necessary to halt this eviction. And it worked. It is a beautiful example of direct action at work.

The film shows so many people who lost their homes, many during the course of the election and filming process, that one has to wonder why this direct action tactic wasn’t used more often. Why was everyone, including the Anarchists, so dependent on the electoral process to save the neighborhood?

In the end, the coalition of Anarchists and activists, organizing in the mostly Latino/a neighborhood, did manage to successfully elect a white male into office.

The Mission Yuppie Eradication Project was a poster campaign that successfully intimidated the influx of dot com industry, by threatening to destroy property. It was also a major reason the struggle for housing in the Mission was widely covered in the media outside of the Bay Area.

One person who was arrested and accused of being Nestor Maknho, the person behind the project, is Kevin Keating. He is not an Anarchist. When asked about electoral politics, he had this to say; “Electoral politics is no use whatsoever to working class and poor people and it never has [been]... You can never vote the system out. [It’s] not just a waste of time, but a mystification about the nature of capitalist society. One good thing about the US among all the negative ways that they lead the rest of the industrial world; rate of police violence against civilians, use of the death penalty, number of children growing up in poverty… One positive way that the US leads the rest of the world is the rate of abstention from electoral politics. Even if all those people aren’t actively fighting for a society worthy of people living in it, they at least don’t have any illusions about voting.”

When I lived in the Mission it seemed to me that the number one thing deterring further white invasion from hip areas of the neighborhood, to the areas that were still relatively untouched by gentrification, were the street gangs. Where I lived on 24th Street, it was the Nortenos. Say what you want about gangs, but at their most basic they are youth-oriented, community-based, direct action groups that are not afraid to make their presence felt. How is it that to this day they continue to succeed where an Anarchist and community led coalition slowly failed and eventually disappeared? What can be learned?

Beyond Voting: Understanding Anarchism

In Beyond Voting, some of the harshest criticism of Anarchists’ involvement in community based organizing, is from non-Anarchist, white activists who seem to be expressing views based upon frustration from experiencing Anarchists not hoping on the popular bandwagon.

One such Bay Area activist is quoted; “I agree with a lot of what I understand Anarchism to be, but I don’t trust Anarchists. Every time powerful forces come after oppressed communities with all of these propositions, all the Anarchists I talk with say they don’t believe in legitimizing the power of the state because they won’t get their hands dirty in electoral politics.

“Don’t you understand that the state has real power over peoples lives? This is not a game that you get to choose to play in or not. While you might have the privilege to stand there ‘more radical than thou’, most of us are fighting for our lives. Being ‘above it all’ is not a choice. Then you complain when the police arrest you at a civil disobedience and call on me for solidarity?”

Her passion can be felt through these paragraphs, and they are a very real critique of Anarchism. It is also, unfortunately for Anarchists, one that is heard echoed by many across this nation. The problems that I see in this critique start almost immediately, the statement that,“I agree with a lot of what I understand Anarchism to be”, is a very encouraging beginning — as Anarchists tend to have trouble being painted in a positive light — but that sentiment is followed up with, “but I don’t trust Anarchists.” Where did we go wrong? Why is it that this is such a common thread in activist / progressive / left scenes?

The reason we are given for the distrust in the statement above is that, “all the Anarchists I talk with say they don’t believe in legitimizing the power of the state because they won’t get their hands dirty in electoral politics”. It is here that we find our first major conflict; the speaker does not trust Anarchists because they are following their stated political beliefs. I fail to understand why you would not trust someone who follows though on what they say they will do. It is no secret that Anarchism places no value in a capitalist system, or government. Why then would so many people be taken aback that when push-comes-to-shove most Anarchists, true to their principals, do not choose to participate in electoral politics?

“Don’t you understand that the state has real power over peoples lives?” We do. We also understand that under no circumstance is the state going to give up one ounce of that power without a fight. Did women vote for the right to vote? Did Nat Turner vote to be a free man, if only for a moment? Voting played no role in the Roe v. Wade decision, though votes will likely overturn those rights. The comments about ’above it all’ and ’holier than thou’, are more or less hypocritical in this rant, but I do know, and agree that we are all fighting for our lives.

The vote is an obsolete tool in that fight.

I can only hope that through information sharing, debate, and, of course, direct action, examples can be made that will reverse the trend of both activist distrust of Anarchists, and Anarchists that feel the need to bow to this pressure and go against principal to try to gain legitimacy.

To counter this point, in Beyond Voting, Chris Crass says, “I believe that our politics of non-engagement in so many crucial struggles involving the state, electoral politics among them, have in the end done more to de-legitimize Anarchists than to de-legitimize the power of the state.” This statement illustrates clearly a lack of faith in the community around you to see that there are other options than those presented by the government. The best way to show others these options is to use them ourselves.

The Lesser Evil is Not a Choice

During our recent US Presidential elections the american population, and youth in particular, were bombarded from every imaginable angle with pro-voting propaganda. Musicians, Hollywood stars, Puff Daddy, Paris Hilton, Eminem, MTV, and countless others were all trying their damnedest to get us out to the polls. One notable exception, Prince, released a new album in 2004, containing the line, “Ain’t no sense in voting, same song with a different name”, and harsh critiques of the current system in almost every song .

Underground punk rock acts were able to get in on the Pro-voting act too. Against Me! a political punk rock band from Florida has said plenty of important things in their music, including the track, “Baby, I’m an Anarchist”. They were also part of the punkvoter.org tour. With lyrics criticizing having “faith in elephant and the jackass”, they took time between songs to encourage us to vote.

This, no doubt, stemmed from a desire to see Bush unseated from a position of power in the US, and Against Me! and other punk bands were not alone in that sentiment. The worldwide anti-war movement was coalescing progressives and more radical groups. People everywhere were upset and starting to mobilize in record numbers across the country, and the world. What the elections did was successfully interrupt and shift the focus of the movement. Instead of being against the brash imperialism of the United States, the vision was narrowed to being against Bush. The anti-war movement was all but forgotten, as organizing for Kerry became the focal point of almost all progressive groups.

The problem was, and still is, that everyone managed to turn a blind eye to all of Kerry’s faults under the overwhelming pressure to remove Bush, no matter what. Kerry didn’t want to end the war. Kerry wasn’t for same-sex marriage. All he was was not Bush.

That is not enough.

The quotes in "Beyond Voting" echo this, with the slant of placing the plight of the poor on white activist, instead of the policies of the Government; “White activists need to be politically savvy enough to understand how those little, narrow nuances, that separate the candidates are not so little and narrow to everyone.”

White activists should most definitely be aware of the privilege they have, and that no matter how hard they try, they will never actually understand what it is to live in america as a person of color.

I do not know how exactly that translates to the need to vote. I might start with trying to help provide some of the things that the Government tries to keep away from these communities. Instead of wasting our time and resources canvassing neighborhoods for a presidential campaign, we could canvas with information about real women’s health options, and which services were really backed by religious groups with their own agendas in mind. That is only one example of they things that could have been done, and most likely were being done until the elections and the voting push hit. We need to understand these nuances and the effect they have on communities.

That brings us to the real and major differences between the candidates on abortion rights.

Many believe that Roe v. Wade will be overturned under Bush’s second term. This is a very real possibility. It would effectively undo the last 30 years of gains in reproductive rights. While all of this is fact, many people let the elections and pro-Kerry rhetoric veil their eyes from the truth that in most areas of the country women currently do not have access to health care and abortion services. Although things will not improve under Bush, in the end, things are already bad for many women in rural and poor areas, and have been. Kerry had no plan to change this, so what would be the basis for radicals or Anarchists to vote for him on this issue. Women’s reproductive rights have never been at the place they should be, under Democrats or Republicans. Under this system.

Also in "Beyond Voting," the creative suggestion is made to offer to “vote for” people who cannot vote. That is, for Anarchists to seek out prisoners, undocumented workers, felons, or others whom the state will not allow to vote, and offer to use “our vote” as though it were “theirs”. This is an ambitious idea, and I have to wonder, if you were to make such an offer for example, for the recent 2004 Bush / Kerry elections, and the prisoner/felon/worker you offer to “vote for” asks you to vote for Bush, would you? Would you honor your word? Would you vote against everything you personally feel is right? Or are you just using this marginalized person as an excuse, a means to justify, voting?

"Beyond Voting" wraps up with a strong anti-Bush push, urging “younger people to defeat Bush”, with sentiment like, “I’m confident that we can use the anti-Bush campaign to build our movement”.

Alternately and unfortunately, I am confident that the anti-Bush movement has successfully used radicals like Chris Crass and others from our movement to build theirs, effectively taking all momentum from projects nationwide that Anarchists had been involved in. Things like clinic defense, police brutality work, and fighting the advance of religious fundamentalism. How did the Anarchists get duped by the government into believing that working with the system was the answer?

In the end the election was not a chance to change the world, realistically it was a contest about how to rule the empire. Votes do nothing to move us away from this empire. The voice of the people was again marginalized. It is time to accept that electoral politics are not where our class power resides. Four years from now will we allow “Anyone But Bush”, (or anyone else), again be the banner under which we rally? Or will we try to realize the world that we see in our hearts? The world that we should be fighting for at all times, in every aspect of our lives? I cannot see the progress to be gained for the movement, or the working and poor people of this country, by electing anyone to office. I cannot accept that I, or anyone else that abstained from this, or any other election, did the people a disservice by not voting.

Because, unlike any politician, I believe in the people.


1 "Beyond Voting: Anarchist organizing, electoral politics, and developing strategy for liberation," By Chris Crass, is Clamor Communique #42. It is the focus of this essay. See here.

2 From A New World in Our Hearts, (p. 98), a Love and Rage anthology, that seeks to chronicle the groups years as a Revolutionary Anarchist Federation in the US. Though compiled with a bias toward one side of the federation's split, it is still a worthwhile resource.

3 Police profiling is not a new practice, but this was fiercely and brutally demonstrated at the FTAA protests in Miami, 2004. See here for more information.

4. This sentiment is explained further (and better than I could ever do), in the article "Class & Race: Burning Questions, Unpopular Answers," by Fruittidrutti, in The Northeastern Anarchist, Issue 6, Fall 2003

5 Anti-Racist Action was formed in the early 1990’s in Minneapolis, and grew to an international network that organizes against racism, sexism, homophobia and christian fundamentalism. See here.

6 Information about, and copies of this documentary are available at www.whisperedmedia.org.

7 Visit here for further information about Mr. Keating and the MYEP.

8 From, Prince, "Musicology," 2004. Quoted lyrics are in “Dear Mr. Man”. This is probably the most politically charged album to be released this year. Prince makes us proud to be Minnesotans.

9 Visit
here for further information.

Contact Information:

Northstar Anarchist Collective

c/o Arise!

2441 Lyndale Ave S.

Minneapolis, MN 55408

Email: mnacollective@yahoo.com

Federation of Revolutionary Anarchist Collectives–Great Lakes Region:


P.O. Box 4502 East Lansing, MI 48826

Email: frac@mutualaid.org