Monday, 4 June 2012

Non-Voting As Privilege

As a dirty anarchist, I see voting as fundamentally deceptive. Like the button at a pedestrian crossing, it's there to give the illusion of control; the traffic will eventually stop for a moment, but on the city's timetable, not yours. Moreover, I see many state practices - harmful military and economic intervention in other countries, domestic imprisonment of drug users - as immoral, and I feel that by voting I lend legitimacy to those practices. It's a small symbolic act of defiance: I can't impede the functioning of government, but at the very least I can refuse to participate in its PR exercise.

However, I've recently found myself unable to give a coherent response to voters who make this argument:

Yes, both parties are bad, but one is marginally better than the other on particular issues - abortion, women's rights, employment rights - so not voting for the slightly better party causes real harm.

My previous response (and I suspect the response of many anarchists) is this: you're claiming that state-sanctioned foreign murder and domestic slavery is less important than a few bones the political machine tosses its citizens every now and then. I used to think that a symbolic blow to state power is worth more than a few political gains. Here's my current response to that:

Choosing an airy symbolic victory over, say, abortion rights is almost always an act of extreme privilege. If you're a white man, you have the opportunity to weigh up harm to minorities and women against your own involvement with the war machine. If you're a minority yourself - or you're pregnant, or you might be pregnant one day - then you don't really have that opportunity. You've got to protect yourself. People who will never be harmed by anti-woman or anti-gay laws can afford not to really think about them. They can disassociate themselves from the real consequences of such laws and consider the issue from a pure, objective standpoint. However, the problem with an objective standpoint (and here I stand on the shoulders of the Great Dane himself) is that to reach it you have to set aside your own subjectivity, all that makes you human - and by the time you're capable of considering things objectively, you've lost sight of everything of real importance.

Well. You might respond that by not voting, you hasten the eventual fall of the state, which will bring serious long-term benefits to women and minorities alike. Here, in brief, is my response:

You're fooling yourself. Sure, not voting takes away a little legitimacy from the state, but you're still paying taxes. Refusing to vote is an act of hand-washing, cleansing oneself symbolically while simultaneously funding immoral practices. Legitimacy is not primarily conferred by the practices with which it sustains itself; rather, at base it is conferred by the possession of money, guns and lawyers. When the state finally crumbles, it will be because it's run itself into the ground, not because a few anarchists are letting their lives (or one day of their lives every four years) be a negligible friction in the machine.

If you don't vote, your illusion of utopia is harming real people, right now - people without the luxury of enjoying masturbatory survivalist fantasies of an anarchist country. You don't have to like it. In fact, if you like voting, there's something seriously wrong with you. But you're ethically obliged to do it.


  1. 1) Wow, very insightful analysis, dude.

    2) This is the first time I've noticed your "danish dreamboats" tag. Glorious!

    3) I'm skeptical that the fall of the state would "bring serious long-term benefits to women and minorities alike." That view seems to require a lot more optimism about human nature than I've got.

  2. But what if the very act of voting for The Lesser Evil actually increases the very evil you oppose? What if gvoting Democrat No Matter What (which is what you are saying) actively helps things, overall, become worse?

    Can't disagree with the overall tenor of your remark, and certainly, odious as Obama is, the thought of that slick sociopath being in power makes a non vote for the Bad O a nasty

  3. Ivan, thanks! And thanks for the tag love. Sometimes I feel like all my blogging endeavours have been aimed at approximating Tristyn Bloom's( hilarious set of tags. I mentioned your point (3) because I've seen it a lot around the internet. I personally think it's defensible, in a pie-in-the-sky kind of way, but I can see how reasonable people might disagree.

    Brian, I guess my position is that things overall are pretty fucked already. We're all falling down a deep hole, but at least we can try and make a few people's lives better before we hit the bottom.

  4. The vote does not secure advantage for the injured party, Phil. It changes the dressing on the wound.

  5. Jack, you're talking like you don't occasionally flip your pillow over to sleep on the cooler side.

  6. Phil,

    I don't. Sleep short, heavy sleeps. :)

    But, that's really not here, there or anywhere.

    One could argue that paying the protection money to a mobster will keep life from getting demonstrably worse, and it's a valid argument as long as you accept that the mobster's got a right to the money in the first place.

  7. Jack, whether the mobster's got a right to the money or not is immaterial. Of course he doesn't, but what he does have is a group of thugs who are going to burn your shop down if you don't pay up. Obviously paying him will keep things from getting immediately worse - in the short term.

    Whether there are relevant long-term considerations or not depends entirely on your optimism.

  8. You cannot possibly be serious here.

  9. Coldtype, I would love to have my mind changed. I know that what this post argues is complicity with the war machine, and I hate it. That said, I still don't have a good response to the lesser-evil argument that doesn't lapse into hardline deontology.

    Point me to a good reason for why voting does more tangible harm than non-voting! I'll spin on a dime, I swear.

  10. Phil,

    Let the shop burn. A hard edged answer, perhaps. But, there are efforts the cooperation with which makes the victim a co-conspirator. In fact, that's the point of forcing, compelling, the cooperation.

  11. What do you think about demarchy from a test-constrained pool?

    i.e. People voluntarily take a test (which filters out people who don't want to be involved) to measure various characteristics, and if they pass then they are eligible to be selected to govern by sortition. I guess it would be difficult to define a cut-off, though, and you would have to design the test to rule out the nepotists and the potentially corruptible. Might be difficult.

    On the plus side, there's no voting involved, and people are selected indiscriminately from the pool.

    It's not quite anarchy, but it'd probably be better than what we have. And having no possibility of reappointment might limit the corrupting power of power.

  12. I like the idea, but it smells a bit of the great progressive desire to determine everything through standardized tests. Who determines what characteristics are measured? Who writes the questions? Assuming it's not all multiple-choice, who grades the answers?

    If it worked, though (by which I of course mean 'if people like me could write and grade the answers') it would be excellent.

    One final point. You talk about the 'potentially corruptible' as if this represents a set of people who could be excluded from the political process; I think rather that the potential for corruption is a basic human characteristic. You may as well try to rule out people who are potentially foolish or lazy.

  13. All very good points. It always comes back to who writes the questions, and of course not everyone would agree with them even if it were the fairest test in the world.

    I do dislike the trend towards standardised testing and if anyone can think of way to assess character more simply or fairly, then I'd be all for that. Optimally, one would want to assess them without them being aware, so you wouldn't run into problems with people cheating it.

    'Potentially corruptible' was rather careless of me. I see what you're saying, and agree that all of these are simply facets of humanity. Ideally, the members of parliament (or whatever it would be) would not be able to be put into a position where they might be corrupted, but perhaps you'd have to rely on short terms to prevent corruption. Maybe amongst a few hundred people who would only govern by their consciences and not to benefit a party, those who are corrupted are patently obvious to the rest, especially if the whole governing process were completely transparent(I can't think why it might not be transparent, but I guess there would be a lot of handshaking and dealmaking between members--though if you keep them all separated and conduct legislative voting blindly and electronically, that might be avoided).

    There are obviously still a lot of issues with this, but I think it should be considered as a (tentatively) viable option.