28 May Where Ideas Go To Die
Where Ideas Go To Die
A lot of dedicated, principled socialists ran in both the European and local elections in Ireland, many of whom I know personally. There’s a tendency for electoral socialists to take personally criticism of electoralism from anarchists who have been comrades on campaigns, but we aren’t saying you’re terrible because you run in elections; we’re saying you’re better than that.
I didn’t ask anyone to abstain from voting in the local and European elections. I don’t particularly care if you stick a number beside a name on a ballot paper. I’m not asking you to agree, I’m not asking you to text join if you do, and I don’t have a paper to sell you or a petition to sign.
But I can’t apologise for believing, based on all the historical evidence available to me, and all of my personal experience, combined with the personal experiences of others like me who once participated in one kind of electoral organisation or another, who have come to the same conclusions, bolstered by a century and a half of rigorous anarchist analysis and critique of the state (that is generally lacking in most forms of Marxism and all forms of social democracy). That is that participation in electoral politics is, at best, a gigantic misdirection of energy into an arena that substitutes representation for community and class self-organisation, and at worst, a legitimisation of the state, its structures, its borders, its inherent need for economic growth and a delegitimisation of alternatives to that system.
This week’s elections are even more meaningless than a general election. Local government in Ireland has no power whatsoever. County managers are in charge and they are not elected. In the EU, the commission, again unelected, is in the driving seat. But even when it comes to a general election, in the unlikely event that a “left” (whatever that means in this day and age) government came to power, they’d have to contend with all the constitutional barriers, the laws and regulations that would take decades of uninterrupted power to change, the guardians of these barriers and the purse strings—the very top of the civil service who know the rules and regulations better than the vast majority of us, and that intangible but very real elephant in the room, capital.
Capital relies on the state to safeguard property rights, bail it out when it gets in a spot of bother, act as its banker of last resort, and maintain an education system suitable for turning out a competent and compliant workforce. The state maintains that workforce at subsistence levels when capital has no current use for it.
The state in turn relies on capital to keep the wheels of the economy turning and to fund a media that keeps public opinion within safe margins agreeable to both (challenged by social media and alternative media, which can be shut down of course, by either). The flow of funding into the state coffers very much relies on economic growth which in turn relies on overproduction, which in turn sends the planet spiralling towards climate catastrophe. Trying to use the state to bring about socialism is like trying to play Tetris on a Rubik’s cube. Sure, all the blocks are there, but they don’t move the way you need them to.
But then some socialists say they are only using electoral politics as a platform for socialist ideas, that they don’t believe change can come from parliamentary politics but being there allows them to reach a wider audience. I have no doubt that they believe this. But think about it. When you hear socialists on the radio, on the television, on panels with other politicians, do they talk about expropriating the capitalist class? Do they talk about the abolition of the state? Even their version of “the workers’ state” and the “withering away of the state”? Do they talk about direct action or even “transitional demands”?
Of course they don’t, not through choice either but because the media sets the parameters of the debate. The parameters of the debate are based on the parameters of the current system, so all they can talk about is taxation or housing, which is an important issue but they can’t say how they would really like to solve it within the narrow parameters of a system that is resistant to change. They discuss Brexit within the framework of borders and nations and the EU but can’t pose any radical socialist alternative on that or whatever else the issues of the day are. The only time I saw any elected socialist in Ireland put forward even a limited outline of what socialism actually meant to them, and it was limited, was Joe Higgins on the TG4 documentary, Ag Lorg Che Guevara, and that was to a fairly limited audience.
In Leinster House (or any parliament) debate is limited to the order of the day and most of the time the only people listening are a few other TD’s (teachta dála, a member of the Irish parliament) and the media who will only report snippets. On the doors when you are canvassing, my experience has largely been that conversation is limited to immediate issues facing constituents and “what you would do in government” and it’s a fairly crap arena to talk about a different type of society. You might get one or two recruits during the course of election campaigns who might come to meetings and hear more, but that’s about the height of it. And they might not even stick around. No platform for socialist ideas there then either.
Where is it then? Where’s the platform? In my experience the only place there has been a platform for revolutionary socialist ideas is within campaigns. When you organise alongside people, they are willing to give you a hearing and when organising—in communities, within unions, in campaigns for migrant rights, on gender issues—you meet the people who are hungriest for change and who are most willing to listen to radical ideas about changing society. That’s your platform, but when you take that energy, recruit some of those people to your party and use that energy to build your electoral machine you are turning the whole thing upside down. You’re using socialist ideas as a platform for electoral politics, an inertia tunnel where socialist ideas go to die and where, when the limits of the system limit any action you can take, people outside of politics lump you into the “all the same” bracket, because that’s how it looks.
I didn’t come to these conclusions by reading books by anarchists, I came to these conclusions through my membership of a party that participated in the electoral arena (as a platform for socialist ideas), canvassing in seven elections, selling papers, building candidate profiles, participating in campaigns. Those conclusions lead to me anarchism. So it’s fine if you disagree, but don’t think I’m just cynical or mean if I don’t react enthusiastically to a few lefties getting council seats or into the EU parliament or even if the five to seven (depending on who you talk to) “far left” TD’s becomes ten the next time around because it is my principled and thought out position that it’s completely counter-productive.
This article originally appeared in the blog Self Certified.
Mark Hoskins is an anarchist writer and community organiser based in Drogheda, Co. Louth, Ireland.