The heat of a presidential election campaign is a good time to reflect on the old Howard Zinn quote about voting: “Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.” But what really matters, for building a genuinely just and democratic society, is what we do with our time before and after pulling that lever.
Zinn’s observation has never been more true than in this election year, when the two candidates running under major party banners have the fewest redeeming features of any presidential candidates in my lifetime.
I have no moral qualms at all against strategic voting in self-defense. Until a few weeks ago, I was inclined to boycott the election altogether. I thought and still think that Hillary Clinton is godawful and had considerable sympathy for the Sanders insurgency. But a handful of recent developments like revelations by the ghostwriter of “The Art of the Deal” and the howls of fascist bloodlust at the GOP convention have convinced me that Trump’s threat goes beyond the ordinary and reaches Germany 1932 levels — or maybe Greg Stillson in “The Dead Zone” levels. So yeah, I’m willing to vote Clinton if my state is close just to avert that threat.
But the choice is still one between merely godawful and apocalyptically bad. Trump is a rallying point for outright fascism by social reactionaries and racists who want to reverse the tide of history. Trump openly threatens, in rhetoric unmatched for authoritarianism since Giuliani held office in New York, to use the full power of the state to harass and shut down his critics in the press.
As for Clinton… Well, the prominence given to retired Gen. John Allen’s jingoistic ravings were featured at the Convention, and the fact that delegates chanting “No more wars!” were shouted down by mindless barking of “USA! USA!”, says it all. She’s more hawkish than Obama. She’s fully committed to Obama’s program of murderous drone warfare and legal persecution of whistleblowers, and agrees with Trump on the substance of his stances on mandatory encryption backdoors and Internet surveillance. On issues like the Trans Pacific Partnership, fracking and the Keystone pipeline she has — reluctantly and with great equivocation — responded to pressures on her left flank by making leftish sounding noises. But nobody outside the most sycopanthic “I’m With Her!” Kool-aid drinkers expect her to honor them once elected. If her economic policy team isn’t made up of appointees from Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, I’ll eat my shorts.
So the outcome of this vote will, at best, slow down the rate at which the American government gravitates towards plutocracy, police statism and global corporate Empire.
It’s pretty unrealistic, when you get right down to it, to expect anything else. The American state is part of a complex of institutions whose job is to prop up corporate capitalism and enforce white supremacy, and the two major parties — including the establishments and finance systems that filter the candidates you’re allowed to choose between in the primaries — are very much a part of that system.
That’s not to say that political action is useless — but its main purpose is to run interference, to deter state repression, and to safeguard our primary task, which is outside the realm of electoral politics: actually building the kind of society we want to live in.
Insurrectionary and revolutionary approaches to systemic change, and Old Left approaches like Leninism and Social Democracy, take a strategic approach focused on capturing the centers of political and economic power and using the state to transform the socio-economic system. Such approaches require a verticalist organizational model based on institutional mass and hierarchical structure — for example centrally coordinated mass political parties, establishment lobbies and NGOs.
But this model of influencing or capturing the state is becoming less and less relevant as a growing share of functions performed by governments and large corporations become obsolete.
In the 19th century the economy became dominated by the giant corporations that could afford the increasingly expensive machinery required for production. And around these giant corporations, there grew a complex of other centralized, hierarchical institutions like government agencies, universities, charitable foundations and public school systems for providing the corporations with organizational inputs they needed or stabilizing their functioning within the larger society.
Today we’re experiencing a reversal of that transformation. We have a set of tools for building a cooperative, horizontally organized counter-economy under our own democratic control. Permaculture and other intensive farming techniques can produce far more food from far less land than the giant agribusiness operations on their stolen land. Open source micro-manufacturing tools, like routers, 3-D printers, cutting tables and the like that can be produced for $1000 or less apiece, mean that a small shop with CNC tabletop machine tools worth six months’ factory pay can do the former work of mass production dinosaur industry. Self-organized networks are far more efficient, as coordinating mechanisms, than the old institutional bureaucracies with their Taylorist work rules and Weberian job descriptions.
Put them all together, and you’ve got a junkyard dog counter-economy that can not only operate on a tiny fraction of the enormous piles of stolen capital and land of the corporate economy, but — because of its high-overhead and bureaucratic ossification — run circles around it in agility.
Throughout most of history, class exploitation was based on physical control of access to the means of production, which were scarce and expensive. The propertied classes enclosed the land and then extracted rents from those who lived and worked on it. They used their accumulated stolen wealth to build factories, and with the help of their state’s police and military controlled the terms on which the working class, robbed of its property in the land, was allowed to work in them.
Today, when the physical means of production are becoming radically abundant and cheap, and the most important productive resource is the knowledge and social relationships of workers themselves, capitalists must instead enforce, not physical control of the means of production, but legal monopolies on the actual right to produce.
The capitalist state’s central strategy, through instruments like TPP and other “Free Trade” Agreements, is to impose ever more draconian “intellectual property” laws that enforce legal monopolies on the very right to produce: on the right of associated labor to apply general intellect to physical nature, without the permission of the corporations that “own” those human relationships and knowledge. And the biggest threat it faces is networked, horizontal movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and assorted movements to hack “intellectual property” in culture, software and hardware; hence the rapid growth in the machinery of the surveillance state.
But even here, the capitalists and their state find themselves at a disadvantage. Because of the agility of networked organization and the stupidity of hierarchy, the technologies for circumventing monopoly are always three steps ahead of the technologies for enforcing it.
So if you feel the need to vote in order to avert the immediate threat of fascism, by all means do so. But the state and the class system it enforces are doomed in the long run. And in the meantime, we have a new society to build.