Skip to main content

Vote With Your Feet (part 2)

"To want to abdicate is to vote."
-Alain Badiou-

This entry is the second part in a series about boycotting the upcoming Canadian federal elections, a movement initiated by the Revolutionary Communist Party of Canada, in order to promote the Toronto launch of this movement on March 19th, 2011.

In Xavier Gens' leftwing horror film Frontier(s) a small band of racialized youth escape Paris in the furor of the riots surrounding LePen's possible election of 2002, fleeing to the French frontiers.  One member of the band, Yasmin, is pregnant and the film opens with her declaration that she does not want to give birth to a child in "this sick society."  But the flight out of this society, out of the riots inspired by a possible fascist election, results in an encounter with the open fascism of the countryside where her companions are slaughtered by nazis.  She survives this encounter and, drenched in blood, returns to the supposedly "civilized" cities.  In the process, she hears the news that LePen was defeated and yet, despite this defeat, screams in defiant rage.  Moments later she is stopped by the police of the current government and taken at gunpoint to jail.  Holding up her hands, drenched in blood and filth, the film's opening about childbirth in a sick society is reinforced: the society is still fascist, regardless of LePen's election, and the mobilization to prevent his election by supporting the supposedly "anti-fascist" parliamentary party has done nothing to make society less sick.  This is still a society that promotes racialization, still sends the victimized women to prison, is still irrevocably diseased.

We live in a society that promotes the cult of the vote, a mindless devotion to electoral procedure as a method of change.  In every election we are inundated with propaganda that tries to convince us that voting is the end of politics, that this is the essence of democracy, and implicitly insults the intelligence of a possible 60% of the population who are not voting and have no faith in the process.  We are supposed to believe that life would be better if this 60% (composed of 41% of registered voters who do not vote, along with innumerable unregistered voters who are not allowed to vote despite the fact that many of them participate in undocumented labour that is often the backbone of the work performed by the labour aristocracy) simply voted rather than being apathetic and that, really, it doesn't matter how they vote as long as they just vote.  As if simply voting is the only way to be properly democratic.

In this context, the self-proclaimed left accepts the logic of bourgeois democracy despite the fact that, theoretically, it understands that voting by itself cannot overthrow capitalism.  The rhetoric of simply vote becomes, for the left activists involved in reformist coalitions, vote for social democratic reforms.  Because this is the only thing, they claim, we can hope to get: not even an end to imperialism or settler-colonialism, but a few sad reforms that ignore the plight of the people at the bottom of society.  The Yasmins of the world, the beleaguered protagonists of Gens' Frontier(s), are expected to flee the cities and die in the outlands.  Or to be arrested, returned to prisons and silence, marginalized and insulted, blamed for their own victimization because they refuse to vote.

The refusal to vote is banned from becoming a legitimate leftist position by people who should know better.  The philosopher Alain Badiou, in reference to the LePen spectacle of 2002, once tried to make sense of this electoral "leftism."  He wondered why the so-called left wasted its time mobilizing against LePen by simply voting for another capitalist-imperialist party, why they had moved so far from the politics of May 1968 where the election was boycotted as a "betrayal" and a "pig-sty."  In this context he wrote:
"…voting is the only political procedure known whose immobilisme (i.e. opposition to change) is a practically ineluctable consequence, excepting that which is demonstrably a law of nature.  Phenomena as considerable and as dramatic as the destruction of rural France in a few decades, the dismantling of public services, schools included, the alibis found in obedience to European Union directives, and the follow-the-leader attitude in American wars, were never submitted to a vote, nor clearly chosen through one particular party.  The vote does not bear on these capital questions, which are instead presented consensually by politicians as comprising simply what exists, and not as that which is decided." (Badiou, Polemics, 90-91)
The real decisions are being made outside of elections and not in any democratic manner.  Mobilizing around the vote, around making a society more socially democratic, does not even get to the heart of these issues because they have been decided, with varying shades from party to party, even before the vote takes place.  This is not a space in which we can fight, it is a waste of time to believe that we can influence a context that has been decided for us ahead of time.

Moreover, Badiou argues that electoral spaces can do nothing but elude real political decisions because these spaces avoid those principles that we, as the left, are supposed to be concerned with in the first place:
"In other words, if important changes take place they do not do so in the field of the vote.  Inversely, that which is in the vote's field is on the whole inalterable.  What fascinates and brings about adhesion to the procedure of voting is this guarantee of a decision without object. […] On the other hand, a politics encompassing real decisions, I mean emancipatory decisions, is entirely foreign to the vote, because by deciding something liberatory you are designated as being hostile to established interests, interests that… will make enough of a hullabaloo, and will have sufficient control over the instruments of propaganda, to ensure that you'll be replaced at the next election.  And this will be all the more readily done, as people vote to persevere and not to become." (Ibid., 91, emphasis added)
 No important changes, no matter how reformist (if even real and meaningful reforms can be won in this context in the first place) happen within the field of the vote.  And yet this field is fascinating because of its "guarantee of a decision without object"––that is, a decision without any principled politics but just a decision of banal transformation.  There can be no "emancipatory decisions" within the electoral context, no matter what certain entryist groups might claim with dogmatic reference to a misread text by Lenin: playing within the parameters of social democracy is foreign to liberation.

This is the meaning behind Gens' Frontier(s) where, at the end, the vote that banned LePen from taking power did not, after all that, truly ban the fascist logic of society.  The racialized and female protagonist is still arrested, still subordinated to the cruel logic of imperial-capitalism, still wants to abort her unborn child because she still believes that her society is thoroughly diseased.  It was clear that she did not participate in the electoral process that ousted LePen; rather, she was forced to participate in a nazi horror show that was, at the end, legitimated by her arrest.  Is she to be blamed for this lack of participation, for this desire to simply rob an oppressive society and escape to the frontiers that, in the end, sent her back to the society she wanted to escape?

Voting in this context, in this specific juncture at the centre of imperialism, is abdication of political principles.  We cannot "vote and fight" because we are now living in a time where the former actually reinforces the lack of the latter: to vote for one imperialist, no matter how much s/he smiles, makes little difference for the global victims.  Moreover, by pushing for social democracy we ignore the fact that social democratic reforms in the context of capitalism is contingent on imperial plunder.  As Badiou argues, we need to subordinate "politics both to principles and to practices that depend directly on such principles, rather than to the very strange rule that submits everything to a count of votes."  But most importantly, today "[t]he vote is in essence contradictory to principles, just as it is to every idea of emancipation and protest." (Ibid., 91)


  1. I think you are right, for the most part, however, what do you make of the success of Hugo Chavez, who, without parliamentary power, wouldn't have been able to enact deep reforms which changed the entire political landscape of Venezuela? Are you advocating a purely abstentionist strategy, or, are you claiming that, under settler-colonial societies like the U$A and Klanada, that, at this particular juncture, voting has no place in a politics (at a distance from the State)?

  2. The strategy is definitely contextual and was suggested for the context of North America, specifically Canada, where there is no strong left movement to speak of. The Chavez situation (and we can even add the Allende situation) is different in that the parliamentary/electoral process was just one point in a larger movement...

    There's a good article about boycotts as revolutionary strategy in the context of today's imperialist countries here:

  3. What do you think of Quebec Solidaire? I am an Amerikan observer and am uncertain of their politics, but, from a quick glimpse of their website, they seem like a Party that could merit a vote. How does RCP-PCR or your politics specifically identify Quebec Solidaire?

  4. It's probably best to ask the RCP/PCR about Quebec Solidaire... Generally they would argue that any attempt to take back the electoral space at this time and period in Canada is doomed to failure.

  5. I have been following this blog for a while, however my browser security settings forbid me from commenting on blogspot.
    so here I am at a public computer.
    More topically I think the Chavez and Allende situations are themselves excellent examples of how electoral strategies can only lead into the social democratic morass.
    After all Chavez's "deep reforms" boil down to a national populist welfare state, and the Allende regime was a major obstacle to autonomous working class resistance against the fascist coup.
    This whole idea broached by the RCP/PCR is quite interesting considering that at least in the US radical left response to the electoral circus can be roughly divided into
    A. socialists who come up with crackpot schemes for entryism or "third party" participation (as if the problem were the "two party system" and not democracy in general.)
    B. anarchists who for some reason think the elections should be ignored because they "don't matter" (tell that to all the states which spend huge amounts imposing them on unwilling populations).
    I think in that context mobilization for an active boycott campaign is a great way to draw a "line in the sand" between revolutionary proletarian politics and social democracy.

  6. Thanks for the comment: for some reason (maybe the public computer fiasco) it ended up in my spam box - good thing I noticed!

    I agree with your comments about Chavez/Allende. Even still, voting for them in their contexts at least meant something more than it does, now, at the North American centres of imperialism. Which is why they represent(ed) different cases than what is on the electoral table in North America and Canada. Clearly the left should never liquidate themselves, either honestly or dishonestly (as with entryism), into even real social democratic movements.

    And I also agree that the problem is obviously not whether or not there should be a third party because, up here in Canada, we have more than three parties and the supposed political spectrum these parties are supposed to represent is extremely narrow.

    As for anarchists who think the elections should be ignored because they "don't matter" - we're hoping that some of them will be willing to work in an active boycott coalition.

    (By the way, my partner told me that you contacted her on facebook thinking she was me... Now I shall add you to my blog roll!)

  7. The lesson of Allende in fact shows just how far one can go with government, not state power. Even with the amazing successes in Chile and the support of the people, the bourgeois state apparatus will kick into gear if we do not consolidate and advance the revolution by dismantling it. Watch the film "A Very British Coup" for a basically perfect example of this. You can do absolutely everything right, but if you don't smash the state you are screwed.

  8. Good point: I agree that the dictatorship of the proletariat needs to be consolidated, clearly, in order to consolidate the revolution.


Post a Comment