Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The baby and the bathwater

We have received by email a leaflet about the election from Past Tense Publications who have published some interesting short pamphlets about labour and popular history in South London. Headed "ALL ELECTIONS ARE A JOKE. LET'S TREAT THEM WITH THE CONTEMPT THEY DESERVE" it argues that "all elections are a waste of time". It starts off well enough:
Politicians of all parties fill their pockets, you couldn’t tell their policies apart without a microscope, the power of the rich, the global corporations and financiers continues merrily whoever is elected; well-meaning do-gooders get elected, then become sucked in or ground down by he weight of the system. While the meaningless circus at Westminster rattles on, our lives are at the mercy of their economic upturns and downturns, grinding away at work just to survive. While the rich and their parliamentary puppets wine and dine, whoever gets in next time will slash the NHS and other services many of us need to get by, to balance the national debt – at our expense, again.
They recall what they see as a historical precedent:
"How things don’t change…
In the 18th century, the vast majority of the population were excluded from power by a corrupt political elite, who had the parliamentary processes all sown up in the interests of the rich, ie themselves and their mates (sound familiar?). The poor could see the electoral circus meant nothing to them.
In response some set out to take the piss out of the whole charade. In the South London village of Garratt (in modern Wandsworth), from the 1740s to the 1790s, mock elections were held for the fictional office of “Mayor of Garratt”. Huge crowds flocked to a rowdy and fantastic parade and drinking spree, centred on a fake contest, featuring ridiculous candidates making grandiose speeches, promising the mpossible if elected, and swearing oaths filled with sexual innuendo…"
And conclude with practical proposals to "Turn the joke back on them":
It may not change the world: but why don’t we revive the Garratt tradition, with a vengeance this time, everywhere? We could hold mock elections, in the streets, parks, or even inside the polling stations on election day (till they chuck us out!), at work, school or on the bus, we could stir up a huge non-stop mickey-take of the meaningless parliamentary smokescreen, disrupting, engaging with others, having a laugh, but showing we aren’t taken in? Why not elect your ranty mates, or whoever; maybe they could all turn up at the House of Commons on opening day and claim to be an Honourable Member too? Would your pet gerbil make a good MP?
We could also revive other fun practices from our history: like the Suffragettes’ were fond of following candidates they opposed around and disrupting all their elections speeches; which would be a laugh too, especially with megaphones or sound systems.
These are just two ideas – there’s a million more ways to trash the dash for cash. Let’s use our imaginations, go for it, and not get nicked!
Having fun together is more real than parliamentary puppet shows… The more chaos and disorder, the more disruption, the more open rejection of the empty lie of democracy, the more fun we’ll have the more potential for real change.
Clearly anarchist influence is strong amongst some of those associated with Past Tense publications. The full text can in fact already be found on anarchist websites, for instance, here.

Mildly amusing perhaps (though, to tell the truth, the members at our offices who read it thought it pathetic) but theoretically and practically wrong. Mocking politicians is alright to a certain extent (we do it ourselves) but it can give rise to the mistaken idea that is because of corrupt and self-seeking politicians that we suffer from the social problems we do. It's not. It's the fault of capitalism. Even if all politicians were saints they still couldn't make capitalism work in our interest.

Nor is it true that "All elections are a joke". While what the professional politics who currently dominate politics get up to at Westminister and the antics they engage in to get votes do deserve to be mocked, especially as the media give them so much publicity, there is a serious side to elections.

Elections are ultimately about who controls the government and who gets to make the laws. Ever since most electors have been wage and salary workers the capitalist class has needed to persuade workers into voting for politicians who will support their system. This is what elections are about: tricking workers into voting for pro-capitalist politicians. Past Tense are right to expose this, but wrong to conclude that this means we should never have anything to do with elections. The response should be, as Marx once put it, to transform universal suffrage "from the instrument of fraud that it has been up till now into an instrument of emancipation". Which is one of the points we are trying to make in contesting this and other elections.

Universal suffrage came into being partly as a result of pressure from below. Past Tense recognise this when they note that "from the 1760s the [Garratt] elections were associated with radical politics: demands for reform of the political system band protests against the economic hardships and lack of liberty for the labouring classes began to appear in the speeches". But what was "reform of the political system" if not the extension of the suffrage and its use to gain access to political power to try to improve the situation of "the labouring classes", such as the Chartists later campaigned for? And what did the Suffragettes want if not to extend the suffrage? Was this wrong? We say No, the extension of the vote to workers is a gain and is a crucial difference between today and the situation in 1700s. Certainly, at present the vote is not used wisely -- in fact it is used very unwisely -- but that doesn't mean that it can't be used when once workers have woken up to the fact that capitalism can never be made to work in their interests. To try to speed up this awareness is another reason why we contest elections.

The suggestion to take over "polling stations on election day", i.e. to try to disrupt the elections, is completely irresponsible but is probably just anarchist bombast. Our advice to them (since the Past Tense people seem a decent lot) is: don't be stupid, don't do it. If they really tried it, they'd be in dead trouble and would get nicked, ending up in prison to reflect on the refrain from the Crickets 1959 song "I fought the Law" ... "And the Law Won".

1 comment:

stuart said...

I got this email too, and this is a very good response. The paragraph quoted above is just terrible:

"Having fun together is more real than parliamentary puppet shows… The more chaos and disorder, the more disruption, the more open rejection of the empty lie of democracy, the more fun we’ll have the more potential for real change."

This isn't even anarchism, but a popular myth about what anarchism means. Anarchism doesn't mean chaos and disorder, it means organisation and order. "Anarchy is order," as the old slogan has it.

As for the idea that all we need is to have some fun and a good time... well, if true, can't we all think of more fun things to do than have the inevitable violent and scary run-ins with the state? Anarchism is a game which the police will win. I bet the police will have more fun than they do.