Don’t vote

There has some bluster lately on social media, and even at a house show I attended, about how we have a duty to vote. Supposedly by voting for suitable politicians we can save society and the planet from the ravages of capital. This rhetoric is that of being informed of rights and responsibilities that you are lucky to have. It’s about respecting freedoms gained by past struggles. In the Australian case, as no doubt elsewhere, some barely disguised nationalism is at work.

As ever, the promises of nationalism are false. Voting cannot and will not do what its passionate proponents think it can. Even turning up to a polling booth actually disguises a real lack of democracy. Casting a proper vote is full complicity in a lie.

Our loyal voters are no doubt ready to say that it is exactly because of missives like this one that voting does not do what it should. This is ridiculous simply because the authors of this missive do not control the flow of information in a deliberately dumbed-down society. The capitalists who do own the media can talk up candidates on the basis of their ability to serve the needs of capital at that time, and suitably vilify others. The manipulations involved have in the recent past have gone on to involve the mass murder of refugees. Just as in Israel the mass murder of Palestinians is often instigated around election time, in order to rally racist nationalistic sentiment. We must outright reject such murderous charades by refusing to be a part of the electoral spectacle. 

True, the owners of our society are not omnipotent in their manipulations. In Britain, Brexit recently showed them the dangers of being overconfident. The capitalists running Britain will now require another referendum and an “information” campaign for the “right” result–or some other less obvious, but still potentially troublesome, machinations. The capitalist logic of staging a second referenda for the “right” result was rolled out by the Australian government in the First World War. After the defeat of the 1916 referendum on conscription the government and its supporters restaged it and were defeated a second time in 1917. The results were a definite sign of the radicalisation emerging amidst the working class during the war, and the movement from a banal and bloody nationalism of 1914 to a class increasingly angry and combative from suffering its masters’ political and economic machinations. The Australian ruling class learnt its lesson. Conscription was never again submitted to such a popular vote. Instead it was introduced democratically–through the parliament. Within twenty years the result of the referenda during the First World War was ignored, and conscription introduced for men over the age of 21. Australian conscripts would fight in the even bloodier Second World War, and then in Korea, and Malaya. A ballot version of conscription was still in place during the Vietnam War.

It is true as well that the owners of society can disagree over details, and over changes to these details, when it comes to the administration of capital’s infrastructure–aka the state. At the level of the commanding heights of political and economic control these are mere quibbles over how people are best exploited.  At our level the consequences can be more terrifying and humiliating. This rightly suggests we as voters have no substantial control.

We should in this regard consider various manipulations such as gerrymandering, legalisms and sometimes more covert means. Overall, the owners of our society, and so too the owners of its chief communication channels, have a satisfactory if not foolproof control of the voting process.

We should not dignify the resulting three yearly charade with even a single vote.    

Some of the bluster in favour of voting has taken issue with the proletarian commonplace that, keeping with the Australian example, the two main parties are in essence the same. Of course, the main Australian political parties are not the same in the sense that 2+2 is the same as 4. Nor in the sense that certain particles are so similar to each other that on some more speculative readings of physics these have been assigned numerical identity. The parties are the same in that all serve capital, even if in slightly different ways. That is what counts.

In the Australian context, one party has traditionally been entrusted with building the infrastructure of exploitation, the other with paring it back. One or the other is then more attractive to capitalists depending on particular variables–not just the capacities of individual politicians or coherence of the ruling party at a particular time, but perhaps even more importantly the disposition of class forces in society (consider, for instance, the defeat of John Howard’s Liberal government at the end of the mining boom in 2007). This is not a strict rule. If required, in terms of economic “health”, those who traditionally build or are supposed to build will pare back. This happened very clearly in the 1980s and 1990s with the reformist Australian Labor Party in government. Equally and conversely, in the 1950s and 1960s it was a conservative government that was required to undertake the task of building, especially around educating the workers of the future. What is strictly true is that massive interests largely determine how people vote. Even if people vote unpredictably, or the outcome is not ideal for every single capitalist, the outcomes are always about profit and exploitation. Voting disguises these determinants. 

What promises are made, and which are kept, are determined by the abstract needs of capital rather than those of people and the environment.  Whether or not the building aspect includes environmental reforms, it remains the case that the exploitation of people and broader nature must go on. Profit must come from somewhere. The different capacities of different individuals who make up elected or shadow parties does not change the overall functional identity of these parties. Hence, we find their policies, pronouncement and modus operandi, despite differing on points like the role of unions and organised labour, nonetheless share the ‘big picture’ view of economic expansion, and prosperity for some. This again correctly suggests voting is pointless, and the proletarian commonplace about the sameness of the parties should not be so condescendingly dismissed.

It is also impossible to understand how voting can confer any benefit when electoral promises are regularly broken. In Australia, this is over everything from transport and wages to the environment, and on every level of government. While anti-democratic, this breaking of promises does at least reveal the real nature of the political process. Here’s how. The promise is made, and a ghoulish representative of economic power who made it then takes office. Instead of implementing the promise, this ghoul then claims that political and economic conditions have changed. This leaves the poor voting sucker with the option of trying for another undead phantom who will do the same thing. In the meantime, at least, the real determinant of social life is revealed, namely the needs of capital.

If we examine the desire politicians have for power, and the belief that they should be rewarded for their good policies by keeping them in office, we must also consider the benefits of this afterlife. Under capitalism, money is the real social power that each individual carries in her hip pocket. Politicians like to pretend that they are making career sacrifices for the good of the nation, but this is nonsense. All politicians are interested in power, and so inevitably in money. Their wages and conditions are good–and, unlike the rest of us, determined largely by the politicians themselves.

Additionally, the more ambitious and influential politicians can be assured that even if they make an unpopular decision that leads to some public vilification, they will be later rewarded. Indeed, these unpopular decisions are invariably in favour of large companies. After leaving office, the ex-politician often walks into lucrative consultancies, bureaucratic sinecures, board positions, etc–often in that industry most tied to their former political life. Usually we don’t like to recognise the names of such ghouls since they are insubstantial in view of their interchangeability and redundancy–but two Australian examples will suffice. Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile both made unpopular decisions in favour of Big Energy and were richly rewarded after subsequently losing office. There is a robust sense in which politicians do not even care if you vote them out. 

Keeping such folk honest from below will not work. Given what has just been said, even making investment portfolios public will have limited effect. The usual betrayals, scandals and disappointments are the most common results. Only a total fool who does not learn naively celebrates the grim duty of the polling booth, and a fresh round of punishment, ready to once again be disillusioned. 

Surely though, voting means some promises are kept, and some dire exploitative measures are averted? To answer this question, readers should consider not the result of elections, but the pre-existing political management of class conflict–that is the level of exploitation generally acceptable in a society.  This is changed and contested by direct action. If we consider for instance the short-lived Australian Labor Party government of 1972-1975, what we find is not the granting of reforms so much as the formalisation of gains already made elsewhere. One instance was the growing combativity of organised labour. Consider the general strike of 1969 over Clarrie O’Shea’s imprisonment.  There was also the development of the anti-Vietnam war campaign, which was related to increasing student radicalism, and grass roots radicalism in pubs as represented in Sydney by the ongoing radicalisation of The Push.

The process formalising critical practices through parliament–and even business–is also a process of dilution–what the Situationists called the “recuperation” of radical critique. How else can one understand that it was this self-same reforming Labor government that in 1975 introduced “economic rationalist” legislation and budgeting under the charge of a vigorously and extremely conservative future Governor General? Similarly, the later Mabo legislation of the 1990s signified the watering down of initial proposals. Of course: how could we forget? Political and economic conditions had forced the hand of the erstwhile reformers. 

There is no practical sense in which the needs of capital must be such a determinant of life. In fact, there are strong environmental and social reasons why these needs should not now and never be met. Only not voting makes the importance of a denial of these needs clearer.

However, it is true we have so far neglected certain practical considerations.    

In Australia, many supposed progressives consider it just that a failure to vote incurs a punishment–a fine or even jail term. In fact, this incentive to vote presents an argument that deserves respect, especially if you can’t afford to pay the fine. No one wants to be even more exploited than they already are. Still, there are a couple of legit ways out of the electoral treadmill. If you have an illness, whip it out. There are other reasons too that you can give for not voting–like not being able to reach a polling booth. Otherwise try to stay off the electoral role. If you are forced to attend a booth, blank vote and perhaps print-up this article or one like it and leave it around in pamphlet form. Be careful if doing so. Discouraging voting remains basically illegal in Australia, though details of how vary across places and times.

The fundamental illegality of circulating this missive helps meet the objection that it could only have been circulated in a voting democracy, thereby under cutting its own point.  Additionally, the objection is met by the fact that even in open authoritarian nations there is samizdat, zines, communiques etc. In more authoritarian nations such dissent is even more dangerous. It is hardly a mark of democracy that tolerance is exercised when all of those with the most significant audience–numerically speaking–say much the same. Where someone does start to make a real difference, they’re likely to wind up like Juanita Nielsen or countless Aboriginal activists: dead or imprisoned. As concerns anti-voting activism, to the extent that he was successful in the 1990s, Albert Langer, was fined and thrown in jail. In the early 2000s anarchist group FUCKED (Freedom Urban Collective Knowledge Expansion Division) were chased away from polling booths by Queensland Police for trying to convince punters to not enter. This missive is circulated against, not because of the idea of Australian democracy.

It was interesting to watch an attorney general desire to prosecute satirists Juice Media in 2018 for detourning the “Australien” coat of arms. Another political ghoul opposed and mocked him. Nonetheless, this ghoulish opposition is a choreographed dance, where each “side” benefits from the other. One looks tough, the other looks free. Good cop, bad cop. Both come to seem to be a part of an institution in which such a prosecution can be debated, and both implicitly thereby support misleading liberal nationalism. We are supposed to rely not just upon one or the other to keep society functioning, but also upon the dynamic between them. Such political debate and difference are in reality ghoulish phantasmagoria. We must reject both on the grounds that we need neither.   

The idea that Australia is a democracy is in fact an utterly absurd security blanket cherished by those who cannot accept the fact that their lives are currently run by and for capitalism. It will not do, then, to favourably compare Australia with other nations even more obviously not democratic. Neither Australia nor these others classify as “true” democracies. Moreover, should we simply fetishize democracy in the abstract? We want direct creative control over our lives, and democracy is not sufficient for this, even if the principle of democracy is necessary and widely applicable in particular cases.

That is all the more reason to cease pretending that we have democracy now. We must not glorify the existing political charade by voting. It would be preferable to not participate. Or if we must, then it would be better to or engage in a public criticism of this democracy at the polling booth, or in some other way refuse to act as a good, faithful cog in a machine beyond our control.

We must never rely on politicians in community and wage struggles. We must take direct action for ourselves.  On no account should struggles be used to bolster the electoral ambitions of a politician. If such a ghoul bandies about their political phantasmagoria, they must be combated with solid arguments like those we have presented here.

–GAK

Editorial note: The first version of this article incorrectly claimed that the second referendum on conscription in Australia in 1917 was won by the federal government.–prole no prole, 14 May 2019

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The yellow days of May

Since the following was written, protesters–including ‘yellow vests’–at the traditional May Day march in Paris have been confronted with a violent police crackdown. It is hard to read the course of the yellow vest phenomenon in France. Are we witnessing its slow decline? Or is its persistence a sign of a new proletarian movement? What is beyond doubt is that the conditions that brought the yellow vest movement into being have neither been ameliorated nor solved. Indeed, Macron–despite the spectacle of debating and listening to the yellow vests–has not only refused to roll back his pro-capitalist ‘reforms’ but has prepared the French state for further disruption by way of beefing up anti-protest legislation and policing. It is clear is that the capitalist crisis is not going away. The capitalist class know that their rule is precarious. Today there is less carrot and more stick, while the rich bunker down behind their wealth and their cops to watch the world slowly burn. We too must come to an understanding of what is at stake, and not retreat from the consequences of this clarity. The question then remains the same as the one faced in the 1840s: the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing.

–prole no prole


Sunday April 13–one week after their weakest mobilisation–‘Act 22’ of the ‘yellow vests’ (gilets jaunes) protests took place in Paris and regional France. Act 22 was the first since the ‘anti-rioters bill’ (‘loi anti-casseur’) came into effect. Despite being bigger than Act 21 on 6 April, it was far from the beginning of the hoped for ‘yellow tsunami’ wanted by so many of its participants as well as those supporting from the sidelines. A week later tension returned with ‘Act 23’: widespread footage of burning barricades, looted shops and more bloody confrontation between demonstrators and the forces of (dis)order. Undoubtedly fuelled further by the hypocrisy of the French elite’s response to the burning of Notre Dame. ‘Everything for Notre Dame’, cried a group of protesters, ‘but nothing for Les Misérables’.

Despite this heightened conflict, the yellow vests have nonetheless been losing momentum. This tendency is partly being driven by the repression from Macron and his supporters: the ongoing and intensifying police violence towards those demonstrating–pacifists and ‘casseurs’ (rioters) alike, and the persistent demonization of the protesters by the capitalist media and its allies. This has been topped off with another draconian measure: the anti-rioters bill mentioned above, which rules that that all masked demonstrators (as well as those carrying bags) shall be considered criminals. Additionally, the new law effectively bans anyone from assembling in any of the monumental public areas–and above all in those places important to capitalist valorisation, such as the battle ground on the Champs-Élysées which so many have witnessed over the last 23 weeks.

On the other hand, this loss of momentum is also linked to a perspective unfolding within the movement itself. Common to this perspective has been a vague opposition to ‘neoliberalism’, to ‘financialization’ and to the reduction of ‘purchasing power’. Regrettably, such an approach leads to the belief that the problem lies solely in the hands of a small, greedy elite. One sees here the re-emergence of the 1% vs 99% rhetoric so prevalent in the last decade of social movements–a rhetoric that falsely pits ‘bad’, ‘useless’, finance against ‘good’, ‘useful’, production. This simplistic view, apart from its dubious moral absolutism, is incapable of reckoning with the real entailment of finance and production in capitalism over the last century and more. Worse still, it reproduces elements of the fascist worldview, in which finance capital is bad to the extent that it is associated with a spurious Jewish cabal. It is hardly surprising then that a small minority of Nazis and Alt-right cave dwellers have tried–and largely failed–to hijack the movement. What is clear, however, is that the state’s recipe remains the same as it has been for the last 40 years: the fallout from capitalist crisis is dumped onto the majority of working people, who are then obliged to carry the burden of the crisis under the guise of ‘austerity’.

The point is, that in order to draw out a serious critical practice and avoid being derailed into the dead end of racism and fascism, we must target capitalism in its entirety. As long as such vague oppositions exist, all the fragmentary remedies which have thus far been proposed serve only as an impotent outcry against the symptoms of current capitalist barbarism. This theoretical disarray, coupled with the heightened repression from the state, limits the potential development of a more subversive movement. As long as the yellow vests confine themselves to embracing capitalism with a more ‘human face’, and/or concede to the increasing populism of the right and left, they will condemn themselves to being a part of the capitalist circus rather than its remedy.

Nonetheless, there exists a revolutionary proletarian tendency within the movement. The ‘East Parisian Yellow Vests’, associated with the GARPA group, are one instance of such. GARPA (Groupe d’Action pour la Recomposition de l’Autonomie Prolétarienne; Eng.: ‘Action Group for the Recomposition of Proletarian Autonomy’) have for their goal the redirection of the yellow vest movement towards the critique of capitalist production, the increasing precariousness of work, and the growing pool of proletarian labour which is no-longer necessary to the valorisation process–a critique, moreover, that avoids the pitfalls of nationalism, neo-liberal reformism and fictitious conspiracy (as opposed to the real conspiracies of the ruling class). Additionally, GARPA also recognises the heterogeneous nature of the protest up until now–manual and intellectual workers, government and office workers, small business owners, etc. This is just one of the reasons why the unions and workers’ parties haven’t been successful in co-opting the movement–yet. Such diversity is for GARPA an important step in restabilising a critique which targets the entirely of capitalist production (regardless of whether or not a revolutionary subjectivity is being constituted), and at the same time avoids the deadend of Marxist orthodoxy and anarchism that ignores the negative content of proletarian identity.

What follows is an English translation by prole no prole of an East Parisian Yellow Vests leaflet.

More information on GARPA–in French–can be found here.

PD
April, 2019


AN APPEAL FROM THE EAST PARISIEN ‘YELLOW VESTS’

Our yellow vests are no longer the uniform of road safety. They have become the rallying signal of the global contestation of the established order. If they reflect the light, it’s not to alert the authorities of some emergency or social distress. We do not wear them in order to demand something from the powers that be. The yellow of our vests is not what the labour movement traditionally connects to treachery. The colour of this vest is that of the lava of rage, which the long dormant volcano of social revolution begins to spit out. It is only yellow because it embraces the red.

Under the name ‘yellow vests’ a titan is beginning to awaken, though still groggy from the coma into which it fell for more than forty years. This colossus no longer knows what to call itself, no longer remembers its glorious history, and does not recognise the world into which it wakes . Yet as it wakes, it discovers the magnitude of its own power. Words are whispered to it by false friends, jailers of its dreams. It repeats these words: ‘French’, ‘the people’, ‘citizen’! But in pronouncing them, confusion prevails as vague images emerge from the depths of memory. These words have been worn out in the streets of poverty, on barricades and battlefields, during strikes and from the heart of prisons. Such words come from the language of a formidable adversary, from the enemy of humanity, which for the last two centuries has masterfully wielded fear, force and propaganda. This deadly parasite, this social vampire–is capitalism!

We are not a ‘community with a shared destiny’, proud of its ‘identity’, full of national myths, which does not know how to resist social history. We are not French.

We are not a mass made up of ‘ordinary people’ ready to ally ourselves with our masters, if only we were ‘well governed’. We are not the people.

We are not an aggregate of individuals who owe their existence to the State–whether by virtue of being acknowledged by it or defending it. We are not citizens.

We are those who are forced to sell our labour power to survive, those from whom the bourgeoisie extract their profits by dominating and exploiting us. We are those which Capital, by way of its survival strategy, tramples, sacrifices and condemns. We are the collective force that is going to abolish all social classes. We are the proletariat.

Conscious of our historical interests, we warn that:
• The yellow vest movement will be destroyed if it persists in believing that the interests of workers can be reconciled with those of the bosses. This illusion is already causing harm because Macron is using it to redirect the protest movement against the exploited. The poor capitalists– small business people, artisans and other self-employed people, opportunely depicted as struggling capitalists–are also victims of social ‘costs’, and share the same fate as their employees. Therefore, it will be necessary on the whole to spare them and be content with begging for money from the biggest amongst them. Such an approach allows the powers that be to insult us all, while pretending to respond to our demands. For instance, the supposed increase in the minimum wage (Salaire Minimum Interpersonnel de Croissance, SMIC) will only be paid for by wage-earners. And the cancellation of the rise in the social security tax (Contribution Sociale Généralisée CSG) hides the ongoing reduction of the pensions of the poorest retirees.

• From this flawed approach, a fraction of yellow vests claim that a state that spends less would cut back on the tax burden which is crushing businesses, and that economic activity would thus be revived and everyone would be onside. This approach is a bad fairy-tale. It’s not the state which suffocates small capitalists, but rather the law of competition, which not only allows them to exist, but also allows them to grow and take their share of the market. The social problem is thus so poorly posed by the movement–to the extent to which the ‘badly governed state’ is targeted instead of the capitalist system–that the government program of dismantling the ‘social state’ in the name of the ‘optimisation of public action’ is in fact strengthened. Ironically, the predatory social politics of abolishing the redistribution of wealth to the poor, which up until now has being carried out by means of social security and public services, is reinforced. Likewise, the measures to reduce overall wages through the compromises of deferred wages (e.g. retirement funds, unemployed benefits…) are now also justified. We give them the stick with which they beat us.

• According to this perspective–which gives pride of place to economic equilibrium as long as it’s well managed–what is ‘bad’ in the economy comes in from the outside: e.g. from the fiscal state, the European union, ‘finance’, ‘cosmopolitans’ (behind which are sometimes said to be ‘Jews’ and the ‘illuminati’) and immigrants. The inability to understand or the refusal to admit the blatant truth that it is capitalism (a system of the production of wealth based on the exploitation of human labour) that is in crisis, opens the door wide to reactionary idea which safeguard the established order. Ten years of far-right activism on the internet weighs heavily on this suicidal state of confusion in which a number of yellow vests believe to have found a solution to their misery.

• Amongst these ‘solutions’ the Citizens Initiative Referendum (Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne), long promoted by the ‘fasho-sphere’, and which the Mélenchon conformists eventually rallied to, is a farce which will allow the social question to be suffocated by institutional garbage. This alteration of democracy will solve nothing, even if it was to be adopted. It would only draw out the electoral elastic while maintaining the relationship between social classes–their conditions as well as their stakes–with the addition of the strengthening of legal reformism, the poor parent of the already illusory economic reformism. This would amount to condoning everyday servitude a little more directly.

Conscious of our tasks, we recognise that:
• The yellow vest movement stops at the doors of business–which is to say, where the totalitarian reign of the boss begins. This phenomenon is the result of different factors. Let’s restrict ourselves to three:
1) the atomisation of production, which sees a great number of employees working in (very) small businesses in which the close proximity of their employers makes the possibility of a strike very difficult.
2) The precariousness of work for many employees seriously worsens their capacity for conflict with their company.
3) Exclusions and unemployment place a great number of proletarians outside of production.
A large part of the yellow vests are directly concerned with at least one of these three facts.

• The other group of wage workers, those who work in large companies and who have greater employment security, seem to be isolated as if under glass, and upon which the powerful force of the movement breaks like a wave upon rocks. Special treatment, made up of managerial efficiency and shameful union collaboration, is reserved for this segment of the working population. The bourgeoisie well understands that this category of workers has the power to strike at the heart of capitalist production, by way of unlimited general strikes. This is why the bourgeoisie secures its pacification through the use of sweeteners like ‘end of year bonuses’.

Conscious of our goals, we maintain:

• The calls of the yellow vests of Alès, Commercy and Saint Nazaire (who refuse all hierarchical organisation, all representation, and target capitalists) signifies for us the path to follow.

• The desire to smash ideological, managerial and union barriers which keep the yellow vest movement outside of production. We must use the extraordinary force and determination that this movement is developing in order to achieve that which millions of the exploited have wanted for so long (without ever having been able to reach it): to paralyse production from within, to decide upon and coordinate strikes in general assemblies, and to unite all the categories of waged workers with the same aim of overthrowing the capitalist system and the reappropriation of the productive apparatus. Let’s put an end to hierarchical, capitalist and state oppression.

• Today, if you want to discuss these strikes, their triggers, extension and coordination, then contact us, and join us!

gilets-jaunes-revolutionnaires@protonmail.com