Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

Our Dreams Cannot Fit Into A Voting Booth

Torkwase Dyson Strange Fruit

Image Credit: Torkwase Dyson, Strange Fruit, 2015, Courtesy the artist; Adam Reich, The Studio Museum in Harlem

An tears will not satisfy I
to preserve a democrisy
whereby youtful lives pay de penalty
for politicians’ irresponsibility

Michael Smith

In his essay “Notes on the House of Bondage,” James Baldwin, contemplating the dispiriting presidential choices in the 1980 election year, dismissed both major candidates for being “as well equipped to run the world as I am to run a post office.” In the face of the prevailing “willed, inhuman, and criminal devastation” in black communities, Baldwin came to the realization that “if we’re to change our children’s lives and help them to liberate themselves from the jails and hovels – the mortal danger – in which our countrymen have placed us, the vote does not appear to be the answer…It certainly has not been the answer until now.” Even as he recognizes the vote’s scant effect on his actual life, Baldwin nonetheless affirms the importance of his previous participation in voter-registration drives in the Jim Crow South inasmuch as it reflected “too crucial and profound a necessity even to be argued.” Even granted the undeniable reality that the “American institutions are all bankrupt in that they are unable to deal with the present,” Baldwin sees his vote in terms of a “coldly calculated risk, a means of buying time,” of ensuring that “the machinery can be made to pause” (Baldwin, 667-672).

Baldwin’s clear-sighted pragmatism, which recognizes the profundity of the Republic’s historical sins as redeemable only through a tectonic shift in consciousness and power that he does not hesitate to describe, in this piece as elsewhere, in revolutionary terms unassimilable to conventional political language and institutions, carries particular relevance in today’s moment. Even as the political system reveals its spectacular bankruptcy at every turn—a single lobbyist’s sales pitch and supporting cash carry more weight than any number of ballots; on the national electoral level, a single vote in a so-called “swing state” is worth far more than one in a “safe state”; constituencies are manipulated by ads, bots, and delusory nostrums peddled by political patent-medicine con artists and hucksters; millions of dollars are spent to buy and sell votes and sustain the bureaucratic armies mustered by candidates ($6.8 billion in the last presidential election); and planned disenfranchisement is increasingly the order of the day—far too many otherwise critical individuals can think of no other means towards change than the mechanisms of that very system itself, on its own terms, even as the antics of elected representatives —be they grotesquely destructive or bleatingly impotent—bear out Karl Marx’s trenchant diagnosis in the early years of far-from-universal suffrage of “…that peculiar epidemic which has prevailed over the whole continent of Europe since 1848, parliamentary cretinism, which holds its victims spellbound in an imaginary world and robs them of all sense, all memory, and all understanding of the rough external world” (Marx, 210-211).

The French word for ballot box is “urne,” and indeed the voting booth is all too frequently a place where social movements are reduced to ashes and then interred. Listening to the moving speeches of the children rallying against gun violence in the United States during the March for Our Lives, or to the strength and militancy of the protesting, striking, union- and politician-defying teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona, one cannot but regret their understandable but naïve faith in voting as promising a solution to the systemic problems that shape their lives. Having already disrupted the enforced consensus and shown the world their real power to think and act and move, these social actors should be wary of alienating that power and reinforcing the same violent, ignorant system which their movements challenge. (Unless, of course, a combination of circumstance and their own continued dissatisfaction impels them to further collective action.) Audre Lorde’s oft-cited warning about the inability of the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house (of representatives) is particularly relevant here. Fetishizing the vote as the only meaningful path to social change ignores the reality of oligarchic/corporate power in capitalist society, which morphs the shopworn ideology of representative democracy into what could be characterized (especially today) as a de-mock-crazy based on the thuggish principle of smash-and-grab and contemptuous of those it impoverishes, poisons, incarcerates, brutalizes, deports, and murders (whether quickly or slowly). In and of themselves—disconnected from a larger social movement—votes can at most palliate (when they do not aggravate) the deeply-rooted social sickness. The open resentment expressed by many bien-pensants towards non-voters for their alleged “apathy” and “irresponsibility” refuses to consider the possibility that no small number of these abstentionists might actually have rejected the electoral system as a hollow masquerade unresponsive to their deepest needs.

Writing in late 19th-century France, during a period when—less than twenty years after the bloody repression of the Paris Commune by a government of “elected” representatives that saw the alternative structures of working-class rule sketched out by the Parisians as a mortal danger to be exterminated—bourgeois philistinism, repression, colonial depredation, and immense discrepancies of wealth prevailed, the anarchist novelist and journalist Octave Mirbeau called for a “voters’ strike” against the regnant pseudo-democratic kleptocracy, marveling that there should exist anyone in the country “sufficiently stupid, sufficiently unreasonable, sufficiently blind to what can be seen, sufficiently deaf to what can be heard, to vote blue, white, or red, without being paid or without getting drunk […] Between his thieves and his executioners, he has his preferences, and he votes for the most rapacious and ferocious” (Mirbeau, 24, 26; my translation).

Mirbeau advocated that such a strike be carried out on an exclusively individual basis, with the disabused ex-voter staying at home and having a good time. Little over a hundred years later, the Portuguese writer José Saramago imagined a more socially-impactful voters’ strike in his allegorical novel Seeing. In an unnamed European capital city, a municipal election is held whose contestants are two established parties—the Party on the Right and the Party in the Middle—and a small, insignificant left-wing party. When the votes are tallied, the authorities are stunned to find out that nearly three-quarters of the electorate, refusing to play by the established rules, have cast blank ballots. Panic ensues among the rulers, who decamp from the capital (as did the French government during the Commune), withdraw the police, and impose a military blockade on the city, blaming this unprecedented and to them profoundly subversive act of civic ingratitude on a seditious plot. The superficially democratic order is quick to reveal the authoritarianism and violence behind its liberal façade; the president goes on national television to warn the city of dire consequences of its own making, from which they could only be delivered by “their” government: “…and then you will understand, too late, that rights only exist fully in the words in which they are expressed and on the piece of paper on which they are recorded, whether in the form of a constitution, a law, or a regulation, you will understand and, one hopes, be convinced, that their wrong or unthinking application will convulse the most firmly established society, […] that simple common sense tells us to take them as a mere symbol of what could be, but never as a possible, concrete reality” (Saramago, 85-86). When it becomes clear that life in the city continues peacefully as before, the minister of the interior deploys terror against the urban population by arranging to plant a lethal bomb in a public place (as happened in Milan’s Piazza Fontana in 1969 following a wave of student-worker protests, strikes, and insurrectionary activities).

That the extreme centrist/ultra-right-wing duopoly of political parties in Saramago’s novel should close ranks in the face of the mass abstentionist threat to its legitimacy carries definite resonance for the situation in the United States, where (as elsewhere) the morally and intellectually dubious notion of lesser-evilism still holds sway. Wars, deportations, austerity, aiding and abetting corporate looting, increasing extremes of material poverty and wealth—presumably these all somehow are easier to live with if Democrats are in charge of them (as they have been, cf. the previous administration). Let us recall that only one vote was cast in Congress against the war in Afghanistan, only one Senator opposed the 2001 Patriot Act, and most recently, only one Senator voted against supporting the Israeli government’s brutal repression of peaceful demonstrators in Gaza. But rather than pursue the left’s chimerical alternative of a “new party,” which ultimately will spend more time organizing itself than anything else, it may be of use to question why political parties should exist in the first place (as opposed to an array of independent, democratically-run organizations pursuing radical social change).

The French philosopher Simone Weil raised this issue shortly before her premature death in 1943. Having worked in a factory, having criticized Bolshevism in a polemic with Leon Trotsky, and having joined the anarchist Durruti Column during the Spanish Revolution, Weil had first-hand experience of the tendency of fighters against injustice to reproduce that injustice in their own ranks. Looking ahead to the liberation of Europe from Nazism, Weil focused her attention on what she termed the “partisan spirit” that governed those who join a political party: invariably, the adepts of such a party, irrespective of ideology, tend to submit their own criteria to the party program, whether or not they are acquainted with every position taken by that program. “…[T]he essential tendency of all political parties is towards totalitarianism…because the notion of the public interest which each party evokes is itself a fiction, an empty shell devoid of all reality,” and further: “Political parties are organizations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice” (Weil, 14, 16). To abolish political parties would mean that those putting themselves up for public positions would have to be candid about their own views, since they would not have a party platform to hide behind. There would be more room to entertain and discuss dissenting views and greater room for the individual to develop well-thought-out positions in quest of the truth, which is nobody’s exclusive possession. Indeed, “[a] man who has not taken the decision to remain exclusively faithful to the inner light establishes a mendacity at the very center of his soul. For this, his punishment is inner darkness” (Weil, 19). No surprise, then, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. never considered running for office, nor endorsing this or that candidate. His struggle went deeper.

Lest this be dismissed as mere abstract philosophizing, consider the words of revolutionary Jamaican poet Michael Smith, murdered by a hireling of precisely those “partisan politricks” that Weil decries: “We haffi join a party. / Nex ting yuh know / we no hearty, / because de nex man pon / de odder side a de fence / im join anodder party / an de both a we a chuck i / Yuh no see we no lucky? / Cause we both bite de dutty.” (Smith, 14). Consider as well the exemplary decision—democratically arrived at seven years ago—of the Indigenous Purépecha municipality of Cherán in the Mexican state of Michoacán to ban all electioneering, all political parties, and all police and drug dealers, and to govern themselves through assemblies electing a town council. In a state ravaged by the murderous drug war and its attendant corruption, Cherán’s rejection of the political parties that sow internal division while fueling and materially benefiting from that war has brought peace and stability, along with a sense of collective purpose that has allowed the townspeople to address long-standing problems like illegal logging on common lands, of greater immediate import than electing a president of whatever ideological stripe and party who is almost certain to ignore their grievances.

To the preceding, it will be argued: this is all very well, but what of voter suppression, the rollback of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, active intimidation of voters, demands for IDs at polling places, and similar anti-democratic measures? Are these to be dismissed or ignored as non-issues? Does voting lack any strategic function? Not at all. All formal rights that have been fought and died for over the years should be fiercely defended—indeed extended to encompass previously disenfranchised people: the undocumented and incarcerated in particular. But it is even more important to fight simultaneously for—and practice—a direct democracy of content, where the power latent in the franchise can be exercised with greater autonomy and in many more domains of social life than the rather restricted sphere of what has been demarcated as “politics.” In this regard, it bears remembering that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was never only about voting. The existential dangers involved in organizing voter registration campaigns in the Jim Crow South meant that human relationships assumed particular significance—SNCC’s “circle of trust” is a case in point, as well as the establishment of Freedom Schools in which local people could gain or enhance political literacy, learn about histories left out of segregated classrooms, place their life circumstances into broader contexts, and organize to bring about lasting change. Keep in mind as well that the concept of “empowerment”—before it became a self-help cliché—originated in the 1930s and 1940s at the Highlander Folk School which many future movement organizers attended. The right to vote, once won, amounted to a formal guarantee which in turn had to be filled with an emancipatory content that ultimately, to paraphrase Marx, would go beyond the phrase. Small wonder that the word “revolution” formed part of the radical civil-rights movement’s vocabulary, for what was aimed at was nothing less than a thoroughgoing transformation of human values wherein political and economic power would be exercised cooperatively by (extra)ordinary people at the grass roots rather than imposed from on high.

While in the last year of his life, Malcolm X spoke caustically of the civil-rights movement’s focus on moral suasion, demonstrations, and non-violent tactics, he recognized that the questions it had raised needed to be developed in a more radical direction, involving new ways of thinking and acting, independently of both major parties, whose racism, mendacity, false promises, and manipulation he anatomized and excoriated, along with what he identified as black people’s tendency to get repeatedly tricked by the Democratic Party’s hypocritical blandishments: “Your vote, your dumb vote, your ignorant vote, your wasted vote put in an administration in Washington, D.C. that has seen fit to pass every kind of legislation imaginable, saving you until last” (Malcolm X, in Marable and Mullings [eds.], 429-430). Memorably and starkly characterizing the political alternative for black people as between the ballot and the bullet, Malcolm proceeded to weave these seeming antitheses into a dialectical process where each term reinforced the other: “The black man in the black community has to be reeducated into the science of politics so he will know what politics is supposed to bring him in return. Don’t be throwing out any ballots. A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket” (Malcolm X, in Marable and Mullings [eds.], 433). Reinforcing this strategic thinking in a subsequent speech at a rally of the fledgling Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), Malcolm reiterated his call for his audience to register to vote, but as independents, because “[i]f you’ve registered as a Democrat or Republican, you’ve sold your soul” (Malcolm X, 90). This non-party-affiliated bloc of well-informed and savvy potential voters would then be able to exert real influence in the political sphere, particularly if emphasis were placed on holding elected officials accountable at all times; anyone deemed derelict in carrying out the mandate of the voters and who resorts to “dilly-dallying and compromising and looking out for himself, why, the very law of nature demands that that person be removed by any means necessary” (Malcolm X, 92). Characteristically, Malcolm refused to abandon the possibility of armed resistance as a liberatory option; if the ballot produced no results conducive to the complete freedom of black people, then the bullet remained a last resort—but the primary task was “to have some kind of program…that is designed to enable us to take maximum advantage of every opportunity under this roof where we are right now” (Malcolm X, 105). Those fighting voter-suppression efforts could well make use of the ballot-or-bullet alternative as part of their demands: cede now or face the consequences.

Like his friend James Baldwin, Malcolm X was able to balance the immediate prospects of wresting some space from the dominant order (the white world) with the long-term goal of liberation from that order. Voting for him was one tool among others towards the eventual creation of a non-exploitative world freed from the scourges of racism and colonialism. The old Wobbly dream of building the new society within the shell of the old imposes itself with even greater urgency now, when the decomposition of that shell is too obvious to go unnoticed and immediate solutions appear elusive or insufficient, too caught up in the “machinery” of which Baldwin spoke. If indeed our dreams cannot fit in a voting booth—a proclamation taken from the Argentinian movement of factory occupations and street protests that erupted early in the millennium—then it is past time to articulate those dreams, share them with others, and go about building and extending spaces in which they can take flexible institutional form. What is needed now is franchise in the French meaning of the word—frankness (Malcolm X’s injunction to “make it plain”), radical integrity (claiming no easy victories, as Amilcar Cabral cautioned), and the passion to strive for truth and justice, which Simone Weil identified as the criterion of goodness. The road is open.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s / Marek, 1985.

Malcolm X. By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter. Ed. George Breitman. New York: Pathfinder, 1970.

Marable, Manning and Leith Mullings (eds). Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal. Lanham / Boulder / New York / Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Marx, Karl. Surveys from Exile: Political Writings, Vol. II. Ed. and intro. David Fernbach. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Mirbeau, Octave. La Grève des Électeurs. Montreuil: L’Insomniaque, 2007.

Saramago, José. Seeing. Trans. Margaret Jull Costa. Orlando / Austin / New York / San Diego / Toronto / London: Harcourt, 2007.

Smith, Michael. It a Come. Ed. Mervyn Morris. San Francisco: City Lights, 1989.

Weil, Simone. On the Abolition of All Political Parties. Trans. Simon Leys. New York: New York Review Books, 2013.

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