Taking to the streets, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has led the way for the past six months. With its audacity and creative tactics it has confronted Wall Street corruption, bankers, and politicians, simultaneously challenging corporate power and redefining the political discussion in the U.S. It has shown the corporate bosses that we won’t pay for their crisis without a fight.
Within OWS there is a deep distrust of all traditional institutions. One of the ways this is expressed is in an anti-electoral mood among many OWS activists. Many General Assemblies have taken anti-electoral positions, and there is a strong voice among activists against any participation in the ‘system.’
This is a critical question for the movement. While OWS is instinctively trying to avoid entanglement with corporate politics, we need a discussion within the movement to get an understanding of what the Democratic Party is and how the electoral system in the U.S. works to maintain the bosses’ power.
Socialist Alternative advocates building electoral alternatives to the two corporate parties, and as participants in the OWS movement we try to answer some of the arguments against doing so that have been put forward within the movement.
Aren’t elections just a waste of time? Shouldn’t we just focus on building protests?
The language of the 99% vs. the 1% has struck a dynamic chord with the American people and has reintroduced the concept of ‘class’ back into the American political vocabulary. Even as evictions were ending the occupations one by one, activists across the country who were inspired by the example of OWS were taking up and using the tactics of physical occupation; linking up with local unions; mic checking school boards, corporate meetings, courtrooms, and workplaces; and resisting foreclosures by directly confronting the authorities sent to seize property for the banks.
While these tactics remind us of the massive social and industrial upheavals in the twentieth century - the sit down strikes, factory occupations, women’s movement, rent strikes, anti-eviction movements, civil rights movement, and LGBT liberation - OWS is still young and has not yet mobilized beyond a small activist layer. While the events of the past six months have been dramatic, they are a pale shadow of the movements of millions that were necessary to win the great victories of the labor and civil rights movements. There is still much work to do in reaching out and organizing communities and workplaces.
Whether or not elections are a waste of time depends on our approach to them, our expectations of the results, and how we use the elections to build the movement. Done correctly, participating in elections can help build OWS, connect it with broader social movements, and build alliances. OWS can use the elections to amplify the ongoing struggle and build a platform for movements. The main arena of politics in 2012 will be the elections, and OWS’s message of determined resistance needs to reach the broadest possible audience.
Isn’t a boycott the best way to challenge the Democrats and Republicans?
As we enter into the presidential election cycle, millions of Americans will become more politicized. There will be a generalized mood and willingness to discuss the elections and the political system. There will also be a strong mood of lesser evilism: pressure to vote for Obama and the Democrats to prevent the Republicans from winning. Abstention will allow the corporations to once again set the agenda for the debate. It will cut us off from broad layers of working-class Americans and young people who are looking for an alternative to the two parties. The election represents a dynamic opportunity to put forward a concrete program to resist the attacks and challenge corporate power.
The American socialist and labor leader Eugene Debs used the electoral system. In prison in 1920 for his opposition to the first world war, he ran for president and received close to 1 million votes. He did not expect to win, but he and the activists around him used the election as an organizing tool. Debs used the election to expose the powers that be, to challenge the ideology of the bosses, and to put forward a fighting program against war and capitalism, exposing millions to socialist ideas and raising the political level.
Participating in elections, building electoral alternatives to corporate politics, confronting the bosses in the halls of state power is one tool in our kit that should be used.
But, if voting changed anything, wouldn’t it be illegal?
Voting was illegal. At the signing of the U.S. constitution only white men of property could vote. It is estimated that as many as 50% of white men were excluded from voting, in addition to all women, native Americans, free black men, and slaves. The working class fought and died for universal suffrage, to extend the franchise to women and people of color. This has been resisted at every step by the bosses, who have used every means at their disposal to divide us and keep us from the polls.
The key issue is not abstract electoralism, but the task of building a real, living, independent, alternative party that can challenge the 1%. The most likely outcome is not that a new political formation or party would win big voter support in its first election. It would win activists, experience, knowledge, and media coverage. These would become the foundation for further activities to propel our movements forward.
Doesn’t it cost too much money to run in the elections?
Under the current electoral system it takes huge amounts of money to wage a campaign. But that is if we compete on their terms. The Democrats and Republicans need this vast amount of money to wage corporate war for the prize seats. They run campaigns devoid of concrete issues and full of empty promises. The tone of the debate is set by the mass media and TV ads paid for by the millions.
We would counter-pose to this the campaigns of independent candidates with a real base in their communities and building coalitions that are funded by their constituencies. Instead of 30-second attack ads, these campaigns would have activists on the ground and an energized electorate that is inspired by the program. There are huge resources within the working class. The unions currently spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Democratic and Republican candidates trying to buy ‘friends.’ These corporate politicians take our money, get elected, and go and do the bosses’ bidding.
Won’t we just get co-opted into the system?
It is true that the mass movements of the 20th century were co-opted into the capitalist political machine. But this is not a simple linear process Without an independent mass left political party, previous social movements were forced to rely on the Democrats, the party that has been called the graveyard of social movements, to legislate their ‘reforms.’
While the ruling class uses the rigged electoral system to divert the frustration and struggles of the 99% into ‘proper channels,’ particularly into the Democratic Party, we can and should use electoral politics as an opportunity to raise our criticism of capitalism and to fight back against the austerity they have planned for us.
The currently-elected Democrats and Republicans know nothing of our lives or daily struggles. They have been lifted above those they represent by their incomes, their status, and their power. To prevent this from happening with independent candidates, the organization or party which stands them must construct itself differently: it must tether its candidates to real life by demanding they accept only the average salary of the people they represent. The remainder would go back into the organization to support its campaigns.
In Ireland, for instance, Joe Higgins and Clare Daly were elected to Parliament for the Socialist Party and United Left Alliance. They had built up a base from tireless campaigning for the 99% in their communities. They take no more salary than the wage of an average worker, and they are using Parliament as a platform to build the bitter struggles of Irish workers and youth, from workplace occupations to mass campaigns of non-payment against unfair taxation.
While candidates may not come directly from Occupy General Assemblies, the electoral campaigns can come directly from struggles. The fight against cuts to public education could spawn candidates for school boards; campaigns to keep foreclosed homeowners in their homes could put forward candidates for sheriff. The electoral efforts would be one part of an integrated campaign on any of these issues, allowing Occupy activists to reach deeper into their neighborhoods to offer working people and youth another point of contact in the fight against the political and economic dominance of the 1%.