Almost universally- even dogmatically– self-described anarchists and anti-authoritarians are anti-electoralism.  The radical’s logic usually follows somewhere along the lines that since the anarchist is anti-State, participating in the political functioning’s of the State is abhorrent, pointless, and meaningless.  Abstentionism is the rule put-forth in order for the radical to avoid appearing to have any sort of support for a process (or a candidate) who accepts the State and it’s economic systems.  Anarchists are sometimes fond of cute slogans that encapsulate the political waste of time that is seen as the election process: “If voting could really change anything, it would be outlawed” and “Whoever they vote for, we are ungovernable” or “Our dreams will never fit in your ballot box”.  The (progressive) liberal- and radicals who do not identify so strongly with a particular ideology- counter that there is in fact a notable difference between the two Parties- in our day-to-day economic standing, in the preservation of our civil liberties, and in the rate in which the planet is destroyed- and for these reasons we should fully engage in the electoral system, even if we reject the legitimacy of it and even if we (hopefully) choose to help build more radical and participatory movements and organizations at the same time.  

Personally, I can see it both ways.  For one thing, I find dogmatic assertions to generally be contrary to the idea of anti-authoritarianism.  Nonetheless, I do agree that the entirety of the State and it’s functioning’s are illegitimate, and we must be sure never to give the impression of supporting it.  I also think there is a certain degree of truth to the idea that, unfortunately, social and political upheaval tends to come as a result of the untenable circumstances that arise for the average, working person as the State carries out it natural course and wealth (and power) is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite (there’s some truth the the idea that things only get better once they’ve gotten worse).  Along with the notion that, indeed, our dreams will never fit in their ballot boxes, so I can certainly understand the notion of ignoring the electoral system and working- as revolutionaries- towards building class-conscious and directly democratic organizations which in fact do possess the power to bring about real change (revolutionary, not reformist).

At the same time, we are living in pre-revolutionary times, and as such, to act rigidly in a manner that ignores the on the ground political realities would be delusional.  It is also true that we live at an unprecedented moment in human history: we are well on our way to an ecological disaster that will (in the not so distant future) destroy our very ability to exist on this planet.  This should not be seen as a naive (or reformist) belief that one Party over another is willing or capable of putting an end to the environmental devastation that is an inevitable consequence of capitalism.  But this becomes a lose-lose situation for the radical gazing at the ballot box.  For the average person, nearly everything they encounter in the media (and in their social conversations) outlines for her/him the differences between the two political Parties.  I would have to be grossly self-aggrandizing to believe that in a conversation or two I could convince my neighbor otherwise.  And so it is that dogmatic anti-electoralism is out of touch with the average person.  If I were to put myself in such a position, I would be isolating myself, and my beliefs, from the very people whom I want to expose them to.

 Enter Vermont’s Town Meeting Day.  For those who don’t know, the long-running tradition of Town Meeting is truly unique and curious: on the first Tuesday of every March, each village, town, and city holds a municipal meeting- open to all residents (and, of note, there is no ID checks or confirmation of your residency upon entering the meeting- this only occurs if you enter the ballot booth at the back of the room).  The people themselves run the meeting by electing a moderator (who is recallable at any time); the moderator then runs the meeting in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order (an imperfect though generally decent and acceptable method for running the meeting in a fair and democratic way that allows for a good degree of horizontal power-sharing amongst all who attend).  The people themselves then debate and decide upon the school budget, the Town’s operating budget, and any other business that is brought before them.  Items for consideration can be placed on the agenda by anyone (before or during the meeting).  Usually, the election of officials (to the positions of Town Clerk, Treasurer, Selectboard, Constable, and for State and Federal representatives) are conducted by ballot.  But Town Meeting itself is a truly amazing exersize in municipal self-governance.

I admit to being one of the odd birds that sits through almost all of Town Meeting (the longest one I’ve been through was several years ago in the Town of Walden, when a particularly controversial school budget dragged the whole thing out for well over 8 hours).  But for process-geeks like myself, there is truly nothing more amazing than a public debate- with all of your neighbors- over how much we’re willing to spend to fix the Town dump truck, or whether or not we’re going to raise our local taxes in order to give the library an extra thousand dollars.  You see, the selectboard, or city council, or constable (or any other municipal possession) has only the powers -and the pay- that the people decide to give them during Town Meeting.  Likewise, it is the people themselves who set the budgets (thereby setting our own local taxes)- the elected officials are given only the authority to carry out the Town Meeting Day decisions of the people themselves.  While many do tend to over-romanticize Town Meeting (it is far from perfect, given that we have no binding powers against the State legislature, only our localities), it is nonetheless the most direct, participatory form of local governance I know of within the United States.

My goals, as a radical anti-authoritarian, are to further enhance our rights to self-governance.  This makes Town Meeting a tool in my arsenal, not to be seen purely as a functioning of the State, but as a system of power-sharing which people understand, are familiar with, and can relate to.  More than once in my life have I stood up at Town Meeting, when an objectionable (authoritarian) procedure was about to be pushed through by the Selectboard; when I have found the courage to speak-up and point out that it is us who will make that decision, not them, I have each time been met with a resounding applause from the people in attendance, and we then move on to the business of making the decision for ourselves.

And I do take the time to step into the voting booth.  This is purely for the purpose of electing my Town officials (who, by the way, are also directly recallable at any point throughout the year by petition of the people- unlike the representatives who are elected to State and Federal positions).  I also vote in State elections: not out of defference to the State itself, but in a “hey, I’m in the voting booth anyway” manner.  I have only voted for one of the major political parties a couple of times- in the race for State governor (because our current Republican governor is truly destroying the land and the social values of the land that I call home).  Now, partly this is a luxury based on where I live.  I know that the “lesser of the two evils” is almost always going to win in Vermont, which gives me the freedom to vote for obscure candidates who (though often certifiably crazy) stand for values that are more in line with my own (i.e., the Liberty Union Party) (note: this is not to say that I am a member or support of any political Party; only that, hey, some of these are decent, well-meaning people).  Even more often, I simply write-in a candidate for the major political offices- Bread & Puppet founder Peter Schumann has received my vote for President of the United States in every presidential election that I’ve been old enough to vote in.

So, the astute reader may notice where the above places me: ostracized by the larger anti-authoritarian community for my (seemingly abhorrent) participation in the State’s electoral system, but nonetheless  far outside the reformists tactics of full participation in the electoralism system.  In the words of Vonnegut: And so it goes…

Pure refusal to engage in the political process that exists is counter-productive, isolating, and non-pragmatic; acceptance of the system and a reliance on electoralism is foolish, short-sided, and a betrayal of my political and social beliefs.  I don’t think there is a clear black or white “position” to take- I think there is a grey area to be filled that takes in to account the present-day, on the ground realities by that likewise recognizes the illegitimacy and the illusion of the State and its political functionings.

One last note about Town Meeting, which can also be found within the long-winded GMAC document Neither Washington Nor Stowe:  given that Town Meeting provides every Vermonter with a workable model for real direct, participatory democracy, I don’t see it as all too far-fetched to envision a day when Town Meeting is expanded.  For instance, while the legislature currently considers all business at Town Meeting (other than local administration and budgets) to be “non-binding”, it is not impossible for a movement to grow whereby a town (or more likely, a large block of town’s acting in concert with each other) which passes a specific resolution (say, against the planting of Genetically Engineered seeds) chooses to withhold their cooperation (taxes collected) with the State until the legislature acts upon and adopts said resolution.