POST MAY DAY REFLECTIONS ON THE BOYCOTT [English]
Originally posted on MLM Mayhem.
The federal elections are almost upon us and soon voters will be lining up to participate in a ritual that has replaced democracy. It is telling that elections day follows closely upon the recent royal wedding in Great Britain: the people who avidly followed that spectacle––cheering on a family of anachronisms that should have been guillotined centuries ago––will doubtless be the same people excitedly voting for one of this country's bourgeois parties. And on the day following the elections business as usual, with perhaps a new face, will continue: the poor will remain poor, the peripheries will remain exploited, occupation both here and abroad will persist, and democracy will vanish from the radar until the next sacred rite. So I feel that now, close to the onslaught of ballot-casting fury, it is appropriate for me to conclude this series about the boycott campaign with reflections of my experience with the elections boycott.
Hopefully this will be a more sober and introspective entry than my last post in this series which might have been, at least according to some, more irate than productive. Today, at the May Day march I attended (put on by the hard-working and amazing people of the M1M Coalition), I helped distribute newspapers and flyers connected to the boycott campaign, spoke about the elections with a variety of people, and engaged in a variety of discussions––many of which were similar to the discussions I've been having about this campaign since its beginning. This last round of interactions, due to their proximity to the elections and the context of the march, helped clarify my final reflections of this year's rushed and manic boycott campaign.
As an aside, it is worth noting that the M1M organizers were supportive of our small PRAC contingent. Although the organization as a whole did not endorse the campaign, some of its members were sympathizers and many others were supportive, rather than openly dismissive, of the campaign's possibilities. Indeed, though the campaign was not openly endorsed the organizers included the "vote with your feet" slogan as one of the march's main slogans––on their signs and in their speeches––and at the last second even politely offered us room to speak on their stage. Despite any possibile disagreements, I want to note that the M1M folks, along with the good folks at Basics, have been more supportive of this campaign, even if they have not always been entirely certain of its worth, then many of the organizations and individuals in the Toronto mainstream left.
In any case, I want to spend the rest of this entry discussing the final criticisms levelled at the campaign, as well as my own reflections about the possible limitations of this campaign, to conclude this series. At least for this year: since the boycott movement is growing, and has now stretched beyond Quebec, there will hopefully be another series about future campaigns in the years to come.
1. Your boycott is about political purity and demonstrates your leftist elitism.
This criticism popped up time and time again, in different forms, right until today when one of my comrades was confronted with an arrogant undergraduate activist, when the M1M march merged with the No One Is Illegal march, who declaimed those of us who participated in this campaign––from the RCP-PCR to our small little coalition in Toronto––as elitists. According to this man we were intellectual elitists who had no idea what "the people" wanted (though apparently he knew), and he even went so far as to accuse my comrade of being nothing more than an inveterate "PhDer" and that PhD-types were ignorant because they spend all of their time talking about Foucault. (A strange accusation to level at a Maoist… but it was funny when my comrade, who actually does not spend much time talking about Foucault, pointed out that Foucault probably did more for activism than the activist levelling the accusation! Oddly enough, this same young man once verbally assaulted my partner for wearing a social democrat button [that was part of her job], telling her that she shouldn't vote, several years ago. We argued then that voting for social democrat parties was important, though should never be the focus of one's politics, unless there was a boycott movement. At that time there was no boycott movement and he refused to vote; now there is a boycott movement and he was arguing that we should vote.)
I have been troubled by this criticism regarding elitism for a long time; in fact, it was this sort of critique that prompted by irate fifth post in the "Vote With Your Feet" series. I want to be clear that we did not begin this campaign by attacking other members of the mainstream left who disagreed with our position. True, we mentioned that part of its aim was to draw a line amongst the self-proclaimed left, but this was a line intended to highlight the problem with parliamentarianism, demonstrate what the RCP-PCR has called "a gap between leftist theory and practice" (where we argue that parliamentarianism won't end capitalism but we expend so much energy convincing people to vote), and break our fascination with elections. Really, many of us did not care if people disagreed with us or critiqued our position––in fact, we wanted to have these discussions. Some of my good friends and comrades engaged in these discussions and brought up good points (which I will discuss below), and I think that contributed to critical discussions amongst certain sectors of the left. Others, however, attacked us rabidly, called us "elitist", attributed a "purity" that didn't exist to our position (without even bothering to read or listen to what we were saying), and entered into the discussion with wild accusations and bizarre insults. Hence that controversial post that, I'll admit, probably just fanned the flames: not only did it confirm the conspiratorial suspicions of those who had straw-personed us from the beginning, it ended up unintentionally insulting others who were actually interested in having the discussion––and for that I apologize.
Still: the charge of "purity" and "elitism" is an empty charge, one that speaks more to the political sentiments of those attacking us, than anything else. Take the recent New Socialist post about voting for the NDP, for example, where the authors deride the boycott campaign for its supposed puritanism around politics. Despite the comments written by myself, comrades who support the campaign, and comrades who do not support the campaign but our supportive of its intentions, the authors are apparently still under the impression that the fact that millions watched a debate is indicative of working-class politics, thus participating in the election and backing the NDP is good revolutionary behaviour. Well… millions watched the royal wedding but does that mean we should organize around the monarchy?
Generally I have started to feel that these attacks about the campaign's supposed "purity" and "elitism" are due to a fear of principled politics and an actual elitism. The former problem is translated into a complaint about "purity" in the same way that [usually the same] people equivocate political commitment with sectarianism. I want to reemphasize that we were never telling people that they were not "authentically" socialist/communist/radical by joining the boycott: strangely enough, though we never made that claim, so many people started to ascribe that thinking to us. Did they suddenly feel convicted by our position and, for lack of a better response, decided to accuse us of making insults we never made? Perhaps. Or maybe we are so terribly messed up by bourgeois ideology that we simply assume the worst about our possible comrades.
The problem regarding elitism is also rather telling. Returning to the story about the young man who attacked my comrade today––the same arrogant young man who attacked my partner several years ago––I want to point out the massive problem of an undergraduate student declaiming a boycott movement's supposed elitism, mocking them all as "PhD" people divorced from the masses, without any clear understanding of the movement's aims, who and for whom it communicates to, and who created the movement in the first place. The aims were always organizational, the people we spent most of our time talking with in person (but obviously not on the internet!) were NOT the mainstream left but people on the street in poor neighbourhoods who already didn't vote and probably didn't give a shit about this young man, and the group that originated the boycott (RCP-PCR) is predominantly composed of people who are NOT university students. But no: he knew more than us, could call us elitists only because we had more university education than him, and not critically consider even one of our arguments. This is the height of elitism. I am tired of intellectuals, who possess a certain amount of privilege denied to the majority of the population, attacking intellectualism. I am also tired of arrogant young undergrads, who weren't even in highschool when I was an activist, suddenly thinking that they know more than everyone else and using the charge of "armchair activism" or "intellectual elitism" as an ad hominem hammer to bludgeon their way through a debate. If an undocumented migrant worker accused me of these charges I would listen… but I will not take them seriously if they come from someone who is also involved in the academic game and is only using them as a pitiful rhetorical tool.
In any case, how exactly were we elitist when this boycott movement was designed with the concept of the mass-line involved? The argument was always: the majority of people do not vote, they are sending us a clear signal, we should use that as an opportunity to talk to them about democracy outside of the bourgeois game. In other words, we were responding to a boycott already in existence––the attempt, as we emphasized over and over again, was to try and make the implicit explicit. Which leads me to the next category…
2. How is the boycott campaign a good organizing tool?
This was the best and most critical question we received. Some of the people who raised it would agree that they would never organize people to vote, that they agreed that voting was useless and that all the parties were already drifting too far to the right (now the NDP is really no different from the Liberals), but that they did not see any reason to waste time and resources on a boycott campaign. One even raised a very good and very critical point: if peoples' focus on parliamentarianism is a problem (and he agreed that it was), then by focusing on a boycott campaign we were also focusing on parliamentarianism.
Personally I think this critique is one that requires more discussion and more reflection. I do not want to dismiss it out of hand and so I am wary of discussing it here. But generally (and this should not be taken as a dismissal), I think it can be answered by an appeal to political directness. As many have pointed out (most recently William Upski Wimsatt), during federal elections everyone has politics on their mind: it is a concretization of the politics that are usually invisible in our lives. Now some people (like Upski Wimsatt) will argue that we should use this as an opportunity to campaign for some liberal or social democratic party to break the hold of the conservatives. We argue that it is an opportunity to talk about radical politics, to talk about the possibility of breaking parliamentarianism altogether, with people who will probably never talk with you about politics otherwise.
Listen. In the manic and forshortened period of this campaign we were on the streets and putting up posters about the campaign. People actually came up to us and wanted to talk about radical politics. They would even listen to and engage with discussions about communism. The federal elections puts democracy on the mind of people who are the most excluded from bourgeois democracy and who, because they feel the disempowerment of this exclusion, want to talk about politics, about how they will never vote because they hate the government no matter how it appears. These are the people who get blamed by the middle-class for every right victory because of their lack of interest in electoral politics; these are the people who have this lack of interest because the left offers them nothing except electoral circuses. The point the RCP-PCR made from the beginning was that there was an implicit boycott and that there was a reason for this boycott: by going out and advertising a campaign in those neighbourhoods that refuse to vote, we are communicating to a deeply felt disaffection.
While I agree that organizing cannot simply be around a boycott, I have to admit that I was surprised by the strategic advantages of this campaign. In all my years of activism I have never, upon putting up a poster in a neighbourhood, been approached by so many people who suddenly wanted to talk about politics. Never. Again: there already is a boycott, and there are reasons for this boycott, we were only trying to make it explicit. And, to speak to the previous point, it would be nice if the left in general recognized that this was a fact rather than writing peons to the bloody NDP.
Clearly there are limitations around this method of organizing but we never argued that we were only interested in organizing boycott campaigns. The resolutions that were passed and adopted at the Canadian Revolutionary Congress were not simply resolutions about a boycott campaign: we never agreed to just work on this issue, suddenly appearing at every federal or provincial election but ignoring everything else in the meantime––this was always understood as part of a larger strategy.
And the larger strategy was about boycotting the bourgeois state, the campaign around the federal elections being a coherent and concrete method utilized to bring the already existing boycott of the elections into contact with the idea of boycotting the state in general. Going into communities with the slogan of "boycott the bourgeois state", however, and especially when there were no federal/provincial elections on the immediate horizon, is by itself rather ludicrous. Again: people want to talk about politics at election time because politics––especially bourgeois politics––are everywhere. The point was to reject the bourgeois political approach and use this period as an opportunity to discuss boycotting the state.
Perhaps the greatest limitation to this approach, though, was the foreshortened period in which we could agitate. As one frustrated and disenchanted woman on the streets complained: "you should have started talking about this months ago." Unfortunately none of us expected an election to be called this soon and, just after adopting the resolution at the Canadian Revolutionary Congress, along with other resolutions, we were hit with the prospect of a spring election. A very short time to work on this issue, with only the germ of a coalition in Toronto, is not entirely useful for organizing. If there were fall elections and we started now the campaign might have generated more results: several weeks of talking with people, and trying to push community events when most of these people did not know who we were, is an uphill battle. The campaign demonstrated its possibilities as an organizing tool but all it really did, due to the short time period and the limited human power, was show us that the hill we needed to climb existed.
3. Rejecting all reformist politics wholesale is ultra-leftism.
I briefly critiqued this argument, an argument that claimed we were being un-nuanced and ultra-leftist by rejecting bourgeois freedoms altogether, in my first post. And yet the argument was consistently raised––a fair argument because I've made it before and will probably make again in other contexts. Personally, I do not believe that this campaign is about some "drop-out-of-society-and-live-on-a-commune" approach to politics. At the Congress one of the speakers argued that "we should use bourgeois freedoms but not in a bourgeois manner"––this was the spirit behind the boycott.
But what does that mean exactly when we are demanding that the bourgeois freedom of electoral politics should be rejected? Simply that we do not think that, at this juncture of history and in this society, that it is even a bourgeois freedom that is worthwhile using in a non-bourgeois manner. Especially when every party is moving more to the right and, if you really start comparing the current NDP to the Liberals point-by-point, you will realize that there is no real difference between the two. Someone at the May Day rally today even argued with us that the NDP occupation of Afghanistan would be better because it would look significantly different––although he could not say how an occupation could be better, or how it would look significantly different, or why we should be arguing about what government had a better approach to neo-colonialism in the first place. Point being: if the NDP is now no different than the Liberals, and could probably comfortably merge as the Reform/Alliance did with the Conservatives years back, then should not all the leftists who are arguing that voting for the NDP is a "lesser evil" really, if they want to be realistic, start agitating for the Liberals? And yet they would never go that far because still, for some bizarre reason, people still imagine that the NDP is the party of the working-class. Never mind the fact that they have consistently demonstrated, whenever they have taken provincial power, very anti-worker policies.
The aforementioned New Socialist article, and the defensive comments by the authors, tries to make the exact same point: vote for the NDP because it is a vote for reform and that is worthwhile to pursue while we also pursue the business of revolution. That's all fine and good if the left was actually pursuing revolution, but are we doing that? Are we organizing around politics that appeal to the most disenfranchised and angry? And if the boycott is not the most worthwhile approach––and this is worth debating of course––then what approach should we suggest? But the only approach on the table seems to be: vote for the NDP and then march at some demo or other as we always have done.
What is entirely surreal about the New Socialist article is that one of its authors, Alan Sears (who, by the way, I respect), once wrote an article about how the demand for gay marriage deradicalized the demands of the queer movement. But I would argue that fighting for gay marriage, despite its limitations, could be an instance of using bourgeois freedoms in a non-bourgeois manner. Perhaps I am wrong, but I do not see how one could severely critique the gay marriage movement for being bourgeois and commodified, and yet apparently refuse to make the same argument about the rite of voting. The latter, in my mind, does not in any way, unlike gay marriage (though limited like any reform), promote human self-determination.
I would go further and argue that I would fight for anyone discriminated against in this society to have the right to vote… and then I would also argue that they should boycott the bourgeois elections: I do not see this as a contradiction––in fact, I see this as utterly democratic. Moreover, I think this boycott speaks to the fact that a large sector of workers, who are undocumented and lack citizenship, can never vote, will never be given the right to vote because they will never be given citizenship, and should be organized against the entire cancerous system.
If anything, this manic and foreshortened campaign has caused a debate amongst the left while, at the same time, demonstrating untapped possibilities of organizing. In retrospect, I am inclined to argue that we should have foregone the debate with the established left altogether, ignored the rude and insulting attacks (I should not have written that fifth post in this series perhaps), and just spent all of our energy on the streets, day after day, talking with people. At the same time, however, I do think it is important to push this debate within the circles of the established left because the line drawing––not a line drawing intended to be elitist or sectarian but to put principles back on the table and, if anything, to produce thoughtful discussion––is necessary in a time where we consistently water down our politics and get mad at anyone that complains about the watering-down for not being a good sport.
In less than 48 hours this country will have a new government and, even this government because of some miracle happens to be the NDP, things will not change too much. Public services will still be cut, imperialist wars will still continue, and the people who will never vote because they cannot see a difference will still be evicted and beaten by the cops. And if there is a miraculous NDP victory, and we on the left expended so much energy arguing that the NDP somehow represented our interests, what are we going to say when we demonstrate against them? What are we going to tell those same people we told to vote for them when we suddenly appear on the streets in protest? The Obama movement south of the border was faced with the same problem: it killed entire sections of the left. Even if we cannot agree that the boycott campaign is the best strategy we have to at least, as those comrades whose critiques have been helpful and supportive have understood, recognize that there is no point in backing "the lesser evil" in even the most minuscule manner.