(This article was originally written for ALLiance: A Journal of Theory and Strategy.)
"If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal," declared Emma Goldman in a ringing indictment of the feeble mechanism by which the state claims to be restrained and directed. Of course, in invoking this quote anarchists argue against counting upon elections to change the status quo. We aren't going to bring about the voluntary society by listening to politicians, casting votes for them, and pressuring them to abolish their own offices. The statist means and the anarchist ends are clearly opposed.
But there's another argument against voting: that by casting a ballot, one registers endorsement of the state and its violence. Advocates of this argument do not hold that you must have chosen the politician who wields power. They disregard personal intent, interests, and any issues at hand. The argument is quite simple: by participating in the election, one is bound to its results. Given the anarchist view of those results - violence, fraud, and lies - one can only conclude that voting makes one an accessory to the crime.
This constitutes a body blow for those who define themselves by their rejection of the authoritarianism so intrinsic in the state. It's one thing for voting to be a silly ritual. But a decidedly different attitude must be adopted if pulling the voting lever leaves one with blood-stained hands. Faced with such an awful proposition, the task becomes one of avoiding complicity with the system. An absolute break with the state is the only path of conscience.
In theory, this break seems reasonable to achieve: one simply ceases to cooperate with its agents and directives. But the state reaches far into the world we live in. It doesn't just direct the police, military, teachers, judges, and other bureaucrats who intervene overtly. The very civil society we seek to unleash through the spirit of voluntarism, mutual aid, freedom, and solidarity seems hopelessly bound up in the state.
Anarchism is not absolution
The biggest statist distortion lies in the minds of people - the very people so foundational to our dream of a voluntary society. They are conditioned to behave in ways congruent with governance, to think of themselves in terms that reinforce the primacy of governance, and therefore too often to mistake their largely voluntary lives as a gift from authority. Allegiance to the state and allegiance to one's country, locality, and neighbors are seen as not merely connected but rather the same idea.
It is the behavior of these people that provides the underlying legitimacy to the state. After all, were it not for the people, there could be no power to rule. It is the people who elect the politicians, pay the taxes, enforce the laws, fight the wars, and more. As Étienne de la Boétie argued centuries ago in the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, inciting the masses to organized resistance is totally unnecessary. Rather, all that is required is for the people to stop obeying. So to address the problem of the state, we must address the people's obedience. Sociologically, psychologically, spiritually - why do they obey?
This leads one to wonder whether mere withdrawal of consent is even sufficient. Symbolic micro-secession by an individual does little to address the behaviors inherent in statist society. Where does the state end and civil society begin? For that matter, what's so fundamental about the individual that its removal from the equation affects the problem of authoritarian society? How does one isolate oneself from the crimes and violence of the state when its institutions pervade our society - especially when it is in that very society the seeds of voluntary association must be planted? A break is impossible without at least an implicit answer to these questions.
This is not to say that personal reflection and a critical review of one's choices is not necessary. The example of one's own life and actions is likely more effective persuasion than the most articulate thesis. What I object to is a pseudo-christian guilt that demands an absolute purge of statist sin. To focus on distinguishing oneself from statist society can only detract from the task of engaging with that statist society. We must resist adopting an anarchist identity so foolishly consistent and exacting that it destroys our connection to the people in whom we hope to realize a free society.
Our goal cannot be simply to free our persons of perceived statist taint. Anarchism is not some sort of political puritanism. We are not seeking some form of absolution for the "sin" of being born in a statist society. To view the state as this intelligent, malignant entity out there influencing people to initiate force and fraud is to invoke the Christian's concept of perpetual spiritual struggle with a malevolent Satan. This conception of the state is also an unfounded superstition, since we understand that it is people's actions that not only reinforce its perceived legitimacy but make it possible in the first place.
The state is an abstraction; an institution formed out of ancient patterns of behavior. But it doesn't exist as an independent thing, so rejecting it as such can only lead to confusion. There is no state: there are only people - people enforcing laws, people obeying laws, people paying taxes, people going to schools, people believing that the guy sitting in the oval office is special. The question is surely not how to isolate oneself from these people, but how to influence them to change their mindset and thereby their behavior. The only "state" we will ever apprehend is an apparition formed from the inertia of people's habits of thinking and acting.
From this point of view, one can hardly ascribe to voting the degree of evil anarchists often do. It's just another abstraction. Pulling a lever, writing words on a piece of paper, or pushing buttons on a screen do not in and of themselves do anything. In fact, even if you accept the significance of an electoral outcome, it's hard to assign responsibility when the odds of an individual affecting it are so astronomical.
A double standard
So what does the vote mean in real, concrete terms, divorced from the popular myths of state legitimacy? It merely influences the way other people will behave. That behavior will influence the way yet other people will behave, just as we all have an effect on everybody else in small but indeterminate ways. Some of these people will assign a title to one person instead of the other. They will treat the one person's words as "official", unlike the other's. They will do what the one person says, but not the other. Who can fathom the will of government employees and other interested affiliates?
After all, it is the people materially prosecuting the agenda resulting from the election of a public figure who inflict the real damage. The President doesn't do anything; only agents of the state arrest, tax, jail, and kill. The behavior of legions of bureaucrats define the agenda, the interests, the nature of what we lament as "the state". We should worry less about whose orders they're following and worry more about what they're actually choosing to do.
If this seems like splitting hairs, consider that one of the best anarchist arguments against the state lies in the behavior of its agents. A robber is a clear menace, and yet we let these state actors confiscate our wealth with hardly a peep. Nobody would gladly accept the help of a mafia-style protection racket, and yet we allow state racketeers into our neighborhoods constantly simply because they sport a badge. We look down on those who indiscriminately kill in our society, and yet we fund state bureaucrats with rifles to go out and commit these crimes against humans - so long as they're "our troops" and not "theirs". Our society has internalized a blind spot far more systemic and significant than the election cycle, and the resulting behavior crucially underwrites the state agenda.
Anarchists point out the inconsistency between how we regard normal crime and state crime to illustrate a core value: what people actually do, not their institutional affiliation or authority, is what matters. Murder is murder, theft is theft, and kidnapping is kidnapping. Only a double standard prevents people from judging such actions as less objectionable merely because they are performed in an "official" capacity. The anarchist proposes a radical consistency: people are responsible for their own actions, regardless of their position in some organizational hierarchy, governmental or otherwise.
And yet, many anarchists themselves apply this maddening double standard to those who do nothing more than write words on a piece of paper. They call them enablers of the state, as if the mere act of casting a ballot makes one responsible for the crimes of the state's actors. This ascribes to the state precisely the mythical legitimacy we claim to reject - as if there could exist a magical transfer of permission from one person to another making crime acceptable. We cannot combat the statist double standard by promulgating its myths ourselves.
Understanding civil society
At the same time, anarchists must acknowledge how integral the political order, including elections, are perceived to be to the majority of the social body. Because people conflate the state with civil society, they often view its institutions as portals to engagement with their neighbors. As anarchists, we can either secede from this engagement on puritan grounds, or we can risk the taint of the state by meeting them in the world we jointly occupy, warts and all.
It is a sad fact that the social deliberative functions necessary for true community occur within the trappings of government; yet to reject interaction because the state is involved divorces us from important opportunities to influence others. And it is in convincing our brothers and sisters to change their mindset and behavior - not in breathless denunciations of formless institutions - that we genuinely oppose "the state".
Remember that voting for politicians has about the same direct physical effect as an online survey: it has no power or authority but what people attribute to it. An election may convince certain individuals to commit (or abstain from committing) violations of rights, but since we hold that those individuals are solely responsible for their own actions, and nothing can absolve them of that responsibility, are the results of that election relevant? In the end, it is the behavior, not the myths and abstractions, that matter. So if by voting, you can engage with your neighbors to influence them within this mixed society, or possibly influence state actors to behave more peaceably, why would you insist on abstaining?
None of this is to say an obligation exists to participate in every election; only that we should not blow these rituals out of proportion and turn them into boogeymen. Every situation is unique, and every election is a singular moment in the social body. Only an individual can decide the right course of action in a given scenario; indeed, it is highly authoritarian to dictate rules to the individual. The danger is not in voting or not voting, but in tilting at windmills out of ideological self-importance or moralistic high-handedness.
Blaming voters for state-sponsored crime is only meaningful in the sense that the voters stand by while the crimes are committed - not in the sense that we somehow mystically sanction it through some statist ceremony. The problem lies not in the ballot, but in our patterns of thinking and behavior that lead us to treat the vote's outcome as anything more substantive than an internet poll. We allow state actors to engage in activities we all know are deeply wrong; it is that habit of complacency towards authority which we must address in ourselves and others.
Voting may be many things, but it is not abject complacency. In fact, most people see it as a form of civic engagement. Given that, should we not start from where they are, rather than washing our hands and demanding they make the long and difficult mental transitions we've already achieved? Whether or not we vote, we must engage these enabling attitudes where they are, whether in political parties, city council meetings, the lines at the polls, or at family dinner tables. To abandon this society because it doesn't meet our standards is to surrender the anarchist project totally. Anarchism as a movement is concerned with this society, like it or not.
If we fear accusations of hypocrisy by participating in institutions tied to the state, perhaps we should take a harder look at our motivations. What are we in this struggle to accomplish? To be seen rejecting the state loudly and publicly? To have an impeccably consistent argument that no debater can assail? To shield ourselves from any chance of statist entanglement? To maintain a black and white moral superiority that makes it easy to judge the world?
Or does our project transcend the immediate political realities by posing a deeper question about human relationships and individual responsibility? Are we comfortable enough with ourselves and our principles to entertain doubt, to risk making mistakes, to remain vulnerable to misunderstanding and grey areas - all for a chance at reaching our brothers and sisters within institutional statism? Can the message of mutual liberation be heard if it is not taken into the mire of authoritarian culture in which most people find themselves, on terms they can grasp?
It has never been enough for anarchists to win debates; we must win the hearts of our fellow man, wherever they are found. We do this by engaging with them where they are, not where we'd have them be. The vote is a meaningless, superstitious ritual that masks deeper social issues and sanctions nothing. It does not bolster our argument to agree with statists that elections matter. Instead, we should treat them as what they are: the trivial rites of a false religion.