Beyond State Socialism

The failures of both Bernie and Corbynism, perhaps more than ever before, leave us looking beyond state socialism for solutions. But if voting only takes a few minutes, is it still worth doing?

Beyond State Socialism

In my last article, I looked at Sir Keir Starmer replacing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, having been selected by proxy after coming second to the most popular choice – which was no-one. That’s right: more people decided to vote for no-one than for him, which is just a glimpse into the reality of Starmer’s utterly uninspiring offer.

However, I also looked at Corbyn’s failures to truly open up the party to grassroots engagement, from its “heartlands” and beyond, rather than run by a team of toxic staffers, bureaucrats, and career politicians. In fairness to him, despite the initial response of the establishment media who reacted to his election as leader with stories of “communism” and 1980s state socialist ideas, he did often talk about and propose a move towards more democratic economies and communities, rather than an overbearing big government doing everything for us (and to us).

Finally, I ended the piece by talking about my liberating experience of leaving behind Labour membership, and merely acting as a supporter who voted for them at the last UK general election but was free to express my support for Palestine without being smeared as an “anti-Semite” and wasn’t expected to unconditionally support a local MP who constantly undermined the leader I, and thousands of other members, had voted for.

In that last article, and in numerous others before it on this site, I have essentially documented my journey through Labour party politics – voting for them for the first time in 2010 in a feeble attempt to try and keep the Conservatives from gaining power; joining them as a card-carrying member later that year when Ed Miliband had become leader, representing a slight shift away from Blairism; campaigning for them and my local Labour MP Paul Blomfield; voting for Jeremy Corbyn to replace Ed as party leader; having to vote for Corbyn again, to remain leader, after an attempted coup by MPs including Blomfield himself; and campaigning for Labour, as well as of course voting for Labour, essentially supporting immovable MPs like my own in retaining power while at the same time they were actively undermining our democratically elected leader.

It’s easy to become disenchanted with party politics, it really is. In fact, I’d recommend it. Allow me to explain.

Like many others involved in Labour over the years, I’d experienced the bullying, the smears, the lies, the lack of democracy, and in the meantime I’d given them what little money I had through my membership fees, I’d spent hours upon hours campaigning for them, and then ultimately they drove a lot of us out of the party, and more recently re-installed an utterly rotten career politician as leader. In fact, in any other context, this would be seen as a textbook abusive relationship. You get out of it and realise, “What the heck was I thinking? What was I doing with my life?”

And yet even now, people call out, “Stay in the party!” As I saw someone on Twitter state, “It’s not enough to say, ‘If you leave, they will get what they wanted,’ you have to show that, within the Labour party, it’s possible for it to be any other way.” As we saw under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the emergence of Momentum with its own undemocratic processes, there is no other way. That was as close as you could get to a fully democratic socialist party, with a mass membership of half a million, and still, members were unable to openly select their candidate for MP from a number of choices and those MPs themselves chose their party leaders, and none of this has changed – they just made sure the door is permanently closed on any chance for such change now, too. Sir Keir Starmer has no interest in party democracy; it’s back to Blairite business as usual – which means business indeed; literally running like a business, shutting out the membership, acting in the interests of metropolitan elites, and, as these soft capitalists like to remind us, “being electable.”

What “being electable” has always meant, is pandering to a mass media run by and for the establishment, and running campaigns similar to the Conservatives so that low levels of political engagement and low voter turnout can lead to an occasional bait-and-switch of political parties in power, roughly running things in a similar fashion, easing pain for some, increasing pain for others, but always keeping capitalism in power, representing the capitalist class.

Soft capitalists, also sometimes called “centrists” (though not always the same thing) are obsessed with the party political game: it’s about which politician will unseat another, what was said on which daytime television programme on establishment media, which polls show which party leading on a particular political issue, who will gain power and pass which policies, which white cishet man will be head of which trade union as it butts heads with the capitalist class, even as that union operates under similar hierarchies as the corporations it challenges.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” You can see the small minds and how they think via the recent Labour leaks; it’s rife in the party operations.

The rest of us, of course, have ideas – different ideas. We have ideas of how the world can work: ideas around a truly democratic society, without hierarchies, where workplaces are democratically run via workers cooperatives rather than our labour going towards making profits for bosses and shareholders, where we act locally and think globally, where we envision a world interconnected by technology and transport, mass transit in our cities that are run by and for communities rather than corporations, where everyone lives a dignified life and has genuine opportunities, and where we value racial and gender diversity and live with the environment by embracing nature’s rules rather than abusing it through extraction in an economy that currently is geared towards endless growth, pushing the planet to its limits. We know that we can’t go on the way we have so far. It has to stop. It has to change.

This vision isn’t anything particularly wild; it’s been developed and discussed since the likes of Peter Kropotkin in the 1800’s through to the emergence of 20th century thinkers like Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky. Some call it libertarian socialism, others call it anarchism. Ooh, anarchism? Does that mean anarchy? Chaos? No, of course not – just essentially the wonderful world mentioned above, where people are genuinely free, and have power over their own lives and communities.

As I touched on in my last article, I’ve known so many wonderful people in Momentum and Labour who genuinely share this vision for a better world, who campaign tirelessly for their party. But I’ve also known those who join up, sit on the committee of a local charity, embrace a specific cause as their own, join one or two trade unions, stand as councillor, and then seek to be an MP, after which time they can become a “consultant,” sit on the board of a national charity and probably one or two corporations, and take on speaking engagements and leverage all of their contacts from their time in Westminster to take care of their own family, friends, or those they’ve become indebted to in their career. And why wouldn’t they do this? These are the opportunities afforded by the party political career option. If you’re a cynical, power-hungry, selfish individual, this is a good option for you. And don’t get me wrong, some of these types will indeed genuinely care about one or two issues, and even have a belief in “kinder,” or “softer,” or more “responsible” capitalism (which is of course a complete contradiction), or they may just be saying that to still look like a Labour MP without pissing off the rest of the establishment. But how can you ever tell?

For those who have bought into the promise of changing government institutions from inside, a reality check is just around the corner: these idealistic contrarians will become the thing they hate — the elite oppressors.

Pavlo Shopin

MPs like Zarah Sultana and Nadia Whittome – similar to “The Squad” in the States – are fresh faces, women of colour who I believe genuinely care, and share such a vision of a better, more sustainable world beyond capitalism. They may well be true democratic socialists. But how much can they achieve in the grand scheme of Westminster? Of course, campaigns matter, policies matter, votes matter (to an extent), and to paraphrase Jeremy Corbyn, things can and do change. But they’re small changes. We need systemic change; we need societal change – now, more than ever, as a matter of urgency. He couldn’t get into power to deliver it for us from on high, so it’s probably time to accept we have to do it ourselves. Corbyn shone a light on the party political system for what it really is, and Starmer has left no doubt that it’s a system you can’t change, because it exists to reinforce the overall system. “Starmer’s subsequent depressing trajectory from ‘Marxist’ radical to cynical careerist is not uncommon on the British left,” wrote Mark Kosman. It’s definitely a pattern, because the system requires it.

Anarchists do not disagree that the system needs to change and would be happy to help dismantle it. However, there is a clear recognition that once inside the system political actors will inevitably become part of the establishment and serve the interests of the few to the detriment and subjection of society at large. This has been proven time and time again.

Pavlo Shopin

In case there was any doubt, the last few years have made it very clear that the Labour party is set up to reward the career politicians, and marginalise the genuine democratic socialists – and this is part of the entire framework of what we bizarrely refer to as a democracy in this country, where an establishment retain a hierarchical system of the capitalist class ruling over the working class. We have an unelected head of state. We have an unelected House of Lords. We have a House of Commons based on first-past-the-post, where career politicians become MPs.

I’ve seen more and more arguments about the time, energy and efforts wasted on political campaigning for MPs, bad or good, that ended really badly, because nothing fundamentally changed, while the limited resources we have as working class people could instead go towards workplace organising and grassroots campaigning. It’s a convincing set of arguments. And I’ve seen so many of these arguments counter the point that “voting only takes a few minutes of your day” with the claim that, in that case, it can never have that much impact. It’s just “harm reduction,” they say. Yes, it is. Although if it only takes a few minutes of your time to actually reduce harm, you might as well. Some say the small act of voting actually legitimises the undemocratic system; keeps the charade going. That may be true – but barely more than you are, say, legitimising Twitter by tweeting.

The inspirational and infamous anarchist Emma Goldman – once called “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World” due to the threat she posed to established interests in the capitalist world – once said “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” And in terms of changing the world by ending capitalism itself, that certainly seems accurate. Anarcho-communist Lucy Parsons reminded us to “never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.”

I’ve known it be argued that it’s a privileged perspective to dismiss voting outright, given the impact on life from parliamentary decisions – hundreds of thousands more people have been killed by the austerity agenda of the current Conservative government here in the UK. And while, yes, capitalism already murders millions through prejudice, poverty, pollution, and imperialism, the arguments that dismiss voting’s capacity for “harm reduction” also risk dismissing the lives of the hundreds of thousands more who have been taken from us, or those of us who, under Labour, saw investment in health and education, the introduction of the minimum wage and tax credits, the opening of youth and community centres, a reduction in homelessness, free entry to galleries and museums, Section 28 scrapped, and so forth.

All that is by no means a revolution, of course. But the Conservatives, in turn, came into government and destroyed so much of that anyway in one fell swoop to power. And this has been the problem with Labour, hasn’t it? Even when in power, they never made changes that led to an entire cultural shift in response to Thatcherism – it was their government making the decisions to reduce the harm being done to us by capitalism, relying on them being in power, meaning that, for them, the importance of “being electable” becomes almost like a threat. “Get us into power, because who else is going to ease the pressure of that boot that’s on your throat?” They reinforce this hierarchy, because they don’t really take that power without it. They’re a political party. Labour’s Nye Bevan famously said that “The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.” He definitely encountered a lot of opposition with that attitude. But he wasn’t even going far enough: are people empowered if that power is given to them from those on high, rather than taken?

My adult life began under New Labour. Despite those examples above, it wasn’t all rosy, trust me. My first “job” was through welfare-to-work – yes, literally working 9-5, Monday to Friday in order to collect an unemployment cheque. How sick is that? New Labour meant that I still had to pay for my eye tests and dental check-ups, that my local schools and hospitals saw private companies move in, and that our taxes were spent on bombing other countries’ poor people while demonising ethnic minorities, immigrants, and threatening our civil liberties in the name of the “War on Terror.” And banks remained deregulated, leading to the global financial crisis – which was an excuse (but not the reason) for austerity. My life under New Labour was bad, so don’t expect me to applaud them just because it wasn’t as terrible as life under the Tories.

So yes, of course voting is trivial. Of course it’s “harm reduction.” It doesn’t change much in the grand scheme of things, because no matter what you do, the capitalists keep running the show. We should have no illusions about that. But again, it takes a few minutes to do, and when you’re not in a political party, you become what they might call a “floating” voter – I know from my experience within the system that they hate that. Once you’re carrying a party membership card, they know they’ve got your vote. But their main concern is those “undecided” voters; those people they can’t depend on. They fear you. No career politician wants to lose their seat. So by all means, come election time, go and take a few minutes of your day to have some fun with that shit, and vote. Have that as your once-in-a-while engagement with party politics. Don’t put much faith in it – if any. And don’t pay any attention to the political punditry focused on events and people. Stick to the ideas.

The question of electoral participation should be stricken from our consideration altogether. Neither abstention nor participation constitute an active strategy. To spend more than a moment pondering this question or, worse yet, to moralize about it, is a profound waste of time for any serious revolutionary.

Cameron A.

Many of us are talking about ideas right now – and acting on them. We can use the time we might have spent at political party meetings or campaigning for a candidate to instead organise our workplace, become active in our local community, support a social centre, join a cooperative, join a renters union, participate in mutual aid networks, help create a Really Really Free Market, look into a local currency, buy ethical goods, or support anti-establishment media, to name a few. All of these things can actively undermine capitalism. And they make you feel good. Of course, they can sometimes go wrong, but there’s some tangible “harm reduction” here that doesn’t involve you giving your time and money to a morally bankrupt political party full of career politicians in suits and ties.

We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas.

Noam Chomsky

But establishment media, especially since Reaganomics and Thatcherism, has been geared towards individuals – celebrities. Political candidates often adopt the same kind of public relations techniques and even behaviours of these celebrities, some without even realising it. It feels good to pin all your hopes on a hero, going it alone in an election race, where there are winners and losers, and follow the news story. It’s why “reality” shows and politics became so intertwined – and why Donald Trump twisted it further to gaslight the public and get voted into power by people sick and tired of being let down by the polished political establishment that came before him, and why people voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson here in Britain. Shake things up! Root for the oddball! Oh, shit, it’s even worse than before because it turns out these guys are also from the establishment…

You can’t talk about political celebrities running “reality” show campaigns without talking about The Squad’s fabulous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who featured in the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, where she and her fellow democratic socialist outsiders all ran for Congress. “It’s just the reality that in order for one of us to make it through,” Ocasio-Cortez said, “a hundred of us have to try.” Wow. That is, sadly, the reality of politics in both Britain and the U.S., where Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, respectively, tried to get into power to deliver the ultimate “harm reduction” policies for millions of people, only to be scuppered and stopped by the plethora of capitalists in their very own parties who were prepared to face the realisation of allowing Boris Johnson and Donald Trump into positions of power in order to protect the capitalist status quo (and follow up with pro-capitalist supposed “centrists” to further reinforce it). And keep in mind, although Corbyn and Sanders have helped open up discussion on a wider scale than mass media is comfortable with – contributing to some of the big ideas I’ve talked about here – their time in power, had it come, may still have been fleeting. Back in 2016, on both sides of the Atlantic, people in their respective parties were already trying their hardest to ensure they wouldn’t even get into power in the first place. Now the “opposition” has been led by Sir Keir Starmer and Joe Biden, both capitalists with utterly shameful track records, who retained positions close to seats of power to put themselves “next in line.”

As Julian Merino wrote for Black Rose: “Implementation of a Sanders programme would require more than a successful presidential run. At minimum, it would involve Democrats taking control of the Senate. Even if that were to happen, a Sanders administration would then be confronted with a Democratic Party that remains deeply beholden to bourgeois interests. The finance, fossil fuel, insurance, pharmaceutical, and weapons manufacturing companies will use all their leverage upon all the other political structures that Sanders would depend on. Substantial congressional opposition to Sanders’s legislation is therefore all but guaranteed. Only a dramatic shift in the balance of class power would see politicians change course and side with proposals for major change.” Referencing Black Rose’s own view that “canvassing is not organising,” Merino went on to write: “Electoral campaigns are ‘get out the vote’ (GOTV) efforts. They are fundamentally transactional, mobilising voters by promising someone else will act in their interest. This kind of GOTV initiative can only ever superficially engage people around the problems they are confronting in their everyday lives. Without a deeper organising commitment, people are not moved to grapple with the fact that those problems are rooted in a power imbalance. ‘Here’s why you should vote for X’ or ‘Bernie vs. the Billionaires’ is a different conversation than one that deals sincerely with people’s everyday issues with their bosses, landlords or the police – which raises the inherent conflict between working class people and the power of capital and the state.”

And yet so many of the Democratic Socialists of America are insistent on remaining within the Democratic Party, just as Momentum members are reinventing themselves, albeit understandably, as Forward Momentum – it’s too little too late, perhaps, but it’s also futile. The Socialist Equality Party is rising in both the US and the UK, too, but again, how much effort can be afforded to them within the system that is set up to scupper them? “Socialist electoral campaigns are parasitic of, and ultimately destructive to, the working class movements upon which their momentum depends,” wrote Pádraig Sinjun, “…socialists who reach the heights of state power must either bend to the dictates of capital or they are removed.”

There is an inevitable concentration of power in the state system, which is hierarchical in nature and governs from above, a few people giving orders for the masses to obey (a “leadership” model that has proved disastrous in the coronavirus pandemic, people taking advice from sociopaths). By definition this system is disconnected from the working class and reinforces acceptance of hierarchy – and once you accept one form of hierarchy, it becomes dangerously easier to accept other forms, which divide people into “superior” and “inferior” groups based on, say, race, gender identity, and sexuality, to name a few.

And so it’s high time we started accepting that, if you do take a few minutes from your day to go and vote, that system is indeed just about worth that much of your time. Spend the rest of your spare time on picketing, striking, protesting, boycotting, and organising, together, in your community. Time spent actually shaping the world you live in, and even contributing to creating a different one – a better one.

You might think that by only just voting, rather than engaging in party political campaigning, the candidates like Sultana, Whittome, and Ocasio-Cortez, like Corbyn and Sanders, will lose any grassroots base from which to run from, and that’s sadly true because I appreciate the work and intentions of these activists. But again, that suggests that the only path or purpose for these impressive individuals – and the campaigners they rely on – is to go into the show of celebrity party politics, into a system that capitalism consumes just like it voraciously feeds off of the people and our planet, rather than creating actual alternatives and replacements for that capitalist system. The current system is a drug we have to ween ourselves off, and if it’s argued that this means taking a hit of electoral voting once in a while to ease the pain rather than going cold turkey and enduring unimaginable suffering overnight, okay, but ultimately we want to get to a point where we’ve transitioned into a genuine democracy, where we live in freedom, and where power remains with the people through grassroots decision-making. Plenty of anarchists from Noam Chomsky to David Graeber have largely agreed, as did Murray Bookchin. Having a good option to vote for is all well and good, but the key is to start shifting power from the capitalist class to the working class – and that means worker struggles, together, in trade unions, in renters unions, in solidarity with one another, joining all oppressed groups, in unison.

Let’s start.