A Materialist Look at Elections

  • Statement about: Jovanka Beckles and Gayle McLaughlin
  • For these candidates: I oppose endorsing these candidates.
  • Summary: Elections and political shifts are guided by crises in Capitalism. Intervening in these crises is the best way to affect electoral outcomes.

Written by East Bay DSA members Daniel T. and Rane S.

This position paper shows that recent electoral shifts have occurred because of external, extra-electoral factors. Following this observation we make two practical arguments. First, intervention in electoral politics does not require us to endorse candidates. Second, if we want to grow a strong socialist base, then endorsing candidates is not helpful in our current moment.

The current crises and contradictions of capitalism have regulated today's global electoral shifts. All of the most significant political shifts in recent years have occurred largely because of processes outside of elections themselves.

This is why many different countries went through the same phenomenon at the same time—i.e. the replacement of centrism with far right-wing and left-wing politics—indicates that global systemic shifts in capitalism are producing these changes. Individual politicians like Sanders, Clinton, and Trump are symptoms conditioned by non-electoral structural shifts.

Rather than the actions of politicians, what actually defined this last campaign season was a persisting global recession, and a mounting list of social crises which the liberal order has proven unable to solve. This general problem has manifested itself in numerous ways. Examples include, a long-term trend toward fewer and worse jobs, an upswing in social protest from Tahrir to Oakland, and ongoing sovereign debt crises. Political change at the electoral level are the outcome of these global trends.

This demonstrates that electoral politics are intimately shaped by the contours of our everyday material lives. To put it differently: our everyday lives are politically important insofar as shifts in our everyday reality bear down on official electoral politics.

Thinking of elections as a special political arena that is unphased by exterior politics needlessly inhibits our political options. In this limiting framework, to be electoral means endorsing candidates, phone banking for ballot measures, or canvassing alongside an election team. This is short-sighted. Street protests, organizing tenants and workers, spreading revolutionary socialist thought--all of these can easily have a much greater effect on electoral contests.

Detractors will undoubtedly note that socialists have historically intervened in elections. This line of thinking erases the most interesting and innovative socialist electoral practices that focused on everyday organizing and struggle. In fact, in many cases there was often a near-total focus on organizing strikes, cultural clubs and demonstrations. In fact, the historic use of elections was to act as a mere barometer of working-class power.

If we want to change the electoral status quo, we must organize outside of it. Let's canvass tenants so they can meet up and support each other. Let's phone bank workers and find out how we can gain power over our employers. In each of these cases, canvassing and phone banking are tactics used to directly organize renters or to investigate our shared condition. Both of these tactics help mend today's alienated and fractured working class by sketching ways of organizing and building power together.

In the 1960s and 70s, factory workers, students, and professors would meet up and collectively investigate the experiences of factory work and city life. This practice, called workers' inquiry, helped grow a militant working-class movement in Detroit. There, mostly black auto-workers lived through an intense decade of strikes, riots, and revolutionary organizing. Another example is 1970's Italy, where the practice of workers' inquiry developed the Autonomist movement which brought the country close to revolution. These inquiries, in addition to cultural institutions like socialist cafes or sports clubs, allowed working-class people to investigate and criticize how capitalism governed their lives. In each case, this information allowed them to build a collective revolutionary movement.

Today the situation of the working class has changed: the factory has diminished in importance, the old cultural institutions of the working class have disappeared or lost their revolutionary sense, and the experiences of workers have changed dramatically. The tasks of workers inquiry need to be redone, and new revolutionary institutions remain to be built.

Let's organize from the outside. We want working-class power over the electoral system, not merely a share of power within it.

The statement above is the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the opinions of East Bay DSA, its local council, or its members.