Elections: A Trap for Fools

[Every so often I am astounded that someone quite self-conscious of the role of Bourgeois electoral politics gets caught up in the game. I still don't see why radical left-wing people in NYC think that there is any reason to work for the Obama campaign. So I am posting up a little piece of excellent flame-bait. A little challenge to all my friends who are rallying to Obama when they know he is moving closer and closer to centre-right. Is the novelty of having the first black man as president in this country so great that we lose our strategic need to begin developing revolutionary consciousness?] -ShineThePath

Elections: A Trap for Fools
by Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre

In 1789 the vote was given to landowners. What this meant was that the vote had been given not to men but to their real estate, to bourgeois property, which could only vote for itself. Although the system was profoundly unfair, since it excluded the greater part of the French population, it was not absurd. The voters, of course, voted individually and in secret. This was in order to separate them from one another and allow only incidental connections between their votes. But all the voters were property owners and thus already isolated by their land, which closed around them and with its physical impenetrability kept out everything, including people. The ballots were discrete quantities that reflected only the separation of the voters. It was hoped that when the votes ere counted, they would reveal the common interest of the greatest number, that is, their class interest. At about the same time, the Constituent Assembly adopted the Le Chapelier law, whose ostensible purpose was to put an end to the guilds but which was also meant to prohibit any association of workers against their employers. Thus passive citizens without property, who bad no access to indirect democracy (in other words, to the vote which the rich were using to elect their government), were also denied permission to form groups and exercise popular or direct democracy. This would have been the only form of democracy appropriate to them, since they could not be separated from one another by their property.

Four years later, when the Convention replaced the landowners’ vote by universal suffrage, it still did not choose to repeal the Le Chapelier law. Consequently the workers, deprived once and for all of direct democracy, had to vote as landowners even though they owned nothing. Popular rallies, which took place often even though they were prohibited, became illegal even as they remained legitimate. What rose up in opposition to the assemblies elected by universal suffrage, first in 1794, then during the Second Republic in 1848, and lastly at the very beginning of the Third in 1870, were spontaneous though sometimes very large rallies of what could only be called the popular classes, or the people. In 1848 especially, it seemed that a worker’s power, which had formed in the streets and in the National Workshops, was opposing the Chamber elected by universal suffrage, which had only recently been regained. The outcome is well known: in May and June of 1848, legality massacred legitimacy. Faced with the legitimate Paris Commune, the very legal Bordeaux Assembly, transferred to Versailles, had only to imitate this example.

At the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, things seemed to change. The right of the workers to strike was recognized, and the organization of trade unions was allowed. But the presidents of the Council, the heads of legality, would not tolerate the intermittent thrusts of popular power. Clemenceau in particular became known as a strikebreaker. All of them were obsessed by fear of the two powers. They refused to consider the coexistence of legitimate power, which had conic into being here and there out of the real unity of the popular forces, with the falsely indivisible power which they exercised and which really depended on the infinitely wide dispersal of the voters. In fact, they had fallen into a contradiction which could only be resolved by civil war, since the function of civil war was to defuse this contradiction.

When we go to vote tomorrow, we will once again be substituting legal power for legitimate power. The first, which seems precise and perfectly clear-cut, has the effect of separating the voters in the name of universal suffrage. The second is still embryonic, diffuse, unclear even to itself. At this point it is indistinguishable from the vast libertarian and anti-hierarchical movement which one encounters everywhere but which is not at all organized yet. All the voters belong to very different groups. But to the ballot box they are not members of different groups but citizens. The polling booth standing in the lobby of a school or town hall is the symbol of all the acts of betrayal that the individual may commit against the group lie belongs to. To each person it says: “No one can see you, you have only yourself to look to; you are going to be completely isolated when you make your decision, and afterwards you can hide that decision or lie about it.” Nothing more is needed to transform all the voters who enter that hall into potential traitors to one another. Distrust increases the distance that separates them. If we want to fight against atomization, we must try to understand it first.

Men are not born in isolation: they are born into a family which forms them during their first years. Afterwards they will belong to different socioprofessional communities and will start a family themselves. They are atomized when large social forces — work conditions under the capitalist regime, private property, institutions, and so forth — bring pressure to bear upon the groups they belong to, breaking them up and reducing them to the units which supposedly compose them. The army, to mention only one example of an institution, does not look upon the recruit as an actual person; the recruit can only recognize himself by the fact that he belongs to existing groups. The army sees in him only the man, that is, the soldier — an abstract entity which is defined by the duties and the few rights which represent his relations with the military power. The soldier, which is just what the recruit is not but which military service is supposed to reduce him to, is in himself other than himself, and all the recruits in the same class are identically other. it is this very identity which separates them, since for each of them it represents only his predetermined general relationship with the army. During the hours of training, therefore, each is other than himself and at the same time identical with all the Others who are other than themselves. He can have real relations with his comrades only if they all cast off their identity as soldiers — say, at mealtimes or during the evening when they are in the barracks. Yet the word “atomization,” so often used, does not convey the true situation of people who have been scattered and alienated by institutions. They cannot be reduced to the absolute solitude of the atom even though institutions try to replace their concrete relations with people by incidental connections. They cannot be excluded from all forms of social life: a soldier takes the bus, buys the newspaper, votes. All this presumes that he will make use of “collectives” along with the Others. But the collectives address him as a member of a series (the series of newspaper buyers, television watchers, etc.). He becomes in essence identical with all the other members, differing from them only by his serial number. We say that he has been serialized. One finds serialization in the practico-inert field, where matter mediates between men to the extent that men mediate between material objects. (For example, as soon as a man takes the steering wheel of his car he becomes no more than one driver among others and, because of this, helps reduce his own speed and everyone else’s too, which is just the opposite of what he wanted, since he wanted to possess his own car.)

At that point, serial thinking is born in me, thinking which is not my own thinking but that of the Other which I am and also that of all the Others. It must be called the thinking of powerlessness, because I produce it to the degree that I am Other, an enemy of myself and of the Others, and to the degree that I carry the Other everywhere with me. Let us take the case of a business where there has not been a strike for twenty or thirty years, but where the buying power of the worker is constantly falling because of the “high cost of living.” Each worker begins to think about a protest movement. But twenty years of “social peace” have gradually established serial relations among the workers. Any strike — even if it were only for twenty-four hours — would require a regrouping of those people. At that point serial thinking — which separates them — vigorously resists the first signs of group thinking. Serial thinking will take several forms: it will be racist (“The immigrant workers would not go along with us”), sexist (“The women would not understand us”), hostile to other categories of society (“The small shopkeepers would not help us any more than the country people would”), distrustful (“The man near me is Other, so I don’t know how he would react”), and so forth. All the separatist arguments represent not the thinking of the workers themselves but the thinking of the Others whom they have become and who want to keep their identity and their distance. If the regrouping should come about successfully, there will be no trace left of this pessimistic ideology. Its only function was to justify the maintenance of serial order and of an impotence that was in part tolerated and in part accepted.

Universal suffrage is an institution, and therefore a collective which atomizes or serializes individual men. It addresses the abstract entities within them — the citizens, who are defined by a set of political rights and duties, or in other words by their relation to the state and its institutions. The state makes citizens out of them by giving them, for example, the right to vote once every four years, on condition that they meet certain very general requirements — to be French, to be over twenty-one — which do not really characterize any of them.

From this point of view all citizens, whether they were born in Perpignan or in Lille, are perfectly identical, as we saw in the case of the soldiers. No interest is taken in the concrete problems that arise in their families or socioprofessional groups. Confronting them in their abstract solitude and their separation are the groups or parties soliciting their votes. They are told that they will be delegating their power to one or several of these political groups. But in order to “delegate its power,” the series formed by the institution of the vote would itself have to possess at least a modicum of power. Now, these citizens, identical as they are and fabricated by the law, disarmed and separated by mistrust of one another, deceived but aware of their impotence, can never, as long as they remain serialized, form that sovereign group from which, we are told, all power emanates — the People. As we have seen, they have been granted universal suffrage for the purpose of atomizing them and keeping them from forming groups.

Only the parties, which were originally groups — though more or less bureaucratic and serialized — can be considered to have a modicum of power. In this case it would be necessary to reverse the classic formula, and when a party says “Choose me!” understand it to mean not that the voters would delegate their sovereignty to it, but that, refusing to unite in a group to obtain sovereignty, they would appoint one or several of the political communities already formed, in order to extend the power they have to the national limits. No party will be able to represent the series of citizens, because every party draws its power from itself, that is, from its communal structure. In any case, the series in its powerlessness cannot delegate any authority. Whereas the party, whichever one it might be, makes use of its authority to influence the series by demanding votes from it. The authority of the party over the serialized citizens is limited only by the authority of all the other parties put together.

When I vote, I abdicate my power — that is, the possibility everyone has of joining others to form a sovereign group, which would have no need of representatives. By voting I confirm the fact that we, the voters, are always other than ourselves and that none of us can ever desert the seriality in favor of the group, except through intermediaries. For the serialized citizen, to vote is undoubtedly to give his support to a party. But it is even more to vote for voting, as Kravetz says; that is, to vote for the political institution that keeps us in a state of powerless serialization.

We saw this in 1968 when de Gaulle asked the people of France, who had risen and formed groups, to vote — in other words, to lie down again and retreat into seriality. The non-institutional groups fell apart and the voters, identical and separate, voted for the U.D.R. [1] That party promised to defend them against the action of groups which they themselves had belonged to a few days earlier. We see it again today when S…guy asks for three months of social peace in order not to disturb the voters, but actually so that elections will be possible. For they no longer would be if fifteen million dedicated strikers, taught by the experience of 1968, refused to vote and went on to direct action. The voter must remain lying down, steeped in his own powerlessness. He will thus choose parties so that they can exert their authority and not his. Each man, locked in his right to vote just as the landowner is locked inside his land, will choose his masters for the next four years without seeing that this so-called right to vote is simply the refusal to allow him to unite with others in resolving the true problems by praxis.

The ballot method, always chosen by the groups in the Assembly and never by the voters, only aggravates things. Proportional representation did not save the voters from seriality, but at least it used all the votes. The Assembly accurately reflected political France, in other words repeated its serialized image, since the parties were represented proportionally, by the number of votes each received. Our voting for a single ticket, on the other band, works on the opposite principle — that, as one journalist rightly said, 49 percent equals zero. If the U.D.R. candidates in a voting district obtain 50 percent of the votes in the second round, they are all elected. The opposition’s 49 percent is reduced to nothing: it corresponds to roughly half the population, which does not have the right to be represented.

Take as an example a man who voted Communist in 1968 and whose candidates were not elected. Suppose he votes for the Communist Party again in 1973. If the results are different from the 1968 results, it will not be because of him, since in both cases be voted for the same candidates. For his vote to be meaningful, a certain number of voters who voted for the present majority in 1968 would have to grow tired of it, break away from it, and vote further to the left. But it is not up to our man to persuade them; besides, they are probably from a different milieu and he does not even know them. Everything will take place elsewhere and in a different way: through the propaganda of the parties, through certain organs of the press. As for the Communist Party voter, be has only to vote; this is all that is required of him. He will vote, but he will not take part in the actions that change the meaning of his vote. Besides, many of those whose opinion can perhaps be changed may be against the U.D.R. but are also deeply anti-Communist. They would rather elect “reformers,” who will thus become the arbiters of the situation. It is not likely that the reformers will at this point join the Socialist Party-Communist Party. They will throw their weight in with the U.D.R. which, like them, wants to maintain the capitalist regime. The U.D.R. and the reformers become allies — and this is the objective meaning of the Communist man’s vote. His vote is in fact necessary so that the Communist Party can keep its votes and even gain more votes. It is this gain which will reduce the number of majority candidates elected and will persuade them to throw themselves into the arms of the reformers. There is nothing to be said if we accept the rules of this fool’s game.

But insofar as our voter is himself, in other words insofar as he is one specific man, he will not be at all satisfied with the result he has obtained as an identical Other. His class interests and his individual purposes have coincided to make him choose a leftist majority. He will have helped send to the Assembly a majority of the right and center in which the most important party will still be the U.D.R. When this man, therefore, puts his ballot in the box, the box will receive from the other ballots a different meaning from the one this voter wished to give it. Here again is serial action as it was seen in the practico-inert area.

We can go even further. Since by voting I affirm my institutionalized powerlessness, the established majority does not hesitate to cut, trim, and manipulate the electoral body in favor of the countryside and the cities that “vote the right way” — at the expense of the suburbs and outlying districts that “vote the wrong way.” Even the seriality of the electorate is thereby changed. If it were perfect, one vote would be equal to any other. But in reality, 120,000 votes are needed to elect a Communist deputy, while only 30,000 can send a U.D.R. candidate to the Assembly. One majority voter is worth four Communist Party voters. The point is that the majority voter is casting his ballot against what we would have to call a supermajority, meaning a majority which intends to remain in place by other means than the simple seriality of votes.

Why am I going to vote? Because I have been persuaded that the only political act in my life consists of depositing my ballot in the box once every four years? But that is the very opposite of an act. I am only revealing my powerlessness and obeying the power of a party. Furthermore, the value of my vote varies according to whether I obey one party or another. For this reason the majority of the future Assembly will be based solely on a coalition, and the decisions it makes will be compromises which will in no way reflect the desires expressed by my vote. In 1959 a majority voted for Guy Mollet because he claimed be could make peace in Algeria sooner than anyone else. The Socialist government which came to power decided to intensify the war, and this induced many voters to leave the series — which never knows for whom or for what it is voting — and join clandestine action groups. This was what they should have done much earlier, but in fact the unlikely result of their votes was what exposed the powerlessness of universal suffrage.

Actually, everything is quite clear if one thinks it over and reaches the conclusion that indirect democracy is a hoax. Ostensibly, the elected Assembly is the one which reflects public opinion most faithfully. But there is only one sort of public opinion, and it is serial. The imbecility of the mass media, the government pronouncements, the biased or incomplete reporting in the newspapers — all this comes to seek us out in our serial solitude and load us down with wooden ideas, formed out of what we think others will think. Deep within us there are undoubtedly demands and protests, but because they are not echoed by others, they wither away and leave us with a “bruised spirit” and a feeling of frustration. So when we are called to vote, I, the Other, have my head stuffed with petrified ideas which the press or television has piled up there. They are serial ideas which are expressed through my vote, but they are not my ideas. The institutions of bourgeois democracy have split me apart: there is me and there are all the Others they tell me I am (a Frenchman, a soldier, a worker, a taxpayer, a citizen, and so on). This splitting-up forces us to live with what psychiatrists call a perpetual identity crisis. Who am I, in the end? An Other identical with all the others, inhabited by these impotent thoughts which come into being everywhere and are not actually thought anywhere? Or am I myself? And who is voting? I do not recognize myself any more.

There are some people who will vote, they say, “just to change the old scoundrels for new ones,” which means that as they see it the overthrow of the U.D.R. majority has absolute priority. And I can understand that it would be nice to throw out these shady politicians. But has anyone thought about the fact that in order to overthrow them, one is forced to replace them with another majority which will keep the same electoral principles?

The U.D.R., the reformers, and the Communist Party-Socialist Party are in competition. These parties stand on a common ground which consists of indirect representation, their hierarchic power, and the powerlessness of the citizens, in other words, the “bourgeois system.” Yet it should give us pause that the Communist Party, which claims to be revolutionary, has, since the beginning of peaceful coexistence, been reduced to seeking power in the bourgeois manner by accepting the institution of bourgeois suffrage. It is a matter of who can put it over on the citizens best. The U.D.R. talks about order and social peace, and the Communist Party tries to make people forget its revolutionary image. At present the Communists are succeeding so well in this, with the eager help of the Socialists, that if they were to take power because of our votes, they would postpone the revolution indefinitely and would become the most stable of the electoral parties. Is there so much advantage in changing? In any case, the revolution will be drowned in the ballot boxes — which is not surprising, since they were made for that purpose.

Yet some people try to be Machiavellian, in other words, try to use their votes to obtain a result that is not serial. They aim to send a Communist Party-Socialist Party majority to the Assembly in hopes of forcing Pompidou to end the pretense — that is, to dissolve the Chamber, force us into active battle, class against class or rather group against group, perhaps into civil war. What a strange idea — to serialize us, in keeping with the enemy’s wishes, so that he will react with violence and force us to group together. And it is a mistaken idea. In order to be a Machiavel, one must deal with certainties whose effect is predictable. Such is not the case here: one cannot predict with certainty the consequences of serialized suffrage. What can be foreseen is that the U.D.R. will lose seats and the Communist Party-Socialist Party and the reformers will gain seats. Nothing else is likely enough for us to base a strategy on it. There is only one sign: a survey made by the I.F.O.P. and published in France-Soir on December 4, 1972, showed 45 percent for the Communist Party-Socialist Party, 40 percent for the U.D.R., and 15 percent for the reformers. It also revealed a curious fact: there are many more votes for the Communist Party-Socialist Party than there are people convinced that this coalition will win. Therefore — and always allowing for the fallibility of surveys — many people seem to favor voting for the left, yet apparently feel certain that it will not receive the majority of the votes. And there are even more people for whom the elimination of the U.D.R. is the most important thing but who are not particularly eager to replace it by the left.

So as I write these comments on January 5, 1973, I find a U.D.R.-reformer majority likely. If this is the case, Pompidou will not dissolve the Assembly; lie will prefer to make do with the reformers. The majority party will become somewhat supple, there will be fewer scandals — that is, the government will arrange it so that they are harder to discover — and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and Lecannet will enter the government. That is all. Machiavellianism will therefore turn against the small Machiavels.

If they want to return to direct democracy, the democracy of people fighting against the system, of individual men fighting against the seriality which transforms them into things, why not start here? To vote or not to vote is all the same. To abstain is in effect to confirm the new majority, whatever it may be. Whatever we may do about it, we will have done nothing if we do not fight at the same time — and that means starting today — against the system of indirect democracy which deliberately reduces us to powerlessness. We must try, each according to his own resources, to organize the vast anti-hierarchic movement which fights institutions everywhere.

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7 responses to “Elections: A Trap for Fools

  1. Great ammunition against the Obama-mania crap. In many ways, Obama’s victory will be a roadblock to any kind of genuine change and in some respects already has, for example “It’s all good, there’s gonna be a black dude in the white house!!” – spoken by a true Anarchist. Voting for Obama is voting for imperialism. Period.

  2. So then the Nepali Maoists should stay home on election day?

  3. There is significant difference between the formalized ballot box under the liberal Bourgeois State and what was the historical vote in Nepal that led to an important victory for the people there. This is actually something the RCP, USA really never understood, dogmatically implying that a turn toward negotiation and political struggle in the civil society of Nepal was similiar to that under the liberal Bourgeois State.

    No, it is not. What is important to understand about the constituent assembly elections in Nepal, was that the Nepalese Maoists were a part of the very process to constitute these elections. How they would occur, how they were regulated, where the polling stations were, etc, the Maoists were a part of this process.

    Further the Maoists haven’t established People’s Power through the ballot box. This is the fundamental point of Sartre, that in the civil society of the liberal Bourgeois State, power constitutes itself through the vote. The Maoists still have the People’s Liberation Army, there are still mass organizations, communities, and other bodies working for the revolutionary transformation of relations in Nepal. What is the fake of Elections and by proxy, Obamamania, is the discarding of legitimate power and freedom for a “say” in a process that isolates and guarantees anonymity (corwardice) in your decision.

    Lets not just scratch the surface here.

  4. Well these French windbags sure are boring to read. So basically you’re arguing in favor of legal voter intimidation? The Nepal election where acceptable by your standards because a bunch of armed thugs were there to make sure the people voted the right way? Gee, I don’t know why you guys don’t have more support, that just sounds like such a good idea!

  5. Pingback: Sartre on Elections: A Trap for Fools « Kasama

  6. I think a lot of European philosophers have some kind of longing to be ruled by absolute monarchs again. There is this minority in European thought on both left and right that has some sort of hate for democracy. Also it seems like European antisemitism has some place in it because when you have a royal family ruling the “others” cannot have power. But when there is a free market suddenly the Jews can become a substantial part of the ruling class, something that could never happen with a pure blooded ruling family. At the same time the former peasants cannot be trusted to vote because they are foolish, greedy and easily duped. There’s just this certain strata of European intellectuals who just hate modern Europe. I used to think they were more rightwing than left but now I think the left is really a reactionary response to capitalism. What is anarchism but rolling back the state to the time of rule by royalty, knights and to a lesser extend trade guilds. What is the state but a way to limit the power of the old aristocracy? So in a way anarchism is fundamentally reactionary. Likewise Marxism finds a certain unease in the malleability of society under the rule of democracy and the market and longs for a return to the certain stable production and employment of the agricultural monarchy. Instead of the royal family we have the central committee and instead of the community of the agricultural village we have the collectivized farm.

    I used to think these philosophies were radical but now I see they have a subliminal nostalgia for absolute monarchy. Another world may be possible but it isn’t going to come from those philosophers.

  7. To try to apply Sartre’s argument to “leftists” staying away from Obama in 2012 is ludicrous. He was talking about his own time and his own circumstances.

    Never stop trying to change things as you vote for candidates that serves your best interests. Doing BOTH is not only logical, it is also pragmatic.

    Rebelling against Obama for the little that you don’t like him will only provide tacit support for they for who you hold almost complete disdain. That is counter intuitive.

    Those who think so, like the Shining Path, are, ironically, those with whom Sartre was communicating.

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