Working-Class Democracy?

Emma Goldman once quipped, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

To those of us who have grown up in a culture that preaches the importance of voting, this statement may seem absurd. But is it really? Americans on the whole are guilted into the voting booths every few years, yet a large majority do not trust politicians, do not think their representatives are looking out for their best interests, and do not think government works for them. So, why do we continue to participate in what is clearly a sham? Because we are told, “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain?” Because if we choose the lesser evil, the greater evil will subside?

Is this really democracy? Is it liberty? Is it freedom? I would guess that most would answer ‘no’ to those questions. If so, why do we continue to participate in and validate a system that we view as oppressive, restrictive, and corrupt? Even more so, why do we continue to vote for one of two political parties that clearly, by all measures, do not represent the working-class majority?

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a known champion of voting rights and believer in progress through electoral participation, but even he recognized the limitations of relying on such mechanisms. “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle,” he once proclaimed. “And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” To King, this continuous struggle went far beyond the ballot box. It included direct action, workers strikes, and boots on the ground, pounding the pavement. We are told that voting is our sacred duty. However, when we gather on the streets to demand basic rights, we’re shot, beaten, and tazed by police officers.

Malcolm X had a firm grasp on America’s brand of democracy, and recognized it for what it was: a false sense of security; a false sense of control; and a false sense of participation and enfranchisement. “And when I speak, I don’t speak as a Democrat. Or a Republican. Nor an American,” he said. “I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy – all we’ve seen is hypocrisy. When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism. We see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don’t see any American dream. We’ve experienced only the American nightmare.” This applies to the working class as a whole – black, brown, white, whatever.

The victimization of Americanism is being taught of the virtues of freedom and liberty, then being forced to work for poverty wages. It’s being told that you have control over your life, only to find yourself standing in the unemployment line. It’s being told that this is the greatest country in history, while stepping over homeless veterans in the street. In his hard-hitting track, the 4th Branch, rapper Immortal Technique reminded us that “democracy is just a word when the people are starving.” In 2014, 49 million Americans experience “food insecurity” on a daily basis; 45 million are officially living in poverty; and 46 million receive food stamps to get by. Every night in the United States, over 15 million working-class children go to bed hungry.

The Republican Party is an obvious foe of the working class. But to assume their counterparts, the Democrats, are an ally is misguided and ignores history. In our two-party system, with the fickle nature of electoral politics, both parties are engaged in a constant changing of the guard, as they alternate positions of power every half-decade or so. Yet nothing changes. Nothing gets better. The working classes are as hopeless now as they were 40 years ago.

Huey P. Newton provided a valuable analysis on electoral politics in America:

“When one operates in the political arena, it is assumed that he has power or represents power; he is symbolic of a powerful force. There are approximately three areas of power in the political arena: economic power, land power (feudal power), and military power.” Working-class Americans possess none of these powers. They do not own businesses, they do not own land, and they certainly do not own a military or police apparatus. Even middle-class homeowners are at the mercy of the banking masters who own their deeds. And because we possess none of these powers, we also possess no political power. Therefore, as Newton tells us, sending a person to represent us in the political arena is “somewhat absurd” because he or she is nothing more than a reflection of our own political power, which is nil. Our so-called representative “does not represent land power because we do not own any land,” and “he does not represent economic or industrial power because we do not own the means of production.” He or she, therefore, has zero leverage in affecting any sort of meaningful change. That is our system in a nutshell.

Naomi Klein has said that “democracy is not just the right to vote, it is the right to live in dignity.” If you feel so compelled, by all means cast your vote. But please do not leave that ballot box with the false sense that democracy is at play. Please do not walk out of that polling place and wash your angst away by thinking you have done your job. Until the economy is democratized, this cycle of abuse will continue. Until the working-class majority develops one of the three fundamental powers described by Newton, it will remain impotent. Working-class democracy must be won in the streets; it must be won in the workplace; it must be won in our consciousness.”

In solidarity.


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