Can elections really change anything?

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Posted Nov 17 2019 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
Can elections really change anything or not?

Can elections really change anything? Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org shares his views on the question in the run-up to the general election.


The phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ is becoming a bit of a cliché – overused and indeed often misused. But it perfectly describes my feelings towards the upcoming general election. It’s been my position for a long time that elections, and parliamentary democracy generally, are a distraction, to hide the fact that real power does not ultimately reside with government, but with money.

However, I’m leaning towards giving my vote to a party that promises (I know, I know) to do something that I really, really want to see happen. Maybe I’m a sucker, but here’s my thinking.

I don’t believe that elections make any difference in the long-run, or even very much in the short-run – but, worse, media saturation makes everyone believe that if their party gets elected, there can be meaningful and lasting change, when in reality, within the current global system, there cannot.

When I talk about my disdain for elections, some friends have been horrified. Common responses have been:

  • “Lots of people have died over the years so that you could have a vote – you have a duty to use it.”
  • “Elections can bring about change – look at the NHS – and a progressive government could end austerity.”
  • “If you don’t like any of the parties on offer, start one yourself and stand for election.”
  • “If you think liberal democracy is so bad, do you think places like North Korea, where people are not allowed to vote, are somehow better?”
  • “But you’re going to let the **** party in.”

… and so on.

But these responses don’t work for me at all. Here’s why.

Maintaining the status quo

1. We have a political system that’s designed to maintain the status quo

The Conservatives are by far the most successful party in the UK. When Labour do win, anything they introduce that the corporate sector don’t like is reversed by the Tories when they return to power.

2. When it comes to real change, governments’ hands are tied

Every national government in the world is playing the same game, the point of which is to grow their economy as much as possible, to afford the maximum amount of weaponry in an attempt to enforce their will regionally (and for the big players, globally). The overall winner of this game gets to establish military bases all over the world, and to have its money as the global reserve currency. The US is winning the game at the moment, but it will be just as bad when China takes over.

Any government that doesn’t welcome international finance capital with open arms will scare it away, and they will do badly in the global game. Frighten international investors away from your country, in a capitalist world, and you won’t stay in power for long. Sad but true – ask Syriza.

And so we get neoliberal or bland ‘centre’ governments (and the Overton Window has moved so far to the right that Blair and Clinton can be called ‘centre’).

“States are an integral part of the current system and therefore, the political parties who try to run them, even if with the best intent, end up obliged to follow the logic of “pragmatism” over the values they stand for, as they are called upon to run the state in a way that is efficient for the market economy and guarantees the competitive advantage of the country within the system. Political decisions of our governments have always been strongly influenced by capital, but in a world where finance capital has become the dominant factor, the rapidity with which it can flee a country that does not welcome it, means that it needs to be courted, just as the Tory government is explicitly doing, but also as the left wing parties across Europe, including Syriza, have been forced to do.” – Ludovica Rogers, Co-ops UK

3. Elections and party politics sap energy and resources

If we expended as much effort on actively building new economy alternatives (commons, co-operative, free/open source tools and institutions), we’d be on a surer and shorter path to a better world. Any transfer of energy of those people building a new economy from the grassroots into party political campaigning is, imho, a scandalous waste of scarce resources.

4. Political parties that challenge the status quo will be demonised by the media

A corporate media is only ever going to respond negatively to any party or movement attempting to move power away from the corporate sector. Most people understand this, but it still has a big effect.

5. Western governments are awash with corporate money

I don’t have to persuade anyone that capitalism concentrates wealth, do I? I guess the debate is around whether that concentrated wealth translates into concentrated power. My position is that it does: ‘who pays the piper calls the tune’. So the state props up the corporate sector in many different ways:

  • Politicians listen to corporate lobbyists many times more than they listen to community lobbyists
  • Starbucks (and other corporates) are allowed to avoid taxes, when the independent coffee shop across the road is not
  • Governments spend taxpayers’ money on high-speed rail, motorways and airports that disproportionately benefit national and multinational corporations rather than local businesses
  • If they fail, then ‘too-big-to-fail’ corporations – notably banks – are bailed out with our money
  • The state grants monopoly control of the money supply to corporate banks, along with the right to create money from nothing, and to charge interest on it; and in return the banks buy government bonds to provide the funds to compete in the global game
  • Subsidies for oil companies to find more fossil fuels; no tax on aviation fuel or VAT on flights etc.
  • Giant states will always prefer giant corporations when it comes to government contracts
  • Spending on corporate weaponry that hugely exceeds any ‘defence’ requirements
  • and so on – see here for more

The neoliberal project

As David Harvey explains, Neoliberalism isn’t an ideology – it’s a project to concentrate power. And he locates that power in the state/bank nexus. He’s right – look what happened when it seemed that the neoliberal project was going to fall over in 2008/9. Genuinely right-wing people said ‘let the banks die’. The left had no idea. George Bush (obviously) had no idea. It needed Ben Bernanke (Federal Reserve) and Hank Paulson (Treasury Secretary) to step up and say ‘this is how it’s going to be. Ordinary taxpayers all over the world are going to give their hard-earned money to bail out the banks’. And that’s exactly what happened. They rescued the neoliberal project, and no-one could stop them. Least of all presidents or prime ministers.

Power is now more concentrated than in the time of the British East India Company, the Mongol Hordes or the Roman Empire. And it’s in the bank-state nexus. Can a change of government do anything about this power concentration? Well no, because, they won’t have the power!

So if voting isn’t going to change the status quo, what is?

What we’re interested in at Lowimpact and NonCorporate.org is building an alternative economy, that doesn’t have to grow forever and doesn’t concentrate wealth, by sucking it out of communities and depositing in tax havens.

We want to help build economic units that keep wealth in communities, and don’t have to keep growing, to maximise returns for shareholders. What comprises this economy? Co-ops of all kinds, the commons, sole traders, local businesses, and many others, including mutual credit exchange systems and a range of new digital tools that can allow collaboration and federation in ways that have never been possible before.

We think this is the way to change the economy and the world – by building it ourselves, rather than waiting for governments to do something. We believe that a new economy is growing that can transcend capitalism (rather than overthrowing it or voting it away), in the same way that capitalism grew to transcend feudalism.

However (and this is where the cognitive dissonance comes in)

Labour say they’ll double the size of the co-op economy. That’s a gift horse I can’t look in the mouth.

But do they mean it? Having seen McDonnell and Corbyn speak – yes, I believe they do.

Will it make a difference long-term? Yes – it’s not something that can be (easily) reversed by an incoming Tory government, as it’s owned by workers themselves, and not governments. And even if Labour don’t win, and the Tories continue to give the finger to working people, and to facilitate the sucking of wealth out of their communities by the corporate sector, we’ll continue to help build economic units that keep wealth in. It’s the only way, really.

But Labour had me at ‘doubling the size of the co-operative economy’. I was fooled into believing that Tony Blair’s government might have turned the Tory / capitalist / corporate tide, but far from turning it, they intensified it. However, I believe that Corbyn and McDonnell are honourable, decent people, unlike Blair and his cronies. So I’m going to vote Labour. I know – what kind of an anarchist is that, really? Don’t tell anybody.


Dave DarbyAbout the author

Dave Darby lived at Redfield community from 1996 to 2009. Working on development projects in Romania, he realised they saw Western countries as role models, so decided to try to bring about change in the UK instead. He founded Lowimpact.org in 2001, spent 3 years on the board of the Ecological Land Co-op and was a founder of NonCorporate.org. and the Open Credit Network.