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Reprinted with permission

–Excerpts from Ken Knabb’s “The Joy of Revolution.”
The complete text is online at


Roughly speaking we can distinguish five degrees of “government”:

      (1) Unrestricted freedom
      (2) Direct democracy
      (3) Delegate democracy
      (4) Representative democracy
      (5) Overt minority dictatorship

The present society oscillates between (4) and (5), i.e. between overt
minority rule and covert minority rule camouflaged by a facade of token
democracy. A liberated society would eliminate (4) and (5) and would
progressively reduce the need for (2) and (3). . . .

In representative democracy people abdicate their power to elected
officials. The candidates’ stated policies are limited to a few vague
generalities, and once they are elected there is little control over their
actual decisions on hundreds of issues — apart from the feeble threat of
changing one’s vote, a few years later, to some equally uncontrollable rival
politician. Representatives are dependent on the wealthy for bribes and
campaign contributions; they are subordinate to the owners of the mass
media, who decide which issues get the publicity; and they are almost as
ignorant and powerless as the general public regarding many important
matters that are determined by unelected bureaucrats and independent secret agencies. Overt dictators may sometimes be overthrown, but the real rulers in “democratic” regimes, the tiny minority who own or control virtually everything, are never voted in and never voted out. Most people don’t even know who they are. . . .

In itself, voting is of no great significance one way or the other (those
who make a big deal about refusing to vote are only revealing their own
fetishism). The problem is that it tends to lull people into relying on
others to act for them, distracting them from more significant
possibilities. A few people who take some creative initiative (think of the
first civil rights sit-ins) may ultimately have a far greater effect than if
they had put their energy into campaigning for lesser-evil politicians. At
best, legislators rarely do more than what they have been forced to do by
popular movements. A conservative regime under pressure from independent radical movements often concedes more than a liberal regime that knows it can count on radical support. (The Vietnam war, for example, was not ended by electing antiwar politicians, but because there was so much pressure from so many different directions that the prowar president Nixon was forced to withdraw.) If people invariably rally to lesser evils, all the rulers have to do in any situation that threatens their power is to conjure up a threat of some greater evil.

Even in the rare case when a “radical” politician has a realistic chance of
winning an election, all the tedious campaign efforts of thousands of people
may go down the drain in one day because of some trivial scandal discovered in his (or her) personal life, or because he inadvertently says something intelligent. If he manages to avoid these pitfalls and it looks like he might win, he tends to evade controversial issues for fear of antagonizing
swing voters. If he actually gets elected he is almost never in a position
to implement the reforms he has promised, except perhaps after years of
wheeling and dealing with his new colleagues; which gives him a good excuse
to see his first priority as making whatever compromises are necessary to
keep himself in office indefinitely. Hobnobbing with the rich and powerful,
he develops new interests and new tastes, which he justifies by telling
himself that he deserves a few perks after all his years of working for good
causes. Worst of all, if he does eventually manage to get a few
“progressive” measures passed, this exceptional and usually trivial success
is held up as evidence of the value of relying on electoral politics, luring
many more people into wasting their energy on similar campaigns to come.

As one of the May 1968 graffiti put it, “It’s painful to submit to our
bosses; it’s even more stupid to choose them!”

–Excerpts from Ken Knabb’s “The Joy of Revolution.”
The complete text is online at
                                                    * * *


My intention in circulating these observations is not to discourage you from
voting or campaigning, but to encourage you to go further.

Two years ago, I wrote:

“Like many other people, I am delighted to see the Republicans collapsing
into well-deserved ignominy, with the likelihood of the Democrats
recapturing the presidency and increasing their majorities in Congress.
Hopefully the latter will discontinue or at least mitigate some of the more
insane policies of the current administration (some of which, such as
climate change and ecological devastation, threaten to become irreversible).
Beyond that, I do not expect the Democratic politicians to accomplish
anything very significant. Most of them are just as corrupt and compromised
as the Republicans. Even if a few of them are honest and well-intentioned,
they are all loyal servants of the ruling economic system, and they all
ultimately function as cogwheels in the murderous political machine that
serves to defend that system.”

I don’t think I need to take back any of my words. The Democrats did indeed
recapture the presidency and increase their majorities in Congress, but
their accomplishments since then have been as pathetic as could be imagined.
Some people will say that they are still better than the Republicans. But
being better than a party of sociopathic demagogues and gullible ignoramuses
is hardly much of an achievement. And being so lame that you risk getting
defeated by such a party is an achievement of a wholly different order.

During the last two years we have seen the consequences of relying on
political representatives to act for us. If the antiwar movement and other
more or less progressive currents had put even a fraction of the immense
amount of time and energy they invested in election campaigns into more
directly radical agitation, the situation would be very different today. As
a side effect, such agitation would actually have resulted in more liberals
being elected. But more importantly, it would have shifted the momentum and
the terrain of the struggle. The liberal politicians would have been under
pressure to actually implement some significant changes (such as ending the
wars and inaugurating free universal health care), which would have
invigorated their base while putting the reactionary forces increasingly on
the defensive. And that momentum shift might well have inspired even more
radical actions and aspirations — not just protesting against this or that
particular outrage, but calling into question the whole absurd and
anachronistic social system.

The side that takes the initiative usually wins because it defines the terms
of the struggle. If we accept the system’s own terms and confine ourselves
to defensively reacting to each new mess produced by it, we will never
overcome it. We have to keep resisting particular evils, but we also have to
recognize that the system will keep generating new ones until we put an end
to it.

By all means vote if you feel like it. But don’t stop there. Real social
change requires participation, not representation.

P.O. Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA