By Dr. AJAMU NANGWAYA
“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
Some people might read the above declaration by the anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman as an overly cynical claim about voting. Goldman might be on to something significant.
In the 19th century, the elite in Europe opposed giving the right to vote to working class men without property. The ruling-class feared the elimination of their unearned privileges by working class men.
With the emergence of the industrial working class, the elite thought the vote for all men might lead to the poor establishing socialism by way of the ballot.
The working class majorities in Europe and North America have never used the electoral system to abolish the wealth and power of the privileged minority.
Bob Marley would likely see the masses’ act of voting for capitalist parties as a compelling need for them to “emancipate (themselves) from mental slavery”. State socialists and anarchists would assert that the labouring classes lack the consciousness of their distinct class interests.
It is in the above context that the effectiveness of the Afrikan-Canadian vote will be examined. At the April 29 2nd African Canadian Leadership Summit, a Black Votes Matter Canada campaign was launched in anticipation of the upcoming federal election.
This electoral campaign seems to have the trade union movement’s fingerprints all over it. I contacted a staff member from one of the summit’s organizing groups about the campaign and this individual directed me to one of the labour organizations that co-sponsored the summit.
In the Canadian Labour Congress’ 2015 African Heritage Month statement, it is clear that this organization will assist in mobilizing the Afrikan-Canadian vote:
“Meanwhile in Canada, federal elections will be held this year presenting a real opportunity for the Black community to challenge political parties on their social and economic policy records and election platforms. With this year’s election in our sights, we have identified four key issues that resonate with the Black community: jobs, retirement security, health care and childcare.”
In an interview by email, Chris Wilson, member-at-large on the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists’ (CBTU) international executive board, outlines the reasons behind the group’s Ontario chapter’s involvement in the Black Votes Matter Canada campaign.
A principal objective guiding CBTU’s participation is to “challenge public policies based upon right-wing ideologies that seek to undermine workers’ rights and perpetuate a culture of White supremacy”, which Wilson says “includes conservative ‘right-to-work’ policies, contracting-out practices, back-to-work legislation and all other forms of attacks on labour and workers of colour”.
CBTU sees the 2015 federal election as an important one because its outcome will determine the nature and impact of public policies on the lives of Afrikan-Canadians.
An organizer with the campaign says: “When we vote, we are also speaking up for the kind of society in which we want to live. And if we want to live in one in which our concerns and issues matter, we had better speak up, especially at the ballot box.”
The above interviewee consented to the interview on condition of anonymity because this individual wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
This campaign is fighting an uphill battle in getting Afrikan-Canadians out to vote. Many Afrikan-Canadians do not participate in elections. Voting has not improved the economic and social condition of this group so it is seen as a useless activity.
In Canada, the United States and Europe, the governing elites have been wrestling with a political problem called the democratic deficit.
The democratic deficit is grounded in voters’ experience of the political system not allowing them meaningful participation and influence in shaping government policies and programs. Voters view the political system as being unaccountable to them, while the technocrats are the source of power.
Voters are increasingly voting with their feet away from the ballot box. Governments are concerned about their legitimacy with the dramatic decline in voter turnout. In Canada’s April 1963 federal election, 79.2 per cent of registered voters went to the polls. However, in the May 2011 election, only 61.1 per cent of eligible voters were motivated to participate.
A study, Factors associated with voting, by Statistics Canada on the 2011 federal election revealed that single parents, recent immigrants, people with a high school education or less, renters, people with little wealth and the unemployed are less likely to vote than their privileged counterparts. Afrikan-Canadians are found in large numbers in the groups that are least likely to vote.
These socially-marginalized groups do not believe their participation in elections will make a noticeable difference to their social and economic well-being.
According to Wilson: “The purpose of increased voter registration, voter education and voter turnout projects is to advance policies that are in the interest of the working class and that of the African-Canadian community.”
The fixation on the Afrikan-Canadian vote as a meaningful force for change is rather baffling. In Canada the members of the White working class majority have yet to successfully use their votes to win a substantially better life. How would the votes of a mere three per cent of the population be a force for real change?
The voting mobilization campaign is ignoring the lessons of history on the true source of social change. Social movement activism is the difference-maker in forcing the political and economic elite to deal with the needs of the oppressed.
In Ontario, the Yonge Street Uprising forced a social democratic regime to create anti-racist and equity programs. Voting in elections did not contribute to this change in government policies.
The limited concessions by Ontario’s political system on the issue of police violence are the result of resistance in the streets and not the outcome of voting.
In the United States, Afrikan-Americans’ protest in the streets and the development of militant organizations brought an end to apartheid in the South and political concessions in the North and South.
Whenever social movement activism is at its lowest, the political system tends to retake most of the gains that were won during the peak of mass resistance.
Black votes do not matter. Afrikan-Canadians fighting for social change from below, in principled alliances with other oppressed groups, is what really matters.
The verdict of history is on the side of Emma Goldman.
Ajamu Nangwaya, PhD, is an educator, organizer and writer. He is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence.