Political Parties: A thorn in the side of change
When looking at modern political life from the mainstream view, everything from the news to how ‘change’ is made is linked to that of the political party. Whilst there may seem like there is a plurality of change available from being able to select a political party, their presence is almost always a barrier to actually changing our destructive authoritarian capitalist system. This essay will discuss the fundamental problems of political parties, looking specifically at the UK and the issue of immigration detention, before elaborating into how we can ensure real change can come from movements outside of the State apparatus.
‘’If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal’’ ~ Emma Goldman
This classic quote by Goldman, whilst being seen by many as overly cliche, strikes at the heart of the fundamental issues present in the current political systems of representative democracy. As the world slowly moved away from the authoritarianism of feudal lords and monarchs (except the UK apparently), a new type of oppressive power rose. The party political system is a new form of tyranny, for it hides its true authoritarian nature behind the guise of democratic decision making. As Bakunin famously wrote in his 1873 work Statism and Anarchy, ‘’When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called “the People’s Stick”.’’ Whilst it is clear that we have made developments towards a society in which people can actually have the freedom to govern themselves, it is also clear to those in anarchist movements that this system is unsustainable, dangerous, and still has many of the oppressive tendencies their for-founding systems possessed.
The problem is simple, the political party’s aim is not that of values, it is that of power.
The origin of political parties dates back to the writings of Plato and Aristotle from Ancient Greece. Furthermore, whilst free associations of people for political aims have long been recorded political parties as we know it in the modern sense have only begun to develop in the 18th centuries. They have since developed into sophisticated and well organised groups of sometimes millions of people, and are present in almost every nation-state on Earth. It would be difficult to argue against the point that the most prominent form of political organising in the modern world, outside of perhaps trade unions, is that of the political party. The structure of political parties is of familiarity to many, they structure themselves in ways which allow for an incredibly top down approach to organising and strategising, with few exceptions perhaps in the more left wing groups. Their dominance in our political life is unquestioned, and this breeds more problems than is first obvious.
The biggest problems are fairly obvious once the facade of the parties is pulled back even slightly. Whilst it is clear that ‘ticking a box’ every five years does not make us free regardless of choice, it is obvious too that the choices are not that different as they appear.
They serve not the people, but themselves. Without falling into the pitfall of overgeneralisation, it is worrying how similar political parties become when left to fight inside the overton window that is modern political discourse. Ideas shift towards the centre, they become less radical, they change less problems, they keep more people in poverty, and they ensure the system as a whole endures every storm. The very idea of coalitions, compromise, and inter-party bargaining (usually under the guise of ‘cooperation’) leads perfectly to the conclusion that the aim of their game is staying in power, not improving the world we live in. The phrase elected dictatorship is an overstatement. Examples of this range from coalitions that span the political spectrum (such as the recent memory of the ‘Grand Coalition’ in Germany between the centre-left and centre-right), the complete inaction of the global community towards climate change, or that of the persistent global policies spanning the EU (via Frontex, the EU’s brutal border force police) and the Americas against refugees and migrants. The list is endless. This includes not only countries with multi-party systems, but also countries where one party holds dominant power by design, such as China, as well.
It stems from an overall limitation of our political system and that of nation-states in general. The rise of the modern nation-state, particularly in the west, has led to a perceived belief that they are the bastion of human rights, freedom, and that of the ‘Government of the people.’ This is a fabrication. These states are responsible for the supposed ‘war on drugs’, ‘war on terror’, and the multitude of other wars and dangerous military interventions, from Afghanistan to Iraq, across the Pacific and South America. They have consistently been opposed to (sometimes in the most violent ways possible) to trade union and socialists movements and ensure a maintenance of the global system of capital, with them consistently bailing out private capital during capitalism’s crisis’, creating legislation with loopholes for big businesses, and allowing for incessant lobbying by those who can offer the most money. All the while, the people suffer. This disastrous record is shared by almost every state on Earth, and has been inflicted when they are ruled by every type of political party, from the far-left to the far-right.
Parliamentary democracy is advertised as the ultimate freedom for the people, the ability to vote for your representative. However, they do not truly represent us. It has been well documented (especially in the UK) that we are electing people to make decisions for us, not informed by us. The time-span between elections, as well as the absolute power for these politicians to make decisions for us, means we actually have almost no say in day-to-day political decision making. As stated in the introduction, ticking a box every three-five years hardly makes any meaningful change to the lives of those in our communities. It leads us into a false sense of security, a political apathy that we are helping to create change when in reality the status quo of the state and capitalism is maintained.
The issue appears to span ideology, and it is because it concerns power and the state. The state will weather every political party, every change, and ultimately be the downfall of free associations and true liberation if it is not overthrown alongside capitalism, and it is why we must criticise political issues, and fight to change them, from a truly anti-capitalist, anti-state, and grassroots perspective.
Furthermore, the political party has also encroached into a much more worrying position within the context of political change, especially on the left. Their widespread support and power, vast funds from private capital off the backs of wage slavery, and their ideological hold over the populace by virtue of their position has lead to a view that change only comes from a change in the law, or via change in the party. Obviously there is some nuance to this debate. Certain parties can be seen as ‘better’ than others. Certain parties may provide much more relief to the abject poverty of many than others, and a left-wing government can do a lot more for the ‘common-person’ than a right wing government. We are by no means trying to justify the election of right-wing parties, or trying to argue that the presence of left-wing parties is worse than the presence of right-wing ones. The reality can often be that these parties can provide great relief to those in poverty and distress. To loosely apply Bakunin: ‘’…the most imperfect republic is a thousand times better than the most enlightened monarchy.’’ But in the grand scheme of our future aims and goals, this is an unstable and dangerous way of thinking, because the narrowing of change into that only via the establishment and political parties means that real, meaningful change can never occur, the disease’s roots remain.
It has become a view across a lot of the political spectrum that change can only come via two channels: the political party, or by changing the political party. This way of thinking is a particularly worrying one, not only because it is dangerous to believe that meaningful change can only come through the state, but also because it can act as a way to guilt grassroots movements into cooperating with parties to the point that we become subordinate to them. The guise of cross-ideological support, especially in movements/causes that can span the political spectrum (such as immigration, see below), are particularly vulnerable to this guilt-tripping. This can lead to censorship of radical ideas and once again, the state survives and the balance of power remains, with real meaningful change never actually occurring, since the overarching oppression remains. We must not be made to feel guilty for wanting change outside of their system, and getting to the root of the real problems.
The shift from this thinking must first be an ideological and an internal one. We must break free from the hold political parties have on daily life, and begin organising from a grassroots level. Whilst it may seem like the gains are smaller, or less meaningful in the short term, these small changes in the context of our end goal of the complete overthrow of the state and capitalism will have more meaning than anything they can give us. Almost all meaningful change comes from below and we must not forget this. To further illustrate the deep-rooted problems of political parties and how their vision is only that of state power and control, we will look more closely at a perfect example of this issue, the United Kingdom, and that of immigration detention.
‘’I believe that democracy has so far disappeared… that no ‘’two evils’’ exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say’’ ~ W.E.B. Du Bois
It is of no shock to anyone that the Conservative party in the United Kingdom (‘Tories’) is no friend to the working class, despite their best attempts at convincing them so. Their long standing cooperation with the far-right, support of the monarchy, long standing opposition against the poor and vulnerable, and more examples of racism, misogyny, and attacks against migrants than I can list in this essay demonstrate their inherent opposition to real social change and the working class. They are not on our side, but what about the Labour party? The Labour party positions itself as the party of the working class, and is meant to be ideologically opposed to that of the Tories and their policies. Considering the nature of the UK’s voting system and how our Parliamentary debates are conducted, it would also appear to imply this. However, this is not the case. The blood on Labour’s hands is almost as red as the rose that is their logo, and they certainly have a similarly poor record that they can share with their supposed worse enemies.
Once again it shows a disconnect between supposed values and the actual actions of these parties. It is likely that the parties do hate each other, but not for the reasons we suspect. I cannot count the times where I have heard people who I would personally consider die-hard socialists praise the centrist and horrible actions of the Labour party under the guise of ‘we need to get in power’ or ‘the Tories are worse.’ Perhaps the latter has some meaning, but both points are baseless when the history is compared. Power is the desire, not fundamental change, unfortunately it appears that the ideological power of these parties has helped to separate them from the State and capitalism, but they are not their enemies, they are their partners in crime.
The oppression by the State takes many forms, but the context we are looking at is how fundamental change does not occur regardless of which party is in power. This is a concept felt around the world, especially in the United States as an example. However, in the UK, we can look closely at the immigration policies put forward by both the Labour and the Conservative governments. It is clear where the Conservative government has failed regarding immigration. Their blatant anti-immigration rhetoric, alongside their absence of action when people are drowning in the English channel, plus their introducing of new immigration legislation which has opened new detention centres (such as Hassockfield in County Durham) and created a new points based system making it even harder to enter the UK. This is in addition to the new Nationality and Borders bill which introduces draconian powers regarding citizenship and asylum (such as taking away citizenship without notice). Their cruelty is beyond belief, but Labour are not free from blame.
Labour have built the privately run prison HMP Oakwood, built the immigration detention centre Yarl’s Wood, which mirrors that of Hassockfield in its purpose and use. Several other prisons and detention centres across the country, from London to Scotland, were built and maintained thanks to the Labour party. Recent history seems to also indicate that the Labour party under Keir Starmer hopes to make similar arrangements, with some ambiguity over whether or not they actually oppose the cruel method of offshore detention. Furthermore, the recent Ukrainian refugee crisis has shown their further willingness to cooperate with the Tories, in that they refuse to back an open-door policy for refugees, a decision that will undoubtedly cause great pain and suffering.
It is for reasons like this that opposition to immigration detention must come from an anti-state perspective. The hardships of immigration detention stem from, in my view, two primary factors: the existence of states and the interests of private capital. The existence of nation-states implies, by design, the existence of borders. Borders, enforced by states, are the reason immigration is even a concept we can understand. It leads to sickening ideologies such as nationalism, has led to countless world conflicts, and turns people who simply want the freedom to travel for a better life criminals in the eyes of those in power. They are detained because they ‘do not belong here’ in their eyes. This mentality is also accompanied, as it so often is under capitalism, by racism. The best example is the most recent one, the Ukrainian refugee crisis has shown us that when white people face refugee struggles, they are welcomed with open arms, but when those who are not white face the same fate, they are banned for a variety of equally awful and false reasons. An example of this is Poland, who have recently militarised their borders for Afghans and Syrians, but have opened their borders for Ukrainians fleeing violence. This is not meant to be a discussion of who deserves more help, they all deserve help, and once again the racist capitalist state ensures people will die. Furthermore, these detention centres are an incredibly profitable business. Everything from border force to the construction and maintenance of prisons and detention centres helps the capitalist class profit from the misery of those who are detained. ICE in the United States is a good example of this, but these private security firms exist globally, and they help drive the policy decisions that lead to immigration detention being as brutal as it is.
Consequently, the only position that truly supports the abolishment of immigration detention and ensuring those who are detained can be free is that of anti-state. anti-capitalist and internationalist movements. Opposing immigration detention without these values unfortunately leads to the core problems being maintained. Whilst there are borders and states there will be immigration detention, and even if every State on Earth followed every international law obligation possible to ensure the ‘humane’ treatment of immigrants, immigration detention will remain and it will always be inhumane for as long as it exists. Not recognising the influence of private capital also misses one of the main motivators for these detention centres existing. The establishment, and political parties, can never truly have these aims at heart. Their existence and power relies upon (with some parties relying on them more than others) the above-mentioned issues that are directly causing the brutality of immigration detention, and as such, they cannot be relied upon to make meaningful change. Movements that are internationalist, that oppose capitalism and the state in all its forms have the necessary values to actually oppose the root problems of immigration detention (and most problems in our modern world for that fact). Outside of this, the problems will remain, regardless of how well the symptoms are treated.
If you want to criticise immigration detention, and the brutal conditions the people who are caught in this system face, you are forced to recognise the truth that all of those involved in the party system are responsible. As discussed above, they are a victim of their own design, they are trapped in a system that they cannot change without destroying themselves. Our end goals can never be their end goals, and whilst some of their short term goals can provide an ounce of relief to those who are living through what can only be described as a living hell, they never come close to the real change we need and desire. We know they are to blame, and it is difficult to distinguish them from one another when all that seems to separate them is a name, a colour, and the occasionally lesser evil political position.
‘’We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.’’ – Ursula K. Le Guin
This quote I believe encapsulates the struggle faced by many on the radical left. Wanting to make long lasting change in a society so tightly grasped by oppressive forces can feel overwhelming at best, and completely impossible at worst. Whilst this quote applies to capitalism, it can apply to all the problems mentioned above, from poverty to detention. We must not lose sight of the fact that change is possible, and that it is possible outside of these ‘official’ channels that are presented to us. There is some nuance to this debate, and as mentioned above, it is an obvious statement that a left-wing government is better than a right-wing one. It can also be said to be true that the abject pain of poverty that many people across the world feel could be alleviated by a kinder, more progressive and left wing welfare state. These observations are not something we should ignore, but something we should see as a temporary fix to a deadly problem. In the same way that paracetamol can only relieve chronic pain for so long, those in power, regardless of their affiliation, can only provide temporary relief. They cannot fix the real problems. As such, the question we ask is simple, what can we do?
A few important things should be kept in mind. A reminder that short term gains are nothing to be upset about, especially since our short term gains are created from our long term aspirations of the complete change of society. The need for movements against evils such as immigration detention and racist, destructive borders needs to come from grassroots movements. Whilst we should not be scared to branch out to others to help create a broad movement of solidarity, too much influence from those heavily rooted in the establishment can never lead to meaningful change, and usually leads to over bureaucratic control and a tight control on radical viewpoints, in keeping with the immortal party line, which is ultimately what they serve when it comes down to choosing a side.
Only when movements are built from the bottom up can they serve to make real change, and whilst it may be harder, or take longer, or run into more barriers, history shows us that this is the best way to strive for real, long lasting change. We can look at movements such as the anti-raids movement across the UK (especially considering a recent event that occurred in Glasgow), the numerous mutual aid campaigns and solidarity funds that have occurred both during and prior to the pandemic, the multitude of campaigns that are raising awareness about the horrors of prisons and immigration detention, anti-fox hunting movements taking direct action against this cruel practice, the solidarity campaigns occurring on some of the most dangerous borders in the world, and of course the thousands of protests that occur almost daily across the world against all sorts of issues. The list of grassroots, people led movements is astounding. They are not charity, and they are not simply political tools for the political elite, they are actions that help people now, that aim for real change now, they have the will and drive to make a difference now, and anarchists have been a part of these movements every step of the way. Our values and long term goals must influence our short term goals, and short term goals should not be compromised for those who lose their values in the corrupted system that is the State.
We can change the world, one grassroots movement and one immigration detention centre at a time, from the bottom to the very top.
Sources and Notes:
 For more information on this, see Mutual Aid by Peter Kropotkin for a history of mutual aid and free association groups through history.
 For more on this, see The Common Good (1998) by Noam Chomsky.
 I refer you to this article by AAA in the NEAG for more on this topic: <https://northeastanarchistgroup.org/2021/11/14/thoughts-on-climate-and-communism/>.
 For more information about Frontex and their crimes, see here: <https://abolishfrontex.org/>.
 I refer to this brief list detailing bailouts by the US Government as an example: <https://www.investopedia.com/articles/economics/08/government-financial-bailout.asp>.
 Edmund Burke, often seen as one of the founders of modern day Conservatism in the UK, made repeated references to the idea of representatives acting on their own judgement and not their electors: ‘’Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’’
 For more details of Labour’s poor record, please see this well sourced thread: <https://twitter.com/libcomorg/status/808791965496180741>, I also recommend checking out the book ‘’The Starmer Project’’ by Oliver Eagleton – which details how Starmer (the current Labour leader as of 2022) has a shocking past, page 53 for example details his brutalising sentencing guidelines relating to the riots that occurred whilst we was DPP.
 For an illustrated example of this, please refer to ‘’No Wall they can Build’’ by CrimethInc, which discusses how both the Democrats and the Republicans help to maintain the brutal conditions on the US-Mexico border.
 I refer to these two articles written on the subject: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/07/labour-politics-of-cruelty-elections> and <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/23/labour-migration-opposition-tories-new-labout>.
 For a brief list of some of the private companies that maintain prisons in the UK, see here: <https://www.justice.gov.uk/about/hmps/contracted-out>.
 I also refer to Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the next) by Dean Spade, which is an instructive guide to successful mutual aid.
 Specifically regarding the North East, I refer to: <https://newcastlecovid19.com/arthurs-hill/>; <https://womenagainstrape.net/abolish_detention_notohassockfield/> – However, campaigns such as these exist across the UK and beyond.
 <https://www.facebook.com/NEhuntmonitors/>; <https://www.huntsabs.org.uk/>. <https://nomoredeaths.org/en/>; <https://freedomnews.org.uk/2022/01/04/poland-belarus-lithuania-a-border-crisis-hell//>.