Towards subversive abstentionism (concerning elections)

Towards subversive abstentionism

The electoral mechanism is not just an adjustment of government strategy. On the contrary, it is one of the most significant moments of the whole repressive strategy. In practice, the State’s increasing intervention in the affairs of capitalism with the aim of putting some order in its contradictions not only has the effect of rationalising dominion but also opens up another set of contradictions, first in the State itself then in capitalism in the long run. Here the reduction of parliament’s powers and the enormous growth in the powers of the executive becomes of great interest to us. This is quite logical as the State is first and foremost an executive instrument then, at the level of the mass as the enclosure of dominion, it is also an instrument for obtaining consensus. The State cannot function without consensus, nor can it do so without an executive. This often makes it favour the second aspect, leading to certain contradictions such as those that claim to keep the government working when there is no longer any  agreement between the different delegating processes (party, union, economic, ideological, etc.).

The loss of contact between the grassroots and the instruments that filter the executive’s decisions (parliament in the first place) would appear to be due to a lack of political agreements and insufficient balance of party forces, while in actual fact it is due to the worsening of the underlying conditions (price levels, unemployment, declining investment, lack of support for demand, imbalances between areas with unequal development, uncontrollable social tensions, disproportionate repression, regurgitation of authoritarian methods, inadequate methods of assemblear control, etc.). These conditions of malaise are transferred to the executive through representative structures which take on the character of a pulley of inefficiency or an instrument of control of the inadequacy of plans, precisely at a time when they are losing their original significance as the management of consensus. The paradoxical – and contradictory – case occurs where the very presence of the filter mechanism (parties and trade unions first and foremost) has a kind of induced effect that ends up blocking the executive’s ambitions to fly forward.

Basically, things are going badly and this leads to blocking a mechanism of control which if left to its own devices could improve things for the few at the expense of the many by subjecting them to capillary control and heavy repression. This is not possible, precisely because one aspect of the relationship between the dominant and the dominated (the repressive one) cannot be optimised without taking care of the other (the basic conditions that must guarantee a degree of well-being, without which consensus breaks down). The electoral choice thereby becomes an element of immediate repression in that it allows the perfecting of an executive route that threatens to go nowhere without a verification of consensus. The war of decrees has some credibility as long as the pulleys of parties and trade unions function and as long as there are spaces at the base for the erosion of the omnivorous capitalist mechanism. When these spaces are lacking, the pulleys go round in circles and the executive slides towards pure repression, a slide that can end tragically [for capital] with an explosion of struggles that can no longer be controlled. The recourse to the elections is an attempt to avoid this. Repression is perfected, stimuli for struggle are diverted towards fictitious goals, outbursts of opinion take the place of the real need for refusal and denial. The citizen is superimposed on the exploited.

From abstention to direct action

Abstaining from participation in the repressive recovery is certainly a moment of awareness, but it is just the start. Social subversion involves abstentionism from its defensive phase to its active, constructive phase of accelerating the contradictions of capital and the State. The refusal of consent is thus not merely abstention from voting, but is actively going beyond the mechanism of involvement at different levels. The negation of the political moment and the negation of the exploitative relations that develop from the political phase.


We are not talking about the possibility of forming a self-styled ‘abstentionist movement’ here, which could develop to a certain extent but would end up an instrument in the hands of political schemers sooner or later. […]. Instead, we are referring to the possibility of forming minimal abstentionist structures adapted to the various local realities, capable of coordinating the different abstentionist phenomena that develop in relation to specific assemblear moments of power management. […] These abstentionist structures could coordinate their rejection of the electoral mechanism along with the rejection of assemblies in the workplace, school, neighbourhood, health group, etc.. Abstentionist propaganda that only emphasises the refusal of the delegate, putting things off to a hypothetical but unspecified moment of concrete refusal, does not seem sufficient to us. This would simply be a relocation of rejection in the defensive sense, which it is high time were abandoned for once and for all. Rejection is only such when it is the beginning of a strategy of attack, not when it surges and ends as the vicarious expression of irrational feelings poorly perceived by the very people experiencing them. This confusion only leads to gratification of one’s guilty conscience, ending up with the conclusion that one has done what one could and postponing what one vaguely feels needs to be done, ad infinitum. […]


In the course of the task, the [abstentionist] structure matures, gives itself the first struggle deadlines: demonstrations, debates, conferences, comizi, leaflets, posters, itinerant exhibitions: all with the aim of making the abstentionist point of view known and the way in which it differs – as refusal – from the promises of the parties, trade unions, factory councils, institute councils, neighbourhood councils, healthcare associations, etc. Having denounced these differences, one can move on to a specific examination of what has been promised and not delivered by the pulleys of consensus transmission, with the aim of undermining that clientelist and delegating foundation on which the strength of parties and trade unions rests. A whole series of actions becomes conceivable at this point: from the occupation of the town hall to that of the school, from the blockade of the factory to that of the local council, from the occupation of a party or trade union headquarters to the demonstration against parliament or against regional assemblies. An immense field for subversive abstentionism opens up. It is precisely in this multiple activity that the work of the anarchist revolutionary unfolds, which from time to time must try to move the single moments of struggle of the local abstentionist structure towards objectives of an insurrectional nature: occupation of the town hall and proposal of decisions in substitution of those of the council; occupation of the school and proposal of other programmes, other textbooks, etc.; occupation of the factory and proposal of solutions different from those suggested and passed by the unions at the assembly. The same applies to occupations of party or trade union headquarters. The same demonstrations against the parliament or regional assemblies could contain different indications from those reflected in national or regional politics. These struggles all have a symbolic significance (replacement of a procedure considered inefficient or polluted with clientelism) and that of criticism of an incorrect approach to the activity of the State and its organs if taken individually. But if well considered they could also have considerable potential that could be directed in an insurrectional direction from time to time. Each individual occupation, each demonstration, could be pushed further and further forward, both because these are struggles organised by a structure (or series of structures) in which the anarchist minority has been actively present from the very first moment (otherwise we would be faced with the pious intentions of an entrism out of time and reality), and because in the very course of the struggles a social conscience is gradually maturing that is sharper than those early forms of dissent that might have driven people to an indistinct adhesion to abstentionism.

Alfredo M. Bonanno, «Per un astensionismo sovversivo», in Teoria e pratica dell’insurrezione, Anarchismo, Catania, 1985

Translated by elephant editions for Act for freedom now!