William Bowles: The Lesser of Two Evils


Richard Moore


The Lesser of Two Evils 
by William Bowles * 21 April 2005 

It's a long time since I voted in a British general election,
over thirty years in fact. I think the last time I voted, I
voted Labour, (against my better judgement) in what amounted
to a 'lesser of two evils' approach to using our hard-won
universal franchise. I won't make that mistake ever again.

Much play has been made of 'tactical voting', especially by
the 'left' pundits, the argument being as ever, that we have
to keep the Tories out. But the 'good old days' of a 'real'
Labour government are long gone (were they ever there in the
first place?). In any case, the chances of a Tory victory are
almost as slim as a real socialist one, but even if it wasn't,
I still wouldn't vote Labour and short of some kind of left
'coup' in the Labour Party I never, ever will.

So what's going on with the 'democratic' process? Fewer and
fewer are voting (2001 was the lowest turnout since the early
20th century). Partly of course it's to do with the fact that
the electorate see no real choices open to them. Second,
having been lulled into a life of mindless consumerism and up
to their ears in debt, what good is the vote, it don't pay the
bills? Third, and perhaps most important, they simply don't
trust the political process, or bluntly, those who rule. In a
word, capitalist 'democracy' is unravelling.

But then 'democracy' Western-style, is largely an illusion
anyway. That we have a 'change' of government every few years
doesn't alter the underlying status quo of a state ruled by,
well a ruling class. That they have been forced historically
to share power to some extent is revealed by the 'progress' of
Labour governments since 1945, that have moved further to the
right with every election until we reached the point in 1997
when all pretence at being even remotely socialist was finally

The real question for the Left to ask is whether the Labour
governments of the past fifty-odd years were ever worth
supporting in the first place? And if not, what has the 'left'
been doing these past decades in supporting (albeit
reluctantly) successive Labour governments? Consider that the
'lesser of two evils' approach is essentially what the 'left'
has been doing since the end of WWII, so why has it now become
such an issue? This is no idle question as it goes to the very
heart of the nature of how best to get rid of capitalism.

The question is answered by the meaning of the slogan itself,
the 'lesser of two evils', for it recognises that at best, a
'left' government under capitalism has already sold its soul
to capital and all we on the left have left, are the slogans.
Some will argue that a Labour government is preferable to an
avowedly rightwing government such as that of Thatcher but
this just raises the question of the real role of social

There are several issues wrapped up in this question, not the
least of which is the part played by Labour in bringing about
a Thatcherite victory for it's a fact that every Labour
government since WWII has effectively 'opened the door' for a
shift to the right, for under the guise of 'socialism',
successive Labour governments have been able to enact policies
that would have been difficult for the Tories to pull off. But
once the door was opened by Labour, the Tories were able to
charge through. The irony of this process is not lost on me,
nor on how it exposes the nature of a so-called democratic
state with the Tories being finally outflanked by its alleged

But there are much bigger issues at stake here into which the
vote has to be set, for the Thatcher/Reagan victory reflected
fundamental changes in the nature of capitalist accumulation
brought about in no small part by the failure of 'actually
existing socialism' to win the war for the hearts and minds of
the people. Second, the 'loss' of Vietnam and indeed, the
relative success of the liberation movements of the 60s and
70s had to be avenged for they presented a real danger to the
rule of global capitalist accumulation.

So whilst we in the West squabbled amongst ourselves over such
things as the 'lesser of two evils', the capitalists were busy
mounting a counter-offensive, untroubled by such things as
'real democracy', knowing full well that they could count on
their domestic populations if not to support them, then at
least not to get in the way of 'doing business'. And without
the active collaboration of the Labour Party, it's doubtful
whether in the UK a policy that reversed what gains had been
made since WWII would have been possible.

Surely then, this reality has to be held up as a mirror to the
'Left', a position that to this day should surely make us
think about the events of the past couple of years, especially
the 'Anybody but Bush' debate, for although the US and the UK
are very different animals, there are parallels between the
two situations, especially that of a working class divided
along national, gender and 'racial' lines.

A little bit of history 
In 1945 an allegedly socialist government got elected on a
wave of post-war and pro-socialist euphoria. It was clear that
the Britain of pre-war days was dead, the question was; what
kind of socialist government were we going to get?

In those days the Labour Party was just as anti-communist as
the Establishment. There was the Cold War and the Labour Party
operated a ban on communists/leftists belonging to or even
associating with it, yet the CP, except where it ran its own
candidates, urged that comrades voted Labour, period. The
argument ran that 'we' would be able to exert some pressure on
a Labour government or at least the progressive Labour MPs
thus pushing the Labour government further to the left. Today,
we see the result of such thinking.

However, the upshot of the first post-war Labour government
was a 'social contract' between labour and capital (brokered
by the Labour government), so rather than see a complete
socialist transformation of society, the Labour government did
a 'deal' with capital that preserved the bedrock of the
capitalist state whilst acceding to some of the demands of
labour over nationalisation of the coal, electricity,
telecommunications and transportation industries as well as
with education, health and of course housing. And in any case,
the capitalism of post-war Britain was in a fine mess, and as
is almost always the case, when capitalism ceases to function,
the state steps in and tries to save its sorry arse, that is,
after all, its primary function.

It should also be remembered that post-war Britain was not
only broke, it was up to its ears in debt to the US (and still
is), a situation that determined in large measure, what the
Labour government could and couldn't do. But the fact still
remained that to a large extent, anti-communism determined the
Labour government's post-war policies.

The Left operated nevertheless as if they were all part of the
same 'family', a very cozy relationship to say the least, even
as they campaigned for a 'real' socialist alternative. But in
the eventuality, this relationship fundamentally shaped the
nature of the 'left' in Britain and its male, white, 'labour
aristocracy' history, a history that reflects the fact that
the wealth of Britain was built on the exploitation of its
colonial subjects and that fundamental elements of a truly
socialist alternative were missing from the socialist

At the risk of sounding repetitive, 'Caliban and the Witch'
points directly to the elements that are missing and have been
for nigh on five hundred years, which is why I find myself
returning to it at every turn. And as the contradictions of
capitalism sharpen literally by the day, I get the feeling
that I live in a society under siege and living on borrowed
(or is it stolen?) time.

In part I think this explains why, in spite of our knowledge
of the inner workings of the capitalist economy, we have
failed to produce a viable alternative, there's just too much
missing from the 'programme'. For unless we address the
fundamental issues of gender, 'race' and our relationship to
the rest of the planet, talking about Socialism in a country
like Britain (or any developed economy), is to put it bluntly,
laughable and not a little pathetic.

Cocooned as we are by our reliance on the wealth stolen from
the poor and female of the planet, the reality of life for the
majority is forever hidden from us. So what does this tell us
about the nature of a truly socialist programme?

It points I think, to the fact that the real struggle for our
emancipation first has to address the issue of who we are as a
species and our relationship to the planet. Only then will we
be able to be honest about addressing all the issues that flow
from a species divided over what it is.

For as long as we allow ourselves to view humanity as split
between male and female, black and white, in short, 'them and
us' (where the 'us' is just code for white, well off males),
solutions that only address at most 10% of the planet's
population are worse than useless. In turn, this explains why
the 'lesser of two evils' approach is pure self-delusion, a
delusion that may make us feel better but ultimately it
maintains the status quo.

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Richard Moore (rkm)
Wexford, Ireland

"Escaping The Matrix - 
Global Transformation: 
WHY WE NEED IT, AND HOW WE CAN ACHIEVE IT ", somewhat current draft:
    "...the Patriot Act followed 9-11 as smoothly as the
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    There is not a problem with the system.
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    Faith in ourselves - not gods, ideologies, leaders, or programs.
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