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If you vote, you can’t complain

By Colin Ibu

Voting is a waste of time and energy better spent being genuinely political. For those of you who are so disempowered that you understand political participation to be limited to drawing an X twice a decade, and maybe signing an online petition when they get sent directly to your inbox, feel free to look into alternatives before you bother to say something as thoughtless as “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain”.

A bunch of lovely anti-politicians we all should know have, among many other things, this to say of elections: “By confining political participation to the isolation of the voting booth, the democratic system prevents people from learning how to wield power and work out conflicts collectively. Consequently, political conflicts can be framed as disagreements between people within the same economic classes, rather than between the classes themselves.”

And really, along with class struggle, what we should be doing is destroying all structural inequalities. Do electoral politics do this? Nope. Any time you can point to an election apparently having changed something, you can point to the real cause: the mass of actively political people getting involved in organising and mobilising for that change.

Whenever you get a group of people to represent your interests for you, be they politicians or union leaders (or pick any other person you task with giving you your freedom), they’ll soon find themselves in a long-standing system that makes it far easier for them to serve themselves than to engage in their responsibilities in good faith. Usually what ends up happening is that the people with money buy out these representatives in some way or other and use the representatives’ own institutions to bury any real change in red tape.

Unfortunately, for most people, “representative democracy” does not appear to be a contradiction in terms. Unfortunately, for most people, being free means choosing prefabricated options instead of actively participating in establishing your own options. You can pick Coke or Fanta or Sprite or even Stoney, but at the end of the day you’re only picking a product of the Coca-Cola company. Coca-Cola wins, nobody points out that its variety is contrived and fake, nobody feels insulted that the only real reason we buy it is because its advertising covers the globe.

We are so far from a world where we’d even have real control over what we drink!

Some people try to put in effort. The fairly-weak left in this country was reminded by Lonmin and the state of how things go when bureaucracy gets bored of condescendingly placating people looking to live like human beings. We could all use a bit more outrage. And if we can direct it away from electoral politics, and into the lives we lead daily, right now, all the better.

If the freedom for which so many generations have fought and died is best exemplified by a man in a voting booth checking a box on a ballot before returning to work in an environment no more under his control than it was before, then the heritage our emancipating predecessors have left us is nothing but a sham substitute for the liberty they sought.

If you think things are OK then you’re either used to suffering or you’re benefiting off of other people’s suffering or both. Poverty and alienation and marginalisation in this country are immense and unacceptable and that’s that.

State capitalism is a disaster that is literally making the world uninhabitable, and has already made life desolate for an unbearable number of people. State socialism does little more than make the capitalists and the state the same thing. Marx’s dream of a state that withers away on its own once the working class gets the vote has proved to be a big mistake. The fact is — there’s a lot of room for us to take control of our own lives, to participate outside of a system that pretends to work in our interest and give us options.

Voting is the act of handing responsibility for your own freedom to others, it is complicity in your own oppression, it is subscription to a system of hierarchy that does no good for anyone.

Have a look into the literature that radically opposes all structural hierarchy. Have a look at their current methods. The anarchists and the situationists are a sharp bunch, and they’re nothing like those stereotypes sold to you by the people they’re against. When you do, resist the objections the spring from deep in your mind as if they were your own, and be honest with yourself. Experiment with what works in actual practice instead of what you’ve been taught works. Maybe you’ll find yourself creating the world you really want to live in — when you do, you’ll forget all about ballots.

Colin Ibu is an anarchist based in Cape Town.

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    • bernpm

      ““If you don’t vote, you can’t complain”……..because a non voter implicitly agrees with the status quo as per the legislated electoral rules: no votes are divided as per the results of the valid votes.

      “The anarchists and the situationists are a sharp bunch, and they’re nothing like those stereotypes sold to you by the people they’re against.”

      If we can regard the current protesters as anarchists, they seem to achieve little change other than loosing a few mates in the process or leaving behind some ruins. Others end up in jail.

      Tell me more of the positive site of anarchism.

    • Comrade Koos

      Brilliant synopsis Colin Ibu. Maybe you are an Anarchist after my own heart. Quote: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” – Emma Goldman

      If more intelligent people would research the political philosophy of Anarchism is would be very progressive.

    • Cam Cameron

      “Being genuinely political”? Are you? How can anyone tell?

    • Derek

      Why can’t you do both? ie. vote and organise and mobilise for change in your community.

    • the present

      This, unfortunately, is deceptively argued nonsense. It proposes that the conditions for radically different forms of living have already spontaneously come into existence EN MASSE, while EN MASSE the vote is still very much out on whether the people will be individually daring enough to make their cross in a different box. A classic example of setting one foot before the other, or cutting your nose off to spite your face! If people cannot even vote according to what you, dear author, consider would be best for them, then how do you think they will do at being more politically active (while, presumably, not hurting each other)?

    • Jay

      Colin, I keep an open mind, I would rather be leftist than nationalist, and i generally agree with what you have outlined. Maybe I also need to understand more of the anarchist in me as I participate in the world.

    • Garg Unzola

      I think only tax payers should be allowed to vote.

    • Momma Cyndi

      so who does the big stuff? I’ve worked on joint projects and there is no way that a random group of 800 people in a community are going to be able to agree on where a road goes, let alone build it.

      Governments are not the problem, the problem is that governments are overstepping their mandate. Their job is to coordinate and implement the major projects. Current governments seem to think that building a railroad is of less importance than playing around with social engineering. Unfortunately, the vast majority seem to want a ‘ruler’ as opposed to an employee. There is the joy of democracy for you.

    • Eugene

      bernpm: You may in fact have it precisely upside down. It is precisely when we vote that we tacitly accept the status quo, the status quo being that whoever you vote for, you’re going to get pretty much the same thing anyway.

      Well, I confess, I was going to vote. But then it turned out the Libertarians will not be contesting the election. There is no one else I want in control, so I guess I’ll be withholding my vote then, unless I get it into my head to support the Dagga Party. :-)

    • Werner

      So Garg, by the same reasoning, non-voters should not have to pay tax.

    • Coen van Wyk

      But you can vote: None of the above.

    • bernpm

      @ Eugene: ” ………you’re going to get pretty much the same thing anyway.” The low percentages of voters have indeed resulted in the same thing: “ANC majority” as per the rules of the system.

      If more people vote AND not for ANC, the mathematics will come up with different results (unless the IEC is already corrupted as is being alleged today.)

      Then the only solution is some form of revolution,be it in the elections or in a street revolution as in other uncivilized countries with less predictable outcomes and more in line with the anarchist ideas. Enjoy while it last.

    • Eugene

      Coen van Wyk: I very much want “None of the above” to be an explicit option on the ballot!

    • Garg Unzola

      Sure, why not? You can’t be certain that taxes are going to do what they’re meant to do for as long as you’re forcing people to pay them. That skews the risks and balances in favour of those who are collecting the taxes. How many people would contribute voluntarily to Kickstarter Nkandla Compound? Compared with how many would voluntarily contribute to Kickstarter Limpopo Education? Or with how many people voluntarily sent aid to Haiti?

      We are told that taxes are there to service us, but they’re not – this is a new PR campaign. The history of taxation shows us what they’re really about: Forced labour and ensuring nobody gets more powerful than the big chief.

      It’s disingenuous to nitpick over who’s entitled to complain or not: We are all entitled to complain, it’s one of our constitutional rights. I don’t think voting is particularly effective or meaningful, but not voting achieves even less.

    • Heinrich

      “Voting is the act of handing responsibility for your own freedom to others, it is complicity in your own oppression, it is subscription to a system of hierarchy that does no good for anyone”.

      Well said. Combine this with voting within a system where the dice have been structurally loaded – eg the rural set-up and the “independent” institution leaders appointed by a political party (supposedly a participant in elections) – then it becomes a very dark and cloudy joke.

    • Nemanja Cvetkovic

      Very cogent article and raises some interesting points. Absolutely agree that voting is only the most symbolic and least significant political act of freedom available to us. If we restrict ourselves to voting, complaining and resignation, the kleptomaniacs running the show will keep on gorging themselves at the collective trough.

      Name checking anarchists and situationists is an interesting direction, but it might be a good idea to provide some links and offer some suggested reading and/or viewing on the subjects?

      Noam Chomsky has interesting ideas on these topics, for eg his talk on libertarian socialism:

      I would love to see some more links from the author though.

    • Eugene

      bernpm: You seem to assume that if a different party takes charge, things will really change. I am not so sure. When I said we get the same thing anyway whether we vote or not I meant that even if a different party wins, we still get pretty much the same thing. The DA does not follow policies significantly different from those of the ANC and will soon be every bit as corrupt and incompetent.

      The smaller parties that I might have voted for are effectively kept out of the election by the prohibitive cost of registering as participant. We are rapidly moving toward the same situation as they have in America, where there is no meaningful difference between the two large parties, and where elections are scams to fool people into thinking they have a real choice.

      Now I am not saying one should definitely not vote, and I may vote after all, but it is at best naive to think a bunch of politicians will ever make a real difference to one’s life.

    • Colin Ibu

      Hello Nemanja
      Regarding readings:
      Anarchist publications are not easy to find in SA, though there is a small anarchist infoshop in Cape Town trying to solve that problem. ( It is well worth contacting them, even if only to get the rich set of recommendations I would like to give (note the 1500 character limit on comments here), and to be able to engage in dialogue about anarchism.

      Separately for those who are interested; so far as basic introductions to anarchist thought go, either of the following is fine, free to download at
      Colin Ward – Anarchism, A very short introduction (2004)
      Cindy Milstein – Anarchism and its aspirations (2010) – A soft-landing introduction to anarchism

      The online anarchist FAQ (, is fine too, though daunting in size.

      I have tried to keep things basic, partly because I would not want to prejudge the sort of anarchism anyone might be interested in, since I welcome a variety of approaches, and partly because I think it is worthwhile to engage with anarchists more directly than here.
      My own preference is for post-left anarchy, with its influences, and its relationships with other schools of thought outside anarchism, (, which seems to me worth exploring once one has a grip on the central ideas of anarchism and their historical applications.

    • Garg Unzola

      People who cite Chomsky in order to bolster an argument wouldn’t know what’s wrong with Chomsky’s conspiracy theories if all the omitted facts and cases of half-baked logic were stapled to their foreheads.

      I’m glad that anarchists are against voting because frankly I don’t think they are equipped to make voting decisions.