Dr. Dawg

The father of civil disobedience

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Give the people a bushel of wheat and a gallon of wine and the rabble cries: Long live the king! The fools do not realize that they are recovering a portion of their own property. —Étienne de La Boétie

Here’s a book I’m putting on my list: The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, by a close friend of Michel de Montaigne of whom I had never heard until this morning. I’m indebted to libertarian Neil Reynolds for bringing this to my attention today in the Globe & Mail.

Going by the article, La Boétie was well ahead of his time, proposing non-violence in place of violence to achieve equally revolutionary ends. He had what seems an instinctive grasp of the core notion of cultural hegemony four hundred years or so before Antonio Gramsci: rulers govern, not out of fear or coercion most of the time, but with the consent of the governed.

To be sure, that was a different historical period and the concept wasn’t exactly the same. In those days tyranny, often violent, was the norm. While the Church made certain to propagandize the masses, preaching a feudal subservience to authority as the natural order of things (it’s no surprise that the humble Jesus Christ was elevated to lordship), there were also all the king’s men to keep that order, and a judiciary that handed out savage punishments for minor infractions. Consent of the governed, if not directly obtained through force and terror, was certainly helped along by them.

Abandoning resort to the same violent means to win freedom requires, then, an enormous leap of faith. La Boétie:

Obviously, there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant - for he is defeated when the country refuses to consent to its own enslavement. The people do not need to act. They do not need to shed blood. They conquer by willing to be free.

I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.

“Obviously?” Perhaps not. Mass refusal to comply is much easier said than done. And yet in Egypt, for example, we have just witnessed it. “The people” —or a large number of citizens, at any rate—just said No.

As current events in Libya indicate, however, (and as Reynolds acknowledges), non-violence doesn’t always work when the violent are determined to prevail. Yet withholding of consent is key to revolutionary change, whether the revolution is successful or not:

Why do so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power people gave him? Shall we call this cowardice? When a thousand, a million, men [in] a thousand cities fail to protect themselves against the domination of one man, this cannot be called cowardly, for cowardice does not sink to such a depth.

But according to Neil Reynolds, La Boétie’s social critique was relevant to our own “Western” societies as well, and here we are seeing the philosopher’s writings filtered somewhat, I suspect, through libertarian eyes:

Enslavement, La Boétie argued, can happen under benign governments as well as malignant governments. This can occur because all governments use the same techniques to control people. They exploit ideology. They create dependence. They “stupefy” the people with gifts and games.

Where I, for one, would see this as a fair representation of Gramscian hegemony, Reynolds is purely of the right-libertarian “less government” school, and detects an ally in this Renaissance anarchist. He likes La Boétie’s critique of government bureaucracy, too—people bound to the state “with cords of self-interest.” But it is difficult to imagine what La Boétie would have made of events in Wisconsin, where the interests of the government and its employees have diverged so spectacularly.

Reynolds also appears to interpret the quotation at the head of this post as a kind of Tea Party opposition to taxes, where it is just as easy to interpret it in class terms, whether one chooses to rely on Proudhon (“La propriété, c’est le vol!”) or Marx (ruling-class appropriation of the social surplus).

Off, then, to the primary source, which by a stroke of good fortune is at the Carleton University Library. While I’m grateful to Reynolds, I think I shall have to read this work for myself. It looks to me like La Boétie could use a little rehabilitation. :)

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on February 28, 2011 4:28 PM.

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