For the present I should like merely to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who
has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation!
Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and wonder the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness, their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude than they, but simply, it would seem, delighted and charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear, for he is evidently the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of his inhumanity and brutality toward them. A weakness characteristic of human kind is that we often have to obey force; we have to make concessions; we ourselves cannot always be the stronger. Therefore, when a nation is constrained by the fortune of war to serve a single clique, as happened when the city of Athens served the thirty Tyrants, one should not be amazed that the nation obeys, but simply be grieved by the situation; or rather, instead of being amazed or saddened, consider patiently the evil and look forward hopefully toward a happier future.
Étienne de La Boétie wrote that in 1548.
It is rather paradoxical, isn’t it? It isn’t as if tyrants are subtle: they often come stamping in with promises to “Make Rome Great Again” as Sulla and Caesar did, or “Make Italy Great Again” as Mussolini did, and “Make Germany Great Again” as Hitler did. Yet, once a tyrant loses their popular support and have shown that they can’t make anything great and only make rubble, they often remain in power in spite of it. Even in democratic societies, isn’t it interesting how seldom the people can recall a politician who lied about their agenda during the election? It’s as if the rules are there to serve the politicians not the people; of course they are.
So many people, with 20/20 hindsight claim that they realized Bush’s adventure in Iraq was going to end
badly for everyone, yet the 300,000 soldiers who participated in it followed orders in spite of the fact that they could have simply chosen not to fight.
“Delighted and charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear” – Hitler, Stalin, Trump, none of these people are scary in their own right. Most of us could knock them face down with a well-placed kick between the buttocks. When they put Beria up against the wall to shoot him, he whimpered and cried so much it almost embarrassed the executioner. Tyrants, outside of Mad Max movies and the final bosses in computer games, are generally not scary in person.
But de La Boétie’s question leads us deeper: these people surround themselves with other layers of people who obey their will. So we’re not really in a position to kick Hitler away from the podium, because he has a clique of like-minded stormtroopers who will defend him. The question de La Boétie leads us toward is more: “how are we divided amongst ourselves, and conquered, by lesser numbers?” On one hand, we see an antidote in democracy (which Plato famously says doesn’t work very well) and on the other we see democracy as a proxy for war: a supermajority is shorthand for an ass-kicking, and ultimately counting heads is a good way of estimating who’s likely to win if a general scrum breaks out.
De La Boétie presages the anarchists and civil disobedience at the same time. One answer to the tyrant is to decapitate the mighty. The other is non-violent refusal.
Where the anarchists got it wrong is where de La Boétie got it right: there’s something about humans that craves a leader. Even if we, as individuals, realize that a particular leader is a venal creep who we’d rather not see in power, we feel like we need some leader, anyway, and we roll the dice or pick up our guitars and play – then we get on our knees and pray we don’t get fooled again. Time after time, we see that when a tyrant is overthrown, they are replaced by: another tyrant. Perhaps that’s why the masses voluntarily serve: they realize that there’s hardly any point in trading Hitler for Himmler, or Beria for Stalin. If Von Stauffenberg’s bomb had killed Hitler, it might have had the effect of prolonging the war by replacing Hitler with a competent strategist.
So, my answer to the anarchists is this: until we see that we are ready to live without leaders, we are not able to live like anarchists imagine. It may be impossible to get there, but we’ll definitely learn how to keep ourselves from being divided amongst ourselves for the benefit of the would-be tyrant. We need to learn how to recognize budding tyrants and keep them away from the reins of power. That latter point is particularly difficult, since our societies are all built for the powerful, by the powerful, specifically to make it easier for them to trade the reins back and forth. Think about this: gridlock may be your friend.
The full text of “Discours sur la servitude volontaire” is here.