Sunday Sermon: On Voluntary Human Servitude


Étienne de La Boétie

Étienne de La Boétie

This is not the first time, nor probably the last, that I will take you to visit the words of Étienne De Boétie. In 1549, De Boétie wrote one of the great essays in political philosophy[text] – a self-admittedly meandering piece that pondered the question why people follow dictators.

As I was reading through the various internet fallout from the Trump administration’s ridiculous border-closing exercise, I couldn’t help but come back to De Boétie when I read about how customs/border patrol(CBP) acted immediately to obey orders, like good authoritarian followers are wont to do, but then dragged their feet when ordered to stop – by a federal judge, no less.

warIn other words, the authoritarian followers had a moment of truth: who do they follow? Do they follow the state (speaking through the federal judge) or the ruler (acting through a presidential directive). What’s interesting to me is that they apparently acted with some unity: there was no incident where CBP simply let people through and ignored the order. Indeed, there have been no incidents – yet – where someone decides to simply take it upon their own authority to start issuing and approving green cards. That would be entirely possible, to a smallish number of collaborators.

De Boétie:

“Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. 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 in pieces.”

In the words of the 60’s philosophers: “What if they gave a war and nobody came.” The CBP employees were forced to make a choice – but most of them unknowingly passed the moment and tacitly became part of the mainstream of oppression. Of course, being a CBP staffer is going to be a job that attracts authoritarian followers. De Boétie was hundreds of years ahead of Altemeyer[1] when he asked, in so many words, “What is wrong with those people?!”

If in distributing her gifts nature has favored some more than others with respect to body or spirit, she has nevertheless not planned to place us within this world as if it were a field of battle and has not endowed the stronger or the cleverer in order that they may act like armed brigands in a forest and attack the weaker. One should rather conclude that in distributing larger shares to some and smaller shares to others, nature has intended to give occasion for brotherly love to become manifest, some of us having the strength to give help to others who are in need of it.

Hence, since this kind mother has given us the whole world as a dwelling place, has lodged us in the same house, has fashioned us according to the same model so that in beholding one another we might almost recognize ourselves; since she has bestowed upon us all the great gift of voice and speech for fraternal relationship, thus achieving by the common and mutual statement of our thoughts a communion of our wills; and since she has tried in every way to narrow and tighten the bond of our union and kinship; since she has revealed in every possible manner her intention, not so much to associate us as to make us one organic whole, there can be no further doubt that we are all naturally free, inasmuch as we are all comrades. Accordingly it should not enter the mind of anyone that nature has placed some of us in slavery, since she has actually created us all in one likeness.

The loving husband or wife who works for CBP, had to look at other people’s loving husbands and wives in the face, and slam the door.

And why, and for what?

It is not the troops on horseback, it is not the companies afoot, it is not arms that defend the tyrant. This does not seem credible on first thought, but it is nevertheless true that there are only four or five who maintain the dictator, four or five who keep the country in bondage to him.

Five or six have always had access to his ear, and have either gone to him of their own accord, or else have been summoned by him, to be accomplices in his cruelties, companions in his pleasures, panders to his lusts, and sharers in his plunders. These six manage their chief so successfully that he comes to be held accountable not only for his own misdeeds but even for theirs.

savedDe Boétie asks, obliquely, why it is that the bodyguards of the despot don’t simply rid history of the odious person, as they could easily do.

A certain amount of it is simply the desire for people to do something they find worthwhile, and to be left alone to do it well. The Secret Service guards that protect a despot are not protecting the despot because they care passionately for the individual; it is their own self-perception and desire for excellence that keeps them in servitude.

De Boétie has been considered by some to be a proponent of revolution. I think not – he was a proponent of getting people to ask themselves “why am I doing this?” which is far more revolutionary than yelling “Aux Barricades!

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De Boétie holds a special place for me, because he was the first philosopher I encountered who answered the problem that plagues anarchists: “how do you prevent the cascade into chaos and dictatorship, once government is removed?” Anarchists have historically gotten a bad rap in the US because some of them committed the unforgivable crime: they tried to kill some rich people. We can’t have that. De Boétie’s answer is simple and obvious: just walk away.

I think all the protests and such are very good, but the time is soon upon us when we will need to do more. Not violence – not yet – but the US could use a general strike or two: a work stoppage and monkey-wrenching. I’ve heard some women mention the Lysistrata Option [2] which would be the one thing that would probably make the alt-right fascisti’s heads explode. Personally, I favor an organic program of monkey-wrenching and leaking – especially leaking – that I call “cyberinsurgency”  We’re not quite there, yet. Maybe soon.

In line with De Boétie’s argument, I am currently daydreaming around the idea of simply announcing that I plan to pay no taxes for the remainder of Trump’s term(s) in office. Why should I? The popular vote didn’t count, and besides, I’m just following the lead of the Not-Payer In Chief. Of course, per De Boétie, if one person does that: they go to jail. If a million people do it: then it’s a serious problem. It’s one way to cancel the F-35 program, for sure. There’s no need to run Aux Barricades! when you can run on the bank.

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All quoted sections in this posting are from De Boétie. I’m trying to clean up my annotations and make things a bit more visually simple. Feedback is always welcome.

PS – I am declaring today Sunday, so this can be a “Sunday Sermon” posting.

Comments

  1. Siobhan says

    just walk away

    To where? Even I’ve begun leaning to anarcho-socialist and always I run up against the brick wall of what happens when you bump into somebody else. The moment you have two people you have some kind of power division between them. It just seems inconceivable to truly live in a society free from stratified authority! That doesn’t mean I don’t want one, I just have to admit I well and truly have no idea how to go about this without giving up some seriously awesome perks of organization.

    If I bump into another anarchist, and we hash out an agreement on who sits on what patch of sand, no problem. But if I bump into someone else, and he says, “that’s my sand too,” now what?

    I’ve heard some women mention the Lysistrata Option [2]

    Apparently I’m ahead of the game. Despite being pan, and thus capable of being attracted to men, I have refused to act on those attractions since college. Couldn’t help but notice that conservatism was overwhelmingly represented in cishet white men. Boys have cooties. Or, a more nuanced argument, boys are considerably more likely to have cooties. Of the authoritarian jackass variety.

  2. says

    Shiv@#1:
    To where? Even I’ve begun leaning to anarcho-socialist and always I run up against the brick wall of what happens when you bump into somebody else.

    Well, I was referring to the people who are choosing to be part of the system of oppression. We want them to walk away and leave us alone.

    Anarchists shouldn’t need to walk away – the reason we’re forced to displace is because nationalists act like street gangs: “you’re with us or you’re against us” and crack down on you if you don’t profess allegiance. That’s obviously not a mandate on which government can be built, but – yes, unfortunately that’s how the world operates. We have noplace to go. Back in the day when Epicurus was able to build his little commune outside of Athens and farm for subsistence and be left alone – that was back in the day. With today’s integrated economies and technological division of labor we’re born into a trap from which there is no escape: it’s all trap.

    But if I bump into someone else, and he says, “that’s my sand too,” now what?

    If you’re Palestinian, it means you’re going to get shot and blamed for your own shooting.

    In the best situation, 4 or 5 other anarchists would tell that person, “No, it’s not. And if you make an issue of it, we’re going to chase you off.”

  3. says

    I agree with everything quoted by Étienne De Boétie, but I don’t think it will work. In principle, yes, but in actual work? No. I’m reading today that the cons are concerned, very concerned about how all this shit is making them look, and there’s now a fear of an uprising by progressives. I think this is going to come to aux barricades – California is taking the idea of secession seriously, and ever since we looked into bugging out when Reagan was voted in*, this is the first time we have resolved to leave this country. It’s already burning, I don’t want to be consumed by the flames. I’m fucking old, and I’m damn tired. I’m tired of doing nothing but bloody fighting against the horrors of this country for my whole life.
     
    *We were going to bug out to Oz, but would have had to dump our beloved dogs, so we didn’t go.

  4. says

    Marcus:

    In line with De Boétie’s argument, I am currently daydreaming around the idea of simply announcing that I plan to pay no taxes for the remainder of Trump’s term(s) in office. Why should I? The popular vote didn’t count, and besides, I’m just following the lead of the Not-Payer In Chief. Of course, per De Boétie, if one person does that: they go to jail. If a million people do it: then it’s a serious problem.

    How do you get a million people to have the courage to do that?

  5. says

    I think this is going to come to aux barricades

    I’m OK with that, actually. I’m OK with everything up to and including a general insurgency.

    How do you get a million people to have the courage to do that?

    That’s the weird thing! If a million people did it, it’d be safe. It’s just like a general strike. If 3 million people decide to have a “week in which nothing gets done” what can the establishment do?

    This is the revolutionary’s dilemma: how do you get people to make that leap at once? Usually, the way that has to happen (per Ho Chi Mihn) is for the revolutionary to act so that the state begins to respond more and more forcefully, driving a wedge between the state and the people. Then you start peeling the people away from the state. The idiots in Washington are actively doing that to themselves. That’s either incredibly stupid or it’s a sign that they’re planning on killing a lot of people, If Stalin or Hitler or Mao tells you your citizenship rights have been revoked, it’s because there’s a guy with a gun who’s going to finish the job, soon. Is that where this is going? I don’t think that is where this is going, yet – what we’re seeing is just signs of the stupid.

    BTW: I don’t think Aux Barricades is the right thing to do. Per the hungarian uprising, it gives too much away. Going straight to an insurgency is the best approach. Saddam Hussein sure got that right when he spun the Fedayeen Saddam off and let them begin digging in, rather than putting them in the line where they could be identified.

  6. says

    How do you get a million people to have the courage to do that?

    PS –
    What they don’t realize is:
    ‘Freedom”s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.’

    Elsewhere in his piece, De Boetie points out that one of the main reasons people follow despots is because they are vested in society; it’s important to have it continue to function. When that breaks down, then there’s no incentive to keep playing along. The idiots in Washington are breaking that.

  7. AndrewD says

    A lot of modern anarchists reject the Idea of violent revolution as experience has shown that it only makes things worse. The thinking in many anarchist circles is “to grow the new society in the gaps in the old ” and “lead” by example. Thus showing people that there is an alternative to the state system.( This is similar to what De Boetie is saying)This validity and efficacy of this approach is of course open to argument(but what anarchist approach isn’t). This does not preclude the use of violence in self defense or as a tactical tool against property and or the forces of oppression-this is the reason for the Black Blocs.

  8. says

    AndrewD@#7:
    This does not preclude the use of violence in self defense or as a tactical tool against property and or the forces of oppression-this is the reason for the Black Blocs.

    I agree with that reasoning.

    Whenever I see pictures of cops beating defenseless protesters, I think they’ve established sufficiently that they do not control themselves and will consistently resort to violence, therefore pre-emptive violence in self-defense is justified.

  9. says

    Caine@#4:
    How do you get a million people to have the courage to do that?

    Getting a million people to withdraw all their money from their bank accounts, would settle the establishment’s hash so hard it wouldn’t be funny. And if someone wanted to frost the cake, they could short the stock market a week beforehand. If the people who own the government realized how vulnerable they are, they’d rein their puppets in a bit.

  10. Brian English says

    But how do you get a million to withdraw their money at the same time, unless they already think there’s a run on the banks?
    It seems a lot of Trumpets voted for the Orange Bozo because they’d had enough with the establishment, and a lot of putative Liberals aided El Anaranjado by defending the way things were (America already is great!). What would it take for Trumpistas* to withdraw their cash, they don’t seem worried about wrecking things, perhaps we need Hillary to anounce she’s becoming president of the Fed, with Goldman Sachs advisers?

    I’m not USian, so I’m just presuming Trumpaloos have cash, and there’s a sufficient number of them with it in the bank to make a difference.

  11. says

    Anarchism worked pretty well in terms of not destroying the world for most of human history (before the Neolithic Revolution). I try to take solace in that as far as our species not being inherently destructive (Erich Fromm made a convincing case in “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness”). But I struggle to see how any of the various philosophical flavors of anarchy are possible with billions of people living in cities and completely integrated into and dependent on a global economy to meet basic needs.

    There are examples of small-scale utopian anarchist communes, (not to mention contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes) but they are necessarily subjected to uneasy coexistences with the states they reside in. Maybe if there’s a protracted crash we’ll be able to see if large groups of humans will coalesce into egalitarian bioregional areas. But overall, I don’t think anarchism within civilization is feasible.

  12. Jessie Harban says

    @Marcus Ranum, 2, 5:

    In the best situation, 4 or 5 other anarchists would tell that person, “No, it’s not. And if you make an issue of it, we’re going to chase you off.”

    The problem is that anarchists will always be at an organizational disadvantage, so unless the sand hog is also an anarchist, they’ll likely be backed up by far more than 4 or 5 friends.

    Power always exists— destroy the current forms and new ones arise to replace them.

    That’s the weird thing! If a million people did it, it’d be safe. It’s just like a general strike. If 3 million people decide to have a “week in which nothing gets done” what can the establishment do?

    That’s just a logistical hurdle. Has no one developed a solution?

    Just off the top of my head— organize ahead of time by creating a “tax protestor fund.” Anyone may buy into the fund for a fee roughly equal to their tax burden for the year. If fewer than a million people have joined before tax season, the fund will say: “We didn’t reach our goal, you have to pay after all,” and refund the buy-in payments. If at least a million people have joined, the fund will say: “We reached our goal, feel free to skip taxes this year.” If too many people chicken out and pay taxes anyway, the protestors get fined— and the fund pays those fines using the cowards’ buy-ins.

  13. brucegee1962 says

    I think Thoreau puts it almost the same way (right down to the not-paying-taxes part, though I hesitate about that — no matter who you are, a certain amount of the US budget will be spent in a way you disagree with strongly, so this is a dangerous precedent to set):

    “The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as ma­chines, with their bod­ies. They are the stand­ing army, and the mi­li­tia, jail­ers, con­sta­bles, posse com­i­ta­tus, &c. In most cases there is no free ex­er­cise what­ever of the judge­ment or of the moral sense; but they put them­selves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can per­haps be man­u­fac­tured that will serve the pur­pose as well…. Yet such as these even are com­monly es­teemed good cit­i­zens. Others, as most leg­is­la­tors, pol­i­ti­cians, law­yers, min­is­ters, and of­fice-hold­ers, serve the State chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral dis­tinc­tions, they are as likely to serve the devil, with­out in­tend­ing it, as God. A very few, as he­roes, pa­tri­ots, mar­tyrs, re­form­ers in the great sense, and men, serve the State with their con­sciences also, and so nec­es­sa­rily re­sist it for the most part; and they are com­monly treated by it as en­e­mies.”

  14. Jessie Harban says

    I think Thoreau puts it almost the same way (right down to the not-paying-taxes part, though I hesitate about that — no matter who you are, a certain amount of the US budget will be spent in a way you disagree with strongly, so this is a dangerous precedent to set):

    No taxation without representation is a perfectly good precedent to act on and perpetuate.

    We’ll go right back to paying taxes as soon as there’s a legitimate government to pay them to. A government “elected” by a gerrymandered vote that puts the losers in power is non-democratic, therefore it is illegitimate, therefore it does not have the authority to levy taxes.

  15. chigau (ever-elliptical) says

    Isn’t “Getting a million people to withdraw all their money from their bank accounts” based on the notion that those colourful bits of paper are worth something?
    If 10 million people did that and TheGovernment discontinued the old currency and issued new currency, what then?

  16. John Morales says

    Jessie Harban:

    The problem is that anarchists will always be at an organizational disadvantage, so unless the sand hog is also an anarchist, they’ll likely be backed up by far more than 4 or 5 friends.

    What? No.

    Anarchism just means non-hierarchical decision-making, not non-organised. Its essence is non-authoritarianism.

  17. Siobhan says

    @John Morales

    Anarchism just means non-hierarchical decision-making, not non-organised. Its essence is non-authoritarianism.

    Right. And I’m increasingly sympathetic towards certain iterations of anarchism. The problem is that when an authoritarian comes along and decides to create a hierarchy through the use of force (or threats of force). That’s what I’m stuck on: Unless I’m on an island all alone, hierarchies will inevitably form.

  18. John Morales says

    Siobhan, yeah — human nature.

    Perhaps anarchism must remain inspirational only, on that basis.

    (Or it may work only for small communities of like-minded people, and so can’t scale up)

  19. says

    John Morals@#18:
    Perhaps anarchism must remain inspirational only, on that basis.

    I agree with that; I think that anarchism is an important counterpoint to government, and serves as an argument reinforcing “those that govern best, govern least” (Which is not true, in the case where the status quo is unfair and abusive)

  20. multitool says

    Hierarchies will form, but I don’t believe their dominance is fate.

    Your brain can’t possibly operate without a ‘boss neuron’, right? And as soon as it’s dead you can’t think anymore?

    A hierarchy is a topology of connections between people so they may act as one thing – we’ve barely begun to explore other topologies, in part because few people think anything else is possible. It’s just “hierarchy or chaos”.

    If we find any topology more efficient, it will push hierarchy off the map darwinistically. Even sortition has a lot of possibilities.

  21. Jessie Harban says

    What? No.
    Anarchism just means non-hierarchical decision-making, not non-organised. Its essence is non-authoritarianism.

    The problem is that non-hierarchical decision-making is incredibly unwieldy on anything beyond a very small scale. Which means that an anarchist settlement will necessarily be small (and thus easily dominated by a large outsider) or poorly organized (and thus easily dominated by a better-organized outsider).

  22. says

    chigau@#15:
    If 10 million people did that and TheGovernment discontinued the old currency and issued new currency, what then?

    That would never happen, because the rich run the government, and if the currency were devalued, it’d hurt the rich too much.

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