Boy: Do not try to bend the spoon; that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Boy: Then you will see, it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
~ The Matrix (1999)
Mr. Bush has vetoed the latest war-spending bill from Congress because it set a date to begin troop withdrawals, despite the fact that the withdrawal date was non-binding and the bill did not require the withdrawal of the hired mercenaries fighting the war. Congress may now attempt to create an even looser version that will leave Mr. Bush with even more maneuvering room to continue his war. Many of us wonder what we might do to end this war, sickened by the prospect that it will drag on until sometime after a new president is elected. Since Mr. Bush will not respect the people’s wishes to get out of Iraq, we should commence a campaign demanding that Messrs. Bush and Cheney resign their offices and put civic pressure on their "corporate sponsors" to cease their support.
Why adhere to the script prescribed for us and wait for the next election, why wait for Congress to impeach? Why temporize? We do not need to accept those procedures and timetables as the arbiters of how many more men, women and children will be killed, how many cities and villages laid ruin in our name for our interests and safety. It’s time to go off script. The fact that no formal mechanism existed to remove Don Imus from the airwaves certainly did not stand in the way of those who wanted his termination, and the absence of a formal plebiscite to remove a sitting president or vice president need not detain us. We may e-mail Messrs. Bush and Cheney and ask for their resignations, and keep asking. We may hold street rallies demanding their resignations, as 100,000 Israelis just did to oust Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. We may e-mail the CEO of Halliburton, among others profiting from the war, and ask him to publicly justify his company’s participation in a war of aggression started under false pretenses. Does the profit motive permit everything? Does pursuit of profit provide a free pass on moral or social responsibility for the company’s participation in an unjust war? Is the answer to the question, "Why?", simply, "Because I can"?
Why let pollsters be our proxies, why not speak directly? If we establish a website to keep tally of the number of Americans asking for the resignations of Messrs. Bush and Cheney and to organize rallies, then we and the whole world can know just how many of us want these men out of office immediately, how many of us believe these men do not represent us, are not our leaders and have no authority to act in our name. If enough Americans refuse to recognize authority in Messrs. Bush and Cheney, say, for example, more Americans than voted for him in the last election, they will resign. Or the administration will stand exposed to the world as having no support and legitimacy. Why? Because of the nature of political authority.
Political authority is not a force of nature; it does not inhere in Messrs. Bush and Cheney as gravity inheres in mass, and we are not held in orbit around them as the earth is the sun. Political authority is a social construct. It exists because we believe it exists, have faith in it, and act as if it exists or, for those who would like nothing better than to get their hands on it, because it is a game that must be continued in order to acquire that power to exploit for their own interests and goals. As such, it is not something that Messrs. Bush or Cheney actually possess — we have it. Let’s stop trying to bend the president. Clearly that’s impossible. Instead, only try to recognize the truth: there is no president; it is only yourself. Our desire that someone exercise power over others for our benefit is the source of, and provides the tools for, our own subjugation and exploitation.
In 1548, a French law student named Étienne de la Boétie (pronounced "Bwettie") wrote an essay titled "Discours sur la Servitude volontaire, ou Contr’un" (Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or, Against the One). La Boétie made the counterintuitive and revolutionary discovery that governments do not rule by force of arms. The handful of men and women who wield ultimate political power do not and cannot possess sufficient force to compel the people to obey them or, more accurately, cannot possibly compel their subjects to do everything that is necessary in order to sustain their power. The truth is that people are enslaved or tyrannized through their own cooperation and their own initiative in, not just cooperating, but furthering the ruler’s goals in order to acquire power and wealth by sharing in the spoils. If enough people would realize this, and refuse to cooperate in their own subjugation, la Boétie argued, the ruler’s authority would simply collapse; tyranny would end without bloodshed. So far as I am aware, la Boétie’s essay is the first call for noncooperation and civil disobedience, and first explanation of why it can work.
La Boétie identified several mechanisms by which the people accede to authority and rulers co-opt the people. The main reason people obey is, simply, habit. They grow up with it, it is just the way things are. Worse, the people, in modern parlance, "identify with the aggressor." A people’s history, which in reality is the story of their subjugation, exploitation and degradation by their rulers, becomes their fine tradition and glorious exploits, and unfelt (because habitual and routine) subjection becomes part of their very identify, in which they take great pride. People who are among the most overworked, highly regulated and taxed humans on the planet sing out that they are "proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free":
"Men are like handsome race horses who first bite the bit and later like it, and rearing under the saddle a while soon learn to enjoy displaying their harness and prance proudly beneath their trappings. Similarly men will grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been that way."
Second, rulers stultify their subjects by diverting them with entertainment, games, medals, and spectacles. La Boétie refers primarily to more ancient times, when governments had a more direct hand in providing entertainment. Today, governments still build or help finance public stadiums but the overwhelming bulk of entertainment is provided by private industry. However, la Boétie’s basic point, that entertainment and "vain pleasures" are opiates that make servitude easier to bear and ignore, remains valid:
"This method tyrants use of stultifying their subjects cannot be more clearly observed than in what Cyrus did with the Lydians after he had taken Sardis, their chief city, and had at his mercy the captured Croesus, their fabulously rich king. When news was brought to him that the people of Sardis had rebelled, it would have been easy for him to reduce them by force; but being unwilling either to sack such a fine city or to maintain an army there to police it, he thought of an unusual expedient for reducing it. He established in it brothels, taverns, and public games, and issued the proclamation that the inhabitants were to enjoy them. He found this type of garrison so effective that he never again had to draw the sword against the Lydians. . . . Do not imagine that there is any bird more easily caught by decoy, nor any fish sooner fixed on the hook by wormy bait, than are all these poor fools neatly tricked into servitude by the slightest feather passed, so to speak, before their mouths. Truly it is a marvelous thing that they let themselves be caught so quickly at the slightest tickling of their fancy. Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny. By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience as naively, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books."
Third, rulers purchase allegiance with favors and gifts. La Boétie wrote well before the welfare state was conceived and well before rulers had sufficient powers of taxation to purchase and maintain support by creating actual dependency on government through programs that provided regular benefits to large segments of the population — programs like Social Security and Medicare, or the tax benefits and subsidies we identify as "corporate welfare." Were he writing today, he would surely add these to his list. At the time, however, he was talking about something more primitive but nonetheless effective, something perhaps best summed up as the lottery mentality. Gifts and handouts teach the people to view their government as a font of benefits, the source of a potential windfall. They encourage people to look upon government as a beneficent entity. But it goes beyond that. The general notion of government as a source to be tapped for goodies also serves the same function in quelling dissent and unhappiness with government’s burdens as the lottery does in suppressing people’s discontent with their economic predicament, diverting them from looking too closely into its cause and generally reconciling them quietly to their fates:
"Roman tyrants invented a further refinement. They often provided the city wards with feasts to cajole the rabble, always more readily tempted by the pleasure of eating than by anything else. The most intelligent and understanding amongst them would not have quit his soup bowl to recover the liberty of the Republic of Plato. Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce: and then everybody would shamelessly cry, “Long live the King!” The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them. A man might one day be presented with a sesterce and gorge himself at the public feast, lauding Tiberius and Nero for handsome liberality, who on the morrow, would be forced to abandon his property to their avarice, his children to their lust, his very blood to the cruelty of these magnificent emperors, without offering any more resistance than a stone or a tree stump. The mob has always behaved in this way — eagerly open to bribes that cannot be honorably accepted, and dissolutely callous to degradation and insult that cannot be honorably endured."
We see with this last statement that la Boétie posits a certain nobility of person or character that rejects being bought off, that bristles rather than crumbles in the face of threats, that refuses to join in the banditry and plunderfest called government — a nobility that is perhaps not much in evidence. Early in his essay la Boétie talks about the enervating effects that subservience has on character: "liberty once lost, valor also perishes. . . . an enslaved people loses in addition to . . . warlike courage, all signs of enthusiasm, for their hearts are degraded, submissive, and incapable of any great deed. Tyrants are well aware of this, and, in order to degrade their subjects further, encourage them to assume this attitude and make it instinctive." In this regard it is instructive to note the craven nature of the notion that providing "security" is the primary purpose of government and the pandering use made of this concept in government’s efforts to expand its authority and functions. No politician that I am aware of, and certainly not the Republicans or Democrats in general, rejects the primacy of this notion. Mr. Bush keeps arguing that Iraq IS the battleground, and the Democrats argue that Mr. Bush’s misbegotten misadventures are diverting the country from providing real protection and confronting the REAL threats. Clearly "security" is too useful to abandon as the way forward to new frontiers in government. But its primacy indicates how degraded the American character is, and how little we see it.
Fourth, rulers claim the role of defender of the people, maintaining that their actions are for the common good in order to obtain the people’s trust:
"They didn’t even neglect, these Roman emperors, to assume generally the title of Tribune of the People, partly because this office was held sacred and inviolable and also because it had been founded for the defense and protection of the people and enjoyed the favor of the state. By this means they made sure that the populace would trust them completely, as if they merely used the title and did not abuse it. Today there are some who do not behave very differently; they never undertake an unjust policy, even one of some importance, without prefacing it with some pretty speech concerning public welfare and common good."
Fifth, rulers hold themselves aloof and cloak their actions with ritual and mystery in order to induce reverence and admiration by encouraging people to imagine them as greater than they are, a higher order of being. This is one reason that rulers never want their inner discussions and workings publicly exposed. If people saw how ignoble the process really was, their authority would be undermined. Left to speculate, people will imagine that the ruler acts wisely and justly, because it is what they want to believe.
"The kings of the Assyrians and even after them those of the Medes showed themselves in public as seldom as possible in order to set up a doubt in the minds of the rabble as to whether they were not in some way more than man, and thereby to encourage people to use their imagination for those things which they cannot judge by sight. Thus a great many nations who for a long time dwelt under the control of the Assyrians became accustomed, with all this mystery, to their own subjection, and submitted the more readily for not knowing what sort of master they had, or scarcely even if they had one, all of them fearing by report someone they had never seen. The earliest kings of Egypt rarely showed themselves without carrying a cat, or sometimes a branch, or appearing with fire on their heads, masking themselves with these objects and parading like workers of magic. By doing this they inspired their subjects with reverence and admiration, whereas with people neither too stupid nor too slavish they would merely have aroused, it seems to me, amusement and laughter. It is pitiful to review the list of devices that early despots used to establish their tyranny; to discover how many little tricks they employed, always finding the populace conveniently gullible, readily caught in the net as soon as it was spread. Indeed they always fooled their victims so easily that while mocking them they enslaved them the more."
But the main foundation and support of the ruler’s authority, la Boétie claimed, was those who aligned themselves with the ruler and eagerly furthered the ruler’s goals in order to reap the benefits of participating in the ruler’s scheme, the underlings who would align themselves with those people, and so on, establishing an extended chain of fealty based on sharing the spoils of subjugation and exploitation.
"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. The six have six hundred who profit under them, and with the six hundred they do what they have accomplished with their tyrant. The six hundred maintain under them six thousand, whom they promote in rank, upon whom they confer the government of provinces or the direction of finances, in order that they may serve as instruments of avarice and cruelty, executing orders at the proper time and working such havoc all around that they could not last except under the shadow of the six hundred, nor be exempt from law and punishment except through their influence.
The consequence of all this is fatal indeed. And whoever is pleased to unwind the skein will observe that not the six thousand but a hundred thousand, and even millions, cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are tied."
The announcement of a new initiative to benefit from the exploitation of the people — say, for example, a War on Terror — calls forth a crowd of supporters and volunteers who hope to gain by participating and carving out a role for themselves in the scheme. La Boétie refers to not only the ruler’s inner circle, men like Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz, and the men in lesser public offices who align themselves with this inner circle, but the entire network that forms around a ruler or his plans "in order to win some profit from his tyranny and from the subjection of the populace." So in our day it includes government contractors, private companies manufacturing expensive devices for airports or buildings hoping to cash in on the security crack-down, and partisan hacks who extol and flatter the ruler, misrepresent or defend his indefensible acts in order to aggrandize themselves and profit from it, recapitulating the role of courtier to king. This weakness, that ambitious men and women who see how they may profit from aligning themselves with the ruler and serving his plans at the expense of their fellow man, this, la Boétie claims, is the "mainspring and secret" of domination. If he is right, we might end the war sooner by calling those who profit from this war to account, and pressuring them to cease their participation, rather than trying to bring changes about formally through the political process. Pursuit of political means keeps our focus diverted from the supporters, without whom the plans would never proceed, and gives them a free pass.
As Lew Rockwell has noted, the truth of la Boétie’s discovery that rulers do not maintain their authority through force of arms, or stated less metaphorically, through murder, violence, coercion, fear and punishment, is vividly illustrated by our failures in Iraq. Simply eliminating a country’s military, creating a new police force, encamping our soldiers, helicopters and tanks in their midst and cowing the general populace does not make a new government. In what we call a democracy, legitimacy and power depend on brokering, achieving and constantly maintaining a privileged position as an intermediary among competing or warring social forces, each of whom wants a proxy to fight and win its battle against the others and generally accepts or at least acquiesces to this ruling class or system for the victories it might yield over its social opponents.
Consider, for example, the mileage gained by both Democrats and Republicans from taking opposing sides of the pro-life, pro-choice debate, or the mileage gained by Republicans, for example, from taking the pro-gun rights position, uttering pieties about the Second Amendment without ever repealing the laws which, based on their rhetoric, should be struck down as unconstitutional. In such cases, the idea is that they do not yet have a complete enough victory over opponents, or enough power to give supporters what they want and to do what, of course, it is right to do. In other words, party members need to continue their support and redouble their efforts until that nirvana of plenipotent power is achieved, when the party will finally have the ability to grant all wishes. The voters’ desire to achieve victory through compulsion (law) thus generates and sustains both the regime and the power necessary to accomplish that goal.
As I mentioned above, la Boétie’s discovery also explains, in significant part, the success of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Solidarity movement in Poland, and Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. At first, the movement is met with resistance and repression if not outright violence — the state’s reflexive action against all threats. But as long as the movement remains nonviolent and based on the participants’ desire to cease "living within the lie" (as Vaclav Havel has put it), this repression only further undermines the state’s authority, by demonstrating that the regime does not have the support of ordinary people who wish to do no more than carry on their lives with dignity, live in the truth and pursue "the aims of life" (Havel, again). The violence or repression reveals even more clearly that the regime has little or no legitimacy and has only open coercion and violence with which to maintain itself. More and more people’s eyes are opened and participate, or become sympathetic bystanders who now see truth of what is happening, a tipping point is reached, the powers that be must scramble to re-orient and restructure themselves to recover legitimacy, and the old regime collapses, like air rushing out of a balloon.
Noncooperation is practiced here whenever someone decides he or she will not join our military because he or she rejects Mr. Bush’s war in Iraq; whenever a general or military commander refuses to volunteer or take on an assignment in the War on Terror because he or she does not believe in Mr. Bush’s goals or methods; when a soldier refuses to participate in the war because he or she believes it to be an unjust or illegal war; when an engineer, scientist, programmer or machinist refuses to work for a company making weapons of war. If we wish to stop this war, then more of us need to say no to Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney and the companies and executives who are on board with and profiting from this war.
Messrs. Bush and Cheney claim their power is derived from a document established by we, the people. Since they supposedly work for us, we may ask them to tender their immediate resignations. A few days ago I sent this e-mail to Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney:
Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney,
You have inflicted terrible and incalculable harm on our country, the Iraqi people and the world. The avowed nobility or sanctity of your purposes and goals cannot and does not justify or sanitize the malign and destructive means you have employed, the deaths of tens of thousands, the destruction and ruin that you have brought on Iraq, the destruction of Constitutional protections and common law safeguards that protect people from arbitrary authority, tyranny and injustice, or the massive debt you are incurring for your war that will burden us for generations. As one of “We, the People” that you claim to serve, I want you to know that you do not represent me, and you do not have any authority to act in my name or on my behalf. I have never asked for, nor do I want, your service or your protection. As one of “We, the People” that you claim to serve, I am asking you to resign, immediately.
I typed my name and gave the name of the town and state in which I reside. My theory is that perhaps our soldiers can stand down as we stand up.
Sending e-mails demanding resignation is not much in the way of direct action, although if tens of millions of Americans did it and we had a public tally for all the world to see, it would, at a minimum, be a profound embarrassment to the administration and further weaken it. We will have to engage in other forms of peaceful noncooperation and civil disobedience, such as rallies demanding their resignation, protests in the streets or outside defense contractors’ offices, launching a defense contractor disinvestment and noninvestment campaign or campaign asking defense contractors to justify their participation in an illegal war started under false pretenses, if we want to end this war sometime before the next person takes occupancy of the White House and even starts the process. Obtaining widespread participation in these forms of direct action depends foremost on spreading the truth about what this administration has done and is doing. But the change in mindset regarding our field of action is equally critical — understanding that if we want the war to end we have to abandon the highly circumscribed role prescribed for us (voting), obstruct the war through noncooperation and civil disobedience, openly reject and delegitimize the authority of Messrs. Bush and Cheney, and begin demanding that war contractors justify themselves and account for their complicity.
Since Mr. Bush and his government derive near-absolute power from the near-absolute fervor with which we believe that government should "protect" us, to succeed we must learn to stop using government as our shield and weapon against one another, as the proxy that fights our battles for us. We must learn to achieve results by bypassing government. Government is so entwined in all aspects of our lives that every one of us is, to a greater or lesser degree, compromised. But it is precisely for that reason that we need to assist one another and proceed with some compassion. Many, perhaps most, of the men and women who work in the factories that make tanks, bombs and other weapons of war may not like how their work is being used in this war any more than the rest of us like how our tax dollars are being used, but have just as little idea what to do about it, or feel that they have just as few options as we do to do anything about it. The Hindu notion of ahimsa was central to Gandhi’s campaign, just as Christ’s command to love one’s enemies was the foundation of Dr. Martin Luther King’s commitment to nonviolence. Underlying these values in action is understanding in your bones that "all of us are in this together," and by "all" I do not mean only those within the confines of American borders. Vituperation cannot be the way forward. People who are attacked will attack back. People who are hated will hate back. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Noncooperation, civil disobedience, the pricking of conscience by calling to account, confronting those who are destroying and hurting others with the consequences of their actions and the disconnect between their alleged goals and their destructive means, social action — those should be the ways forward.
The Bush administration has shown beyond doubt that the existing regime is broken, that the constitutional system of checks and balances does not work and cannot withstand sheer effrontery. It is time for a new paradigm. We must become, and call others to join, the non-co-opted.
Jeff Snyder [send him mail] is an attorney who works in Manhattan. He is the author of Nation of Cowards — Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control, which examines the American character as revealed by the gun control debate. He occasionally blogs at The Shining Wire.