THE POLITICS OF OBEDIENCE: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction by Murray Rothbard to Étienne de La Boétie’s Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (1576). It’s important for us to understand this because India is under “voluntary servitude” to the corrupt few, namely the politicians that Indians elect.

{Begin extended excerpt:}

THE DISCOURSE OF VOLUNTARY SERVITUDE is lucidly and coherently structured around a single axiom, a single percipient insight into the nature not only of tyranny, but implicitly of the State apparatus itself. Many medieval writers had attacked tyranny, but La Boétie delves especially deeply into its nature, and into the nature of State rule itself. This fundamental insight was that every tyranny must necessarily be grounded upon general popular acceptance. In short, the bulk of the people themselves, for whatever reason, acquiesce in their own subjection. If this were not the case, no tyranny, indeed no governmental rule, could long endure. Hence, a government does not have to be popularly elected to enjoy general public support; for general public support is in the very nature of all governments that endure, including the most oppressive of tyrannies. The tyrant is but one person, and could scarcely command the obedience of another person, much less of an entire country, if most of the subjects did not grant their obedience by their own consent.

This, then, becomes for La Boétie the central problem of political theory: why in the world do people consent to their own enslavement? La Boétie cuts to the heart of what is, or rather should be, the central problem of political philosophy: the mystery of civil obedience. Why do people, in all times and places, obey the commands of the government, which always constitutes a small minority of the society? To La Boétie the spectacle of general consent to despotism is puzzling and appalling:

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 . . .

And this mass submission must be out of consent rather than simply out of fear:

Shall we call subjection to such a leader cowardice? … [I]f a hundred, if a thousand endure the caprice of a single man, should we not rather say that they lack not the courage but the desire to rise against him, and that such an attitude indicates indifference rather than cowardice? When not a hundred, not a thousand men, but a hundred provinces, a thousand cities, a million men, refuse to assail a single man from whom the kindest treatment received is the infliction of serfdom and slavery, what shall we call that? Is it cowardice? … [W]hen a thousand, a million men, 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.… What monstrous vice, then, is this which does not even deserve to be called cowardice, a vice for which no term can be found vile enough … ?

It is evident from the above passages that La Boétie is bitterly opposed to tyranny and to the public’s consent to its own subjection. He makes clear also that this opposition is grounded on a theory of natural law and a natural right to liberty. In childhood, presumably because the rational faculties are not yet developed, we obey our parents; but when grown, we should follow our own reason, as free individuals. As La Boétie puts it: “[I]f we led our lives according to the ways intended by nature and the lessons taught by her, we should be intuitively obedient to our parents; later we should adopt reason as our guide and become slaves to nobody.” Reason is our guide to the facts and laws of nature and to humanity’s proper path, and each of us has “in our souls some native seed of reason, which, if nourished by good counsel and training, flowers into virtue, but which, on the other hand, if unable to resist the vices surrounding it, is stifled and blighted.” And reason, La Boétie adds, teaches us the justice of equal liberty for all. For reason shows us that nature has, among other things, granted us the common gift of voice and speech. Therefore, “there can be no further doubt that we are all naturally free,” and hence it cannot be asserted that “nature has placed some of us in slavery.” Even animals, he points out, display a natural instinct to be free. But then, what in the world “has so denatured man that he, the only creature really born to be free, lacks the memory of his original condition and the desire to return to it?”

La Boétie’s celebrated and creatively original call for civil disobedience, for mass nonviolent resistance as a method for the overthrow of tyranny, stems directly from the above two premises: the fact that all rule rests on the consent of the subject masses, and the great value of natural liberty. For if tyranny really rests on mass consent, then the obvious means for its overthrow is simply by mass withdrawal of that consent. The weight of tyranny would quickly and suddenly collapse under such a nonviolent revolution.

{End extended excerpt}

La Boétie wrote that over 500 years ago. His observations in this matter were, unfortunately for us, universal across time and space. “Voluntary servitude” describes the Indian masses too closely for comfort.

We have to work together to overthrow the despicable rule of the utterly corrupt.

Author: Atanu Dey


3 thoughts on “THE POLITICS OF OBEDIENCE: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude”

  1. ‘We have to work together to overthrow the despicable rule of the utterly corrupt.

    Sure want to ‘work’ at this ? PoWoWo and all that ?

    La Boétie wrote that over 500 years ago. But Indians knew about this tamasic behaviour 10,000 years ago.

    Indians also knew about the rajasic tendency to ‘work together’ to ‘overthrow the despicable rule of the utterly corrupt’ that stirs people from their tamasic stupor.
    They also knew about the satvic realisation later that the tyrant is their own creation, they are its progenitor.

    They also knew that their essential nature is neither satvic, rajasic, nor tamasic, but unqualified, eternal and infinite, brahma.

    Indians knew all this and more.

    Macaulay the ‘evolutionist’ seems to have ‘evolved’ indians into the state they are in today.

    At this rate indians may one day talk about Hanuman being the father of Sri Rama, consistent with the evolution theory of Macaulay and alternate history of Windy Donkeyger. They may also say that vedas were imported by the ‘Aryan’ ‘invaders’, from Saint Max Mueller, no less.

    Sandeep in a recent post cribbed about ‘deracination’.

    Macaulay’s ‘ejukashen’ does that. Thats why the eminent economist behaves the way he does. He is highly ejukated. Talking about the eminent economist with blue turban here, not anybody else!



  2. western social democracies are a decivilizing force. time for dharma to prevail.the monarchy vs party politics nonsense is too naive.


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