Time for Civil Disobedience?

Column by Jim Davies.

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Underlying approaches to the great problem of how to rid society of government parasites without violence is the insight of Etienne de la Boëtie:
"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 into pieces."
That young Frenchman put his finger right on the great weakness of the governing classes: they absolutely depend on the acquiescence of their victims, or "support." Take that away, they will implode or fall. No pushing is necessary; no violence, from either bullet or ballot. His advice has been around-- and repeatedly ignored--for over four centuries. It is, however, a fundamental premise underlying both the Freedom Academy and the movement for nonviolent resistance in the tradition of Gandhi.
What did he mean, exactly, by "Resolve to serve no more"? Probably both the main senses, the general and the particular. Serving the master in general means obeying his commands or laws; everyone living in the domain claimed by a government is affected by this sense. If everyone stops obeying, there is nothing he can do about it; he becomes powerless. He may let off a volley of grapeshot or spray the crowds with machine gun bullets, but ultimately his goose is cooked. All people have to do is nothing, to ignore him. Inducing folk to do nothing is, of course, slightly less simple.
The particular sense of "serving" would be those in literal service to his apparatus of government--government workers. These are crucial; these are the people who wield those machine guns even as the régime is falling. When they "serve no more," his reign ends; for government consists only of people working for it. He can fume and yell and bark as many orders as he wishes, but with no grunts to carry them out, he will be revealed only as the pathetic bully he always was.
It's a brave thing to do, however, to ignore the law; and it's disruptive to quit government employ. Both actions are life-changing and the former is very dangerous. De la Boëtie was correct, but how does one persuade large numbers of people to take such individual action? For such a resolve is personal, it has to be taken one at a time. In the trenches of WWI, it was sometimes effective for a whole mass of combatants to rise simultaneously and charge the enemy, but the nature of trenches and ladders meant that they each had to go "over the top" one by one. Hence, for a moment they were prime targets for enemy riflemen. It doesn't seem to me a very practical idea, therefore, to propose to our fellow victims of government to engage in civil disobedience--necessarily, one at a time--in a period when government guns and gunners are abundant. Such a strategy would create a lot of martyrs, but not many free people. The math is all wrong, the sell is too tough.
Both kinds of support must be withdrawn, though. Even if all government employees walked out (and presently, no law says they cannot), it would still be necessary for the rest of the population to understand why it should no longer listen for commands and look to government for leadership--and goodies. Otherwise, it would be back in business in a heartbeat, and by popular demand! Hence, everyone needs to understand why government is a lethal myth. The re-education needs to be universal; just persuading a minority as "leaders" will not do. I rather doubt that he had worked out the practical implications of implementing his advice, but de la Boëtie was rightly addressing the whole of society, and was referring to "service" in both these senses.
The process is under way, to re-educate everyone, both those employed by government and the rest of us. As understanding is gained, all decide to leave its employ (or not to accept it if offered). Then, as the number of government employees reduces, the risks inherent in civil disobedience recede for everyone else. This is the key, as I see it, to the proper and timely use of civil disobedience.
Try this out on a couple of numbers. Suppose there are 10,000 today who feel inclined to flout government's law--but that there are 800,000 enforcers (various kinds of police, nationwide) ready to pounce when they see us doing it. That would be an 80:1 advantage in their favor, and fatal for us.
But take the stage when just 10% of the population has learned what freedom and government are really all about. Then there might be 720,000 enforcers but (10% of 300M = ) 30 million "civilians" (as they arrogantly call us) ready to wave a middle finger at them. The advantage has dramatically shifted, to 42:1 in our favor--yet that's the stage when 90% of the task still needs to be completed! At that stage, civil disobedience (forgetting to pay taxes, not bothering to renew licenses or register for drafts, driving at sensible speeds, using drugs of choice, carrying guns without permits, declining to accept "legal tender" money, actually committing free enterprise! etc.) will be both safe (it will be 3,300 times less dangerous to flout their laws) and a major assist in the process of getting the remaining 90% into the freedom school(s) by demonstrating that government is weak as well as repugnant. It will markedly accelerate the process, at just the right time to encourage the latecomers (as well as the pioneers or "early adopters") to take part.
To practice civil disobedience today is just premature, but at that time it will become a turbocharger.
Take a closer look at the numbers. The Academy's Growth Page shows how, on simple and credible assumptions, the set of people ready and eager to practice freedom and not to work for government will double annually. Currently we are so few as to be far below noise level, but around a decade from now, one person in 64 will be in that category. Still, few will notice. But then a year later they will number one in 32, and soon after that government Human Resource managers across the land will observe that the normal staff attrition rate has risen by an unexplained 2% or 3%. Then we shall be noticed.
A year on, and we'll be one in 16 and folk will begin seriously to flout laws. The tipping point will happen a year on from then, when we number one in 8; for at that time, government will have a hard time empaneling juries who will reliably convict victimless criminals, since there must be fewer than one in 12 for that to continue. See the turbocharge effect? Victimless lawbreaking will then be seen as almost risk free, so it will blossom like the flowers in spring. That will be the glorious heyday of civil disobedience, lasting three or four years. Government will never recover.
One in four, and there will be a major collapse of all its alleged "services," causing corresponding growth of the "white market." One in two, and even the police (who will be the last to quit) will tell the boss to take their jobs and shove them. Finally the disastrous, ten-millennia age of government will be over, first in America and then everywhere else, and the human race will begin a dramatic new phase of peace and prosperity.
Will there be civil disobedience after that historic transition? In one sense, yes; for freedom consists in ignoring orders. But in another sense, no; for disobedience presumes that orders are being given, which are capable of being disobeyed. And that will no longer be the case.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."


tzo's picture

It's true that de la Boëtie's idea is very old, but it may be unfair to call it ignored. In his time, what percentage of the population actually had access to however many few copies of his pamphlet were available?

Fast forward to the 1960's, where people primarily went to the library or consulted encyclopedias (if they had such a luxury) for information. What would drive them to discover de la Boëtie's work. School? Television? And still, the percentage of people who actually dug for information at the library or in encyclopedias was miniscule.

But now, like never before, look at us throwing his name and ideas around electronically. I would say that for the first time, the majority of the population has direct access to these types of ideas and really cannot avoid them even if they wanted to, as they have become ubiquitous enough that everyone is soaking in them at least a little bit. That is a major shift, and an unprecedented one.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens. (grabs popcorn)

Samarami's picture

Your essay, Jim, is another good one. It will be interesting to see how many who are presently yoked with The Beast either psychologically or employment-wise can be turned around, recognize their true enemy, and seek liberty. I hope you take personal credit for not simply standing around to see how that all plays out.

I think it was master parasite and predator Winston Churchill who once said, "...occasionally someone will stumble upon the truth. But they quickly pick themselves up and rush on!..."

Politicians depend upon Churchill's axiom to be ingrained within the vast majority of the unwashed masses -- the "voting public". And the rest of us? Who are we? A few extremists to be humored. That's all.

I definitely agree the web in the last 10-15 years has picked up unbelievable steam in allowing ordinary folks to be exposed to ideas of freedom. How will that pan out? Only time will tell.

How will the Ron Paul "movement" help shape the population of young students (who will soon replace us as heads of families) to eventually recognize the futility of civil government and political action? I know it took the Barry Goldwater "movement" (and eventually Harry Browne, himself a governmentalist to the extent he chose to "run for potus") to slowly bring an old statist like me to explore liberty. And that, too, was long before the internet.

Ron Paul, although he appears to be a true exponent of freedom, is governmentalist through and through. But all of us had to start somewhere, and I do believe a host of Pauliens today will be root-strikers tomorrow.

Enough to bring the numbers up as Jim prescribes? I hope so. But, like tzo, I'll keep a fresh bag of popcorn handy.

Just for the fun of it I logged onto the local socialistic ("public" ha ha) library catalog a few minutes ago and did a search for Étienne de La Boétie in all categories. Zilch. Nada. Nobody here by that name.

I'll agree the printing press alone would never have given rise to the numbers that are presently being allowed exposure to liberty. Yet I'll also declare that circumcision is a fearsome prospect to the hordes who have only known the security of foreskin.

Go figure.


Scott Lazarowitz's picture

"30 million 'civilians' (as they arrogantly call us)"

In recent years, I have been referring to the two classes in America: Government and Civilians. I have no problem referring to myself as a "civilian," as I am certainly glad to not be referring to myself as "government," or as an agent of the government.

GeoffreyTransom's picture

The idea that we can slough off the parasite classes without violence is a nice dream, but it is a dream.

The 5% of high-functioning sociopaths that comprise the political-parasite class, can count on a good-sized cadre of lower-functioning violent sociopaths to do their dirty work... and 80% of the public will accept unquestioningly when the TV news tells them that the now-dead protesters were 'terrorists' or 'lestai' or whatever they're called by the State.

I would also point out tat the work attributed to de la Boetie was repudiated by him later in life, as he faced consequences (i.e., being killed by the State) if he acknowledged authorship. He also went on to be thoroughly assimilated (did he not finish his life as a career parasite?)

Jim Davies's picture

If you were right and de la Boetie, wrong - that the peaceful termination of government is a "dream" - then we would be left with two alternatives: (a) suffer government for ever or (b) overthrow it with violence.

As Frances Tandy said of (b), if it were possible it would not be necessary. As to (a), you have that choice of course. I will not join you.

Nor will I join you in supposing the nonviolent alternative is a "dream." On the contrary, all that's needed to make it happen is to engage the brain, form a systematic strategic and tactical plan for causing it to happen, and get to work. Some of us have done that. All are welcome to join.