Friday, 10 August 2012

Nature , origin and exercise of power

When I read this extraordinary and incisive book "The Politics Of Obedience:The Discourse Of Voluntary Servitude" by Etienne De La Boetie , I was stunned.Though written in 1553 , its analysis and conclusions   so  sharply and precisely  matched   my own experiences and insights  of three decades as a   bureaucrat  in the State of Uttar    Pradesh , India  that I became an  ardent admirer of Boetie.Boetie's work is  very thought provoking and is relevant in the 21st. century. The game of politics has not changed much  since the 16th century when this discourse was written. What has made the situation worse is that the State has layers of bureaucracy  who staff  powerful offices. Such " powerful" bureaucrats are relatively of little use to public but extremely  useful to the rulers  which is why they  have become  indespensible.
              Boetie gives   a profound insight into the nature of the State - all states are in essence a hierarchy of privilege that benefits a limited minority,  that  blatant use of power comes essentially through the consent of the governed. While rulers  and governments use propaganda,  favors, gifts and sweet speeches about "poverty eradication", "public welfare" or "world democracy," these tricks of power-seeking  rulers  would amount to little if the people understood that they are in complete control , and the propaganda, once seen for what it is, cannot cast its spell upon them.  " For although, the means of coming into power differ, still the method of ruling is practically the same;those who are elected , act as if they were breaking in bullocks;those who are conquerors , make the people their prey; those who are heirs, plan to treat them as if they were their natural slaves." Transformation into a tyrant  takes place from captain to king , and from king to tyrant.The book very convincingly and effectively   explains the origin and inherent corruption and  tyranny of all government.                    The book(It is actually an Essay) is published by Kessinger Publishing in its Rare Reprints Series.It is a thin book of only 29 pages in three parts.It is  written  with clarity and very  powerfully.I could read it in two hours.The paperback edition by     Kessinger Publishing is   elegantly produced but  is   awfully expensive. ( $108.88).Boetie wrote his "Discourse" around 1553 when he was about 22 years of age and a student at the University of Orleans. He died in 1563 at 32 years of age.The book was not published in Boetie's life time.In 1574,a long passage of La Boétie’s Discours was first published in Latin, together with other texts, in an anonymous publication  and later in French .In 1576,Protestant theologian Simon Goulart  published, for the first time, the complete text of the Discours .In 1577 , Boétie’s Discours de la Servitude volontaire was published for the first time on its own.
                                                The essay is very caustic about the "powerful bureaucrats" who surround the rulers.Boetie calls them 'servile'.  These  favourites of a ruler can never feel entirely secure."What suffering, what martyrdom it involves.To be occupied night and day in planning to please one person, and yet to fear him more than every one else in the world;to be always on the watch, ears open, wondering whence the blow will come;to search out conspiracy, to be on guard against snares to scan the faces of companions for signs of treachery,to smile at  every body and be mortally afraid of all , to be sure of no body, either as an enemy or as a reliable friend;showing always a gay countenance despite an apprehensive heart, unable to be joyous but not daring to be sad."
                 With nothing to call one's own, receiving from some one else one's sustenance, one's power to act, one's body , one's very life.Still men accept servility in order to acquire wealth;as if they could acquire anything of their own when they can not even assert that they belong to themselves, or as if any one could possess under a tyrant a single  thing in his own name.
"Those , who having by shameful means won the ear of  princes-who either profit from their villainies or take advantage of  their naivete-were in the end reduced to nothing by these very princes.How little faith one can place in the friendship of an evil ruler?Such a ruler does not know how to love, that he ultimately impoverishes his own spirit and destroys his own empire.The fact is that the tyrant is never truly loved, nor does he love.There is no friendship when there is cruelty, when there is disloyalty, where there is injustice.Elevated above others and having no companions, a tyrant finds himself already beyond the pale of friendship, which receives its real sustenance from an equality."  One never pines for what he has never known ;longing comes only after enjoyment and constitutes the memory of past joy."Tyrant does not consider his power firmly established until he has reached the point where there is no man under him who is of any worth .He stultifies and effeminizes the subjects.Stupidity in a tyrant always renders him incapable of benevolent action .
               Many rulers give bait towards slavery-plays , medals, pictures and other such opiates.Accomplices in his  power games  provide new supporters of despotism  big favours or small and  large profits or small.All those who are corrupted by burning ambition or extra ordinary avarice, gather around the tyrant and support him in order to have  a share in the booty and to constitute themselves petty chiefs under the big tyrant .They approach the tyrant , embracing with both hands their servitude .Others follow them.The tyrant/dictator sees men about him , wooing and begging his favour and doing much more than he tells them to do ."Such men must not only obey orders;they must anticipate his wishes.To satisfy him , they must foresee his desires;they must wear themselves out, torment themselves, kill themselves with work in his interest, and accept his pleasure as their own, neglecting their preference for his, distorting their character and corrupting their nature, they must pay heed to his words, to his intonation, to his gestures and to his glance.Let them have no eye, nor foot nor hand that is not alert to respond to his wishes or to seek out his thoughts."
               Why do we volunteer to our own enslavement?Why do we surrender our liberty and allow ourselves to be dominated by others?Is it  born out of our cowardice?Do we exchange our liberty for our  greed ?When we submit to a tyrant , our giving in gives him strength.Is it King's favour or liberty? Which gives us more joy and honour?If the burning  desire for liberty is missing , there is corruption by servitude.Insist on the joy of liberty.Freedom is our natural state.
                 It is said that Mithidates trained himself to drink poison .Like him , we learn to swallow and not to find bitter the venom of servitude. Nature has less power over  you than custom or environment .You get habituated to subjection.Thus custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude.Enslaved people lose courage and all signs of enthusiasm and are incapable of any great deed .Tyrants encourage them to assume this attitude.

               We have the choice of being vassals or being free men.The more we yield and obey , the mightier and more formidable the tyrants become.The tyrant has power over you only  through you .You can deliver yourself if you try , not by taking action but merely by willing to be free. ."Resolve to serve no more,and you are at once freed.I do not ask you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over , but simply that you support him no longer;then behold him , like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces?When we simply do not obey , the root does not receive nourishment and the branch dies.Non-violent resistance and civil disobedience both trace their origins to this work.Before Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Tolstoy, or Thoreau, Boetie underlined the importance of civil resistance. 
                                                 "Actually the people never blame the tyrant for the evils they suffer;but they do place responsibility on those who influence them.People compete with one another in mentioning the names of the favourites, in analyzing their vices, and heaping them a thousand insults, a thousand obscenities, a thousand maledictions.They hold them accountable for all their misfortunes .If at times, they show them outward respect, at those very moments, they are fuming in their hearts and hold them in greater horror than wild beasts."This is a very powerful insight for the "powerful" bureaucrats
                             You may think that this is a cynical view of the origin and exercise of power .But I must remind you that Boetie was young , intelligent and observant at 22 years of age , and it is difficult to believe that at that age he turned cynical and I have similar views at the age of 57 years .I hope and wish that I am  proved wrong  by a detailed research , though I have no evidence to say so .