* Published in Symptoms of Unresolved Conflict, 52nd October Salon - Belgrade edited by Galit Eilat and Alenka Gregorič.

“Why should I obey?” In a sense this is a childish question, a question put forward by an infant even before he can pronounce his first word. For a child, this is also the question, “Why are you asking this from me?” or even more precise ‘What do you want from me?’. These doubts in the early stages of life come back again and again as the child grows mature; always directed towards some kind of sovereignty, identifying it. Whether the one who asks doesn’t want to obey, cannot obey, or does not understand how he is supposed to obey, what he does know at this moment is that power is standing over him. As Louis Althusser explains, this is actually a moment of interpellation – where one gets his subjectivity in the first place.[1] It is the elementary constellation of the two, master and subject.

              Questions of obedience and disobedience have been discussed by various thinkers and philosophers for thousands of years. Much of the discussion has dealt with the morality of an act, as well as the ethical questions regarding why and when a person should assert their own sovereignty: refusing the laws and orders that he obeyed until that moment.[2] It is a discussion about ‘the great privilege to say NO,’ as a well-known Hebrew song says. I would like to leave aside the discussion of whether one has a right or even an obligation to disobey. Instead, I would like to go back to an arbitrary zero point in the history of this discussion in order to try and figure out what the possible maneuvers of disobedience are, or simply put – how one can disobey and what disobedience should look like today. This preliminary quest aims to draw a sketch of these possibilities.

              In 1552, Étienne de la Boétie, a young law student, wrote a treatise that is thought by many to be the first to deal explicitly with men's obedience to power and the possibility of disobedience.[3] The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (Discours de la servitude volontaire), better known as Anti-One (Contr'un) was written while La Boétie was still studying at the University of Orléans.[4] This subversive and unique text was never published during his short life but was circulating among his friends and colleagues until first printed in 1574. It is interesting to note that La Boétie himself chose a different and much more conservative path which calumniated in a position at the Bordeaux parliament in 1544.

              In this early text there seemed to be no need to morally justify disobedience, but merely to question the reasons for men’s obedience at all. Anti-One discusses how come people obey; how obedience serves and creates power and why one should disobey no matter what regime governs him. Underlining this discussion is a musing by La Boétie present amongst the first pages:

how it happens that so many men, so many villages [..] 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.[5]

There is no question here of why disobey, but rather, how is it that men obey to begin with? What is it that makes them obey rather than not? These questions concerning political reality already indicate La Boétie’s fundamental insight – an understanding that will bring forth the whole case of the text – and it is that every political power must be grounded upon general popular acceptance and that fact that it will fall and disappear if people stop doing what this power asks from them, if they refuse to answer its calls. As he explains this constellation of power:

There is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: it is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing. [..] It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their servitude.[6]

Relations between a tyrant and his people are reciprocal, but in a sense that the tyrant gets his sole power from the people’s consent. For La Boétie there no longer exists divine right for the ruler – one that gives him external power – only this relationship with the people that is obtained. Later on, La Boétie will explain that what guards this formation is a pyramid of interests and personal benefits that gain power from this structure, but the basic formation will still be that of the people versus the ruler.

              This being the case, La Boétie’s central concern is thus, why do people remain obedient? Why do people choose to live under power, to be subjected to it, if these relations are so fragile that they can break at any moment people choose? In La Boétie’s understanding as well as in later views, the explanation of fear is certainly not the first reason for subjection. La Boétie claims that customs and habits make people stay in this unfortunate situation. Customs that oppose the way people are supposed to act by nature.

              It is crucial to understand the abyss open between men’s nature and reason and what La Boétie calls “custom”. We return here to the position of the infant, as La Boétie suggests the following thought experiment:

let us imagine some newborn individuals, neither acquainted with slavery nor desirous of liberty, ignorant indeed of the very words [..] There can be no doubt that they would much prefer to be guided by reason itself than to be ordered about by the whims of a single man.[7]

This argues that a different path is taken somehow out of reason, and into the arms of power and obedience. It is so, says La Boétie, because every newborn comes already to a world of obedience, to parents who live under a certain regime, in a land and people that already have their master and accepted his authority. In this case the ones born into submission are content ‘to live in their native circumstance [..] considering as quite natural the condition into which they were born.’[8] As a whole generation knows of nothing else, they:

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, [..] based on the idea that it has always been that way.[9]

It is our parents and native environment as such that bequeath us customs and teach the way men and women are supposed to live. Moreover, we can say that it is not only obedience per se they teach us, it is also how to think and reason itself, or common sense if you would like.

If this is the case, then disobedience can be conceived not only in relation to rules but also in a much wider range of customs, habits and norms. It cannot be the refusal to obey some concrete law or even the complete law book alone. There are a variety of maneuvers which do not merely say “NO” to power, and which do not comply to the set of given possibilities – which answer in non-sensical way.

              In the summer of 2011 a housing protest broke out in Israel. What started as a few tents in a main boulevard of the city of Tel-Aviv became, within a few weeks, the biggest civil protest ever known in Israel with more than 400,000 protesters in the streets, “tent cities” alongside hundreds of assemblies and civil acts in public space. As this protest grew, the government and the media required the protest leaders to present an explicit and complete list of demands. The response was unusual in this political landscape. The protest leadership refused to produce such a list; moreover, they declared that they would speak only with the Prime Minister directly and if this conversation were broadcast live. This act was more than just a refusal to respond in regard to what the protesters wanted; it was a response that did not operate like former struggles. This was a refusal to respond as expected – the way that power wants to be answered.

              Throughout the protests, journalists and professional politicians argued that the group of young protesters did not know how to handle the struggle, saying that they should step down and let the “experts”, trade unions and so on, take over the struggle and negotiate with the government. What these professionals were actually asking for was a calculable gesture, a sign that’s already had its preordered reactive sign, and the delegates who know how to produce these signs. By refusing to produce such a sign, the protesters refused to obey the predetermined and dictated conditions of the situation. I would like to suggest that these kinds of refusals and acts of disregard for the “rules of the game” are crucial for the struggle. These forms of response have, at the very least, the potential of gaining some power and sovereignty back by refusing the requests issued from a position of assumed rationality.

              In their eminent book regarding the one and the many, A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari ask what are is the relations between the State’s form and human (rational) thought. Their answer intertwines the two elements in a reciprocal relation:

Thought as such is already in conformity with a model that it borrows from the State apparatus, and which defines for it goals and paths, conduits, channels, organs, an entire organon. There is thus an image of thought covering all of thought [..] by developing in thought in this way the State-form gains something essential: a whole consensus. Only thought is capable of inventing the fiction of a State that is universal by right, of elevating the State to the level of de jure universality [...] It is no longer a question of powerful, extrinsic organizations, or of strange bands: the State becomes the sole principle separating rebel subjects, who are consigned to the state of nature, from consenting subjects, who rally to its form of their own accord. If it is advantageous for thought to prop itself up with the State, it is no less advantageous for the State to extend itself in thought, and to be sanctioned by it as the unique, universal form [...] For the modern State defines itself in principle as "the rational and reasonable organization of a community."[10]

This image of thought suggests a unique and exclusive connection between rationality and the State. Through this kind of rationality the rebels find themselves away in the state of nature, but this is no longer La Boétie’s “nature” that is the basis of freedom and reason; rather it is a Hobbesian one that brings only suffering and no possibility for civil life. Whatever lies outside the State’s form is only negativity. Rationality, they say, is made in the form of the State, meaning that the State is the only possibility of this thought for human life. In this sense the ‘rational reason’ that La Boétie thought could save us, is also the place of our rigid State disciplinary.

              What Deleuze and Guattari find outside the state is the nomad and the social assemblage of what they call the ‘war-machine’ – each possessing a different constellation of thought and relation to the world. We can leave aside Deleuze and Guattari’s complex understanding of the outside as positivity for now, so long as we take this tension between the State and thought and ask ourselves what this offers us as a field of conflict. What I would like to suggest is that if rationality is made in the form of the State – and therefore justifies the State as the only possible form of civil life as Deleuze and Guattari put it – disobedience should not only be about saying NO, but it should also contest rationality and sense as such. And so, the disobedient should consider as his contested sphere not only the law of the State but also the laws of rationality, or quite simply what is a customary understanding of a “rational act”. We can say that rationality is a way of understanding the world, and so this kind of disobedience should be conceived as a political tactic that mis-understands. Misunderstanding, with or without intention, in this sense determines what it is that needs-to-be-done at a certain point in a conversation with power, when doing “what is expected” would already be obedient to the order of power.

              When power is answered in a way that differs from the sets of assumed possibilities, an embarrassment may occur. In these moments of incompatibility, power loses its own sense of coherence and the seemingly continuous presentation of its sovereignty. To expose the power without answer of its own reviles the problematic of its rationality, its incompleteness. However, these moments are almost always short and are bound to disappear as fast as the power organises itself once again, offering new answers to the disobedient presentation of misunderstanding – putting things back in order. A general response may identify the subjects in different (but preordered) positions, calling them in such names such as: Anarchists – Ones who just want to destroy everything, Childish – Ones who play games and do not know how to act, or Criminals – Ones who have unmoral interests in their acts. This is why these moments of disobedience and instability can never come alone, and can only be, as Hardt and Negri say, the first step towards ‘liberatory politics’: on a path to a new social body.[11]

              This short treatise is the beginning of a thought, an outline for what disobedience can mean today, how we can disobey, or if we can do it at all. La Boétie may have been the first to try and understand how obedience works, and still today he offers a very fundamental understanding of constellations of obedience in human life. Today however, obedience is so embedded in life and in our conception of citizenship that it is very hard to grasp and believe his basic premise, namely the possibility to stop obeying. We must understand disobedience in all its complexity – as a work on sense and reason, as a work of the subject on his own subjectivity and as part of numerous acts of revolt and liberation. Addressing thought and reason, what needs to be done, maybe more than ever before, is to stop understanding how

[1] Louis Althusser. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1971) pp. 162-183.

[2] Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is the first paradigm for this discussion.

[3] Some go back as far as Plato’s “Apology” or Sophocles’s “Antigona”. Although these texts explain important ideas about obedience, this is not done as a study in obedience as such.

[4] Etienne de La Boétie. The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1975). Online version available: http://www.mises.org/rothbard/boetie.pdf.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 46.

[7] Ibid., 54.

[8] Ibid., 55.

[9] Ibid., 60.

[10] Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Continuum Books, 1987) pp. 413-414.

[11] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001) p. 204.


©2018 by Udi Edelman