On Voluntary Slavery & the Fear of Freedom

[another essay in my series on the psychology of powerlessness]

On Voluntary Slavery & the Fear of Freedom

Thesis: many people are ‘voluntary slaves’, i.e. they lack a sense of strong and autonomous self-activity and are dominated by authoritarian/narcissistic character structures

Tis to be a slave in soul
And to hold no strong control
Over your own wills, but be
All that others make of ye.
– Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy (1819), written on the occasion of the Peterloo Massacre

The notion of ‘voluntary slavery’, closely linked to that of social infantilisation, goes back a long way. Within the historical context of the bloody French Catholic/Huguenot conflicts, a close friend of Michel de Montaigne, Étienne de la Boitié (1530 – 1563) was the first to posit this condition of ‘voluntary slavery’ as a defining feature of (European) humanity. He wrote his genial Discours de la servitude voluntaire as an 18-year old university student. Afraid of its radicality, his skeptical, older and more famous friend Montaigne did not have it published even after de la Boitié’s early death at 33. It was found in Montaigne’s own posthumous papers. However, hand-written copies had nevertheless been circulating soon after de la Boitié’s death, especially among the radical wing of the Huguenots.

With striking modern relevance in an age of mass political disengagement, ‘democratic imperialism’ and ‘500 Pharaohs, 6 billion slaves’ (Andrew Peacock), de la Boitié’s analysis is based on the consent theory of government. He speaks of the strange contrast between the theoretical ease with which the people could potentially rid themselves of the tyrants oppressing them all over Europe and their actual choice of servitude:

And it would not even be necessary to fight the tyrant with violence, or even kill him, no, his defeat would happen almost by itself as soon as his own subjects withdrew their consent to their own enslavement. Nothing need be taken from him, rather only give him nothing. The people need not do the slightest for themselves, but rather do nothing against themselves. It is the people themselves that mistreat themselves through their tyrants! […] The peoples oppress themselves, they are like someone who cuts their own throat. The peoples have a choice of being free or being slaves but they reject freedom, bind themselves to the yoke and agree to their own servitude, indeed they actually pursue it. […] The tyrant dies as soon as he is no longer fed. […] Fight him? Goodness, why do that? If one merely stops giving him anything, merely stops obeying him, then he is conquered and sinks down bare and naked and loses all meaning.

For de la Boitié, the reasons for this consent and voluntary slavery are essentially four-fold’, and probably still of great relevance today. The first two are psychological, the last two more sociological.

Firstly, there is habit: people simply get used to voluntary slavery and do not notice it any more. Secondly, they then develop a slave mentality lacking all dignity, courage and willingness to fight back. Thirdly, ruling elites successfully use a wide variety of means of dumbing down and pacifying their subjects, from ‘bread and circuses’ and ‘prolefeed’ (George Orwell) to awards and medals, from charitable acts and hand-outs to clothing themselves in a blinding aura of superior status or religion. De la Boitié even captures the infantilization:

The dumbed-down nations loved that kind of activity. Seduced by the empty, fun-filled distractions whizzing by, they got used to servitude, as harmless and silly as children who, seduced by picture books, learn to read….

Lastly, the hierarchical ‘system of tyranny’ itself produces material rewards and benefits for as many people as it produces who thirst for freedom. (After a few years of Realpolitik as a city councilor in Bordeaux, de la Boitié himself seems to have later lost his belief in the capability of the masses to liberate themselves from voluntary servitude. )

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century anarchist Emma Goldman, in a powerful Nietzschean polemic against the inherent herd mentalities of ‘masses’ and ‘majorities’, concurs with de la Boitié’s thesis of voluntary slavery:

That the mass bleeds, that it is being robbed and exploited, I know as well as our vote-baiters. But I insist that not the handful of parasites, but the mass itself is responsible for this horrible state of affairs. It clings to its masters, loves the whip, and is the first to cry Crucify! The moment a protesting voice is raised against the sacredness of capitalistic authority or any other decayed institution. Yet how long would authority and private property exist, if not for the willingness of the mass to become soldiers, policemen, jailers, hangmen.

Such psychological features of voluntary servitude can also be interpreted as the internally sedimented results of centuries of historical experience of being order-takers, of being governed and oppressed. Anarchism, the political philosophy that most radically rejects voluntary slavery of any kind, has always had a highly developed sensibility for the all-encompassing nature of such state oppression and its deadly psychological effects. Take Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous list (1851) of passive verbs of what it means to be governed:

To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied upon, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about, by men who have neither the right nor the knowledge nor the virtue. To be governed means to be, at each operation, at each transaction, at each movement, noted, registered, controlled, taxed, stamped, measured, valued, assesses, patented, licensed, authorized, endorsed, admonished, hampered, reformed, rebuked, arrested. It is to be, on the pretext of the general interest, taxed, drilled, held to ransom, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed […]

And when there were repeated attempts throughout history at autonomy, rebellion, self-liberation from these state impingements, these attempts were usually brutally repressed.:

[…] then, at the least resistance, at the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, abused, annoyed, followed, bullied, beaten, disarmed, flayed, sold, betrayed and finally mocked, ridiculed, insulted, dishonoured. Such is government, such is justice, such is morality.

In the West, the Christian religion also played a central, and sometimes ambivalent, role in these historical rebellions and their repressions. There has long been a perennial role for the Church ‒ as much as the monarchy, army, and, later, family, school and State ‒ in inculcating unquestioning loyalty to hierarchy, blind obedience to ruling classes, and later patriotism/nationalism/imperial racism as authoritarian ideologies and unifiers-from-above. On the one hand, the Protestant Reformation could both motivate and express revolt (Münster/Winstanley), and on the other help internalize repression and voluntary slavery (Luther/Calvin/Knox).

The nexus between external oppression and internal voluntary servitude is a complex historical process that takes on different forms in different countries at different stages of their development.

Given the catastrophes of the 20th century, Germany has often and rightly been considered the classical culture of the ‘authoritarian character’, the originally feudal ‘Untertanengeist’, the prevalent social character of serf-like passivity and obedience to masters and rulers. For reasons of socio-cultural lag, the revolutionary democratic notions of English and French liberalism had never found a footing in the German people. Both Marx and Bakunin had already remarked on this. This authoritarian character can be read as the psychic sedimentation of a tragic historical legacy in Germany beginning with the brutally crushed 16th century great Peasant Rebellions, the ensuing Lutheran counter-revolutionary inculcation of obedience to the rulers, the actual material devastations, fragmentations and repressive re-feudalisations of the 17th century Thirty Years War, right through to the resultant failures of the German attempts at liberal political revolutions in 1848 and 1918.

However, liberal and Anglophone countries of course also have their own forms of voluntary servitude. In England, before the introduction of the factory system in the early 19th century there was the inculcation of (in)voluntary servitude and authoritarian self-discipline via state terror for centuries: the ‘primary accumulation’ of capital via enclosures, penal systems, military dragooning, draconian poor laws ‒ all these resulted in heavy burdens and oppressions on the English poor and working classes. Nevertheless, as historian E.P. Thompson showed: peasant and plebian revolts like the French Revolution, and early working class revolts (Luddism, Chartism, utopian socialism) can be historically read as spontaneous expressions of ‘conservative’ autonomy, ‘moral economy’ and community bonds against the repressive liberal ‘liberation’ through post-feudal capitalist enclosures, encroachment and the industrial factory system.

Such revolts thus often possessed a common motif in early 19th century England, peasant/serf Russia (1905 and March 1917) and early 20th century (largely anarchist) Spain: the old tribal/peasant/plebian traditions of mutual aid and free community cooperation from below clashed with the social uprootings and fragmentations of capitalist urbanization, the hierarchical and authoritarian factory system, the ‘possessive individualist’ self-discipline and competitiveness needed to survive in bourgeois market society.

Gradually, however, in all these countries the industrial proletariat emerged as the psychologically (self-)disciplined, authoritarian product of the capitalist factory system. In fact, social democrats and authoritarian state-capitalists like Engels, Bebel, Lenin, Trotsky explicitly laud it for inculcating a modern ‘self-discipline’ into recalcitrant or ‘reactionary’ peasant and artisan (‘petty bourgeois’) masses.

What may be called ‘the Australian ambivalence’ of the ‘obedient larrikin’ is an antipodean version of this European psycho-social nexus between external oppression and internal servitude. There is the screw/convict authoritarian nexus, the racism against the even lower-status blacks and wage-competing Chinese, the misogyny against the even lower-status women.

The general lack of autonomous self-activity and solidarity in Australian public affairs is also a result of the historical strength of the top-down Developer State in colonial Australia, the protectionist ‘state socialism’ that was an effect of the weakness of the liberal industrial bourgeoisie (as in Russia and Germany) and the general scarcity of labour. There is the notorious willingness to be obedient mercenaries for Empire in numerous imperial wars vs. the anti-authoritarian (Irish peasant, social rebel, urban déclassé) ‘larrikin’, the individualist ‘social rebel’ like Ned Kelly. All these ambivalences and contradictions are embedded within an Australian general culture of the collectivist ‘fair go’ and male ‘mateship’, the legacy of settler colonialism within a new, semi-arid, under-populated country with surplus unexploited ecological resources and open eco-niches after the virtual elimination of the indigenous population.

In Europe, the issue of voluntary slavery and the ‘authoritarian character’ becomes very relevant again after the defeat of the European working class movement in 1917-21 and the experience of fascism in the 1930/40s. This is the traumatic context of the new critical social psychology of the Frankfurt School: how could working class defeat and fascist victory be explained? The limits of an economist and determinist Marxism had been revealed in this massive defeat, in fascist victory and the hegemonial power of the new capitalist culture industry. Similarly, but without the Freudian influence, Gramsci developed his notion of ruling class ‘hegemony’ via family, Church and culture while languishing in Mussolini’s prisons.

The Frankfurt School thus expands and deepens Marx with Freud: given wholesale working class defeat and the populist rise of fascism, it becomes necessary to understand the anchoring of class domination within the individual. The seminal works here is the 1936 Studien über Autorität und Familie, Adorno’s empirical study of the features of the Authoritarian Personality in the 1940s US and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s new version of de la Boitié’s voluntary servitude in The Fear of Freedom. The Milgram experiment of the fifties provides further empirical exemplification of Adorno’s thesis of the widespread nature of the authoritarian personality in democratic societies.

Existentialists like psychoanalyst Rollo May take this exploration one step further. May sees, beyond the historical factors of oppression and self-repression, an inherent human ambivalence given with the human condition: both the need for freedom and the irksome burden of having a conscience and free will at all:

But what is generally overlooked is that man has a desire to avoid freedom as well as to seek it; that freedom and choice are also a burden – as Dostoevsky and countless others have known throughout history; and that to give one’s conscience over to the group, as one does in wartime, is also a source of great comfort. ( Power and Innocence, p. 175)

Be that as it may, the notion of voluntary slavery is, however, also a source of hope. It is, after all, also the basic social and psychological assumption of the modern political philosophy of non-violent revolution as already prefigured in Etienne de la Boitié’s 16th century work.

Thus for example, writer, mystic and anarchist activist Gustav Landauer, also influenced by de la Boitié, was an early 20th century German pioneer of non-violent revolution. Against Marxist dogma, for Landauer socialist community is possible right now, the state can be non-violently abolished simply by people withdrawing their consent and internal allegiance and deciding to socially relate and organize their common affairs in a different spirit of freedom, solidarity and equality. Despite the brutal reality of various historical systems of social oppression and coercion, none of them – in this theory ‒ can ultimately work effectively without the active consent and cooperation of those oppressed and coerced.

Thus withdrawal of consent and mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation is the key to a non-violent transformation of such systems of oppression. As Gene Sharp, among others, has extensively shown, this has been demonstrated on several inspiring historical occasions.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on November 25, 2012.

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