How We Enslave Ourselves

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    Since the birth of civilization, tyrannical rulers have plagued mankind. Driven by an insatiable appetite for power such individuals have done their best to control both the minds and bodies of their subjects. Seen in this light, the history of civilization is very much a history of varying degrees of human enslavement.

    Especially in the case of more authoritarian regimes, it has been common to assume that the masses are purely victims in their enslavement, unable to mount any form of resistance due to the threat of force wielded by those in power. In the 16th century, the French philosopher Etienne de La Boétie challenged this view in his essay The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. All governments, he argued, including the most tyrannical, can only rule for extended durations if they have the general support of the populace. Not only are those in power vastly outnumbered by those over whom they rule, but governments rely on the subjugated populations to provide them with a continual supply of resources and manpower. If one day enough people refused to obey and stopped surrendering their wealth and property, their oppressors would, in the words of La Boétie, “become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no nourishment, the branch withers and dies.” (Étienne de La Boétie, The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude) Hence mass submission to even the most oppressive political regimes is always a voluntary servitude, one based on popular consent. As de La Boétie explains:

    “Obviously 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; there is no need that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does nothing against itself. 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. A people enslaves itself, cuts its own throat, when, having a choice between being vassals and being free men, it deserts its liberties and takes on the yoke, gives consent to its own misery, or, rather, apparently welcomes it.” (Étienne de La Boétie, The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude)

    In this video we’ll explore La Boétie’s insights as to why people throughout history, and into the modern day, have acted against their best interests and consented to their enslavement.

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