Fear and Voluntary Servitude Shape Politics

February 24, 2021 | By eric.terzuolo | Filed in: Miscellaneous.

Fear and voluntary servitude are powerful political motivators. “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” This was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice to Oliver Wendell Holmes who, as a student, sought to refute the ideas of Plato. When applied to actual kings, dictators, or aspiring authoritarians, it is sound advice. After surviving his first impeachment trial, Donald Trump adopted the Emerson quote as a warning to potential political opponents. (Trump seemingly was not reading Emerson, but rather New York Times reporter Peter Baker.)

Fear of reprisal

Trump’s opponents within the party and those vying to seize his legacy arguably had an interest in convicting the former president and excluding him from further national office. But fear of an even badly wounded Trump prevailed. Quite logically and predictably. We should not have expected anything different.

Feudal politics return

For part of our body politic, we are in a new feudal era. We associate feudalism with the Middle Ages. But the last vestiges of the system were not formally abolished until many centuries later, and it has left its mark. In the feudal scheme of things, the top level of authority rested with the king, who dispensed lands and other privileges to vassals in return for promises of loyalty and provision of troops in time of war. The personal relationship between lord and vassal was at the core of the system. Perhaps there is something about the human animal that makes such relationships widely suitable.

Voluntary servitude

Writing in 1576, as feudalism was giving way to what we think of as the modern state, a young French aristocrat, Estienne de la Boétie, published The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. Monarchy was his target, and he pointed out how “in the light of reason, it is a great misfortune to be at the beck and call of one master, for it is impossible to be sure that he is going to be kind, since it is always in his power to be cruel whenever he pleases.” Recent history of authoritarians and aspiring authoritarians suggests that is true even when the master does not wear a crown.

Consistent with his concept of “voluntary servitude,” de la Boétie argues that the real problem is “how so many men . . . so many nations, sometimes 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.” The solution to the problem ultimately rests with those who have accepted the monarch’s tyranny. “You can deliver yourselves if you try,” says de la Boétie, “not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more.” Then the tyrant will “fall of his own weight and break into pieces.”

Fear and voluntary servitude both count

De la Boétie’s analysis of tyranny and its mechanisms is both insightful and remarkably contemporary. No doubt, fear of negative consequences is a visible and powerful motivator in politics. But readiness to give away power over oneself, in the questionable expectation that the leader will be kind, is still out there. Fear and voluntary servitude figure in Donald Trump’s continued political clout.


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