London: Protest and stillness. Loose thoughts on de la Boetie

I spent a few days in London and experienced something that made me reflect upon what the French writer Etienne de la Boetie in Discourse on Voluntary Servitude wrote about. I talked to some people leaving and working in London. What I heard was more or less similar, 10 hours working day at a very low salary that is barely enough to cover the rent of a room-far-away-from-the-workplace and the rest of the living expenses (bills, transportation costs, etc.).

Etienne de la Boetie, a French noble personality lived in the 16th century, describes this condition as voluntary servitude. However, what de la Boetie argues is that this condition of servitude does not need to be fought by people: “It is incredible how as soon as a people becomes subject, it promptly falls into such complete forgetfulness of its freedom that it can hardly be roused to the point of regaining it, obeying so easily and so willingly that one is led to say, on beholding such a situation, that this people has not so much lost its liberty as won its enslavement.” What he suggests then is to refuse the consent to tyrant, giving nothing to him. As de la Boetie says “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.”

One may tempted to argue that what it is suggested here recalls the idea of striking. Workers that stop working, e.g. they stop making function a factory in order to ask for a better salary or less working hours or more permission days and so on. However, I believe the analysis is not as easy as it seems. The idea of strike implies an a priori demand that is not achieved. Workers were already asking for better working conditions and when these were not agreed they started striking. It is a reaction that comes as a form of protest against the factory owner. Once the demand is satisfied, there is no longer need to keep the strike on. Striking admits negotiation, the mediation between two parts that are dialectically opposed one to another. It implies  the fact that, by situating itself in one of two dialectical poles, it gives meaning to the other alternative one. That is, there could not be any protest if there were not factory owners establishing certain working conditions. Dialectical poles support one another.

de la Boetie’s argument is instead an a priori refusal to serve without demanding of anything. It implies no negotiation. There will be no mediators appointed to achieve a deal. It is a form of refusal that does not come with fighting but stillness. Perhaps, the lack of demand or request as a refusal to serve becomes a presence that simply is not comprehensible for the other counter part, i.e. de la Boetie’s tyrant or the factory owner. However, it is a presence that is not neglecting the other.

(In this respect one should be tempted to think about the hypocrisy inherent in the relationship between working and striking. On the one hand workers are dependant on the factory owner or the tyrant. On the other they are refusing and fighting against him.  This condition implies a form of survival that is anyway a form of dependancy. )

While in London I wondered about the shock that de la Boetie’s approach could manufacture. But then I was suddenly reminded about a quote from Giovanni Falcone, an Italian judge who was killed by mafia in the 90’s came into my mind. He said: “That things are the way they are does not mean they should so. It’s only that when it comes to act and change there is a price to pay. It is then that the majority prefers to complain rather than doing.”

And here I stop…

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