Silent and Obedient Consent


Set in a futuristic, totalitarian Britain, the movie V for Vendetta tells the story of V, who urges his fellow citizens to rise up and bring freedom and justice back to a society plagued by cruelty and corruption. In one of his speeches to the people, V says:

The truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and depression. And where once you had the freedom to object, think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame?

Well, certainly, there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable. But truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now High Chancellor … He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.

When you look at the footage in the lead up to the APEC Summit the guns, the water cannon,  the police;  the appallingly infantile ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ threats from Ministers of the Crown; the authorisation of the pro-American group ‘Aussies 4 ANZUS Alliance’  to hold rallies during APEC, while others  are excluded you can’t help but see parallels between our country and the nation depicted in V for Vendetta.

The ‘rabble-proof fence’. From Sydney Indymedia

Those of us with long memories will also see the parallels between Australia now and Apartheid in South Africa 30 years ago. Steven Biko, the celebrated anti-Apartheid activist who was murdered by South African police in 1977, was arrested in a police roadblock under their 1967 Terrorism Act. Under that Act, anyone suspected of terrorism which was very broadly defined as anything that might ‘endanger the maintenance of law and order’ could be detained for an indefinite period without trial on the authority of a senior police officer. As there was no requirement to release information on who was being held, people detained under the Act tended to disappear.

Think about that, and think about our own anti-terrorism  and sedition  laws. Do you remember the deportation  of protestor Scott Parkin  in September 2005 because of an adverse security assessment?

More generally, our Government makes determinations about what is in the best interests of our Indigenous people,  ignoring their wishes and the recommendations of experts, and we give our silent, obedient consent. Next door to us, East Timor  is being plundered, and we give our silent, obedient consent.

Our Government ignores its and our responsibility to refugees,  and we give our silent, obedient consent. Our country is complicit in the invasion  and commercial rape of other countries and the murder of their citizens, and we give our silent, obedient consent. We know that the Government needs to adopt immediate measures to keep carbon dioxide levels below 450 parts per million the widely recognised  threshold of dangerous climate change but it does nothing and still, we give our silent, obedient consent.

Why do we do this?

The influential political philosopher Etienne de la Boétie was a young man attending law school when he wrote his brief Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, in 1552–3.  In the Discourse, La Boétie asked why people continue to give their consent even when they’re living under a tyrant? And he concluded that

custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude [People] 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, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been that way.

As Professor Murray Rothbard writes in the Introduction to a 2002 edition of the Discourse, ‘consent’ for La Boétie

is actively encouraged and engineered by the rulers; and this is another major reason for the persistence of civil obedience. Various devices are used by rulers to induce such consent. One method is by providing the masses with circuses, with entertaining diversions [‘plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates …’] Another method of inducing consent is purely ideological: duping the masses into believing that the tyrannical ruler is wise, just and benevolent ‘for they never undertake an unjust policy, even one of some importance, without prefacing it with some pretty speech concerning public welfare and common good.’

According to Rothbard, this leads to

the permanent and continuing purchase of a hierarchy of subordinate allies, a loyal band of retainers, praetorians and bureaucrats Here is a large sector of society which is not merely duped with occasional and negligible handouts from the State; here are individuals who make a handsome and permanent living out of the proceeds of despotism In short, ‘when the point is reached, through big favours or little ones, that large profits or small are obtained under a tyrant, there are found almost as many people to whom tyranny seems advantageous as those to whom liberty would seem desirable.’

How is tyranny to be overthrown, if it is cemented into society by habit, privilege and propaganda? La Boétie affirms, according to Rothbard, that:

not all of the people will be deluded or sink into habitual submission ‘ there are always a few who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot restrain themselves from attempting to shake it off’ Such people never quite disappear from the world: ‘Even if liberty had entirely perished from the Earth, such [people]would invent it’ La Boétie maintains that heroic leaders can arise who will not fail ‘to deliver their country from evil hands when they set about their task with a firm, whole-hearted and sincere intention’ Through a process of educating the public to the truth, they will give back to the people knowledge of the blessings of liberty and of the myths and illusions fostered by the State.

The irony (or perhaps the tragicomedy) of all this is that the people circumscribing our liberty and fencing us off from our own country right now are elected and paid by us to represent us, yet their behaviour is contrary to our private morality and they engage our country in conduct we would not expect of a responsible nation.

But then, of course, there is always the Opposition led by a man who says, ‘If I was Prime Minister, I’d be doing exactly the same thing.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.