Wednesday, February 22, 2012


He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you?
Étienne de la Boétie (1548)
This question struck me some fifteen years ago when I read it together with the rest of the Boétie's Discourse on Voluntary Servitude and realized how we had got it all wrong. At the time I was a student organizer and one of the leaders of the 1996-97 Student Protest which forced Milosevic to accept defeat at the local elections, but failed to force him out of office. This was because we focused on him - we protested every day for four months trying to persuade him to accept defeat. And he did finally give in, because this was a defeat he was willing to accept, municipal power in some twenty or so towns was not so important for running a country. And later that year we learned that this had been in fact just a tactical retreat because he stroke back, stronger than ever, winning parliamentary elections against a divided opposition.
Boetie's question was illuminating: why focus on the dictator who is just one man? If all around him withdraw their support he will be powerless, because they give him power. So instead of focusing on him, we should focus on the people, persuade them to withdraw their support.
This disobedience starts at the margins and spreads to the center of power, the process sluggish and unnoticeable at start, but unstoppable once it reaches the inner circle, when even close aides of the dictator start shifting their loyalties. This idea was born in many minds after the failure of the Student Protest and it was the idea present in Otpor since its very founding. It took Otpor almost another year to formulate its strategy in the Declaration on the Future of Serbia in July 1999, but as early as October 1998 it was clear that Otpor was going to be spreading the "epidemic" of individual resistance until Milosevic is abandoned by everybody.
In my next post I will illustrate how Boetie's thought materialized in Otpor's modus operandi, I will post an article which I wrote in June 2000, four months before Milosevic stepped down and where you can see how this "epidemic" was about to be spread throughout Serbia.


At 11:02 PM, Blogger John Suarez said...

Thank you for these wonderful posts. Boétie's writings also gave me much food for thought as have your blog entries. Again, thank you.


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