Review of ‘The Disobedient Society’

The Disobedient Society‘ is a neat little book (190 pages) by Mat Little, published last year by New Compass Press. In it Mat Little probes the question of obedience in our  society; because, despite our ongoing resistance and rallies, we nonetheless show an astonishing basic obedience towards a capitalist economic system that clearly many of us consider non-viable.

To try to understand this point, and ultimately help us to escape from the kind of apathy that classical Republican thought* would have described as slavery, Little revisits Stanley Milgram’s well-known ‘Electric Shock Experiment’ in a detailed and very productive way.

This experiment, conducted by Milgram not far from the Yale campus in the US in the summer of 1961, showed that two-thirds of ordinary people who volunteered (to participate in “scientific research”), when asked to do so by a competent and authoritative person, were willing to inflict repeated, and even potentially fatal, electric shocks on an innocent stranger. This behaviour, according to Milgram, can be explained by the fact that the volunteers had placed themselves in a situation whereby they became “agents of authority”– that is, in a social situation where one must follow the instructions given by someone of a higher ‘social status’ than ourselves (in Milgram’s experiment, the professor/researcher).

In this type of situation, as Milgram demonstrates, the moral obligation we feel to fulfil our initial commitment outweighs our clarity about the substance of what we are being asked to do.

The decisive point of the experiment, Little insists, is that obedience becomes all the stronger when it results from a free initial choice and a free commitment, because that is what creates moral obligation.

By relating various historical events and ideas to the detailed analysis of Milgram’s experiment and other subsequent experiments that have amplified it, Little draws attention to a number of very instructive phenomena concerning social obedience, including the following:

1) 3 billion employees worldwide: an obedient society? 

Milgram’s experiment should make us reflect on the current trend towards the generalisation of salaried work across the world (between 1980 and 2000 the number of employees doubled worldwide, reaching almost 3 billion); through the signing of an employment contract one enters into a state of subordination of one’s own free will’ specific to salaried work.

This considerable expansion of wage-labour should be placed in the context of the widespread denunciation of wage-labour as a form of slavery at the very moment when it was developing very rapidly with the industrial revolutionunder the stimulus of Marx, and of socialists as well as non-socialists; it was a denunciation, Little reminds us, that had a lot to do with the political tradition of classical republicanism, which was very deeply rooted in the mind-set of the age, according to which an individual is not free if s/he is subjected to the will of another. It is freedom seen as non-domination, as reciprocity (I am free if and only if I am not dominated by anyone and I myself do not dominate anyone), as opposed to freedom as a guarantee of enjoyment under the conventions of liberalism. On this basis, Little speculates that there will be a profound questioning of the wage-labour market in our society as the 21st century progresses.

One of the strongest lessons to be drawn from Milgram’s experiment is that in a situation of peer rebellion (where an actor refuses to press the electric shock button), the level of obedience drops to only 10% of the subjects. “The individual is weak in his solitary opposition to authority but the group is strong”, is Milgram’s conclusion.

2) Is obedience natural? 

This is the question that Little asks himself and asks the reader in chapter 2 of his book. He answers it in the negative, adducing Murray Bookchin’s vision of social ecology, one of the foundations of which is that the destruction of the environment is the consequence of violent social relations and of hierarchical relations in general.

According to this current of thought, fighting against all hierarchies is to work for a truly ecological society, as well as for the liberation of all oppressed groups or individuals. Citing the analyses of Bookchin and Öcalan, Little puts it to us that human societies have far from always been organised hierarchically; on the contrary, for a long time they were egalitarian and based on mutual aid and cooperation.

Inequality and oppression are in fact cultural developments and this is important for us to understand in its fully. As Little shows we have assimilated these hierarchical habits of coercion and obedience deep within ourselves. He stresses that Milgram’s experiment highlights the fact that not obeying the teacher is seen as a moral transgression; a transgression that only a third of the volunteers of the experiment took upon themselves, by taking a certain risk and leaving their ‘comfort zone.

3) A History of Emancipation: Forms of Freedom

Milgram believed that obedience was innate in human nature, but his is a denial of history according to Little, because how then to explain the recurring appearance of the political structures of assemblies or councils that call into question the tyranny of individuals as well as of hierarchies: from the Parisian sections (district assemblies) of the French revolution to the soviets of Russia in 1917 (the people’s assemblies that the Bolsheviks quickly moved to eliminate), via the local councils in Germany in 1918, the confederal communal assemblies of anarchist Spain, or even more recently the system of “democratic federalism” set up around the region of northern Syria called Rojava, a history of which the author profitably dwells.

Relying heavily on the writings of Hannah Arendt, Little shows that, in sharp contrast to the dominant liberal thought, social ecology, democratic federalism and classical republican thought have the common characteristic of attaching extreme importance to the forms of freedom, through the sharing of political power between one and all, and through an emphasis on discussion and deliberation. By attaching importance to them, these ideas – in constant dialogue with reality – may succeed in translating into action the demand for genuine freedom and equality: a demand that calls into question certain cultural mainstays that are not emancipatory, such as obedience.

Writen by TRISE member Hadrien Delahousse

Translation from French by Mike Ingham

* Classical Republican thinking has nothing to do with the thinking of the Republican Party in the United States. On the contrary, it stems from Plato’s or Aristotle’s conception of the Republic as a thing for all, literally, a public thing, an idea that was reinvigorated by the Italian cities of the Renaissance. It is characterised by the crucial importance of equality (participation of all in political decision-making, and limitation of income disparities) and freedom conceived as reciprocity, non-domination and the ability to participate in common decision-making. In France, classical republican thought was transmitted through Rousseau in particular. Both the Jacobinism of the so-called “Mountain Club” (including Robespierre and his popular political economy) and the radical Jacobinism of Marseilles in their neighbourhood assemblies (known as ‘sections’) of 1793 are part of the natural law republicanism of the French Revolution, as Jacques Guilhaumou’s work shows it (see for instance J. Guilhaumou, Marseille républicaine (1791-1793), Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1992).

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