node created 2012/06/17
last changed 2013/02/04
The defiance of established authority, religious and secular, social and political, as a world-wide phenomenon may well one day be accounted the outstanding event of the last decade.
"On Civil Disobedience" (1969)
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility [that is, the later judgment of historians] has to make up for the want of legal responsibility [that is, legal consequences during the rulers' lifetimes]. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which . . . the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, . . . but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science....
The most improper job of any man is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.
Any one who in discussion relies upon authority uses, not his understanding, but rather his memory. Good culture is born of a good disposition; and since the cause is more to be praised than the effect, I will rather praise a good disposition without culture, than good culture without the disposition.
Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.
Modern industrial civilization has developed within a certain system of convenient myths. The driving force of modern industrial civilization has been individual material gain, which is accepted as legitimate, even praiseworthy, on the grounds that private vices yield public benefits, in the classic formulation. Now, it has long been understood, very well, that a society that is based on this principle will destroy itself in time. It can only persist, with whatever suffering and injustice that it entails, as long as it is possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can.

At this stage of history either one of two things is possible. Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity, sympathy and concern for others, or alternatively there will be no destiny for anyone to control. As long as some specialized class is in a position of authority, it is going to set policy in the special interests that it serves. But the conditions of survival, let alone justice, require rational social planning in the interests of the community as a whole, and by now that means the global community. The question is whether privileged elite should dominate mass communication and should use this power as they tell us they must - namely to impose necessary illusions, to manipulate and deceive the stupid majority and remove them from the public arena.

The question in brief, is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured; they may well be essential to survival.
Personally, I'm in favor of democracy, which means that the central institutions of society have to be under popular control. Now, under capitalism, we can't have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control. Thus, a corporation or an industry is, if we were to think of it in political terms, fascist; that is, it has tight control at the top and strict obedience has to be established at every level - there's little bargaining, a little give and take, but the line of authority is perfectly straightforward. Just as I'm opposed to political fascism, I'm opposed to economic fascism. I think that until the major institutions of society are under the popular control of participants and communities, it's pointless to talk about democracy.
Of course it's extremely easy to say, the heck with it. I'm just going to adapt myself to the structures of power and authority and do the best I can within them. Sure, you can do that. But that's not acting like a decent person. You can walk down the street and be hungry. You see a kid eating an ice cream cone and you notice there's no cop around and you can take the ice cream cone from him because you're bigger and walk away. You can do that. Probably there are people who do. We call them "pathological". On the other hand, if they do it within existing social structures we call them "normal". But it's just as pathological. It's just the pathology of the general society.