Protesters versus riot cops at G20 summit in Toronto, Canada. June, 2010 Photo: arindambanerjee /

Against mindless compliance, towards conscious disobedience

  • February 6, 2020

Authority & Abolition

In his new book, “The Disobedient Society,” Mat Little makes a strong case against the notion that obedience as such is essential to social organization.

Recently, the field of political science has been bombarded by a series of books calling into question the value of democracy. In 2016, Christopher Achens and Larry Bartels published Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. In it, the authors pleaded with political scientists to accept the reality that “without shirking more immediate and more important obligations, people cannot engage in many well-informed, thoughtful deliberations,” adding the important normative statement, “nor should they.”

According to the authors, the average citizen is too prone to shallow propaganda and shortsighted interests to make rational decisions. Instead, Achens and Bartels insinuate, it is better to leave important political decisions on to the experts.

Soon after, Jason Brennan published his book Against Democracy. More theoretical than Achens and Bartels, Brennan takes a normative approach to democratic decision making, arguing it should be judged by its results. Unfortunately, the results have been dreadful. According to Brennan, the average voter is just not capable of seeing the value of contemporary capitalism and, therefore unable to make reasonable policy decisions. For Brennan, “the past few decades have been perhaps the best in human history, with more people around the world rising out of absolute poverty than ever before. But many Western voters, ignorant of the social sciences or even of basic political facts, see change all around them, feel left behind and neglected, and strike out in fear and resentment.” Brexit and Trump are just two examples of this ignorance in action.

A reasonable person could expect a powerful retort to this lack of confidence in everyday people from the title of Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s book How Democracies Die. Nevertheless, their thesis is not that democratic power fundamentally rests with the people. Instead, its foundation is in institutes that create appropriate systems of checks-and-balances. In service of this goal, it is perfectly acceptable to set-up “gatekeeping institutions” that exclude the public from political participation. Essentially, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, democracies die when they become too participatory. Again, everyday citizens cannot be trusted.

It is in this context that Mat Little’s short but powerful book The Disobedient Society (New Compass Press, 2019) is a welcomed rejoinder. Resting on the research of psychologist Stanley Milgram, Little draws a powerful connection between Milgram’s concept of obedience and contemporary capitalist labor markets. From this unique insight, he develops a passionate case for “the disobedient society” — that is, a radically democratic society that is free from both the tyranny of markets and the rule of professional politicians.

Milgram and the labor market

Little begins his book with an explanation of Stanley Milgram’s now famous shock experiments. Under the guise of memory experiments that supposedly tested the role of punishments on a person’s ability to learn, Milgram recruited volunteers to administer electric shocks to “subjects.” Under the direction of an authority figure, volunteers were instructed to increase the electrical voltage, causing the “subjects” to scream in agony until the experiment was halted by the volunteers or the “subjects” were dealt a lethal dose of electricity.

In reality, the “subjects” were actors. The real focus of the experiments was the volunteers Milgram recruited. The question Milgram wanted answered was to what degree was a person willing to obey authority, even if they were causing clear harm to another person? To his surprise, Milgram discovered that a significant portion of people had a nearly limitless capacity for obedience. The process of social pressure, even absent any direct coercion, tended to put subjects in an “agentic state,” where they acted merely as an agent of another person’s will.

To Milgram’s horror, he found that despite class, profession, or social standing, a substantial number of participants were willing to administer a lethal dose of electricity as long as they were told to do so by the person in charge.

Milgram published his findings in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority. In it, Milgram sets out his three criteria for obedience: 1) participation in the action was a matter of free choice, 2) the subjects’ acts did not occur from internal thoughts but external orders, and 3) the subjects were free to remove themselves from the scenario at any point. From these criteria, Milgram assumed that the archetypical obedient individual was the mid-level bureaucrat and — more specifically — Adolph Eichmann, who defended his crimes against the Jewish people as a matter of procedural adherence.

Little astutely recognizes that Eichmann is a poor fit for Milgram’s criteria. Eichmann was far more anti-semitic than he led the Israeli courts to believe. His characterization of himself as a bureaucratic stooge was a defense strategy used to escape the consequences of his trial. In fact, the often assumed cases of tragic obedience — collaborators with totalitarian regimes or soldiers who commit war crimes — involve either internal ideological motivations or external pressures, both of which are excluded by Milgram’s criteria.

According to Little, this does not mean that Milgram’s criteria are faulty, only that they have been used to analyze the wrong set of institutions. For Little, Milgram’s concept of obedience makes the most sense when applied to capitalist labor markets. Indeed, neoclassical economics assumes that the relationship between the employer and the employee as one of voluntary exchange that both parties can cancel at any time. Neoclassical economists might see these transactions as exemplifying human liberty, but Little believes that this as all wrong.

Organization without obedience

Milgram’s critical insight is that obedience can occur not out of external compulsion, but rather an internal willingness to defer one’s thoughts and desires to another person. In this sense, Little concludes, capitalism is a system of commodity exchange where the primary commodity that the working-class sells to their employer is not necessarily their labor but their obedience.

Of course, Little acknowledges that this exchange of obedience for wages is illusionary. Capitalism’s ability to extract obedience from the working class is determined by its ability to be perceived as legitimate. This is dependent on the working-class’s willingness to accept the scarcities that capitalism creates as unchangeable. A compulsion to work is no compulsion if it is seen as necessary.

As Little explains, “the pre-eminent battle of any system of control — often more important than the actual condition of coercion that may be enforced — is to achieve legitimacy. For if legitimacy is attained, those who rebel against the demands of authority don’t merely have to organize subordinates to improve their ‘lot,’ they also have to continually fight against the notion that those demands are imbued with an unshakable more validity, or simply that a system of command and obedience is inevitable.”

Challenging the notion of capitalist legitimacy is an important aspect of Little’s book, but it is a secondary objective. Little’s primary target is the notion that obedience as such is essential to social organization.

Milgram ends Obedience to Authority with the rather defeatist conclusion that deference to authority is an inevitability of human nature. He refers to it as a “fatal flaw” of natural selection, since there is no other way to organize complex social systems without some form of hierarchical structures. Using social ecology as a theoretical paradigm, Little attacks this position with anthropological and historical examples. While his purpose is to dislodge a popular idea, Little’s strength as a writer is in approaching the topic with nuisance. Little points to the cooperative aspects of hunter-gather societies, but also their competitive characteristics; he brings up examples of direct democracy while including their inequities.

In the end, Little successfully challenges Milgram’s position, not by proclaiming the opposite, but by showing that Milgram’s position is too simplistic. If it is true that humans have an inherent tendency for obedience, then they also have — to borrow a phrase inspired by Mikhail Bakunin — “an instinct for freedom.” These two forces continually battle within the human psyche for supremacy.

For Little, the creation of a “disobedient society” is how humanity can ensure that its “instinct for freedom” will overcome its tendency to fall into “agentic states.” Institutions of revolutionary democracy are the means for creating such a society, with the emphasis on the word with revolutionary.

A call to arms against capitalism and statecraft

Throughout the book, Little draws heavily from the libertarian end of the left-wing tradition. His arguments are supported by quotes from Noam Chomsky, David Graeber and, especially, Murray Bookchin, while his dominant examples of potentially “disobedient societies” include the People’s Assemblies of Argentina and Spain, and the Rojava Councils in northern Syria.

The book begins with findings in social psychology, but it uses these findings as means for buttressing a political project. What Little is after is “a different — some would say genuine — form of democracy in which opinions and policies are first formed at a base level and then transmitted upwards by delegates who can always be recalled if they don’t embody the desires of the base.” Congruent with his left-wing convictions, Little contends that such a democratic system requires the abolition of the wage system, since “the continuance of time-devouring mass wage labor all but guarantees its failure and the return of obedience and rule by elites.” While Little’s book has plenty of critical insights, it is — above all else — a call to arms against dual forces of capitalism and statecraft.

In the introduction, Little downplays the originality of his book. This is only explained by modesty on the part of the author; in reality, it is at times strikingly creative. Without a doubt, the most significant observation is the relationship between Milgram’s psychological findings and the nature of capitalist labor markets. Behavioral economists with an interest in critical theory would be wise to take note, but they should do so with caution.

Little’s use of Milgram illuminates aspects of capitalism that has been neglected by mainstream economics, but it is questionable if Milgram’s notion of obedience should be treated more as a metaphor that explains certain unique situations, as Foucault did for Bentham’s panopticon, rather than an overarching feature of the human condition that is evident in everyday life.

In the book Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments, author and psychologist Gina Perry points to the fact that supervisors in Milgram’s experiment often went off script and used far more cajoling to get the subjects to increase the voltage than Milgram led the psychology community to believe. There is also the problem if Milgram’s subterfuge was even successful in actually fooling his subjects. Perry notes that many subjects caught on to the ruse. Some even turned the dials in the opposite direction, bringing down the voltage, and yet heard the person scream even louder. At times, it was obvious that the subjects were not necessarily being “obedient,” but were just playing along.

Additionally, even as a metaphor, there is an apparent distinction between Milgram’s conclusion and capitalist labor exploitation that Little fails to explore. In Milgram’s experiments, the suffering that subjects in their “agentic states” were asked to cause suffering onto other people; yet, when people enter the labor market, the suffering that authority figures ask them to endure is onto themselves, usually in the form of poor working conditions, long hours and strenuous work. Does the “agentic state” take on a different meaning if the consequences of obedience are another victim as opposed to one’s self? Unfortunately, Little never explores this question.

Regardless, even if there is some debate as to extent of human obedience and in what situations it takes hold, there is little denying that the phenomenon does exists. The Disobedient Society comes with plenty of sophisticated thoughts on how to explore it within a new context, especially considering its short length and accessible style. No doubt, it will be regarded as a valuable contribution to the library of anyone who values genuine democracy and wants to shrug off the shackles of a mindlessly compliant society.

Marco Rosaire Rossi

Marco Rosaire Rossi is a graduate student in the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His previous work has appeared in Z Magazine, The Humanist and New Compass.

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