It Takes Courage to Change Our Relationship to Power

Practicing Irish Democracy, satyagraha, and subversive innovation might seem too radical, but moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Published in Underthrow Series .

The following is a chapter for Mike ter Maat’s new collection, A Gold New Deal. The book represents ideas from the realistic to the radical, though there is a refreshingly heavy dose of pragmatism in its pages. I was delighted to contribute a chapter.

We unite against using the threat of violence to further our ends, but this fundamental moral commitment puts us at a disadvantage. Authorities are our adversaries because they are willing to compel us—or have their proxies do so—from seats of power.

Because most humans have a submission instinct, authorities derive their power from fear.

In Underthrow: Why Jefferson’s Dangerous Idea Will Spark a New Revolution, I argue that we must do everything in our power to move toward a consent-based order—everything, that is, but threaten violence. Instead, we must practice what Gandhi called satyagraha, or “truth-force.” That means speaking up for what’s right with a full throat. And we must embrace clever, innovative means to change our relationship to power, which I call subversive innovation.

But these paths are not without risk.

Courage Despite Fear

To speak and act on behalf of human freedom requires tremendous courage.

If you successfully speak against the powerful, whether in justice or in jest, the powerful might make an example of you. Just ask Paul Hughes, an ordinary fellow who lost his decade-old social media account because he questioned the wet-market theory of COVID origins on the platform. Or journalist Matt Taibbi, who got an ominous visit by an IRS agent the day he testified before Congress about the federal government’s partisan weaponization. Ask Douglass Mackey, convicted by a federal jury in Brooklyn of “Conspiracy Against Rights stemming from his scheme to deprive individuals of their constitutional right to vote.” Translation: Mackey posted satire against a partisan presidential candidate. Or ask members of the African People’s Socialist Party who face up to 10 years in prison for allegedly acting as illegal agents of Russia.

The First Amendment is moribund.

If you successfully act against the powerful, they might make an example of you. Just ask Ross Ulbricht, who used the dark web to circumvent the war on drugs, or President John F. Kennedy, who challenged the national-security state, or Julian Assange, who sits deteriorating in a British prison, awaiting possible extradition to the US for the crime of receiving sensitive government documents as any good journalist would do.

Changing our relationship to power takes courage.

Think about how the American Founders felt with their quills poised nervously over Jefferson’s Revolutionary Declaration. Courage, after all, is not the absence of fear but finding the will to take action despite your fear.

“Perhaps this then is the next step for our current societal governance,” writes Holacracy founder, Brian Robertson in a chapter of his book, Holacracy. The publishers excised that chapter. Let’s read a bit of this forbidden section:

Perhaps it’s time to allow the centralized power of current governments to give way and dissolve, and allow new methods of achieving order to emerge from the ashes—ones that don’t have legislators and regulators to buy, or the power to make aggression legal or peaceful exchange illegal. Ones that are themselves subject to the forces of evolution and selection based on the value they add, rather than holding themselves outside of that process as monopoly providers.

It’s no wonder Robertson’s publishers cut such language. Most are handmaidens to the powerful. Most are afraid, subservient, or both. Still, it’s time to let these top-heavy hierarchies buckle and sink into time’s dark waters.

Innovation as Subversion

In Underthrow, I argue that “we need a different kind of revolution.” That is,

We can no longer labor under the sentimental notions of “voice,” such as voter enfranchisement and public service. We should all know our public choice by now. Even if most voters had a sense of history, restraint, or civic consciousness, representative government would still be a mirage. To the extent elections do reflect voter preferences, these amount to an incoherent blur. Too many voters now have a greater appetite for tribal domination. This leads me to wonder why any liberal would want to “make public officials more responsive,” as if all we are talking about is fixing potholes or shortening the line at the DMV.

When it comes to subversive innovation, we seem to be stuck on the same old examples: Uber. Airbnb. Bitcoin. That was a good start, but we need a tidal wave of novelty. New tools. New rules. Simple, accessible, and ready for mass adoption. These innovations will create new institutional forms and communities of practice into which millions of adopters can flow—especially if things keep going downhill. If a critical mass of constituencies adopts these innovations, we have a prayer of inverting the process of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. We can’t forget voice or loyalty, of course. But we need to invest a lot more in exit.

Exit is the ability to leave a system that isn’t working for one that is. That means we must develop new systems that will challenge authority’s control.

Remember, every innovation is an act of subversion. We must therefore find courage.

Overcoming Fear

It’s easy for me to write from the comfortable confines of home. I’m not exactly sticking my neck out to urge you to have courage. Yet I believe that if we act in solidarity, the cost of underthrowing power goes down, and the cost of enforcement goes up. We spread the risk among us.

Knowing that we act in solidarity means we might first want to find each other and form a community. I’m aware of the irony: those who believe in the liberatory power of decentralization need to, well, centralize. Subversive innovators finding each other is even more difficult when most freedom lovers hobble themselves with three handicaps: politics, policy, and punditry. The powerful love to know that you’re using these means to make social change because these are the zero-to-negative-sum games they’ll always win.

To win, we have to play a different game.

A Different Game

Given the terrible power indicated above, how can we change the game?

Political scientist James C. Scott reminds us that more “regimes have been brought, piecemeal, to their knees by what was once called “Irish democracy,” the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people, than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs.”

First, we have to adopt that mien of silent, dogged resistance. That means, wherever possible, we must drag our feet, refuse to comply, and make enforcement costs too high for authorities.

Then, we have to practice satyagraha.

Gandhi taught his followers to use satyagraha against the British Raj. The Freedom Riders and Civil Rights activists used similar tactics in the Jim Crow South. Satyagraha is thus a nonviolent form of resistance that sits on the moral high ground of nonviolence, looking down on those upon the low perch of compulsion.

Finally, we now have technological tools Gandhi or MLK could only dream of. So in practicing underthrow, we must do so through the best available means–coordinating both asynchronously and in real-time.

Politics, policy, and punditry are still a bulwark against authority’s excesses. These domains only hamstring us if we forego more potent forces of change. Practicing Irish Democracy, satyagraha, and subversive innovation might seem too radical, but moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Before architecting new systems, we must overcome our complacency and, most importantly, our fear. “Fear,” wrote Dune author Frank Herbert, “is the mind-killer.” So, if our minds are the wellspring of our liberation, we must find the courage to speak, act, and risk everything.

Our freedom is worth it.

Max Borders is a senior advisor to the Advocates. You can find more of his work at Underthrow.

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