Boétie, Kilcullen, And Consent


French political thinker Étienne de la Boétie theorized that all states require the consent of their peoples to be able to rule, and so advised people living under a tyrant to

Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.

As I’ve begun to read David Kilcullen’s Counterinsurgency, it seems that this has been of the fundamental lessons learned in recent years by effective counterinsurgents. Kilcullen writes:

Insurgents need to the people to act in certain ways (sympathy, acquiescence, silence, reaction to provocation, or fully active support) in order to survive and further their strategy. Unless the population acts in these ways, insurgent networks tend to wither because they cannot move freely within the population, gather resources (money, recruits), or conduct their operations. Insurgents do not necessarily need the active support of the population: they can get by on intimidation and passive acquiescence for a time, as long as they have an external (perhaps global) source of support and as long as the government does not cut off their access to the population. But without access to a mass base, an insurgent movement suffocates, so cutting the insurgent off from the population is a critical task in counterinsurgency. (8)

But even though insurgents have no permanent physical strongpoints, no physical “decisive terrain” in military terms, they do have a fixed point they must defend: their need to maintain connectivity with the population. This is not a physical piece of real estate, but in functional–or rather, political–terms, it fulfills the same purpose as decisive terrain, and it therefore provides an immovable object against which we can maneuver to pin the enemy. Because the insurgent network needs the population to act in certain ways in order to survive, we can asphyxiate the network by cutting the insurgents off from the people. And they cannot simply “go quiet” to avoid that threat. They must either emerge into the open, where we can destroy them using superior numbers and firepower, or stay quiet, accept permanent marginalization from their former population base, and suffocate. This puts the insurgents on the horns of a lethal dilemma. (8-9)

After all is said and done, wars can only be won, government can only be maintained, if the consent of the masses is gained by the would-be ruler.