Against Obedience!


According to the neoliberal thinkers who define our age obedience is confined to the past. But this is a complete misnomer, obedience is stronger than ever. It’s primarily evident in the labour contract which is, in essence, the promise of obedience in exchange for wages, the means of life. This is one of the central messages of Mat Little's book The Disobedient Society. We interviewed Little about obedience, Stanley Milgram, neoliberal ideology, the corporation and more.

Interviewer: Why have you chosen to write a book about obedience in 2019? The concept itself seems to be something of the old days. Hasn’t the ‘obedience’ that people previously performed in schools, hospitals, the workplace and the like, been replaced by subtle forms of oppression and domination?

ML: I think obedience is subtle actually. I don’t think obedience entails knuckling under because someone orders you to do something and threatens terrible consequences if you don’t. It’s more complicated than that. In my opinion, obedience involves an element of collusion on the part of the obedient person. That is to say, they might not agree with the contents of the acts they are asked to perform, but they feel they ought to – morally should – obey. That’s something different to outright coercion.

According to the neoliberal thinkers who really define our age (people like Hayek and Milton Friedman), obedience is confined to the past, however. It’s limited to chattel slavery, feudalism, communism, and, in their view, 20th century ‘socialism’. But once the economy is liberated from archaic or state-imposed forms of intervention and control, obedience simply vanishes. Society merely becomes a reflection of our innermost desires, represented by the innumerable contracts we agree with other free individuals. 

However, this is a complete misnomer. I think obedience is actually stronger than ever. It’s primarily evident in the labour contract which is, in essence, the promise of obedience in exchange for wages, the means of life. In the book, I go back to the 20th century psychologist Stanley Milgram (who conducted the famous ‘electric shock’ experiments in the 1960s and later wrote a book about why people obey). He concluded that, in order to work effectively, obedience has to be based on “voluntary entry”. Milgram said people have to choose to enter what he termed the “agentic state”; willingly becoming an agent for a person of higher status. Without this aura of free will, compliance can only be achieved by perpetual surveillance.

I think that’s an important insight into why wage labour, which is now absolutely ubiquitous, works so effectively. As the 19th century economist, Henry George said, it’s slavery “under the forms of freedom”. And the ideology of freedom that surrounds it – the feeling that we voluntarily agree to wage labour so therefore it must be devoid of all relations of control – is integral to its functioning.

Of course, I don’t for a second subscribe to the notion that wage labour is, in reality, a genuinely voluntary transaction. Most of us have no choice but to rent ourselves to others in order procure the means to survive or care for others. But wage labour has, very assiduously, been given the patina of a voluntary transaction – because if it is widely perceived as voluntary then obedience should naturally follow because the employee feels they have moral obligation to obey. They have signed a contract after all.

I’m not discounting the role that bare coercion plays by the way. But the fact that we all – or the vast majority of us – go along with this process is crucial as well. Murray Bookchin said that “epistemologies of rule” are at once subjective and material – i.e. rule works both by creating a system of material control that is very difficult to resist and by organizing the “psychic structures” of individuals so that they conform.

Milgram also noted that obedience, despite its reputation, doesn’t take the form of “a dramatic confrontation of opposed wills or philosophies”. Rather it inhabits career aspirations, work relationships and technical routines. Obedience has far more of an everyday, almost unnoticed quality, than we want to admit.

Ok, let’s turn to Milgram’s ‘electric shock’ experiments. You base a significant portion of your argument on them. When I studied sociology at university, however, I learned that these experiments were ethically dubious, and the results were questionable. You don’t agree?

I agree they were ethically dubious  although not in the same league as the Stanford Prison experiment with which Milgram is often erroneously paired. Some of the original participants were traumatized by what they believed at the time they had done. You can see some of the reactions in the recent film, Experimenter. Ethical rules were changed after Milgram to protect those taking part in psychological experiments so that it’s not impossible to replicate the experiment in its entirety nowadays.

For people who at this point haven’t got a clue what we’re talking about, I should say the Milgram experiment, which dated from the early 1960s, involved instructing people to administer possibly lethal electric shocks on a stranger. About 2/3rds of participants obeyed the instructions. But it was hoax; there were no shocks.

However, I’ve not seen persuasive evidence that the results were invalid. There have been several ‘Milgram-esque’ experiments in recent years and they’ve produced very similar outcomes. That said, I’m not much interested in chewing the fat over whether Milgram really did ‘demonstrate’ that ordinary people are capable of doing horrendous things ‘under orders’. To me that is missing the point.

Milgram undertook about 19 variations on the basic experiment. This is something that – to my knowledge – subsequent Milgram-like experiments haven’t done; they have just tried to replicate the original experiment. Among the variations was one in which participants merely assisted the person who actually delivered the ‘shocks’. In this case, obedience rates went through the roof – they were something like 93%. That indicates to me that the willingness (or not) of people to commit atrocities is not, on reflection, what the Milgram experiments are really about. What they really show is the strength of obedience to authority figures, or institutional situations, considered to have legitimacy – what Milgram called the agentic state.

Milgram said that American liberal-democratic society did not insulate its citizens from a propensity to commit brutalities at the behest of malevolent authority. What he should have said is that liberal-democratic society doesn’t insulate its citizens from obedience per se, malevolent or otherwise. In fact it relies on it.

But Milgram didn’t only explore the conditions under which people are willing to commit atrocities on behalf of authority, but also when they choose to disobey? How does that influence your book?

Milgram compared obedience to being in a light sleep. It’s always possible for the obedient person to wake up – or be woken up. One of the most effective ways to encourage disobedience, Milgram concluded, was other people being disobedient or “peer rebellion”. In one of the experimental variations, actors refuse to go along with the experimenter’s instructions to shock the victim. And when they disobey, invariably the genuine subject does too. Paradoxically, conformity – doing what other people are doing – is an important element in disobedience. 

The lesson here is that disobedience or rebellion is rarely a solitary event. It involves a moral transgression which normally successfully inhibits disobedience but when growing numbers of people join in the rebellion, these inhibitions are overcome. “The revolt against malevolent authority is most effectively brought about by collective rather than individual action,” said Milgram. “This is a lesson every revolutionary group learns.”

Your book doesn’t only revolve around Milgram’s experiments and his takes on obedience. You also present your own views on how obedience has become ‘naturalized’ through history, and it’s evolution with capitalism. Could you sum up your analysis of this?

There is a definite ‘so what’ quality to Milgram’s view of obedience despite the illumination his experiments impart. If you totally buy in to his world view you could imagine conducting a similar experiment in 2120 – or whenever – and producing virtually identical results. That’s because Milgram believed obedience was a fatal flaw in human nature or, to use his actual, rather cold-blooded, words, has been “bred into the organism through the extended operation of evolutionary processes”.  A capacity for obedience is in all of us and the only defence against it, in Milgram’s eyes, is to be aware of its existence.

This is where I part company with Milgram – thankfully for the book which would have been rather pointless otherwise! Obedience is definitely deeply ingrained but it’s not, in my opinion, genetic. It’s a product of social history, not biology. In the book, I go back to early human history – late Paleolithic times – in an attempt to demonstrate that human society was not always hierarchical and rooted in command and obedience. 

For instance, Bookchin examined the characteristics of what he termed “organic society” – hunter-gatherer and scavenging bands that existed before the arrival of agriculture. He concluded that they practiced an “ethics of complementarity”, rather than separating people into subordinate and superordinate roles. They ensured everyone had an “inalienable right” to food, shelter and clothing and followed usufruct – the idea that the resources of the community belonged to the user as long as s/he needed them.

I’m well aware that Bookchin has been criticized for painting far too rosy a picture of early humanity. In particular for basing his conclusions on surviving tribal societies – e.g. Australian aborigines – and assuming humans 30,000 years ago were just like them. However, serious investigations of the nature of upper Paleolithic society (which is not a simple matter) have – while not totally validating Bookchin – discounted the idea that obedience has always been part of us, that it’s an evolutionary adaptation. For instance, David Wengrow and David Graeber, who have attempted to fuse the insights of archaeology and anthropology, assert that hunter-gatherers consciously alternated between political forms according to the seasons – for instance submitting to coercive authority in winter but dispersing into smaller, egalitarian groups in summer. Hence an awareness was implanted that “no social order was immutable: that everything was at least potentially open to negotiation, subversion and change”.

I think we need to have a better understanding of where biology ends and social history begins – at the moment the slide rule, following Milgram and many others subsequently, is far too far towards the biology end. 

I believe Bookchin’s concept of first and second nature – which I elaborate in the book – is much more credible. I’m amazed actually it hasn’t been accorded greater attention. First nature is a strictly biological realm – humans are part of first nature, we are mammals and primates and are moulded by evolution to intervene collectively and intentionally in the natural world. This is not a ‘blank slate’ argument. But we also have a second nature which is creative and open-ended. Hence the character of our “collective organization” is not preordained by nature. Societies – as history shows – can take many different forms and will in the future. Obedience is not written in our genes.

Milgram would counter that though societies change and mutate, obedience is a constant. We learn obedience in early life and then, as adults, function within hierarchical organizations. And if malevolent forces capture the commanding heights of these hierarchies, then this ‘natural’ obedience can engender nightmares. 

However, an opposing view, as I’ve outlined, is actually more plausible. Early humanity didn’t inhabit fixed, hierarchical structures and hierarchy, once it developed as civilization spread, was always accompanied by its subterranean nemesis. Unquestionably obedience and hierarchy have been the dominant characteristics of society for thousands of years. They are extremely durable. But an opposite way of being was never entirely eradicated. And sporadically, it could break out into the open, as evidenced by the direct democracy of ancient Athens or the council systems of the famous revolutions – the French, Russian and German etc. These democratic councils were not created by political parties and, though wiped out, aspired to permanence. Thus, another world – a disobedient society – is possible.

Where capitalism fits in to this picture is, as I’ve said earlier, in the realm of ideology. The ‘free’ labourer who sells their services on the market was seen as the antithesis of obedience because once we enter the realm of contracting with others, everything is seen to flow from our own desires. But this is a fiction – obedience has merely been camouflaged. Not to mention that ‘unfree’ labour – e.g. prison or migrant labour – is more important to capitalism than is often given credit for. But that’s another story.

In the book, it seems like you argue that obedience isn’t just a matter of ideology, but also of material conditions – and that today’s technological development may make wage labour obsolete. Is that a correct interpretation?

Obedience, I argue, is in part a collateral effect of economic organization. So the corporation, our signature economic entity, embodies obedience – it is organized as a pyramid with senior managers reporting to a board of directors and below them workers obeying precise orders from above. It is held together by a career structure in which promotion is conditional on appraisal by superiors. Promotion was regarded by Milgram as an “ingenious” way of preserving hierarchical structures because it has such a motivational effect on the individual. A “profound emotional gratification”, he observed, is inculcated in those who successfully climb the ladder.

But any system of material control and oppression isn’t really seen in its true light until it is also regarded as economically superfluous. So in the 19th century temporary wage labour gradually replaced chattel slavery as the economically rational social arrangement, embodied in the joint stock company, later called the corporation. Wage labour brought in its train terrible suffering – disease, overcrowding, malnutrition – but, apart from the socialist movement, few people wanted to dispense with it (some wanted to ameliorate it) because it was seen as crucial for wealth creation and productivity.

Now, however, you can observe that technological advancements – for example, 3D printing – are theoretically making human input into the production process much less important. So wage labour, which is all about the necessity of human involvement in the production process, should decline as well. American social theorist, Jeremy Rifkin – who is no leftist – predicts that in a few decades’ time people will look upon wage labour with the same sense of utter disbelief that we now reserve for slavery and serfdom – as something “primitive, even barbaric” and a “terrible loss of human value”. But this enlightenment will only occur once wage labour is seen as unnecessary.

You can in theory predict that as economic organization changes, obedience will fade away. As robots become capable of cognitive, as well as physical tasks, and miniaturization and nanotechnology develop, centralized, large-scale production will be superseded and the kind of human being needed to make that sort of production function will die out.

However, before we get too excited about what awaits us, it’s worth considering things which militate against that happening. Firstly, the economic system that surrounds us – capitalism – is no longer capable, in my opinion, of delivering epoch shattering technological change. Productivity and business investment are at historical lows and the gale of creative destruction has given way to an oppressive stillness. So, to happen, radical technological change needs a different economic system.

Secondly, material change doesn’t automatically rule out the continuation of obedience. Economic entities could still function without much human input, leaving the vast majority of the population to scrap over the remaining jobs (although that scenario has obvious problems with effective demand). Or obedience could continue in a non-material way, going back, in a way, to how it first started.

All you can say is that technological change – or the possibility of it occurring – does represent an opportunity for those of us who believe in an egalitarian, non-obedient future.

For some, one opportunity that arises from our present day technological advancement is universal basic income (UBI). You are also a proponent of UBI, but so are also several people on the liberal right. Thus, this proposal remains controversial on the Left. How does UBI fit into your indisputably Leftist vision of a disobedient society?

I support unconditional basic income almost by default. One of the book’s basic arguments is that wage labour – though it is presented as a voluntary transaction – is really a continuation of the obedience of the past. It involves obeying the instructions of someone of higher status in return for the gift of life – money to live on. I align with one of the notions of classical republicanism that a person is not free if subject to another’s will, regardless of how that subjection came about and whether the person somehow voluntarily chose it.

So if the problem is this fundamental unfreedom you can’t solve it by making everyone an employee of a socialist state or even by transforming the economy into a collection of worker-controlled enterprises. A free society has to involve independence for everyone, which implies untrammelled access to the means of life, which implies an unconditional basic income – what Erich Fromm called “the right to live, regardless”.

I’m from the UK and I’m painfully aware that the removal of a person’s income is now a major plank of government policy, in that it is seen as an essential threat to motivate people to accept any kind of paid employment. Sanctions (the taking away of all benefits for a set period) are widespread and a ‘Work Capability Assessment’ ensures that disabled and ill people are often denied any kind of financial assistance at all. The UK welfare state, now more accurately classed as a punishment state, has been described as “an insult to human freedom” and I agree. In such circumstances, the priority must be giving people security of income, which is another way of saying a basic income.

Yes, elements of the liberal Right – Silicon Valley billionaires and corporate ‘thought leaders’ like Richard Branson – are in favour of a basic income. The thinking here is that in future the main source of work will be serving the billionaire class in some way and that, with the disappearance of traditional permanent employment and employments rights, people will need a minimum of income to survive. Hence calls for a basic income at a rudimentary level; “continuous income for discontinuous work”. But there is another kind of larger basic income which is intended to be sufficient for people to engage in “multi-activity” – political, participatory, sporting, artistic etc. If a genuinely participatory society ever comes about, it would have to be buttressed, in my opinion, by a large basic income simply to give people the time to participate.

To be honest, as society is presently structured, the only kind of basic income I can see on the horizon is the first kind. But given the problem of complete destitution in putatively rich countries, maybe even that will be a form of progress.

So, universal basic income is one element of what you call a ‘disobedient society’. What other elements does this vision consist of? And why do you use the phrase ‘disobedient society’ in the first place?

The most important element is participation in political and economic affairs. At present we live under – if we are lucky – a very limited version of democracy. We usually spend the majority of our lives within hierarchical, dictatorially-organized institutions and give our consent every few years to a suite of policies – austerity, liberalized financial markets, low corporate taxes, for example – that actually we may violently disagree with. In fact, this bestowing of consent seems absolutely crucial to the rulers of society, much like forced labour or ‘modern slavery’ is seen as totally beyond the pale. There has to be an element of voluntarism – however empty – about the whole process.

However there is another form of democracy. In contrast to periodically electing a representative – who may well simply conform to the dictates of seemingly immovable national and global elites – the idea is to seek the wishes and desires of people at the base of society and then transmit them upwards through a series of levels or councils. Officials (chair-person, secretary) are frequently rotated and delegates can be recalled if they don’t faithfully amplify the views of people they are intended to give voice to. It’s a living system, as opposed to the ossified institutions of liberal-democracy, in which the practice of democracy is as important as any outcome. It can be observed in operation in Rojava in North-East Syria, despite the fact that the revolution there is under concerted physical attack.

This council system of democracy also has also unfailingly cropped up in every major revolution in modern history – the French, Russian and German for example. It has been termed the “lost treasure” of the revolutionary tradition by philosopher Hannah Arendt. Unquestionably these councils were set upon by conservative forces and the authoritarian Left, and this is a major reason why their existence was so ephemeral. But they were also swimming against the tide of inescapably economically scarce conditions. “There was”, as I say in the book, “a palpable discrepancy between their ambition – that everyone who wishes to should be able to participate in the forming of public policy and the future course of society – and the economic realities that surrounded them.” They were, in a way, before their time.

A genuinely participatory system requires time, or leisure as the ancient Athenians put it. If universal free time does not exist, and the vast majority of people are engulfed in working to make a living, participatory structures, should they exist, will always struggle and succumb to, at best, more consensual forms of democracy. But if technological change enables work-time to be radically reduced, then the council democracy of past revolutions might not be seen as fleeting utopian outbursts, but as harbingers of the future.

The phrase “a disobedient society” might appear to be an oxymoron – in fact that’s why I employ it. To Stanley Milgram and many other others, society had to involve obedience. If obedience was absent, society couldn’t function. But that is precisely what I dispute. Obedience is unthinkingly following the instructions of people of higher status. It’s unknowing and irrational and involves deliberately closing your mind – an “alteration of attitude” as Milgram phrased it. But disobedience does not imply the end of discipline, coordination or episodic sovereignty. It does not mean anarchy in a pejorative sense. It merely involves the rational acceptance of temporary authority for agreed purposes.

A disobedient society can still be conformist by the way. Conformity – mirroring the thought or behaviour of peers – is not the same as obedience which involves carrying out instructions of ‘superiors’  regardless of whether you agree with them or not. Conformity is the hidden danger of a disobedient society and is why I’m a strong believer in Bookchin’s concept of dissensus. But a disobedient society is not a contradiction in terms.

I’m not overly optimistic. Some very powerful people and forces will devote all their energy to snuffing out any moves in this direction. They are doing now. But the reason I wrote the book was to point out that ‘human nature’ itself is not a fatal obstacle to a disobedient society coming about. As the slogan goes, ‘Another World is Possible’. Not probable and certainly not inevitable. But it is possible.

The Disobedient Society is published by New Compass Press