Every year in the United States, the toppling of the illegitimate British regime is celebrated on the 4th of July and most of us assume this was a basically good & necessary act. The irony of celebrating the rebels’ disobedience to their government by reciting pledges to obey the flag of another seems to be entirely lost. Of course, rebellion still has its place in the USA — during the so-called “Arab Spring,” US media commentators & politicians applauded the revolts of several Muslim countries and the dubiously-labeled Syrian rebels are cast in a mostly positive light. But not all revolutions are televised equally. In 1945 & ’56, for example, uprisings led by Vietnamese & Cuban communists were mostly frowned upon by US media-outlets, while the 1990’s Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico was mostly ignored. Why? There are historical, political, & ideological answers, of course — but that is not what this post is about. This article is after a scarier answer to the scarier question beneath those — that is, when is it OK to overthrow your government?
To Revolt —
Or Not to Revolt?
…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of [the People’s Rights], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…
— The US Declaration of Independence
That is the question — when are revolutions necessary? What is an acceptable reason to revolt? Asking these questions can be uncomfortable & even dangerous — but not asking them is more dangerous. Turning the pages of history, we can clearly see that some revolts were needed and that others did more harm than good. The mass rebellion against European monarchies ended the age of absolute rulers and instituted the more-restrained authority of written law in their place — probably for the best. Other acts of revolt — like the fascist overthrow of Spain’s Republic in the 1930’s — obviously did not work out so well for most of the people involved. During some chapters of history, a solid revolt would’ve been great but, for whatever reason, just didn’t happen. A bit before the Nazi regime in Germany started murdering everyone, for example, might’ve been fantastic timing for a bit of regime-change.
Whether fruitful or catastrophic, each revolution has split & sculpted the branches of civilization in astonishing ways and — right or wrong — our choices to revolt or not are certain to continue shaping the future of our history. Think — : if so many of our possible futures hinge on the sum of our answers, isn’t it irresponsible not to ask the question?
Legitimate & Illegitimate Authority
An adult catches a child by the arm to restrain them because they are about to run directly in front of an oncoming bus — that is an example of legitimate authority. Everyone knows that kids do not have authority to run into traffic and most people would use the legitimate authority to enforce it, even if the child is not their own. Its legitimacy is based on a nearly universal consent to actions that prevent harm. Even the legal system recognizes this legitimacy — it’s called the “choice of evils.” Breaking into a burning house to save a person trapped inside will not get you convicted of burglary because society consents to your authority to enter, regardless of the law.
Even if society allows anyone to forcibly control a child stepping into traffic, it does not mean we always consent to controlling their movement. If a kid was under forcible control often, it’s usually seen as child-abuse and, in extreme cases, society gives an agency authority to remove them from harm. While kids tend to get fewer rights ( which, in the writer’s opinion, is silly ), we all recognize their autonomy over their own bodies. Even younglings have the right to move, jump, make silly faces, & get into some trouble. People don’t consent to the authority to forcibly control bodies other than your own with no good reason.* That would be illegitimate authority.
Users of Authority Have a Responsibility
To Prove Their Authority is Legitimate
Since it would be silly to expect everyone who is restrained to prove they are not, in fact, a child running in front of a bus, it is the responsibility of the one using the authority to justify it. Since restraining people is usually not OK, the one restraining them must either be able to prove the authority is legitimate or be willing to accept the consequence for their action. The badge carried by police was originally meant to be evidence that a community trusted an officer’s legitimacy — not a symbol of their immunity to the consequences of exercising illegitimate authority, as it is in our country today.
Legitimate authority, like that used to stop kids from running into traffic, is necessary. Illegitimate authority, such as restraining a person for no reason, destroys the social bonds between us & must be dismantled. But how do we know whether more-complex authorities, such as governments, are legitimate or not?
The Consent of the Governed
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”
— UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21
A government needs the consent of a people to claim legitimate authority over them. Since it is not possible for anyone to ask an entire population’s consent by going door-to-door, methods to measure consent on a large-scale were designed, like elections, public polling, & referendum. Of course, some are better than others but, even if we argue about which is best, there is a difference between a system which obtains consent & one which does not. At this particular moment in history, voting-based systems are the most accepted method for measuring mass-consent.
Democratic Processes Measure the Consent of the Masses
All of the various democratic processes have one basic purpose — to measure how much consent is given by a people to the authority of a state. Since consent is the basis of authority, a legitimate state does not exercise authority over people without providing evidence of mass-consent. Not everyone will agree on every issue — but an informed population using a democratic system maximizes the level of consent being given by the highest number of people. All legitimate government must ensure the governed are able to give — or withhold — their consent.
Clear Evidence of Consent
is the ONLY Legitimacy
If people cannot freely give & withdraw consent, then the state’s existence is an arbitrary use of authority — which is, incidentally, the dictionary definition of tyranny. Authorities that don’t even pretend to seek consent are obviously disqualified. Roman-style military dictatorships & monarchy based on any variation of the “divine right-to-rule” are never legitimate. Any oligarch or autocrat can claim the masses’ consent but proof is the only legitimacy.
The only state which legitimately uses authority is a state with clear proofs of the masses’ consent.
The mere existence of voting-booths is not proof of consent — there must be clear proof that everyone is able to use them freely & that they are satisfied with how the voting-process works. The mere existence of elections is not proof of consent — there must be clear proof that the results are true & the public must be able to verify the integrity of all results in every way.
Clear proof is the only legitimate authority.
Our Human Right to Revolt
Against Illegitimate Authority
History leaves us little doubt that great harm follows tyranny as surely as its shadow. To prevent the great harm that despotism inflicts on society, the public has a right to decide against any regime that cannot or will not justify their authority with proof that the people consent to it. Unless & until the proof of consent is restored, it is the authority of the people to take revolutionary actions to dismantle their government. From the rebel Inca fighting Spanish tyranny & the self-liberation of Haitian slaves to the wave of revolt that overthrew autocracy in Europe, the authority of states is shown to be relative. Looking back to the roots of history, we do not honor or recognize authority claimed by kings & slave-drivers but we do recognize the natural authority of the slave & peasant rebellions against them because that authority is universal.
Dangerous Answers to Scary Questions
The rebels of the past lifted our species from beneath the feet of gods & emperors, broke the chains of absolute rulership, & pried the rights we have today from the grips of autocrats & oligarchs — but the human revolt is still incomplete. It’s true we see fewer emperors, today — but we still have empire & militarized police-states. Just look at what they did at Standing Rock — what did the consent of our indigenous friends mean to them? Just watch what happens to whistle-blowers who inform the public about how their government uses its authority — like thieves who love the cover of night, our rulers will never embrace transparency.
I have watched this country hold elections without an iota of transparency as candidates are bought & sold on the markets of campaign finance in broad daylight. I see unpopular leaders elected again & again by less than 1/3rd of us, using voting-machines which produce unverifiable results with no paper-trail to audit. What consent is there when just 1/10th of us, vetted by privately-owned but publicly-funded parties choose 2 options which the rest of us have no choice but to choose between? Even then, 2 of the last 3 won with fewer votes than the other — but, if we dislike the system, we could simply have voted to change it, right?
It is the 4th of July — independence day. How many of you are going to stand in honor of an anthem for a nation which oppresses you?
And if it doesn’t oppress you personally, then how can you honor a nation which oppresses your neighbor?
May I write plainly or does that cross the line? Ah, too late — with these words as my only weapon, I say the authority of the United States government is illegitimate and struggle by its people to overthrow the regime by whatever means seems best to them is justified.
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