Each year in the United States, the overthrow of the British regime is celebrated on the 4th of July and most people assume the revolt was basically good & necessary. The irony seems to be lost, however, that the rebels’ disobedience to their government is honored by singing hymns to the flag of another one & by pledges to obey it. Of course, rebellions still have their place — during the so-called Arab Spring, media outlets & politicians in the US praised the revolts in several Muslim countries and the Syrian rebels have been shown in a mostly positive light. Not all revolutions are televised equally, however — in 1945 & ’56, for instance, the revolts in Vietnam & Cuba were widely condemned by the American media, while the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas went mostly un-reported. Why? There are historical, cultural, & ideological answers to that question but we will not be discussing them. This article will be looking for more frightening answers to the fundamental question beneath them — that question 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 Declaration of Independence
That is the question — when is it OK to revolt & what are the acceptable reasons for revolution? These can be uncomfortable & even dangerous questions to ask — but not asking them leads to disaster. Turning the pages of history, it is clear that some revolts were needed & that others did more harm than good. The revolts against European monarchy, for instance, replaced the absolute rulership of kings with the more-restrained authority of written laws — but some, like the fascist’s violent takeover in Spain, only increased the force of oppression. At other points in history, a revolt would have been welcome but, for whatever reasons, did not happen — a bit before the holocaust in Nazi Germany, for example, might’ve been excellent 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 possible futures hinge on the sum of our answers to the question, wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to ask it?
Legitimate & Illegitimate Authority
An adult catches a child by the arm to restrain them because they were about to run directly in front of an oncoming bus — this is a good example of legitimate authority. Everybody knows kids are not allowed to run into traffic ( no matter whose they are ) and most will use this legitimate authority to enforce it, even if the child is not their own. Its legitimacy is based on our nearly universal consent to harm-preventing actions. You can even use this authority in the courtroom — it is known as the “choice of evils” argument. If you break into a burning building to save a person trapped inside, you are very unlikely to be charged for burglary because you had legitimate authority to enter, regardless of other laws.
Now — just because we consent to someone restraining a child running into traffic does not mean we always consent to the control of their movement. If someone was forcibly controlling a child’s movement often, we would almost certainly call that child-abuse and, in some cases, even consent to a government agency’s authority to remove the kid from the abusive situation. Even if children tend to be given fewer rights, we still believe they should enjoy basic autonomy over their body — they have the right to move, jump up & down, & to get into a bit of trouble, too. People mostly do not consent to the authority to forcibly restrain a person’s movements without good reason,* even if they are your child. That is illegitimate authority.
Legitimate authority, like that used to stop a kid from running into traffic, seems necessary — but illegitimate authority, like seizing control over someone’s body for no reason, clearly must be resisted & dismantled. These are simple examples — but how can we decide whether more-complicated authority, like government, is illegitimate enough to deserve a good toppling?
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
Just as the authority to restrain a child who would be hit by a bus is rooted in people’s consent to it, government must have the consent of a people to claim legitimate authority over them. Since it is difficult to ask an entire population for consent by going door-to-door, we have invented other ways of measuring mass-consent, like voting, public polling, & electoral systems. Like all technology, some versions work better than others and the debate about how to grade the democratic process is still far from over.
Democratic Processes Measure Mass-Consent
There are many different types of democratic processes but all of them exist for one basic reason — to measure how much consent is being given by a group of people to an authority. Since consent is the foundation of authority, a legitimate government cannot govern a people without showing that it has asked for & been given their consent. Of course, everyone will not agree on everything but an informed population, combined with a well-designed voting-system can maximize the level of consent among the most people. If government claims to have legitimate authority, it is their responsibility to make sure the governed can give or withhold their consent. At this particular moment in history, voting-based systems are the standard method to measure consent.
Clear Evidence of Consent
is the Stamp of Legitimacy
If people cannot freely give & withdraw their consent to it, then it is an arbitrary use of authority, which is how the dictionary defines tyranny. Authorities that do not even pretend to seek consent are obviously disqualified. A Roman-style military dictatorship, for example, or a monarchy based on a “divine right-to-rule” can never be legitimate — of course, oligarchs & autocrats will claim the people’s consent but, without evidence, they must be called out. The only governments that can claim to legitimately use authority are governments that show clear proofs of 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 proofs are the marks of legitimate authority — with no clear proofs, government is illegitimate.
Our Universal Right to Revolt
Against Illegitimate Authority
History leaves us with 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 government is revealed to be relative. Looking back to the very roots of history, we do not honor the authority claimed by kings & slave-drivers but we do recognize that of the slave & peasant rebellions against them because their 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 their consent mean to authority, then? Watch what happens to whistle-blowers who choose to inform the public about how their government uses its authority.
I have watched my government hold elections without transparency, while the candidates are bought & sold in broad daylight. I have watched unpopular leaders being elected again & again by less than 1/3rd of us, with voting-machines that produce unverifiable results & no paper-trail for us to audit. What consent can there be if 1/10th of us are vetted by privately-run yet publicly-funded parties to select 2 options for the rest of the country to choose between? And, even then, 2 of the last 3 winners had fewer votes than their opponent — but, if we dislike this system, we can simply vote to change it, right?
Am I allowed to write the obvious or is that crossing the line? Too late — with these words as my only weapon, I say the authority of the government of the United States of America is illegitimate.
* I’d like to note that the practice of using solitary confinement to punish inmates in prisons does almost completely limit a person’s ability to exercise autonomy over their movement and, if you’re not already vocally opposed to this barbaric practice, I’d suggest that you re-think this issue…
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