Posts Tagged ‘consent’


September 17, 2018 1 comment

Why is consent only important at some times and not others? Consent is necessary for sex; otherwise, it is rape, and rape is never ok. Regarding sex, it is assumed we are in voluntary relationships with the people who touch us. But we are also in non-consensual relationships and people never talk about them.

For instance, why do I need a “representative”? Surely, to represent me they would need to act in my interests. What if my so-called representative does not represent me? Can I withdraw consent from this relationship? Can I vote for no one? No. Their decisions apply to me. I didn’t join anything. I never gave any hint I wanted them to represent me. They never even asked me.

The police are authorized to arrest you if you have drugs. In other words, there are people who will use violence against you for ingesting or possessing something that someone in another city decided you were to face violence for ingesting or possessing. You are not allowed to ingest or possess something if that guy in a suit in the other city wrote down that you were not allowed to. If you do, the people who will use violence against you might hit you, kidnap you and throw you in a cage (and even force you to work as a slave), or kill you. When did I consent to any of this? Why does consent not matter in this case?

The example of drugs shows us the state considers our bodies its own property. Laws against taking drugs show that our masters do not allow us to put things into our own bodies, as if they were loving parents and we were children getting into the chemicals under the sink. The power to criminalize prostitution is another example of the state’s claim to have the final say in what you do with your body.

You pay taxes. In other words, if you do not pay money every day to a group of people you do not know who will decide what to do with it, regardless of your opinion on what they do with it, some people can kidnap you at gunpoint and lock you in a cage. Why do you not get to decide how that money is spent? What if you have better ideas than what politicians owned by lobby groups have in mind? Why does consent not matter in this case either?

And I cannot stress enough how important it is for us to care that some of the money we make goes toward making war. In other words, some people take your money and use it to buy weapons to kill and torture people neither you nor they have ever met in other parts of the world, making the people who made these decisions richer and thus more influential over the very system that rewards killing people all around the world. Do you consent to that? Or does your consent not matter?

I have been told that we tacitly consent, usually because we are not actively fighting against these things. But that is not how consent works. Consent must be positive. If want to take your clothes off, I need your consent. If I do not know whether or not it is all right with you, it isn’t. However, if I want to harass you, kidnap you, cage you, beat you or kill you, I just need a badge.

Why does consent not matter to us? Because the system that feels normal to us does not ask for it.

A truly democratic system would be one where decisions were made together, and when one does not consent, the others can coax, plead, bargain or apply pressure but should not force the dissenter. That is why such decisions should be taken in groups of 100 or less, not in groups of millions where it is impossible to come to a consensus and an elite develops. We do not need an elite. We can govern ourselves.

Governance just means making and enforcing rules. Government, on the other hand, is an institution that claims a monopoly on governance over its conquered territory. All societies have governance. Not all societies have government. Self-governing, egalitarian, non-hierarchical societies and organizations exist and have always existed. We do not need too many rules. Each of us should play a part in creating them, or if we just arrived, agree to them. We can all have the power to enforce them. At any rate, most of our rules would come from norms, as they already do, rather than written rules that might differ in detail from place to place.

Though nearly all decisions would be made in small groups, such as families, clubs, factories, and so on, for the occasional decision that needed to be made in a larger group, it would be possible to delegate authority to a representative. In other words, you could tell someone to vote yes on a certain proposition. If they do not vote yes, the decision must be retaken or considered null. That said, nowadays even the idea of delegates is probably obsolete, as we have the technology to make decisions across decentralized organizations in minutes.

When is an organization democratic? Joining the organization is presumably consenting to its mission, structure and policies, and members can leave at any time. (Cooperatives often start new people on probation before they can become full members.) At minimum, all members should have a vote on leadership (if there are leaders) and new policies. There should be no secrecy: Meeting minutes and other important information should be available to all members. The members should be able to recall leaders for violating a policy, such as acting outside the scope of their mandate. Again, these organizations would ideally be small, as the smaller they are, the more democratic they can be, as each member has proportionally more influence over decisions. Such organizations do not need to compete with each other to exploit others like the corporation but cooperate to empower people as part of their mission.

Politicians do not consult us on their votes. We do not have access to meetings between lobbyists and their clients, or lobbyists and politicians. We do not know what people who are making the decisions that affect our lives with our money are saying to each other behind closed doors. Why would we ever consent to such a system? Because we’ve been told it’s necessary?

Consent matters.

Resistance in Harry Potter

June 11, 2018 Leave a comment

As an unusually popular series, the Harry Potter books have been broken down and analysed from a variety of viewpoints. As both a big fan of the books (less so the movies) and an anarchist, I would like to look at the theme of resistance.

Harry encounters two major foes and their supporting groups: Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and Dolores Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic. These groups are two different iterations of concentrated power. Both want to monopolize the creation and enforcement of law, impose a hierarchical social system and destroy anyone who gets in the way. The more liberal-inclined reader may consider the Ministry more legitimate, but to an anarchist, any hierarchy must be accepted by all its subjects’ express consent to be legitimate. If the hierarchy cannot justify itself to all those under its rule, it should be dismantled. Though attaining and concentrating power may start with noble if misguided motives, in the end, it always means power for power’s sake.

This post focuses on resistance to Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Resistance to Voldemort is more widely scattered throughout the series and corresponds less to our reality than resistance to Umbridge does.

Alongside the theme of resistance we must consider the idea of consent. Dumbledore was at the top of the hierarchy we know as Hogwarts. Yet, because he had proven himself worthy of respect, most of the parents of witches and wizards consented to send their children to him. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (HPDH), it is pointed out that parents always had the freedom to homeschool their children, whereas under Voldemort’s new regime that right was taken away. (Note that rights or freedoms are only ever one law or decree away from death.) Dumbledore reminds us that authority and leadership can be legitimate, provided it is based on consent. (Indeed, from my point of view, consent is the distinguishing feature of leadership as opposed to government.) Parents positively consent to send their children to Hogwarts. Today’s liberals and conservatives say you consent to the rule of the state by not moving away. If they were consistent, they would also consider Voldemort’s rule based on consent. But they are wrong. Consent must be given, not assumed, or else it is not consent.

Moreover, it needs to be given constantly. If Dumbledore had turned tyrannical, parents should not be forced to continue sending their kids to Hogwarts, just because they consented some time before. Dumbledore consistently showed he was a worthy teacher and his school was worthy to send their children to, and that is why parents consented every year. If you consent to the rule of someone who leads a successful revolt that does not mean you have consented to be that person’s subject your entire life. You always retain the right to refuse and rebel.

The right to rebel against illegitimate authority, to resist tyranny, to fight back against bullies, has a long history in the philosophies of many cultures. Wherever tyranny is found, you can find some people believing the flimsy excuses for it (such as divine right of kings or “government of the people”), some who follow tyrants for their own enrichment and victims of or witnesses to injustice who fight back.

Lysander Spooner

Some have even argued one has not only the right but the duty to rebel. Martin Luther King Jr said “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Henry David Thoreau said “if [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.” The Declaration of Independence states when government in any form destroys our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right and the duty to abolish it. And you can see their point: if you have some measure of ability to challenge those in power, you should use it to lighten the burden on everyone else. That is where Harry comes in.

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (HPOP), the Ministry installs Dolores Umbridge as Hogwarts High Inquisitor in order to interfere at the school. She is a great example of why we retain the right and duty to rebel.

Authority has more than one meaning, two of which are often conflated. It might mean superior knowledge. I hire plumbers and mechanics because they are authorities in things I am not. However, I do not let them push me around just because they know more. In my relationships with plumbers and mechanics, I have the final decision. It does not follow that because they know better, they should have the right to impose their decisions on me. That right is a feature of another common meaning of authority: the people in power. Having power means not needing the consent of others to impose one’s will on them. The people in power do not have superior knowledge about how you should run your life, how millions of people should run their society, or how Dumbledore should run his school. They only have the means of force dressed up in uniforms and smothered in myths. That is all they need to force most people to comply.

Umbridge exemplifies the rule of law in its pure appeal to the authority of the people who made those laws. Hermione puts forward a proposition: “Surely the whole point of defense against the dark arts is to practice defensive spells.”

“Are you a Ministry-trained educational expert, Miss Granger?” (Should students have no say in what they learn? Only the state’s approved experts should decide?)

“No, but–”

“Well then, I’m afraid you’re not qualified to decide what the whole point of any class is. Wizards much older and clever than you have devised our new programme of study.” All Umbridge has to do is invoke the authority, both in terms of expertise and the state she represents, the authority that comes with the power to impose one’s will, also known as the because-I-say-so technique. She wields her authority in the same way later in the same conversation. “You have been told that a certain dark wizard is at large once again. This is a lie.” As the authority figure, the representative of power, Umbridge decides what the truth is. She says Harry is “spreading evil, nasty, attention-seeking stories.”

“It is not a lie,” said Harry. “I saw him. I fought him.”

“Detention, Mr Potter!” As authority figure in the second sense, Umbridge lays down the law to shut up anyone who might threaten her control.

As the number of laws increases (thus limiting allowed behaviors) and the exercise of power becomes more objectionable (thus creating malcontents who could become rebels with the right trigger), law enforcement tends to become more overbearing and obnoxious. Umbridge used increasingly strict punishments to keep troublemakers scared. Her purpose was to remind them she was in charge and there was nothing they could do about it.

Surveillance is a powerful tool for keeping people in line. Surveillance under the Umbridge regime followed a path similar to that of the modern state. Wanting to bring every aspect of life at Hogwarts under her control (in stark contrast to Dumbledore’s hands-off approach), Umbridge got one decree after another written to empower herself. She naturally used the Ministry to create these decrees, rather than simply take power, because official decrees (or laws) bring the veneer of legitimacy. She began monitoring every form of communication she could, like the modern state does. It is not necessary to monitor every minute of a citizen’s life, as long as citizens are afraid they might be monitored at any given time. It was not necessary for Umbridge to see literally every piece of mail or every fireplace herself, of course, only to lead everyone to believe she could.

She granted a few students and the caretaker, Filch, power in order to multiply her own: the Inquisitorial Squad (a selection of students whose parents were close with Ministry officials) became her eyes on the ground, an extension of her own authority, answering only to her. The Inquisitorial Squad may be analogous to the multiplying of security or law-enforcement agencies under the modern state, such as the thousands of intelligence agencies, the FBI, NSA, DEA, ATF and so on that answer to the President of the United States. Alternatively, they may be likened to informants or snitches. (Also in HPOP, as Dumbledore had predicted, the dementors join Voldemort’s side. The dementors are well known to represent depression but as prison guards they also represent people whose job it is to cause misery–prison guards, torturers, etc. The Ministry, while giving them some power to terrorize, did not give them full reign, so they defected and lent their powers to those with similar ideologies.)

Fortunately, these obscene abuses led the braver students to resist.

One thing Harry learned in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (HPOP) was to play the game until he found his opportunity. At first, he was punished for speaking the truth. Umbridge gave him detention and inflicted pain on him, just as one might face jail and torture when a state struggling for legitimacy gets openly questioned. As the most likely to rebel against the shunting aside (and later deposing) of Dumbledore in favor of Umbrdige, Harry was singled out for particular cruelty. The object was to break his spirit. As Neville explained later in HPDH, his speaking out encouraged others to do the same. It is harder to justify detaining and torturing all students. In a revolt, states detain and torture in large numbers, but if this abuse encourages others to fight back, eventually the state will be overwhelmed. Harry learned to keep his head down and began to organize.

Hermione revealed the solution on the second day of term: “Don’t you remember what Dumbledore said at the last end of term feast? About You-Know-Who. He said ‘his gift for spreading discord and enmity are very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.’ This sort of thing is exactly what Dumbledore was talking about. You-Know-Who’s only been back two months and we’ve already started fighting among ourselves. And the Sorting Hat’s warning was the same: stand together; be united. I think it’s a pity we aren’t trying for a bit of inter-house unity.”

So Harry learned the value of solidarity. At the beginning of the school year, the Sorting Hat urges the school to unite against “external, deadly foes”. Hermione invites students not only from her house, Gryffindor, but also from Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. (There is no doubt people not considered trustworthy should be kept out of the circle of trust. Slytherins seem to represent some vaguely upper-middle class that cannot be trusted to join in an uprising.) Harry learned unity is about teaming up with others who have not the same ideas (eg. searching for “left unity” or “bottom unity”) but merely common interests (eg. waking up and organizing one’s neighbors and coworkers).

There are many ways to resist and they depend on many factors, from time and place to what we and the people around us believe in. There are a variety of ways of engaging in direct action. Those of us who are exploited at work (so most of us) can attempt various forms of workplace resistance. Harry Potter fought back in his way.

Harry and his friends founded Dumbledore’s Army, or as they referred to it, the DA. Under Harry’s guiding hand, they learned defensive magic in a secret location. Members were forbidden to discuss the DA openly for fear of getting caught. They found a secret space in which to organize. They devised a secret method of communication, much like we muggles defend ourselves online. They varied their meeting times, so their enemies had difficulty tracking them. Not only did they work strictly with people they thought they could trust; Hermione even devised a way of dealing with snitches. In public, they pretended all was well. They smiled and nodded. In these ways, they learned the value and application of security culture.

Non-compliance is one way to resist. Gene Sharp wrote at length on the effectiveness and viability of non-compliance as protest.

You all have done various things in your lives you don’t tell everybody about. When you were a little, screaming brat, you got mad at Mummy and Daddy: ‘I’m not going to eat!’ You engaged in a hunger strike.

Or, if Mummy or Daddy were going to wallop you on the bottom and they hadn’t touched you yet, and whoever was your defender in the family was in the other room, you started screaming like mad, lying on the floor, as if you had been slaughtered, and they hadn’t even touched you. You were appealing to martyrdom and sympathy against the persecution of a poor, non-violent, helpless person.

Or you wouldn’t take out the garbage, at least not on time. This was a refuse workers’ strike.

Or you wouldn’t clean up your room until someone was standing there, saying ‘now take that and put that in that drawer’. That is non-obedience without direct supervision or slow and reluctant compliance.

Or you wouldn’t study when you went to school. You would look out the window, daydream or even sleep in class.

Many animals and pets do all these things. Haven’t you had dogs or cats act this way? They want to go with you in the car somewhere when they know they are not supposed to and they jump right in. It’s a sit-in.

Or they know very well what you’re saying to them but they pretend they don’t, just like you’ve done yourself.

Or you say ‘move’ and they lie down, whimpering, and look up at you with the saddest possible look, like some demonstrators do to police.

Sometimes they are being ignored, particularly if company’s coming, and there is a big fuss in the house and nobody’s paying attention to them when they are trying to say ‘come and play with me’. The dog then goes into the middle of the living room rug and does a non-violent intervention, not biting anybody, not growling at anybody but getting attention.

But is non-violent resistance the only way to fight back? Is it the best way to fight back? It depends on your time and place. Those protesters who lie down and whimper still get beaten and hauled off to jail. Those police go home, smother their consciences and get up the next day to beat and jail again. That is why the central argument of books like How Nonviolence Protects the State and Pacifism as Pathology are that, while non-violence might have a place in resistance, it should not be the only thing considered. Hogwarts students did not look up at Umbridge and whimper as she put them in detention. Such behavior would probably have strengthened her. They found novel ways of resisting, some of which involved the magic equivalent of what today’s “non-violence fundamentalists” would automatically disapprove of.

Fred and George Weasley had a flair for misbehaving. Twice during HPOP they carried out major acts of resistance. First, they set off a series of fireworks–explosions that kept Umbridge and Filch busy for hours. Second, they created a kind of swamp in the corridor (along with some other things for the purposes of diversion, but we do not learn what those things were). After the second act, Fred and George escaped. In the next chapter, we get to see how their last act set off a series of spontaneous and decentralized acts of resistance from students, teachers and Peeves, the Hogwarts poltergeist. However, Hermione points out “They must have been planning this for ages.” While various types of resistance are useful, you also need to have a plan for something big, and an escape plan doesn’t hurt.

The teachers could have reversed both of the Weasleys’ acts of sabotage, but they approved of giving Umbridge a hard time. As Professor Flitwick said cheekily, “I didn’t know if I had the authority.” In such a way, they were demonstrating non-compliance by work-to-rule, a form of industrial action in which employees do no more than the minimum they are required to do.

“In the aftermath of [Fred and George’s] departure, there was a great deal of talk about copying them.” Students irritated and tied down Umbridge, Flich and the Inquisitorial Squad, much in the same way rioters tie down the police so protesters can march. Students put nifflers through the door to Umbridge’s office, regularly dropped stink bombs in the corridors, attacked the Inquistorial Squad and put its members out of commission, used Fred and George’s products to develop conditions that let them out of class, leading to the detention (arrest) of four whole classes (which would overcrowd a prison) and still failing to find out where the products were coming from, giving up and letting the students leave her class.

Peeves, the poltergeist, has parallels with an egoist. He was always a troublemaker, but when Umbridge threatened to forcibly expel him from the school, he turned the place upside down in chaos. “Cackling madly, he soared through the school, upending tables, bursting out of blackboards, toppling statues and vases. Twice he shut [Filch’s cat] Mrs Norris inside a suit of armor…. Peeves smashed lanterns and snuffed out candles, juggled burning torches…, and whenever he fancied a break, spent hours at a time floating along after Umbridge and blowing loud raspberries every time she spoke.”

In the muggle world, we could easily come up with just as many ways of fighting the state. Consider how Otpor (“Resistance”) fought back against Slobodan Milosevic, leading to his ouster. According to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,

Some of the major strategic actions of the civil resistance campaign included:

Protest and Persuasion

• Street theatre and humorous skits mocking Milosevic performed throughout the country to transform the political culture and empower widespread opposition;
• Ubiquitous postering and displays of public symbols (such as Otpor’s iconic clenched fist) and slogans on posters, leaflets, and T-shirts, and in television spots;
• Large public rallies, marches, and demonstrations;
• Electoral politics – coalition-building and campaigning;
• Holding music concerts and cultural celebrations;
• The widespread distribution of anti-Milosevic materials;
• Use of the Internet, cell phones, fax machines, and alternative media to disseminate resistance messages and organize opposition;
• Public and private communication with security and church officials, media, union leaders, municipal politicians, and others to cultivate potential allies and defections;
• Petitions, press releases, public statements and speeches;
• Workshops and training sessions for activists, distribution of training manuals.


• Strikes and boycotts by workers and students, artists, actors, business owners;
• General strike;
• Defections by security, military and police forces cultivated by careful communication with them and public calls for their noncooperation;
• Defections by members of the media;
• Organizing by Otpor outside of the electoral system;
• Parallel election monitors and an election results reporting system to detect and report election fraud.

Nonviolent Intervention

• Blockades of highways and railroads with cars, trucks, buses, and large crowds of people to shut down economic and political activity and demonstrate parallel sources of powers and debilitate the political regime;
• Physical occupation of space surrounding key public buildings (e.g., parliament and media), then in some cases, storming and nonviolent invasions of the buildings;
• Bulldozers moving aside police barricades (a later symbol of the resistance).

These movements take time, of course: Otpor fought back for two years before Milosevic was dethroned, as did the protesters who made the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979. As such, they take patience, planning, secrecy, bravery and commitment.

Were Harry and his friends just as bad as the Death Eaters for fighting back? Should he have followed the law and obeyed authority? Should he have engaged his enemies in dialogue, under the illusion he could change their minds? Should he have joined their ranks and worked his way up in order to turn systems of rule into systems of benevolence? No. They set out to tear down the structures of illegitimate force and succeeded. The world was freer, fairer and happier as a result.