A Dire Warning to Tyrants

Arab politicians fear that the revolution still working itself out in Tunisia is inspiring their own subjects to revolt. The escalating protests that managed to unseat the 23-year rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were immediately sparked by the self-immolation of a fruit peddler after police seized his vending cart, an event that people chafing under political repression and economic marginalization could not ignore. As an anarchist — an advocate of maximizing individual liberty by eliminating authority — I recognize the Tunisian revolution is unlikely to immediately establish my ideal, but I celebrate it nonetheless.

The flight of Ben Ali from the country he once ruled is a warning to other tyrants, particularly those in the Arab world. There are limits to the amount of oppression people will suffer passively. Tyrants who go too far in their domination and looting of the ruled will lose their seats of power. The top oppressors might be able to take some loot with them and retire under the protection of fellow criminals, but even they should not rest easy in a time of revolution. When enough individuals are motivated to withdrawal acquiescence to government, tyrants will be unseated. The powers of persuasion, solidarity, technology, strike, and direct action can help freedom-seeking people overcome all the lies and terrorism that ill-gotten wealth can purchase.

Withdrawing support for one government leaves the question of who and what will replace it. Within society there are many groups of individuals pushing for different interests. Some of them are well-positioned to move into the blind spots of unrest and establish their power over other people. Foreign and domestic economic interests and political ambitions threaten liberty in any revolutionary scenario.

Even if all the officials bearing large responsibility for the old regime were ousted, the exchange of rulers would be disdained by those who want no rulers. Anarchists should take steps to prevent the rise of new authorities. This requires not being overly dogmatic, but knowing to apply and discuss principles in a way that is relevant to people’s lives.

An empowered populace with strong libertarian principles can prevent new tyrants from gaining hold. The oft-lamented “power vacuum” that political strongmen take advantage of would be less of an issue if power is widely distributed through social networks that empower individuals and challenge authority.

Popular revolution, even when it does not immediately make a country ungovernable, can be a step in society’s evolution toward anarchy. Anarchy may be a continually evolving process, but some evolutions are more crucial and sudden than others. A popular revolution can result in a more favorable environment for establishing libertarian autonomous zones, and enable people to seize and mutualize services and resources controlled by the government and its cronies. As always the political climate must figure into any reasonable calculus of action. Action should motivate more people to support projects of anarchy than it motivates to support reactionary projects of repression.

From an anarchist perspective, there is merit to the argument that the establishment of a less-bad government perpetuates the institution of government: If an evil is tolerable, it is more likely to be tolerated, but if a people’s only experience with government is negative, they might be more inclined to discard it altogether. However, it seems at least as likely that severely oppressed people will aim to create a government that is better relative to what they are used to. A government that does less evil might create a more favorable environment for the expansion of libertarian social organization to the point where government is popularly looked upon as an unnecessary intrusion and thereby disintegrates. In the Tunisian case, the experience gained in undermining oppression through direct action will probably be beneficial to cultural development.

However events in Tunisia unfold, they show that revolution is possible and that individuals outside the power structures are not stuck with the roles of spectator, cheerleader, or pawn in the maneuvers of the powerful. I congratulate the revolutionaries of Tunisia and hope they make this revolution a major step in the evolution toward maximum individual liberty.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory