The Modified Consent Theory of Power

Robert J. Burrowes

The consent theory of power – first articulated by the sixteenth-century French philosopher Etienne de La Boétie – argues that political elites depend on the obedience and cooperation of ordinary citizens and particularly the compliance of key specialist groups (such as skilled tradespeople, businesspeople, bureaucrats, police and the military). According to this theory, people obey elites for a variety of reasons, particularly including their fear of punishments, but a variety of authors has suggested many other reasons too: habit, respect for authority, moral obligation, self-interest, psychological identification with elites, indifference, ignorance and disempowerment.

But it is not as simple as this either. La Boétie also argues that consent is engineered. Elites use various devices – such as ideology, selective distribution of material benefits, and distractions like sport and entertainment – to induce obedience. In addition, La Boétie argues, elites create hierarchies of privilege that attract key supporters, including intellectuals, from the wider population. As a result, most people lack the organization to resist; they are locked within organizations that are controlled by others.

According to the consent theory of power, then, elite power depends upon the degree of obedience and cooperation offered by those subject to domination. This obedience and cooperation are not inevitable however. Despite incentives and the threat of sanctions, cooperation is still a choice and it may be withdrawn.

The aim of nonviolent action is to mobilize those willing to refuse to cooperate with injustice, exploitation and violence (in whatever form it takes in a particular context) and to organize them to resist collectively in a way that is strategically focused. Nonviolent resistance where the consent theory of power applies may be illustrated diagramatically as follows:


Since La Boétie’s time, however, the consent theory of power has been the subject of various criticisms. Several authors argue that it is incomplete. This is because there are situations in which elites do not depend on the cooperation of the people they dominate. In fact, power can be exercised over a subject people using a combination of means: the assistance of nonsubject peoples, agents who are loyal to the elite, and nonhuman resources (such as weapons).

Therefore, subject people, according to this theory, are not the only source of power, and in those conflicts in which an elite is not dependent on them (for example, in circumstances in which an elite is not dependent on the locally exploited people to extract resources for export), the people can be controlled and exploited even without their cooperation. This is obvious from the way in which indigenous and/or local peoples are often ignored and exploited when elites want to extract resources (such as minerals, forest timbers, water or fossil fuels) from their land for export. In these cases, elites want the land and resources of the area; they have no interest in the people. And they can send workers from outside the area to live and work in the exploited region.

Hence, while elites are always dependent, they are not necessarily dependent on the cooperation of the people they actually oppress or exploit. And, if this is the case, nonviolent action based on the (incomplete) consent theory of power is likely to be ineffective.

For this reason then, in the imperial world that now exists – in which national elites mutually reinforce each other – many elites are principally dependent on other state and corporate elites, and even overseas markets for their products, rather than their own people or any third-party. Thus, as the diagram below illustrates, the nonviolent strategy described here is based on the modified consent theory of power. This means that it will usually be necessary to develop a strategy in which solidarity groups, with which the aggressor elite does not identify, conduct nonviolent campaigns to undermine cooperation with the aggressor elite and its (domestic and international) allied elites.


For a full explanation of any of the above, as well as the role of structural power in conflict, see The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach.

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