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The Lessons of Yeltsen’s Show of Force

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The standoff at the Russian White House, eventually won (for the time being) by forces loyal to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, demonstrates once again the truth that most holders and defenders of political power prefer to keep under wraps: that political power is ultimately the result of the use of force, and depends for its continuance on the willingness to use force against those one rules — or “serves.”

This is not to deny that, given the context and the realistic alternatives, it is more than likely better for the Russian people and for the potential for freedom that Yeltsin whipped his opponents of the moment. But let there be no illusion, his authority now rests on naked force.

The Chinese communist dictator Mao Zedong may have put it most succinctly and honestly: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Our first president, George Washington, was more elaborate: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence. It is force. It is like fire. And like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master.” (Some scholars say the quote is apocryphal, that Washington himself never said those precise words. If he didn’t, he should have.)

Those who hold government power, while they don’t mind using a little whiff-o’-grape occasionally to remind the natives who really holds the hammer (remember Waco), generally find it more useful to downplay the centrality of force to political power. It’s much more useful in maintaining control (most of the time) to play the part of the benevolent, beneficent servant of the people, the avuncular dispenser of entitlements and other goodies, the protector against sometimes ill-defined but always frightening criminals and predators, foreign and domestic.

Thus most of the American and Western European government leaders who supported Yeltsin, whatever they may have said privately, cautioned him publicly against too shocking a display of force. You wouldn’t want to have people in your own country wondering whether your authority rested only or ultimately on the willingness to shoot your citizens.

In Europe in the Middle Ages the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings was developed to cloak the centrality of force, and to claim the authority of God Himself to buttress the prevailing political order. As belief in God and kings declined, deep thinkers cast about for another justification to sustain the power of rulers. The current mythology is that great secular god Democracy.

Note that even democracy, for all that our modern ideologists of state power have invested it with civility, sociableness, sweet reason, and respect for human rights, in essence rests rather blatantly on the idea of force. There are more of us than there are of you, says democracy at its rawest, so you’d best submit.

Most modern democracies try, with varying degrees of sincerity and success, to pay a bit more than lip service to the idea of minority rights and the notion that today’s minorities may someday either hold or share power — if only because perpetuating such notions is more cost-effective than constantly calling out the troops. But at bottom, majority rule is rule by force. Any sort of political rule is rule by force. It’s healthy to remind ourselves of that from time to time.

Those who seek a more civilized social order than one based on force and violence need to concentrate on removing as many areas of human interaction as possible from political influence or domination — and to protect those few areas of life not yet dominated by politics, and therefore by force. That’s what scholars and philosophers mean when they talk about civil society; in general, civil society comprises the areas of life in which voluntary interaction and mutually-agreed-upon obligations are more important than political power or influence.

Families, churches, friendships, the extraordinary complex of civic, fraternal, and cultural organizations that characterize most complex societies, and a great deal of commerce make up part of what could be called civil society — insofar as they are independent of political domination. When these areas of life are politicized, the importance of brute — or subtle-force in these relationships increases. The relationships become less civil, less peaceful, less likely to fulfill genuine human needs.

The clash in Moscow is a wake-up call to those interested in civility to work unceasingly to depoliticize as many areas of modern life as possible.

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    Alan W. Bock is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation. We'll have a more detailed bio for them soon.