Social & Political Philosophy 10 – Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience

For this lecture, read Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience.


Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a writer, naturalist, transcendentalist, and abolitionist who is most famous for his proto-environmental and autobiographical book Walden, advocating simple and natural living, and his political work On Civil Disobedience, advocating the right of the individual to non-participation with unjust laws and states.  Like Rousseau, Thoreau believed that modern society was corruptive and abusive and hoped that people would cease to participate in war, slavery and other brutal practices by returning to nature and simplicity.  Like Rousseau, he argued that many comforts and luxuries are not aids but hindrances to the progress of humanity.  Like Rousseau, at least one critic wrote that if Thoreau was right we may as well go back to walking on all fours.

Walden Pond

Thoreau did not believe in leaving society or rugged naturalism, but balancing modernity and city life with an appreciation of nature and the transcendent unity of existence.  He is sometimes called an anarchist, as he wrote, “That government is best which governs least,” in On Civil Disobedience.  While Thoreau did love nature and despise much of modern society, he argued for balance and did not believe in leaving civilization or abolishing government.  Many know that Thoreau wrote Walden while secluded in a cabin at Walden Pond (on land owned by his mentor and fellow transcendentalist Emerson) but few know that Walden Pond was not very far from civilization and Thoreau accidentally burned down 300 acres of Walden Wood with the help of a friend several years before staying in the cabin.

Martin Luther King Jr

In 1846, Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay past taxes on the grounds of opposition to the American slave trade and the Mexican-American War.  Moved by the experience, he gave lectures about how it strengthened his convictions and later reworked these lectures into his famous On Civil Disobedience, published in 1849.  Many great leaders have been profoundly influenced by the work, including Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Tolstoy, JFK, Hemingway, and John Muir.  Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his autobiography that he first found the idea of noncooperation with the unjust system as effective means of protest in On Civil Disobedience while studying at Morehouse College in 1944, and that he became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as important as cooperation with good.

mexican american war

Thoreau argues that government is supposed to be an aid but is most often a hindrance.  He points to the Mexican-American war and says that a few, not the people, are benefited by using the state as a tool.  Even democracies can dominate the minority and individual.  The state does not make us more just and often uses us for great injustice such as war and slavery.  We often serve the state as machines, not people, and being like a dog or horse is being a “good citizen”.

mario savio

How should we act toward the state today?  Thoreau writes he can’t acknowledge his government as the government of the slave too.  If the US is invaded, he says, he will take up arms for the US, but it is we who are the invaders.  We should refuse to follow unjust laws and governments, and be friction against the machine.  In the most quotable moment from the 60s Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, Mario Savio said that there come times when we must put our limbs on the machine to stop it from moving.  Thoreau argues that if you live simply, and have less, then you can more easily not participate in the injustices of war and slavery.  The rich are always indebted to the system that maintains the riches.  Thoreau quotes Jesus: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”, and Confucius, “In an unjust state, riches and honors are shameful”.  Thoreau acknowledges that there has been great progress for individual freedom in the transition from monarchy to democracy, but asks: is democracy the final step of this evolution?

enjoy_capitalismSince we are asking this question, it is appropriate to ask what Capitalism is and where it comes from, an earlier step in this same evolution.  Capitalism is a political form practiced extensively in America (possibly more than anywhere else in history so far).  Much of the political movements of the last century, such as socialism, communism, anarchism, and post-colonialism, are reactions in opposition to capitalism and industrialization.  While Locke argued that property and possessions can be accumulated without bringing harm to anyone, the thinkers and theorists we will be studying for the rest of this class were concerned with the problems brought about by Capitalism and the latest wave of money and power.

Stack Of CashWhere does money come from?  Why does it exist?  Money is a very interesting and unique device.  The Sumerians and Babylonians get the credit for coining money first, with the government controlling the pressing process of coinage.  The first forms of money were records of debt owed to a creditor.  In the Tigris-Euphrates valley, archaeologists have found clay vessels with markings on the outside and small model goats and oxen sealed inside, contracts which recorded on the outside and inside what was owed to whom.  At some point, somebody had a stroke of genius and the little model animals on the inside were eliminated as irrelevant.  These debt contracts then evolved into coins made of metal, issued by governments rather than wealthy lenders.  Today, we use Chinese style paper bank notes, backed by the government, just like in China after the Tang and Song Dynasties (post 618 CE).  Wood block printing and the block printing press are devices of Chinese origin that are crucial to this process.

barteringBut, WHY MONEY?  Before money, people of course possessed many things and traded them between individuals and groups.  This trade was barter, swapping one sort of thing for another sort of thing without the device of money as swapping medium.  As people settled into city states, practices of borrowing and lending became stabilized.  The culture which includes the device of money has advantages over the culture of mere barter.  Money is a device that is designed to be easy to gather, hold, divide and distribute, much more than any other object or substance.

SalmonConsider the salmon fisher in a village.  She goes down to the water, and scores 20 large salmon.  This is far more than she can eat, but she can trade salmon for other things that she needs in the barter culture.  However, salmon does not keep for long, even if one knows how to salt and preserve it.  What happens if she goes to the market and not many people want or need salmon that day?  What if she has enough salmon to get what she wants, but there are not enough people who need salmon to trade with her for what she wants?  In a culture where the salmon can be sold for money, you can keep the money for decades (even with inflation and other problems, deterioration of coins, etc) but no one can keep salmon for decades, even with industrial freezers!  In this way, money is much easier to amass and to keep than salmon.

silver coinsIn the same way, money is easier to divide and distribute than salmon.  Let us say our fisher comes to market with 20 large salmon, and wants to trade for a basket.  I, the basket maker, tell her that one third of a salmon is worth one basket, but I want the front half of the salmon.  What happens if she wants to leave the salmon uncut, or if she needs four fifths of a salmon later for someone else?  What if she wants to keep all the fish heads for herself?  Money has almost no features to it other than quantity, even though the pictures are often very pretty.  Fifty dollars is just fifty things, nothing less, so there is no problem with changing it to two twenties and a ten.  You cannot make a whole salmon again from twenty salmon heads!  If we consider the bustle of a crowded market, it becomes clear why money would be such a useful (and thus abusive) device, and how its invention allowed for the modern merchants and bankers of today.  Consider the trillion dollar bailout, how this is very abstract yet very real for many people.  Luck for us, we do not need to bail out banks with truckloads of salmon.

derrida-angleThere are, however, two great disadvantages to the culture of money use.  First, theft, like trade, becomes easier!  In fact, money not only creates and supports many types of legal economics, it simultaneously creates and supports many types of illegal economics like paying money for sex or drugs.  The French philosopher Derrida mentions that as soon as artists became celebrity individuals, they began signing their artwork to distinguish it from forgers who make fake copies, which then produced a demand for forgers who can forge the signature of the artist.  Similarly, money makes illegal transactions easier, just as it makes legal transactions easier.

crack cocaineSecond, the desire for money becomes quite intense.  Considering that money, sex and cocaine have been shown to light up similar areas of the human brain, money to barter is like cocaine to chewing coca leaves.  Since money can be traded for anything, even ironically illegal things, the draw towards money becomes the draw towards any and everything desired.  In this sense, the desire for money is far more intense than the desire for salmon because money can buy salmon, or remain money, or buy anything else if one ceases wanting salmon.  Just as having salmon means that the possibility of eating salmon is now practically guaranteed, having money means the possibility of satisfying any desire whatsoever is guaranteed.  This ultimately means that there is far more reason to steal money than there is to steal anything else, strange considering that you can’t live off of it alone!

assyrian seige weaponAncient city states carried out extensive long distance trade since the earliest recorded history, long before the rise of Europe.  Ancient Assyria had all the siege weapons used in medieval Europe, but gained and controlled empire primarily through trade and taxes.  We have seen in this class that much of political theory and events revolves around property and collecting taxes.  Capitalism is, of course, very much a continuation of this ancient political arrangement.  While there is no universally accepted definition of what capitalism is, it is widely accepted that capitalism is the culture of property, trade and taxation that rose with the industrialization of the 1800s and 1900s.  Thus, the movements we will study in the second half of the class are as much reactions to industrialization (think Thoreau and the state as an evil machine) as they are to capitalism.

Stalin, Churchill and TrumanCommunism and capitalism are divided on the issue of money and private ownership, even as Communists print government money and Capitalists organize socialist programs (public education like BCC, social welfare, public roads and institutions).  The question is: do you trust the government or the corporations more with your money and economics?  America has shown that there are great advantages to privatization, letting corporations control economics rather than the centralized government.  Unfortunately, this does not do away with problems of authority and corruption.  Consider that PG&E is still in charge of California’s power, a pretty plum, in spite of being convicted of stealing from Californians en masse.  Truth be told, both America and the Soviet Union told third world countries that they would not steal from them or enslave them like their other surely would, only to both be guilty of similar forms of corrupt authoritarianism.

John Perkins Confessions of an Economic HitmanA great book to read on all of this is John Perkins’ book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.  He actually came to BCC last semester for a reading, but I had my other job.  As Perkins says so perfectly, in American foreign relations we actively try to get people in debt to us because that binds everyone to our economy and our desires.  I know firsthand from UC Berkeley Hass Business School students that getting the poor here in America and poor third world countries in continuous debt is an open practice, spoken of openly in instruction.  The financial crisis was clearly caused by irresponsible and predatory lending.  Our newspapers never speak of these things, but a piece on NPR my friend gave to me will tell you just as clearly and honestly an economics professor at Hass.

fdr new deal buttonRemember that Aristotle argued, against Plato, that society should be a balance of public and private property.  Locke argued that property is one of the basic rights that should be protected by the state along with life itself.  In Capitalism, property is largely owned privately.  As many experts argue, there are no perfectly capitalist nor communist countries, but rather most are mixed economies that lean very much toward capitalism and private ownership or toward socialism and public welfare/planned economy.  American economics for the last two centuries, with the exception of the New Deal following the Great Depression, leans more toward private ownership than most anyone has so far.  This has created success as well as problems that define political debates today.  While capitalism does dominate the world, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, many advanced and wealthy nations practice mixed economics that is not as pro-business and laissez faire.

MarxThe word “capitalism” was used far less frequently than “capitalist” in the 1700s and 1800s.  Marx and Engels talk about the “capitalistic system”, “capitalists” and “capitalist mode of production” over two and a half thousand times in Das Kapital, their major work on Marxist economics, but only use the word “capitalism” twice.  Marx and Engels were centrally concerned with industrialization and exploitation of labor by capitalists, arguing that just as the French Revolution and had removed the aristocratic nobility a new revolution was required to remove the neo-nobility, the capitalists.

child-laborCapitalist theory revolves around the production of goods and services out of materials and labor.  The capitalists (owners, share holders, board members) own the business, materials and land.  The workers add/sell their labor to the business/owners, which then produces a product and profit from the sale of the product.  The workers are paid wages for their labor, and the remaining profit is taken by the capitalists or reinvested in the business.

Cheese Board Berkeley Socialist PizzaJust as Mill argued that there should be voting by the workers for managers and control of the business or there will be economic tyranny, some businesses like the Cheeseboard in Berkeley run as co-ops with profit sharing and collective management to counter-act the tyranny Mill argued against and many are upset about concerning corporations today.

East India Company coinIt has only been recently in Britain and America that capitalism has been given wider freedom.  As we have been studying, the opening of international trade and the Americas meant new opportunities for European economic expansion.  Remember that Mill’s family was involved with the East India Company.  At the time, corporations and companies such as this were controlled by the British crown, but merchants and the wealthy found it increasingly profitable to invest in these firms.  Britain began relaxing restrictions on trade and taxation to encourage business in the 1800s.

ronald-reagan-flagsMargaret Thatcher

Eventually, America took over this role and outdid Britain in leaning far towards privatization and lack of government control to encourage business, growing fantastically wealthy in the process, particularly after WWII.  Consider that Britain and Australia have 6 or so government TV channels (BBC 1, BBC2, etc), wary of trusting broadcasting to private companies, while America has licensed the airwaves to private companies and has more TV channels than most of the rest of the world combined.  In the 80s, under Reagan in America and Thatcher in Britain, business received more relaxation of laws and taxes than ever before.  This was increased again in America with George W. Bush.  The fall of the Soviet Union encouraged the view that capitalism was and is the triumphant single system of economics, though there has been great backlash against this on the left in America, Britain and across the world.

AdamSmithOne of the celebrated voices for the liberation of business from government control was Adam Smith (1723-1790).  I gave you a selection from his classic The Wealth of Nations, one of the most influential works on economics in history, published in 1776 (appropriate given America’s role in the history of capitalism).  I made sure to give you the passage where he refers to the invisible hand” of the market, a central guiding concept for pro-capitalist thought.  Essentially, Adams argues (as do conservatives today) that government control of markets and market forces is inefficient and clumsy compared to allowing the free exchange of capitalism to take its course, and thus a planned economy (such as that of socialism or communism) is not capable of the same growth and expansion.  Just as Gordon Gekko argues “greed is good” in the movie Wall Street, Adam Smith argues that we can rely on everyone following their self interest to improve society much more than we can rely on efforts to help everyone collectively.  Socialism and communism are diametrically opposed to this view.  Smith is here on the side of Mill against Bentham.  It must be said that Smith was afraid of monopolies and the power of business interests, and believed in government checks to this power.

Police_officer_in_riot_gearCapitalism ranges in state control, with many if not all places practicing some degree of state control of economics.  Social market capitalism has the state run socialist welfare programs and controls such as price control, unemployment pay, social security, prevention of monopolies/cartels, and labor bargaining rights (like those recently cut in Wisconsin).  Anarcho/Free-Market Capitalism has the state take as minimal a role as possible, with the extreme of currency, law enforcement and social services competing in the open market.  Imagine if there were several currencies available backed not by the government but by the largest banks, and if the cops were private security for those who could afford it.

Some (especially on the right) have argued that greater capitalism and democracy go hand in hand, providing class mobility and increased quality of life.  Others (particularly on the left) have argued that greater capitalism results in greater exploitation that can be ignored if enough people enjoy class mobility and higher quality of life.  While the more democratic nations today do practice (in mixed form) capitalism, many dictatorships have been quite open to capitalism and corporations, such as Nazi Germany and Chile under Pinochet.

The Corporation documentaryTo further show the mechanisms and complexity of theft in the modern world, there is no better nor more relevant documentary than The Corporation.  In it, corporations are compared to sociopaths and sharks, as they are machines designed to feed and not to have empathy for those on which they feed.  Here is a link so you can watch the documentary online for free:

Here is a chart that roughly shows the overall wealth as it is distributed in the world, with corporations and billionaires popping up everywhere:


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