Power, Freedom and Obedience in Foucault and La Boétie: voluntary servitude as the problem of government

Newman, Saul. 2022. Power, Freedom and Obedience in Foucault and La Boétie: voluntary servitude as the problem of government. Theory, Culture & Society, 39(1), pp. 123-141. ISSN 0263-2764 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

I investigate the contemporary problem of obedience through an exploration of Michel Foucault and Étienne de La Boétie, showing how the former drew on the latter’s concept of voluntary servitude as a way of thinking through the paradoxical relationship between power, freedom and subjectivity. My argument is that Foucault’s theory of government as the ‘conduct of conduct’ may be understood as a reflection on the question of voluntary servitude. My aim here is twofold. First, it is to show that obedience is an ethical and political problem just as relevant today as it was in La Boétie’s time. Secondly, it is to suggest that voluntary servitude should be interpreted in an emancipatory way, as a problematic that reveals the ontological primacy of freedom and the fragility and instability of power. ‘Voluntary inservitude’ is something that can be expressed in acts of civil disobedience, and alternate modes of ethical conduct and association.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):



Foucault, freedom, government, La Boétie, voluntary servitude

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Politics > Research Unit in Contemporary Political Theory (RUCPT)


20 May 2021Accepted
22 July 2021Published Online
January 2022Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

21 May 2021 11:36

Last Modified:

01 Feb 2022 14:03

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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