Dear Fellow Submissives: The State Is Our Christian Grey

The cultural panic about the enormous commercial success of 50 Shades of Grey has gone on for years, and, from that, you might get the impression that the story romanticizes unspeakable things.

Though I’ve not read the book, my impression from the movie was entirely opposite. It is not a hymn to the secret glories of BDSM. It is a sophisticated allegory that takes apart, and ultimately condemns in the strongest terms, the psychological foundations of seemingly consensual human relationships that are actually based on dependency, abuse, and power.

For the already scandalized, here is a brief synopsis as I see it. Christian Grey is a good looking and rich owner of his own company who doesn’t actually seem to do any real work. He is interviewed by the naive Anastasia Steele, who fills in as a substitute reporter for her friend.

Grey is intrigued by her and he begins the seduction. He is ridiculously wealthy and generous, which impresses her, and he makes a huge fuss about Anastasia’s mysterious wonderfulness, which delights her. He proposes a relationship of a special kind.

But there is a catch, in the form of a contract. Grey, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who admits to being “50 shades of [effed] up,” wants her to agree to a master-slave relationship in which she must do all he tells her, and she must submit or be punished. He wants her consent to this relationship dynamic, on paper, but she understandably resists. The remainder of the story consists of his trying to persuade her to sign up for the deal, and he does this through more gifts, spending, time, attention, and small demonstrations of the dominant-submissive relationship to come.

Yes, Anastasia likes Christian even though he intimidates her. Why is she drawn to him? It is not about the bondage and abuse. These are the downsides, the price she is being asked to pay for the relationship that she desperately wants to be normal and healthy. She is drawn to him because he is beautiful and rather epic, and because of the time and attention he gives her. He values her and she feels valued because of this, even though she is aware that his valuation is contingent on her agreeing to do things that disgust her.

The truly inspiring moment comes near the end. Anastasia decides to put Christian to the test, to see how far he is willing to go in inflicting pain and suffering on her. Once she experiences this, the scales fall from her eyes. The beauty of Christian, his money and his larger-than-life persona, no longer matter. She now sees him for what he is, a degenerate parasite who cares nothing about her as a person but rather only wants to use her to feed his maniacal power lust. She says no, and walks away. Blessed free will!

As with most pop culture hits (the movie is still #1 at the box office as a I write), the story says something important about our times.

And yes, that means politics.

Power and abuse can take many forms: parents, teachers, bosses, ministers, anyone in authority. But the single largest, costliest, most aggressive, and persistently abusive relationship in our lives is with government. Our Christian Grey is the ruling elite in the deep structures of the state.

Like Mr. Grey, government can appear to be beautiful, prestigious, and enormously wealthy even though the source of its status and riches are unclear. Its goal is absolute power over us, and the opportunity to punish us when we don’t comply. But the direct use of force is not the best way to get there.

What government desires is that we sign the social contract. Only in this way is the state in a position to claim that it rules us only through our own willingness to submit. The very legitimacy of the state depends on it.

How does the state go about getting us to sign? It offers gifts. It shows us glorious possibilities. In the movie, Mr. Grey takes Anastasia for rides in cool cars, helicopters, and gliders. Government does the same, giving us a chance to experience things that we could not otherwise access: huge rallies, parades that show off military might, grand monuments, national parks, trips to space, the power to print money, and so on.

And what does government promise us will come at the end? We will have security, safety, prosperity, an end to the exigencies of life’s uncertainties, and so on. In fact, we can pretty much have everything we want, all our heart’s desires, but only once we consent to allowing government to be the dominant and we agree to be the submissives. Also, if we make the deal, we enjoy the special satisfaction that comes with pleasing our benefactor, who will be very happy indeed.

There is a sense in which the state is devilishly clever, just like Mr. Grey. He sought to isolate and monitor Anastasia’s every move: her comings and goings, her social contacts, her business associations, what she ate and what she drank. It’s all about control. Government does this to us every day through attempted censorship, surveillance, prohibitions, and regulations, always with the claim that it is for our own good. Do we like it? Not entirely, but what is the alternative? The promised benefits of this relationship are impossible to ignore.

Mr. Grey was careful throughout his perverse courtship only to give hints at the abuse that was to come, and these samples that he revealed were not entirely intolerable. So it is with the state’s plunderings of our property, at least at first, and the state’s regulations of our lives, at least at first, and the state’s prohibitions, at least at first. Even its small skirmishes with its enemies (all bad guys) seem justifiable at some level.

What the state does not show us — but wants us to agree to in advance so that it can avoid moral culpability — is its mass confiscations, conscription, internment camps, wars, and even mass murders. By the time these horrors arrive, the state wants us thoroughly socialized into its ways, to judge its actions outside conventional moral frameworks — our relationship is very special indeed — so that we not only do not regret them but rather celebrate them as the very embodiment of our highest ideals.

Look how magnificent the achievements of this perfect romance!

What is this contract that the state wants us to sign? What are the signs and symbols of our consent? This is where constitutions, representative government, and democracy come into play. Through these institutions we are assured that no matter how egregious things seem to get, we are all really just governing ourselves: it is of, by, and for the people. No one is ultimately forcing anyone to do anything.

We have, after all, agreed to our submissive state of being and we have permitted the dominant partner in our relationship to enjoy this status. What’s more, because of the social contract, if the state runs up debt, we really just owe it to ourselves. If it kills innocents abroad, “we” are only doing it to prevent a possible attack. If it bankrupts business with regulations and taxes, “we” are only bringing rationality to the commercial sector.

Power relationships are complex like this. They are not usually about conquest and sudden impositions against our will. To maximize longevity and minimize the chance of revolt, power relationships involve seductions to overcome our innate resistance to the idea of being ruled by others. Freedom is not usually taken away; it is given up in exchange for something that we temporarily find even more appealing. That was Mr. Grey’s goal. It is also the goal of the nation state as we know it.

This is why this film is so important. It complexifies and deepens our understanding of the nature of power and reveals the psychological foundations of our relationship with the political order — and does this better than any film I’ve ever seen in a long while.

I mentioned earlier that glorious moment in the film when Anastasia develops a new consciousness of the ghastly pathology that animates the heart and soul of her very dangerous partner. She realizes that he only has power if she is willing to grant it to him. She stands up, covers herself in protection, tells him he will never touch her again, gets dressed and heads to the elevator. He calls for her but she interrupts with one strong word: NO!

“How does he have any power over you except through you?” asked the Renaissance political thinker Etienne de La Boétie. “From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.”

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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29 comments

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  • Wow. Only you and your creative mind could have connected that with politics. I sit here rather dumbfounded. Awesome. 🙂

  • Great stuff! I didn’t quite make the connection between the story and the government when I was watching it. But I also was happy to discover that the film exposed BDSM for what it is. Freedom rules!

  • Fascinating article. I was avoiding the movie : sounded like a hollywood excuse to show softcore porn. Maybe its something worth watching?

  • As Paul Rosenberg recently said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to OBEY.”

    I doubt I will soon see the movie, and the book I hear is so poorly written that I fear it will alter my sense of the language, but I appreciate the value that Jeffrey has provided to a movie that I– prejudicially and without ever seeing it–presumed was utter trash.

    I slap myself with a leather strap on my bare backside to punish myself…

  • So, I have a problem with this analogy. Ironically, it’s not a problem with your relating the state to Christian Grey – but rather, your assuming that Christian Grey and the State have anything to do with BDSM.

    This movie didn’t, as a commenter above seems to think, expose BDSM for what it is – analogous to state power. This is precisely because Christian Grey doesn’t practice BDSM, he practices consent-ignoring, structured abuse. The key distinguishing factor of BDSM from what Christian Grey practices is this – consent of all involved. Without a voluntary nature, what is BDSM – a form of role-play, you have actual oppression.

    And here’s where I have a problem with you calling subjects of the state “fellow submissives” – it’s because those who are beaten into submission are not “Submissives” – they are victims of abuse. Submissives are those who wish, who choose, who find expression in the act of submission. That _can_ describe some of those who venerate the state, but my BDSM-practicing anarchistic and voluntaryist friends who orient towards submission would deeply disagree with this assessment, and be rather put out by this analogy. In short, this characterization takes their agency, their conviction that their bodies are their own to offer to whatever uses they wish, and reduces that decision to pathology.

    The state is like Christian Grey in that, like Christian Grey, the state takes one’s agency (the man never respects safe-words, never practices aftercare, negotiates without actual negotiation, and generally engages in deeply irresponsible power-relations) and convinces the subject that their submission is voluntary.

    Ironically, my own voluntaryism and anarchism is deeply informed by experiences in the kink community, exploring questions of how to honour boundaries and consent in power play. I do not enjoy playing submissively but have done a lot of deep evaluation of how power-relationship interacts with my anarchist values. This is why I’m anarcho-capitalist, voluntaryist, not an-soc. I am perfectly alright with seemingly hierarchical relationships so long as there is a voluntary nature to them – whether in a workplace, one’s religious or other intentional community, or in one’s personal, sexual play.

    And that’s the key – play. Can you call “red” on the state? Nope. You do that, they put you in a cage. The scene doesn’t end, and there is no making sure you’re ok with what just happened, and a remediation if you weren’t. Instead, there’s hostility, and escalation.

    So… Christian Grey is like the state – I dig it. And was said above – the government does want to fuck you – then make it your fault. But subjects of the state being like BDSM submissives in general? Hell no. And the implication that other dominants in BDSM are like the state, or like Christian Grey? Hell no.

    For me, it’s a matter of deep pride that those I enjoy, also enjoy being enjoyed. Mutual beneficial exchange, according to the subjective preferences of those involved in the transaction. We accept that in capitalism, why not in the bedroom? Without that mutuality, the desired resolution of a mutual inequality of wants, it’s just rape, pure and simple.

    P.S. Haven’t seen the movie yet, though I intend to see it with friends for a (dark) laugh. But I did read the book, and I detested it for both ethical reasons above, and because the writing is puerile and ridiculous. I am glad it has started conversations about BDSM in general (and I’ve moved many of my friends in that scene towards anarchism, precisely because of the idea of a consent-driven society) but I’m vaguely horrified at how it has been taken to portray BDSM in general.

    • Interesting. I know little about BDSM per se, but believe that dominance/submission can be voluntary and mutually rewarding, so long as all involved are continually free to put an end to it. It goes back to the old question of whether or not contracts of slavery (or indentured servitude) are enforceable. Wendy McElroy wrote a nice piece on that a short while back. http://www.thedailybell.com/editorials/35886/Wendy-McElroy-Can-I-Sell-Myself-into-Slavery/

    • Whatever rocks your boat. But the film doesn’t actually portray him as a rapist. Every act in the film is done with formal consent. The point is that Christian Gray is trying to seduce her into believing that being a submissive is good for her, when it is not. The film makes clear that this has nothing to do with love, but is really a problem that Christian has. And I cannot help but agreeing that people who find pleasure in the idea of having power over others have emotional problems.

      In the same sense the state is trying to trick us into believing that our loyalty to it is good for us, when it is not. In the film she can take the elevator down and walk out on him. In our relationship to the state however, the elevator seems broke. A problem that we are working on, to fix it, but for now that is indeed where the analogy breaks down.

  • A wonderful example of what makes you a great writer, Jeffrey–the ability to connect the common experiences in life to libertarian thinking. And always positive and health responses to the tyranny of government–not suggestions of violent overthrow. Passive liberty, if you will, meaning the choice to act whenever the opportunity it afforded, by simply choosing freedom . I cant help but think of your book Bourbon for Breakfast. Some may see that as a stretch, but I mean by that the power of the free, individual mind. In a world of frustrated libertarians (those like myself), angry with the state of affairs and prone to taking matters into our own hands, you once again have offered a view of the liberty that only asks that we peacefully grasp it.

  • Well done, Jeffrey! I really think you’ve made a great connection. You have given me a valid reason to see this film and to use excerpts of it for making powerful points for liberty. I have not read the book for the same reasons Christian Gruber has pointed out; my friends in the BDSM community have had similar mixed emotions about it. It gets a discussion started where it was previously absent, but presents such a horrific picture of the practice that it poisons the well. But as a metaphor for the State? Priceless!

  • Jeffrey, I very much enjoyed your essay, especially making the comparison between the slave contract of Grey and the social contract of the state. It seems to me that there is a powerful analogy that you’ve done great work exploring here.

    One of the aspects of the state’s social contract that I find especially interesting is the extent to which tens of millions, and by some estimates as many as 147 million, Americans do not participate. They don’t file income tax papers, even though the IRS believes they should be compelled to do so. In their testimony before Congress in the late 1990s, the IRS indicated that there were, then, 66 million Americans not filing, not signing a paper each year saying they are “taxpayers.” The IRS used that fact to justify its heinous, abusive, violent acts toward taxpayers.

    People shouldn’t consent to be governed. And if the government bothers them, it seems that many people find relief through the simple act of moving and leaving no forwarding address.

  • See there we are again – a “slave contract” in a BDSM play context you can renounce, and no one will come to the dominant’s defense to coerce you to stay in it. Try to renounce the social contract. Quite a different matter.

    Which is not to (see above) in anyway approve of how 50 shades portrays BDSM, but to point out that _even_ Christian Grey’s terrible practice of pseudo-BDSM is better than the state’s claim of “consent of the governed” which is to say, no consent at all.

    • I have renounced the social contract. No one has tried to coerce me to stay in it. Maybe you should give that a try, Christian. I certainly agree that the state doesn’t have good claim to the consent of those it actually governs.

      • Well… I mean I have renounced the concept of a social contract – but if any of us renounce it hard enough, and then claim what is being taken from us is illegitimate, and then refuse to offer it, we are ultimately put in cages and our things are taken anyway. At least as long as most people do believe they are entitled to our labours and its fruits, without consent.

        With enough work by all of use, we might one day change that. 🙂

        • I have not been put in a cage. But, I have to note, people not breaking any laws are sometimes put in cages. The state is run by psychotic misanthropes.

          • When I refer to renouncing it hard enough, and claiming, I’m referring to doing things like not paying taxes, which is certainly against the law in most states. And that can escalate into jail time, for sure.

            But, as you point out (rightly) people are sometimes put into cages arbitrarily anyway.

          • There seems to be a limit to the number of thread levels of “reply.” Anyway, in response to your note about “not paying taxes” it is and always has been my view that I pay all of the taxes that I actually owe. That said, it is also very clear from the evidence that well over a hundred million Americans that the IRS thinks ought to be filing taxes every year do not do so, and there are no consequences to not doing so. It was over 60 million in 1998 or so when the IRS was in front of Congress for brutality toward tax payers, and that was one of their excuses: we have to brutalise the peasants, you see, because else they won’t pay up. But, even then, where would they put 60 million + tax criminals? Today, some figures I’ve seen have the number in excess of 147 million American non-filers. Is half the country going to imprison the other half? I don’t think that’s a serious idea. No, laughing at the IRS isn’t a good idea, and deliberately tweaking their noses in public isn’t a good idea, but the truth is: lots of people don’t file tax papers and don’t face any consequences.

  • Nice allegory. I enjoyed it. However, the real social contract starts at birth and is forced on us all by our parents even though they don’t understand it. It is called the Social Security Number!

    Don’t care much for Hollywood and all their copyrights!

  • Jeffrey, what would be an acceptable way for this article to be shared on a European website? Articles like these are great and I would very much like to share them with a Dutch-speaking audience. Do I just link to it? Are translations allowed? Whatever works for you!

  • This makes me think of the 1984 vs. Brave New World question. Is the state ultimately using outright force, or controlling us though pleasure and a twisted kind of consent? I think this may be a great answer. The state uses the methods Huxley described, so that they can transform into 1984 once we’ve crossed the Rubicon.

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