The lazy revolutionary

Alyssa McDonald on how doing a job badly is a tried and tested form of resistance

Everybody loves the idea of a revolution. It's got everything a great headline or history book needs: drama, excitement and inspiring proof that the underdog can come out on top. Unfortunately, what it doesn't have is the ability to emancipate the truly powerless.

You can't have a revolution without the wherewithal to organise one in the first place, which is why most of the world's great rebellions have been started by members of the middle class or the intelligentsia. If you are, say, a peasant in a Malaysian village, living at subsistence level and without the luxury of engaging in open political activity, revolution is not really an option.

In these situations, foot-dragging - agreeing to do something, then doing it slowly, badly or not at all - is the practical alternative. The beauty of it is that anyone can do it: foot-dragging requires no organised political movement and entails no costs. And most importantly, it doesn't involve explicitly rejecting authority, so the risk of confrontation or punishment is far smaller. The worst that's likely to happen is that you will be forced to do as you were told in the first place.

In fact, it's such a good form of resistance that democratic governments are at it, too. It is three years since the Freedom of Information Act was introduced, with promises from Lord Falconer, then secretary of state for constitutional affairs, that it would "make government more open". Yet Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, is still warning various government departments that "they need to get their act together". And the government is still sulkily defending the right to secrecy when it comes to small matters such as the £43bn al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

The US hasn't missed this trick. More than a decade after the Clinton administration refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol without "meaningful participation by key developing nations", Daniel Price, one of George W Bush's senior economic advisers, has announced that the US will accept "binding international obligations" - if other countries do the same. What an advance.

Foot-dragging is not limited to the world of politics: it is also a popular form of resistance among toddlers, who ultimately use it for the same reason as adults do. Although they're not prepared to toe the line, they are equally reluctant to tell the truth and get into trouble for what they want to do. But although foot-dragging is available to everybody, it is a lot more effective for some than others. The political weakness which prevents peasants from staging a full-scale revolution makes others consider their individual rebellions insignificant enough to stay under the radar.

However, governments, like little children, are under constant scrutiny. So while politicians and toddlers can drag their heels in the short term, the pressure to eat one's greens - or the political equivalent - never goes away.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back