Chapters 13–15 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on March 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835

Chapter 13

“Practice corporeal politics” is lesson 13. According to Snyder, “two boundaries” must be crossed for resistance to succeed. The first is the boundary between different viewpoints, while the second is the physical boundary between the citizen’s body and their physical surroundings. While social media protest is well-intentioned, “nothing is real that does not end on the streets.” 

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The sole example of successful resistance to communism illustrates Snyder’s point. In 1980–81, the Solidarity labor movement in Poland led to the creation of a free labor union and a renewed commitment by the government to guard human rights. The movement was fruitful because in 1980-81, striking Polish workers on the Baltic Coast were joined in person by hundreds of thousands of scholars, lawyers, and other citizens. Though the Polish government ended Solidarity in 1981 through a martial law, they had to call on the labor union’s help in 1989 when they needed negotiating partners. Solidarity demanded free elections in exchange, which it won, signalling the beginning of the end of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. None of this would have been possible if people had not physically joined the protests of 1980-81.

Chapter 14

Snyder remarks that what Hannah Arendt meant by totalitarianism was a state in which the difference between an individual’s private and public life is erased. During the 2016 elections, Americans unknowingly came close to such an erasure when their personal communication was leaked, whether by “American or Russian intelligence agencies.” Giving one’s personal information up makes the citizen vulnerable to humiliation and external control. Establishing and fiercely defending a private life therefore is an act of resistance, especially in the age when private data can be easily sold to governments by digital behemoths. Snyder suggests people lessen their reliance on the Internet to exchange sensitive information and focus instead on personal exchanges or alternate modes of communication.

When the 2016 information “email bombs” were dropped, the media fell for the classic red herring. Instead of investigating the leak itself, they focused on the contents of the leaked communication, attending to their salacious details. Public appetite to know the secrets of others can be used as a dangerous political tool, Arendt has suggested. The events of 2016 proved her all too right. When people take an active interest in matters of “dubious relevance at moments that are chosen by tyrants, oligarchs, and spooks,” societies turn into surveilling mobs. To safeguard against this tendency, people must individually secure their own communications, as well as support organizations that promote human rights, including the right to privacy.

Chapter 15

Resistance to tyranny need not always be expressly political. People can fight autocracy by funding good causes or charities that resonates with their values, states Snyder. The traditional American view of freedom pits the lone individual against the system and prioritizes the rights of the individual above all else. However, freedom is not just about defending rights—it is also about exercising responsible choices, such as supporting social causes that improve the lives of others. Even something as seemingly apolitical as brewing good beer was seen as a good cause worth investing in by the Czech dissident thinker Vaclav Havel. By doing something for the community, people can help build civil, sociable structures that make “democratic politics more plausible and attractive.”

The anti-communist dissidents of Europe saw this apparently nonpolitical social engagement as a safeguard against tyranny. As people meet, bond, and exchange ideas, they form groups that are discrete from hierarchical structures favored by autocratic governments. No wonder, states Snyder, that authoritarian governments, such as those in contemporary China, India, Russia, and Turkey, denigrate nongovernmental organizations.


“Power wants your body softening in a chair,” states Snyder in chapter 13, drawing a connection between physical passivity and intellectual abdication. Snyder’s point is all the more relevant in the age of screens, where people live a digital as well as a physical life. Though online communities are useful and social media is a great way to organize protest, nothing can replace the reality of taking to the streets. Subservience to the screen thus also becomes indirect subservience to power. What the text subtly suggests is that screens also act as barriers to humane feeling and connection. Online conversation cannot help people break barriers the way in-person conversations can. Therefore, Snyder advocates the politics of the body, where the physical body itself becomes a weapon of protest.

The theme of digital media indirectly acting as an agent of power continues in chapter 14, where Snyder explores the collapse of public and private selves. By letting personal data become easily accessible, people open themselves to surveillance. Thus, what people view as freedom to express themselves is at the same time the loss of freedom of privacy. Hannah Arendt wisely judged that people’s appetite for other people’s secrets is manipulated by tyrants to launch witch hunts that eradicate individual privacy, as was seen in the email leaks of 2016. Delineating and defending one’s private life is paramount to preserving democracy.

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