Bernard E. Harcourt | Unbundling Civil Disobedience

By Bernard E. Harcourt

In discussions of political action, we tend to speak of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King in the same breath—as “founders” and “practitioners” of modern civil disobedience. We tend to think of the three as each having exercised “civil disobedience.” But the truth is, Thoreau, Gandhi, and King came to “civil disobedience” from diametrically opposed places, and they were, as a political, ethical, and practical matter, far apart. There is, as a result, no good reason to place the three under the same rubric. The proximity—the shared language of “civil disobedience”—does more to obfuscate their political views then it does to enlighten them, and it does more to confuse their political practices than to clarify them.

In previous work on what I called “political disobedience” as a way to identify the type of political action that was instantiated during the Occupy Wall Street movement, I used the concept of “civil disobedience” as a rough foil—sketching a simple model of civil disobedience based predominantly along the lines of Martin Luther King. In this presentation, I would like to return to the category of “civil disobedience” in order to unpack it and demonstrate the different politics and practices that we elide when we use such a rough category.

The problem, as I see it, is not just that the practices of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King took different “forms” and therefore were deep variations on “one” modality of revolt. Nor really is the problem that they represented different manners of contesting forms of obedience—in other words, that we could amalgam them from the other side of obedience. The problem is that they instantiate completely different politics—in other words, completely different relations of the subject/citizen to the polis—and as a result have entirely different relations to the political act of disobeying positive laws.

To sketch, in the simplest terms, an outline of my presentation, I would say that they three—Thoreau, Gandhi, and King—had entirely different political theories: libertarian individualist, ascetic holistic, and messianic evangelical. These produce very different relations to political action: separatist anarchist, ethical liberal, and justice independentist. The result is that the act of disobeying a positive law takes on very different meaning for each of them, and functions differently.

What this would mean is that civil disobedience itself—standing alone, the act of not obeying a positive law—is not really a proper category of analysis. It does more to obfuscate than to clarify. It essentially misses its target. Civil disobedience always needs to be qualified: Gandhian satyagraha, King’s civil disobedience, etc. And even then, the evaluation of the practice must turn on our assessment of the politics, not the act.

In effect, to do otherwise would be like lumping together the NRA and the Black Panthers because they both believed in the power of armed resistance or the public display of guns—and to then talk about them in the same breath, as if they were ideologically aligned. The problem is to mistake a method, a strategy, a political means, for the political vision. In the end, I would argue that we should refrain from privileging instruments and tools—and focus instead on the politics. We need to unbundle civil disobedience.