Sandra Laugier | The New Age of Civil Disobedience

By Sandra Laugier

Refusing to obey the law in order to show its injustice: this is the principle of civil disobedience defined by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1861). Today this principle is driving new protest movements, from Anonymous to zadist squatters. Civil disobedience has regained strength over the past decade: we may cite as examples the work of the group Education Without Borders to help children of undocumented immigrants threatened with deportation, the occupation of the proposed construction site of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport, digital raids carried out by the “hacktivists” of the group Anonymous, and most recently, illegal efforts made to welcome migrants. However, civil disobedience could be seen as an outdated and inadequate form of political action: for isn’t it true that in a democracy, the freedom of the vote, of expression, of assembly, of the strike, and of conscience are guaranteed, mechanisms for dialogue are built into legislative processes and collective negotiations, and the defense of fundamental rights is a legal reality that one can participate in?

To understand the success of civil disobedience, we must recall what it is: a voluntary and conspicuous refusal to obey or follow a regulation. Thus we must not think that all resistances and revolts are forms of disobedience. More precisely, it is a non-violent, collective, and public refusal to fulfill a legal or regulatory obligation on the grounds that it violates a higher principle, with the aim of incurring punishment so that the legitimacy of the obligation in question may be assessed through an appeal to the courts. Civil disobedience is based on a moral principle, self-confidence, which encourages the individual to refuse the common, accepted law by basing him- or herself on his or her own conviction. The goal of an action of disobedience is to draw punishment and show the injustice of the law.

Thoreau, the great inspiration for all those who disobey, moved into a cabin he built with his own hands on the shore of Walden Pond on July 4, the anniversary of American independence, and decided he would live there “alone, in the middle of the woods.” The spirit of Walden (1854) is thus also a spirit of occupation, of independence, of the re-appropriation of land and space. This is alsothe spirit of “zadisme.” “Zad” in French stands for “zone d’aménagement différé” (“designated development area”), but activists have changed this to “zone à defendre” (“area to be defended”).

In Thoreau, disobedience takes the form of an occupation, a re-appropriation of “a land of one’s own.” This is also the spirit of the democratic spring “movements” of the 2010s, including the “Nuit Debout” movement: appropriating the public square amounts to claiming a space for those who have no voice, no space, no agency. Gatherings and occupations, global mobilizations, civil insurrections, and digital activism all express feelings of injustice as well as citizens’ determination to organize in order to directly control leaders’ decisions and claim public space. Here disobedience takes on a new dimension and reminds professional politicians and political analysts that the governed never lose sight of their the right and freedom to concern themselves with how matters of the common good are handled. This first extension of the domain of disobedience is expressed in the demand for “real democracy.”

Indeed, it is only within democracy that one disobeys—when the government acts against its own principles and destroys the reason for our consent, our voice.

Advocates of the civil disobedience paradigm see it as a way of renewing democracy by making feelings of injustice, inexpression, and dispossession public and visible. Protest movements make it possible to see, as well as to discuss and debate, problems that have been neglected or pushed aside. They correspond to the need to democratize democracy. Decisions and decision-makers must take into account those affected by them: this is Dewey’s definition of the “public,” which exists beyond and between the electoral rituals to which official political life is reduced. We have seen recently that the public demands more transparency and honesty from leaders, more information for citizens, and real participation in collective choices, which now are reserved to a small minority that is not representative of the population. The public suspects that power has been confiscated by a few, which leads to the question of whether we are truly living in a democracy. This is the question that is emerging today under the name of “disobedience.”

The connection between these new forms of political action lies in their increasingly visible claims for democracy, for a stronger relationship between citizens and politics. One of political philosophy’s tasks is to understand what shifts when forms of life and collective action take democracy as a principle not in order to abstractly “change society” but to transform the practices of politics and with them, society.

The fight to expand citizens’ rights and autonomy almost automatically provokes a violent reaction among conservatives, as well as certain intellectuals in the media. It inevitably leads to posing anew the question of how to define and frame disobedience, this time in the face of those who oppose the expansion of rights. The question must also be asked in the context of the criminalization of normal behaviors, such as welcoming humans in distress. Certainly, hospitality today, in Europe, is the new ground of disobedience.

The Anonymous collective takes the defense of freedoms and the circulation of information to their logical conclusion while acknowledging that the public space governed by states does not allow for free expression. To disobey, in this sense, is also to escape surveillance. This explains why the actions of Anonymous differ from classical acts of civil disobedience, which traditionally have been conspicuously non-violent. Anonymous justifies its new forms of action—divulging “classified” or personal information, attacking official sites—by the violence of the state. According to such groups, the fight is not fair in the public space, so civil disobedience must borrow more radical, and less respectable, methods.

Is this last expansion of disobedience, out of the public sphere, morally defensible? It calls upon us to question our morality alongside our politics, and to remind ourselves that the delinquents of the past are sometimes the heroes of the future: Martin Luther King and his comrades were also considered cowards and thugs. Fight against moralism and fake ethics is the next frontier of politics—and an essential component of political disobedience.