At the end of March 2019, in the time of Venezuelan crisis, Yellow vest movement in France and pupils movement for climate justice Fridays for Future (inspired by Greta Thunberg); we have decided to rethink the concept of civil disobedience with the reference to the text of Hannah Arendt, Civil Disobedience, as part of her book Crisis of the Republic (1972).
As a start, we have shortly summarized the main questions, raised by Arendt in the text. First, the relation between conscientious objection and civil disobedience; second, the relation between morality and politics; third, the willingness to accept punishment for breaking the law; and finally, the role of the law as to an old relation between change and stability (progressiveness and conservatism).
For Arendt, conscientious objection bears quite a different meaning as to civil disobedience. It is “the soundless dialogue between me and myself” (Socrates) and it “mostly says only what not to do”. Moreover, in order to maintain its validity it has to remain individual and subjective, hence, it cannot be generalized. Thus, its political weight to moral decisions is complicated and historically contingent (as the role of the Church on politics and conscience clearly demonstrates). In comparison, civil disobedience per se is intrinsically political. It only gains its true life when exercised in association, when it ceases to be solely individual. It validates itself within the group and consequently becomes public opinion. In short, it becomes political.
Finally, Arendt challenges the role of the law in the process of conserving stability or initiating the societal change. In Arendt´s view, the law lacks the capacity to actually change the society and to initiate progress. On the contrary, it is only able to follow the communal changes which more often occur from the bottom up, when the society collectively initiates and carries out the change. And that is for Arendt precisely the major role of civil disobedience. To articulate the political agendas of minorities, to organize them and to push for political modifications.
The attempt of the cited text is also to possibly offer a constitutional argument for civil disobedience, while understanding it within the shared constitutional commitments and as imbedded in a constitution. Arendt tries to construe this constitutional argument for civil disobedience while linking it to the freedom of association and comparing the civil movements with the lobbying groups.
Moreover, Arendt links the argument for civil disobedience with the spirit of the American laws and Lock´s aboriginal vertical social contract, where the consent is given to the government acting in the capacity of peoples´ delegated powers, which can conversely also be revoked. Or alternatively, which had never been given in the first place, as Arendt argues in the case of Negroes and Indians, which had never been included in the original consensus universalis of the American republic.
Arendt therefore concludes: “It is my contention that civil disobedients are nothing but the latest form of voluntary association, and that they are thus quite in tune with the oldest traditions of the country.”
Our following critical discussion then mostly focused on the next issues. First, speaking from the perspective of the disobedients, whether the punishment ought to be embraced rather than removed from civil disobedients? And second, stemming from a rather structuralist approach to social critique, can the notion of civil disobedience perhaps limit and even usurp the true opposition movements? For while trying to properly define civil disobedience, this very attempt could potentially lead to rigid and perhaps even archaic unnecessary encapsulations of the future social movements. Such a theoretical account could unwillingly delegitimize and even limit a potential revolutionary or at least transformative movement, while trying to honestly endorse it. Furthermore, it was also argued (and disputed as well) that societal movements (or workers’ strikes) perhaps suffer from their institutionalisations and ought to remain raw, perhaps even violent, and thereby honest, original and untamed (political strike, general strike). To enclose them into the anticipated normative structure might take away their very goal: the liberation from the positive societal framework. This goal is threatened already by the mere existence of the given order in its legal, theoretical or linguistic manifestations. On the other hand, it was suggested that the legal language can be used also to address the same structural injustices (transformative theory), which are derivative from this very same structure. Nevertheless, the limits of such endeavour were practically illustrated with the example of property rights and its deeply rooted place within the contemporary liberal democracy.
The debate had essentially changed its venue and it continued in a less structured and more lively spirit, invigorated with some drinks and vegan pizza in a bar close by.