An inquiry into the social, cultural and historical narrative around civil disobedience as a legitimate tool of public protest would traditionally highlight the successes of these movements—Egypt in 1919 against British occupation, Gandhi and the Indian independence movement, the South African struggle against against Apartheid, the American civil rights movement and more recently, in movements across the Baltic states. Tempting, as it might be, to believe that civil disobedience is a legitimate tool that citizens can deploy in situations that are morally or politically at odds with their individual consciences, a question worth asking is whether it is a legitimate tool within the framework of a democratic State?
Martin Luther King, writing in his letter from Birmingham Jail, states that
“In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”
He advocates these as escalating steps, that the first step is to gather evidence that such injustices, are in fact, occurring, that armed with such evidence, negotiations are entered into, and only when such negotiations irretrievably fail should direct action be resorted to. While direct action seems to imply more than just peaceful confrontation, King explains that direct action is to be non-violent and “… seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” Or, to put it differently, when the traditional models and pathways for citizen engagement have broken down or can no longer be relied upon.
Recently, Dimitris Reppas, the Greek minister for public transport, stated the government would not let
“Greece [be] exposed to the risk of international disrepute and marginalisation, [the] destination of countries characterised by anomie. The attack on the social acceptability of the free-rider and the political dismantling of its simulacrum of progressiveness is paramount.”
As convoluted as that statement is, it is worth remembering that governments, in democratically elected situations, derive their legitimacy from a social contract with citizens. This social contract is not absolute and is not, in itself, a blanket justification for policies and laws that are opposed by citizens. This is because the opposition towards such policies and laws are derived from their individual moral and political conscience that cannot be seen to have been abrogated by an election. As Costas Douzinas, a law professor at the University of London writes,
“Our implicit promise to obey the government does not mean blanket acceptance of its specific policies. A controversial policy does not become automatically legitimate because it has been enacted in parliament and become law … This is where the right and duty of civil disobedience enters the scene. If state laws and policies conflict with basic constitutional principles, the supposedly highest expression of popular sovereignty, the obligation to obey disappears and dissent replaces consent.”
A common criticism has been that democracies offer multiple methods of resolution of differences—regular elections allow those opposing a Government’s policies to vote them out of power and a legal system allows for multiple levels of challenge to laws that are seen as unjust. However, these arguments often fail to take in to account that opposition cannot always be expected to wait for an election cycle—there is no obvious reason an unjust policy should not be challenged at the point of its instatement. Further, where there are special interest groups that direct and shape policy, a civil movement might be the only available recourse to bring to attention an injustice. Not all civil disobedience movements confront issues that can be raised in a court of law. In many instances, where the law trails social trends and mores, a movement of civil disobedience might be the only way to challenge such legal norms that are clearly out of sync with social norms. An important corollary to this is that it is necessary to disobey an unconscionable law in order to bring a legal challenge to it. Individuals engaged in civil disobedience must be willing to bear the consequences of such action.
The discourse around civil disobedience is complex and layered and touches upon multiple other manifestations of civil disobedience—whether violence is acceptable, whether non-cooperation is a valid tool to be used within this context, whether it is a recipe for anarchy if multiple groups chose this as a model for their own struggle against what they perceive to be morally transgressive laws and more. While the answers vary depending on the philosophical school of thought one engages, a common enough thread is that there is a strong moral mandate for individuals to follow their own conscience and that it is this that forms the basis of civil disobedience.
John Rawls’ account of civil disobedience centres around the notion of a nearly just society but real world exigencies point to a state of affairs far from this notion. Civil disobedience movements, have, in many ways morphed to deal with these realities. However, they are, fundamentally, made up of conscientious opposition by individuals and a willingness to face the political and legal consequences of such action.