Civil disobedience leads to social progress

Climate protestsWhy civil disobedience is good for democracy

Protests of civil disobedience are currently booming: right-wing extremist marches are stopped with sit-ins, activists: inside carry the climate protests in coal mines - and now traffic is also being blocked in numerous cities in the country to draw attention to the urgency of climate change and to put pressure on politicians to increase.

The strength of civil disobedience lies in the fact that the participants deliberately challenge the state and politics with the mostly publicly announced rule violation. Anyone who violates the rules says very clearly: "This is so important to me that I accept legal consequences for it." A demo with 10,000 people is much easier to ignore than a non-violent blockade of central London with the same number of participants.

Civil disobedience relies on disruption by non-violent means; it wants to gain media attention for a topic and also creates this through the real pressure that such actions can build up. Every hour that a coal-fired power station is not running or that commuters are kept from work by road blocks inside costs money. And so civil disobedience creates the necessary suffering when the means of classical demonstration are no longer sufficient to make a difference.

Protest form with a long tradition

Civil disobedience is a form of protest that goes beyond mere demonstration. Well-known modern representatives of civil disobedience are Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. But civil disobedience as a form of protest is older and was already used in pre-Christian times around 411 BC. In the Greek comedy "Lysistrata", the women of Athens block the Parthenon, and thus the treasury of the city, in what is perhaps the first sit-in blockade in history, in order to end the war with Sparta.

The term "civil disobedience" first appeared in the middle of the 19th century with Henry David Thoreau, who is considered one of the pioneers of civil disobedience. Thoreau starts from two basic assumptions: First, the authority of a government is based on the consent of the governed and, second, justice is more important than law. The individual can judge whether laws are fair.

In short, Thoreau says:

“If the law is such that it necessarily turns you into the arm of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Make Mach your life a counterbalance to stop the machine. "

In the more recent theory of civil disobedience, however, it is not only about laws, but also about duties, orders and rules.

Balancing and nonviolence

To ensure that the action is not just a simple breaking of the law, civil disobedience involves a careful deliberation process. Because civil disobedience is based on the fact that someone puts his conscience and morals above the law in order to put an end to an injustice or to combat an injustice. It is about a conscious process and a conscious decision to accept the consequences and punishment for violating the rules.

The mainstay of civil disobedience is nonviolence. Nonviolence means here that actions must never be directed against human dignity. Civil disobedience categorically excludes violence against people. According to Gandhi, nonviolence has both moral and strategic reasons.

An integral part of the democratic protest arsenal

Actions of civil disobedience always take place in the tension between legitimacy and illegality. As a result, civil disobedience has to be justified and legitimized again and again. In every action there will be people who say, “What you are doing is illegal. You're breaking laws. "

Nevertheless, forms of action of civil disobedience such as sit-in blockades have established themselves as an integral part of democratic protests and are also accepted by large sections of society. The sit-downs by well-known intellectuals at the Mutlangen nuclear weapons camp in 1983 also contributed to this.

In the 1980s, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas defined civil disobedience within very narrow limits:

Civil disobedience is a morally justified protestwhich should not only be based on private beliefs or personal interests; he is a public actwhich is usually announced and the process can be calculated by the police; it includes the willful violation of individual legal norms without affecting obedience to the legal order as a whole; he demands that Willingness to stand up for the legal consequences of the violation of the norm; the rule violation expressing civil disobedience has exclusively symbolic character, this already results in the limitation to non-violent means of protest.

Similar to the philosopher John Rawls, Habermas sees civil disobedience as calculated violations of rules of a symbolic nature. The illegality of the action indicates the political urgency of the demand. The public of the action protects against people breaking rules and laws out of particular interests or out of self-interest. Habermas sees civil disobedience as an "element of a mature political culture" and thus an instrument for improving the state.

Definition too narrow

Rawls and Habermas' definitions narrow civil disobedience to symbolism within democracies. The social scientist Alex Demirović criticizes this: “Accordingly, many of the protests that we have seen in recent years, for example the movements in the Arab states or the protests under the title“ Outrage! ”And those that go along with Demands for real democracy were not to be construed as civil disobedience in this sense. "

There are numerous other examples why Habermas' definition is too narrow: When an Edward Snowden breaks the laws of secrecy for the public for reasons of conscience, for example, it is not just about symbolism, but about educating others. Here, too, we are dealing with disobedience oriented towards the common good, which serves the public interest and wants to put an end to a grievance. The definition coined in the 1980s is too narrow to encompass (civil) disobedience in all its facets.

Civil disobedience strengthens the defenses of democracy

Various authors see civil disobedience as an instrument to revive democracy. And there is something to it: civil disobedience can trigger processes of emancipatory self-empowerment and inspire other people to protest. At the same time, protests of civil disobedience create situations of participation and solidarity. Anyone who has experienced this in a sit-down, hooked up with total strangers, determined people, gets a new feeling of social cohesion. The experiences of actions of civil disobedience ultimately strengthen the defenses of democracy and expand the possibilities of protest.

Civil disobedience can be integrated into large parts of civil society due to its non-violent orientation. With the call for massive civil disobedience, political alliances can create public awareness long before the action, in order to open windows for political change.

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About the author

Markus Reuter

Markus Reuter deals with the topics of digital rights, hate speech & censorship, fake news & social bots, right-wing extremists online, video surveillance, basic and civil rights and social movements. At netzpolitik.org since March 2016 as an editor. He can be reached at markus.reuter | ett | netzpolitik.org and on Twitter at @markusreuter_
Published 09/19/2019 at 6:32 pm