A case for uncivil disobedience

Jason Brennan posits a radical, if problematic, thesis that responsible citizens should question authority and fight back when the government encroaches upon their rights.

Published : May 08, 2019 12:30 IST

Relations between people and the governing public institutions must be based on tolerance and mutual respect. To impose the hegemony of the state on the public is to rule via an authoritarian, militaristic structure that is bound to ultimately create unrest. This results in the failure of the modern state that remains oblivious to, as Subcomandante Morcos, the leader of the Zapatista movement, said, “an alternative set of ideas, an alternative attitude to the world”. Morcos elaborated: “There is an oppressor power which decides on behalf of society from above, and a group of visionaries which decides to lead the country on the correct path and ousts the other group from power, seizes power and then also decides on behalf of society.” To reconstruct a new world, the discourses of the conventional state machinery have to undergo a radically transformative change.

It is in this context that Jason Brennan focusses on the “ethics of resistance to state injustice” in When All Else Fails . At the vanguard of any social system stands resistance to the state machinery with the belief “that we can speak on behalf of those beyond ourselves” and not engage in any “political masturbation” where leaders are obsessively preoccupied with themselves. This narrative has to be moved to another level to usher in a new vitality to all resistance movements that are vocal about the denunciation of violence by the state towards the deprived or the marginalised. When we stand up against a police force engaged in any disproportionate disciplining of the putatively felonious, for instance, we express our open opposition to the very idea of injustice. Unequal justice must become unacceptable to a civil society.

Brennan refers to the economist Albert O. Hirschman, who was of the view that citizens of democracies have only three conceivable responses to discrimination or transgressions by their governments: they can either leave, complain or comply. Brennan argues that there is a fourth possibility; when governments encroach upon your rights, you can fight back or resist through “non-compliance—that is, by strategically breaking or ignoring the state’s commands” or through more active forms of resistance, such as “blocking police cars, damaging or destroying government property, deceiving or lying to government agents, or combating government agents”. If the governments are truly democratic, individuals will be free to pursue these anti-state actions when the situation warrants it. This is the fulcrum around which Brennan builds his thesis, countering the epistemic position that people might misuse this theory and engage in an unethical fight against the state machinery. Brennan takes the contrary position, arguing “that it seems more plausible that citizens are more likely to engage in wrongful obedience than they are to engage in wrongful resistance”.

However, it is a common reality, Brennan believes, that people are more conformist, taking the self-serving course of personal well-being over opposition to the status quo. They become inured to the unwarranted violence of the police and mindlessly comply with the government’s call to arms. They obey the law, but if in certain cases they do rebel or demonstrate against its illegitimacy, they must be prepared to bear the consequences. They may “even have a moral duty to do so”. Brennan goes on to question the morality behind the supposed assassination of Adolf Hitler to stop him from attacking Poland or sending Jews to the gas chamber. Would it not be just as acceptable to kill a President “in order to stop him from invading the Philippines, or ordering the genocidal slaughter and forced relocation of an ethnic group?”

The deception and killing in self-defence by an officer in uniform is considered legitimate and takes away the right of the citizen to use self-defence against a person in office “elected by [his/her] neighbour”. Understandably, if imprisoned for something you are not guilty of, you should be free to escape. Soldiers may be justified in flouting unjust instructions. Dissemination of classified information may be for the good of society, and whistle-blowers such as Julian Assange, Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning may not be held guilty. The judiciary can very well lie about its interpretation of the Constitution if only to prevent the operation of an unjust law. Coalescing the moral principle with common sense can lead to controversial issues, but philosophically the rationality of ethics and human behaviour must be permitted to supersede draconian stipulations.

Existing democratic structures establish a mindset that the public must acquiesce to their elected representatives and not interfere in the running of the state, notwithstanding the latter’s actions. We may complain, dissent, indict or vote officials out, but we cannot fight back. But Brennan emphasises the imperative need of “uncivil disobedience” to counter any wrong or confinement in violation of unjust laws: “We may disobey orders, sabotage government property, or reveal classified information. We may deceive ignorant, irrational, or malicious voters. We may even use force in self-defence or to defend others.”

This is a provocative challenge to state power and its unjust undertakings. Take, for example, the case of a black driver pulled up by white policemen for a slip-up that he has not committed. It is an obvious fault of another white man who made the wrong turn and caused the accident. And this is observed by an eyewitness who has the courage to intervene. The result is that he, too, is hauled up for interfering with the law and order machinery.

In another case relating to a youth sitting under a tree with his girlfriend, the constable beats up the boy and questions the girl, making her do sit-ups as punishment. An onlooker tries to stop it but is unsuccessful. The boy is taken to the police station and a report registered against him, thereby blemishing him for life. The onlooker goes out of his way to visit the police station to help the boy, but the state machinery is impervious to his entreaties. Brennan’s thesis bases itself on the interrogation of one’s assumptions while taking action to defend oneself or a fellow-citizen against this obvious injustice.

The disarray of established assumptions comes to the surface, creating a murky picture of injustice and violence. This was the case in ancient Greece too, as Brennan points out: “The pious could not explain what piety is; the just could not explain what justice is.” The silent masses remained silent and perpetually in a state of acceptance. This was unacceptable to Socrates, provoking him to incite the masses, which led to his own end. Many questions come to mind about the problem of ethics, sexual assault, war and environmentalism, and the value society attaches to human rights and justice. It is indeed vexing to debate the morality of violence and argue that it is justified in a specific context. For instance, a rape could be prevented by using force or firearms to suppress the assault and assist the victim. Or, in the case of stealing or killing, what is it that deems it to be a crime?

The book does not question the veneration for laws that stand up for the good of the public. It asks the reader to come to grips with equality and piety in the context of the inordinate force of the state apparatus employed for misuse of its power against the public. Action from the public might lead to arrest, but will the public still take the step to prevent discrimination against the marginalised?

The threat of injustice at the hands of the state is a matter of serious concern: “In the real world, almost every day, people who hold power in democratic societies—including presidents, bureaucrats, judges, police officers, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents, and even democratic voters—use their power in deeply unjust and irresponsible ways. Thus, one pressing question for political philosophy is what ordinary citizens are licensed to do in the face of injustice.” And a moral issue about self-defence raises the question as to whether there is any good reason to grant government agents “special immunity” from common-sense principles of self-defence. The corollary to this would be to hold an unjust civil servant as responsible for his crime as an ordinary citizen’s unmerited acts.

There remains, finally, the indecision of action and its legitimacy both as regards the citizen and the government agent. The right of validity given to an official’s actions indicates his immunity, which is questionable. The use of violence, therefore, for defensive reasons will remain debatable.

The quest for living in a just, free society, governed by an accountable government working for the betterment of the electorate is age-old and drives the masses to continuously strive to change their elected leaders. It is an ideal that is highly debatable in the context that human beings are fundamentally flawed and will, given the choice, wield abusive power.

Brennan has posited a radical thesis, one that is problematic and wildly anarchic. However, as responsible citizens of a democratic state, it is incumbent upon us to question authority and seek redress of our grievances. The purpose of this book is to awaken us from the slumber of blind, apathetic acceptance. It is time to be engaged in a robust conversation about how to turn our “received” democracy on its corrupt head and make it truly participatory and equitable.

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