Civil Disobedience

"The psychological analysis of the idea of righteousness seems to me to show that it is rooted in undesirable passions and ought not to be strengthened by the imprimatur of reason [...] the herd justifies itself in wreaking punishment upon the objects of its own dislike, while at the same time, since the herd is righteous by definition, it enhances its own self-esteem at the very moment when it lets loose its impulse to cruelty. This is the psychology of lynching, and of the other ways in which criminals are punished. The essence of the conception of righteousness, therefore, is to afford an outlet for sadism by cloaking cruelty as justice." -- Bertrand Russell


I sympathise strongly with Syndicalist ideas. In Syndicalism and Anarchism there is a tradition of civil disobedience, general strikes and sabotage against the corrupt parts of society.

The problem with the current society is that the individual has become alienated in the state. Even in western democracies people feel that they cannot influence the politicians, who have become technocrats without any understanding of "real life". Because of this, many people have become passified gears in the machinery, while others are attracted to Anarchism and go out to sabotage property of "unrighteous" companies, such as the meat and the war industries.

Disobedience is a powerful tool to achieve your ends, but wrongly used it can be an awful weapon of terror. The purpose of this essay is to analyse the benefits and dangers of civil obedience, to try to distinguish between mere disobedience and sabotage, and to make an attempt to decide when, and what kinds of, civil disobedience might be justified.

The idea of civil disobedience

The basis for civil disobedience is to resist an unrighteous power. If the people don't obey the rulers, if labourers lay down their work, if drivers block the roads, etc, it will become impossible for the government to rule the country. Some large scale examples of this are the Spanish Syndicalists who resisted General Franco for several years, the pacifist freedom struggle of India led by Mahatma Gandhi, and lately the strikes in Serbia against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

The problem of using violence

Disobedience is a forceful way of having society do things your way. Even a small group of citizens can, with only a little effort, cause great destruction on the infrastructure of a country. The problem with this is that a small terror group without any mandate from the rest of the population may consider themselves to be the righteous ones. Some Anarchists even think that they are acting in the best interest of society, even though the people sympathise neither with their ends nor their means. These people seem to think that they are somehow superiour, and that the others don't know their own best. This is a kind of elitist thinking that I cannot accept.

There are plenty of problems with this view. First, in democracies we have representative democracy, which means that even though we may dislike a descision made by the politicians they were still made in a process where we had both the right and the possibilities to influence our polititians with rational arguments. And if we are not satisfied with their ruling, we can vote for somebody else in the next election. In a dictatorship civil disobedience is a necessity for the common man to achieve his goals, whereas in a democracy, at least theoretically, the descicions are made by the people.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill "Indirect democracy and parlamentarism are far from perfect, but they are the best we have". The reason why I sympathise with Syndicalism is that I like the ideas of decentralism and cooperatives. In a decentralised society the descisions will be made, not by bureaucrates in a far off town, but by the workers at the factories, the clercs at the offices, the doctors at the hospitals and by the consumers. This is a true democratic system where democracy will be more direct and everybody will feel involved in the descicion-making process.

Most people who advocate civil disobedience have the same ends as I do, but I see a great danger in using violence (for the sake of argument violence is here defined as physical force against property as well as against person). Using violence can never be a good means to achive a peaceful end. The ends are not justified by the means, for increasing violence can only lead to more violence and an escalating process will begin where the final end will inevitabely be some kind of dictatorship, and I don't think that is what any Anarchist or Syndicalist desires.

In a parlimentary system like ours it may be justified to violate immoral laws, if they were made without the consent of the people. It is not the process of disobeying laws I oppose, it is the systematic use of violence to do it. Violence which, in their eyes, gives your opponents a right to retaliate. If there is no objective way of judging morality you, by using violence, seem to think that you have the right to force your ideals on others, and they will think they have an equal right to defend themselves. This leads to a war of "every man against every man" where "might makes right".

If you, on the other hand, acknowledge some objective measurement of morality you are saying that you are the righteous one and your opponents are unrighteous. This is a sophistry which divides society into "them" and "us", where you objectively have the right to force your beliefs onto the others. It is an awful elitist thinking, practiced by the Christian church in "The Dark Ages", and it can only lead to misery.

What kind of disobedience is justified?

From the previous discussion I conclude that using violence is never a good form of civil disobedience. However there are other peaceful methods available. General strikes may cause the same financial harm to a company as sabotage, but at least they are voluntary and they do not include using violence to force your ideas on others. State-owned companies could be occupied by the workers without violating anobody's rights, especially in a dictatorship.

In a libertarian capitalist society where democracy through parlamentarism has been substituted by the dictatorship of the capitalists, I still would not consider justifiable the use of terror and violence to achieve your goals. But strikes and blockades, perhaps even occupation of factories, as long as they are returned after the strike, may be both effective and peaceful means for the oppressed to influence society. If the capitalists' answer to the actions is violence it may be justified to use violence to defend yourself, but I would prefer a peaceful revolution like when India was liberated from the Brittish colonial opression. It should be impossible to rule a people who don't obey the authorities, and it is this kind of civil disobedience that is both morally and pragmatically justified.

Strikes and peaceful blockades of goods are voluntary actions between people, who are fed up with the system and therefore decides to abandon it and no longer be wheels in the machinery. This is a negative action (omission to act) and thus destinguishable from violence which is a positive action (not meaning that it is good). Undermining a system that you no longer support, by leaving it is not the same thing as forcing others to obey your descision.


An opressed people are justified in using disobedience to acheve their goals. However violence is never justified as long as you live in a democracy. Indirect democracy may be corrupt, but using violence will not bring society any closer to improvement. On the contrary, violence will only succeed in creating chaos and a war of every man against every man, and in the end, dictatorship.

Strikes, on the other hand, are voluntary actions brought out by people who don't want to support the system any longer. This is by no means immoral because it is not actively forcing your ideas on others, even if the cost for the industry is the same as violence.

I'd like to see more "guts" in the common man. If there is something wrong in society, write to your politicians, write letters to the editors of newspapers, call a strike, demonstrate on the streets. It may be justified to disobey some laws if they are intruding on your privacy without any practical benefit for any man. Be active, don't be a pawn in a game, but never ever force your opinions on others by using violence!

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File created: January 26, 1997
Last update: January 30, 1997

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