Why a new book on civil disobedience? Many impressive intellectuals –just to mention a few of the most famous: Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, and John Rawls– have already written extensively on the topic. What more could one possibly say about something that so preoccupied Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and countless others inspired by their heroic actions?
My answer is straightforward: new political and social challenges demand that we rethink familiar answers to old puzzles. At least since Gandhi, among activists civil disobedience has represented a singularly influential approach to nonviolent, politically motivated lawbreaking. In the face of worldwide threats to democracy and basic rights (most ominously, the rise of authoritarian populism), we need to revisit conventional ideas about civil disobedience, reexamine their main components, and carefully reconsider how and why they demand a very special type of political lawbreaking. Given the emergence of many novel types of activism and protest politics, we should also try to figure out not only what remains valuable in those standard accounts, but also what we probably should discard.
Edward Snowden, for example, has described his acts of electronic whistleblowing and digital lawbreaking as civil disobedience. Does it make sense to employ an idea originally designed with physical or “on-the-street” protests in mind to do so? What is gained –and what is lost– by using the concept of civil disobedience to capture his and similar examples of digital lawbreaking?
Protesting global capitalism, the aptly named “Occupy” movement occupied symbolically significant public and private locales –most famously, Zuccotti Park in New York’s downtown financial district. To what extent can we usefully analyze such activities by placing them under the rubric of civil disobedience? Conventional defenses of civil disobedience generally presupposed the primacy of the modern nation-state and national politics. Can they now be fruitfully redeployed against postnational political and social ills –for example, global financial elites exercising disproportionate power and influence?
Despite many striking political and institutional novelties, I argue that the idea of civil disobedience remains an essential piece of the puzzle of contemporary politics. To see why, my book identifies overlapping yet basically rival models of civil disobedience –namely, competing religious-spiritual, liberal, democratic, and anarchist models. Even though significant conceptual divides separate them, they rest on a common political and theoretical language. While taking civil disobedience’s rich and variegated conceptual forms seriously, we can identify family resemblances between and among its rival religious, liberal, democratic, and anarchist versions. As I try to show, civil disobedience remains –even today– a powerful way to think about nonviolent political lawbreaking and potentially a no less powerful way to bring about positive political and social change.
William E. Scheuerman is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University. His new book Civil Disobedience is now available from Polity.