The term civil disobedience refers to the practice of deliberately disrespecting and disobeying laws in order to advance a common cause or a moral principle, or to take drastic actions aimed at changing a particular political setting or a specific legal provision. Civil disobedience should not be mistaken with peaceful and legal protests (rightful resistance), which are conducted within the framework of the existing legal principles.
All resistance movements, whether for just or unjust causes, always stem from the principle of changing a determinate pattern of behavior that, even if it respects the national legislation, is deemed unfair by groups of people or by entire communities. Despite a large number of arguments against such practice, civil disobedience has proved useful and successful in several occasions.
Historical Cases of Civil Disobedience
- Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March: This peaceful campaign of civil disobedience began in 1930 and aimed to end the British practice of taxing Indian salt production. The march was forcibly repressed by the British forces, but succeeded in creating a cohesive social movement by showing a united opposition front against the British rule and by paving the way for future civil disobedience movements.
- Flying Squadrons during the Great Depression: The US’s biggest economic recession of the 20th century led to widespread insurgency movements. At the beginning of the 1930s, industrial workers began to organize violent flying pickets and sit-ins to oppose job losses and pay cuts.
- Poll Tax Riots: One of the most recent examples of civil disobedience, the poll tax riots arose in the UK in the 1990s and brought together thousands of people across the country. The riots disrupted the common legal and political order in the United Kingdom.
Many argue that civil disobedience is a crucial step needed to achieve progress. Women’s rights movements, civil rights movements, and LGTBI rights movements can all be considered disruptive practices, conducted either in peaceful or violent ways, but all outside the legal frameworks of the country of concern. Disrupting a pattern inevitably leads to change, but is it always worth it?
What laws can civil disobedience break?
Not all countries have the same type of legislation, and not every state has the same constitutional framework nor the same moral and legal standards. As such, civil disobedience varies greatly from place to place and from nation to nation. In certain countries, the political discourse allows the emergence of strong civil society movements and provides the tools and the legal space for rightful protests to take place. In other countries, instead, political space is almost non-existent, and a larger variety of actions can be interpreted as civil disobedience attempts.
Depending on the country of concern, civil disobedience can break
- national laws,
- constitutional laws,
- federal laws,
- regional legislations, and
- international laws.
Such distinction implies that there can be different levels of civil disobedience, but regardless of the gravity and the methodology, the driving principle remains constant.
What can be argued against civil disobedience?
Whether civil disobedience is conducted in peaceful or violent ways, whether for just or unjust causes, arguments against the very principle of disregarding the existing laws remain widespread. The main point of all anti-civil disobedience thoughts is based on the primacy of law against potential chaos and anarchy. Breaking the law can lead to a never-ending chain of subsequent repercussions that might end up entirely disrupting the state apparatus or that might create a climate of chaos and confusion, thus endangering the very safety of the civilian population as well as the survival of the political and bureaucratic order.
In general, civil disobedience movements do not aim at completely destroying the status quo, rather they attempt to challenge specific provisions they disagree with. However, setting clear boundaries and limiting the action of ever-growing social movements can be complicated. Challenging any law, even those deemed unjust, can have dramatic consequences.
Therefore, is anarchy to be preferred to despotism or unjust laws?
If, quoting Henry Thoreau, any government is “only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will,” then people should be considered above the State itself because “there will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”
Yet, for many, fighting for just causes can never justify breaking the law.
- First, who decides when a cause is just or not? As a principle, if it goes against an existing law it is not just, or at least, not legal.
- Second, how is changing the law going to help progress if, while fighting for change, the civil disobedience movement has destroyed the ability of the state apparatus and of the police forces to uphold any law?
Moreover, accepting the power of laws and the authority of the state also implies benefiting from all the services offered by the State, including health care, education, etc. Putting one’s own moral values and principles above this may prove successful—in the sense that the efforts may result in effective change of laws—but whoever decides to do so, shall no longer benefit from those services.
In addition, if the civil disobedience movements disrupt the status quo and challenge the existing order, everyone may be deprived of such benefits.
Consequently, destroying the pre-set order in the name of higher moral values or principles, but failing to consider the possible repercussions of the lack of authority of the State apparatus may provoke a quick descent into anarchy.
Violence is Never the Answer
Henry Thoreau, Martin Luther King, and Mahatma Gandhi are among the main exponents of civil disobedience movements, but none of them have ever incentivized violence or the use of force to achieve any goal. When Thoreau was arrested, he chose to follow the path of non-violence, and to fight a State, which “is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength,” only with his intellectual and moral strength.
Interestingly, even though the American writer and philosopher never called for violence, several civil disobedience movements that were inspired by his words and work resulted in violent actions, such as the following:
- Flying pickets
- Violence against innocent civilians
- Violence against police officers
- Destruction of public spaces and buildings
These are only some of the violent acts committed by protestors demanding a drastic change in the national legal paradigm. Striving for progress and equality is embedded in our very human nature, but the fight for “just” moral principles should never justify the use of violence, and rightful resistance should always be preferred to alternative, disobedient means of protest.
When International and National Do Not Coincide…
Another significant problem linked to the validity of civil disobedience movements is the difficulty caused by the discrepancy between national and international laws. It is not rare for States to ratify international treaties and covenants or accept the jurisdiction of international courts, but fail to harmonize the national legal framework with the international standards.
Generally, international laws and norms are deemed superior, but, to date, there is no independent monitoring mechanism ensuring the compliance of each country with international legal instruments. As such, states decide what rules to abide by and solve disputes by means of diplomatic tools.
Consequently, even if international law should be influencing national policies, national movements operating against national laws in the name of international standards remain within the framework of civil disobedience. Yet, this does not imply that such movements never disobey international laws.
- Civil disobedience means deliberately disobeying national laws in order to advance moral principles deemed superior to the existing legal provisions.
- Civil disobedience movements often draw inspiration from the actions and words of Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.
- Civil disobedience movements can oppose regional, national, and international laws.
- In the past, several civil disobedience movements have proved effective, especially in the long-term.
- Cases of civil disobedience have led to violence and disrupted social, legal, and political order: fighting for a “just” cause never justifies the use of violence.
- There is no common standard to define whether a law is to be considered just or unjust.
- Challenging the authority of the state and the validity of the law can lead to chaos and anarchy. Setting new standards shall never deprive the government and the security forces from upholding the law.
- Challenging national laws in the name of international standards does not transform civil disobedience into rightful resistance.
- Disobeying the law implies that everyone may be deprived of the benefits granted by the law itself.
- Law shall always maintain primacy over anarchy.