Civil Disobedience — Between Symbolic Politics and Real Confrontation

by | 2 Jul 2012

Some consider civil disobedience too radical; an attempt to procure political power under the mantle of moral principles or a one-sided renunciation of the duty to obey and uphold the law, and that is not to be tolerated. Citizens in functioning democracies must limit themselves to the legally sanctioned possibilities available to them for expressing dissenting views and influencing the political process. From this perspective, civil disobedience is little more than political blackmail. Others consider it an impotent expression of a reformist yearning for cosmetic changes within the given system; as a socially permissible and harmless protest of well-intentioned citizens that remains purely symbolic and only contributes to stabilizing prevailing relationships.

This essay attempts to show that both of these widespread views fail to fully address the specific characteristics of civil disobedience as a genuinely political and democratic practice of contestation. To present these specifics in detail, it is first necessary to define civil disobedience. Second, I situate this form of political practice between the opposing poles of symbolic politics and real confrontation. In a closing remark, I briefly examine the role of civil disobedience in representative democracies.

What is Civil Disobedience?

The highly influential definition put forth by John Rawls is a good place to begin. In his view, civil disobedience is, in distinction to other forms of resistance, “a public, nonviolent and conscientious yet political act contrary to law, usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government”. With it, one appeals to the “sense of justice of the majority,” all “within the limits of fidelity to law,” (Rawls 1971, 364–66) which, among other things, is expressed by accepting the possibility of punishment. In the philosophical debate on civil disobedience, virtually all aspects of this definition have proven to be controversial: Does the criterion of civil disobedience being “public” require that the authorities are informed in advance, as Rawls suggests? Is the criterion of nonviolence reconcilable with specific forms of coercion, for instance curtailing the freedom of movement of non-participants, and violence toward things or oneself? How does the communicative and symbolic aspect of civil disobedience relate to forms of direct action, which frequently go beyond the moral appeal, such as blockade (for instance of atomic waste transports), confrontation (with security forces that have cordoned off places of assembly, for example), or sabotage (of such things as animal testing)? Does aiming at persuasion exclude attempting to significantly raise the economic and symbolic costs of a specific course of action, like deporting refugees? Aren’t there forms of disobedience that are based on advocacy or self-interest – ones not necessarily defined by conscience? Did Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in fact appeal to the sense of justice of the majority (however that is to be identified), and campaign for changes within the existing system, and are they at all beholden to provide a justification for their actions given the political and social conditions? Is one truly obliged to accept the potential penalty?

In the context of these problems, it seems appropriate to define civil disobedience in a way that is less normatively demanding and therefore less restrictive, as an intentionally unlawful and principled collective act of protest (in contrast to both legal protest and “ordinary” criminal offenses or “unmotivated” rioting), that (in contrast to conscientious objection, which is protected in some states as a fundamental right) has the political aim of changing specific laws, policies or institutions. This somewhat minimalist definition deliberately leaves open whether civil disobedience always has to be public, nonviolent, only directed at state institutions, limited in its goals, and restricted to transforming the system within its existing limits, as well as whether accepting punishment is a necessary criterion. These aspects are, however, certainly relevant to the question of whether concrete acts of civil disobedience are justifiable.

Although civil disobedience has to be distinguished from both legal opposition and revolutionary revolt and other forms of resistance, these boundaries are politically contested in practice and probably cannot be drawn as easily as theory suggests. Not least for this reason, the question of definition should not be mixed up with the question of justification and perhaps that of strategy as well.

Under what conditions can civil disobedience, understood in this way, be considered justified? Following Rawls, liberal theorists generally tend to restrict the grounds for justifying civil disobedience to the basic principles of justice and individual rights. However, such a focus on fundamental rights tends to exclude from view certain forms of socioeconomic inequality, as well as procedural and institutional shortcomings in democracy that prevent citizens from effectively engaging in self-legislation and that might also qualify as potential grounds of justification. We will return to this in the third section of this essay.

Civil Disobedience between Symbolic Politics and Real Contestation

Two of the most prominent theories of civil disobedience, those of Rawls and Habermas, highlight its primarily or even exclusively symbolic character. This threatens, however, to reduce civil disobedience to a purely moral appeal, which sets all hopes on a responsive public. This raises the question of whether civil disobedience necessarily requires a moment of real confrontation for it to be politically effective. This question can be addressed in two ways.

First, one can take a fresh look at the question of violence. From this perspective, “nonviolent” opposition is frequently diagnosed as resting on a basic form of self-deception: its self-pacification ultimately amounts to self-neutralization. An example of this position can be found in the context of the debates on leftist militancy at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, in 2007. As stated in one account: “For many people, this wasn’t about ‘engaging in dialogue’ with the powers that be, about ‘being heard,’ or ‘constructive critique’ (i.e. being part of organizing how capital is valorized). The Rostock riots were one of the few signs against the summit of self-declared world leaders that could not be integrated or somehow reinterpreted. Here, symbols of the capitalist system were attacked, be it banks or cops, in order to say ‘No’ […]. The slogan ‘Attack Capitalism’ was aggressively implemented on June 2, 2007 .” (Einige autonome [ex-]Stipendiat/innen 2008, 46) Apart from the problem of specific formulations, this statement appears to be an example of a militant self-misunderstanding of activists who adhere to the phastasmatic notion of being able to confront the state apparatus (or “the system”) on the streets. But such an approach threatens to overstate the significance of the moment of real confrontation, at the price of being ignorant of the necessity of symbolic mediation.

Conversely, it can also be argued, as a second way of answering the question, that civil disobedience does in fact have an irreducible symbolic dimension, but that it cannot be reduced to this dimension, because without moments of real confrontation, civil disobedience would also lose its symbolic power and turn into a mere appeal to the conscience of the powers that be and their respective majorities. The necessity of going beyond the purely symbolic is therefore substantiated by the symbolic function of civil disobedience itself, or a condition of its effectiveness: civil disobedience is a form of political practice that is essentially relying on stagings and (re-)presentations ­– more so than other forms of political practice. This is the case in at least two regards. First, civil disobedience functions primarily as dramatization, as Martin Luther King, Jr. already saw: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” (King 1963) In more general terms, one can also understand civil disobedience as the illegal but “legitimate dramatizing of the tension between the poles of positive law and existing democratic processes and institutions on the one hand, and the idea of democracy as self-government on the other, which is not exhausted by established law and the institutional status quo.” (Rödel, Frankenberg & Dubiel 1989, 46)

Second, this practice is always associated with symbolic struggles, first and foremost about the label “civil disobedience” itself. These struggles are symbolic, but also go beyond symbolism since they have tangible political and legal consequences. In Austria, the “SoKo Pelztier” was created to take action against the more or less civil acts of disobedience of radical animal-rights activists, who were then charged with forming a criminal organization. In Great Britain, in the context of the Blair government’s anti-terror legislation, animal activists were similarly explicitly categorized as terrorists and as a threat to national security. These are just two examples of the state’s tactic of renaming an action, which illustrates how categorizations are used for political ends. In other cases, one might ask whether the actions of some protest groups, for instance of the far right, merit being labeled as “civil disobedience,” as the term is connected to a long, broad-reaching tradition of progressive social and political struggles for emancipation, the invocation of which will often confer some legitimacy on what one is doing.

Neither the aspect of dramatization nor the centrality of symbolic struggles can be adequately grasped if civil disobedience is reduced to a purely symbolic protest. It can only function as a symbolic protest if it involves moments of real confrontation, such as practices of blockade and occupation, and at the same time it can only function as real confrontation if one is aware of its irreducible symbolic dimension. The alternative of true militancy versus pure symbolism misses the complexity of this political practice.

The Role of Civil Disobedience in Democracy

The difference between a liberal, more rights-oriented perspective on civil disobedience and a radical democratic one, which situates it within the aforementioned tension, is also evident when it comes to the role of this contestatory practice in a democratic society. Whereas from a liberal perspective, civil disobedience mainly appears as a form of protest of individual rights bearers against governments and political majorities that transgress the limits established by constitutionally guaranteed moral principles and values, a radical democratic perspective does not view civil disobedience primarily in terms of limitation. It views it rather as the expression of a democratic practice of collective self-determination, as a dynamizing counterweight to the rigidifying tendencies of state institutions. From this viewpoint, this episodic, informal, and extra- or anti-institutional form of political action then also allows citizens to protest and participate, when – as is often the case in representative democracies – the regular institutional avenues are closed to them or are ineffective in getting their objections across. In the context of existing political systems, political processes of deliberation and decision-making are distorted by almost unavoidable structural democratic deficits – for instance in the dimensions of representation, participation, and deliberation, but also due to the influence of asymmetrical power differences in the public debate, hegemonic discourses, and ideological self-conceptions? This fact constitutes the starting point of the radical democratic concept of civil disobedience.

Given these structural shortcomings of democracy, which are characteristic of real democracies and that Colin Crouch summarizes under the term “post-democracy”, (Crouch 2008) civil disobedience can be understood as a form of democratic empowerment that aims for a more intensive and/or more extensive form of democratic self-determination. It is thus not so much about preventing or implementing a specific policy option, which is either inconsistent with or mandated by the substantive norms and values of liberalism, but instead about initiating or resuming political engagement. Rather than being viewed as the actions of individual rights bearers, civil disobedience thus emerges as an essentially collective and political practice of contestation, in which the vertical form of state authority ­– constituted power – is confronted with the horizontal constituting power of the association of citizens or those governed. Since these structural deficits are unlikely to be addressed from within existing institutions, activist forms of political protest, such as civil disobedience, play a central role in a democracy. Situated between the poles of symbolic politics and real confrontation, civil disobedience exposes the tension between constituted and constituting power that is at the basis of democracy – thereby keeping doubts alive about the official order’s claim that this tension has been successfully resolved.

Robin Celikates is Associate Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and an associate member of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. A version of this article previously appeared in “Demonstrationen, Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg 2012.”


– Crouch, Colin. 2004. Post-Democracy (Cambridge:Polity Press)
– King jr, Martin Luther. 1963. Letter from a Birmingham Jail,
– Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice (Cambridge/MA: Harvard University Press)

– Rödel, Frankenberg & Dubiel. 1989. Die demokratische Frage (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp)


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