Utopia & Speech-Act: For a Pragmatics of Civil Disobedience

[This essay is from a couple of years ago.]

The problem with defining ‘civil disobedience’ as a political concept is that such a definition is far too often formed within the limits of a particular legislature, ideology, and historical period. Hence, ambiguity arises; civil disobedience in North Korea has a far different meaning than the term does in the USA. With such cases in mind, the only way to avoid narrowness is to change one’s form of description from the empirical to the theoretical, attempting to find the highest common factor of each ideology. I will argue that each political perspective is socially constructed, and that each perspective’s status as a system/model (as opposed to simply a description of empirical events) can be revealed by that which it leaves out. This essay will show that a political model is created when a prescriptive definition of a political concept is offered instead of a descriptive one, so that this prescriptive definition becomes the criterion by which the concept is judged1, that civil disobedience is the violation of a present model in the name of another, and that no act of civil disobedience can be justified, since any act of civil disobedience can only be defined in terms of the political model in which it takes place.

In John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice, a meticulous definition is made for the concept of ‘Civil Disobedience’, one which is excellent enough to serve as a paragon for any future definitions of the topic. And, judging by Rawls’ popularity in academia, indeed it has. This very eagerness to dogmatize such a definition, however, proves problematic. There is a rift between the description of empirical examples of civil disobedience and the theorization of the notion itself; in short, to define a term is to delineate the limits of its meaning, and these limits are especially important in political terminology in that “the conditions under which such action [as civil disobedience] is justified in a […] democratic regime” (Rawls, 85) demand axiomatic precision in order to render a term capable of being judged as just or unjust.

If we consider graffiti, for example, this does not count as civil disobedience because it is not “engaged in openly with fair notice” (Rawls, 86), nor does it maintain “fidelity to law” (ibid.). Let us imagine, however, that a graffiti artist is performing her act at a crowded location and is arrested halfway through. According to the law, she has committed vandalization of private property. As long as the graffiti artist is arrested, this is all that the graffiti amounts to; it has been ‘appropriated’ by the law, revealing the artist’s mortality; viz. the graffiti becomes merely an extension of the artist, and is ‘explained away’ merely as such. If the work of graffiti is found in and of itself (i.e. the author is not known), however, it resists appropriation into the terminology of law—it is heterogeneous2, i.e. the language of Law is inadequate to fully define the graffiti; the graffiti demands to be viewed in its own terms. Therefore, graffiti as such (as opposed to merely ‘vandalization of private property’), must necessarily be performed in a non-public manner, in defiance of law3. Considering that the subject matter of graffiti may certainly be political in nature, we have a political act of disobedience that does not fall into Rawls’ definition; it is heterogeneous, as it were, in relation to Rawls’ criteria. The fact remains, however, that despite whatever exceptionality it may possess, graffiti (inasmuch as it cannot be reconciled with Rawls’ idea of the justice of civil disobedience) has been and will continue to be seen as unjust by those who follow Rawls’ model, both in theory and in legal practice. Therefore, Rawls’ theory oversteps the bounds of mere scientific description and gains its own status as a doctrine.

Since Rawls’ definition is not solely descriptive, yet individuals still utilize it to perform legal judgements, Rawls’ definition becomes what, in the terminology of J.L. Austin, is known as a ‘performative utterance’. What this means is that the statement of a sentence fulfills its own truth conditions; to illustrate, the sentence ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’ (when spoken by one with the proper authority to perform marriages) is made true without recourse to outside validation, but solely by the act of saying it (Norris, 142-147). Rawls’ ‘definition’ of civil disobedience is a performative utterance because it is prescriptive rather than descriptive: Rawls’ authority as a political figure (“…Rawls is now such a dominant figure in political philosophy that those who reject his method need to explain why.” [Wolff, 176])4 allows him to effectively establish a model of justice which is commonly regarded as true, such that through the eyes of the Law, ‘truth’ is established according to Rawls’ model. If we admit the existence of different political models, then this has wide implications for both the definition of civil disobedience and for the judgement of whether it is just.

In order to be able to define an act of civil disobedience as such, one must connect one’s propositions to a particular theoretical model of justice; this also applies when one seeks to judge an act as just or unjust. Indeed, “Any effort to isolate the phenomenon of civil disobedience must distinguish between what we may call full disobedience of law and violating some ‘lower’-level rule whilst hoping or expecting that one will be regarded as justified by some higher legal rule” (Greenawalt, [2]). The civilly disobedient feel entirely justified in their actions because they view their actions in the light of a ‘higher’ model. Rawls uses this concept to assert that “fidelity to law helps to establish to the majority that the act is indeed politically conscientious and sincere, and that it is intended to address the public’s sense of justice.” Thus, Rawls denies the validity of acts of civil disobedience in the name of political models that are entirely foreign to the existing one. These, presumably, would be labeled as ‘attempts at revolution’.

Instrumentally, however, acts in the name of radically different political models often demand much more radical actions, e.g. Marxist revolution or Luddite sabotage; in terms of the logic motivating such acts, however, it is the same as in more benign civil disobedience. The existence of higher models problematizes even the normal process of civil disobedience as political acts. Case in point: according to K. Greenawalt, “Demonstrators often seek to manipulate costs and benefits to persuade officials that the present course is too expensive” (Greenawalt, [3]). This is not a political action per se, as the system/model within which the protestors act is capitalism, not politics. It should be agreed, however, that different models can coexist, yet it is important that they retain their independence. Given this, our definition of civil disobedience expands to the following abstract definition: it is any action that contravenes a presently used systemic model in the name of a different, often ‘higher’ one.5 I daresay that this can effectively encompass a wide range of political actions with purposes including environmental, political, economic, humanist, and philosophical concerns.

In order to investigate how, with our definition, we can judge whether civil disobedience is ever justified, let us take for instance the case of Socrates, described in Plato’s dialogue, Crito. Socrates has been imprisoned for engaging in philosophical discourse with the people of Athens, asking them questions which, as they try to answer, let them realize the logical contradictions inherent within their most basic beliefs. He is charged with corrupting the youth, forcing one to judge his philosophical actions in political terms. While in prison, awaiting his fate, Crito comes to talk with him, offering him the chance to escape. Socrates refuses to leave. Though Socrates fully admits that the state “pass[ed] a faulty judgement,” he nonetheless feels that such is simply a risk of abiding by the social contract, and that he has unquestionably agreed to the Greek social contract by his own free will. He also foresees that if he were to abscond to another country, the virtue of his message would be lost; his theory would be divorced from his practice.

We ask: should Socrates have drank the hemlock? Insofar as the respondent to this question is in favor of Socrates’ project, they will no doubt say that he was a fool to submit to the laws of a state over which Socrates possessed incalculable philosophical superiority. They might justify their answer by saying that when we define legal obligation as a power influence over us, it follows that as long as Socrates possesses the power to leave Greece and its corresponding legal model (a power supplied him by Crito, which Socrates had no doubt earned), then he by all means may do so (Stirner, 281). However, it must be noted that Socrates by no means refuses Crito’s offer of escape for the sake of the model of Greek law. Rather, Socrates serves a ‘higher’ model, that of Virtue, Truth, and other such hypostasized values, a model that in this case coincides with that of Greek law. Socrates explicitly repudiates the argument that justice is a matter of power (the opinion of Thrasymachus) in Plato’s book The Republic. Power is the only external justification that is possible for Socrates, and this directly goes against Socrates’ philosophy; it is only retrospectively that we can judge that Socrates’ model was the greater one, since the logical model6 permeates our entire society.

As mentioned above, ‘justice’ is a theoretical concept, and as such it must be thought about in terms of logic, and this logic must be based upon the assumptions of the present systemic model, i.e. one cannot appeal to reasons external to the model itself while remaining logical. Therefore one must deal with the justification of civil disobedience in terms of the model which it flouts, or else it cannot be truly judged as just or unjust. But given this, no act of civil disobedience can be justified, since this would directly contradict the nature of civil disobedience in relation to the current model. In summation, all civil disobedience is by definition contrary to the prevailing model used within a constitutional nationality, and it is this model which defines the prevailing views of justice. Just as ignorance of the law is no excuse, neither is disagreement with the law. There is no meta-law, no ‘higher truth’ that can justify any flouting of the law. Therefore civil disobedience can never be ‘justified’.7

Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, defines “Fashion” as A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey.” I daresay that Law ought to be seen in the same way. Insofar as specific models/ideologies are socially constructed, there is nothing that inherently justifies them, so that, just as does fashion, political models can be expected to constantly change. If, as was the case with Rawls, the popularity of his model is brought by his influence as an ideologue8, then one cannot oppose an ideology because it is built upon consensus. If one wants to perpetrate an act of civil disobedience, then they should know that there can be no justification for their act unless they entirely overthrow the old system (in which case their act would be one of revolution), nullifying the former injustice of their act.

That is to say, there can be no justification for an act of civil disobedience except retrospectively; if we still lived in a society defined by an ideology of segregation, then Rosa Parks’ act would have simply been a nuisance, and would not be remembered at all. In the end, the validity of law rests only in the power of the State and those who wish to support it. The only reasons for civil disobedience are selfish ones9; in order to bring change, one must go beyond civil disobedience, either making revolution or working within the logic of a given ideology. For the most part, however, if a given system exists, it exists for a reason; it could be said that, insofar as capitalism bases itself upon efficiency, one can ameliorate whatever injustices they find in the system as long as this injustice is correlated with an inefficiency of some type, and all this without lapsing into the unjust. Thus, given that one must necessarily act within a given model of government10, perhaps it is best to be an antidisestablishmentarianist, and to confine one’s efforts to bringing about changes that are needed in present-at-hand situations, rather than to long to overthrow any deeply-entrenched system in favor of a utopian model.


1: To word this more simply, such a definition defines what is and is not included in the definition of (in our case) civil disobedience, therefore that which is included in this concept, defined by the model, can, of course, only be defined by recourse to the model itself. This amounts to saying that in order to understand the meaning of a word, we must understand its definition, but that we must have recourse to a definition before we can make use of the word’s meaning. Hence, there is no inherent meaning of a word, but this meaning must be socially constructed.

2: I adopt this term from Georges Bataille. It must be defined in opposition to the homogeneous – that which is assimilated into rational order via categories, theoretical systems, & social institutions. The heterogeneous is that which cannot truly be defined within such categories, e.g. slaughterhouses are commonly viewed only by their (homogeneous) instrumental value rather than by the (heterogeneous) violence of the slaughterhouse’s function―this violence in itself cannot be integrated into the system of society.

3: I here distinguish between two modes of perception for a work of graffiti: 1) graffiti proper, marked by an anonymous author & corresponding heterogeneity (primarily an aesthetic interpretation), & 2) vandalization of private property, a legal/moral term used when the graffiti has been ‘appropriated’, i.e. made homogenous, by the legal system. It follows then, that the only way that 1) can appear is if it is done in defiance of law, for if graffiti appeared publicly, it would be 2), because it is appropriated by the law.

4: Of course, Rawls was not always famous, thus we must ask: how did Rawls’ authority arise? In this regard it is noteworthy to mention the convenience for the judicial system if civil disobedience is “engaged openly with fair notice” (Rawls, 86); if civil disobedience is performed nonviolently & in public, then the offenders are easy for the police to detain, and it is easy to find grounds to punish more radical offenders. Alas, this cannot be fully investigated within this essay, so it must remain for speculation.

5: ‘Revolution’ can be defined as any act of civil disobedience with the purpose of directly overthrowing the present systemic model.

6: Socrates’ philosophy was the birth of the idea of Logic as a universal entity (logos can be translated in many ways, including Logic, Mana, & God). Hence, Socrates says that “God points out the way” (81). Socrates believed that the gods had given each person total knowledge, but they had forgotten it at birth; Socrates’ duty, he felt, was to elicit this knowledge via questions (the ‘Socratic method’, versus that of ‘filling empty heads’ via pedagogy.

7: Within our definition, revolution could, however, be justified, in that the model that has been overthrown no longer has any authority to judge an action as just or unjust. However, this would need to be a direct, successful act of revolution; even planning for a revolution would only count as civil disobedience.

8: (Influence which, as was implied in an above footnote, arises from his thought supporting the interests of the ruling class.)

9: To illustrate, in the eyes of the white people during segregation, Rosa Parks was simply too lazy to go to the back of the bus.

10: i.e. one cannot work outside of a model; there is no politically Archimedian viewpoint from which one can revolt or criticize.


  • Bataille, G.; Dalwood, M. (trans.). Death & Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism & The Taboo. New York: Walker & Company, 1962.
  • Bierce, A. The Devil’s Dictionary. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004.
  • Brownlee, Kimberley, ‘Civil Disobedience’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/civil-disobedience/&gt;, 2007.
  • Greenawalt, Kent, ‘Civil Disobedience’, in E. Craig (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2005.
  • Lyotard, J.-F.; Massumi, B. (trans.). Just Gaming. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
  • Norris, C. What’s Wrong with Postmodernism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
  • Plato; Cornford, F.M. (trans.)  The Republic of Plato. New York: Oxford University Press, 1945.
  • Plato, Thoreau, M.L. King, & John Rawls (4 extracts), in Rosen, M. & Wolff, J (eds.), Political Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 78-88.
  • Stirner, M.; Leopold, D. (Ed.). Byington, S. (trans.). The Ego & Its Own. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on December 24, 2011, in Philosophy, Politics, Semiotics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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