[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.
“Ich hab’ Mein’ Sach’ auf Nichts gestellt.”
[I have set my course on nothing.]
~Stirner, quoting Goethe’s poem “Vanitas! Vanitatum Vanitas!”
Max Stirner (the penname of Johann Kaspar Schmitt) was a member of the Young Hegelians (of which Marx & Engels were members), which believed that Hegel was a covert atheist, i.e. that his ‘theology’ could be removed from his system with no significant loss. As well, they abided by Marx’s now-clichéd line: “The philosophers have hitherto explained the world. The point is to change it”. Feuerbach in his book The Essence of Christianity & Bruno Bauer in his book Critique of The Gospel History both rejected religion in favor of a humanism which is also evident in Marx’s earlier writings. Stirner worked as a teacher in a girl’s school, a job which he very much cherished, but which he left before publishing his magnum (and for that matter, only) opus, Der Einzige Und Das Eigentum (The Ego & Its Own), in order to prevent scandal when the book’s authorship was traced to him. Indeed, it caused something of a scandal in Germany, and was entirely unexpected by Stirner’s fellow Young Hegelians, as Stirner was one of the most quiet and benign members: the book is a fierce invective toward each of the Young Hegelians, one of his arguments being that Feuerbach & Bauer had merely replaced God with ‘Man’, another hypostatized notion that was hardly better than before.
Marx himself spent 300 pages arguing against Stirner in The German Ideology (at times in an embarrassingly puerile fashion), before ultimately leaving the book unpublished. Bauer & Feuerbach also countered Stirner, but were refuted in another of his essays, this one under the guise of a university student, called Stirner’s Critics. Bernd Laska and J.L. Walker’s introduction to The Ego & Its Own both argue that Stirner was a founding influence on the thought of Nietzsche, and it is Stirner’s book to which Foucault refers when he asserts that Nietzsche’s writings about the ‘death of God’ were actually obliquely referring to the death of Man. The book was also read by Adorno, who is reported to have said that Stirner “let the cat out of the bag”, as well as by Jürgen Habermas and perhaps Carl Schmitt.