Rave Party in Viterbo, Italy, and Boom in Bois de la Cambre, Belgium; refusal of the mask in France and in the United States; challenges to the health pass almost everywhere in the world: the people’s refusal of policy decisions on everyday life seems to be more and more frequent after Covid19.
Alongside this social restlessness, sometimes tinged with folkloric nuances, there are political protests in Hong Kong and Kinshasa, in South Africa and Lebanon, not to mention the pacific or violent manifestations against contested electoral results such as in the United States and elsewhere.
In his article of June 23, 2021 in the Belgian Justice et Paix website, Emmanuel Tshimanga states an issue. “Sometimes defined just as acts of incomprehension of government policies, sometimes as truly political acts of protest, these actions lead to deep questions linked to the 'Belgian' democratic system [why not to democracy itself?], and demand deep analyses.”
The first Boom in Belgium maybe was just conceived as a joke, but the Boom 2, it is said to be close to a protest movement "following the paths of civil disobedience". Dave Monfort, the Boom inspirer actually stated: "We do it to defend our Constitution, particularly its articles 23 and 26, which were trampled on by regulations deemed unconstitutional by the Brussels court" (La Boum, le bal non-masqué des indociles).
On the other hand, according to Ms. Duchateau the claims of the people participating in Boom showed "their annoyance under the policy crisis", which they considered to be against the youth. "We cannot accept the fact that in trying to save a few hundred of 85’s and over, who in any case will die in the coming months, they are ruining the youth’s future who find themselves with suicidal ideas” (La Boum, le bal non-masqué des indociles).
With these type of utterances, it is understandable the "negative, violent and chaotic image" that public opinion has "regarding these means of civic engagement. Therefore, people who disobey are often reminded that in a democratic society there are legal tools and procedures to arbitrate multiple competing visions”. When is it okay, then, to disobey in a democracy?
A certain "conception of democracy tends to restrict the concept of legitimacy to positive legality, in other words, only what is legal is legitimate. The disobedient are indirectly requested to return to the legal order and to comply with institutionalized and framed modes of protest", recalls the author.
However, the article quotes Jürgen Habermas’ words of his Droit et Démocratie. "When certain fundamental principles or rights are at stake and seem to be seriously contradicted by a law or a governmental act, civil disobedience is legitimate - more, it is desirable, even necessary, and the possibility of having recourse to it must in any case be positively valued” (Sintomer, 1998. Aux limites du pouvoir démocratique. N°24 (2), 85 104).
For Habermas, though, civil disobedience invokes only "the necessary adequacy between the order and the principles which support it. In other words, civil disobedience is only justified to the extent that the state or administration violates the same fundamental principles establishing the legal order on which their legitimacy rests.”
Yet - observes Tshimanga -, “In our time, actions of civil disobedience are often the last resort in citizen engagement strategies. Historically, however, this is the form of citizen protest from which most of our current political and social gains stem." Thus, he judges, “Habermas' vision of the democratic rule of law is far too idealized and far from reality because, as the political scientist Yves Sintomer notes, he does not take into account the domination dynamics” of every society.
Democracy is the best political system or the least bad only insofar as it guarantees "areas of fundamental freedoms that are to be able to express oneself, think and act on the destiny of one's political community."
"The deprivation of these freedoms [...] strikes at the essential conditions to a good life". "In a visible manner [through] corruption, patronage or open pressure from those in power, or in an insidious manner, by extra-legal mechanisms such as party politics, exclusion or marginalization of the dominated, the media which are part of a commercial logic rather than public service and are in the hands of a small number of people, the unlawful habit tending to further penalize above all the delinquent acts typical of the popular classes, the intrinsic logic of the capitalist economy, etc. ” (Sintomer, 1998. ibidem).
According to Sintomer, the alteration of these freedoms abrogates the duty of obedience to the law. Not to mention the betrayal by parties and politicians of their electoral promises or the manifest incapacity of public ministers who are in powerful positions solely for internal party dynamics. Finally, "One generation cannot absolutely oblige the following ones and the value of a constitution or of rights proclaimed in a given historical moment which is always questionable."
Does it means that the use of citizen protest actions, in particular civil disobedience, is always legitimate? In other words, by reversing Tshimanga’s assertion, do all acts of civil disobedience have a real value as an indicator of democratic maturity or do they not risk being the bearers of anarchism?
"The politico-constitutional order can sometimes recognize rights without being able to guarantee them", and then it is legitimate and "even desirable to engage in actions of civil disobedience." Citizenship – says Sintomer -, "is not a position or an institution but a collective practice" and it has the right to reconquer or "conquer rights, periodically questioning the order and the established relations of domination” (See mentioned text).
However, democratic society does not live on relationships of domination. The social organization and the state system are there to guarantee order, common social life and above all the necessary conditions to ensure the common good for all. It is therefore when the State's inability to safeguard the common good is notable and experienced, that civil disobedience becomes "a test of a State’s maturity in its democratic rule of law." Civil disobedience leads "democratic institutions to recognize their limits", to "recognize their weaknesses" and "to question themselves. It is in this constant citizen questioning that reside the real virtues of democracy ", and hence the value of civil disobedience.
The pledge of this value, however, rests only in the alternative proposals that civil disobedience can offer in order to better safeguard the necessary conditions for the common good to be the prerogative of all and the State and its administration to emerge from the dead ends where they are eventually sinking. Otherwise, civil disobedience can drift into forms of anarchy, which ultimately risks opening the door to dictatorial authoritarianism.
See Désobéissance civile : signe de maturité démocratique et aussi Légitimité démocratique, pouvoir et domination
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