Disobedience Marco Scotini

When the word “disobedience” appeared for the first time in the political vocabulary, its meaning was reduced, so Hannah Arendt maintains, to one particular field of moral philosophy. “Disobedience” turned into “civil disobedience,” and the general “refuses to obey” turned into “refuses to obey the law”; that is, the failed observance of rules on principle. The dilemma of whether to obey or not to obey constitutional laws was again raised by Henry David Thoreau. In 1846 in Concord he refused to pay the electoral tax to a government—an American government—that permitted slavery. In the case of Thoreau, this shift from disobedience to legal order became not only possible—it could seem that his gesture did not go beyond the level of individual morality—but even caused civil disobedience to be inscribed in the liberal tradition. This would find its apogee in 1968, when protest against any authority became a mass phenomenon.

Hannah Arendt’s essay Civil Disobedience (1970) and John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, as well as a debate in Eindhoven in 1971 between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, mark some of the culminating moments of a theorization of civil disobedience. The background is no longer the Mexican war, as in the case of Thoreau, but the decade-long war in Vietnam. The central theme of all these contributions to political philosophy is the obligation to obey the law. The introduction of civil disobedience into political institutions and the “the right to disagree” represent the aim of the search for constitutionalization pursued by Hannah Arendt. “If ‘civil disobedience is here to stay,’ as many have come to believe,” Arendt writes, “the question of its compatibility with the law is of prime importance; the answer to it may well decide whether or not the institutions of liberty will prove flexible enough to survive the onslaught of change without civil war and without revolution.”1

Civil disobedience would then—in close embrace with an uncertain and ever more sensitive equilibrium of factors of stabilization and change in the legal order—have unendingly to renew lawfulness and to compensate a deficit normatively. It is no wonder then that Rawls would consider civil disobedience as an act only and exclusively compatible with legal order. On the contrary, he understands this practice, which is from its very essence illegal, as one of the mechanisms of institutional stabilization and as one of the possible means to draw attention to cases when the social institutions begin to stray too far from constitutional legitimacy. In the case of Rawls, the definition of “disobedience” is clearly valid only for a democratic society with legal foundations in which nevertheless serious breaches of the law do happen from time to time. Disobedience therefore would only be appropriate and theoretically possible in a regime which was almost just.

Next, and beyond this concept of a liberal tradition that “posits disobedience to the law” but naturally “within the boundaries of loyalty,” with the crisis of Modernity and Fordism a new radical concept emerged which changed civil disobedience into social disobedience, meaning a form of disobedience that cannot be reduced to normative techno-juridical aspects. Since power, as Foucault says, is not exclusively based on juridical-institutional models such as the state or sovereignty theory, social disobedience now focuses on power mechanisms that are not the subject of a decision process—on specific ways by which power anonymously penetrates the body of the society, beyond the veil of formal rules.

Insofar as the state of civil disobedience still acknowledges that there are higher organizations that make rules and as such cannot be called into question, the displays of social disobedience do not on the whole guarantee this role of submission to a sovereign or transcendent entity. The first rule to be violated by social disobedience is actually a norm that precedes all the others, and which all the others presuppose. Nobody doubts this unwritten norm, and the norm itself enforces the duty to obey.

This norm proclaims that “it is necessary to obey laws” and from a position of authority asserts its right to command and be obeyed. Social disobedience does not break the law; it only modifies the conditions in which the state establishes its limitations.

With the advent of post-Fordism, socioeconomic conditions changed, and with them appeared new proposals for antagonistic practices. The rules and principles determining the norms of disobedience are no longer negative, no longer show the limits we may not cross; instead, rules of action begin to formulate themselves. They show what has to be done. They are not there only to declare rights, refusal, and resistance; they become fruitful and creative immediately. In Toni Negri’s sense, they become “constitutive practices.” In his interpretation, social disobedience today plays an important role in presenting to the public (the multitude) its own contemporary production; or better, in presenting the production of political subjectivities which represents the potential of the public (the multitude). Nowadays, disobedience can in itself connect work, intellect, reason, and communication. It displays itself autonomously and positively, so much so that it models itself on a new image, is capable of intervening on a symbolic level, and likewise produces new signs and new representations (Marcelo Exposito). When we disobey, we produce ourselves as the public (the multitude) itself. A classic and appropriate example can be offered by migration as a movement that is constitutionally disobedient.

Paolo Virno is right when he asserts: “Civil disobedience represents perhaps the fundamental form of political action of the multitude [ … ] It is not a matter of ignoring a specific law because it appears incoherent or contradictory to other fundamental norms, for example to the constitutional charter. In such a case, in fact, reluctance would signal only a deeper loyalty to state control. Conversely, the radical disobedience which concerns us here casts doubt on the State’s actual ability to control.”2

This important movement has been striving to enforce a positive meaning for the word disobedience in political language since 1994. Disobedience is therefore not a mere word, but rather a key tool of contemporary praxis and knowledge.


1 / Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York 1972, p. 82.

2 / Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, Semiotext(e) /Foreign Agents, The MIT Press, Cambridge, and London 2004, p. 70.