Civil Disobedience

I read on the last edition of the Mauritius Times the action of the ‘Forum Citoyen’ led by Dick Ng Sui Wa. The first affirmation was:  “Effecting civil disobedience in the Gandhian manner cannot be illegal”. Without being legalistic, as I have no pretensions to be nor have I the  legal competence to do so, I am of humble opinion that civil disobedience can only be illegal else it will not be a civil disobedience.  

Have we reached in this case the limits of democracy? How do we get over the apparent tyrannical act of the lawful authority? Is there some legal or otherwise mechanism that would save us from this situation?

This situation has given me the opportunity to rethink of Civil Disobedience with its legal and morale aspects. In the world of today, at least in the western world, the education inculcated to our youth makes them more and more individualist freethinkers. This accrued importance of individual conscience could well be confronted to the majority rule causing more cases of civil disobedience. I wonder whether the relationship of individuals to authority is evolving in new forms that would require new understanding of society.  Is not the best authority being the authority one does not need to avail of? Is not the abusive use of authority  itself an act of violence? How can we be a ‘civil disobedient’ without causing violence to the other parties and ourselves?

An essay comparing Thoreau and Gandhi on the theme has retained my attention.

Civil Disobedience in Thoreau and Gandhi

Ashu Daftari*, Davis, USA

Henry David Thoreau’s classic essay, “Resistance to Civil Government” developed ideas that eventually became influential to thinkers and reformers of the twentieth century.  Thoreau’s tract not only serves as a social commentary on the governments’ support Of slavery and its participation in the Mexican War, but also as a treatise on the individuals’ relationship to government.  Much of Thoreau’s ideas are similar to the moral and political writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi.  Both writers advocated the superiority of the individual conscience and stressed the need for individuality.  Both writers not only conunented on the duty of the individual to lead a life of principle, but also argued for the right to resist an unjust authority.  However, it was Gandhi who adopted Thoreau’s ideas into a system that stressed political rebellion through individual self-suffering and bir non-violent means.

Throughout much of Thoreau’s essay, the idea of individual conscience accumulates into the centrepiece and foundation from which most of his ideas are built upon.  Thoreau often displays a distrust in the actions of a government based on majority rule.  Thoreau maintained that the majority have access to the most power “not because they are more likely to be in the right… but because they are physically the strongest”.  He further explains that government “in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice…… Essentially, the author’s inability to trust the actions of the majority rule further leads him to believe in conscientious superiority.  In the beginning of his treatise, he asks : “Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right or wrong, but conscience?”.  Thoreau, without leaving the question unanswered later remarks that ‘we should be men first, and subjects afterwards.  It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.  The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right”.  From this point of view, Thoreau maintains that the individual conscience inherits a morally superior characteristic than the government of the majoritv.  Thus, Thoreau establishes his entire political philosophy on the idea that the conscience is ultimately the most trustworthy criterion of what is politically accurate.

The ultimate consequence of Thoreau’s belief of the superiority of the individual conscience is its assertion for radical individualism.  Thoreau maintains that the individual relying on his selfconscience, rather than the majority, will attain a better understanding of moral truths.  Thus, “any man more right than his neighbours, constitute a majority of one already.” Thoreau also proclaims that the individual living by conscience will not only understand moral truths, but will also attain the ability to lead a “life by principle.” For Thoreau, this form of existence is the most ideal state of living.  Furthermore, it becomes an important step in rebellion against the State.  He states that action from principle creates a strong impact in political rebellion because it “not only divides states and churches, it divides families; aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.” In this passage, Thoreau implies that an individual must be free thinking in order to develop his own ideas and understand clearly the unjust practices of the State.  Action from principle, as Thoreau maintains allows the individual to understand that to ‘ commit actions, supposedly against the State, based on fundamental principles would have a stronger impact on the values of society than any other form of resistance.  He maintains that action from principle would force society, as well as the individual, to re-examine its values and compare them to the moral truths.  Thus, action from principle becomes a powerful force in the process of civil disobedience.

In the various writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the idea of the importance of the individual conscience and its influence on a life stemming from principle is often similar to the viewpoint of Thoreau.  Gandhi, also had a distrust for the majority rule and believed in moral growth through the dependency of the individual conscience.  Like Thoreau, he also felt that this form of growth would lead to individualistic tendencies that would be morally beneficial for the individual and for society.  His distrust for the majority stemmed from the belief that the majority rules without conscience and without regard for the minorities.  By doing this, he believed that numerical strength savors of violence when it acts in total disregard of any strongly felt opinion of a minority” (quoted in Iyer, 142).  Thus, Gandhils vision of the State of majority rule is one that not only remains unsympathetic to the minority, but builds a foundation built on violence.  Because of Gandhi’s belief in the non-violent State as the ideal, he ultimately rejects the notion of the majority rule.

Like Thoreau, Gandhi also believed that conscience living would eventually lead to a life of action from of principle he also stressed the importance of individualism in order for the process of spiritual and moral growth to occur.  However, Gandhi distrusted the more radical form of individualism that separated the person completely from society.  In 1939, he stated “Unrestricted individualism is the law of the beast of the jungle.  We have leamt to strike the mean between individual freedom and social restraint.  Willing submission to social restraint for the sake of well-being for the whole society, enriches both the individual and the society of which he is a member” (quoted in Iyer, 115).  For Gandhi, individualism meant the ability to place the conscience in a higher priority than the State and still remain an active member of society.  By combining “individual freedom” and “social restraint” the individual would attain the ability to influence the ethics of society within the confines of law and order.  Gandhi’s vision of individualism slightly differed from Thoreau who argued, in Walden, that “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.’ Thus, Tboreau’s idea of individualism sought an existence that could potentially disregard society completely, while Gandhi sought ‘ an individualism that simultaneously remained a morally responsible member of society.

From his essay, Thoreau implies that action from principle germinates into the beginning seeds of civil disobedience and later expands his argument in order to show its deeper significance in society.  He attempts to display how ideology should eventually transform into practical application.  As stated earlier, Thoreau believed in the superiority of the individual conscience over the rule of the majority.  He further states that if the individual’s morally conscience beliefs conflict with the beliefs and practices of the State, then that person must consider it a duty to disengage from the injustices committed by society.  He states the individual bears no responsibility in eradicating all the injustices of the State, but must “wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” He further states that not only must the individual refuse his allegiance to the State, but must also “withdraw their support, both in person and property.” For Thoreau, the individual existing by conscience would attain the inability to conform to a inhumane society.  By the very act of living from principle, it would not allow a person to harmonise a conscientious life while being a member of an unjust State.  Thus, the individual must live according to his nature even if it means a complete removal of oneself from the State.  This idea becomes the central point in resisting the civil goverrunent.  In one particular passage, Thoreau states: “I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred … if ten honest men only-aye, if one honest man, in the State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it should be the abolition of slavery in America.” Through this proclamation, Thoreau implies that the mass of individuals who practiced the right to disengage from society would not only resist the immorality of the State, but would coerce the reevaluating its ethical procedures and forcing them to reform.

In this matter of refusing allegiance to the State, Gandhi hardly differs from Thoreau’s convictions.  In his philosophical worldview, Gandhi also embodied a distrust for the State.  He viewed the State as a inhumane infrastructure of individuals that 11 represent violence in a concentrated and organised form.  The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence” (quoted in Iyer, 254).  Gandhi, like Thoreau, implies that a State that exists as a “soulless machine” does not have the ability to exists as a moral and just institution.  In this case, he, like Thoreau, believes it to be the duty of the morally conscience individual to resist the corrupted authority.  In fact, he states that “an evil administration never deserves such allegiance.  Allegiance to it means partaking of the evil.  A good man will therefore, resist an evil system of administration … Disobedience of the laws of an evil state is, therefore, a duty” (quoted in lyer, 257).  In this system of thought, both men imply this form of resistance as the obligation of the conscience minded individual.

In general, both writers would agree that the moral violent manner and absorbed physical and spiritual individual disengaging from an unjust State would be an ideal form of civil disobedience.  Thoreau believed that this form of action would eventually influence the conscience of other individuals and ultimately lead them to disengage from society (Iyer, 268).  Gandhi, however, did not completely embrace Thoreau’s convictions and also felt such actions to be a limited form of resistance.  In 1931 he discussed Thoreau in an written essay and stated : “…Thoreau was not perhaps an out and out champion of nonviolence.  Probably, also, Thoreau limited his of statutory laws to the revenue laws, i.e., payment of taxes.  Whereas the term Civil Disobedience as practised in 1919 covered a breach of any statutory and unmoral law.  It signified the resister’s outlawry in a civil i.e., non-violent manner” (quoted in Iyer, 275).  Essentially, Gandhi felt that he was extending Thoreau’s ideas on civil disobedience.  He felt that the individual conscience ultimately influencing the conscience of mass individuals could lead to a violent rebellion against the State.  He also felt that this type of action was an appeal to reason.  Gandhi felt that reasoning to an individual conscience was sometimes ineffective because an “appeal to reason does not answer where prejudices are age-long.  ” ” (quoted in lyer, 289).  Thus, in order to embrace T’horeau’s ideas of disengaging from society without causing a violent resistance, Gandhi developed a system of civil disobedience, which he called Satyagraha.  In this system of resistance, Gandhi believed that the resister could reform individuals in an unjust State by undertaking a process of selfsuffering.  In 1932 he stated : “Suffering is the law of human beings … the penetration of the heart comes from suffering.  It opens the inner understanding of man” (quoted in Iyer, 287).  Gandhi felt that self-suffering would lead to a non-violent form of disobedience that would change the attitude of society by appealing to their emotions rather than reason.  In this system, Gandhi stressed a form of civil disobedience that would not violate the unmoral laws of that particular institution.  He believed that the individual that acted in a non-suffering without violence would be practicing the ideal form of civil disobedience.  Through the suffering of the resister, Gandhi argued, the individuals of society would realise the injustices of the State’s laws, thereby causing reform in an unanarchistic manner (Iyer, 276).

Comparatively, the philosophy of Thoreau and Gandhi to the relationship between the individual and  to the relationship between the individual and the State.  Both advocated individualistic free-thinking and the importance of individual conscience over the belief of a majority ruled State.  Both, also believed that conscience individuals could only prosper in a State that contained minimum intervention.  Gandhi’s vision of an ideal State was one where ‘everyone is his own ruler … In the ideal State, therefore, there is no political power because there is no State.  But the ideal is never fully realised in life” (quoted in lyer, 254).  Thus, his belief in a limited government very much coincides with Thoreau’s idea that “government is best which governs not at all.” However, the difference between the two writers falls mostly on emphasis.  In Thoreau’s case, he not only held the individual conscience as the highest test of truth, but also felt it “would culminate in conduct that would arouse and ppeal to the conscience of others” (Iyer, 268).  This form of arousal could lead to a state of anarchy and a violent form of resistance to a unjust authority, an idea that Thoreau does not deny in his essay.  Gandhi, however, felt that an individual following his own conscience could not be ‘dependent on social recognition” (Iyer, 268).  He envisioned a form of resistance that would not lead to violence and anarchy.  While Thoreau discussed the end and the means, Gandhi placed heavy emphasis on the means. While Thoreau discussed the rights of the individual to rebel against authority, Gandhi expressed the duty of individuals to reform an unjust authority while maintaining law and order.  Thus, through his political system, Gandhi was able to use Thoreau’s ideas in a non-violent manner.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Theodora Stamova on 02.09.09 at 12:14 am

Democracy is a Government by the people and for the people. Central idea here is the rule of the majority. Acts of Civil Disobedience which have gone down in History as having been able to reverse Laws in a civil (non-violent) way, have been those which have won the backing of a majority big enough to make those in Authority realize the need to back down, if they want to remain in authority.

There are two competing principles at play here:
Once in Power, a Government assumes to have the backing of the majority stemming from a popular vote.
Once in Power, a Government would do anything to retain it, dismissing any question of its Authority to minor acts of the exercise of Democracy, namely coming from the Opposition.

Indeed, most Laws in our day and age are increasingly being decided according to short term needs and, while being hotly debated in the democratic institutions, do pass among a process of intense “negotiations” between interested parties and in the couloirs of Power and have nothing to do with real representation of the will of the people.

In the past, acts of Civil Disobedience have been most popular and thus successful in cases where the laws in question have been deemed to be discriminative to a great majority of the population or to have been unconstitutional.

I actually do see a way in which the Forum Citoyen could exercise an effective Civil Disobedience against the Mauritius Revenue Authority and its National Residential Property Tax.
Lodging a court case against the MRA was not a non-violent act, on the contrary!
If the Forum Citoyen were to persuade a net majority of the people who were to have paid that tax from refraining to do so, then that would have been a real act of Civil Disobedience.
Can a Democratically elected Government sue them if more than 60% simply refused to pay the Tax in question? Yes, theoretically it can, but would it?
The simple non-violent refusal of a clear majority to pay a tax sends a very different message to the Authorities than a small group of individuals who are so clearly representatives of the Opposition lodging a court case against a popularly elected Government.

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