Making Sense of Citizen Dissent

The civil disobedient shares with the revolutionary the wish to “change the world,” and the change he wishes to accomplish can be drastic indeed.

— Hannah Arendt

Acts of civil disobedience in the U. S. are public expressions of an old and venerable tradition of voluntary association. Inspired by a common interest, disobedient citizens associate to collectively violate certain laws. The violated laws might be local, state, or federal. Such acts manifest publicly when an organized minority believes that normal channels of political reform are ineffective, or when established authorities persist in modes of action whose legality and constitutionality are subject to serious contestation. The interest of a dissenting minority is to make some change in the configuration of political power, even if that change involves simply preserving the rights and freedoms prescribed by the Constitution.

In Arendt’s view, a spirit of critical dissent against the monopolization of power originally brought American law into existence. She thought of the U.S. as a unique political environment, one in which citizens can actualize the power to remedy the episodic crises plaguing representative government. The remedy involves the renewal of that dissenting spirit embodied in the old revolutionary experience of the colonists. The experience created a new concept of law based on the strength of mutual promising. Social and political organization relies on this capacity to make and keep promises, which in turn secures voluntary consent and grants power to citizens as a people, territorially bound by law. Voluntary consent depends on the right to dissent, or disobey, in the event that a segment of the people in power breaks the promises inscribed into law. The mutuality of promising implies, then, the power to rebuke or even revoke the authority delegated to institutions that fail to abide by the terms of the original agreement. So far, the stakes of politically motivated law-breaking in the U. S. are evident.

But by inserting the world into the account of civil disobedience, Arendt mystifies the American experience of citizen dissent. Note her citation of John Locke’s metaphysical statement: “Things of this world are in so constant a flux that nothing remains long in the same state.” Extending Locke’s reflection, Arendt affirms that change is “inherent in a world inhabited and established by human beings, who come into it, by birth, as strangers and newcomers (νέοι, the new ones, as the Greeks used to call the young), and depart from it just when they have acquired the experience and familiarity that may in certain rare cases enable them to be “wise” in the ways of the world.” The world, Arendt thought, offers a relatively stable habitat for newcomers and inhabitants.

Let’s suppose that Arendt is right about this (and Locke too). Why are such thoughts significant for civil disobedience? Even if the relative stability of the world is true, opinions about “the world” are irrelevant to citizens of civil disobedience qua citizens. Citizens certainly have opinions about how things are. The core idea, though, is that disobedient citizens unite in opposition to the way established authorities act and break promises. Clearly, the unity in question does not involve dissenting citizens reaching a common opinion about “the world.” Citizens join in open dissent against an established majority in the American government, because something must be done in response to the policies enacted by that majority. United in the spirit of citizen dissent, citizens may have conflicting opinions about the condition of the world, some might even doubt whether there is such a thing as “the world,” and yet still be able to associate with other citizens in common interest with respect to the law. In short, civil disobedience in the U. S. is territorially bound because American law is territorially bound.

That said, defenders of Arendt’s invocation of the world might retreat to a weaker, less rhetorically amplified thesis than the quote of the week. A slight revision to the quote might settle the issue — for, it is not “the world” that the disobedient might “wish to change,” but rather some part of the world, the part which inhabitants share as fellow citizens under law. The revision would ascribe to the organized minority an idea of the U. S. as one part of a larger whole. It would also commit the association to the idea that a change in the U. S. is de facto a change in one part of the world. And if such change follows, the partition would entail that “the world” is some mereological whole, such that each and every partition of the whole participates in some way in the composite of a world-whole. But if, then, the U. S. is one part of some larger and more comprehensive world-whole, and some part of its legal or political system changes, does it necessarily follow that “the world” as a whole has changed? Is it not conceivable for some association of disobedient citizens to emerge with a very particular and localized opinion on the waywardness of an established authority in the U. S., on the local, state, or federal level, and yet put aside their views, if there are any to put aside, concerning the condition of the world-whole? Not only is it conceivable, it seems wise for the association to deliberate and act without any notion of the world, and to focus its efforts for change within the circumscribed domain of American politics, whether local, state or federal.

The issue with the revision is that it doesn’t actually weaken Arendt’s ascription of the wish to “change the world.” At best, the ascription is rhetorical hyperbole; the modest revision that disobedient citizens wish only to change a part of the world plunges the group into intellectual subtleties. Arendt’s account would then commit the metaphysical fallacy of composition. The fallacy of composition occurs when the alleged parts of a whole are mistakenly thought to be transferable from one to the other. In any case, ideas about the mereological whole of the world would impede the voluntary association of disobedient citizens with ideological dispute; the conflicting world-views of trans-humanists, neo-Marxists, libertarians, naturalists, and so on may threaten to dissolve the common opinion of the association, eroding the potential of divergent minds for free association and localized collective action.

Today most Americans are idle and despondent as citizens. Some propose, invoking Arendt, a revival of town council government, local and situated spaces where Americans are encouraged to engage in acts of voluntary self-government, to learn how to protect themselves against rising tyrannies of established majorities. To reanimate the Jeffersonian project of local self-government, or revitalize the spirit of civil disobedience among citizens, common opinion and common interest would have to emerge concerning issues and promises that pertain to specific communities and specific institutions at a local level. As Arendt noted in another context, “To be a citizen means among other things to have responsibilities, obligations, and rights, all of which make sense only if they are territorially limited.”

Charles E. Snyder is an associate fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College in Annadale-on-Hudson, New York.

For more articles like this, check out Amor Mundi, a publication by the Hannah Arendt Center.