Friday, 29. September 2017, 12:30 – 14:00
UCD SPIRe, Newman Building, G316
‘Realist disobedience: Protest, coercion and the limits of an appeal to justice’
(University College Dublin)
Is it justified for political movements to pursue their goals by means of threats, coercion and disruption? The standard liberal view in the philosophical literature is that while the use of coercive tactics may be required in authoritarian regimes it is not appropriate in democratic states with a broadly egalitarian ethos. The principal role of disobedience, under this perspective, is communicative: through dramatic acts of principled law-breaking, activists call attention to a particular law or policy and demonstrate that in their considered opinion it is unjust and ought to be reversed. For liberal philosophers, coercive tactics are seen as an illegitimate attack on the principle of political equality which requires that the verdict of a majority of citizens as expressed in free and fair elections should be treated as sovereign. Yet this communicative conception of disobedience has difficulty in capturing many real-world cases that would seem to be legitimate. In recent years, we have seen the occupation of sacred lands to prevent fracking by environmental and indigenous rights activists, the obstruction of immigration enforcement measures, co-ordinated rent strikes and squatting movements and ‘political’ strikes by workers against austerity and labour market reforms. In this paper, I offer a principled theoretical defence of coercive forms of disobedience, not only in repressive states but in democratic and semi-democratic societies with established electoral and constitutional channels for pursuing change. I argue that coercion – which involves imposing costs on some political course of action or making it impossible to pursue by force – can be justified on democratic republican grounds as a means to collectively contest certain objectionable forms of political domination. I discuss the use of coercion as a surrogate tool of political action for those who lack effective participation rights; as a remedial tool to counteract the dominating influence of powerful actors over the process of democratic will formation and as a mobilisational tool to maintain participation and discipline in collective action. I conclude the paper by proposing some regulative norms for the use of coercive tactics.