On Civil Disobedience, the Rule of Law, and the Left: John Brown

You know, despite the success of the campaign thus far, I haven’t read any account of the political importance of civil disobedience, and the nature of the latter, in relation to the Campaign Against Water and Household Taxes in Ireland. Maybe someone should write one. In the meantime, what follows after the Real News video report on the subject of the recent expropriations conducted against supermarkets in Spain, is a translation of an intervention by John Brown, on the same subject, entailing an engagement with the justifications of the same act offered by the Izquierda Unida deputy Alberto Garzón.

Fear of freedom. A response to Alberto Garzón’s article

‘While the State exists, there can be no freedom. When there is freedom there will be no State.’
V.I. Lenin

The consequences of certain acts, under given circumstances, can exceed the expectations of those who carry them out or those who look onward. It is as though the act burst out of the frame in which it was initially inscribed and tinged broad swathes of reality with its consequences. Two groups of Andalucian citizens and militants, filling up their trolleys with basic foodstuffs and exiting various supermarkets belonging to the Carrefour and Mercadona chains without paying, would seem a fairly insignificant act in a country and a region undergoing a severe economic crisis. In fact, the bosses at the Carrefour chain had the intelligence to gift the content of the trolleys to the activists, thus resolving the incident on their part. This, however, did not happen with Mercadona: the management there reported the expropriators to the police and chose an antagonistic and repressive solution to the incident. As a consequence various arrests took place and legal proceedings were initiated against those people who took part in the acts of expropriation.

The stance of the Mercadona management, if somewhat clumsy, is completely understandable. What is called into question, with these as yet symbolic acts of expropriation of basic necessities, is a social order based on property, the same order that is pauperising ever thicker swathes of European societies in the name of payment of finance sector debt. The same legal and moral principle that insists that the content of the Mercadona trolleys ‘must be paid for’ is the one that imposes the payment of odious debt both public and private. To question property is to undermine the main foundations of the established order. We live in a legal and political order whose basis is property: this is something of which the bosses at Mercadona are well aware of, as, no less so, are the comrades who took part in the acts of expropriation alongside mayor Sánchez Gordillo.

Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo

Faced with an act that shakes the foundations of the existing order, the first reaction is to experience a certain dizziness, since what is draining away from beneath our feet is the very ground on which the totality of the social order rests. Hence certain reactions of panic from people who considered that, once the moment arises when such expropriations are tolerated, the door is opened for anyone to enter our homes and move in, for any respect for personal privacy to be lost, and their safety endangered. The reflexes of fear of the poor by those who do not consider themselves poor –even though growing numbers of them are- were immediately activated, and were intensified through the work of media outlets right across the right-wing (La Gaceta, La Razón, ABC, El País, Intereconomia, La Ser, etc). It was essential, that a society whose social majority is being plundered wholesale to benefit a few people, should keep identifying itself with the values and principles of property and the owners of property. It was essential that insecurity and poverty should not be blamed on those who are really responsible, which is to say financial capital and its State, but on a handful of activists who were struggling against precisely the insecurity and poverty that affect the majority.

The action of Sánchez Gordillo and his comrades challenges us all, and obliges us to take sides: either with those who defend the order of property at the cost of people’s very existence or those who subordinate property to meeting people’s vital necessities. Very rarely, in a society in which they said that class struggle had disappeared, has the line of antagonism been so clear. Class struggle appears, no longer as the struggle between two pre-constituted sides, but rather as the process and result of a struggle for the appropriation/expropriation of wealth and the means of production. Some, the minority of those at the top, expropriate, through finance and the State, the majority, which in turn begins to expropriate –according to Marx’s formula- the expropriators. It is not, however, a matter of this expropriation entailing the transfer of property from certain people to others, or of private posessions held by certain people to others, or of private posessions to the State, but is rather, above all, a matter of moving from the logic of property to the logic of the commons. Commons exist, common goods that must not be the object of property, since property, both private and state, degrades them and can destroy them, by preventing free access to them. These commons are nothing mysterious: they are the basis for every human society: the basic means of subsistence, health, education, culture, knowledge, but also water, air, earth, language. SAT’s action in Mercadona was precisely an act of reappropriation of the commons, of what is necessary for the sustenance of those human beings whom the regime of property denies sustenance. It is the exact equivalent of the occupation by peasants of public lands in the hands of landholders. What drives these acts is not an ideology, but a situation of need. As comrade Sánchez Gordillo states, “we are not the extreme left, but rather extreme necessity”.

Against these acts of reappropriation of the commons, there have been various reactions among the Spanish left. The ‘socialist’ president of the Junta de Andalucia, along with the near entirety of the PSOE condemned them, Izquierda Unida reacted, as nearly always, in contradictory ways: unenthusiastic support from Llamazares contrasted with the condemnations that issued from the IU hierarchs in the Andalusian government coalition. Militants and public officials from the irrepressible IU-Extremadura not only gave full solidarity to those in SAT, but also took part in a similar action organised in Mérida by the Extremaduran Platform for a Basic Income. Among these reactions, we find one that is particularly significant. The only IU deputy who comes out of the 15M movement, the young economist Alberto Garzón, seeks to ground and justify the actions of Sánchez Gordillo and his comrades through applying the concept of “civil disobedience” in an article on his blog “Pijus Economicus” (someone else who toys with fake Latin..) The article has the title “Civil disobedience, rule of law [Estado de derecho, in the original] and the left”. It is worth considering the arguments used in it.

First of all, Garzón sets the objective of his contribution: “The objective, as I understand it, is to clarify whether these actions are coherent and consistent with the political action of the left and specifically of Izquierda Unida. My intention here is to make some contributions to this debate, attempting to justify these actions as appropriate tactics to be inscribed in a strategy that seeks to reach a real democracy and a true Rule of Law [Estado de Derecho]”. Right from the start one is struck by the normalising eagerness: it is about seeing whether these actions fit in with the “political action of the left” and specifically IU. According to the author, this seems indeed to be so, and that they would do so because they are inscribed within a strategy directed towards the achievement of a “real democracy” and a “true Rule of Law”. The objective of the left is, as he sees it, the achievement of a “real democracy” that is framed in the Rule of Law.

Alberto Garzón goes on to claim that the actions in question of the SAT are acts of “civil disobedience”. “Civil disobedience” is understood here in the manner of Rawls (summarised by Luis Felip): “civil disobedience means that, by assuming the fundamentals of the really existing democratic rule of law (despite its imperfections), and especially the principles of justice that govern it, a form of dissent is carried out.” Civil disobedience is disobedience within an order, since it departs from respect for the really existing rule of law and its norms, and justifies dissent in the name of the very principles that inspire it. Civil disobedience according to Garzón does not go beyond the flat conception of Rawls, for whom civil disobedience is a form of obedience to the order of the Rule of Law [Estado de derecho] which trumps mere obedience to its laws. A supererogatory obedience, as theologians and moralists would say. Disobedience is thus subject to justification, it must always be subsumed under a prior norm such that the legitimate disobedience of the subject, faced with the unassailable power of the sovereign, can always be reduced, in the final instance, to a form of obedience. Within the Hobbesian framework in which the philosophy of Rawls is developed, it is, indeed, impossible to accept a radical civil disobedience, which does not just merely call into question one aspect of the legal order, but its totality, and which does so without the need for any justification internal to the juridical-moral framework of the established order. Were such a thing to be accepted, the whole system of sovereignty of the modern State as a regime of production of obedience would be blown apart, since she who was disobedient would call into question the legislative monopoly of the sovereign, by giving herself her own law.

Henry David Thoreau

I do not believe comrade Sánchez Gordillo would see himself in the disciplined foolishness of a disobedience that obeys. Nor do I believe that this prissy conception honours the creator of the concept of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau, whose radicality and love of freedom far excedes so many sad souls who are prisoners of State superstition. What Alberto Garzón cannot envisage is another type of disobedience, the disobedience that needs to be thought and practiced by whoever wishes to break with the political and social order and not merely become accommodated to it, an absolute disobedience that needs neither justification nor guarantees, a disobedience that, according to the formulation of Jacques Lacan “just authorises itself”.

Following on from this, Garzón goes off on a long digression on the Enlightenment and capitalism led by our friends and comrades Luis Alegre Zahonero y Carlos Fernández Liria –with whom we have already had the opportunity to hold more than one interesting debate, in which he tries to show that the programme of the Enlightenment based in the Kantian concept of “civil liberty” is one thing and capitalism is another. Each of the pair is summarised as follows: “On the one hand the ideal of living beyond the beliefs of others but in accord with the laws and with Reason, and on the other the ideal of allowing that the rights of ownership of the means of production should allow individual wealth to rise without any kind of external intervention”. According to this, capitalism and the political programme of the Enlightenment have nothing to do with one another and it was a very grave error of the left to confuse the two, an error that brought with it defeat and a drift into totalitarianism. In other terms, beyond the Rule of Law [Estado de derecho] that constitutes for them the height of the programme of the Enlightenment, there can be no salvation for the left.

True enough, Alberto Garzón and the two thinkers he cites are all friends of liberty, but they situate it wrongly. They search for liberty, no longer in the potent popular movement of resistance against the expropriating State –the absolutist State and its successor, the Enlightened liberal State- but in that same State and in its legal principles. They search for freedom in law, forgetting that law is based, as the entire tradition says, not only Pasukanis or Marx, but Locke and Kant himself whom they use as their refeference, in property, and they forget that property is in modern times the result of the expropriation of the commons. It is no furious Bolshevik denigrator of the Enlightenment, but Immanuel Kant who, following Locke, says in his Metaphysical principles of right (I, IX) that “civil constitution is only the juridical condition under which every one has what is his own merely secured to him”. Elsewhere, it is curious that there are still people who call themselves marxist who have not understood that the worker is “free” under capitalism according to Marx in the double sense of being legally free and being expropriated of the means of production (whether common or private). The freedom defended by the left supporters of the Rule of Law is the freedom determined by the order of law and the market, by the order of property and the expropriation of the majority. This is simultaneously indissoluble from the order of law and the State and the framework of reproduction of the capitalist order. This is not, nor can it be, the starting point [partido in the original, which can also translate as ‘party’] for freedom. The starting point for freedom can only be the starting point for the freedom of everyone, the starting point for real democracy –or of the ‘omnino absoluta’ (totally absolute) democracy of Spinoza- that cannot coincide with the defence of the regime of property/expropriation known as the Rule of Law.

The defeat of the left is terrible. We have still not left it behind. Its principal symptom is the profound ignorance of popular history and its willingness to accommodate itself to the stories and official justifications of power. Thus, a secular struggle for freedom and for the commons that historians such as Peter Linebaugh or Silvia Federici –or Hobsbawm and Thompson before them- have described with detail and passion can be confused with the capture of this struggle within the framework of the Rule of Law, within the State of the property owners based upon the expropriation of the commons. A tremendous confusion that makes Locke and Kant fellow travellers of a State socialism that would be “the realisation of the Rule of Law”, of the “true” Rule of Law…as Garzón states in his article: “the highest end of the human being is to become a citizen within the framework of a true Rule of Law: a socialist Rule of Law.” Apart from the fact that the theory of the socialist Rule of Law is nothing new, but already developed by Vyshinsky and his school against Pasukanis in the period of the Moscow trials, such a socialism would not be the transition to communism, to the absolute democracy of the commons envisaged by Marx and Engels –and by Spinoza- but the final State of humanity, an end of history, under the State, under law, under property, though this might contain a greater public-state component that allowed it to be called “socialist”.

We can agree with Garzón on one thing. He is completely right when he states, quoting Luis Felip, that the left “must bring to the fore the contradiction between democracy and capitalism”. The thing is that democracy cannot be thought from the very institutions that produce and reproduce the capitalist order: the market, law, the State, the Rule of Law [Estado de derecho]. Real democracy is a regime of the common and its submission to the norm of property, whether private or public-state (socialist) undermines its foundations and ends up destroying it. Obviously, communism, the real movement towards the liberation of the commons and the self-determination of the multitude, is the only starting point for freedom and for democracy. Obviously, capitalism is incompatible with both. This however, does not permit, but rather prevents the identification of freedom and democracy with the State, law, or the Rule of Law. Where the State exists, there is no freedom. When there is freedom there is no State.




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