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Title: Civil disobedience : a reasonable polemic
Author: Muir, Max
ISNI:       0000 0004 8503 5551
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2019
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I offer herein a productive critique of fifty years of liberal orthodoxy on the question of civil disobedience, at a time when the spirit of dissent and resistance is - after the relative quiet of the 1990s - once again in the air. This fiftieth anniversary critique has two principal targets: First, the endemic idea of the praxis of civil disobedience itself, forged in the civil rights ferment of the US 1960s, and then carried over by successive generations of normative political theorist to the archetypal dissident concerns of subsequent decades. This vision of disobedient activism - viz. as a distinctively and exclusively rhetorical and symbolic form of political engagement (rather than anything more red-blooded) - is, I claim, largely fictitious. A sustained examination of the historical record - one paying particular heed to civil rights activism, the peace movement, the anti-poll-tax resistance, and disobedient environmentalism of all stripes - reveals that this ubiquitous academic idea of civil disobedience possesses little historical life, and, in particular, that the most impressive disobedient episodes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries exist well outside its ambit. With that backwards-looking judgement in hand, I go on to assess the pro- spects for liberal civil disobedience construed (counterfactually) not as an account of civil disobedience at it has been conducted hitherto, but as a moral model for its conduct henceforth. My conclusions on this front are no more encouraging: our world departs so drastically from the reason-governed circumstances presumed in the liberal body of work that this vision of civil disobedience must be judged a truly vain hope. These verdicts together establish the first of my twin critical judgements in this thesis: that five decades of liberal theory on the question of civil disobedience have revolved around an abstraction, one bearing no useful relation to our real political predicament and to the activism that we do or might find in it. My second charge has a still wider scope: it concerns not the endemic idea of civil disobedience itself, but the underlying project of thinking normatively about protest, disobedience, and resistance. I argue in this connection that the same sordid political reality that pushes really-existing activism beyond the conciliatory and strictly rhetorical bounds of the liberal vision, and which guarantees that disobedience after the liberal fashion will not find a foothold in our society, also demands the abandonment of the traditional normative theoretical agenda. The questions that have orientated and motivated the liberal engage- ment since the beginning - 'is political lawbreaking justified?'; and, 'if so, how ought the state to treat it?' - are, in our world, theoretically mundane at best, and quietist and diversionary at worst. They are a distraction from the repressive and congenitally unjust situation in which we find ourselves, and from what are the only urgent questions that this situation brooks: what is to be done? And what value is there in what we do? If we theorists of dissent cannot speak to these themes, I remark by way of final conclusion, then we ought not to speak at all.
Supervisor: Leopold, David Sponsor: Arts and Humanities Research Council
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Civil disobedience--Moral and ethical aspects ; Intellectual History ; Political science--Philosophy