HIERARCHIC DEMOCRACY AND THE NECESSITY OF MASS CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
by Ted HonderichThis was a Conway Lecture, and and pretty well sums up my persistent attitude to the governments we know and perhaps the main thing that is called liberalism. It goes together with ' What Equality Is Not' and ' What Equality Is'. There is more on its subjects in the 2002 book After the Terror and also in the 2004 book On Political Means and Social Ends.
If we make an uncontroversial list of the liberal democracies, certainly including the United States and Britain, and if we then try to conceive of or understand them in a general way, we may arrive at what can be called the Ordinary Conception of them. It boils down into three propositions.(1)
The people, legitimately influenced during an election, choose representatives who promise certain policies, and afterwards the people legitimately influence the elected representatives.
There is universal suffrage in the election -- one person, one vote -- and approximate equality in both the influencing of the people during the election and their subsequent influencing of the elected representatives.
The society's actual policies are chosen by the representatives in accord with their promises, and the policies do take effect.
The Ordinary Conception is no good.(2) For starters there is the embarrassing electoral fact that in liberal democracies it is typically not the people who vote and thereby choose the representatives, but only about half the people. There is also the fact, partly having to do with governmental structure and perhaps a Supreme Court, that the society's actual policies can rarely be regarded as just the the policies promised by the elected representatives. A third fact is that the choosing of representatives in the election is far better seen as made not by individuals, as the Ordinary Conception supposes, but by groups of individuals with a common interest -- interest-groups. So with the two kinds of influencing, first of the voters and then of the representatives. This is also better seen as done by interest-groups. This third fact is fundamental. Indeed the first two facts, about who actually votes and about actual policies being different from promised policies, are better described in terms of interest-groups and a history of them.
Such a criticism of the Ordinary Conception is not unusual. If you remain inclined to go on thinking about individuals rather than groups of them, several simple reminders may give you pause. One is that understanding and explaining anything whatever is typically served by generalization, the use of general categories. No one dreams of explaining brain function only in terms of single neurons, or of characterizing a Dickens novel sentence by sentence, or of writing a history of a war in terms of individual soldiers as against platoons, regiments, and armies. The second reminder has to do with organization. Interest-groups need not be organized, but some are. A collection of individuals with a common interest or purpose achieves more when somehow organized. Fully to explain some outcome, you may really have to attend to facts of organization and hence groups.
What can be called the Pluralist Conception of the liberal democracies also boils down into three propositions.(3)
Interest-groups legitimately influence the choosing and do the choosing of representatives who promise policies, and after the election legitimately influence them.
There is universal suffrage, and there is approximate equality among the groups.
Actual social policies are chosen by the representatives, to some degree mindful of their promises, and the policies take effect to a considerable degree.
This conception is like the Ordinary Conception in sharing a feature with pretty well all conceptions of liberal democracy. Almost all conceivers or definers of liberal democracy introduce into it an idea of equality. One reason is etymology, usage, and political tradition, all of which associate democracy with equality. Another reason is that democracies involve more political equality than dictatorships and oligarchies. A third is that the definers of democracy want the kind of government they are conceiving to be true to or defendable by certain general principles about equality.
Those who favour something like the Pluralist Conception of the liberal democracies, however, are also under a certain pressure: the real world. For one thing, mass communicators like Mr. Rupert Murdoch have more influence on elections and on what happens subsequently than, say, London bus drivers, let alone London beggars. That is to say, of course, that the mass communicators have more legitimate influence, influence owed to activities in accord with the rule of law. So those who favour something like the Pluralist Conception cannot take the liberal democracies to involve any plain or downright equality. What they say instead, in a variety of ways, is what is said in the second and vague proposition of the Pluralist conception: there is approximate equality among the interest-groups.
Is the Pluralist Conception better than the Ordinary Conception? Above all, is it better at explaining how a society comes to have its actual policies? Not much. The conception is vague, and hence far from really explanatory. It is vague about more than equality. It is vague about what we are to count as the interest-groups. All that we have so far is that the voters and influencers divide into such groups, each with a common interest. We do not know what they are, let alone what degrees of power or influence they have. Are we to think of men as such a group? Property-owners? Farmers? People in a geographical region? Mass communicators? Leftists? Church-goers who are gun-owners? All is uncertainty here.
Let us try again.
In the liberal democracies, there are great differences between tenths of population ranked in terms of wealth. The tenth of population that is richest has between about 52% (Sweden) and about 70% or 72% (Britain, U.S.) of the society's total personal wealth. The poorest tenth has barely any worth speaking of, far less than 1%(4). So the richest tenth has some large multiple of roughly 60 times as much. As for income, the best-paid tenth has between about five times (Scandinavia) and about twelve times (U.S.) as much as the worst-paid tenth.(5) It is partly a technical job for economists, and one they seem not to have done, but obviously someone's wealth and income can be combined into a single summative measure. Thus we can have a new ranking in terms of what can be called economic power. Without further ado, let me offer a proposition which is certainly an underestimate, maybe a grotesque underestimate. It is that the top tenth of population has at least 30 times the economic power of the bottom tenth.
Economic power correlates with fundamental things. That is why it is important. The thing relevant now is political power, understood as power legitimately to influence and to enter into the process which issues in a society's actual policies. How strong is this correlation in ordinary circumstances? That will depend on which determinants of political power cluster together with economic power. At least most do, partly because at least most of these determinants of political power can be bought. Let me mention just two different ones: knowledge itself as against confusion and ignorance, and constraints on the range of promised policies really on offer in an election, whatever wider range the law or the constitution may allow.
Without further ado, let me offer another proposition about the top and bottom tenths of population in terms of economic power. It is that in ordinary circumstances the top tenth has at least 15 times the political power of the bottom tenth. There is this hierarchy in political power, determined or pretty well determined by a hierarchy in economic power. This is fast political science, following on the fast economics. For several reasons it seems to me no apology is needed. It is the economists and political scientists who have to catch up, not we who have to slow down. Real life, and real death, have to be thought about, as best we can.
The Pluralist Conception of the liberal democracies, as we saw, is vague about both equality and interest-groups. This can now be remedied, by taking a reasoned decision as to what are the dominant interest-groups in ordinary circumstances, what interest-groups dominate in the process which issues in actual social policies. I happen to be no Marxist, or ex-Marxist, or market-Marxist either. You need not be any of them to conclude that the dominant interest-groups are best thought of as exactly all the ten tenths of population in terms of economic power. We thus come to a third conception of the liberal democracies, one that is also a lot clearer about equality.
Interest-groups identified in terms of economic power are dominant both in legitimately influencing the choosing of representatives who promise policies, and in doing the choosing, and in the legitimate influencing after the election of the representatives.
There is universal suffrage, but gross inequality among the interest-groups in the influencing and choosing, with the best-off interest-group or tenth of population having at least 15 times the political power of the worst-off.
Actual social policies are chosen by the representatives, to some degree mindful of their promises, and the policies are somewhat effective.
That is the Hierarchic Conception of the liberal democracies.(6) Or, as we can say, referring not to the tokens or particular systems but to the type, that is Hierarchic Democracy.
It assigns an explanatory dominance to the hierarchy of interest-groups identified by economic power, or of course the lack of it. This idea is not that the upper tenths have more political power, which is of course true. It is that all these groups, including the ones at the bottom with small or insignificant amounts of power, dominate the process which issues in a society's actual policies. It is all these groups, not other groups we can think about, men or Leftists or whatever, that are important. You can almost always explain actual policies on the basis of these groups alone. I will not try to be precise about or make a quantifying guess about the dominance of the chosen interest-groups. As you will gather, I propose not to be put off saying what seems to me true by the difficulty of being precise, and, more generally, the difficulty of satisfying political scientists.
Let me just glance at one question in this connection. I have taken voters and influencers only as members of the ten economic interest-groups. Could it be that voters and influencers in the top tenth have in the end somewhat less than 15 times the political power of the voters and influencers in the bottom tenth because the members of each tenth are also members of other interest-groups? The truth is almost certainly just the opposite. Members of the top tenth are more likely to be members of other groups that are more rather than less influential. They are more likely to be members of more influential rather than less influential racial groups, for example. So with geographical groups and employer-employee groups.
Consider now Hierarchic Democracy's actual policies, and, more important, the contribution of those policies to the satisfaction and frustration of fundamental human desires, desires not only of its own citizens but also of people elsewhere. To my mind, there are six of these connected desires.
We all want to live, to have lives of decent length. We want them for ourselves and for those close to us. In the hierarchic democracies, and mainly because of those systems of government, the lives of the poor are shortened, by something like six years.(7) This fact comes together with another one more awful, that the hierarchic democracies in the economically developed world continue to have a large role in securing cut-off lives for people elsewhere, say parts of Africa. The life expectancy for males in a number of African countries is not about 72, as in Britain and the United States, but not much over 40. In Sierra Leone it was recently 39.4. It is as if these men were a different species.(8)
We all want not only the means that make for lives of decent length, but the further means that make for a certain quality of material life. The hierarchic democracies in the developed world deliver, for some of their citizens, only food and drink for something like subsistence. They deliver wretched rooms, if rooms at all, and grim environments, chronic bad health, no means of travel, nothing much to sweeten life. Our hierarchic democracies, too, continue to be more than implicated in the grisly deprivations of this kind suffered by other societies, say river blindness and child labour.
We all want freedom and power, of various kinds. To speak of political freedom, what the hierarchic democracies give to their own citizens is gross inequality. That is the nature of these political systems. If we need to remember that this inequality is better than dictatorship or oligarchy, we also need to remember that it is appallingly inferior to other possible systems of democracy. As for the contribution of our own hierarchic democracies, say the United States and Britain, to freedom and power in many other societies, two policies are followed. Our governments seek to advance Hierarchic Democracy where that suits the interests they serve, and they support dictatorship and oligarchy where that does so. Latin America has been invaded by the United States about 100 times in this century.(9)
We all want respect and self-respect. In a number of our hierarchic democracies over the past decade, to mention but one relevant fact, millions of men and women have been denied the minimal dignity of a job. Most of the governments in question have not taken perfectly possible direct action, historically proven, to alleviate this destruction of morale. It is as if the New Deal had never happened. Their international economic policies have entrenched poor countries and peoples in the debt and poverty that perpetuates something near to denigration and self-denigration.
We all want to be together with other people. That is, we want satisfactory personal or familial and also wider human relationships. These are in important ways dependent on the satisfaction and frustration of the fundamental desires already noted. In the hierarchic democracies, to speak only of the desire for a sense of membership in a society, it is frustrated for many by poverty and powerlessness.
We all want, finally, the goods of culture. No one would prefer ignorance or incompetence or shallowness. whatever disdain they may pretend for what has been denied to them. For some in the hierarchic democracies, education is made difficult, entertainment trivial, and group traditions unsustaining. Again these facts are in connection with the frustrations already noted. With this desire for culture, and with the desire for human relationships just mentioned, there is little need to speak of the grim contribution of our hierarchic democracies to other societies.
So much for a brief account of the contribution of the actual policies of our hierarchic democracies to the satisfaction and frustration of fundamental desires. The account should not come as a surprise. It is something that might have been expected of systems of government and societies which are instances of Hierarchic Democracy, systems dominated by the general fact about grossly unequal economic and political power. It is worth remarking, too, that these contributions of our systems of government make up an argument for the correctness of the Hierarchic as against any other conception of them. These are not contributions which suggest that our systems are correctly described by either the Ordinary Conception or the Pluralist Conception.
Something needs to be added. The contributions of our hierarchic democracies to the cutting-off and deadening of lives would remain criminal if, as so many have hoped, those contributions were slowly decreasing. That is, the situation would remain criminal if it were slowly improving. The truth is that since about 1979 the conditions of life of which we are thinking have been worsened. England has been dragged down by vicious politicians. The United States has used still less of its wealth to help even unlucky Americans, let alone anyone else.(10) We pass by a certain dismal truth too quickly now, like the Oxfam photographs. The truth is that since about 1979 the poor have been made poorer while the rich have been made richer. No amount of callous dissembling touches the fact. It is still made plain even by some of the research departments of the governments of selfishness in question.(11) As a result, the poor are dying younger than before.(12) Samuel Johnson was right to say that a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.(13) We might add that reducing an indecent provision for the poor is the true test of barbarism.
The account given of Hierarchic Democracy's contributions to satisfaction and frustration, as you will have noted, has not been a merely factual one. It has implied a moral judgement. Let me make that judgement or feeling more explicit by setting out a principle from which it derives. That is the Principle of Equality.(14) In one bare formulation, it is as follows.
We should have effective policies which make well-off those who are badly-off -- policies which will remove individuals from the class of the badly-off -- and we should seek to act on these policies partly by having certain practices of equality.
The principle depends on definitions of being badly-off and well-off, which can be stipulated in terms of satisfaction and frustration of the fundamental human desires at which we have glanced. The principle applies to human beings generally, and the policies which it mentions are not necessarily policies of democratic governments however conceived. The policies are these: (i) increasing the total of means to satisfaction, (ii) transferring means from the well-off without significantly affecting their position, which is certainly possible, (iii) transferring means which do affect their position, and, no less important, (iv) the policy of reducing demands by social contributors, including entrepreneurs and the like, for favourable economic incentives or inequalities.
The Principle of Equality seems to me the foundation of a decent morality. It may bring to mind what is perhaps the best-known political philosophy of the late 20th Century, that of John Rawls, and in particular his principles of justice.(15) Let me distinguish the Principle of Equality and say a word or two for it.
It is not subordinate to or constrained by any other principle. The principle which is most like it in Rawls's philosophy is subordinate to a principle of traditional individual liberties, including a liberty having to do with private property. Rather, the Principle of Equality incorporates a limited respect for such liberties. This is primarily a matter of its attention to the fundamental desire for freedom and power.
Further, the Principle of Equality differs from the particular principle in Rawls's philosophy which is most like it, the Difference Principle. This specifies allowable and obligatory socio-economic differences or inequalities between people. The Difference Principle states, in sum, that we may and must have any socio-economic differences or inequalities which make a worst-off group better-off than it would be without those differences. The idea behind this is that some people may demand favourable socio-economic inequalities in return for their contributions to society, but other people benefit from the contributions. The most familiar variant of the principle in ordinary political thinking is that we are to have any inequalities in wealth which make the poorest less poor than they would be without the inequalities. That is a thought close to `the trickle-down theory'.
The Difference Principle seems to me wonderfully indeterminate. It is a striking instance of the hesitancy and uncertainty of liberalism. What I have in mind is that, despite some of Rawls's remarks to the contrary,(16) it appears to justify, indeed oblige us to have, wholly different possible societies. This depends on what silent assumptions are made about the demands of social contributors. Hence it makes no determinate recommendation about societies. Let me show this.
Imagine a society where social contributors simply do not demand favourable socio-economic inequalities for their contributions, which is to say extrinsic incentives, and where socio-economic goods are distributed absolutely equally. This society would have the full support of the Principle of Difference. So, on the given assumption about certain demands, the principle justifies a society of utopian egalitarianism. Now imagine a society in which social contributors are more rapacious than social contributors in our societies. They demand rewards that are in excess, whatever degree of excess, of the rewards demanded in our own societies. It is a society of whatever degree of socio-economic inegalitarianism. This, it seems, is also justified by the Difference Principle.
The Principle of Equality, if it has not been so impressively elaborated as Rawls's principle, is in this crucial respect different. It is fundamental to it, as remarked, that we reduce demands by social contributors for economic rewards. It recommends the formation of and reliance on intrinsic rather than extrinsic incentives. It is therefore greatly less indeterminate. As you will have gathered, I take it to be more morally defensible than Rawls's Difference Principle and his liberal political philosophy generally.
Let us take stock. We have an understanding of the liberal democracies, the Hierarchic Conception. We have an idea of the contributions of our hierarchic democracies to fundamental satisfactions and frustrations, and of the worsening situation. We also have a principle by which to judge these political systems and their contributions, the Principle of Equality. That brings us to the question of whether those of us whose moral convictions are in some accord with the Principle of Equality should support Hierarchic Democracy. Should we be Hierarchic Democrats?(17)
One alternative that may come to mind is support for what there is reason to call Egalitarian Democracy, which is to say people's democracies or the Communist system. Another idea, certainly a better one, is support for Third Ways in politics and economics, Third Ways being compromises between Hierarchic and Egalitarian Democracy.(18) These are not the alternatives I wish to consider. My main reason is not that Egalitarian Democracy has been disproved by the battle between West and East and the fall of Communism, as some absurdly say, or that both these alternatives may seem utopian dreams. In fact, I am attracted to Third Ways. Rather, one of my reasons has to do with a certain concern for means rather than ends, with the means to getting one or another of certain governmental and economic systems rather than a specific system chosen in advance as the end.
There is nothing unusual about this concern. It is in fact often the case that we can and should make up our minds about a means before we have made up or can possibly make up our minds about a specific end. There may be a strong or even overwhelming case for trying to move in some general direction, toward a set of possible outcomes, between which we have not made a final choice, and may never have the chance of making a final choice. These outcomes, as in the present case, may have as their most important characterization just that any of them would be more morally tolerable than the situation in which we are.
Should we then adopt some means, other than or in addition to just the means of Hierarchic Democracy, of moving towards better systems of government and societies of moral decency? More particularly, should we adopt means other than legitimate ones? That is, should we adopt means other than those in accord with the rule of law? Still more particularly, should we, in our hierarchic democracies, not limit ourselves to influencing voters and governments by activities in accord with the rule of law?
The questions may lead you to think of a worn answer, violent revolution, where that is a hierarchic democracy's being replaced by means of force by an egalitarian democracy. But, as already implied in what was said of means and ends, I do put aside the worn answer. Another reason for doing so is a belief that, whatever has been true in the past, a kind of compromise with our hierarchic democracies is now and will continue to be essential to progress towards moral decency. The supposed means of violent revolution is in fact now no means at all, since it is bound to be defeated by violence and repression. It would be wrong on this ground alone, without reference to anything about means and ends or to any evils or shortcomings of Egalitarian Democracy itself.
Hence there remain two possible additional means to moral progress. One means is another kind of political violence. In at least its defiance of legitimacy, it is in conflict with Hierarchic Democracy, but it is not aimed at replacing it by Egalitarian Democracy.(19) The second means, of which I shall have more to say, is mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation. It too, since civil disobedience departs from the rule of law, is in conflict with Hierarchic Democracy. But it too does not aim at replacing Hierarchic by Egalitarian Democracy.
Mass civil disobedience in general, for present purposes, is to be understood as consisting in actions by very many people in a hierarchic democracy, actions aimed at change in the society's policies but not the establishing of Egalitarian Democracy. The actions are illegal but non-violent. Also, those who commit the offences in question do not seek to conceal the fact, and they do not seek to avoid the penalties.(20) Mass non-cooperation, for present purposes, consists in actions with the same aim, but legal ones. The particular civil disobedience and non-cooperation which is relevant, of course, to speak more precisely, is the kind directed to the satisfaction of fundamental human desires which is so morally imperative and which is called for by the Principle of Equality.
What will come to mind as historical examples of civil disobedience are the Civil Rights campaign against racial discrimination and the campaign against the Vietnam War, both in the United States, and the campaigns against that war and against nuclear arms in Britain. As for non-cooperation in the past, it has mainly consisted of strikes, including general strikes, and boycotts, notably boycotts of products and services, including national products.
What also need to be kept in mind are certain historical struggles which do not fall under our narrow definitions, since they have not taken place in hierarchic democracies. They are entirely relevant, and in a way of greater importance. They include the successful struggle for independence in India led by Gandhi, seminal for the tradition of civil disobedience. Above all they include the recent Eastern European demonstrations, occupations and marches. Since 1989 these have precipitated nothing less than political and economic transformations, non-violent revolutions. The occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing may also come to have a large significance.
What is the general strategy in mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation? An idea owed to Rawls is too restricted and elevated. It is the idea of civil disobedience as a mode of address, an appeal within a nearly-just society to that society's shared sense of justice.(21) Clearly there is no need to restrict civil disobedience to nearly-just societies in certain senses of that term. It might even be out of place in such societies. Perhaps, however, Rawls does not actually intend much restriction, since it may be that the nearly-just societies in his sense do actually include the United States and Britain. Such, I am tempted to say, is the moral world of liberalism. It is also clearly not necessary for civil disobedience that there exists in a society something which actually deserves the name of a shared sense of justice. I doubt that anything ever does. The idea is too elevated.(22)
Still, the general strategy in mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation does include a moral appeal. It is an appeal to act on what many already feel to be wrong, or an appeal to come to feel that something is wrong. But to say no more would be to underdescribe the strategy, and make less likely a proper judgement of civil disobedience and non-cooperation. Mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation is not just supplication.
It is a kind of coercion, although what might be called coercion by persuasion rather than coercion by force. It is a refusal to continue in helpful compliance with injustice, often a refusal to continue in self-injuring behaviour. It brings pressure on a society, and more particularly its government. It expresses moral hatred, hostility, disgust or exasperation, a determination to condemn or shame a government and a society, to press them them into decent human sympathy and into action on it. It is also part of this coercion, of course, that mass civil disobedience makes life harder for governments, their servants, and others. It may cost police time, reduce profits, disrupt order, and at least threaten incidental violence and damage. Officially peaceful demonstrations are very likely to include broken windows and broken arms.
So we can contemplate, at least for a moment, two possible means to moral progress -- mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation, of which we now have an idea, and the political violence of which I have had less to say, the kind which has the same aim of moral decency in our societies, rather than the old aim of creating an egalitarian democracy.
What is always said against the political violence is that it is violence, the illegal use of force, and violence that kills and maims. No one in their senses could try to minimize the fact. Still, if it looked like it might work, it would not be so easy to think about as is commonly supposed. We are all constrained by a customary morality that owes much to those who benefit from it. Hence we are mesmerized by violence and distracted from any real contemplation of other things. We concentrate on violent death to the exclusion of lives cut off or ruined legitimately. Unspeakably more decent living time has been subtracted from the 20th Century by the institutionalized and legal frustration of fundamental human desires than by all of the political violence, even if war is included in it.
But we need not think for much more than a moment about the kind of political violence in question. At any rate we need not try to think about it except in the special case of violence on behalf of the political freedom and independence of a people, which liberation struggles can call on singular resources of determination and sacrifice, and are often enough effective. We need not think of the rest of the kind of political violence in question because it does not look like it might work. The situation is in this important respect the same as with violent revolution, the attempt to replace Hierarchic by Egalitarian Democracy. The political violence which we now have in mind would kill and maim, and then almost certainly be defeated by the state and its supporters.
What would make it wrong would mainly be the effects of the state violence and repression used in opposition to it, and the absence of any compensating gain. That the opposition to this political violence arguably would be wrong would not diminish the wrongfulness of this violence. An act of mine does not become right, although there are philosophers who try to think so, if it leads to disaster only through someone else's anticipated wrongful opposition.
Why would the governments of the hierarchic democracies and their natural supporters almost certainly win? One part of the reason is that they are better at violence, through practice. Another more important part of the reason is that the fighting would drive out truth. Fighting would disarm one side, the side against the indecencies owed to or contributed to by Hierarchic Democracy. Fighting would disarm this side of its best weapon. That weapon is truth, including what can be called moral truth. No one attends to grim life-expectancies elsewhere or river-blindness or racial self-denigration when there are tanks in the street and children are being killed.
To turn to mass civil disobedience, you will anticipate that part of what can be said for it is that it is unlikely or not greatly likely to be met by state violence. In speaking of state violence, I mean more than the use of riot police and the intelligence services. State violence in this sense, although I shall not pause to define it, is likely to involve the army and to carry a significant possibility of civil war. To say mass civil disobedience is unlikely to be met by state violence is to assume something about a sense of proportion on the part of the governments of hierarchic democracies. It is also to assume they have a sense of the possible penalty that may be paid for using state violence against civil disobedience. State violence against it, as the Left has rightly calculated before now, may win some support to the cause of those who are civilly disobedient.
Should we be hierarchic democrats or should we instead supplement voting and legitimate influencing with the influence of mass civil disobedience? Before answering, I should like to look quickly at one matter. It concerns a proposition of mine that will have been anticipated, that mass civil disobedience unlike the related political violence does allow truth and moral truth to be heard and to have their rightful effect. Some will say disagree. They will disagree since this disobedience, as already noted, is in fact not just supplication. It is a kind of coercion, a confrontation, which despite its commitment to non-violence carries the threat of incidental violence. Historically, mass civil disobedience has issued in incidental violence by demonstrators.
It is possible to insist in reply that mass civil disobedience does allow truth to be heard, indeed makes truth heard. It itself, the main fact of it, is not violence. It is not such an abandoning of our conventions for dealing with disagreement as to madden both sides and leave no thought but defence and retaliation. What is often stressed in this connection by lawyers and the like who are sympathetic to civil disobedience is one of its defining features, that it is open and public and that those who engage in it do not attempt to escape the penalties for their offences. This, the lawyers say, shows the restraint of respect for law. This misses the point a little, as lawyers are likely to do in political philosophy.
It is not law that is being in a way respected by the civilly disobedient who break it, not law in general, not something which includes the law of a tyrant-state or an oligarchy. What is respected in a way by the civilly disobedient is the law of, exactly, a hierarchic democracy, and, really, a hierarchic democracy itself. It is accorded a respect for the reason among others that Hierarchic Democracy too, as implied earlier, must be regarded as a possible means to a society of moral decency and a less imperfect democracy. This respect cannot be missed by the adversaries of the civilly disobedient. It is what leaves room for truth, makes perception and reflection possible.
But saying this, I suppose, misses another point, perhaps as philosophers are likely to do. We need not seek just to argue our way towards the conclusion that civil disobedience leaves room for truth and hence for moral progress, argue that there is something that makes for such a fact. The historical record by itself establishes the fact. Alabama and Leipzig come to mind. They not only left room for truth to be heard, but got it a hearing it had not had before.
I therefore do advocate, without reserve, mass civil disobedience and also non-cooperation. This seems to me a moral necessity.
We ought to engage in and support such mass civil disobedience in order to resist further advances in social criminality by our governments, new pieces of it: vicious taxation, yet more repressive pieces of legislation about assembly or ways of living, more turning of hospitals and universities into profit-centres, more vandal roads, more profiteering by privatization, more corruption on the part of elected representatives, more hypocrisy about wars and refugees, more indifference to famine.
We ought to engage in and support disobedience not only on such new issues as they come up, but also disobedience against the standing conditions of the societies of Hierarchic Democracy: shortened and cut-off lives in them and outside them, stunted lives including some that might almost be better if they were shorter, constraint and weakness in place of freedom and power, denigration and self-denigration, the impeding and wrecking of human relationships, ignorance and vulgarity in place of culture.
We ought not to pay tax. We ought to strike and march illegally. There ought to be demonstrations against our elections in hierarchic democracies, before, during, and after them. It is possible both to vote and to advocate voting, and also to damn a way of voting, and the cheat built into it. We ought to find new forms of civil disobedience.
So with mass non-cooperation, in connection both with new evils and standing evils. We ought not to buy from the corporations and companies which do so much to frustrate the will of our representatives when those representatives remember some of their promises. Those of us who are attracted to an inner core of religion should withdraw from churches, which in their meekness accomodate the true immorality of our societies. We ought to find new forms of non-cooperation.
This, you may say, is utopian. Well, that is a right of philosophy, a right which has served us all very well. And I am not sure it is utopian. It was easier to be sure about that before the fall of Communism, before the civil disobedience that precipitated a once-impossible thing. There is an old saying, perhaps a saying of the Left. It is that only power can defeat power. Sometimes those who have said it have had in mind that state power can only be defeated by the power of violence. That proposition has been refuted by the fall of Communism.
Hope of decency in our societies, hope with reason, depends on the thought of many people coming to share a moral feeling. You will know that I speak of disgust and condemnation, and also guilt. It is possible that many will come to share that feeling, and that it will issue in civil disobedience and in non-cooperation. The globalization of information may do us a service here, despite the controls on it. So may education, and argument, and the realization that economism is not an answer to the right questions about societies, and the greater economic success of such more egalitarian economies as Japan, and the experience of immiseration coming to the aid of insufficient moral imagination, and the fact that those who drag down societies also lose.
It is possible to hope, with reason, and I do.
1. I am grateful to A. B. Atkinson, Robin Blackburn, Kiaran Honderich, and David Zimmerman for help with this paper. They will be relieved to hear that they bear no responsibility for what is said in it.
2. Perhaps the Ordinary Conception is now asserted only by politicians. (Even most of them, by the way, have given up the conception of liberal democracy as rule by the people, which was not true even of ancient Athens.) The Ordinary Conception is not far from one of the polyarchies contemplated in R. A. Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago, 1956), Ch. 3 and Appendix, and not far from from models II and IIIb in David Held, Models of Democracy (Cambridge, 1987), p. 70, p. 102. See also H. B. Mayo, An Introduction to Democratic Theory (New York, 1960), Ch. 4.
3. The Pluralist Conception, partly because of its contained claim about equality, is not to be identified with several accounts of democracy with similar names. See, for example, R. A. Dahl, Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy (New Haven, 1982). On pluralism generally, see Held, op. cit., Ch. 6.
4. It is possible, as A. B. Atkinson has remarked to me, that the poorest tenth has less than 0%. That is, its debts are greater than its assets.
5. E. N. Wolff, International Comparisons of the Distribution of Household Wealth (Oxford, 1987), esp. pp. 153, 127, 137; A. B. Atkinson, `What Is Happening to the Distribution of Income in the UK?', Proceedings of the British Academy, 1992; Atkinson, L. Rainwater, and T. Smeeding, `Income Distribution in European Countries', Discussion Series of the Microsimulation Unit at the University of Cambridge, forthcoming; D. Kessler and E. N. Wolff, `A Comparative Analysis of Household Wealth Patterns in France and the United States', Review of Income and Wealth, 37, 3, September 1991.
6. The Hierarchic Conception, and also the Ordinary and the Pluralist Conceptions, are set out more fully in `Hierarchic Democracy', New Left Review, 207, 1994. There are some differences between what is said here and in that article.
7. The life expectancy of American black males was recently 7.4 years shorter than for American white males. For black as against white females, it was 5.5 years shorter. Source: US Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1991 (Washington, DC, 1991). I am not able to produce recent British statistics in support of the uncontroversial claim that the lives of the poor are shortened, because life expectancies by social class are no longer available from the relevant government research department, no doubt for political reasons. For older statistics, see my Violence for Equality: Inquiries in Political Philosophy (London, 1989), p. 2 ff., p. 204. According to these statistics, men in the 5th social class had life-expectancies about six years shorter than men in the first social class. It is very unlikely indeed that the situation has improved.
8. United Nations Demographic Year Book, 1991 (New York, 1992), Table 22, p. 460 ff.
9. Eduardo Galeano, `A Child Lost in the Storm', in Robin Blackburn, ed., After the Fall (London, 1991), p. 252.
10. My account of the governments in question is given in Conservatism (London, Boulder, 1990).
11. For an excellent summary of increasing income inequality in Britain, see Atkinson, `What Is Happening to the Distribution of Income in the UK?', cited above, and also Atkinson, L. Rainwater, and T. Smeeding, `Income Distribution in European Countries', cited above. See also F. Levy & R. J. Murnane, `U.S. Earnings Levels and Earnings Inequality: A Review of Recent Trends and Proposed Explanations,' Journal of Economic Literature, September 1992, and Income and Wealth, a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, February, 1995.
12. British Medical Journal, 30 April 1994.
13. Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill (Oxford, 1934), Vol. 2, p. 130.
14. The Principle of Equality is stated more fully in `The Problem of Well-Being and the Principle of Equality', Mind, 1981, reprinted as Ch. 2 of my Violence for Equality: Inquiries in Political Philosophy (London, 1989). The article also considers more fully the six fundamental human desires mentioned above.
15. A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Mass. and Oxford, 1971. For other objections to the theory, see `The Use of the Basic Proposition of a Theory of Justice', Mind, 1975. It has been remarked to me, by the way, that the present paper leaves out consideration of the thinking of the New Right. Indeed it does. One reason is that I am no longer inclined to dignify by discussion such a view as that a perfectly just society may be one in which people are starving and have no moral right to food, the perfect justice being owed to the fact that the distribution of goods in the society has a certain history. That, I take it, is propounded in Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, New York, 1974.
16. Op. cit., sections 13, 26, 48.
17. It is only weaker general principles and considerations having to do with equality that issue more or less automatically in support for only Hierarchic Democracy. Sometimes there is not enough difference between the supposed premises and conclusion to make a real argument.
18. See, for example, Blackburn, op. cit.
19. Cf. the discussion of Democratic Violence in Violence for Equality: Inquiries in Political Philosophy.
20. See the excellent collections edited by H. A. Bedau, Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice (New York, 1969) and Civil Disobedience in Focus (London, 1991).
21. Rawls, op. cit., sections 55, 57, 59. They are reprinted and discussed in Bedau, Civil Disobedience in Focus.
22. I take it, a little uncertainly, that what is
said of a shared sense of justice in A Theory of Justice is heavily
qualified in Rawls's Political Liberalism (New York, 1993). See, e.g.,
pp. xvi, xviii, 8.