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Tucked away in a minor footnote to the final chapter of Between Facts and Norms, Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929), the Frankfurt School’s premier second-generation representative, offers a tantalizing remark about Franz L. Neumann (1900–1954), his predecessor at the Institute for Social Research and its most impressive first-generation legal thinker.
From Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, to the anonymous intelligence official whose revelations about President Trump’s illegal campaign activities in Ukraine helped lead to his impeachment by the House of Representatives, whistleblowers have captivated public attention in the US and elsewhere. Christopher Wylie “blew the whistle” on UK-based Cambridge Analytica, revealing in March 2018 that his former employer had mined Facebook data to manipulate voters. Recent EU-wide attempts to regulate offshore finance have been motivated by the so-called Panama Papers (2015) and Paradise Papers (2017).1 Candice Delmas may be exaggerating somewhat when claiming that “[i]f the twentieth century was the age of civil disobedience, the twenty-first century is shaping up to be the age of whistleblowing.”2 Yet Delmas is right to highlight whistleblowing’s (henceforth, WB) massive global political impact, and the ways in which it increasingly performs functions long standardly associated with civil disobedience (henceforth, CD).
Why another volume devoted to civil disobedience? Libraries are filled with thick tomes devoted to the topic. Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., canonical figures in the history of civil disobedience, not only inspired countless familiar and not-so-familiar movements but also ignited extensive political and scholarly debate.1 From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, civil disobedience became a fashionable subject for discussion among lawyers, philosophers, political scientists, and many others. Prominent intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt, Ronald Dworkin, Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls, and Bertrand Russell, produced significant theoretical statements about it. What possibly remains to be said about something that fascinated so many of the most innovative and influential political thinkers in the last century?
The theory and practice of civil disobedience has once again taken on import, given recent events. Considering widespread dissatisfaction with normal political mechanisms, even in well-established liberal democracies, civil disobedience remains hugely important, as a growing number of individuals and groups pursue political action. 'Digital disobedients', Black Lives Matter protestors, Extinction Rebellion climate change activists, Hong Kong activists resisting the PRC's authoritarian clampdown…all have practiced civil disobedience. In this Companion, an interdisciplinary group of scholars reconsiders civil disobedience from many perspectives. Whether or not civil disobedience works, and what is at stake when protestors describe their acts as civil disobedience, is systematically examined, as are the legacies and impact of Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.
I spent a few unseasonably hot summer days in 1996 digging around in the German Federal Archives in Koblenz for what later became a lengthy essay on Ernst Fraenkel (1898–1975), the neglected German socialist political and legal thinker. I still recall struggling to justify my efforts not simply as an historian of ideas but also as a political theorist who, at least in principle, was expected to make systematic contributions to contemporary debates. The problem was that Fraenkel had focused his acumen on investigating liberal democratic instability and German fascism, matters that did not seem directly pertinent to a political and intellectual constellation in which political scientists were celebrating democracy's “third wave.” With Tony Blair and Bill Clinton touting Third Way politics, and many former dictatorships seemingly on a secure path to liberal democracy, Fraenkel's preoccupations seemed dated. Even though Judith Shklar had noted, as late as 1989, that “anyone who thinks that fascism in one guise or another is dead and gone ought to think again,” political pundits and scholars in the mid-1990s typically assumed that capitalist liberal democracy's future was secure. When I returned to the US and described my research to colleagues, they responded, unsurprisingly, politely but without much enthusiasm.
A growing number of political activists and scholars defend the idea of state-based or political-institutional civil disobedience: they locate civil disobedience's agency in state rather than civil society–based actors. Diverging from older ideas of civil disobedience as directed against government, the concept of institutional disobedience raises tough questions its exponents have not yet fully answered. Civil disobedience has usually referred to politically motivated lawbreaking that is morally conscientious, nonviolent, and demonstrates basic respect for law. Because of the modern state's normatively ambivalent traits (e.g., its monopoly on legitimate coercion), political-institutional disobedience is incompatible with minimally acceptable interpretations of civil disobedience's core components. Political-institutional civil disobedience's advocates mischaracterize what they in fact are proposing, namely, disobedience to the law by individual state officials. Such offiical disobedience poses challenges distinct from and probably greater than civil society–based disobedience.