Greek protests show democracy in action
A minister described Greek civil disobedience as 'anomie' – but it is legitimately reclaiming our democracy from failed institutions
The Greek minister for public transport, Dimitris Reppas, stated last week that the government would not let "
The harassed minister was referring to the mass protests that have gripped
What the minister, in his ignorance and desperation, called "anomie", political and legal theory examines under the term "civil disobedience". From Antigone to the campaigners for workers' and civil rights, pacifists, suffragettes and conscientious objectors, disobedience is not simple illegality. It is the outward sign of moral conscience and of political fidelity to the principles of justice and democracy. Throughout history, disobedience has changed regimes, constitutions and laws – as we are currently witnessing in
The mass disobedience against racial discrimination and the Vietnam war in the
But the fact that we have not chosen where to be born and live makes dissent an integral part of the constitutional arrangements. Our implicit promise to obey the government does not mean blanket acceptance of its specific policies. A controversial policy does not become automatically legitimate because it has been enacted in parliament and become law. On the contrary, at this point legality and legitimacy follow different routes. Opposition parties continue their campaign to repeal it, ordinary citizens their fight in the streets. This is where the right and duty of civil disobedience enters the scene. If state laws and policies conflict with basic constitutional principles, the supposedly highest expression of popular sovereignty, the obligation to obey disappears and dissent replaces consent. There is an additional argument
The constitutional argument for civil disobedience applies fully to the Greek case. For many years the Greek legal system and its political masters failed to prosecute corruption and tax avoidance. The rule of law in
The democratic deficit of our political system is evident and dramatic. In the Greek case, manifesto promises of the government before the last elections were comprehensively broken. No consent has been sought or given to the various measures that are destroying the post-war social bond. These measures have led to the surrender of national sovereignty to a motley crew of international bankers and deluded Eurocrats and the demotion of parliament to the position of a multinational company's local branch executing the orders of the headquarters. In all these senses,
Someone who disobeys a public order law by occupying a ministry in order to advertise the unconstitutionality and injustice of these measures acts in the name of the constitution. Someone who breaks a law that violates the basic constitutional guarantees of the minimum standard of living by not paying exorbitant toll duties or transport fees acts in the name of justice. A citizen who disobeys an unconstitutional law replaces the courts when they neglect their duty. If "anomie" exists in
For the ordinary person, the decision to break the law is the strongest mark that the morality of citizens has not atrophied like that of politicians. It happens when someone reaches the point at which he says to himself "enough is enough – I can't take it any more" and is prepared to risk punishment.
Unlike purely subjective moral decisions, civil disobedience is a collective act. When a large number of citizens realise that the democratic process is malfunctioning and legitimate grievances cannot be heard, the obligation to disobey the law turns them from mere subjects to the law into proper citizens. This is the second achievement of disobedience
A legitimation crisis results from much more than isolated acts of disobedience. It arises when the political system can no longer generate acceptance of its basic policies and principles and has to resort to open coercion, ideological manipulation or lies to keep the population in line. The democratic dissident is precisely the person who acts morally as a member of a political campaign. She defies power on account of a basic conception of the good rather than for individual profit or benefit as the powerful and wealthy have consistently done. When the multitude becomes the agent of morally disobedient action against unjust law, that law decays and passes away – occasionally alongside the government that instituted it. This is authentic morality and democracy in action against the anomie of power.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs