„cannot do everything“
Civil and Social Disobedience
Jens Kastner/Bettina Spoerr
“…but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”
“Resistance to Civil Government,” a short essay by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), is among the most influential texts for the 20th century’s social movements. The summon it articulates to break the law became the core of civil disobedience.
If Thoreau himself, facing slavery and the American intervention in Mexico (1846-1848), had framed the duty to engage in disobedience as a question of the individual conscience, various movements developed it into political concepts. The latter were tailored to different kinds of collective action and adapted to the respective contexts. They played a role already in the French Résistance, and the anti-colonial liberation movement around Mahatma Gandhi practiced forms of civil disobedience, as did the Black Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America.
Later, the concept was employed in the context of the New Social Movements, and used in particular actions: blockades against the deployment of Pershing missiles in the Federal Republic of Germany’s peace movement, “harvest actions” on trial fields by the movement against genetic engineering, a variety of actions by the movement against nuclear power that continues to this day.
In the context of the movements critical of globalization, civil disobedience plays an especially large role in Italy. Yet the disobbedienti, who emerged from the tute bianche in 2001, trace themselves to a less pacifist tradition. Their ideas and practices of disobedience stem from the history of the autonomous workers’ movement, or operaismo. The operaisti of the 1960s and 1970s discussed—and practiced—the refusal to work, and sabotage, in great numbers. The disobbedienti moreover preached the expansion of civil into social disobedience.
Even though, in a time of governmental regimes, the state is nowadays less under attack as a clearly discernible opponent, numerous and highly varied forms and practices of civil (or social) disobedience continue to exist today, from the illegal crossing of borders to net activism. Many of these processes are being reflected upon from within the field of art, and artists are actively involved in some of them. This project, then, examines civil disobedience at the intersections and points of overlap between artistic production and social movements.
More than the famous line with which we began, one that seems to presuppose uncommon strength and an almost heroic determination to act, it is perhaps a different sentence in Thoreau that is decisive. In “Resistance to Civil Government,” just a few lines down, Thoreau also writes: “A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.”