Occupy: a civil disobedience campaign to change the world or just a camp site?

On Monday night, just after midnight, the police and bailiffs moved in to evict the anti-capitalist protestors from the Occupy London camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The protestors stressed their action wasn’t over but most did not resist the arm of the law. And so, the steps of the cathedral are once again the province of tourists, lunching city workers and the occasional worshipper. It may look a bit tidier, but have we lost something in insisting our landmarks are protest free?

I only walked past the camp a few times, but it seemed perfectly well ordered and not in any way the health and safety hazard the authorities would have us believe.  I suppose it might have been a bit offputting to some, but it wasn’t in any way threatening.  I don’t quite understand why those in authority are so afraid of legitimate protest, although obviously they have something to worry about if it spills over into civil disobedience.  But  it didn't, or at least it hasn't yet.

Finding places to protest is becoming increasingly difficult.  We may have a right to freedom of expression, but there is no right to have anywhere to exercise that right.  Access to land for any sort of political demonstration is at the discretion of the owner.  The campaigners only ended up at St Paul’s because Paternoster Square, their original target, took a pre-emptive injunction, as did Canary Wharf when it got wind that protesters were looking to target the major investment banks based there.

You may think it’s fair enough for Canary Wharf to try and prevent an encampment springing up in a bustling and, apparently, vital financial centre, but it’s got form.  In 2004 a trade union march against the low pay of cleaners had to be cancelled after the owners were granted an injunction.  It’s precisely this sort of heavy-handed response that makes civil disobedience more likely, not less.  Maybe Occupy has a point by cocking a snook at authority.

Having said that, we take the law into our own hands at our peril.  What many of those who protest about the oppressive nature of the state and the legal system forget is that they are not the same thing.  Indeed, the law is there as much to protect us from the excesses of the state just as much as it is to keep us in line.  It is a vital restraint on the powerful and should protect the weak and vulnerable, although that isn't always the case.

There are, as Martin Luther King wrote in his famous ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail:


‘...just laws and there are unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all... One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly...I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.’


The difficulty comes in deciding which are unjust laws and which are laws we just don’t like very much.  Lord Skidelsky has argued, most notably in his opposition to the ban on fox hunting, that a law is invalid and gives rise to the right of resistance if it is simply based on prejudice and not reason.  He also says this right of resistance is independent of the electoral cycle and based on the nature of the law, not on the chances of its being repealed.  Under this definition, civil disobedience against an unjust law is defensible if it has a chance of making the law inoperable.

I am no professor of political economy, but I have to disagree.  There must be a much higher threshold before civil disobedience is acceptable, that there are no other legitimate means through which that law can be revoked, electoral or otherwise.  The philosopher John Rawls stressed that civil disobedience is not self-interested, is always performed in public, because it is a form of communication that appeals to a community’s sense of justice, and is always a last resort.

Which sets it out very clearly from just breaking the law.  As citizens of a liberal and democratic society we not only benefit from the relative safety and security it brings, we also give up the automatic right to take the law into our own hands, whether that’s thwacking a burglar over the head, jumping a red light or illegally downloading a movie.

To seek to justify such seemingly petty acts merely serves to emphasise how different they are from the legitimate and selfless civil disobedience of the likes of Martin Luther King.  In the 1950s, American sociologists Sykes and Matza developed the theory of ‘neutralisation’ to categorise the excuses of criminals.  They found most people who break the law do so selectively and have no desire to live entirely outside it, recognising their moral obligation to abide by it.

The sociologists outlined five common ‘neutralising’ excuses such lawbreakers use to justify their action.  First is denial of responsibility (‘It wasn't my fault, I couldn’t stop, the road was icy’).  Second comes denial of injury (‘no one was hurt’).  Then denial of the victim (‘they deserved it’) followed by condemnation of the condemners (‘well they would say that wouldn’t they?).  Finally comes an appeal to higher values than those embodied in the law (‘music should be free to all’).

The point is, that individual private acts of lawbreaking, even if targeted at unjust laws, do not comprise a campaign of civil disobedience.  Vigilantes, while their actions may, on the face of it, seem defensible, change nothing and instead threaten the rule of law on which we all rely.

Given the reluctance of the financial and political elites to undertake any meaningful reform of the economic system, it is understandable that the Occupy campaigners felt the only way to be heard was to pitch their tents in the heart of the city.  Their action certainly appealed to our sense of justice, so I hope they don’t give up.  But I also hope they can build a more coherent and targeted campaign against the ravages of global capitalism.  Otherwise it’s not civil disobedience, it’s just a camp site.

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