Taking notes 5: The truant insurrection

by Uri Gordon

“When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties”. — Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, Article 35

We live in a time when the last pretenses of elected governments to serve their citizens are falling away. A decade ago, an international coalition invaded Iraq on a fraudulent pretext, deaf to the protests of millions. Today, austerity measures and bail-outs transfer the cost of the financial crisis onto the people, blatantly ignoring the root causes of the meltdown. Freedom of speech has become the right to be ignored. Confident in their better judgment, elites continue to promote corporate concentration and economic growth at all costs.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the current wave of resistance sweeping the globe expresses a widespread concern that something has gone awry with our democracies. There is a sense that the political class, once a genuine representative of the popular will, has betrayed the trust invested in it and surrendered the people’s sovereignty to multinationals, banks and special interests. People desire a genuine democracy, one that would cast off the undue influence of a rich minority and act for the common good as before.

Yet this is pure fantasy. Since its inception, the capitalist state has served the very same interests as those that control it today. Far from going off course, today’s democracies are merely being exposed for the sham they have always been. Paradoxically, what appears at first to be the most radical expression of democracy – its declared endorsement of the people’s right to rebel – on closer inspection turns out to be the surest guarantee against fundamental change. Just as in vaccination the pathogen is administered in weakened form, so is the threat of insurrection defused by its enshrinement in the founding myth of an unequal society.

Article 35 of the 1793 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen was by no means an original statement. Indeed, it may be seen as essentially a repetition of the opening of the American Declaration of Independence, which asserted, among those truths held self-evident,

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.[1]

This assertion, in turn, is rooted in a much older tradition which may be traced back to two famous proclamations of the 13th century – the Magna Carta of King John of England (1213) and the Golden Bull of King András II of Hungary (1222). The famous Clause 61 of the Magna Carta states that if the King breaks any one of its articles and fails to correct the transgression, then the barons “may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon”.[2] The Golden Bull, for its part, states that “should we, or any of our successors, at any time be disposed to infringe upon any of these our orders, the bishops, as well as the other lords and the nobles of the realm, shall be at liberty…to oppose and contradict us and our successors, for ever, without incurring the penalty of treason”.[3]

These early statements, however, do not go as far as the American and French Declarations. The right to rebel that they recognize is temporary. The king is not to be deposed, only coerced into compliance. Thus the Magna Carta continues: “When redress has been obtained, they shall resume their old relations towards us”. What we are dealing with here is not insurrection, but civil disobedience. The latter term should be clearly distinguished from the former. Insurrection is a mass armed uprising to overthrow a regime. Civil disobedience is selective refusal to obey some of the regime’s laws or policies, as a means of pressuring it into changing them. Tax strikes, refusal of conscription, and sitting in the “wrong” section of a segregated bus all belong to this category. There is no intention to overthrow the regime, only to force it to negotiate.[4]

The genuine foundation of the right to insurrection belongs to the Age of Enlightenment, with its faith in natural law and universal rights. It was John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government – the theoretical defence of the English Revolution of 1688 – who penned its most explicit and influential formulation:

Whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience… [and] have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative… provide for their own safety and security.[5]

“Their original liberty”: here we find the philosophical foundation of the right of insurrection. This is the account of government as founded on a social contract among free and equal human beings. In the so-called state of nature, people are assumed to be utterly separate and sovereign. The political community is founded as a free compact, and representative government comes to the world as a matter of expedience, once the community grows too large to settle every issue by direct democracy. Thus “every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation, to every one of that society, to submit to the determination of the majority”.[6] It is this view of government as a contract that justifies its dissolution. Robespierre was appealing to the same idea when he spoke against granting King Louis XVI a trial, stating that “when a nation has been forced to resort to the right of insurrection, it returns to a state of nature as regards its tyrant “.[7]

Now let us put aside for a moment the historical fact that no government was ever established by contract among dissociated free individuals, but only by usurpation during the Neolithic and subsequently by conquest.[8] Let us also abstract from the basic criticism of natural rights as wishful thinking, which caused Jeremy Bentham to refer to the French Declaration as “nonsense upon stilts”.[9] Even when taken on its own terms, is not the notion of a quasi-constitutional right to insurrection patently absurd?

To begin with, if some insurrections are lawful and others are not, who is to make the decision? Surely not the government itself. Is it then a matter of purely subjective judgment? Indeed, there is no shortage of groups who sincerely feel that government has betrayed its constitutional limits and invoke the right of insurrection for their cause. A prominent example is right-wing American militias and their supporters in the National Rifle Association, whose propaganda represents anything from legalized abortion to socialized healthcare as a step to destroy the republic and instate a dictatorship. Do such groups have a legal right to revolt against the government?[10] But more basically, is it not simply illogical to assert a right that contradicts the very foundation of sovereignty on which it rests? How can a sovereign polity be expected to embrace the means of its own destruction?

One response to these dilemmas is to claim that the right of insurrection is, indeed, fundamentally illogical. As Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address, “it is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination…it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself”.[11] Earlier, during the South Carolina Nullification Crisis, Andrew Jackson similarly proclaimed that a “revolutionary act, may be morally justified by the extremity of oppression; but to call it a constitutional right, is confounding the meaning of terms, and can only be done through gross error, or to deceive”.[12] Thus it might be asserted that the right of insurrection vanishes once democracy has been established, since the constitution now contains means for the peaceful replacement of government.

However, the contradictory nature of the right of insurrection conceals a deeper truth. It is a founding myth that stands at the core of the liberal doctrine of citizenship. The right to insurrection is at the same time the denial of the Law and its premise. The liberal-republican system “presupposes the permanent exercise of the very same right that makes it impossible. The right to insurrection appears as simultaneously destructive and foundational of the liberal-republican concept of Law; it negates Law, yet, it is at its basis, it represents, in short, its ‘constitutive Other'”.[13]

The right to insurrection is therefore not simply a logical fallacy or a self-serving figure of speech. Instead, it is a subtle ideological device whose insidious function is to generate loyalty to the basic institutions of the capitalist state, even as it portrays them as contingent. By buying into the myth that the basic arrangement of power under which we live is founded on a past revolutionary act of “the people” – rather than on an act of usurpation by a minority of propertied white men – we, the subjects of this power, actively participate in granting it its basic legitimacy. The appeal to insurrection as a founding event ensures that we fail to question the basic institution of government. Thus, the capitalist state is preserved even as it passes through the tumults of popular revolt. In exiting one cage, we only enter into another.

Is it really so surprising that today, in the wake of the crockery revolution, the Icelandic banks are all being rebuilt with the same rules as before, and the rich are once again getting even richer? In drawing legitimacy for contemporary revolts from the very same myths that conceal the true nature of the system against which we are revolting, we deny ourselves the possibility of a more fundamental critique, and hence of true revolt and liberation.

An actual revolution does not replace one set of masters with another. It overthrows class society altogether, and replaces it with well-prepared structures of self-management, voluntary association and mutual aid. This requires neither the appeal to a consecrated right, nor the myth of democratic citizenship. The sooner we, who struggle for social justice and ecological sanity, cast off the nostalgic myth of a lost freedom, the sooner we become capable of a revolution worthy of its name.

(Author’s note: Santiago Sierra’s artwork The Black Cone, Monument to Civil Disobedience was installed in conjunction with his mid-career retrospective exhibition in front of the parliament building in Reykjavik earlier this year. The monument consists of a 180cm-high monolith that has been cracked with a black cone, with a plaque citing the final article of the 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It was dedicated on the 3rd anniversary of the anti-neoliberal protests which led to the cabinet’s resignation.)

End Notes:

[1] The Declaration of Independence. In Charles W. Eliot, ed., 1909-14, American Historical Documents, 1000–1904. Vol.43. The Harvard Classics. New York: Collier; www.bartleby.com/43/14

[2] Davis, G.R.C. 1989. Magna Carta, Revised Edition, London: Britsihn Library. §61;

[3] Virág, Benedek. 1805. Második András Aranybullája. Budapest: Neumann. §31.2 (Hungarian). http://mek.oszk.hu/05900/05919/html/gmiiendre0002

[4] cf. King, Martin Luther. 1963. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In Why We Can’t Wait. New York: New American Library. p.85; http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/dos/mlk/letter.html

[5] Locke, John. 1689. Second Treatise on Government. Ch.19, §222; http://constitution.org/jl/2ndtr19.htm

[6] Ibid. Ch.8, §97. cf. Paine, Thomas. 1776. Common Sense. Philadelphia: Bradford; http://gutenberg.org/ebooks/147

[7] Robespierre, Maximilien. 1792. “Against Granting the King a Trial.” In William Jennings Bryan, ed., 1906. The World’s Famous Orations. New York: Funk and Wagnalls. Vol.7 §23; http://bartleby.com/268/7/23

[8] Carnneiro, Robert. 1970. “A Theory of the Origin of the State.” Science 169:3947, pp.733-8. Eisler, Riane. 1987. The Chalice and The Blade. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

[9] Bentham, Jeremy. 1843. “Anarchical Fallacies. Being an examination of the Declaration of Rights issued during the French Revolution.” In Works. Edinburgh: Tait, vol.2 p.501; http://ditext.com/bentham/bentham. Cf. David G. Ritchie (1894) Natural Rights: A criticism of some political and ethical conceptions. London: Allen & Unwin, pp.241-3.

[10] Hardaway, Robert. 2002. “The Inconvenient Militia Clause of the Second Amendment.” Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development 16:1; http://scholarship.law.stjohns.edu/jcred/vol16/iss1/2/

[11] Lincoln, Abraham. 1861. “First Inaugural Address.” In Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. http://bartleby.com/124/

[12] Jackson, Andrew (1832) President Jackson’s proclamation against the nullification ordinance of South Carolina. Philadelphia: Crissy & Markley; http://archive.org/details/presidentjackson00unit

[13] Palti, Elías. 2005. “On the Thesis of the Essential Contestability of Concepts, and Latin American Intellectual History.” Re-Descriptions 9, pp.126–7; https://www.jyu.fi/yhtfil/redescriptions/Yearbook%202005/Palti_05.pdf

Note: This piece is forthcoming (Jan. 2013) in Santiago Sierra – A Retrospective, ed. Hafþór Yngvason. Reykajvík: Listasafn Reykajvíkur.

[Thank you Uri for this contribution]

The writer is an anarchist theorist and activist teaching at Loughborough University in the UK, and formerly at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Ketura, Israel. He has worked with Indymedia, Peoples’ Global Action, and Anarchists Against the Wall. His website is Anarchy Alive!