Sunday, December 11, 2005

A philosophical history of the right to protest

Not too surprisingly, the right to protest is one of the most enshrined parts of living in a democratic state. We may not use it all that often, especially not in any revolutionary way, but knowing that the right is there is part and parcel of living as we do.

In the history of theory however, protest has almost always been a tricky issue. Protest for the most part, throws up the image of the mob; the ochlocracy, as Plato would put it. The very idea, for Plato, that the people might have some say in their own ruling would be anathema; indeed it is the people who need saving from themselves. Of course, this is not to confuse authority with authoritarianism - Plato would hold it self evident that people should obey implicitly those in power, and this would not appear strange to those living in Athens circa 400BC.

Machiavelli takes a similar if slightly more pragmatic approach to protest. The aim of the ruler, says Machiavelli, is to stay in power by any means necessary - to avoid the protesters wherever possible. And, contrary to normal assumptions about Machiavelli, that does sometimes mean capitulating to people's demands, even if they do go against the will of the Prince. Still, protest being allowed at hte whim of the ruler is not exactly protest as we would imagine it today.

It is only really with the advent of social contract theory and the beginnings of the development of the middle classes that philosophers really start to grapple with the issue of the right to protest. And even then, there are as many thinkers who oppose the ideas there are that embrace it. Obviously Locke and later Mill are famous advocates of the right to protest, but even then the issue may not be as clear cut as it seems - Locke's work, whilst clearly imbued with the importance of the individual and their right within society, was written with the aim of providing stability for the shaky political situation in Britain after the civil war. As the start of the section of Two Treatises entitled Of the Dissolution of Government says

"He that will with any clearness speak of the dissolution of government , ought, in the first place, to distinguish between the dissolution of society and the dissolution of government."


protest against the government instantly being made a separate issue to protest against fundamental liberties.

And then of course there is Rousseau, who's discussion of the General Will even at the time of the French Revolution shows a poor opinion of the idea of protest. Only the majority can be correct under the general will, and those who thought differently to the Will are obviously wrong, and should reconsider their viewpoint. Unrest and protest about this only seeks to further lessen the power of the general will

"It is therefore essential, if the general will is to be able to make itself known, that there should be no partial society in the state." (From The Social Contract.)


During the nineteenth century of course, all this begins to change and protest becomes enshrined as 'the lower classes' gain more power and political influence - Protest as a tool of people toward government becomes not just something for the desperate, or as the first step to revolution, but a crucial part of the democratic process, available to all. It goes to show how successful this idea has been in that we now (rightfully) kick up such a fuss when a peaceful protester is challenged over what they are doing. Not that long ago, they could simply have been killed, after all.

So is there really a sense in which we are regressing in terms of our right to protest? Fundamentally, probably not. But more and more small parts of this right are being chipped away. I very doubt they will ever remove the right completely, not at the general level at which protest is now enshrined. Even so, considering the long history of protest and authorities desire to suppress it, we must strive to keep the right to protest as complete as it possibly can be.

9 comments:

Chris Brooke said...

"Still, protest being allowed at hte whim of the ruler is not exactly protest as we would imagine it today."

Lots to disagree with in this post, but I'll stick to one point: read chapters 4 and 5 of the first book of Discourses - over here - a far more important book than The Prince, and then come back and tell me that Machiavelli wasn't acutely aware of the importance of what we'd call "the right to protest".

MatGB said...

I was actually wondering why Paul was citing The Prince as being Nic's views, given the Discourses pretty much contradict them.

Paul? You'm supposed to be the expert in these things...

PaulJ said...

There is a contradicition between the Discources and the Prince, yes. To say the Discourses are far more important than the Prince, well, I'm not so sure. It is the Prince which has almost certainly had more of an impact on contemporary International Relations which seems to be far too prevalent at the minute as it is...

Anyway, yes, Chapter Four in particular does show a side of Machiavelli which agrees with the concept of the righht to protest. I suppose I could argue that Machaivelli tempers this by saying that should a crowd get out of hand, a knowledgable man can 'talk some sense into them' - or in other words, counteract their protest, but I suppose that the same happens today when someone talks down a group of protestors with rational thinking.

Please feel free to discuss other parts of the post - if you think I've got anything else incorrect I'd be happy to discuss them with you. I'll admit to having not look at Machiavelli for some time - the others I should be capable of defending my opinions.

PaulJ said...

Sorry to double post - never, ever, hit enter before you're absolutely sure you're finished.

Something which I had firmly in my mind when I wrote the original post was this - even when Plato and Machiavelli (and to a lesser extent Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes et al) are talking about the importance of allowing 'the people' to protest, what they're actually talking about is the right of citizens to protest and have a say. By no means would this 'right to protest' extend to all members of society - if you look at laws, military service, even taxes, you're talking about something which effected everybody, only the specific cross-section the populace which could call themselves citizens.

The idea of universal right to protest, that is legitimate right to protest, is something which is tied to the growing emancipation of people over the last few hundred years. Marx saw it when he realised the power of the worker in the nineteenth century - a previously powerless section of the population had become enpowered because of their newly found importance, and they had to be recognised at a political level. Yes, these people could obviously protest before that, and it might not actually have been possible to ignore them or simply have them killed, but that's not to say that the protest was 'legal' or that any notice would be taken of it if at all possible.

MatGB said...

I recall that Prince was essentially a job application written in prison to get the Borgias to let him out and give him a job, it was specifically designed to get him released and appeal to their sensibilities.

The Discourses were much more his personal opinions, and therefore harder to read and get into. Which is why, of course, I know the Prince pretty well even though I'm more inclined to the Discourses...

Chris Brooke said...

OK: you want some more criticism. Here are three more problems with the post (there are others, but I really will stop here):

(1) Protest for the most part, throws up the image of the mob; the ochlocracy, as Plato would put it...

Not true: Plato does not ever use this word; our first recorded use of it comes from the historian Polybius (c.203-120 BCE), writing a long time after Plato (427-347 BCE).

(2) Locke's work, whilst clearly imbued with the importance of the individual and their right within society, was written with the aim of providing stability for the shaky political situation in Britain after the civil war.

This is almost certainly not true. The best scholarship (e.g., Laslett) argues that the Two Treatises were written to justify revolution against the established order (James II, around the time of the exclusion crisis), not to "provide stability" for Britain. (If things were shaky, it was because Locke's party was doing its best to make them so.)

(3a) And then of course there is Rousseau, who's discussion of the General Will even at the time of the French Revolution shows a poor opinion of the idea of protest...

Rousseau died eleven years before the French Revolution (which he would have detested), and The Social Contract was published over a quarter of a century before the French Revolution.

(3b) Only the majority can be correct under the general will, and those who thought differently to the Will are obviously wrong, and should reconsider their viewpoint.

Some Rousseau interpreters do hold this view, which I think is drastically mistaken. Far more plausible (it seems to me) is the view - defended in recent scholarship by, e.g., Gopal Sreenivasan - that the general will is pretty much just another name for the majority opinion (under certain constraints), and if you look carefully, Rousseau never says that the minority is "obviously wrong", he says that they were wrong *in their opinion of what the general will is*, which, if we take the general will to be another name for the opinion of the majority, is trivially true.

OK, I'll stop there.

PaulJ said...

Ok thanks. Mat seems to think I'm the 'expert' on the subject, but really I just know what I've encountered and there's no saying that that is 100% correct. I'll try and put up a counter-argument to your points but they're generally doing their job of proving me wrong so my points might be a bit spurious.

1 and 3 - Ok so my dates are wrong. My points still stand though: I'm guessing Plato would have been quite happy to use the word ochlocracy - he was no lover of the mob or mob rule.

Rousseau - Of course he would have detested the revolution, that's kind of the point im making though, isn't it? Even considering the situation in France at the time - and France was a powderkeg waiting to go off for quite a while so I'll include Rousseau as having something to say about the revolution - one of the most prominent thinkers of the time seems to not approve of the idea of protest.

3b. But the General Will endures though, does it not? Even if people have a view contrary to the General Will and Rousseau is ok with this, only the General Will will be followed, meaning that unless a protest manages to garner majority support and therefore become the General Will, it will ultimately fail to achieve anything. The right to protest with the proviso that no-one will listen too you doesn't sound so appealing.

2. Locke. I'm really trying to get into words what I want to say here - I think Locke was trying to create a more stable Britain through compromise - he creates a safer state of nature which means revolution doesn't necessarily mean the end of society, but only because if he'd tried to create a state where people should obey the monarch (like the state of nature presented by Hobbes) then he'd have got absolutely nowhere. By creating a situation where protest is possible, it calms the situation and means that protest doesn't occur - hence the reason why I think Locke is trying to create stability. That was the only course of action after the Civil War because any more volatile piece wouldn't have been accepted.

The annoying thing about this is that I distinctly remember putting forward the argument you've just put forward to one of lecturers and getting shot down in flames. I just can't remember the full extent of his counter-argument to give to you though :-)

Chris Brooke said...

b. But the General Will endures though, does it not?

The general will can only find expression as general law. So if you want to know what the GW is, read it in the law books, and that's the GW, which endures until such time as a new majority vote of the citizens replaces it with something else.

The right to protest with the proviso that no-one will listen too you doesn't sound so appealing.

Rousseau-on-protest is a tricky issue. And it's one that, as it happens, I should be completing an essay fairly soon, for translation into French and publication next year in Les ├ętudes philosophiques. I can send you a copy, if you like, when it's done. (I'd certainly rather do that than try to summarise my argument here!)

PaulJ said...

I'd like that. It's far easier to put across or be on the receiving end of an argument which is down on paper, not hastily posted on a blog.