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       mf : If we understand correctly, the triple experience of dispossession is precisely what, according to you, makes it possible to justify the recourse to civil disobedience – which is always viewed with suspicion in the context of welfare democracies which appear indeed to provide citizens with all means required to “legally” oppose those legislative and regulatory measures that they may find unjust or disgraceful. At the same time, as you point out, in contemporary democracies the space open to disobedience tends to decrease considerably: “Which kind of illegality could a citizen adopt today in order to manifest, in the face of an instituted power, her disagreement with an action that she undertakes in its name?” Thus, the question about the reasons for disobedience in a democracy – and the question about the (apparent) contradiction that prevails between resistance and democracy – are tightly connected to the question about the correct way to disobey in a democracy. According to you, what is it that contemporary acts of civil disobedience (undertaken by public service professionals working in schools, hospitals and universities) can teach us about these questions concerning “why” and “how” and, eventually, the relation between these two aspects (that is, the relation between theoretical justification and practical engagement)?

       S. Laugier, A. Ogien : By taking on the domain of the political from the perspective of civil disobedience we introduce a slight shift in perspective. In effect, this approach requires that we redefine the very limits of the political domain, and acknowledge the fact that ordinary citizens are fully capable of political reasoning. But this shift has a flip-side: we have come to consider that the question about the difference between theoretical justification and practical engagement is incorrectly formulated; or, rather, that it is built on a false distinction.

Civil disobedience is a form of action that consists, for an individual, in a non-violent, collective and public refusal to fulfill a legal or regulatory obligation on the grounds that it violates a “superior principle”. The purpose of this refusal is to force the scorned authority to impose a sanction, so that, in the context of a trail, there may be a public debate regarding the legitimacy of this obligation. This way of acting has been deployed at the service of “great causes” to which it owes its titles to nobility: the struggles against colonization, racial segregation, unjust wars, or struggles for the right to abortion or homosexuality; and today for the rights of foreigners, illegal and clandestine.

But these “great causes” do not exhaust the reasons for disobedience. A new reason has made its appearance: the defense of democracy and the expansion of the political rights of citizens. In one form of civil disobedience of this kind, a group of militants commits a deliberate infraction, attempting to link this action to those of a free political opposition within the framework of democratic debate, in order to abrogate or reform laws regarded as insufficient or disastrous (such is the case, for example, of those who rip out transgenic plants or the militants of the Right to Harbor). A second form generates less attention from the media: here, a handful of individuals ostensibly refuse to implement a legal or regulatory measure which they are in charge of executing but which, in their view, attempts against justice or democracy. This is the case when state employees refuse to follow instructions which in their view threaten the equal access of citizens to fundamental needs (health, education, justice, etc.); or harm individual liberties; or degrade the quality of the benefits offered to users of a public service. In that case civil disobedience takes a somewhat new form: a boycott of registry procedures (as in the case of a “student database”); refusal to produce or communicate data required for the execution of legal or administrative procedures (obstruction of the procedures for capturing data required to feed multiple information systems); refusal to fill administrative questionnaires or performance indicators. However, the political nature of this type of action remains mysterious: from which kind of protestation does it emanate, and how could it be justified theoretically?

Civil disobedience is a form of political action undertaken in one’s own name and in conscience, in the name of a scorned right. It is a form of protest grounded on a claim which the person who commits the act believes all other citizens will consider motivated. This form of action involves a specific set of political emotions: disillusion, disgust, shame in the face of resignation or hatred of abnegation (the sentiment that one is the only one who knows what is taking place). These emotions differ from those that provoke other forms of political action, and which for their part have a well instituted theoretical justification: collective struggle, solidarity in action, mobilization for a partisan cause, the violence of resistance or rebellion. In fact, there is no reason why one should account for this practical engagement against something one finds unacceptable by means of theoretical justification. This is indeed what gives civil disobedience bad press.

It is nonetheless possible to find theoretical justification for the refusal to play a part in the advanced digitization of the political. Analysis shows that protestations that are framed in these terms belong to the “war of the worlds” (a war that has not been declared, but whose traces can be felt in several features of everyday life) between two camps: those for whom the exercise of power is limited to managers who impart resolutely – and in authoritarian fashion if required – those orientations that are necessary and just for the “modernization” of society (which today often means reducing the resources of the state, and thus restricting the social rights of nationals and the tasks which the state is customarily expected to fulfill); and those who still think that the organization of collective life is the concern of citizens, and who defend an understanding of the political as a space of practices articulated around notions that are constitutive of our humanity: equality, liberty, plurality in conceptions of the good, inalienable right to critique, etc.

Acts of disobedience against the increasing dominance of digitization over the political oppose a resistance (not always theorized as such, possibly because the dangers of digitization are not perceived by those who participate in this process or by those who describe it) to the implementation of techniques of government that rely on the strategic use of information and which dispossess citizens of their profession, their language and their voice. This is demonstrated by a study of the “Loi Organique relative aux Lois de Finances” (L.O.L.F.).

The implementation of the mandates of the L.O.L.F. signals, beyond the adjustments, mistakes and failures it has undergone, an important change, conceptual as much as practical in kind: in this apparatus the institutions of the state are understood as one among other kinds of organization, required to fulfill the tasks entrusted to them as efficiently as possible. And this efficacy (of a purely financial nature) forces administrative practices to enter a regime of performance. One of the effects of this entry is the slow transformation of the citizen’s relation to the state of which it is a national; and, in the long term, the transformation of the very concept of the political. This modification is, to a large degree, inscribed in the elaboration and installation of information systems and of the software packages that process the data they collect: this technical apparatus accelerates the removal, from the language used to describe politics, of all references to the principles of collective action that define the order of the political as such.

Acts of civil disobedience on the part of public service employees and professionals accurately illustrate the gap that persists between practical engagement (especially when it surpasses instituted and accepted forms) and the possibility of providing theoretical justification for it. We can see how difficult it is to fill this gap if we consider the questions raised by the claim that is expressed in the refusal to follow those instructions that put digitization into effect. How to establish, indeed, the link between the refusal to provide information for a digitized file in the context of a service provided by an administrative institution and the denunciation of a manner of governing accused of undermining the purpose of the state and democratic principles? How can we affirm the political nature of a “moratorium on the production of information”, the creation of “Committees for the control of statistical information” within companies and administrations? How can we turn the use of predictive statistics, which governs, for instance, the production of budgets under the L.O.L.F., into a decisive political object?


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