Saturday, January 13, 2018

The downsides of civil disobedience

One of the most important achievements of humankind is the state. For most people anarchy is one of the worst situations you can have and people tend to be happy when some crime boss or war lord fills the vacuum: anything is better than nothing.

Of course there have always been people who thought otherwise. The anarchists of yore and some libertarians nowadays are examples. But these are marginal groups that operate in the shadows of states. When they try to live out their ideals in some kind of community of their own it either doesn't last very long or it stays very small scale.

But there is one remarkable exception nowadays: our media have started to paint civil disobedience against dictators and even democratically elected rulers that they don't like (think of Yanukovych) as a good thing. One standard element of modern color revolutions is the occupation of the most central square in an effort to make the government look weak. And all the theatre and amusement that if offered to the protesters mocks the ruler as powerless and incompetent.

Unlike what many think this is not in the spirit of Gandhi. Gandhi's famous action against the salt tax was more a kind of tax evasion. And the days long walk they took to go to the sea was an indirect recognition of the supreme power of the (colonial) government.

This denigration of the state in the color revolutions has long term negative consequences in the form of instability. The authority of the state stays weakened long after the dictator has left. In some cases you even see that after a few years a new dictator arises to "clean up the mess".

The problem with any revolution is discontinuity. Even when considerable attention is paid to integrating the old order - like in Tunisia - the discontinuity causes long lasting friction and problems. You don't see such friction in countries like South Korea and Taiwan where the transition to democracy comes from the government. They have their own problems in the form of long lasting elements of the old order - but these tend to be less detrimental.

Another type of civil disobedience we see in Catalonia. Puigdemont may have thought that he was smart organizing a referendum but he was just using another trick where are mob is mobilized to make the state look powerless. To understand where this could lead one has to think up a scenario where the opponents of independence would simultaneously organize a similar mass mobilization in support of their case - for example painting a Spanish flag on every lamppost. The region would be on the brink of civil war. What went wrong in the Catalan case was not that the government tried to block the referendum - although you can always argue that they could have done it smarter. If the government has stayed idle Puigdemont would have continued his policy of creating "facts on the ground" and at some point Madrid would have been forced to either recognize independence or to use even more violence as many independence supporters would believe that they had already won and feel robbed.

This kind of conflict should be solved by politicians in parliaments and negotiations. It should not be solved between mobilized mobs: that is a recipe for civil war. What Madrid did wrong in this case was that waited to long to interfere. As soon as the Catalan parliament had decided to hold a referendum it should have suspended that parliament, made arrests and take other measures to prevent the referendum to take place.

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