The Duty To Revolt

July 21, 2016


If everything around is collapsing and you feel oppressed: do you have a right to revolt or do you have a duty to do so? If you think that this is a philosophical question proper of the ivory tower, fully disconnected from the practical concerns of daily life, think again. The shooting of white cops in the U.S. by fed up African Americans, the phony coup d'etat in Turkey, and the repression of Mexican teachers by their corrupt elite tyrants, are just a few examples of how the world is seeded with unrest and erupting one bloody event at a time; and, in such a current state, thinking about revolution is not an ethereal pursuit but a necessary, practical discussion. Perhaps I shouldn't get my paws soaked in such hot water but, what the hell, who is really going to bark at me. Right?


Overthrowing a government is no laughing matter ––unless, that is, the government is one formed by clowns. Blood will be spilled, ruin will come to many, and chaos will be the daily bread. However, humans act in painful, dangerous ways when they firmly believe that doing so will bring something better, more valuable than the status quo against which they are revolting. The question is: when marching down the streets armed with torches and pitchforks, are the rebellious exercising a right or fulfilling and duty? If a right, there is a dilemma between such right being an individual one or a collective one. The latter is quite relevant because, historically, there is a recognition of the right of groups of people to fight against oppression. The problem is: how many are the people? If 1 person tries to kill a president, for example, is he a criminal or is he exercising his right to revolt? How about 2 guys? 100? 1 million? The other problematic issue is what precisely conforms a collective right and if its existence is possible at all. Philosophically speaking, group rights is a (very) hairy subject. For example, what conditions must a group satisfy in order to hold any right at all? Aren't all rights individual and that's it? Could it be that there are only individual rights but once put together they conform a unity? Perhaps the two biggest fears are, if the existence of group rights is accepted, the individual rights of those inside the group may be overlooked and the individual rights of those outside the group may be violated. After all, a right is a coin in which one side is possessing the right and, the other side, the possibility to oppose that rights vis-á-vis others. For example, the right of someone with a parking license for a specific spot in the lot not only can park there but can also demand for others not to park in that same spot.


Another point of contention is the eternal divide between positive and natural law. Simply put, is revolting something which has to be inked on the law of the land or is it something which is set by nature and, henceforth, valid no matter what a particular legislation dictates. Funny as it seems, there are laws which talk about the right to change the form of government, and they have existed for quite some time. However, as no political system, by definition, will contain an easily taken cyanide pill for its own power to be taken away, it is a post scriptum law, i.e. a law which can be invoked only by the victor. That is, when an attempt to overthrow a regime is defeated, those who attempted it are merely criminals rather than liberators. Moreover, and just as the Tom & Jerry debate between ius positivists and ius naturalists, there is the issue of what is known for certain: where is the natural law written? What are the conditions, constraints and definitions? Where can it be checked for knowledge and accuracy? It is, epistemologically speaking, a challenge. Then again, taking the positive side of the debate makes it impossible for the right of revolution to exist at all or, at least, to be practical.


And, then, there is the issue of right vs. duty. This is thorny as well, and, as such, very interesting. For starters, to solve the riddle one has to take a stance regarding power and the role of law. If the law is simply a reflection of the powerful and their vested interest in keeping and increasing their position, then revolting against an unjust system is in the realm of natural law and there is a duty to revolt since there are no rights left to the subject to exercise. Combinations abound, e.g. if law is a result of a democratic process and, as such, reflects the will of the majority, only the majority has the right to change the status quo and through the same process by which it decided the first time around. Or, what if natural law is the only legitimate law yet the individual rights are supreme, even when they conflict with others'? Though, what if the natural law is misinterpreted (as it usually happens when it favors a certain group) and it ends up being unjust? Or what about the rights of those who do not wish to revolt? Furthermore, this is a tricky point for those who subscribe to Kelsen's conception of the basic norm. Even in its shallowest. The validity of a basic norm depends on its efficacy, i.e. the actual practices in the community being in harmony with it. So, if in a hypothetical country the basic norm is that the supreme law enacted by the king is binding, but a coup d'etat deposes the king and installs a republic, presupposing that the new basic norm has shifted from the one endowing the king with authority to one endowing a revolutionary government is akin to deriving an ought from an is. There are several ways of interpreting what is called Hume's Law, one of which is the problem of logically bridging the world of fact (a basic norm is violated) and the world of value (the new basic norm has now a moral weight which the old basic norm does not). I think more to the point is G.E. Moore's critique of the naturalistic fallacy of identifying ethical concepts with natural concepts.


Personally (can I say that if I'm not a person?) I am neither a naturalist nor a positivist. As one of the few dogs of the Frankfurt School persuasion, I see a gap between the permissive or outright non-application of the law for those who are in power (think of genocidal Texan presidents or Wall Street fat cats) and a strict one for the rest (think of junkies or your Mr. Nobody neighbor next door), rendering the rule of law a complete sham. This is unfair and, moreover, because it wipes out certainty, i.e. a fundament of any legitimate normative system; and, henceforth, it creates an actual regression to feudal times which were, to put it mildly, unpleasant for the majority and not a very fertile ground for the achievement of a bigger life (Unger dixit). The actors of this current social reality, if we accept that it is wrong, are (a) those who benefit from the disparity, i.e. the powerful (b) those who suffer from it, i.e. the powerless, and, finally, (c) those who facilitate the injustice, i.e. the apparatus of legislators, judges and police who produce the rules, apply the rules, and enforce the rules. A practical way to achieve the transformation of such an oppressive and unfair regime is, of course, to replace those in (c) through democratic means. However, if those in (a) impede such a goal by entrenching the gatekeepers and disempowering those in (c) enough to render practically impossible the exercise of legal and democratic means of change, what other solutions are at hand for those in (c)? Revolt (and not necessarily the type which requires bloodshed) could be an effective way of altering the imbalance. But, what if pacific revolt is repressed?


If we accept that a bigger life is the supreme value and that justice is accessory to it, there may be a duty to apply enough pressure for the edifice of injustice to crumble.


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