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Domination and Disobedience: Protest, Coercion and the Limits of an Appeal to Justice

  • Guy Aitchison

I offer a conceptual framework for assessing the normative legitimacy of coercive disobedience—involving threats, disruption, force, and deceit—by social movements. A standard liberal view is that while coercion may be required to resist authoritarian regimes, it is illegitimate in a democratic state since it conflicts with majority rule and mutual respect. In restricting disobedience to a form of moral persuasion, this perspective neglects how social power and material interests can distort the conditions for open, fair deliberation. I offer a principled defense of coercive disobedience, not only in repressive states but in plausibly democratic societies. I argue that coercion can be justified on democratic republican grounds as a means to collectively contest objectionable forms of political domination. The use of coercion can be justified as a surrogate tool of political action for those who lack effective participation rights; as a remedial tool to counteract the dominating influence of powerful actors over the process of democratic will formation, and as a mobilizational tool to maintain participation and discipline in collective action. I conclude by proposing democratic constraints on the use of coercive tactics designed to offset the potential movements themselves become a source of arbitrary power.

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He thanks Associate Editor Daniel I. O’Neill and four anonymous reviewers for Perspectives on Politics for their excellent feedback and assistance in improving the paper. Earlier drafts were presented at conferences at Sciences Po, Paris; the European University Institute, Florence; and the LSE. He would like to thank audiences there for their valuable comments. Special thanks are also due to Rob Jubb, Laura Valentini, Candice Delmas, Richard Bellamy, Temi Ogunye, Simon Stevens, Adam Tebble, Martin Sticker, Steven Klein, John Wilesmith, Bruno Leipold, Christine Hobden, Rutger Birnie, Anthony Barnett, Rainer Bauböck, Avia Pasternak and Bilyana Petkova. He would also like to acknowledge the generous financial support of the Irish Research Council.

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Perspectives on Politics
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