Civil Disobedience vs Direct Action

Saturday, 20th October 2007 at 23:58 UTC 5 comments

They’re two of the most common terms in the activist vocabulary. Some see them as being one and the same thing, others see Civil Disobedience as a preferable term. But in terms of the mind-set attached to them, they are hugely different, even if they look exactly the same; a group of people sitting in a road, someone smashing up a fighter jet, etc. I find it frustrating how Direct Action has been made into the negative of the two phrases, and of the two mindsets.

Civil Disobedience is a negative term, and while it refers to disobeying the state, it implies a negative action. While it has been used in many working class campaigns, it is, in many ways, part of the middle class mindset, of stability and wealth through compliance. Political action by ordinary people that breaks the law is seen as extraordinary, a temporary breaking of a normality to be returned to, which is to be measured and assessed by the courts and which has to be justified by saying “it was the lesser of two evils”.

It implies legitimacy for the State’s claims that what you have done is wrong, i.e. it places the role of arbiter in the hands of the courts, which are an intrinsic part of the State, even if they sometimes favour citizens over other parts of the state with individual judgements. It may in part be responsible for the obsession with getting arrested, and it takes the emphasis off of what is done and places it on lengthy and costly court-action, seeing that as the ultimate point of pressure.

Direct Action, on the other hand, is all about the action itself, and rejects any notion of validation proffered by an outside body. It is positive: we are taking responsibility, taking action, directly affecting the processes and status of the world around us. It challenges norms, rather relying on the relative difference of the action to highlight its importance, and seeks to move back the boundaries it has stepped beyond; indeed, it often seeks to dissolve them.

I find Direct Action more inspiring because it in no way appeals to legitimacy, especially not to the legitimacy of certain stereotypes. It is clear that judges are often inclined to be more lenient to better off members of society, and Civil Disobedience plays on this; those who with wealthy backgrounds, already politically enfranchised, get away with ‘crimes’ that someone wearing a hoody and a baseball cap would be punished severely for. In short, those most disenfranchised by the state are disenfranchised from Civil Disobedience, but much less so from actions inspired by the ‘Direct Action’ mindset.

How the negative concept of acceptable Disobedience (which is, after all, what Civil Disobedience is) and the positive concept of Directly changing the world around us came to be switched in terms of polarity, is something of a mystery to me, but it seems clear that it has only served the status quo, or more specifically, the state, and has hindered the activists who have tied themselves to the sense that those boundaries are legitimate and should remain.

So I’ve taken to disliking the idea of Civil Disobedience, and to wanting to see my actions purely as Direct Action, challenging the boundaries, rather than making a spectacle from crossing them temporarily, thus reinforcing them. I’m afraid to say that a single blog-post does this topic no credit whatsoever, and perhaps a PhD thesis would be required to cover the whole array of issues between these two mind sets.


Entry filed under: Activism, Freedom, Participation, Peace, Politics.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jonathan  |  Sunday, 21st October 2007 at 15:45 UTC

    fuck the civil, let’s get disobedient.


    I largely agree. “Civil disobedience” often seems to be a form of what, with my usual love of buzzwords, could be described as extra-parliamentary statism – that is, an analysis which sees certain actions, including illegal and sometimes dramatic actions, as being simply one part of the established political process, to be used when things become “extreme”.

    where direct action is “outside and against” the current political system, civil disobedience is “inside and expanded”, occupying the fringes of that system but still entirely dependant on it and working on its logic. hence, for example, seeing certain politicians making a speech against Trident on one day and getting arrested for blockading it the next.

    civil disobedience at its root is a form of lobbying, using the extant political structures to force some kind of change when other forms of lobbying have failed.

    this is not to say I have a problem with it necessarily. at times it can be the most effective means of affecting change, and can be incredibly empowering to those involved. however, as you point out, it works on a fundamentally different basis to direct action, in which consequences of the action are, at least in part, the desired result.

    (I say “at least in part” as I feel one-off direct action stunts removed from any kind of strategy are generally a waste of time, whereas direct actions taken as part of a wider campaign may not see fruit for some time)

  • 2. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 24th October 2007 at 0:34 UTC

    Yes, maybe I should have linked to the article, of which “Fuck the Civil, Let’s Get Disobedient” might only have been the subtitle, but is probably now what most people refer to it as. I don’t think I was really citing it, but it also has a very interesting take on the whole CD vs DA debate.

    My only caveate on this is that its a completely uncompromising article and may be very off-putting to some. I haven’t had a chance to re-read it, but even where I disagree with it, its still saying stuff which needs to be heard, and asking questions which must be asked.

    You can find it at:

  • 3. Mark Whyatt  |  Saturday, 27th October 2007 at 16:37 UTC

    An interesting debate, particularly when allied to the notion of social class differences in the way lawbreaking is seen and dealt with by the state (and the way big business also pursues such issues-you could argue that they are part and parcel of the same power bloc, but that may be another debate!). However, there is a danger in dismissing civil disobedience as a negative tactic in comparison to direct action, that you will devalue what can be an extremely powerful political tool. Gandhi referred to his campaign of making salt (which was monopolised by, and therefore lucrative to the ruling British government) as civil disobedience rather than direct action, as by doing so, he was also breaking the law, and encouraged others to join him in breaking it. I remember the poll tax riots in London in the bad old Thatcher years, watching them on TV (too scared to go to London myself!) with my ex-girlfriend’s father, a senior special branch officer, and thinking that it was good that people felt so angry. Without that anger, and the sense of unease in its wake, then we may still be subject to the poll tax. I think that this is where the anti-war demonstrations in London perhaps failed-a million people out on the streets in a clear show of direct action should have had Tony Blair shitting his pants (perhaps it did!) but he was still able to invade Iraq. I the worcester set had got together with the tankies, the trots and the anarchists and torn down the MOD, the unease would have been harder to ignore. As an inveterate coward and angsty white (anarchist) liberal I worry about the propensity of civil disobedience campaigns to attract those who see them as an opportunity for a ruck, rather than the application of social justice, but in spite of these few people, civil disobedience surely must remain a potent weapon in the campaigning toolbox.

  • 4. freeluncher  |  Tuesday, 8th January 2008 at 21:06 UTC

    It is sad that civil disobedience is seen as extraordinary, which means that the norm must be obedience!?! Aye right. Still, don’t dismiss the notion out of hand, horses for courses and all that.

    Fascinating post.

  • 5. B. Schaefer  |  Tuesday, 26th February 2013 at 19:42 UTC

    Very insightful article and comments! I am in my first year of university, taking an Intro Politics course, writing an essay on the justification of civil disobedience in a liberal democracy. I have only done some preliminary research and thus far, I have been reading “Civil Disobedience” and “Direct Action” synonymously… I was naive to think that any and all types of social change could be grouped under the same title. Thank you for the clarification and the opinions; you just saved my paper!


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