Disobedience and the State

Steve Brett

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” Oscar Wilde

As every day passes, it is becoming obvious that the world is moving into uncharted territory because of the climate emergency. Can you hear it coming? Because it is.

Gandhi wrote in 1908, “A man, whilst he is dreaming, believes in his dream; he is undeceived only when he is awakened from his sleep. A man labouring under the bane of civilisation is like a dreaming man.”

As a result of our unyielding ‘matrix-like’ existence in the modern world, blind to what lies before us, Nature is reflecting us directly to ourselves, prising us out of our shells of denial, confronting us with the truth. The message is—we can no longer live merely as individualists. That is, the individualism born of our excesses, born of our fixation on remaining separate, isolated individuals in a world we assumed was ours to dominate and control.

We are being called to action both as individuals and collectively. Difficult decisions will have to be made that will change our lives. This is going to demand not the individualism of the consumerism and isolationism of our present existence, but an individualism in which we stand alone in the choices we make, within the context of the whole. We will all be tested. Will we take the red pill?

Is breaking the law ever justified? For those afraid of what is to come, desperate about what we have already lost, where does this lead us? For the moment it must lead us, however we choose to do it, to confront the status quo. A status quo that wants to perpetuate, either out of fear or self-interest, or both, the values of perpetual growth and extraction, of a consumer-individualism that science has already proved unsustainable, to the point of the destruction of life on earth.

One way of doing this is through directly confronting the authority of the state. I have wondered why this is so hard to do. I think it is due to the way our modern culture works, and the impact this has on us internally. We like to think of ourselves as highly individualised, but in fact we are far more moulded by the state than we realise. A form of silent propaganda, it has left us timid and compliant.

I thought about this after being arrested with many others involved in Insulate Britain, a campaign in the UK attempting to force the UK government to act on the climate emergency in the lead up to COP26 in November, by blocking highway junctions in non-violent civil disobedience. IB is demanding that the British government commit to insulating all social housing in the UK by 2025, and all housing by 2030. This is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ for the government to commit to before COP for the sake of the elderly and poor, thousands of whom will die this winter because of the energy crisis and our ancient leaky housing. In addition it would create thousands of jobs and 17% of CO2 could be cut from Britain’s emissions.

Yet the government will not submit to IB’s demands, even if only out of pride and spite. The Swedish environmental scientist Johan Rockström, and many others, tell us that we only have this decade left to take the radical action required, before we enter tipping points in climate change and the other of earth’s planetary boundaries. These, including biodiversity loss, once having been crossed are irreversible. This small window provided by COP26 offers the opportunity for Britain, as its host, to take the lead in response to the climate emergency and inspire other nations to do the same, before it is too late. As Greta Thunberg asked recently, “Who is going to do it?”

In the last couple of weeks, I have been arrested several times for sitting on busy intersections around London with my fellow Insulate Britain protesters. None of us want to be doing this. But we have all reached the same conclusion that nothing else but some form of major disruption, through non-violent civil disobedience, has any chance of forcing the government to take the drastic action that is required. Everything else has been tried multiple times, but has failed to elicit a proportionate response from the government. It is horrible to be disrupting working peoples’ lives. But the campaign is working to the extent that it has created continuous media coverage over several weeks, and debate in the public sphere about IB’s demands and the climate emergency itself. This is putting pressure on the government.

Back to the state. There are many dimensions to the experience of being part of Insulate Britain’s campaign. Being in a police cell for the first time made me feel things and think about things I had never in my privileged life felt or thought about before. Initially it was the realisation that for the first time in my life, my freedom was no longer under my control. The door is locked, and you can’t get out. You are alone in an empty cell without a window. Your only connection with the outside world is a slit in the cell door, through which you are checked on periodically by police staff.

However friendly and supportive the arresting police officers might be (and they have been consistently), the police cell in all its aspects—the starkness, the isolation, the surveillance, is designed to make you feel that you are a criminal, and to have no doubt that you are now under the authority of the state. It made me reflect about the experience of prison for so many people around the world, often locked away for years for political reasons, or for crimes they never even committed. The following day I looked again at Michel Foucault’s book, Discipline and Punish, in which he describes prison as an integral part of a system designed to silently objectify, control, and normalise its citizenry.

According to the writer David Garland in his book, The Culture of Control – Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, since the advent of neoliberalism in the Reagan/Thatcher years, state control has become far more extensive both in the US and Britain. Back in the heyday of the welfare state, according to Garland, when the prison was a “discredited institution destined for abolition”, the offender was far more centre stage in the process than the victim, whereas now the offender is an often-stereotyped abstraction. In the heightened individualistic culture in which we live, it is the victim that is now highlighted. There are obvious exceptions to this, including in violence against women. As Garland explains:

“…sentencing gives way to a kind of ‘punishment-at-a-distance’ where penalty levels are set, often irreversibly, by political actors operating in political contexts far removed from the circumstances of the case. The greater the distance, the less likely it is that the peculiar facts of the case and the individual characteristics of the offender will shape the outcome.”

It struck me on reading these writings that this is another example of our “civilisation only in name”, as Gandhi referred to western civilisation in his famous work Hind Swaraj. Gandhi understood that the state is an abstract entity that stands above and outside society, with minimal contact with its actual citizenry and their lives and concerns. Prison might be necessary until we find a better solution, especially if the offender is a real danger to the public. But surely there are other more humane solutions since crime, more often than not, is a response to the inhumanity of the system itself. And what if the offender is only acting out of necessity, such as in the face of a climate emergency, the like of which humanity has never faced? One that, unless dramatically acted on by our governments, will lead to the end of life on earth.

When an ordinary citizen, in the face of incontestable scientific evidence, determines that the state is not acting sufficiently to prevent climate catastrophe, and the government refuses to listen, what is an ordinary citizen to do?

I am thinking here of James Brown, a blind climate activist and distinguished Paralympian, who last month was sentenced to a year in prison for climbing onto a plane at London City Airport; a sentence that was later reduced to six months. I attended the court hearing when James was sentenced. The first XR climate activist to be given a custodial jail sentence, his only motive was to draw the public’s attention to the climate emergency. But the entire thrust of the Judge’s argument for sentencing his ‘crime’, was how he had “cynically used his disability” to support his action, and how much money his actions had caused the airline industry to lose. I was relieved to hear that James is going to be released with a monitoring ‘tag’ on Christmas Eve. But then you wonder, is this genuine compassion or simply the government avoiding the embarrassment of having a climate activist jailed for six months during COP26?

And what does it mean to be ‘normalised’ to a society whose values are not only unsustainable, but stand in direct opposition to our future survival? A society whose leaders are intent on propping up a system that is, as they are, in denial of reality; refusing out of fear and self-interest to take the necessary leadership to educate its citizenry on the truth of what is to come. There is extraordinary contradiction at the heart of our democracy. On one hand we celebrate the freedom of the individual, but only it seems, if they conform to a system and set of values that are destroying us, and the precious natural world we are part of.

Why is it that bankers and billionaire politicians, with their corrupt schemes operating under the radar (see the Panama, Paradise, and Pandora Paper scandals), barely create a ripple in the legal system, while climate protestors are labelled and sentenced as “criminals”, for doing what they feel compelled to do out of necessity, as our world teeters on the brink?

While being checked in at the police station during my second arrest, my arresting officer noticed I had a copy of Gandhi’s Hind Swarain my backpack, which I asked if I could take with me into the cell. The officer told me that he had studied Gandhi at A-level and found it very interesting. It was one of the many moments in this campaign which has made me question my assumptions. The regular copper is caught in a strange bind. Here in Britain, they are often working-class parents, who fear for their children’s future, and sympathise with climate protestors. They understand how we have got to the point of taking the actions we are taking. And yet, they are also functionaries of the state, while knowing themselves as well to be convenient scapegoats of the government, when it pleases it.

I found an especially powerful resonance with Gandhi’s words that day. Even if his language expresses the unfortunate gender bias of those times, he poignantly explains:

“This is the key to self-rule…we cease to cooperate with our leaders when they displease us. We are sunk so low, that we fancy that it is our duty…to do what the law lays down. If man will only realise that it is unmanly to obey laws that are unjust, no mans’ tyranny will enslave him.…We simply want to find out what is right, and act accordingly.”

 

 

 

 

Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Steve is the co-founder of 3rd Space.
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