“Why Disobey? Understanding Ethical Resistance for a Critical Democracy”

“No, humanity is not being killed off by profiteering scoundrels, but by the humble servants of laws whose, sovereignty and complexity escape the common mortal… Talk of ‘injustice’ has become obsolete. We are in an age of indecency.”

In light of the growing legal, extra-legal, and illegal violence in India and worldwide, the question that we often battle with is: why are people not resisting? Frédéric Gros, in his book, Disobey: A Philosophy of Resistance addresses these questions and gives a well-researched, philosophical explanation of why one must resist all shades of violence that come in the form of inequality, discrimination, vigilantism, and state brutality. His argumentation is unique, for he classifies and engages with different kinds of obedience and disobedience mentalities. This book has much relevance today as it equips us with critical capacities to challenge the engulfing fire of global capitalism, ultra-right-wing fascism, and normalized structural inequalities. It is a book that vouches for a “critical democracy.” However, the book’s concept is hard to digest as it compels one to face a hard reality that is difficult to swallow.

                       This book review looks at how the author gives qualified reasons to set the “I,” slumber in inertia, into motion. It analyses Gros’s distinction between ethics and morals along with the reasons for his insistence on ‘ethical resistance.’ The play of emotions in disobedience, the place of unity, the politics of friendship, the ideas of responsibility and conformism are elaborated. Gros does not flame an unrealizable aspiration that Resistance will undoubtedly change the order of things. He does not romanticize the power of disobedience and does understand that it is a risk. Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus and the symbol of Resistance, was condemned to be buried alive for disobeying. One may not necessarily win as an aftermath of resisting, but Gros suggests that the act of Resistance in itself entails freedom.

                           Philosophers have interpreted the narrative of Antigone in several ways. More generally, she is said to have followed her familial duties in a way that she blatantly disobeyed the orders of Croen, the ruler of Thebes, because she obeys the higher laws. The legal ban in place had no legitimacy, and so Antigone resisted. Legality and legitimacy became the focal point to many who philosophized the Resistance. However, Gros suggests something unique in his emotive book. Antigone does not bring in the hierarchy between higher moral law and an enforced law by disobeying. She is rather quaking the entire order, scale, and legitimacy. She disobeyed out of anguish, not from some calculated move to obey a higher law. According to the author, her actions reflected pure transgression and did not fit the matrix of reason.

Gros manifests that we do not want to admit that we resist purely out of despair. We justify our actions in the name of submission to a universal law. Gros finds that notion problematic because we are conditioned to believe that obeying a moral, universal law makes us human. Otherwise, to go by emotions is considered animality. Though not along similar lines, Kant and Foucault suggest that obedience gives people a “clarity of knowledge.” Obedience is humanity, and disobedience is a horror. Disobedience is chaos, and so, it is believed that “disobedience divides.” We obey for unity; we obey to maintain harmony – the unity and harmony that have risen from the social hierarchy.

                         Through a genealogical study of what “unity” is, Gros suggests that “unity ” represents a transformation of society from disorder to order. The moment of unity is the foundation of the state, and it is a moment of submitting ourselves to this all-powerful entity and loss of critical capacity. Unity is obsolete in democracies. In its place, Gros suggests the need for friendship. Friendship is about “disputes, concessions, sharing.” It is a war against obedience, and it allows one to engage with each other. It is the politics of friendship that can protect people from becoming submissive or simply servants. The book makes one realize that critical democracy can only become a reality when we take responsibility for our actions, when we do not wait for others to stand up for us, and when we choose to stand up for others. It is through this ‘ethical resistance’ that we can call ourselves a democracy.

                            ‘Ethics, not morality.’ Gros outlines ethical politics as opposed to moral politics and insists that our disobedience should be righteous. He makes an exciting and robust claim that ethics is anti-psychology. Psychology is determined by environmental, familial, and physiological subjects. However, ethics is a relationship with oneself, constructing the principles they wish to follow and act on their terms. To be moral, for the author, is to obey.

On the other hand, ethics is the freedom determined by oneself, and unlike morals, it is not determined by an arbitrary majority. Yet, sometimes, we conform to the morals of the majority because it is easy. After all, one does not want to be different, or one does not want to be “punished by the blade of people’s gaze.”

                         Other times, we conform to morals because we have no other alternatives. Under a repressive state, no matter how much we do not like the policies, we should submit ourselves. The book reminds us of how the cartesian duality of soul and body was used for so long to defend the silence of those who conform or those submitted by violent relations of force. It is claimed that we do something only because we are forced to do so and with the reassurance that we are not responsible for the consequences of our actions, as we are being subjected. Gros refers to this way of carrying out a task, assuming that one is not involved in it, as “dis-responsibility.” Gros uses the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal administrators of the Nazi Holocaust, to argue that though Eichmann asserted that he was not guilty as he was merely obeying the orders of Hitler in Nazi Germany, he was still accountable for his actions. While obedience takes many forms in the book, the common theme has been dis-responsibility and conformism.

                     The modern conformism linked to and emerged from liberal democracy is quite a concern for the author. He believes that it is something to worry about, for it has its roots in the standardization process of mass capitalism: uniformizing consumption, normalizing desires, and submerging cultures. Liberal democracies are accompanied by new legal equality, which according to Gros, dries up our potential to disobey, for we desire to make ourselves look like the other. Gros contends that no one is talking of injustice today; there is utter indecency. Rather than marching against injustice, we prefer conforming to the more extensive rules.

                         The indecency is to think that if Eichmann had not done it, then somebody else would have or that if a person would have resisted becoming a lavish consumer, then somebody else would choose to. Indecency is to give up our ethics conveniently. If dis-responsibility is obedience, disobedience is a dialogue with self where the “I” is always in a state of conflict with oneself. Disobedience is where even the consciousness does not obey one’s sovereignty. Through these ethical uncertainties where we undo our habits and comfort, we will begin to disobey. This critical introspection gives us a realization that we are not delegable. A collective movement can only emerge when there are many non-delegable selves. A revolution is a possibility when each person can view themselves as irreplaceable. For Gros hence, Resistance stems from a responsible, ethical, critical consciousness.

                                  Drawing from philosophers such as Nietzsche, which are partly used to legitimize Hitler’s Nazi Germany, raises whether Gros can ever differentiate right from wrong. However, on the other hand, if we read his nihilistic ideas accompanied by his thoughts about critical democracy, this book is a landmark guide to the ethical path of Resistance. By a simultaneous delinking of disobedience from the legitimacy of laws and morality and further relinking it with individual responsibility and moral uncertainties, Gros gives a broader outline of a critical democracy based on the politics of friendship. This book is more than just about reaffirming ourselves in disobedience. It provides a deeper insight into the reconstruction of society and the transformation of people into ethical individuals. The connection between ethics and Resistance is a significant takeaway from this philosophically loaded book.


Gros, F. Disobey: A Philosophy of Resistance. Verso Books, 2020

Bhagyanagar Vipanchika Sahasri is pursuing a Master's in Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She is enthusiastic about deconstructing and problematizing justice, criminality and nationalism. An ardent reader and researcher, she immerses herself in exploring alternate, non-violent ways to organize societies.

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