Disobey – and take charge!

SOME argue that we are living in a spectator society – one in which, if people take any interest in society, politics and democracy, they do so from the side-lines. Reality TV sums all this up – and perhaps Gogglebox is its perfect manifestation with us, the viewer, watching other people watching TV. The argument goes that in our consumerist society most people are happy to acquiesce in life as a spectator sport. If true, then this is truly Kafkaesque as people willingly contribute to their own obsolescence.

The philosopher Frederic Gros, however, will have none of this as he explores the history of disobedience and claims that philosophy is, or at least should be disobedient and urges us to refuse to accept the obvious or to acquiesce in anything. In short, he urges us to disobey and take political responsibility – to take back control.

In his appropriately named Disobey, Gros writes that he wants to ‘present the problem of disobedience from the ethics of politics’. Here he acknowledges how difficult it must be for the poverty stricken to fight for themselves ‘while an indecent elite can earn in a few days what they never save up in a lifetime’. It is in this context that there is a tendency to believe the myth that these ‘social inequalities are natural’, a view perpetuated by the super-rich clique because ‘disobedience amounts to anarchy’.

It is in the early stages of the book that Gros starts to get really interesting when he refers to what he calls ‘surplus obedience’ in which people ‘commit to their own submission with energy and desire’.

Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment

This willingness to obey was demonstrated in Stanley Milgram’s classic, if controversial, experiment in the 1960s during which ordinary people from all walks of life were instructed to inflict what they wrongly believed to be steadily increasing electric shocks on ‘learners’ up to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. Although Gros doesn’t refer to this infamous experiment, he does argue that ‘what must be resisted is not power in its established forms, but above all our own desire to obey, our adoration of the leader because it is precisely this desire, this adoration, that gives him his hold’. Before we gain the power to effect the change that Matthew Bolton advocates in his How to Resist, we first need to learn how to disobey. As Gros writes: “To be free essentially means wanting to be free.” And disobedience leads to what Gros calls the ‘right of resistance…a right recognised for people when the laws fail to fulfil their initial purpose: to build concord and work for the utility of all’.

For Gros, obedience to authority is not a given because the citizen always has the ability to take the responsibility implicit in disobedience and, in doing so, truly taking back control. “Rather than individual positions expressed by way of voting slips politely slipped into the ballot box – which we are told is the kernel of democracy – it is a matter of returning to the living essence of the contract: we make the body of society by disobeying collectively.”

At the core of Gros’s position is what he calls the ‘non-delegable subject’, reminiscent of existentialism, which is ‘now threatened by individualism, relativism or subjectivism’. This because the ‘non-delegable point in each of us is precisely the principle of humanity, the demand of a universal’.

The Enlightenment has come in for considerable criticism in recent years for supposedly privileging cold reason over emotion, although this blog has repeatedly stressed the over-simplification of this view. Interestingly, Gros defines the Enlightenment in the sense that Immanuel Kant did as a kind of coming of age for humanity or ‘the capacity of emancipation, independence, autonomy’ or the ‘capacity of dissension. From this Gros develops his theory of taking responsibility through dissent: “Enlightenment = coming of age = critical judgement = examination = care of self = thought.”

Another powerful, and related claim of Gros is that it is not obedience that is the characteristic of responsibility – but disobedience. But there is a problem here as well to the extent that the individual that takes on this responsibility feels a ‘burden weighing on my shoulders’.

Gros responds to this problem by acknowledging that it is ‘impossible to stand for too long in the ethical fire of the subject responsible for everything, without being driven mad’. Nevertheless, this responsibility can act as an ideal or, as he puts it, a ‘necessary provocation’.

All this seems to be far from where we started – watching people watching TV, and it seems inconceivable that our love of obedience can be broke by Gros’s erudition. But as always with political philosophy it is possible to break his thought down into manageable chunks when, for example, he writes that ‘to think is to disobey’ and to stop becoming ‘traitors to ourselves’. And maybe in discovering the ‘politics of disobedience’ we may cause the rich and powerful to quake in their boots!

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  1. Very interesting, but why does one feel, at the end, unsure if it leads us to change anything in our opinion or action? Because there is a serious flaw in the middle of the argument. Which is, where Gros is given as saying “when laws fail to fulfil their initial purpose, to build concord and work for the utility of all.”
    Well, I mean to say! That is not the initial purpose of laws at all ! ! Laws, as evolved I suppose variously by the Jews and the Romans, were the voice of the Governing System, decreeing how the Governed should obey some formula (which was supposed to apply in general and permanently) how they should think and act. Or, often, Not think or act!.
    It is a question, I think, whether it is possible in human nature (so split between obedience and disobedience) for a democratic assembly to produce a single voice (an harmonious chord ! ) to express any law that will establish concord or the utility of all. That is why we need Leaders: to preach acquiescence to their voice, not as Laws, to be obeyed or not, but as an expression of concord, and of responsibilty for the utility of all.
    Sadly, stupid divided humanity chooses leaders whose ambitions are less elevated. Just look around.
    Christopher Browne.


  2. Yes, I think it would have been better had Gros argued that this should have been the initial purpose of laws, rather than the reality. And as far as the question of being able to achieve ‘utility of all’ he does say that the aim should be to ‘build concord and work for the utility of all’, so I guess he is there at least acknowledging that it might not be possible to achieve this for all. The use of the word ‘utility’ brings to mind Utilitarianism which attempts to achieve the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. In its purest form as espoused by Jeremy Bentham it has been dubbed Act Utilitarianism, which has been criticised for justifying some alarming actions. In response to this theorists came up with Rule Utilitarianism, which attempts to iron out these anomalies and come closer to non-consequentialism of Kant. It’s interesting to note as well that recent Kantians – or deontologists – have eased their opposition to consequentialism of theories like Utilitarianism, and acknowledged that even Kant’s fabled categorical imperative does have an element of consequentialism, thus demonstrating that two apparently incompatible theories can actually come to at least an uneasy accommodation


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