Who ? : On “Disobey!” »By Frédéric Gros
FRENCH PHILOSOPHER Frédéric Gros Disobey!, recently published by Verso in a translation by David Fernbach, explores forms of obedience to induce new styles of critical democracy and ethical resistance. It brings together the ancient tragedy of Antigone, a reflection on the trial of Nazi logistician Adolf Eichmann, lessons learned from the tenure of American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, and reflections on the Republic as object lessons to incite the civic dissident in all of us.
Gros’s analysis of why we are compelled to obey is poignantly moving. Our “unlimited liability” means – terrifyingly – that we are responsible for our faults, for the meaning we give to events, for caring for those who are fragile and for fighting in solidarity with people around the world. This unlimited liability comes with an immense burden, so we find a myriad of ways to get around our obligations. Our desire to shift responsibility encourages obedience to laws because we can assign blame to those who write the rules. Eichmann’s defense resonates; we just follow orders. Gros identifies here a dangerous divide between our soul and our body, whereby we can recognize that we are acting physically without claiming any moral fault. We are reduced to members who carry out actions for which we can offer no defense, because we rely on the authors of the laws and the order givers.
We can also get into moral cruise control because of economic and political systems that encourage conformism. “Mass capitalism produces standardized behaviors: by immersing individuals in a sweet culture, by standardizing their consumption patterns and by normalizing their desires,” writes Gros. An open concept home with gray walls, navy cabinetry, and gold accents comes to symbolize how our social imagination is literally locked away. Freedom is sold to us as what makes even our most intimate spaces easily recognizable. Moreover, modern democracies are founded on ideas of fundamental equality which come up against claims of difference. Our political reality is characterized by “empty alternations (left / right), alternations without alternative”, according to which expressions of difference in the political sphere are only acceptable as long as the socio-economic foundations of society are not disturbed.
The core of Gros’s work is not a rejection of obedience but rather a reorientation of how and to whom we obey. Gros calls us to turn our obedience inward as we cultivate an ethical self-to-self relationship. Here we meet the protagonist of his essay: the civic dissident. It is he who “can no longer continue to be silent, not to speak, to pretend not to know and not to see”. They experience themselves as “non-delegable”, recognizing that only they can act in their situation. The civic dissident is experiencing a rupture. They refuse to uncritically internalize the assertions and generalities that underlie the systems that promote conformism. They act against “the inertia of the world”. Rather, the civic dissident engages critically in his responsibilities, ending the series of inner negations that characterize obedience. They are guided by a “self esteem relationship”, disobeying anything that disturbs their inner harmony.
The civic dissident goes beyond “ascetic submission”, that is to say obedience “with bad grace, unwillingness”. Simulation as a way of life. They disobey unreservedly when their critical conscience requires it. Most importantly, the civic dissident experiences a form of “political obedience” that is distinct from forms of uncritical deference. The civic dissident orders himself, with critical reflection and self-confidence, to obey. Inspired by the Aristotelian conception of obligation, Gros tells us that the civic dissident, properly political citizen, obeys his equals. All those with whom they engage politically are equally free because they are all guided by their same capacity for reason, following the judgments of their internal relationship with themselves.
It seems incomplete. Gros’s fault is not to pursue an ethical relation of oneself to oneself. He follows the example of Hannah Arendt and Foucault, who identify a harmonious relationship between the non-unitary parts of the self as the foundation of ethical life. We experience ourselves and first and foremost have to live with the complexities of our own actions. But beyond a conception of oneself that is not a singular entity, how is this subject that Gros defends in the world positioned? Moreover, how does this subject’s relationship to the world allow or inhibit ethical action against the systems that Gros makes fun of?
The exaltation of Gros de Thoreau illustrates most clearly how his philosophy falters. He praises Thoreau’s “self-sufficient” existence at Walden Pond, which has always been a bit of a performance. It is well known that he often visited his mother’s house for dinner and that the pond was only a short walk from the city. Yet there is a deeper problem. Wouldn’t Thoreau be dependent on the animals and plants he needs for food, on the trees and stones used to build his shelter, on landscapes that evoke his imagination? He would be just as connected to these beings and experiences as he would to any human with whom he organized himself politically.
We see here a subject isolated from the world in which he lives. The work of the civic dissident in Gros’s narrative is self-contained. Their critical rationality is only verified by their internal relationship to themselves. With this conception of self, Gros traces a well-worn Western intellectual history. From Plato’s conception of balancing a tripartite soul to Kant’s majority view to Thoreau’s claim to self-sufficiency, the self Gros proposes is all too closely tied to the conception of the self that created the systems. that he wants to dismantle. The conception of a critical and rational subject that exists as an individual unit is the cornerstone of the free market system. This in turn gives rise to contemporary mass capitalism, which is inseparable from growing wealth inequality and environmental collapse – which Gros cites as urgent reasons to act against obedience.
The protagonist of Gros’s work is not fundamentally distinct from that of the Enlightenment philosophers. Gros simply called on this secular subject to reorient itself towards contemporary leftist ideals. The result is work that expertly analyzes the systems that keep us bound in obedience, but then offers a framework of dissent firmly aligned with what we are to disobey. Gros’s philosophy of disobedience is, ironically, obedient to the systems in which we find ourselves trapped.
How, then, to conceptualize a self fundamentally oriented against the real and urgent dangers cited by Gros? We need an anti-capitalist subject (Gros is opposed to contemporary methods of wealth creation and worsening income inequalities), abolitionist (Gros cites the worsening of social injustices and the protection of minorities, which should encourage action against the prison-industrial complex and the police), and an environmentalist (Gros repeatedly mentions the constant degradation of the environment as an obvious cause of disobedient action). It is an active subject in community and in resonance with the ecosystems they inhabit. They accept their unlimited liability because they recognize themselves as inseparable from their own actions and from all living things. They follow Gros’s call to be “out of step” with humanity because their guiding philosophy is at odds with the assumptions of the Western tradition which gave birth to the harmful systems in which we live.
There is not one ultimate philosophy we have to cite to trace the meandering contours of this subject. And although this being struggles in global solidarity, giving them the means of political disobedience requires balancing their universal responsibility with the specific realities they experience. Identifying their composition and position should lead us first to the philosophies of those who most intensely suffer the destruction of dehumanizing and anti-environmental systems. In the United States, we should look to the anti-capitalism and dignity of the radical black tradition, the conceptions of sovereignty and land relations offered by Indigenous scholars, and the lessons of community and authenticity in the stories and queer studies.
But above all, we must find our place in the world by fighting in solidarity. We need to get involved in our communities, alongside those who disobey current paradigms while building alternate realities. We must find ourselves – amorphous and interdependent selves – beyond the capitalist spheres of think tanks and philanthropic galas. The new world is being built in the streets, in union meetings, in lovingly tended soil. With those who disobey not by choice but because the perpetuation of the realities we have inherited has never been an option. Will you join them, these dehumanized parts of yourself?
jacob s. The foreman feels most comfortable serving, on a dance floor, or kayaking at sunrise in the Louisiana swamps.