Civil disobedience: a sign of democratic maturity

“One generation cannot absolutely bind the following and the value of a constitution or rights proclaimed in a specific historical moment is always questionable.” Let's explore one of the avenues of protest together.

“Beyond moralizing speeches, actions of civil disobedience have real value as an indicator of democratic maturity of a given society and, consequently, deserve an objective analysis. »

“La Boum” is a term that should evoke for many people the parties between friends during the pre-adolescent and adolescent period or even the famous film in which Sophie Marceau starred. In recent months in Belgium, this word has taken on a completely different meaning, referring instead to the gatherings of several hundred people in Bois de la Cambre which took place on 1e April and 1e May 2021 and which caused numerous clashes between law enforcement and the governed. Sometimes defined as acts of misunderstanding of government policy and sometimes as political acts of protest in their own right, these actions raise deep questions linked to the Belgian democratic system and therefore push us to analyze them in depth.

It is interesting to point out that Boum 1 was the result of a joke by Collectif Abîme, which defines itself as “ a concept of collective intelligence which is articulated by a selection of what is produced on social networks, but also by the fruit of collaboration with other people or groups who seek to defend our freedoms »[1], which finally materialized to everyone's surprise. It is therefore difficult to consider it as a movement in itself and even less as a monolithic protest movement. However, despite the fact that Boom 2 is the initiative of the same Collective, its logic differs and is closer to a protest movement which seems to follow the model of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is often criticized for its tendency to confront the existing political order. Nevertheless, beyond moralizing speeches, actions of civil disobedience have real value as an indicator of democratic maturity of a given society and, consequently, deserve an objective analysis.

Why disobey in a democracy?

In our time, actions of civil disobedience are often last resorts in citizen engagement strategies. However, historically, it is the form of citizen protest from which most of our current political and social achievements such as contraception or even 8-hour work days arise. The explanation for this popular reluctance lies in the negative, violent and chaotic image conveyed in society, ultimately leading to a distrust of public opinion regarding these means of citizen engagement. Those who disobey are often reminded that, in a democratic society, there are legal tools and procedures to arbitrate multiple competing visions. This conception of democracy tends to restrict the concept of legitimacy to positive legality, in other words, only what is legal is legitimate. The “disobedient” are indirectly asked to return to the legal order and to conform to institutionalized and regulated modes of protest. This idea is part of the current of thought known as contemporary “hobbism” which considers that the legitimacy of a legal order is reducible to this order.

In his work Law and Democracy, considered as a reference for any normative theory of democracy, Jürgen Habermas instead judges civil disobedience to be entirely legitimate in states governed by democratic law. His argument unfolds as follows: “ when certain principles or fundamental rights are at stake and appear to be seriously contradicted by legislation or a government act, civil disobedience is legitimate - moreover, it is desirable, even necessary, and the possibility of having recourse to it must in any case be cause to be positively valued »[2]. Fundamentally, it challenges contemporary hobbism by invoking the necessary adequacy between the order and the principles that support it. However, Habermas expresses reservations and only encourages actions of civil disobedience which meet strict conditions and are thus distinguished from the dynamics of resistance to the established order. According to him, the tension between the normative validity of States and their empirical reality is purely internal, and this is why they must be contested in the name of their very principles »[3]. In other words, this form of popular protest can only be justified in the event of violation of one or more fundamental principles which establish the legal order and it is in this that its framework and its limits are revealed. These latter correspond in any case to the objectives mainly claimed by Boum 2 and described by Dave Monfort, the person responsible for the call to Boum, and supported by several “boomers”. Mr Monfort will also have the opportunity to clarify his positioning to the press in these words: We do this to defend our Constitution, and articles 23 and 26 in particular, which are trampled by regulations deemed unconstitutional by the Brussels court. »[4].

However, as we have mentioned, despite a more elaborate directive than Boum 1, it is still difficult to consider Boum 2 as a monolithic movement. And it is in this sense that several people present shared reasons for their disobedience which seem to deviate from the limits established by Habermas and therefore pose a problem[5]. For example, Isabelle Duchateau, a nurse from Hennuyère, her partner Christophe Clarembeau and the lawyer Stella Stellina, founded the ASBL Notre Bon Droit whose primary objective is to raise funds in order to finance legal actions and produce opinions. legal on crisis measures. A second objective of the non-profit organization is to “ act as a sounding board for its community (7,000 subscribers on Facebook) to convey the message of experts 'going against the grain' »[6]. In their demands, we can notably distinguish arguments which do not seem to be based on fundamental principles and rights in that they clearly discriminate against a part of the population. Ms. Duchateau explained that one of the main reasons for her alignment with the demands of the people on the ground is “fed up” with the crisis policy which she considers to be an attack against young people. She even declared: We cannot accept the fact that in order to try to save a few hundred people aged 85 and over, who will in any case die in the coming months, we are ruining the future of young people who find themselves with suicidal thoughts »[7].

Beyond the fact that these kinds of speeches are not empirically founded, the invalidation of them as a justification for actions of civil disobedience is based on the fact that: not only are they not based on principles fundamental but moreover, by putting the elderly and the youngest people in opposition, they go against basic principles of solidarity, as the Collectif Santé en Lutte has so well highlighted in his open letter to boom participants.

Limits to qualify

From Habermas' perspective, democracies contain within them all the elements necessary for their improvement and are inherently found in virtuous normative dynamics. Unfortunately, Habermas' vision of the democratic rule of law is far too idealized and far from reality because, as political scientist Yves Sintomer reports, it does not take into account relations of domination. It is therefore difficult to completely approve of the normative framework that it imposes on actions of civil disobedience. We must therefore further qualify. In his study on the Common Good, the Justice and Peace Commission highlights democracy as the best or least bad political system, capable of guaranteeing the conditions necessary for the common good. This conclusion comes from the intrinsic value of democracy as the system guaranteeing “ spaces of fundamental freedoms, those of being able to express oneself, think and act on the destiny of one's political community ”, not just for citizens but for all those governed. Therefore, “ the deprivation of these freedoms […] strikes at one of the essential conditions for a good life ». Sintomer goes further by arguing that the deprivation or alteration of these freedoms abrogates the duty of obedience to the law. However, the alteration of these freedoms takes place every day in contemporary democratic states. “ so visible such as corruption, clientelism or open pressure from those in power, or insidiously, through extra-legal mechanisms such as party politics, exclusion or marginalization of the dominated.[es], the media which follow a logic of commercial rather than public advertising and are in the hands of a small number, the illegalism which tends above all to further penalize the modes of delinquency typical of the working classes, the intrinsic logic of capitalist economy, etc. »[8].

What can we conclude from this? Is the use of citizen protest actions, particularly the one that interests us, that is to say civil disobedience, always legitimate? No, because democratic societies are not reduced to their relations of domination. It is therefore always important to take into account the appeal to opinion and political argumentation on each issue. Nevertheless, we note that the political-constitutional order can sometimes recognize rights without being able to guarantee them. This is when it is not only legitimate but even desirable to engage in actions of civil disobedience because, as Sintomer indicates, they “ oppose the stability of the constitution, and yet found and prepare it; constitute a fundamental dimension of citizenship, which is not a status or an institution but a collective practice; allow [finally] to conquer rights, to periodically question the order and established relationships of domination »[9] by the manifestation of constituent power.

This is why the question of recognizing the added value of civil disobedience probably constitutes a test of the maturity of a democratic rule of law because it questions the capacity of democratic institutions to recognize their limits. Indeed, one of the characteristics of a mature person is the fact that they are able to recognize their weaknesses and question themselves. It is in this constant citizen questioning that the real virtues of democracy lie.

We invite those who doubt the capacity of Belgian democracy to manage this questioning smoothly, both among those governed and the institutions, to turn to THE events of Liège from 1e May 2021[10].

This is once again empirical proof that civil disobedience is not doomed to end in still have to be ready to question yourself...

Emmanuel Tshimanga

[1] Sente A., Co L., Eeckhaut M. & Bergmans E. (2021, May 14). La Boum, the unmasked ball of the rebellious. Evening Plus.

[2] Sintomer, Y. (1998). At the limits of democratic power: civil disobedience and the right to resistance. Current Marx, n°24(2), 85-104.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sente A., Co L., Eeckhaut M. & Bergmans E. (2021, May 14). La Boum, the unmasked ball of the rebellious. Evening Plus.

[5] Several other reasons, some sometimes very slight, others quite anarchic, but all completely inappropriate with the proper functioning of society, were raised to justify the involvement of some and others in the Booms. We will note, for example, the presence of groups of thugs who have come to do battle with the police.

[6] Sente A., Co L., Eeckhaut M. & Bergmans E. (2021, May 14). La Boum, the unmasked ball of the rebellious. Evening Plus.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sintomer, Y. (1998). At the limits of democratic power: civil disobedience and the right to resistance. Current Marx, n°24(2), 85-104.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Events similar to the Booms took place in Liège but without clashes, in particular thanks to the strategy of the Liège political authorities, different from that of the Brussels authorities. Indeed, considering the demands of citizens as being based on fundamental rights, the right to disobey had to be guaranteed. The Liège authorities have therefore opted for tolerant security management. For their part, citizens also remained relatively peaceful.


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