‘Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest Is Good for Democracy’ reviewed by Eduardo Frajman

Reviewed by Eduardo Frajman

About the reviewer

Eduardo Frajman teaches humanities and philosophy at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, …


Stephen D’Arcy is a political philosopher, but also “a long-time social activist and protest organizer”, as the author biography on the very first page of this interesting and important book takes pains to clarify. Languages of the Unheard is not, however, a manifesto for social activists in the style of Saul Alinsky, nor is it a historical account of “when and where protest, blockades, or militant actions have been successful. And why!” (as a decidedly misleading blurb on the second page asserts). It is an astute and complex work of philosophical argumentation that, despite clear prose and an engaging style, is intended primarily for political theorists and theoretically-inclined laypeople.

D’Arcy aims to provide an ethical justification for a variety of political actions that he collectively terms “militancy”. He defines militancy as “grievance-motivated, adversarial, collective action” undertaken by individuals or social movements, usually against existing elites (25-7). The overarching question is under what conditions is militancy morally justified or, even, morally required for an individual who seeks justice in human affairs. D’Arcy is clearly a man of the Left. He frequently and approvingly alludes to Marx and Engels, the Stonewall Riot and the Battle of Seattle, the Black Panthers and the Zapatista Liberation Army. Yet he explicitly rejects revolutionary Marxism, reduced in the book to Leon Trotsky’s “amoralism”, which posits that all militancy is justified in the service of a just end (i.e., the Revolution). Such a position is morally untenable, D’Arcy claims, because it “insulat[es] resistance from the responsibility to answer normative criticism” (45).

Instead, he finds the moral legitimacy of militancy in its service to democracy; specifically “deliberative democracy”, as conceptualized by political philosophers such as Seyla Benhabib, Amy Gutmann, and Jürgen Habermas. These thinkers hold that “reason-guided and inclusive public discussion” should be at the core of political life (40). Militant political action is justified when it acts to provide people with the ability to participate in reasonable public discussion – to increase the available amount of democracy, to provide a voice to the unheard. D’Arcy’s entire argument follows from this axiom.

The “democratic standard” by which D’Arcy distinguishes sound from unsound militancy involves four principles, all of which have as their goal the enhancement of democracy and are at the same time limited by the requirements of public deliberation. The “opportunity” principle declares that “militancy should create new opportunities to resolve substantive and pressing grievances” but only if “attempts to do so through reason-guided public discussion are thwarted by intransigent elites or unresponsive institutions” (65). Similarly, the “agency” principle insists that “the silenced people themselves should be the agents of militant politics”, the “autonomy” principle that militancy should “enhance the power of people to govern themselves”, and the “accountability” principle that “militancy should limit itself to acts that can be defended publicly” (68-70).

The view that militancy is good for democracy is controversial, of course. D’Arcy identifies as its main opponents the “conservative” position, which holds that social order should always be safeguarded against disruption, and what he terms “the liberal objection”, which holds that extra-institutional political action is “coercive” because it uses force when the ideal is that of reasonable public dialogue (37). The volume’s arguments against the two are essentially those of Martin Luther King Jr, particularly in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, as powerful and articulate a defense of militancy as has ever been penned. Order may be just or unjust. Laws are sometimes just, sometimes unjust. Justice requires, King and D’Arcy hold, that unjust laws be resisted and confronted. The problem for D’Arcy is that King, because of his commitment to non-violence and respect for existing institutions, does not go far enough and ultimately repudiates forms of political action that D’Arcy finds legitimate. “The distinction between violence and nonviolence cannot be the basis for distinguishing justifiable from unjustifiable protests”, he declares (3). Unfortunately, D’Arcy does not present a full account of King’s philosophy of nonviolence, and consequently his dismissal of it feels perfunctory.

D’Arcy pays closer attention to another of King’s claims: that his methods are compatible with American democracy because the militancy he espouses requires submission to existing laws. In other words, King believes that breaking the law as an act of civil disobedience is sometimes a moral imperative, but one that entails accepting the punishment for such an act formalized in existing laws. D’Arcy, like many other critics of King, rejects this position, on the grounds that capitalist society is fundamentally unjust. Resistance against such “systemic violence” (167) is warranted under his democratic standard.

If D’Arcy believes that violence against the social establishment can be morally justified and he believes that the current society is fundamentally unjust, why does he refrain from calling for all-out armed revolution? He rightly points out that, even if violent forms of militancy are sometimes morally justified, the burden of justification is heavier when violence is present. In addition to the four requirements of the democratic standard – opportunity, agency, autonomy, and accountability – violent militancy needs to meet three additional preconditions: it must be engaged in protecting “large numbers of people” from “serious bodily or mental harm”, it must have “a reasonable prospect for success”, and it must be the course of last resort (170). Anti-systemic violence without hope for success does not pass muster: “Insurrection is a profoundly misguided basis for orienting present-day resistance in places like France, Germany, the United States, or Canada – places where the far left remains relatively small and isolated, effectively marginal to the major debates even within oppositional social movements” (183).

Most of the book consists of a series of chapters in which D’Arcy applies the democratic standard to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate instances of increasingly disruptive forms of militancy, from “civil disobedience” (Chapter 4) and “disruptive direct action” such a labor strikes (Chapter 5) to “rioting” (Chapter 8) and “armed struggle” (Chapter 9). It bears noting that in each of these chapters he introduces a new term for each of the many principles, arguments, and objections he identifies. Though he avoids the obscure jargon so familiar to readers of Habermas, he often succumbs to the temptation of creating his own lexicon of unnecessary neologisms. This small problem notwithstanding, the chapters bring up a number of interesting questions to bear on their topics.

His treatment of real-world case studies is much weaker. His descriptions of actual events are patchy, and his analyses often devolve into baseless wishful thinking. He recounts early in the book, for instance, the various waves of protests that sprung up around the world in 2011: the Arab Spring, anti-austerity protests in Southern Europe, Occupy Wall Street. Incredibly, he takes them all to be part of a single “global upsurge” with the primary purpose of establishing “people’s assemblies” and “participatory democracy”. As evidence, he points to “the emergence of networking websites like takethesquare.net and peoplesassemblies.org” and not much more (15-18). Indeed, D’Arcy pays virtually no attention to the actual workings of social movements, or riots, or other types of civil disobedience: how they come to occur, how they develop, why and how they end. The book would have been enriched by an engagement with the work of Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, for example. The omission of such authors is a forgivable sin in a relatively short work that is primarily engaged with theory. At the same time, it seems to me that two serious complications arise out of D’Arcy’s core argument, potentially attributable to his inattentiveness to real-world events.

First is the question of timing. D’Arcy’s goal is to provide a blueprint to judge the legitimacy and moral status of any act of militancy or civil disobedience. In order to be acceptable, the specific action must conform to the four requirements of the democratic standard and, should it involve violence, to three additional requirements. Yet, as the many examples used in the book show, whether a protest march or an armed insurrection meets these standards can often only be known in hindsight. But the democratic standard requires that the militant be willing and able to justify the action in an environment of public and reasonable discussion. How can this happen before the outcome of the militant action is known? Is it always obvious whether a violent action has a chance of success? Is it always obvious whether all alternative courses of action have been attempted?

Second, and far more important, is the question of the scope of the spectrum of militancy. The book is guilty of catering to D’Arcy’s preferences. If a particular case of militancy fits with his ideological inclinations, then he deems it acceptable, if it does not, then it is rejected. “A men’s rights group”, he argues, cannot engage in civil disobedience to voice the “plight” of men, because “well informed people would quickly point out that […] men are advantaged, not disadvantaged, by the prevailing gender system” (66). Any reasonable person, in other words, would be able to recognize that the demands of this men’s group are illegitimate. The idea, however, that all (or even most, or even any) instances of potential militancy can be so easily evaluated simplifies human affairs to an unacceptable degree.

Far from being perfect, Languages of the Unheard is nevertheless an ambitious book on an important and eminently relevant topic. It deserves to be read for its scrupulous argumentation and the acuity of many of its insights, and for its principled insistence that philosophy be used not just to try to understand the world, but also to change it.

16 January 2015

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