Black Lives Matter: from performative civil disobedience to material change (part 1 of 2)

Paul Cotterill
12 min readJun 13, 2020


[Also available as pdf]

Part I: Performance limits

1. Whose history?

Matthew D’Ancona, by no means the worst member of the liberal commentariat, reflected one stream of opinion on whether or not statues should be removed accurately enough, when he tweeted:

Would it be easier if we just cancelled history? It seems to be causing an awful lot of trouble

There is, of course, a fairly obvious response to this assertion that there is a single history that we all need just to get on and learn about.

For those influenced by Marx, this line is most appropriately developed by key protagonist in the Situationist movement Guy Debord, when he writes of how most of humanity is subjected, to a never-ending ‘cyclical time’, temporal surplus value having been extracted by the forces of capitalism, allowing for those who enjoy the fruits of capitalism to do so to excess of ‘adventure and war’:

The social appropriation of time, the production of man by human labour, develops within a society divided into classes. The power which constituted itself above the penury of the society of cyclical time, the class which organizes the social labour and appropriates the limited surplus value, simultaneously appropriates the temporal surplus value of its organization of social time: it possesses for itself alone the irreversible time of the living.

The wealth that can be concentrated in the realm of power and materially used up in sumptuous feasts is also used up as a squandering of historical time at the surface of society. The owners of historical surplus value possess the knowledge and the enjoyment of lived events. Separated from the collective organization of time which predominates with the repetitive production at the base of social life, this time flows above its own static community. This is the time of adventure and war, when the masters of the cyclical society travel through their personal histories, and it is also the time which appears in confrontations with foreign communities, in the derangement of the unchangeable order of the society.

History then passes before men as an alien factor, as that which they never wanted and against which they thought themselves protected. But by way of this detour returns the human negative anxiety which had been at the very origin of the entire development that had fallen asleep. (Society of the Spectacle, №128)

As an activist, Debord’s favoured tactic was the artistic détournement, which aims to “negate the ideological conditions of artistic production, the fact that all artworks are ultimately commodities; but on the other hand, it must negate this negation and produce something that is politically educative

Dumping the statue of a mass murderer in a harbour strikes me, as it does Anthony Barnett and, Marvyn Rees, as just such a piece of performance art; the symbolism of the watery grave was inspired, even if it was quickly seen as the obvious thing to do, and the effectiveness, even measured solely in numbers of other statues removed in the last few days, has been remarkable. I hope that, in time, as the performance itself comes to be commemorated, the link between Debord’s notion of cyclical time, an abstraction realized to its fullest in the ‘un-lived’ rhythm of slavery, and the irruption of Black Lives Matter (BLM) into the wider consciousness caused by this détournement, will be made with more eloquence and artistry than I can manage here.

That is for the future. The challenge for now is to develop a strategy to weather the inevitable backlash in a way which maintains momentum towards, if not the end of a late capitalist fix dependent on the othering of racism (see chapter 2 of my recent essay), at least gains in favour of its victims. As I’ll set out, holding on to the idea that the d[r]owning of Colston was a performative art, rather than a protest, can be an important tactic within that strategy.

2. To the limits of Habermas

Let us start with the basics. One aspect of the backlash is to define, as Johnson has sought to do, the BLM actions as ‘violent protests’. As a whole, we need to be clear, that the removal to the harbour of the statue was an act of civil disobedience, and that with very exceptions all further actions inspired by the Bristol drama have followed a similar pattern. This is not Los Angeles 1992, when fifty people lost their lives. This is Bristol, London, Minnesota, 2020, and Johnson’s and Trump’s incitements to violence will remain one-sided in their effect.

The actions are peaceful but, as reflected in the term ‘civil disobedience’ they are actions consequent upon the failure of the state’s legal apparatus to act in a legitimate manner. This is very clearly the case in the trigger event, Bristol, where there attempts to get the statue removed via established democratic means have come to nothing, but in a more general sense the actual or forthcoming removals are symbolic acts of civil disobedience towards state institutions from who equality of treatment have been sought to no avail, in spite of formal equality before the law.

This tension between (il)legality and (il)legitimacy is at the heart of the matter. In terms of the backlash, it is the main thing for those who defend the status quo to hold on to. The basic claim is that all actions that do not lie within existing legal boundaries are illegitimate, and this is allied to the perverted Niemöller notion of a slippery slope towards anarchy: “first they came for the slaver statues….”.

In turn, this is allied to what Mike Holden rightly calls the reductio ad absurdum, in which the removal of a Fawlty Towers episode from the BBC archive become irrefutable evidence of the takeover of all our scared institutions by the cultural Marxists, and the important conclusion to the evolving narrative — the white folks are the real victims here.

It is easy enough to mock this discursive articulation here, and it can be temporarily satisfying to do so, but we need to acknowledge that it is both a well-established and powerful method of maintain white and class supremacy; indeed it is well-established now precisely because it is so powerful.

We need, then, a more powerful narrative to compete — a narrative (and accompanying political action) which gain much of their power from their appeal to an ethical rationality (or as Sunny Hundal urges ‘moral authority’ ) in clearly enunciated contradistinction the victim status contortions of the Right, but which also sustains momentum on what will, inevitably, be a hard journey.

As you might expect by now of anything you read of mine, the best starting point for this journey is with the work of Habermas, and specifically with this analysis of the place of civil disobedience in a state committed to the rule of rational law (Rechstaat).

Habermas is useful precisely because he does not, as legal theorist, shy away from civil disobedience. As Habermas scholar, Lasse Thomassen has stressed in a 2007 article on which I draw heavily here, Habermas does not set civil disobedience aside as some kind of unfortunate occasional remainder of the rule of law. Instead he sees it as constitutive of the overall legal order; only by acknowledging the legitimacy of actions which fall beyond specific legal limits, says Habermas, can a state enhance its overall constitutional order, and only by facilitating this process can the constitutional order retain its legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens who, in a Rechstaat, have provide rational consent and granted the order legitimacy in the first place.

Normatively, Habermas (1985) argues that acts of civil disobedience — actions against current law — can only be legitimate if they meet four conditions. First, they must be peaceful. Second those who act beyond the law should be prepared to face the sanction of the court as part of the legitimizing process, though leniency is urged. Third, they must be undertaken within a broader acceptance of the constitutional order, even while seeking adaptation to that constitutional order.

Finally, and crucially, civil disobedience can be legitimate in circumstances where “majoritarian decisions, which must be respected by minorities as the via regia of the democratic will formation” cannot meet the following standard:

[T]o what extent do the decisions, which the processes of majority rule make possible under conditions of limited resources of time and information, diverge from the ideal result of a discursively achieved agreement or a presumptively just compromise?”(p.111)

Where this test is not met, suggests Habermas, then civil disobedience is justified.

The Colston statue case is a model example for this testing process. We have, preceding the weekend’s dramatic departure, requests for the removal of an offensive statue made through the normal “processes of majority rule” such as petitions and public meetings, but to no effect (Hull 2020), even though a cursory review of the facts of the slave trader’s life and the arrival of the statue 150 years after his death would seem to indicate that compromise could have been reached through shifting it to a museum. In such a case, the Habermasian test of legitimacy for civil disobedience would seem to be met.

But this only takes us so far. As Lasse Thomassen says, there’s a further question that can’t be avoided:

Who decides if the majority is ‘tyrannical’? And who decides if we are dealing with a decision that warrants more than a simple majority? The decisive question for Habermas is the character of the issue in question: is the decision reversible? Is it a matter of the very existence of the members of the community? This leads him to distinguish between cases where majority rule is warranted and cases where universal consensus — or at least something closer to it, such as a qualified majority — is necessary……..The struggle over the definition of the situation and over the relevance of pluralism within the political unit is itself a struggle over the justifiability of civil disobedience. A particular group may, for example, claim that the use of the majority rule will endanger the very existence of that group as a group or of the members of the group, and that the decision must therefore be the outcome of a general and rational consensus. This would be a way for the group to put forward a claim to inclusion or, if this fails, to justified civil disobedience. Disagreement may not only concern the circumstances surrounding civil disobedience, but also the act of civil disobedience itself, for instance whether it is ‘non-violent’, ‘public’ and so on. The meanings of each of these descriptive terms are themselves contestable.

So, who decides? Who decides how to define the situation and whether civil disobedience is justified? The question cannot be evaded or decided in a rational consensus because the conditions for the latter are precisely absent: there is not only disagreement, but also disagreement over how to reach a fair agreement.

In 1980s West Germany, this was a matter that could be elided. Habermas himself was buoyed by the “political maturity of the Federal Republic” in comparison to that of Adenauer’s period (p. 111), even though he still saw a work in progress.

Britain in 2020 is a very different prospect, It is a political culture dominated by the political lie and the erosion of constitutional norms in the interests of a further fix to financialized capitalism dependent on further depths of extraction (see chapter 3 of my recent essay).

This trend may still be reversed as and when we emerge from the pandemic, because the institutions of democracy are not wholly broken yet — but this is the political and civic context in which the current contested discourse between BLM and the white supremacist establishment is being played out. (p.209)

In this less ‘enlightened’ environment, where rational consensus has turned to culture war, the bleaching of the statue of black playwright Alfred Fagon becomes — and it pains me to write this — a retaliatory piece of performance art (the symbolic bleaching might carry a massage of “whiten up your ways and integrate” (f it is thought through to that extent).

As such, the perpetrators claim equal legitimacy, precisely because conditions for rational consensus have become absent.

This awful reality of current political and civic culture can, I have contended at length, only be properly improved through determined programme of action around embedding a new ideal construct of ‘communicative man’ in replacement of the ‘economic man’ construct on which the various iterations of post-war capitalism have been founded.

This, though, does not help much in the present when it comes to the culture war, and (continuing to) lose that war makes the path to a new ideal construct ever more difficult.

So the immediate question moves on from Thomassen’s “Who decides?” formulation to my somewhat more unwieldy.

“How do we justify our position as the deciders on whether civil disobedience is legitimate, in such a way that it improves our chances of winning the culture war in the shorter term, such that in the longer term the need to justify can be again elided because the political culture is once again mature enough to allow that?”

3. To the limits of Derrida

Thomassen goes on to give an answer to that (implicit) question in his article. His recommendation is that we should follow Habermas’ long-term sparring partner Jacques Derrida, in seeing and acting civil disobedience as “appeals to justice and to values such as freedom and equality that are not foreign to real existing liberal democracy”, but also “do not cite already existing interpretations of these principles.”, instead “rearticulating [these principles] in performative manner” (p.211).

This idea, says Thomassen, is all the more important “given that those who engage in civil disobedience are often those whose voices are not and cannot be registered within the present political system or civil society, and who are, as a consequence, not able to appropriate the principles of constitutional democracy as theirs.” (ibid.)

If we consider again the “performative manner” downing of the Colston statue in this light, we see more of what it has to commend it. The statue was brought down precisely because those performing the act had not had their voices registered within the present political system or civil society; even the earlier calls of councillors and the Mayor, who did hear their voices and made representation from within the political system, had been powerless in the face of the stronger powers of capitalist status quo reflected in the argument that the evil inherent to trading black slaves can be balanced morally by later acts of ‘philanthropy’ towards a mostly white population (Hull, 2020).

Derrida’s concept of justice ‘to-come’, and the embrace of contestation over what freedom and equality actually mean are, then a useful justifying mechanism for this and wider acts of civil disobedience. In the end though, whatever their intellectual coherence, they remain justifications largely internal to the movement motivated by them. The challenge remains of how to build on them to create an outward-facing moral authority, such that civil disobedience in time wins real world improvements in equality of treatment and freedom to breathe.

4. Towards a feasible liberation praxis

I want to suggest two main ways forward here: one with a continuing link to Derrida (via Thomassen) as well as to Anthony Barnett’s recent ruminations (Barnett 2020a) on the separation of the way in which rights are defended and sought, but the other rooted in the more radical liberation praxis of Enrique Dussel (2013; Burton 2011).

This is a peaceful radical praxis grounded, crucially, by an ethic of feasibility appropriate to today’s information and resource power imbalance and also, almost poetically, to the liberation of a new transversal ’socio-economic subject’ from a history of slavery which carries with it the burden of ‘good turned bad’ ethical feasibility picked up first by the original abolitionist in the form of the 1833 bail-out of slave owners, and passed on down the generations to all white people in this country and beyond.

I then want to draw together these threads in a critique of the conflict between the parliamentary-focused and the extra-parliamentary left, and recommendations on how that conflict can be ameliorated to the level of what I will call a ‘healthy tension’. Developing such a pluralist spirit of political radicalism — which, in Rosa Luxemburg’s words “tacks betwixt and between the two dangers by which it is constantly being threatened”- will enable the left to wage the culture war that can no longer be avoided, as a more united force, against the real enemy.

This will be part II.

Main references

Barnett, A 2020(a), Out of the Belly of Hell: Covid 19 and the Humanisation of Globalisation, Open Democracy, May 19th

Barnett, A (2020b) The statue of Colston must be left in the water, Open Democracy June 8th 2020

Burton, M 2011 Introducing Dussel: the Philosophy of Liberation and a really social psychology

Cotterill, P 2020 Truthfulness, conviviality and voice for a post virus world: Labour’s turn to Habermas?

Derrida, J 1992 Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority”, tr. M. Quaintance, in D. Cornell, M. Rosenfeld and D.G. Carlson (eds) Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, pp. 3–67, at p. 27. London: Routledge

Debord, G 1967 Society of the Spectacle (available at

Draper, N 2010 The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation And British Society At The End Of Slavery, Cambridge University Press

Dussel, E 2013, Ethics of Liberation in the Age of Globalization and Exclusion, Duke University Press

Habermas, J 1985 Civil Disobedience: Litmus Test for the Democratic Constitutional State, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 30, pp. 95–116

Hull, M 2020 Statues And Limitations: Democracy And The Fall Of Edward Colston, Unlock Democracy, June 10th 2020

Luxemburg, R 1904 Organisational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy (available at

Thomassen, L 2007 Within the Limits of Deliberative Reason Alone Habermas, Civil Disobedience and Constitutional Democracy, European Journal of Political Theory, Vol. 6, №2: 200–218



Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.