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

Part I: Performance limits

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

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)

[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)

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.

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



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store