Coming Event!


Venue: Barnard College, Columbia University, Diana Center 504

Saturday, May 7

1-1:30pm: Welcome and Introduction


Çiğdem Çıdam (Union College): Radical Democracy without Risks? Habermas on Constitutional Patriotism and Civil Disobedience

Jeff Flynn (Fordham University): Guardians of Legitimacy: Habermas on Civil Disobedience

chair: Sara Gebh (New School for Social Research)

3:30-4pm – coffee break


Erin Pineda (University of Chicago): Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, and American Exceptionalism

Alexander Livingston (Cornell University): Reconstructing Civil Disobedience: Pragmatism and Making Problems Public

chair: César Cabezas Gamarra (Columbia University)

Sunday, May 8


Candice Delmas (Northeastern University): The Ethics of Hacktivism

Daniel Markovits (Yale Law School): Resisting Economic Inequality

chair: Bernardo Caycedo (University of Amsterdam)

12:30-2 pm – lunch break


Ayten Gündoğdu (Barnard, Columbia University): Declarations of a Right to Have Rights

Robin Celikates (University of Amsterdam): Democratizing Disobedience: The Case of Irregular Migration

chair: Natasha Basu (University of Amsterdam)

4-4:30pm: closing remarks

Co-sponsored by the Philosophy Department, Barnard College, Columbia University & the VIDI-Project “Transformations of Civil Disobedience” (University of Amsterdam)
For registration and further information please email Robin Celikates:



“This is not a Migration Crisis. This is a Political Crisis.” 4/2/2016

In the opening scene of “We Are Here” widely shared perceptions are shattered. The activist can be a refugee. A refugee can be an activist. Not just an “illegal” criminal or a helpless victim. The Refugee Hackathon, organized by Hacks/Hackers Amsterdam, A-Lab,, and the University of Amsterdam Media Studies Department kicked off with the screening of “We are Here” by documentary filmmaker Alexandra Jansse, along with a panel discussion. The aim of the hackathon was to brainstorm and develop practical tools, websites and resources to help refugees in the Netherlands. It was this idea of the migration or refugee “crisis” that the refugee hackathon was responding to. The event was intended to bring hackers, journalists, activists and migrants together to come up with helpful solutions. The theme for the evening centered on the portrayal of refugees and the “migration crisis” in mainstream media. Before the documentary began, it was noted that no mainstream media channel had agreed to air this particular documentary. Jansse regularly makes documentaries for Dutch media, but this one in particular had not been picked up.

The opening scene of “We are Here” is a protest along the popular tourist attraction “I Amsterdam” letters on Museumplein. The protestors, many of whom are refugees, are heard chanting, “Freedom of Movement is Everybody’s Right.” The signs they held up read, “No Borders” and “March for Freedom.” The documentary tracks the ongoing struggle that a group of refugees and their Dutch supporters, the “We Are Here” movement, face as they attempt to legally attain refugee status and remain in the Netherlands. They are forced to relocate from abandoned building to detention center, to peoples’ homes. Forced to pack up, unpack, but never fully settle. Some of the refugees describe it as a constant state of limbo, neither dead nor living, starting over everyday to try and stay alive. While we witness the uncertainty and anguish, we also see refugees acting as political agents, organizing themselves, and fighting for their rights.

The idea of attaining ones’ rights features strongly in the documentary, as it seems to be a core driving force of the We Are Here movement. If there is one thing that remains unclear about the call for human rights, it is exactly what is meant by human rights. Is it the right to cross borders without legal papers? The right to not be considered “illegal” because no human being is illegal? Do basic human rights refer to the “Bread, Bath, and Bed” minimum that the Dutch government, specifically the city government of Amsterdam was so unwilling to provide? Does the call for human rights come down to the bare material essentials, or is it something more? Is it the bare essentials first because that’s what is needed for survival? Would the protestors have something to protest once these basic rights were granted? It’s not clear from the documentary because so much of it focuses on the daily struggle for a place to sleep, along with the legal struggle. Perhaps the refugees do not even know themselves. Something that was discussed at the Civil Disobedience Beyond the State conference in Oxford was the idea that sometimes civil disobedience movements start off as strategic and then become principled in the process of conceptualization. Karuna Mantena explained that this is how Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement evolved.

Anne McNevin writes about undocumented migrants that take part in public protests in order to question the legitimacy of exclusive citizenship, bring forward the historical injustices and interconnectedness that facilitated the creation of the liberal democratic nation and the “illegal” migrant. In France, the Sans Papiers movement seeks to remind France of its own colonial history, and the intertwined past, present and futures of the French nationhood with its colonies. McNevin writes, “They implicitly question whether the privilege attending national (French) citizenship can ever be divorced conceptually or materially from the exploitation of the lives, labour, culture, territory, and identity of the state’s (colonial) others” (McNevin, 2009, 173). In this sense, perhaps one could even interpret this as a call for reparations for past grievances. The “migration crisis” is very much perceived as a humanitarian burden that needs to be solved instead of a political protest that draws attention to a continuation of global injustice. While “We Are Here” has some implicit moments of addressing a broader sense of injustice, it remains unclear if We Are Here aims for what Sans Papiers does, and precisely what type of interconnectedness it seeks to highlight.

At the end of the film there was a panel discussion. The panelists were: moderator Lara Staal from Frascati Theatre; Sinan Abdullah Rehman from We Are Here; Massimiliano Sfregola from We Are Here and; Eva Schram from and Karlijn Muiderman from The Broker. At the heart of the discussion was the contradiction between knowing or understanding the realities faced by refugees, and knowing what to do with that knowledge. What is the “right way to report about refugees?”, asked moderator Lara Staal. Rehman, who is featured in the documentary and also contributed to filming some of the scenes describes how the documentary more accurately portrays the conversations and struggles faced by the refugees. He explained that he does not speak about his life to journalists the way he speaks about his life with his fellow refugees, and the documentary captures these intimate conversations because he was one of the people filming. “ I want to share the truth…give the story clear and honest,” said Sinan.

It is in many ways a tale of different, parallel conversations and knowledge that are understood, misunderstood and circulated. One of Rehman’s main worries was how uninformed the journalists and Dutch public seemed with regards to the situations faced by refugees. He found that even university students he spoke with were ignorant of the realities faced by refugees. Rehman has moved eighteen times in three years, and said he is always surprised by some of the questions he is asked by reporters: “when will you go back to your country?” Sfregola pointed out that reporters often do not understand the dire situations that refugees are fleeing from, nor do they understand the complexities of the Dublin Regulation, which dictates the terms of seeking asylum in Europe. Many of the refugees interviewed in “We Are Here” refer to the violence and war that they are fleeing back in their countries. They never dreamed of going to Europe; they simply had nowhere else to go. The belief is that in Europe, ones rights are respected, “there is peace in the Netherlands,” one refugee is heard saying in the documentary.

Schram, a journalist, noted that one of the dominant narratives present in the media is the “they are the victims and we are the helpers” narrative, which is not helpful. She said that there are many things not being told, such as the fact that the Dutch government had started counting every refugee application as a separate application even if it was filed by the same person. So one refugee who has applied for refugee status eight times would be considered eight different applications. This distorts the public’s understanding of how many refugees are actually applying. Muiderman, a knowledge broker who works to connect policy makers to academia, noted that this is a “political crisis” and not a “migration crisis.”

This is a political crisis, and in many ways the documentary conveys that. We Are Here continues to act as a political movement that pressures the Dutch government to recognize the political crisis and to change its policies towards refugees. But how do we move beyond the “they are the victims and we the helpers” mentality? How do we fill the knowledge gap and what do we do about the parallel conversations that happen? What do we mean by human rights? These are important questions that were raised during the discussion; questions that the public is called to reflect upon.

Civil Disobedience Beyond the State III

Civil Disobedience Beyond the State III: The Right of Resistance in A Globalized World
Nuffield College, Oxford University
November 25-26, 2015

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At the end of the first year of our project, the third installment of the Civil Disobedience Beyond the State workshop series took place at Oxford University. We convened at Nuffield College to discuss actions that could be considered forms of transnational and global civil disobedience. Among the themes that organizers Annette Zimmermann, Robin Celikates and Theresa Züger outlined were the “new agents, new practices, and new ends” of civil disobedience in the global realm. Some of the problems highlighted were the democratic boundary problem; knowing which institutions actually apply to us; whether engaging in civil disobedience can be seen as a right or duty and why; and the enduring value of paradigm cases such as those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The first panel commenced with Simon Caney, who presented “Justice in Transition to a Better World: On the Relationship between Means and Ends”, and Ashwini Vasanthakumar’s presentation, “Exile Politics and Transnational Civil Disobedience.” Both presentations touched upon the complex relationship between means and ends in civil disobedience. Caney provided us with an overview of the debates surrounding the justifications for violent or non-violent means used to reach certain ends. Gandhi, for example, believed that only non-violent means could produce a peaceful end. Revolutionary politics, on the other hand, often calls for an “ends justify the means” type of approach. Caney sees a third way, a more pluralist approach that he calls “non-deal reflective equilibrium.” With this approach, it is important to revise ends and means, to weigh intuitions in light of the context or concrete situation. This method of “non ideal reflective equilibrium” is guided by the core commitments of deliberative democracy. Meanwhile Vasanthakumar argued for a conception of civil disobedience that is more in line with the traditional definition. Through her case study of the Tamil community in Canada using civil disobedience to protest the injustice of the civil war in Sri Lanka, she demonstrated how misplaced the use of civil disobedience can be in the transnational realm. She argued that blocking one of the busiest highways in Canada to protest what was going on in Sri Lanka was not an effective way to address the particular injustice that was occurring in Sri Lanka. The end has to be related to the political community that we are in. Still, she stated that exiles do have a duty to resist, a duty to publicize the injustices that they experience or know of, if not use civil disobedience.

After the first panel, Karuna Mantena gave the keynote lecture titled, “Individual versus Mass Civil Disobedience in Gandhian Satyagraha.” Through her historical analysis of the evolution of Gandhi’s Satyagraha, she shed new light on his philosophy. She described how by the time Gandhi led the successful Salt March of 1930 in India, he had experienced many failures with civil disobedience during his activism in South Africa. Mantena explained how Gandhi’s Satyagraha should not be understood merely as a spiritually motivated civil disobedience; instead it should be understood as stemming from Gandhi’s realism. Gandhi’s movement started off as tactical, aimed at changing racial segregation in British South Africa. The tactics he used were not spiritually motivated in the beginning; they were strategic moves that were meant to provoke the British. Eventually, Gandhi’s civil disobedience became principled in the process. What are the implications of understanding Gandhi’s Satyagraha from a realist standpoint? What lessons from the paradigmatic case can we take and apply to today’s global civil disobedience?

On the second day, we had three panel sessions. The first session started with Kimberley Brownlee’s talk, “Can there be Conscientious Disobedience on a Global Stage?” and Leslie Green’s talk, “Civil Disobedience and Political Protest.” In a continuum from our Berlin workshop, Brownlee engaged in a debate with Scheuerman’s work on whether Edward Snowden fits the Rawlsian definition of civil disobedience. While Scheuerman has argued that the actions of Snowden can be described as civil disobedience, Brownlee argued that he does not fit the Rawslian definition because his actions do not fulfill the publicity criteria or the fidelity to law criteria since he did not notify the public of his intent beforehand and refuses to accept the punishment. Instead, Brownlee claimed that Snowden can be seen as an example of conscientious disobedience on a global scale. Leslie Green discussed the idea of constructive civil disobedience, which contrasts with the more traditional “remedial” civil disobedience, which is directed at a domestic government with the aim of changing a law or policy. Constructive civil disobedience seeks to create a social contract where there was not one “in the first place”, e.g. on the global level.

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In the second panel of the day Temi Ogunye presented, “Global Justice and Transnational Civil Disobedience” and William Smith discussed “Civil Disobedience as Transnational Disruption.” Ogunye argued that as citizens of liberal democratic states, it is our duty to engage in civil disobedience on behalf of those who cannot. Smith, on the other hand was searching for normative global standards regarding global legitimacy in transnational protest movements, and legitimacy between states. He gave the example of indigenous communities that invite the international community to take a stand on a domestic issue.

The final panel included Javier Hidalgo on the “Duty to Resist Unjust Immigration Restrictions” and Luis Cabrera on “Global Civil Disobedience and the Averted Gaze: On Strict Legality vs. Leniency in the Context of Unauthorized Migration.” While both panelists discussed undocumented migration in relation to transnational civil disobedience, they approached the issue from distinct perspectives. Javier Hidalgo shifted the focus from the undocumented migrant to that of the citizen. He argued that as citizens in wealthy liberal democratic states, it is our duty to resist unjust immigration restrictions if the potential penalty for the citizen is not very high. This could include hiring or housing undocumented migrants, for example. Luis Cabrera, meanwhile, who has argued that undocumented migrants are acting like global citizens when they decide to cross borders, shifted his focus to the emerging global normative charter of cosmopolitan law or individual rights. We already have an international declaration of human rights. Given that we subscribe to these principles, how should states respond to principled border crossing? They can choose strict legality or leniency. Cabrera argues for leniency, explaining that the “averted gaze” is what happens when the government turns away from the humans involved in undocumented migration. Often the words used to describe migrants are “swarm” or “tsunami”, and this can be dehumanizing rhetoric. Cabrera argued that we have to refocus the “averted gaze” on to the humans and their needs.

In the end, we left with more questions than answers. During the concluding discussion, we discussed the importance of a continued effort to maintain diverse participation and include various viewpoints from around the globe in our workshops. Other points raised include: who are the duty bearers? Do those who have an epistemic privilege have a greater duty to disobey since they know of their injustice? Another point that we learned from cases such as Gandhi is that sometimes the civil disobedience movements start off as strategic and then become principled in the process of conceptualization. What are the implications of this process on how we interpret the potential of “illegal” migration as civil disobedience? As we concluded the third workshop in this series, as well as our first year of this project, we now move into the next year with a new sense of conceptual problems and empirical cases that raise questions and challenges for our project.

Civil Disobedience Beyond the State III: The Right of Resistance in a Globalised World

Liberal political philosophers have traditionally defended a narrow interpretation of civil disobedience, i.e. a concept that applies solely within the domestic sphere and that is subject to several other restrictive criteria. On this view, the ‘civil’ in ‘civil disobedience’ does not only mean ‘non-violent’, it also means ‘civic’: civil disobedience is seen as a practice that only citizens may permissibly engage in, offline and within the nation state, addressing their own governments and fellow citizens.

But recently, empirical developments which challenge established theoretical conceptions of civil disobedience have become increasingly salient. Examples for such developments include transnational social movements which practice civil disobedience to resist against not one, but several national jurisdictions or transnational and international institutions, or non-citizens who engage in civil disobedience in spite of the fact that they are often not seen as legitimate agents of such practices. In addition, several influential theoretical accounts of civil disobedience have emerged in the past few years that interpret the concept more widely.

In our international, interdisciplinary conference series called Civil Disobedience Beyond the State, we address these theoretical gaps by discussing contemporary accounts of civil disobedience and their normative implications in light of empirical challenges such as globalisation and digitalisation. After our workshops at the University of Amsterdam (2014) and at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin (2015), we will be hosting a third and final workshop at the University of Oxford (Nuffield College) on November 25th and 26th, 2015.

Conference organisers: Annette Zimmermann (University of Oxford), Theresa Züger (Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, Berlin), Robin Celikates (University of Amsterdam)

This conference has been organised with the generous financial support of Nuffield College, the Amsterdam Center for Globalisation Studies, the NWO-funded project ‘Transformations of Civil Disobedience’ and the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society.

Check the Program and Register Here

Colombian “Collect It All” Policy Uncovered

Since 1958 more than 220.000 people have been killed in Colombia because of the internal armed conflict. Due to the brutal practices of violence that have been used during more than six decades, there are around 30.000 disappeared and close to six million internally displaced persons. In order to fight against different illegally armed groups, the Colombian state has employed a broad spectrum of strategies. One of these is communications monitoring. The state’s use of equipment for communication surveillance has been both within the limits established by national and international laws and beyond them. Proof of this is the shameful Administrative Department of Security (DAS) [Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad] scandal. As has been established by the authorities, the now-defunct intelligence agency used illegal wiretapping against opposition politicians, media and other state institutions. Among the targeted individuals are also former presidents, Human Rights defenders and judges of the Supreme Court.

Last month the London-based NGO Privacy International published a Special Report on Colombia titled “Shadow State: Surveillance, Law and Order in Colombia”. The document offers detailed and well-documented information on government programs to monitor Colombian citizens’ communications. It also gives a detailed account of the technologies the security forces employ to monitor and surveil. Once close attention is paid to these technological capabilities and to its concrete use, it becomes clear that the Colombian state is monitoring communications beyond the legal national framework. What follows is a very brief summary of Colombia’s programs and technologies for monitoring and surveillance. It is important to note that these are programs of the intelligence service of the state; which additional technologies the army uses is not revealed for security reasons.

The Attorney General’s Office [Fiscalía General de la Nación] employs a program called “Esperanza” running since 2004. “Interception through Esperanza involves capturing individuals’ communications on a targeted basis, with the knowledge and cooperation of the telecommunications service provider, and is explicitly authorised under Colombian law.” (21) Esperanza is a legally constrained program with limited technical capabilities. In 2012 this program was housed in at least 5 rooms at the Attorney General’s Office headquarters in Bogotá, 15 more rooms at regional ‘sectional directorates’ and a further 8 rooms for specialized analysis. It is worth noticing that “at least six of these rooms received financial and technical support from the DEA [the US Drug Enforcement Agency], and DEA analysts share workplace with their Colombian Colleagues” (23).

Because Esperanza seemed too limited in its monitoring capabilities, the Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol (DIJIN) [Dirección Central de Policía Judicial e Inteligencia] launched the Single Monitoring and Analysis Platform (PUMA) [Plataforma Única de Monitoreo y Análisis] in 2007. PUMA is “a phone and internet monitoring system linked directly to the service providers’ network infrastructure by a probe that copies vast amounts of data and sends it directly to DIJIN’s monitoring facilities.” (8) This kind of mass automated communications surveillance technology has been implemented with the service providers’ knowledge. With this technology the DIJIN is able to process and combine call data records and SMS with other types of data including images, video, and biometrics details (8). As PUMA is a tool for gathering and analyzing mass communication data, compared to Esperanza, “PUMA conducts a completely different and far more invasive form of surveillance. This is not only of concern from the perspective of public transparency and accountability; it also raises serious questions about the lawful basis of such a system. Interception is lawful in Colombia only when is conducted pursuant to a court order, following the formalities established by law” (14).

For their part, the Directorate of Police Intelligence (DIPOL) [Dirección de Inteligencia Policial] uses a different technology: The Integrated Recording System (IRS).This mass interception system was established in 2005 before PUMA. With the IRS the police was looking for a way to monitor the then newly developed 3G technology for mobile phones. With the aim of consolidating the use of the IRS, the DIPOL acquired the VANTAGE system, which is able to intercept, filter and categorize information in a way that analysts can search it for patterns as well as specific persons, numbers, servers, and other data of interest. Just like PUMA, IRS is a technology that does not respect the Colombian legal requirements for communication interception.

In 2012 the DIPOL got an additional tool to effectively process the vast quantities of information they were receiving. With this new platform, provided by Palantir, a US private software and services company specialized in data analysis, “it is possible to map out the connections between datasets, and individuals, with the possibility to categorise and analyse both information and individuals”(45). It also includes data from other sources such as Facebook and Twitter.

It is worth noticing that Colombian Police deny that they currently have the ability to tap internet traffic (39). However, according to a hacked email from Hacking Team, the DEA bought a technology “that will receive all the traffic for Colombian’s ISPs”. It is not clear if the DEA is collecting information in cooperation with Colombian authorities or if they are doing it directly. It is difficult to judge which of these scenarios more severely undermines the sovereignty of Colombia. Nonetheless, to some extent this confirms the O Globo newspaper’s claim that Colombia is the third most spied on country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico

Other hacked emails from Hacking Team reveal that Colombian Police bought intrusion software from that company. The Remote Control System (RCS) software provided by Hacking Team enable the police to “undertake targeted remote exploitation –hacking and subsequent control- of individual’s devices” (15). This kind of malware allows the user to control the infected device to the extent of capturing data on the device, remotely switching on and off webcams and microphones, copying files and typed passwords.

It is also worrying that Colombian Police lack required managerial skills as revealed in the hacked emails. It is very likely that Colombian taxpayers paid twice for software that operates beyond the national legal framework. Emails disclosed by Wikileaks suggest that Hacking Team members probably met Police officials in Colombia introducing themselves as members of another enterprise called NICE in order to sell the RCS for the second time. They planned the scam in a series of emails now publicly available online. Massimiliano Luppi from Hacking Team says: “In order to do so, anyone going to Colombia will be introduced as NICE person (so, better if [it] is a new face)” (Email sent on Jul 21, 2013, at 9:33 AM). They obviously worried about what would happen if someone recognized the product they were selling as the one they had already bought. Alex Velasco expressed his doubts about Luppi’s plan in this way: “If the client recognizes the console what would be their reaction knowing their (sic) is a singed contract on place and that we are trying to sell them the same product twice.? (sic) Will they be offended? I don’t think we are fooling anyone.” (Email sent on July 21, 2013 05:30 PM).

Officially, PUMA is not currently running in Colombia due to the Attorney General’s concerns about citizens’ privacy. In August 2014 he stated that the Attorney General’s Office is the only state agency empowered to order interception of communication or manage the equipment used for this (53). Unfortunately, hacked emails suggest another story.

Some of Privacy International’s conclusions are that “Colombia’s interception and monitoring systems operate in a legal framework that inadequately protects Colombian citizens’ constitutional right to privacy”, and that “most surveillance tools do not have built-in checks to prevent unlawful, arbitrary or discriminatory access to private communications data” (56).

Against the background of the information revealed by both Privacy International and some hacked emails, there is a plethora of questions that not only Colombia but also the international community should address. Some of those questions are in relation with the general issue of the relation between political action and the use of technology, in particular of the Internet. Other questions concern private-public partnerships in the cybersecurity sector.

The DAS scandal shows the risks opened up when a state is unable to guarantee that its capabilities to target individuals and intercept their communications are used only within the legal limits and not as a political weapon against its own citizens. It could be argued that since keeping the use of collecting and analyzing technologies within the limits of the law is technically difficult (even impossible in certain cases) and it is hard to control their use, it is inconvenient to get them in the first place. Moreover, if the capabilities presented above are in the hands of state officials who do not understand them, as confirmed to International Privacy by persons with direct experience (39), their mere existence is a threat to the citizenry. Furthermore, in a context of insecurity, such as the one in Colombia, it is possible that these technologies offer great advantages for the state over illegal groups, but at a very high price for democratic rights. Whether it is worth paying this price because of the exceptional political and social context of Colombia is something that Colombian society should address. Undoubtedly, Privacy International has made a significant contribution to that coming debate. Hopefully Colombians will take this chance to get into an urgent discussion both on the national and international level.

Critical Theory Summer School—Illegal Migration as Civil Disobedience?

From June 3rd to June 8th the Critical Theory Summer School convened in Dubrovnik, Croatia. It brought together international scholars working within a diverse range of disciplines. The theme for this year was universalism. Presentations ranged from a debate on communism to papers on post-colonialism to rethinking materialism in social movements. The discussions were quite passionate at times, and important questions regarding the present and the future of Critical Theory were debated. Some of the questions included: what is the relationship between Postcolonial theory and Critical Theory? And is it still possible to hold on to a radically reconstructed form of universalism?

Critical Theory, which has its beginnings in the Frankfurt School, included thinkers such as Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin and Habermas. As is written on the first page of Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Eric Bronner, critical theory “questions the hidden assumptions and purposes of competing theories and existing forms of practice” and “insists that thought must respond to the new problems and the new possibilities for liberation that arise from changing historical circumstances.” Using this concept of critical theory as a guide, I believe that one pressing problem that critical theory can be applied to is the current debate surrounding “illegal” or “irregular” migration.

For my presentation at the summer school, I discussed my working paper, “Challenging Global Epistemic Violence: Illegal Migration as Civil Disobedience.” Drawing upon Luis Cabrera’s work on illegal migration as a form of global civil disobedience, I set out to describe how we may be able to conceive of illegal migration as a form of transnational civil disobedience that is targeting an unjust global economic and political system—a system that is informed by epistemic violence and a neocolonial logic. By epistemic violence, I mean the historical production of knowledge of the “Other” as different, thereby enabling a violation of his/her human rights. An important question that is often asked is why certain affluent countries that claim to uphold values of universal human rights often violate the human rights of the “Other.” I drew upon Gayatri Spivak’s conception of epistemic violence to explain how the migrant, like the colonial subject, is seen as “Other”, and is therefore placed in a precarious position at the margins of “universal” human rights.

To challenge this unjust system, we can follow the anti-colonial, Gandhian route of civil disobedience. The Gandhian route, unlike what Rawls describes in his Theory of Justice, set out to counter an unjust imperial system. It did not express fidelity to the British law or government and instead sought to overthrow it entirely. Civil disobedience, as practiced by exemplary activists such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. does not necessarily fit the Rawlsian definition. This is why I believe there is some flexibility with how we may conceptualize transnational civil disobedience as a challenge to an unjust global system. Irregular migration could be seen in a similar light as anti-colonial civil disobedience because it also seeks to challenge an unjust system—whether it be a border system, the nation-state system or the global economic and political system. These systems are remnants of the colonial period when nation states were formed, when a core-periphery global economic regime was implemented.

After my presentation I received useful feedback, and moving forward some of the questions I will consider are: what is “epistemic” about epistemic disobedience? What is the link between epistemic disobedience and legal disobedience? Another point is the subjectivity of the migrant. By suggesting that illegal migration can be a form of civil disobedience am I projecting a particular subjectivity? Could illegal migrants be considered civil disobedient merely by crossing the border illegally, or should they make themselves visible as groups like the Sans Papiers in France have done? The other concern is the limit of the Gandhian model of anti-colonial civil disobedience as applied to transnational civil disobedience. Lastly, what do I mean when I say “system”? These are some of the points I will have to address as I move forward to develop my idea. Responding to these critical questions will probably not result in one answer; instead, it will give us a deeper understanding of the complexity of these constantly evolving issues.

-Natasha Basu

Civil Disobedience Beyond the State II – Berlin 2015

“Civil Disobedience Beyond the State II – The Digitalization of Disobedience from Whistleblowing to Anonymous” brought together academics, artists, activists all interested in engaging with the evolving concept of digital disobedience, or digital civil disobedience. The workshop, which took place on May 8th and 9th in Berlin, was the second installment in a series of workshops on civil disobedience. Following the first workshop held in Amsterdam (October 29-31, 2014) on the transformation of civil disobedience more generally, this workshop centered on the challenges that digital civil disobediences raises for the traditional conceptualizations of politically motivated unlawful acts.

The workshop was held in the ACUD Kunsthaus, which provided an informal environment that enhanced open and dynamic discussion among both speakers and participants. The workshop was funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, the Amsterdam Center for Globalisation Studies, the NWO project Transformations of Civil Disobedience, and the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. The diverse range of key speakers included: Gabriella Coleman, Joss Hands, Manohar Kumar, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, Bill Scheuerman and Jillian C. York.

From the beginning of the discussions, it was clear that using the concept “civil disobedience” to describe a heterogeneous and sometimes contradictory group of politically motivated online direct actions is far from being straightforward. Some of the critical methodological questions brought up were: how can the agents’ political self-understanding be taken into account without leaving it completely up to them to define the meaning of their practices. Can those who engage in unlawful politically motivated online direct action theorize on their own culture and the logic behind their actions, or should that be the task of an external observer? To what extent does theory need to be consistent with the agents’ judgments of their own actions? One can take Snowden’s case as an example and ask: Does Snowden have a better interpretative perspective about the political significance and consequences of his own actions than the one we have as external observers? These important methodological questions continued to reemerge during the workshop because they are pointing to one of the fundamental problems of civil disobedience: who determines whether a specific case is civil disobedience or not and what role do the conscious motivations and intentions of agents play in answering this question? Since some of those who engage in hacktivism and some whistleblowers have judged their actions as part of the tradition of civil disobedience, theorist shouldn’t overlook these questions.

In addition to these critical methodological questions, more substantial issues were brought up. Reflecting on the actions and inner workings of Anonymous as presented Gabriella Coleman, questions about the disruptive power of humor as well as questions about the legitimacy of humorous disruptions were raised. The study of different kinds of disruption techniques led to a reconsideration of two requirements for civil disobedience according to the liberal tradition: the non-violence requirement and the symbolic nature of the actions. From the points that were raised, it is clear that more theoretical work is required to establish what kind of harm online direct action can produce and to what extent those kinds of harm count as violence. Furthermore, the symbolic nature of civil disobedience also becomes contested since there may be symbolic online forms of violence. If there is such a thing as symbolic violence, it is very likely that it can happen on the web.

The concerns about digital violence can be linked to other concerns raised in the workshop, such as the legal framework in which digital civil disobedience would be taking place. With the Internet under the jurisdiction of multiple legal systems that often seem to overlap, what does it mean to act within the limits of the fidelity to the law when engaged in online activism? Do the terms and conditions agreements play a legitimate binding legal role when users interact with each other or with information online?

The difficult task of finding (or creating) the political significance of current online cyber activism can only be advance through the collaboration of many: software developers, activists, lawyers, people from the media, and theorists who can continue building up spaces of encounter and interaction. This workshop not only allowed for the emergence of a plethora of questions for further debates, but also because it allowed the participants to realize that given the complexity of these phenomena, its study requires a division of labor as well as an interdisciplinary approach.

Recommended reading

“Three Ways to Understanding Civil Disobedience in a Digitized World” by Theresa Züger. This article is based on her introduction to the workshop.


Photojournalism and civil disobedience

“Because make no mistake; in many parts of the world, distributing this image, will cost you your freedom.
Being in this peaceful image will get you killed”
Mads Nissen

On February 12, 2015, “Jon and Alex” by Mads Nissen won the 2014 World Press Photo Contest. An international jury of leading professionals in the field chose this photo among 97,912 photos submitted by 5,692 photographers, photojournalists and documentary photographers from around the world. The image depicts a gay couple sharing an intimate moment in St. Petersburg, Russia.

After the adoption of anti-gay laws in Russia in June 2013, homophobia has been on the rise there. This law, which claims to protect minors, bans propaganda promoting “non-traditional sexual relationships”, and explicitly prohibits anyone from stating that gay relationships are like heterosexual relationships. As a consequence of this law, actions against gays and gay right activists have spread by both legal and illegal means. This ambiguously legalized persecution has been documented by Mads Niessen in the series called “Homophobia in Russia”, which includes “Jon and Alex”.

Beyond the beauty and aesthetic power of the photo, one can ask questions about its political meaning. Is Niessen’s work inserting the spectator into the private sphere in which this moment takes place or is a private moment taken out of (“its”) context and put into the public realm? Moreover, should we keep using the public/private dichotomy even if we are aware that “private” practices of individual subjectification are inextricably politicized? Then, where exactly is resistance taking place?

Now that the World Press Photo exhibition tour has begun in Amsterdam, and will move around the globe, the anticipated controversy has become a political issue. After the sponsors of the exhibition in Moscow withdrew their support, a crowdfunding campaign has just started. It is clear that any kind of material support for the exhibition will be perceived as promoting gay propaganda in Russia. The mere act of housing the exhibition in Russia would be considered an illegal act. The subtle politically motivated disobedience that Jon and Alex, Mads Nissen and World Press Photo have artistically stitched together, has now opened up the opportunity for acts of full civil disobedience. Would we be civilly disobedient in donating to this campaign or in reproducing or sharing this artwork?

Nissen’s words at the 2015 Award Ceremony are very much to the point: “with this photograph, we are challenging homophobia and the hetero-normative definition of love”. They are certainly doing it, while at the same time they allow us to rethink the traditional understanding of civil disobedience based on new practices and contexts.

Humanities in the News: Greece and the prospects for a European Spring – 26 February 2015


Johan Hartle (moderator)
Sara Murawski
Dimitris Pavlopoulos
Nicholas Vrousalis

“The economic elites of Europe have declared an economic war against the people of Greece,” argued sociologist Dr. Dimitris Pavlopoulos. Critique of EU austerity policies and the undemocratic relationship between Greece and the “troika” (European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund) dominated much of the discussion.

While all three speakers expressed concern with SYRIZA’s ability to actualize their anti-austerity policies, Sara Murawski, who is Policy Advisor on Development and Finance for the Socialist Party, stressed that this should be seen as an opportunity to open debate about the core of what went wrong in Europe: the undemocratic way in which European institutions have taken over national governments.

Dr. Nicholas Vrousalis, Assistant Professor of Political Philosophy, described the EU as an “informal empire” under which Greece is governed by German and French capitalism. Murawski reiterated that SYRIZA’s win indicates that Greece and other countries can claim “the right to say no” to the current EU system. That which appears inevitable or natural is a construct and product of a certain logic that guides policy formation and implementation. Perhaps the path to democracy begins with knowing that one has the right to say no.

If Greece has “the right to say no” to austerity, to a neoliberal economic system that has been imposed upon it, then do other countries have that same right? For Pavlopoulos, a “Grexit” would come with dangers and opportunities—opportunities to develop new forms of economic governance at the grassroots level.

From this debate we can also ask to what degree Greece has a duty to comply with the austerity plan since it did agree to certain bailout terms with the troika. When one enters into contracts and agrees upon terms with governments and transnational entities, when is it okay to disobey?

For many, the austerity demands on Greece epitomize the lack of democratic transparency with which the troika rules Europe. On the other end, the fundamental question of whether we have a right to break with contracts when they are unjust and threaten our fundamental democratic principles arises. If Greece decides to disobey austerity policies that the EU demands of it in order to fight for a more transparent, democratic EU structure, would Greece be engaging in a form of civil disobedience?

As the protests in Frankfurt demonstrate, events in Greece have implications for how we conceive transnational civil disobedience. When “Blockupy” descended upon the European Central Bank on March 18th to protest “troika mandates and ruthless impoverishment policy”, it brought together activists from various countries who disapprove of the lack of democracy and transparency with which the EU troika is governing Europe.

Last month, the Greek Parliament approved of Prime Minister Tsipras’ “humanitarian crisis” law that offers various social measures counter to what the EU has recommended. While the EU warns Greece to not act “unilaterally”, Greece seems to be increasingly looking towards Russia.