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"Disobedience and Seeing Like an Activist": Erin R. Pineda in conversation with Robin Celikates (Keywords: Civil Rights Movement; Liberalism; Punishment; Liberation)

White house on hill

This conversation originally appeared in What Matters Most: Conversations on the Art of Living by Anthony Morgan (ed.) (Agenda Publishing, 2023)

There are few movements more firmly associated with civil disobedience than the civil rights movement. In the mainstream imagination, civil rights activists eschewed coercion, appealed to the majority’s principles, and submitted willingly to legal punishment in order to demand necessary legislative reforms and facilitate the realization of core constitutional and democratic principles. However, as political theorist Erin R. Pineda argues below, this familiar account of civil rights disobedience not only misremembers history; it also distorts our political judgements about how civil disobedience might fit into democratic politics. This conversation coincided with the publication of Pineda’s book, Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement. It looks at civil disobedience from the perspective of an activist rather than the dominant liberal political theorists, raising numerous important questions about how civil disobedience ought to unfold in the present.


Erin R. Pineda is Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College, Massachusetts. Her research interests include the politics of protest and social movements, Black political thought, race and politics, radical democracy and twentieth-century American political development.


Robin Celikates is Professor of Social Philosophy at Freie Universität Berlin and a member of the editorial team of Critical Times. He specializes in critical theory, civil disobedience, democracy, collective action, recognition, migration and citizenship, and methodological questions in political and social philosophy.


Robin Celikates (RC): I think it is fair to say that civil disobedience is back on the agenda, both on the streets – with Black Lives Matter, the climate justice movement, anti-austerity movements, and so on – and as a topic for philosophical discussion. And it raises a lot of fascinating theoretical questions, from definitional questions that ask what civil disobedience is and how it differs from other forms of protest, to questions of justification and legitimacy, to questions about its role within more or less democratic systems. Your recent work has focused around a critique of mainstream political theory, especially of liberalism. Despite being a very narrow perspective, liberalism has been hegemonic in political theory for quite some time. But it appears to be losing its hegemonic grip. What you refer to as “seeing like a state” or even “seeing like a white state” involves operating from within this hegemonic liberal perspective, and this is what you think political theorists have for the most part been doing. You, however, urge us to see “like an activist”. How does that work, and what does that actually mean for you?


Erin R. Pineda (ERP): When I began writing about this back in 2012, I was thinking a lot about the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the modes of direct action, civil disobedience, and forms of protest that were happening globally in that moment. And while we may typically think that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s provided a blueprint for civil disobedience, I began to ask whether this might no longer be the case. After all, the world has changed substantially, so the kinds of structures that activists are confronting might require different forms of action; or activists might attribute different meanings to their actions, understanding them in new and distinctive ways. But once I started engaging closely with the literature on the civil rights movement, I became fascinated by the way that mainstream liberal and democratic philosophies of civil disobedience – many of which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s – interacted with and used the example of the civil rights movement. There seemed to be a gap between what I was seeing as the representation of the civil rights movement reflected in mainstream philosophy, and what I knew sociologically and historically about the movement. And I wanted to better understand that gap.

The liberal and democratic philosophers of that time – those who went on to create these influential theories of civil disobedience – were very interested in and invested in the civil rights movement. They were sympathetic to its aims and its tactics. They sought to defend the movement from the conservative critique that civil disobedience creates lawlessness and results in the breakdown of democratic constitutional orders. Being politically motivated in this way, they took up the question of whether citizens have an obligation to obey the law, and they wanted to theorize that obligation in such a way that there would still be room for something like civil disobedience within democratic, liberal societies. But in adopting that framework – by starting with the question, “when are citizens of good, liberal, democratic orders justified in breaking the law in protest?” – they saw the movement through the lens of their own motivations, their own concerns for the obligation to obey, and their own assumptions about the kind of society the Jim Crow United States was.

This way of seeing prioritizes the stability and maintenance of the constitutional order. These theorists tended to take it for granted that the context about which they were writing – the US in the 1960s – was already meaningfully democratic. They wanted to theorize civil disobedience as this limited exception to an otherwise legitimate, healthy democratic order. And this caused them to theorize the problem of racial domination in a very narrow and specific way, as a relatively anomalous, purely domestic form of exclusion. Segregation was a serious injustice, of course, but it was not conceptualized as something that would affect or seriously threaten the overall legitimacy and integrity of the constitutional order. This framework strongly shapes the way that they saw civil disobedience unfolding, the kinds of normative meaning that they ascribed to it, the kinds of limitations that they put on its use, and the kinds of actions with which they associated it. Most problematically, they then tended to impute this view to the civil rights activists that they were writing about. It is this tangle of issues that I refer to as “seeing like a white state”.

Methodologically, the key question for me was how to think about it otherwise. If I don’t find the existing literature to be an adequate characterization of what was going on, what are my alternatives? The methodological commitment that I made was to investigate the frameworks, the vantage points, and the questions that activists themselves were working with rather than trying to simply retheorize civil disobedience from a different theoretical angle. I wanted to think about the activists themselves as engaging in political theorizing, in making public political sense of what they were doing: identifying and problematizing political structures; thinking about how racial domination functions and how it shapes subjects, relations and institutions; and forging a course of action to remediate a problem or to transform oppressive structures. As theorizing, all of this involves abstracting away from the complicated reality of political life, conceptualizing forms of domination, and then making political claims about how action can affect the shape of the world.


RC: To flesh this out a bit, it would be useful to look at a specific feature that is often taken to be central to civil disobedience. There are many definitions of it, but it is pretty standard to think that civil disobedience is non-violent, that it seeks change while also accepting the general legitimacy of the political and legal system. And insofar as civil disobedience always involves breaking the law (which differentiates it from legal protests, demonstrations, and so on), one of the ways in which this acceptance of the legitimacy of the political system is often taken to be expressed is through the readiness to accept the legal consequence of breaking the law. Many liberal theorists think that this readiness to accept the consequences of one’s actions is important to signal one’s continuing loyalty to the constitutional order. Furthermore, it serves to underline the seriousness of one’s intent: you are not just doing this because you are an anarchist or have an irrational desire to smash things; rather, you are a serious political agent, even in some ways an exemplary citizen. We find such claims in the writings of Martin Luther King Jr, as well as in how the civil rights movement operated. What do you think is wrong with this liberal picture, and how does seeing like an activist help us to understand what is wrong with it and provide an alternative perspective on how these issues of loyalty and accepting punishment should be reconsidered?


ERP: The way that you set up the question is exactly the way that I would think about it. What is foundational to the liberal perspective is the presumption that the constitutional order is democratic, is legitimate, and ought to be maintained – and, furthermore, that activists themselves have a primary interest in maintaining it because it is the guarantor of their rights and democratic citizenship. John Rawls noted that it is not an easy thing to be taken as sincere by your fellow citizens; your actions, however sincerely undertaken, do not automatically read to others as serious acts of conscience or as signs of a deeper commitment to justice and democracy for all. Consequently, he argued, activists have to find ways of communicating not only their sincerity, but also the limited nature of their intervention: they have to somehow broadcast that they intend their lawbreaking to be targeted, confined to the issue at hand, and not an assault on the rule of law as such. Proper Rawlsian activists have to convey that though their actions may be dramatic or disruptive, they are nevertheless intended in the spirit of reform; they are intended to remediate specific injustices that all citizens should have an interest in addressing. The point is not to tear down; it’s to reform.

There are a couple of things that I would say about that framework. The first is to simply grant that this account might sometimes be true. I would not want to deny that you could easily find examples in which activists expressed themselves in that way, saw their own actions in that way, and adopted those ends as their own. However, I believe that it is a problematic reading of the civil rights movement in particular, as well as many other movements. It certainly cannot be the theory of civil disobedience, and it’s a questionable theory of injustice in liberal democratic states. If we take seriously the idea that the states that we call liberal democracies are nevertheless built on various nested forms of domination that make people substantively – and, often, formally – un-free within them, then I think it becomes problematic to say that this is how civil disobedience works within them, or to impute that set of claims to activists contesting their domination. In the end, even as Rawls and his liberal interlocutors criticized conservatives who rejected the “lawlessness” of civil disobedience, their own theories accepted and operated within a quite conservative framework in which dissent in liberal democracies is, by necessity, severely circumscribed in the interest of stability.

If one problem is that Rawls gets liberal democracies wrong, the other problem is that liberal democracy is theorized in isolation from other political contexts that were actually historically and politically linked

The other issue that I see with this framework is that it treats liberal-democratic states as having nothing of consequence in common with contexts we categorize as colonial or authoritarian. In other words, if one problem is that Rawls gets liberal democracies wrong (or gets the United States wrong as a liberal democracy), the other problem is that liberal democracy is theorized in isolation from other political contexts that were actually historically and politically linked. Activists themselves often speak across those contexts, borrowing tactics and cultivating ethical languages amongst each other; they also make arguments about how two contexts that appear distinct are actually related. In my work, I try to show that civil disobedience emerged within a civil rights movement that was deeply in conversation with, and tied to, anti-colonial movements around the world. For this set of global activists, Jim Crow was fundamentally tied to colonial rule through histories of racial capitalism, through the continuities between US racial terror and colonial rule. In this way, the language of radical non-violence and civil disobedience became a shared language and a shared framework. The civil rights activists certainly did not see the world as bifurcated into democratic states and everywhere else.

In the example that you brought up about accepting arrest and punishment, there are alternative ways of understanding what those tactics might mean. I have done research into the student sit-in movements of 1960 and 1961, as well as the Freedom Riders of 1961. In these examples, the activists allowed themselves to be arrested, but then chose to serve out jail sentences rather than accepting bail. From the liberal perspective, we can say that this is just the way that they are showing their sincerity and reformist intentions: they are choosing the harsher of the two punishments in order to demonstrate their investment in both the cause and the legitimacy of the legal system. But looking through the archival documents and trying to trace out the strategic and ethical conversations that activists were having amongst themselves, I found that they defended their strategy of accepting arrest and refusing to pay bail (what they called “jail, no bail”) as a way of signalling their deep break with the legal architecture of Jim Crow. In their view, “jail, no bail” radicalized their protest rather than tempered or limited it. They argued that they should refuse to contribute funds to the legal system by accepting bail, because doing so would be equivalent to paying their jailors, paying their captors, paying to prop up a system of Jim Crow injustice that did not stop at the courthouse door but was society-wide. They were thus attempting a much more radical critique of the political and legal system than the liberal account gives them credit for.

When they talked about why it was important to go to jail and what could happen by going to jail, they used this evocative language of self-emancipation and self-liberation. They argued that there is something materially and symbolically important about showing courage and fearlessness, about refusing to comply within the Southern jail – a site that represented the epicentre of Jim Crow racial violence. These jails were not just sites of a legal order at work, but were also sites of intense extra-legal violence and terror. They were extremely vulnerable in that setting. For them, then, choosing to go to jail and choosing to stay was an act of defiance and self-liberation; they were not going to be submissive to this system or captured by its techniques of racial terror. Through this dramatic refusal, activists could build solidarity with each other, they could spur on solidarity protests, and they could build the movement from the Southern jail cell outward. This provides a wholly different normative or theoretical constellation than the liberal model, but it’s a constellation that is very difficult to see if we are so committed to the liberal model that what we are trained to look out for is reformist intent or signals of investment in the constitutional order as it exists.


RC: In your work, you also discuss how the civil rights activists learned about how non-violence works, and how effective it can be, from anti-colonial movements elsewhere, especially from Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. In the context of what you just said, with activists rejecting the claim to the legitimacy of the constitutional state and disputing that it has the democratic credentials it presented itself as having, this seems to open the way to more militant, maybe even openly violent, forms of resistance that would seem legitimate in a context where the state does not have a claim to your obedience because it systematically violates your freedom and subjects you to racial domination. In the colonial situation, there was not only the non-violent form of anti-colonial struggle, but also, in many cases, openly violent and militant movements whose legitimacy today seems out of the question due to the specificity of that particular context. Was the question of violence within the civil rights movement settled in advance or were there discussions about its legitimacy under these circumstances? If the state is not really a democratic one, then why restrain yourself in these ways? Was that a tactical choice or a principled one?


ERP: The question that the activists posed was less about the threshold at which something more than non-violence becomes legitimate, and more about what non-violence does: What does mass non-violence do, what does it enact? What effects does it have, both inwardly in relation to the self, and outwardly in relation to others and to institutions? The flipside of this question is what violence might do instead of, or differently than, non-violence. Once again, the problem with the question of whether (or when) violence is legitimate is what it presumes about the contexts in which activists chose non-violence: is it really the case that their choice indicates a judgement that Jim Crow, or colonialism in India or Ghana or wherever, was not unjust enough to justify doing something more extreme or radical? Are we suggesting that non-violence is reformist and violence is revolutionary? Historically and theoretically, that presumption is dubious.

With all that said, activists did argue about what different forms of action would do, what effects they would have on the world, and how those actions corresponded to the structures and conditions as they saw them. Within that framework, questions about violence or non-violence came up repeatedly for civil rights activists. And the choice of non-violence was disputed the entire way through.

The activists that I focus on in my work thought about mass non-violence as having this twin face. On the one hand, it cultivates this practice of fearlessness and performs liberation in the ways I was talking about earlier. But it also works outwardly on the world by using techniques of disruption and direct action to intervene in ongoing practices of domination and to interrupt the functioning of existing institutions. This in turn creates the space for other citizens, particularly white citizens, to reorient themselves toward what is going on and to take up the question of their own investment in the revealed architecture of domination. Do they wish to be associated with it or do they wish to be associated with the movement that is fighting it? For Martin Luther King Jr, as for others, mass non-violence held out this possibility of radically transforming colonizers, occupiers and dominators into wholly different kinds of subjects, into citizens for the first time. Those like King, those who insisted on non-violence, felt that violent struggle cut off that possibility. That was why non-violence was important. It had ethical stakes, but they were tied to political ones.

For Martin Luther King Jr, as for others, mass non-violence held out this possibility of radically transforming colonizers, occupiers and dominators into wholly different kinds of subjects, into citizens for the first time

We could view this as capitulating to the white perspective by trying to appeal to white people in a way that will not leave them feeling so threatened. I think that this idea gives too little credit to the radical nature of this way of seeing non-violence. The ambition to transform people who are cast into the role of occupiers, colonizers and dominators, and to think about what it would mean for them to become democratic citizens for the first time – to really inhabit relations of mutuality, equality, respect and reciprocity with Black citizens – is an ambition of radical proportion.


RC: You seem to want to liberate current protest movements from the burden that is often imposed on them to somehow conform to the idealized (and highly non-factual) standards associated with the civil rights movement. How are we to break this spell that conservative forces, in particular, try to cast on current social movements by continuously invoking this idealized version of the civil rights movement that is in fact completely whitewashed and watered down?


ERP: I have always been very interested in the ways that the civil rights movement is invoked politically, not just by conservatives but also by liberals, by almost everybody in fact (even in cases where it clearly does not belong). To take one example, something that caught my attention when I was in graduate school was the invocation of Martin Luther King Jr to criticize Edward Snowden for not accepting arrest. In a variety of ways, this seems like an odd example to reach for as the cases are so incommensurate: you have a mass movement for racial justice on the one hand and a lone whistleblower outing government surveillance on the other.

One use of the civil rights movement is to suggest that contemporary activists are not doing it right: they are not living up to their obligations, they are not behaving in the right ways, they are too disruptive, rude, violent, and so on. It’s a kind of disciplining rhetoric

As the Snowden example shows, one use of the civil rights movement is to suggest that contemporary activists are not doing it right: they are not living up to their obligations, they are not behaving in the right ways, they are too disruptive, rude, violent, and so on. It’s a kind of disciplining rhetoric. But, at the same time, we also get really opportunistic invocations of the civil rights movement due to the legitimacy that it confers. Over the past year within the US, for example, anti-lockdown protestors and anti-maskers have been arguing that they are modern equivalents of Rosa Parks or that they are resisting in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. It is no accident that they turn to these exemplars and try to claim them for themselves: the example, domesticated though it is, carries with it the idea that it is a legitimate form of resistance.

One thing I wanted to understand through my work was how and why the civil rights movement example started to circulate like this, and how this circulation might be tied to the ways the movement is used and evoked in academic philosophy. I want both to suggest that the example of the movement is still exceptionally fertile ground for theorizing and thinking radically about tactics, strategy, ethics and politics, while also suggesting that it is not a model or a blueprint of any kind. It cannot just be slapped down on other movements to suggest that their approach is not the right way to do it.

My way of tying these two aims together is to think about what the civil rights activists who undertook these kinds of activities thought they were good for, and why. What were the questions for which it provided an answer? We are then in a better position to understand the extent to which those questions are still (or are no longer) our questions. To what extent are these still the questions that activists themselves face? In what ways might the analyses of contemporary activists overlap with – or diverge from – the analyses of white supremacy and colonialism that civil rights activists devised? In what ways do activists have room to differ and come up with their own social and political theories of what they are up against? Rather than being left with a model that is good for all times and for all places, I try to think closely about what it might mean to see like a contemporary activist, and to accept that this might mean seeing quite differently than a civil rights activist.


RC: Just to clarify: why would anti-lockdown protests that claim to pick up the mantle of the civil rights movement not count as engaging in civil disobedience in that kind of tradition?


ERP: There is of course a real risk in just taking up the movements and the claims and the causes that we ourselves endorse as legitimate forms of protest! My point was not that anti-lockdown protests would definitely not qualify as forms of civil disobedience. Rather, I think that part of the problem with the invocation of the civil rights movement as so tied to what legitimate civil disobedience looks like is that it rules out all kinds of things. It works as a kind of litmus test: the question of whether a form of protest looks like the civil rights movement tends to answer the question of whether it is legitimate, and even whether it counts as civil disobedience at all. But the civil rights movement cannot possibly carry that kind of interpretive, political weight; it cannot relieve us of the burden of judging in each particular case what is happening, why it is happening, and what effect it has on the world. The anti-lockdown protests may well be a case of civil disobedience, and, depending on how you articulate what is at stake in them, they may well be legitimate. So, the way that I would look at this question is by thinking quite seriously about what the anti-lockdown protestors want and what effect they think their actions should have on the world. However, we cannot just invoke the civil rights movement to circumvent the work of judging the anti-lockdown protests politically, on their own terms, by figuring out what kinds of freedom they want, and articulating its stakes and consequences.

The civil rights movement tended to be paired with the abolitionist movement as an example that proves the gradual perfection of American democracy, the unceasing progress towards greater and greater inclusion, towards the formation of a more and more perfect union


RC: As a final question, what do you think would have to change in public and higher education for the example of the civil rights movement, in all its complexity, to be integrated into our current situation?


ERP: I grew up in the US and when I look back on my own education and the ways that I first encountered this example, it is clear that it was already packaged within a narrative that seemed to predetermine the outcome. The civil rights movement tended to be paired with the abolitionist movement as an example that proves the gradual perfection of American democracy, the unceasing progress towards greater and greater inclusion, towards the formation of a more and more perfect union. It was always framed within this very patriotic and ideological narrative. This framework might tell you that the civil rights movement is important and inspiring, and it might familiarize you with some of these figures, but it already pre-empts the question of what the civil rights activists themselves were up to: why they thought it was meaningful to connect with anti-colonial activists, how they thought about Jim Crow, and so on. This rules out in advance any interpretation of their actions other than this standard liberal one. The short answer to your question is that I think the entire way that racial history in the US is packaged and taught would have to change in order to make sense of the US as a longstanding racial state. We can characterize it as a constitutional democracy in some ways, but it is also a racial order durable over several centuries. Understanding this is crucial to understanding what citizenship means here; it is crucial to understanding what activism means here. And it is so central that it cannot just be repackaged into a story about how this is a democracy from 1776 slowly perfecting itself over time.


Further resources:

Erin R. Pineda, Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Erin R. Pineda, “Disobedience”. The Philosopher 110:1 (2022).

Eraldo Souza dos Santos, “Violence”. The Philosopher 110:2 (2022).

William Scheuerman and climate activism”. The Philosopher and the News podcast, 28 October 2021.


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