When one considers war, it is most often with regard to the actions of the state against its enemies, and these enemies are almost always represented as nations or groups external to the state and its people; that is, the “us vs. them” conflict of one country or tribe against another. However, war can also be turned internally, initially in the form of civil disobedience, progressing up the turmoil curve through rioting and radicalism, and ending with revolution and civil war.
All forms of government represent a bureaucracy in one incarnation or another, and the conflict between a government and its people can almost always be summed up as the struggle between the immovable rock of the bureaucratic state and the irresistible force of the public mind – the struggle between the perceived legitimacy of the state to establish and maintain an immutable framework of “law and order” and the power of the people to challenge and change it. It is this “legitimacy of immutability” that provides the foundation of authority to the state, and the underlying bureaucracies establish and maintain it through various means: the old “god kings” and absolute monarchies through the divine right to rule as they saw fit; modern representative governments through a partnership with the people through which they can exert influence over those who govern them; the authoritative regimes that hijack this process to either overtly or covertly impose single-party doctrine on the people; totalitarian regimes through the divine right of the gun; and dictatorships running from one end of the spectrum to the other.
This legitimacy and balance of power between the state and its people affects the manner by which the people express displeasure with their government in various ways. Although bureaucracies, regardless of the type, are generally intolerant of challenges to their authority, a fundamental difference between representative and non-representative government is the tolerance of civil disobedience as a tool for the people to challenge the supremacy of the state. With representative governments, absolute power resides in the collective will of the people, and the government defers to that power either through the ballot box, or through the stern voice of an angry public. With non-representative governments, the state is the absolute power, and the people often have no means other than radicalism and revolution to alter the contract.
It should be noted, at this point, that civil disobedience is not radicalism. A fundamental difference between the radical and the civil disobedient is not just about a reaction to policy, but a reaction to the belief that the system can still work. Civil disobedience is often action taken by the people to non-violently restore the status quo, to check the state, or to rebuke its overreach to restore the balance of power. Radicalism is the complete rejection of the frame of authority and legitimacy established by the state, regardless of any partnership with the people as a whole. Thus, the civil disobedient still believes in the system, and tries to peacefully restore order to it, or alter it, by appealing to the “conscience” behind the state. The radical has no belief in the system and, thus, seeks to destroy it in favor of something else.
Additionally, there is a difference between civil disobedience and criminal disobedience. Although the state may portray an act of civil disobedience in criminal terms, civil disobedience is merely a challenge of legitimacy and authority. Criminal disobedience, on the other hand, is a challenge of power and execution. Civil disobedience is action for the sake of the group, and occurs out in the open; criminal disobedience is action in the pursuit of selfish desire, and is usually done in secret. To the extent that criminal disobedience occurs out in the open, it is to thumb its nose at the powerlessness of the state to stop it.
Given these terms, then, the question often posed is at what point do the people have a legitimate right to challenge the authority of the state without suffering its wrath? In a non-representative government, the answer (from the state’s perspective) is never: the state has no deference or recognition of any higher power than its own, and often the only way the people have to change this situation is to collectively overthrow it. A representative government, on the other hand, exists per the will of the people, and will thus defer to this will (in theory) if the people are unified and speak loudly enough. The question then, in this case, is how loud is loud enough?
As individuals, the power to challenge the state almost never exists outside of the legal channels provided by it, regardless of the form. As an individual, I may singularly resist the law through conscientious objection, but the power of the state will always supersede any higher power to which I clam adherence, because, by the singularity of this resistance, the bureaucracy and the people are presumed to be aligned against me. If I act alone, I am resisting both the state and the people, and this partnership will always assume a legitimacy higher than my own, so as to maintain a stable functioning of society. Justice is blind to the individual, regardless of the form of government.
If others show common cause, however, then the argument is no longer before the individual’s “tribunal of conscience,” but before the tribunal of public opinion, and if enough resonance exists with the conscience of the public, the partnership between the state and the people may become unstable enough to enact change. The state will, of course, align with whichever faction it can use to maintain legitimacy, and it will use this appearance of legitimacy to exert power in an attempt to retain authority. If the civil disobedients succeed in either becoming the majority, or significantly altering the viewpoint of the majority, though, the state will then find itself at odds with the power of the people, and it can only maintain legitimacy in this case by conceding to this new majority, or by overriding it through military might, and the descent into revolution and civil war.
Thus, the state does not spawn change; it merely codifies it into law once it has occurred. In this, the state will always follow the people, instead of the other way around. Civil disobedience is therefore an important tool by which the people peacefully enact change in the government, while preserving the structures and legitimacy that make it up. As the rate of change increases, however, so do the calls for civil disobedience and for the more radical idea that government should just to get out of the way. But does this mean that the government is too restrictive, or that the rate of change is too great? For if the desire for change becomes too great, then what may happen is the breakdown of faith in the system to change, and an opening of the door for the legitimization of radicalism and revolution.