Arabian: Resistance Is Not the Problem

The right-wing insurrectionists have dealt a disservice to the legacy of justified resistance.

by Kami Arabian | 1/11/21 2:00am

On Wednesday, the world watched in horror as a mob of right-wing insurrectionists launched a coordinated attack on the Capitol building, forcing the hurried evacuation of elected officials and leaving five dead — among them, a Capitol police officer. Broadcast live for all to see, this embarrassing display of antidemocratic chaos further tarnished the United States’ reputation as a champion of democracy. In its aftermath, some analysts have warned that the nation may face a new era of increasing political violence. 

Armed resistance is not always unjustified, and throughout history, tyrannical governments have been met with violent acts committed in the pursuit of liberty. However, while resistance in the name of liberty can be morally justified, resistance that desecrates liberty must be strongly condemned. As such, Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol — which framed itself in the rhetoric of liberty and revolution — dealt a tremendous disservice to the legacy of justified resistance. 

Of course, nonviolence is always preferable to violence. However, when a state acts in bad faith, and nonviolent recourse seems untenable, its citizens have not only the right, but the moral obligation, to rebel. Through his claim that all men are equally endowed with natural rights, the great Enlightenment philosopher John Locke proposed a just government as an agreement, wherein citizens surrender a portion of their rights to a legitimate government in order to further secure their lives, liberty and property. As Locke sees it, if a government forgets that it exists to protect its citizens — thus violating its end of the contract — it is liable to face resistance and replacement. 

Similarly, in “The Social Contract,” the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggested that the legitimate authority of a state can only be derived from a social contract agreed upon by all its citizens for the sake of their mutual interests and the common good. In the later years of his life, Rousseau argued that a despotic ruler who violates the social contract “has no right to complain of violence.” He concludes, “the popular insurrection that ends in the death or deposition of a [monarch] is as lawful an act as those by which he disposed, the day before, of the lives and fortunes of his subjects.” Unsurprisingly, during the period of the French Revolution, Rousseau’s philosophy was remarkably popular with Maximilian Robespierre of the Jacobin Club — a political club that eventually called for the abolition of the French monarchy, operating under the fitting and familiar motto: “Live Free or Die.” While after the revolution, Robespierre and many of his Jacobin comrades went on to implement the infamous Reign of Terror, their initial overthrow of the French monarch was nonetheless a very positive development in the history of democracy.

Of all those who have used resistance in their pursuit of liberty, none have done it better than the American revolutionaries. Inspired by the works of Rousseau and Locke, in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government.” And so, oppressed at the hands of the British crown, Jefferson and his fellow patriots undertook a war for independence that resulted in their emancipation from empire.

It would be hypocritical for us Americans to denounce resistance, with its long and prolific history, in all its forms. Our nation, like most modern democracies, was built upon the people’s right to resist tyranny, and ignoring this right would be a mistake. Instead, we must adopt a nuanced approach to the type of resistance that we consider justified. What sets the storming of the Capitol apart from the storming of the Bastille? There is one key distinction: the French and American revolutions deposed tyrants, whereas the right-wing insurrectionists at the Capitol — in a moment marking one of American democracy’s darkest days — attempted to undermine the electoral process in service of tyranny.

The extraordinary claims of wide-scale voter fraud made by the right require extraordinary evidence. That evidence is simply not there. In absence of any credible evidence, there is no reason to believe that the government has, in any way, violated the social contract or deprived its citizens of liberty. These right-wing insurrectionists — and, of course, President Donald Trump — should be ashamed of their blatant attempt to subvert democracy and, in the process, deprive hundreds of millions of Americans of their right to a fair election. Locke and Rousseau are rolling in their graves, as they hear their philosophies invoked and purposefully misinterpreted to justify such an abhorrent display of brutal authoritarianism.

As a nation, we must not allow last Wednesday's events to spoil the good name of the “right of revolution,” a cornerstone of democracy for centuries prior. We must thoughtfully consider our use of resistance in achieving political ends, reserving it only for the most heinous grievances on the part of the world’s governments and, thus, restoring sanctity to the philosophies of Locke and Rousseau and to the founding ideals of America.