Whom?: On Frédéric Gros’s “Disobey!”

September 28, 2021   •   By jacob s. foreman

Disobey!: A Philosophy of Resistance

Frédéric Gros

FRENCH PHILOSOPHER Frédéric Gros’s Disobey!, recently released by Verso in a translation by David Fernbach, explores forms of obedience to induce new styles of critical democracy and ethical resistance. He pulls together the ancient tragedy of Antigone, a consideration of the trial of Nazi logistician Adolf Eichmann, lessons from American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s tenure at Walden Pond, and reflections on Plato’s Republic as object lessons to incite the civic dissident within each of us.

Gros’s analysis of why we are driven to obey is chillingly poignant. Our “unlimited responsibility” means — terrifyingly — that we are responsible for our faults, the meaning we give events, care of those who are fragile, and struggle in solidarity with people worldwide. This unlimited responsibility entails an immense burden, so we find myriad ways to skirt our obligations. Our desire to defer responsibility encourages obedience to laws because we can assign blame to those who write the rules. The defense of Eichmann resonates; we are simply obeying orders. Gros identifies a dangerous split here between our soul and body, whereby we can acknowledge that we physically act while claiming no moral fault. We reduce ourselves to limbs that carry out actions we can offer no defense of as we defer to the authors of laws and the givers of orders.

We can also put ourselves on moral cruise control because of economic and political systems that encourage conformism. “Mass capitalism produces standardized behaviors: by submerging individuals in a saccharine culture, uniformizing their modes of consumption, and normalizing their desires,” writes Gros. An open-concept home with gray walls, navy blue cabinets, and gold accents comes to symbolize the ways that our social imagination is quite literally boxed in. Liberty is sold to us as that which makes even our most intimate spaces easily recognizable. Additionally, modern democracies are founded on ideas of fundamental equality that clash with assertions of difference. Our political reality is characterized by “empty alternations (left/right), alternations without alternative,” whereby expressions of difference in the political sphere are only acceptable so long as the socioeconomic foundations of society remain undisturbed.

The heart of Gros’s work is not a rejection of obedience but rather a reorientation of how and whom we obey. Gros calls us to turn our obedience inward as we cultivate an ethical relationship of self to self. Here we encounter the protagonist of his essay: the civic dissident. They are the one who “can no longer continue to remain silent, not speak, pretend that they do not know and do not see.” They experience themself as “non-delegable,” recognizing that they alone can act in their circumstance. The civic dissident experiences a rupture. They refuse to uncritically internalize the assertions and generalities that undergird the systems that encourage conformism. They act against the “inertia of the world.” The civic dissident instead engages critically with their responsibilities, ending the series of inner negations that characterizes obedience. They are guided by a “relationship of self-esteem,” disobeying all that disrupts their internal harmony.

The civic dissident moves beyond “ascetic submission,” that is, obeying “with bad grace, ill will.” Malingering as a way of life. They disobey unreservedly when their critical conscience dictates. But, importantly, the civic dissident experiences a form of “political obedience” that is distinct from forms of uncritical deference. The civic dissident commands themself, with critical reflection and trust in themself, to obey. Drawing from Aristotle’s conception of obligation, Gros tells us that the civic dissident, a properly political citizen, obeys their equals. All with whom they engage politically are equally free because they are all guided by their same capacity for reason, following the judgments of their internal relationship with themself.

This feels incomplete. Gros’s fault is not in pursuing an ethical relationship of self to self. He follows the lead of Hannah Arendt and Foucault, who identify a harmonious relationship between parts of the non-unitary self as the foundation of ethical life. We experience ourselves and must live with the complexities of our own actions first and foremost. But beyond a conception of the self that is not a singular entity, how is this subject whom Gros champions positioned within the world? Further, how does this subject’s relationship to the world enable or inhibit ethical action against the systems that Gros derides?

Gros’s exaltation of Thoreau most clearly illustrates how his philosophy falters. He lauds Thoreau’s “autarchic” existence at Walden Pond, which was always a bit of a performance. It is well known that he often went to his mother’s house for dinner, and the pond was just a short walk away from town. Yet there is a deeper problem. Would Thoreau not be dependent upon the animals and plants he requires for nourishment, the trees and stones used to build his shelter, the landscapes that evoke his imagination? He would be just as interrelated with these beings and experiences as with any humans with whom he were to organize politically.

We see here a subject who is isolated from the world in which they live. The work of the civic dissident in Gros’s narrative is self-contained. Their critical rationality is checked only by their internal relationship to themself. With this conception of the self, Gros traces a well-worn Western intellectual history. From Plato’s conception of balancing a tripartite soul to Kant’s view of majority to Thoreau’s claim to self-sufficiency, the self that Gros proffers is all too related to the conception of the self that created the systems he wants to dismantle. The conception of a critical, rational subject who exists as an individual unit is the fundamental building block of the free market system. This in turn gives rise to contemporary mass capitalism, which is inseparable from increasing wealth inequality and environmental collapse — all of which Gros cites as urgent reasons for disobedient action.

The protagonist of Gros’s work is not fundamentally distinct from that of Enlightenment philosophers. Gros has simply called for this age-old subject to reorient themself toward contemporary leftist ideals. The result is a work that expertly analyzes the systems that keep us bound in obedience but then proposes a framework of dissidence that is firmly aligned with that which we are to disobey. Gros’s philosophy of disobedience is, ironically, obedient to the systems in which we find ourselves ensnared.

How, then, do we conceptualize a self that is fundamentally oriented against the real and urgent dangers Gros cites? We need a subject who is anti-capitalist (Gros opposes contemporary methods of wealth creation and widening income inequality), abolitionist (Gros cites widening social injustices and protection of minorities, which should incite action against the prison-industrial complex and the police), and an environmentalist (Gros repeatedly references steady environmental degradation as an obvious cause for disobedient action). This is a subject active in community and resonant with the ecosystems they inhabit. They accept their unlimited responsibility because they recognize themself as inseparable from their own actions and all living beings. They follow Gros’s call to be “out-of-phase” with humanity because their guiding philosophy is at odds with the assumptions of the Western tradition that has birthed the noxious systems we inhabit.

There is not one ultimate philosophy that we must cite to trace the meandering contours of this subject. And though this being struggles in worldwide solidarity, empowering them for political disobedience requires balancing their universal responsibility with the specific realities they experience. Identifying their composition and position should lead us first to the philosophies of those who most acutely experience the destruction from dehumanizing and anti-environmental systems. In the United States, we should turn to the anti-capitalism and dignity of the Black radical tradition, conceptions of sovereignty and land relations offered by Native scholars, and lessons of communality and authenticity in queer histories and studies.

But most importantly, we must find our position in the world by struggling in solidarity. We must enmesh ourselves in our communities, alongside those who disobey current paradigms while building alternate realities. We must find ourselves — amorphous, interdependent selves — beyond the capitalist spheres of think tanks and philanthropic galas. The new world is being made on the streets, in trade union meetings, in soil lovingly tended. With those who disobey not so much by choice but because perpetuation of the realities we have inherited was never an option. Will you join them, those dehumanized parts of yourself?

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jacob s. foreman feel most at home while serving, on a dance floor, or kayaking at sunrise in the swamps of Louisiana.