Most red-blooded Americans are familiar with the notion of civil disobedience — thanks to Thoreau’s classic account of peaceable law-breaking, which most of us read in high school, we’re reared on the concept from an early age.
It’s fundamentally simple in action: Human conscience should never be made secondary to institutional forces, so members of a society are encouraged to peaceably protest governmental or corporate overreach — even if it means bucking the law. Thoreau’s moral protest of slavery and the Mexican-American war led him to refuse to pay taxes, and the deed landed him in jail. Okay, only for a night, and he kind of makes a big deal about it, but still — he set an important precedent for American civil disobedience.
Now, another movement is cropping up, using many of the same principles to do peaceful battle on a non-governmental front: termed economic disobedience, the movement is seeing Americans across the country flout the rules of the corporations and institutions they work for to lend financial and material aid to their fellow men.
The sociologist Lisa Dodson has written a book about the movement called “The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy“, which was excerpted over at Alternet. Here’s her description of some of the workers engaging in economic disobedience:
They included Ned, white and in his thirties, the chain grocery store manager who thought working families should have enough to eat. And also Ray, in his fifties and the son of immigrants, a community-center director for a small city, who doesn’t ask for a “pedigree” before signing people up for desperately needed services. They included Aida, a Latina in her thirties, the director of a child care center, who misplaced paperwork so that children wouldn’t lose child care and parents wouldn’t lose jobs. And they included urban teacher Lenora, in her twenties and African American, who broke school rules all the time to help out a student in her class.
And here’s a great video featuring activists who are practicing economic disobedience in New York City:
This isn’t a unified movement — yet. But it’s interesting to see a trend of people morally objecting to institutional rules that prevent citizens from getting things like health care, food, or an education. Dodson describes the disobeying individuals as doing so for purely moral reasons — they put themselves in others shoes, and decided it was morally wrong to deny such vital services to people on the grounds that they couldn’t afford them.
In her book, Dodson explores why this is a natural tendency that’s hardwired into us humans; to help one another survive, and how a stagnant consumerist system often forces us to act against our instincts — putting the interest of institutions like corporations first. This is, needless to say, an unhealthy way to conduct a society. And as income inequality continues to skyrocket, we’ll likely see these tensions rise. Indeed — economic disobedience will be a trend to watch.