Civil disobedience is resistance against the state. The word "civil" refers to the political nature of the lawbreaking, much as "civil society" is the part of the citizenry that is involved in politics and "civil wars" are armed hostilities between those who rebel against and those who remain loyal to a government.
Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" urged citizens to become that minority that "is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight." Thoreau believed that it is unethical to pay taxes that one knows will finance acts of aggression. There is some debate about this; other libertarians would argue that a person is not morally responsible for what is done with money that is stolen from him. However, the difference is that libertarians have an opportunity to organize against such aggression, since they have plenty of notice beforehand about the tax laws. A person who is surprised by a robber may not have that opportunity.
The governed usually vastly outnumber the law enforcers, and therefore the potential for rebellion is always theoretically there. The law enforcers tend to be better-organized and heavily armed, but if the government's will to rule does not extend so far as a willingness to resort to utterly ruthless measures such as machine-gunning crowds, then there is a possibility for a determined resistance movement of sufficient size (not necessarily a majority of the populace, but a large enough minority to make their arrest and prosecution rather inconvenient for the State) to impel change through civil disobedience. Louis Fischer notes that the British Empire had the power to crush Mohandas Gandhi's resistance effort, but was not sufficiently ruthless to do so. It would have been a logistically simple matter, for instance, to have imprisoned him in some dungeon away from other activists, or to have killed him, and other regimes would have taken those actions.
Thus, civil disobedience ironically may work best against regimes that are relatively benign. Totalitarian states in which the people are treated as government property are more likely to resort to brutal repression that destroys the resistance effort. However, these regimes may then have greater difficulty than other governments in arguing that the use of anti-government violence is illegitimate on the grounds of it being wrong to resort to violence for political purposes.
- "On the Duty of Resistance to Civil Government". Wikisource. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Aesthetic_Papers/On_the_Duty_of_Resistance_to_Civil_Government. "If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."
- Fischer, Louis. Gandhi.