"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

On the politics of protest

The Flying Rodent has some pertinent comments about those who dismiss the G20 protests on the basis of the sociological profile of the protesters themselves:
"I've seen this wheeze deployed in defence of war, ID databases and antisocial behaviour orders. Crack a gag about the dishonesty of the tabloid press or about immigration and deportation, and within minutes some joker will be along to condemn your revolting elitism in blisteringly self-righteous tones. So it goes for taxation, petrol duty and professional sport - football's fine, but rugby's the preserve of howling Hoorays."
Indeed. While not as offensive as the "no, you're the Nazi" non-technique of winning political arguments, the prolier-than-thou card is used almost as frequently - and is as a consequence almost as boring. It doesn't help that the people who use it almost never qualify as horny-handed sons of toil themselves.

Having said that, along with a number of others, the protests struck me as being rather unfocused and, frankly, to be something of a waste of time. Johann Hari argues here that when the history of this time is written, those who protested will be remembered with more sympathy than those who stayed at home. I don't mean to trivialise either the issues here or the fact that one man appears to have lost his life as a result of his participation in the demonstrations but I'm wondering if history will remember the protesters at all - except as the symptom of a wider phenomenon.

I'm repeating myself here but I don't agree that participation in demonstrations of this nature are examples of a fresh political or civic engagement on the part of our youth; I think it has to do with the opposite. The membership of any collective organisation you care to mention - be it trades unions, political parties, friendly societies, charities, clubs, youth movements, religious organisations - is in decline. Yet demonstrations grow larger every year. Some see it as the growth of a new form of politics where people engage directly with trans-national corporations that have grown beyond the control of nation-states but personally I find it difficult to see it as a form of politics at all since it doesn't for the most part seem to represent either the exercise of any actual political power, nor does it embody the expression of any coherent alternative to the present power structure. Zizek was perhaps a little harsh when he described the present politics of protest as "nothing but the moralising supplement to a Third Way Left" but the protests do have a ritualistic feel about them.

All of this got me to thinking: what constitutes an effective political protest? The left is naturally sympathetic to this form of political action because it is understood that it stands within a tradition where people fought for causes that were just - effecting political change by creating a space outwith the conventional political mechanisms from which pressure was exerted on those who stood within. But there's a danger, I think already long succumbed to, of creating a mythology of protest and then imagining oneself standing within it without asking what, exactly, makes a political protest work?

1) It helps if there is one specific and achievable goal - like extending the franchise to working men, as was the cause of the Chartists - or votes for women, which was the cause that motivated the Suffragettes' campaign of direct action.

Now, leaving aside the question of how effective these movements were - there are clear differences between this strand of popular movement and the kind of 'anti-globalisation' protests we've become accustomed to. One is that the reason to stand outside the normal political process with the former is obvious, with the latter less so. I'm not, for example, clear what anarchism has to say about either the credit crunch or environmental degradation. Surely here any critique has to incorporate the lack of government in these areas? And for those who were not anarchists, it was difficult to discern a clear objective or programme of any sort.

2) Even if there is one specific goal, historically it is unclear what role protest has played in achieving success. Where it has been credited with this, it is usually because protest was symptomatic of a wider refusal to co-operate. So, for example, the anti-Poll Tax demonstrations were an expression of a situation where people simply refused to pay a deeply unpopular tax - and, decisively, I would argue - back-benchers and Cabinet ministers were increasingly reluctant to support a Prime Minister who refused to acknowledge her mistake on this matter. It is difficult to see how the form of protest we have seen recently fits into this trend. You could, I suppose, put your money under the mattress but the reality is people will continue to borrow from banks, have their wages paid into banks, pay their bills via direct debit through banks. You could say banks are pretty much essential in the modern age and it might be considered a significant failing of most governments in the OECD that they haven't been able to get this simple fact across.

3) As well as having a specific goal, it helps if the protesters have the ability to cause significant disruption or inconvenience. Fuel protesters can blockade the roads network and workers can deprive the economy of essential products or services. The history of the miners' strike should remind everyone of the limitation of this - how much more when even this isn't available? What does non-participation in Britain's nuclear deterrent look like? In the eighties I marched and then hung around in Kelvingrove park listening to bands for a while. This was to no avail because the government does not require my participation in order to have nuclear weapons.

4) The fact of the matter is that protests of this nature are simply not violent enough. I'm not arguing this from a moral point of view - just making a utilitarian observation. Windows are smashed in RBS to no end whatsoever. It does nothing to make this institution not function as it did before the protests and more generally they did nothing to make the city and its populace less governable. I'm not saying that it would be justified if it had, just that since it obviously didn't, it was completely and utterly pointless.

It should be understood that this has nothing to do with delegitimizing the feelings of anger that people have about the state we're in; it's just that if anger is all it is, without any analysis, programme, ideology, or alternative - it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the demonstrations at the G20 served a therapeutic rather than a political function.

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