I missed writing last Sunday when I was going to follow on from the previous item on effective action by looking specifically at protests, in the sense of organised marches, and petitions. So here goes.
I was a little scathing about the effectiveness of indirect action, especially organised protest marches, which now seem to me a particularly pointless exercise. I’ve been on a few since 1972, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of one that was even indirectly successful in its primary aim (eg getting someone like a government or corporation to stop doing something). Occasionally the demanded change has eventually happened, but often this seems to be when the protest march is linked to other direct-actions, or when it is not so much visibly organised and more spontaneous and ad hoc.
[please do comment below if you have examples of protest marches that have achieved their aim]
Of course often there are secondary aims and benefits – bringing a mass of people together for a common cause so that we can all experience that we are not alone and that we are indeed many.
This certainly can be useful – we’ve all come back energised from large events like the February 2003 Not In Our Name/Stop the War event or the December 2009 Wave march before the Copenhagen COP talks.
We returned believing that we’d done our bit. That we are many, they are few. That surely the governments must listen to the people. That together we could change the world.
And the world kept on turning. War was engaged. The talks failed. The quotidian round sucked us back in. The wheels did not come off.
Of course many would say that the point of these protests is not that they “succeed”, but that they help build pressure and solidarity. Create communities of interest. Make one’s voice heard. Send a message.
But can that message ever be effective. Something in excess of 2% of the adult population of the UK marched against going to war with Iraq in ’03. Which simply allows those in power to say that 98% are behind them.
The only times mass protests succeed are when the people protesting believe they have nothing to loose and everything to gain. The Bastille 1789. Boston 1773. March on Washington 1963. Berlin 1989. Kiev 2004. Tahir Square 2011. (and apologies to others like these that I haven’t listed, there are more)
Interestingly these also tend to be ones that the authorities do not want to allow – even in the case of Washington where the authorities recognised that they were unable to stop it. Perhaps a marker for a potentially successful protest is that the authorities ban it, but it happens anyway.
So are the general mass protests against the Tory Cuts, or against Austerity, or against the Bomb – they are often “against” something – or to Save the NHS, or the whale, or the planet effective in building resistance for the future, or changing the mind-set of those in power (for example the claim that stop the war marches have been effective in stopping all the wars that haven’t happened since)? Do they ever achieve more than simply polarising the debate?
The relatively recent tendency to organise “blocs” [blocks of similar people] within a large march really highlights the absurdity of these large organised walks in the street. The main focus has become to get your own bloc noticed both by others on the march (presumably in the hope of attracting new supporters) and on the media (how nice to see pictures featuring your particular colour of banners – really makes you feel you’ve achieved something and been noticed). This bloc tendency seems to me to be highly divisive and fragmentary; not so much a movement coming together for a common cause, more a carving out of factional territories.
At least going on marches requires some physical commitment. The other common form of armchair protest these days is the call to sign this or that petition. Online it is so easy – one click and you are done. Often the same petition comes into your field of view more than once, maybe from a different source, and unable to remember whether or not you’ve signed before you sign again.
And to be fair sometimes petitions really do work. Looking at that list notice that generally it is very specific single issue with an easy resolution ones that succeed. Also note that the Governments own ‘official’ petitions are very flawed as Emma Howard points out.
It is undoubtedly good that your click helped resolve the issue – but that is all it was. A click. Being a drop in the ocean is not action, it is passive. It is operating at the mechanical or material level of being, it adds nothing to your life, your conciousness or your soul.
In summary for me protest marches are a waste of my time if they are agreed in advance with those being protested about and if they are not part of a wider suite of (concurrent) actions. Petitions are worth signing if they are specific enough to have a chance of success – if they are just expressions of opinion or have a general wide or unrealistic goal then they are not even worth the effort of a click.
But this is absolutely not to condemn those who do choose to march on any pretext and sign every petition – if that is where your head is then that is what you will do.