There are protests breaking out in cities around the country protesting abstractions like misogyny and racism. Now, oddly, from the same people who said you can’t win a war against an abstraction when it came to terrorism, many see protesting as a means to show their voice against this now. Ironically, as I sit in Egypt on the November 11, 2016, the fifth year anniversary of the Arab Spring’s 11/11/11. There will be protests here today too, but they are unlikely to affect changes. Protests, however, rarely effect change.
In the US in particular, people need to look at the change of what protesting has meant, and this is subtle and few have looked at it closely. Protesting comes out of a medieval tactic of grievance to the government, but the implication of a protest was that one had the people power to mobilize a small army or, as in early 20th century, to, at least, disrupt trade and commodity production with a true general strike. Even in non-violent protests of the 1960s, the implication was that there would be blood, or least a lot less work done, if civil rights weren’t granted. Now we saw of this in the Arab Spring and in Iran a few years before that, but the success rates were most lower for even the kinds of reforms the civil rights marchers achieved. In the States, particularly since the massive decline of Unions, protests probably actually serve the status quo.
Since the 1980s, I have attended protests and taken part in them. I went to Seattle as an 18-year-old leftie, and what I saw was so pointless that I left kind of disgusted and have no understood the post-Bush nostalgia for it that was manifest in people like David Graeber in Occupy. When I went to Sea Island after 9-11, and saw those protests, I actually gave up on the “left”–the entire left–for five years and worked mainly with libertarian anti-war activists even though I never fully accepted their political philosophy. This led me, however, to think about the function of protests in modern states. Since the 1980s, these protests have mainly been a release valve. When things did not change under #Occupy and the police overreacted to protests (typically) Occupy became a valve for engagement, but now the people protesting Trump in the awkward position of trying to protect the same system they were protesting before. In #BLM, the situation was slightly different because the goals were actually local and the black neighborhoods could be shut down, but even the limits to actions were seen quickly and people were moved largely unto campuses where their protests can be seen, somewhat correctly, as elite kids with too much time on their hands claiming to represent people that they don’t even really know.
In the worse cases, protests actually trick leaders of movements to step out so dictators can either arrest them or even, sadly, disappear them. This has happened in dramatic fashion in both Eastern Europe and Russia. In the case of the States, generally, at the worse moments, it makes a good chance that poor kids will get felony records, rich kids will get a mild concussion, and it will contribute to the idea that protests are riots. At the best moments, it’s a dance in that is just ignored and serves the purpose of “letting our voices be heard.” Most American liberals and many American leftists have internalized a psychological model of politics where validation is part of the key point. This validates people, it lets off steam, and so business can go on as usual, and if it gets hotter than that, it’s pretty easy to spray riot bullets into a disorganized mass of window breakers. It might cause outrage on social media, but aside from local reforms, its not going to do much.
Now, I am not one who thinks politics is about playing nice or that any violence is always wrong. People will try to read that into what I am saying about protesting–and to a lesser degree small scale riots–but that isn’t the point. These things are understood and factored into the political system. There may be a case that it mobilizing electorates but it didn’t work in 2004, or on a state level in 2012.
This is part of a political folk culture though. Myths passed down from baby boomer mythology to Generation X (who was too cynical for it until the Bush years) and millennials about how change happened. Well, what did 1969 get them? 1970s? The Nixon years? A peanut farmer from Georgia that we can all mythologize about his post-Presidential life? Reagan?
This is like a rain dance except it wastes more energy. It’s magical thinking at a time when it has consequences.
Another part of this folk culture has been petitioning. Again, another tactic with a medieval parlance but that was about petitioning ones lord so that one didn’t have to go to the King to get the lord to keep their even of the shit bargain that was feudalism. It’s use in post-war American politics seems to be rooted in progressive era of the early 20th century. The current petitions, mostly about an electoral college, are naive in the extreme. Clinton won the popular election narrowly, but only because of the urbanization of the Democratic electorate. The proposals to the electoral college would require 2/3 votes of states–the very thing the Democrats had no game on the state level. None. They LET most of the rural voters rot in states where the rural vote is over-represented in redistricting years. Their base mocked rural people as hicks. Now they are going to petition these same states to get rid of the electoral college when the party at hand doesn’t have power in any of these areas? That is beyond naive. And that is not how representational democracy works.
You want to organize: start studying things outside of the states. Study the Mount Pelerin Society. Study the way Hezbollah and Hamas learned from both fascists and socialists about building para-state institutions. Even the Civil Rights movement in the states used this more than we realized given the role both the Black Protestant Churches played (and yes, even the Nation of Islam). Learn this. Drop the mythology and the folk habits. Stop the magical thinking.