Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Tyranny of Protests

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recently announced that he won't be seeking a fourth term in office.  After I read the news I headed over to the troll capital of Minneapolis politics (the Minneapolis Issues Forum) to see how people reacted and was of course greeted with the typical trolling you'd expect by people who have never liked R.T.  One "thread," of one post, struck a chord in me when a fellow named Dean E. Carlson announced the upcoming press conference and said "If you hurry, you can go down there are heckle him."  So that's it, after 12 years of non-stop rage and anger at a very popular mayor his political opponents are reduced to posting on message boards inviting people to go to a press conference and yell.  That is all the greens and anti-Rybak leftists have left in them, going to a press conference and yelling at strangers they disagree with.  I came to a realization today while driving to target to buy some consumer goods at knock down prices: far from becoming a revolutionary way of enacting social change for progressives, the tradition of public protest has become a terrible trap that limits progressives ability to achieve their political goals.

Political protests in this country go back to the Boston Massacre and beyond.  Indeed you can trace the idea of complaining to public officials as being both a sacred right and a political tool to enact change back in our political lineage all the way to the Middle Ages and the Magna Carta.  But here's the rub, public protests have never been a substitute for politics of a more traditional sort.  They have always been simply a political tool in an organizer's toolbox that can be used to do things.  Things like get your cause publicity or build public pressure against decision makers.  At the same time, they have limitations and drawbacks.  Mass protests can drain organization's or movement's resources as they take a lot of planning and organizing to pull off.  It took hundreds of thousands of sandwiches to feel the attendees of the famous March on Washington (it probably cost a lot to rent the sound system).  Imagine what else it cost and took.  Protests can also be very difficult to control, just as a big march can show your movement has power a small march shows you to be weak, irrelevant or the worse of all political afflictions: ridiculous.  In addition, as you see over and over again anyone can attach themselves to a protest and if they behave badly they make your whole movement look bad.  Even if they had nothing to do with you.

I'd argue, something changed during and after the 60's and since then public protesting has become to be seen by many progressives as a means unto itself.  With the questioning of power and authority in the 1960's protesting seemed to become a replacement for all politics.  The British film maker Adam Curtis found a great documentary made about the elections in Britain in 1966 where you see this new style of politics emerging.  But it was a funny and strange kind of politics, people were mad, and so they yelled at their political leaders, but they were increasingly mad in a strange disorganized fashion.  Curtis points out that:
In the film you can see both an old Britain and fragments of the new Britain that was emerging side by side in the audiences.  Empire Loyalists shout about the betrayal of Rhodesia and the loss of the last bits of the empire, while in the same audience - towards the end of the film - you can see early examples of British counter-culture. Long hair - but still beatnik, not hippie, fashion - with the slogan "Anarchy - don't vote, Anarchy don't vote". 
It's rather strange to look back at these sorts of events, shouldn't the beatniks and Empire Loyalists be yelling at each other not their MP's?  Joseph Strick, the man who made the film, introduces the film and takes the typical view of the 1960's (the same type of view that would make baby boomers Time's Man of the Year in 1966) where he sees it as an invigorating new form of democracy.  Looking back I can only see confusion.  In addition, looking at this film I am stuck by how the chaos in the audience doesn't weaken the politician at the podium, in this case Labour Party leader Harold Wilson, it only makes him look like the only reasonable person in the room.  Richard Nixon would use this kind of dynamic to get all the way to the White House two years from when this was filmed.

You can see the same dynamic at work in the whole short lived Occupy movement.  For a brief shining hour a lot of progressives saw the whole Occupy thing as a great liberal hope to change America, but it of course failed (not to rub it in but the Occupy MN website hasn't been updated since May).  It failed because the people that made it up consistently opposed any sort of political decision making.  They refused to make choices, refused to build organization and demanded everything operate by consensus.  Which means nothing got decided on, indeed for all the publicity it got I still don't know what they really wanted.  In short they imagined a sort of anti-politics, a politics that wouldn't have to deal with things like compromise, or collective decision making in a timely fashion.  But it's not possible to have an unpolitical politics at all.  In fact in Minneapolis the place of the "occupation" and the targets of their wrath seemed just plain strange to me.  They occupied Hennepin County Government Plaza which meant their main target was an organization that had no control over what they were mad about (Hennepin County doesn't control the political economy or monetary policies of the Unites States).  Matt Yglesias pointed out:
The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has, along with the Federal Reserve Banks of Dallas and Philadelphia, been one of the major centers of damaging hard money politics in the United States. These are the people loudly arguing against Ben Bernanke from the right, pushing for a slower economic recovery and a policy dynamic that’s even more favorable to creditors and more hostile to debtors and the unemployed. I don’t really know anything about the Hennepin County government, but it’s just not possible that they’re at the root of any major national or international problems.
Exactly.  Even the people that were being protesting couldn't have helped even if they wanted to, while the people who were causing the problems were spared public protest.  Such is the strange logic of protesting.   

A political strategy that focuses on heckling or protesting as ends in an of themselves, rather than means to an end, won't work.  To make matters worse, if you go down this path you will only exhaust yourself and your allies with little if not nothing to show for it.  Rather than being a way to transcend the boring and difficult work of having lots and lots of meetings, building a political structure or making decision that not everyone will love the protest has become a terrible trap that keeps progressives from enacting real social change and we progressives would do well to remember it.


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