Thursday, October 20, 2011

Protest is not in itself a good thing

Protest is not in itself a good thing. A protest that accomplishes nothing is a failure. Some might say that any protest accomplishes something by drawing attention to certain issues, perhaps even affecting public policy by making demands on politicians. This may be true, but it still stands that the success of a protest needs to be judged by its concrete effects.
This is one problem with the Occupy movement. While I am sincerely excited about the potential of such a widespread outpouring of anger against the power of business and money in government, I have a hard time whole-heartedly taking part in their protest actions. There are two reasons for my ambivalence, both concerned with the democratic ideals upon which the protests operate.
Firstly, the protesters often seem too enthusiastic about the bare act of protesting: they see it as a good thing in itself, separated from its effectiveness or even from the beliefs expressed. Their most popular chant expresses this ideal: "Show me what democracy looks like -- This is what democracy looks like!" For me this is equivalent to chanting "Protest! Protest! Protest!" Protest is not and has never been about fighting for the right to protest. It is about the expression of a specific qualm held by a group of people. I would gladly and wholeheartedly chant along with "Tax the rich!" or "Nationalized health care now!"; these chants express actions rather than ideals, and agitate towards a specific policy change. We don't need to fight for our right to protest: our democratic government guarantees us this right, occasional police brutality notwithstanding. But the right to protest is meaningless without the possibility of producing tangible results.
Secondly, there is not enough of a clear emphasis on issues of class. To say "We are the 99%" is to sketch out a system of two classes: the ultra-rich and everyone else. This is simply insufficient to describe the system that needs to be radically reformed. Declaring the solidarity of the 99% is to declare the solidarity of the working-classes and those living in poverty with the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie. This is obviously not fair to the lower classes. 99% leaves too much leeway for extreme economic equality. When the protesters chant "The people united will never be defeated," who counts among this people? The "American People" is myth, a PR stunt used daily by politicians to gain votes. There is no American People; but there are certainly American classes. As it stands now, the unification of the ultra-rich with the politicians is looking pretty undefeatable. Marx wasn't speaking of "the people" nor of "the 99%." It is the working classes who need to unite in class warfare against their class enemies: the bourgeoisie as well as the ultra-rich.


  1. "Protest! Protest!" Ha! Zizek compared it in the contexts of the banlieues to Jakobson's phatic, saying politically "Here I am, Here I am"— which is necessary when "essential demands cannot be formulated"— but on Wall Street, essential demands seem all-too-expressible. The phatic is only one aspect of communication: the testing of signal. In this case, we KNOW the signal is working. For Christ's sake, every sneeze at OWS gets sent through the echo-chamber of world and social media. Why NOT include the other communicative functions, like content? Especially if occupations want to serve as the "Double of Congress," which is a compelling model...

  2. This is also a problem with the democratic model of protest: how can a coherent political movement hope to encompass all the opinions of the 99%? The movement lacks direction: it needs a leader.
    At the Philly protest once can see the standard Leftist ranks: liberals, socialists, and anarchists. Yet mingling among these people one sees Tea Party economists, Libertarians, Ron Paul supporters, New age alternative spiritual practitioners, and the Hare Krishnas. This IS what democracy looks like, and it doesn't work!
    In order to have a coherent message to broadcast to the world, some kind of leadership is needed. A bit of intolerance couldn't hurt either: evict the Libertarians, Neoliberals, and the Krishnas. Their messages are unrelated to what I perceive as the main grievances of the movement, and their presence is damaging to the coherency of the protest ideology.

  3. For me, the process is the point. Frankly, I only participated in the spokes-council meeting that decided the original time, date and location of the initial Philadelphia occupation. But watching that activity invigorated my confidence in my fellows beyond measure. I think we need a project! We need chances to practice new forms of getting along, and that's what protest moments provide. They give us the chance to think about our essentials, to strip living down to its most cowboy like form. Leaders are nomadic and hard to identify, as they should be. They earn their place by demonstrating ability like knights, and then they hand the sword to someone else for a little while. Unfortunately, we do need to generate protest moments in order to demonstrate the need for gathering. It brings to light the fact that there are no truly public spaces, that heresy is not actually our right by law, but that we have to stake a claim on it by gentle force if we feel we need to assemble, and we certainly do.

  4. Thanks for posting Wendy. I have to say that I disagree with you, when you say that protest movements are about practicing "new ways of getting along." For me, this is what makes protest impotent, this insular sentiment of forming a community in which ideas can coexist. The emphatic force of protest must be directed OUTWARDS, against those that create or sustain the problems which lead people to protest. If the process is the point, then protest becomes nothing more than a self-help group for radicals, a way of sublimating frustrations with the state of things, without actually changing things. It becomes a performative rebellion, feeding the press with images and events to discuss, but ultimately challenging nothing. Those in power are perfectly happy to let these performances take place, assured that nothing will come of them, except for a relief of social pressures which could otherwise fuel a different kind of social movement which would actually work towards their downfall.

  5. While I agree with you that the ultimate outcome of protests is usually just "performative", I stand by belief that the General Assembly, spokes-council, consensus process are cool things to put into practice. After all, don't we need good forms of decision making and idea sharing in the post-whatever? In addition, the act of preparing to sleep outside, to prepare food with others, to attend to medical needs are all decent activities to relearn, should there actually be a successful "revolution" or whatever.

  6. Yeah, one could say protest is not a bad way to spin one's wheels. But it just kind of reinforces the illusion that protest (in its current, traditional form) can have an effect on policy/policy makers.

  7. Whether one spins one's wheels during protest or prepares for the post-revolutionary future, the impetus of such a protest is too often inwardly-directed. For me the organizational structure of the occupy movements (general assembly, etc) is beside the point. The central point of any protest should be the outwardly directed complaint, rather than the idealistic performance of a utopian alternative. The complaint is the message that can rouse enough public support to inspire an action (general strike, etc) that can force the hand of change.
    Additionally, police brutality is almost encouraged by the way in which the protesters (and the media) allow such violence to distract from the original complaint of the protest.