In previous posts I talked about different ways to understand a protest – as a legitmate action within the system, and as the embryo of a different system. In this post I want to put that in context.
Since I’ve been pretty pro-protest so far, I might as well admit that protests, marches, rallies, and the like have major limitations. Most obviously, they are largely symbolic actions, not effective actions. Unlike a boycott, a blocade, sending money, organising services, or just damaging the buildings of the Bad Guys, they don’t actually acheive anything – they just express a collective feeling. But I don’t think this is a reason to consider protests ‘less worth doing’ than such actions, as much as complementary: we need to do the symbolic and the effective.
If we imagine ‘the movement’ that is articulating itself as a person (or rather, trying to be a person as much as possible), then the symbolic element of personal growth is important. To develop self-confidence we need to see that we can produce real results, but we also need to have this represented – if we get told ‘you didn’t do that, you are nothing’ all the time, we end up going crazy. In the case of a movement, that’s more likely to manifest as dispersion, people losing interest or conviction and drifting away.
Of course, the difficulty of making the symbolic and the effective work together is brought out by another disadvantage of protests: the lack of organisation. There’s no co-ordination of whose there, there’s no way to make decisions, there’s little continuity. One of the ways that this manifests itself is by the frequency with which people carrying ‘no gods no masters’ banners walk next to people shouting ‘God is great’.
But again this mirrors the corresponding advantages that protests have. Precisely because no single organisation with a set membership is in charge, people with no history or background can turn up and mingle, pick up propaganda from different groups, form connections, and potentially join one of those organisations. So again, protests aren’t better or worse than other forms of action, as much as they are complementary.
A final issue is the gender character of protests – or rather, not of protests but of their ‘confrontational fringe’. By and large, though not absolutely, the protesters who fight with police are young and male and full of testosterone. This remains true whether they’re anarchists, fascists, or just angry muslims. I’m not really going to say much about this – it’s something that would ideally be changed but short of a general blurring of gender roles that would multiply the angry aggressive young women (because anger and aggression aren’t always bad things) I don’t see much to suggest.
Anyway, long-story-short, protests are useful but best when mixed with other forms of action – which most readers probably thought before they started reading.