It seems paradoxical to me that in the age of the web popular protest has become ever more difficult. This blog is an effort to enhance the effectiveness of mass demonstrations in a time of overwhelming technological advances in communication. We have seen serious demonstration in Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia this past summer resulting in minor positive changes and a major one in Egypt resulting in the full return of military dictatorship. Minor improvements are indeed occurring through the efforts of groups like www.change.org. However, wider themed protests like those on immigration, debt ceilings, youth unemployment, poverty, banking reform, and growing inequality seem impotent. The resulting mass frustration is evident at all levels – particularly in the under twenty-fives.
Truly aroused by the launch of the Occupy movement in New York in 2011, I was thrilled by the openness, scope and perspective of those launching the protests: banking, money, capitalism, third world poverty, corruption, unemployment and more were all being questioned and attacked. As this wide-ranging protest paralleled my thinking in Dollars or Democracy (2004), I briefly participated in the Occupy movement at St.Paul’s Cathedral, London. I was immediately struck by the good-will of the participants and their loquaciousness. I admired their commitment to nonviolence. These demonstrating neophytes were seething with a desire for change.
Aside from such fundamental challenges as the ever increasing gap in attention spans and all-around diminished retentiveness, the good protesters of 2011 failed to have effective organization, lacked experienced leaders, had far too wide and divergent goals, and had no tactical program beyond occupying very tiny open spaces adjacent to large institutions or buildings. (Wall Street, St. Paul’s etc.) Simply staying in one location could not encompass such a real issue as student debt! The result was that by the spring of 2012 the media had just about forgotten their encampments.
Only rarely have the contributions of contemporary protest movements equaled the impact of past marches for trade unionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, or the vast anti-war gatherings. The Arab spring has been the first and major 21st century exception. Thanks to the internet there has been increasing resort to protests by relatively powerless groups. “Spontaneity gives the protests an intoxicating sense of possibility,” wrote The Economist.1 Although the protesters have the ability to quickly change tack and pick up other winds to increase their numbers, their lack of solid agenda or well structured organization means that encirclement by the police or the military and the opposition of entrenched and well-funded economic and political forces swiftly put an end to their efforts.
Commentators in the press often criticize protesters for failing to have clearly defined demands, but the protesters contend that issuing rigid demands could prove counter-productive. Many protest groups have an “overriding commitment” to participatory democracy in which decisions are made by consensus. Meetings increasingly use hand signals to augment participation and “discussion facilitators” tend to replace the usual role of leaders whom “security forces” could swiftly arrest.
In the past unaddressed protests have led to insurgency, civil resistance, riots, as well as social and/or political revolutions such as the American Revolution of the 1770’s and the French Revolution of 1789. More recently the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Palestinian intifada, and the revolution in Egypt have not led to greater freedom. Indeed, the political demonstrations in Paris in May 1968 and that of the “indignados” in Spain in 2011-12 saw the return of rightists.
Many protests in the 21st Century seem to have become political substitutes for opposition. Protester rallies are in many ways shaped by the social media on the internet. In Brazil, for example, the protesters have come to regard traditional organization and political parties as redundant in the age of Twitter and Facebook.“They don’t even use loudspeakers to get their message across with thousands of people on the streets,” wrote one observer.2
New forms of social and political organization are essential so that the discontented and despairing can express their anger or channel their resentment without violence. Protest leaders, who could effectively control demonstrations, are usually sought out by police or intelligence forces and sequestered. As a consequence the leaderless crowds don’t know which way to turn and often get side-tracked by infiltrated provocateurs.
Globalization and the internet thus call for the invention of new forms of protest so that the voice of the people on this planet can become more effective. Joining a march can create a special feeling which signing a petition on the internet does not. A substitute for marches and rallies which gives protesters a sense of power has yet to be imagined or designed. Live, camera-produced social rallies might be a possibility, but are not likely to be as effective as the real thing: elected officials or dictators would not be seriously challenged. The threats and uncertainties posed by huge numbers on the streets, all demanding change, exert a power which a petition signed by 100,000 electronic signers does not! Until a new way is found much of the global electorate, unwilling to face tear gas and water-canon, will continue to feel voiceless, frustrated, isolated, impotent and desperate for change.
1“The march of protest,” The Economist, June 29, 2013.
2Simon Romeo, “Mass protests take on a life of their own in Brazil”, International Herald Tribune, June 22, 2013.