June 2013        


The politics of anti-capitalist protest

The coming G8 events in Co. Fermanagh will inevitably herald accompanying anti-capitalist protest rallies and parades. The left wing will congregate, march, wave banners and placards, listen to or make speeches, and sing ballads. Some will predictably engage in “direct action,” get arrested, perhaps in a hopeless bid to disrupt the elite’s assembly.
     Some degree of ephemeral media coverage will be generated. Violence will bring trite condemnation, and more heat than light will be created. The figures for the numbers of those in attendance at the protests will be disputed, and some will claim the protest a victory, a significant stepping-stone that must be built upon. Then the event and the noise around it, like others that preceded it, will pass.
     The next target of protest will be specified, and once again the left wing will congregate, march, wave banners and placards, listen to or make speeches, and sing ballads. Some will predictably engage in “direct action”. . . and so on.
     Invariably, some elements of the left, who exhibit all the characteristics of ambulance-chasers, are more susceptible to this kind of behaviour than others. But, broadly speaking, predominantly all sections of the left are prone to making protest marches a significant organisational vehicle and mode of activity.
     Of course a scan through various blogs and on-line discussion boards would indicate that not all sections of the left-activist population are uncritical about the effectiveness of protest marches either. Some appear to recognise their limitations, but many others remain apologetic and adhere to the notion that they remain in some way effective. One prominent left-wing group, according to my review of their web site, has organised or participated in eighty-two protest marches since May 2010. This works out at twenty-seven a year or about two a month. (I suspect these figures under-report the true total.)
     When accumulated with the presumably many other protests of various kinds of activist groups, this would probably suggest a fairly robust rate of protest march in Ireland. Yet it is difficult to ascertain what real impact these actions had on their intended target of persuasion; it is tempting to suggest, given the general direction of political and economic trends in Ireland, none.
     This is not the place to unpack the sociology of the modern protest march within our society. But it is tempting to speculate that protest marches might serve a very useful function only at particular junctures, when they enable a relatively homogeneous, disfranchised population—with a cohesive set of organic, concrete and attainable demands—to articulate their voice in the absence of any other medium of expression or communication. Furthermore, they typically work best when there is an identifiable source of the particular “social ill”—an employer or politician or piece of legislation, for example—which the participants believe, through targeted collective action, can be remedied to their advantage. The participants must also be willing to use sustained collective action, rather than sporadic, one-off demonstrations.
     Therefore the more widely supported (a) the grievance, (b) the attributed source of the grievance and (c) the need to use collective action to resolve the grievance, and (d) the greater the willingness to sustain the action, the more likely is it that the protest march will evince some success.
     The recent cases in such countries as Mubarak’s Egypt, where mass protest seemed to (partially) work, would appear to support this thesis: protests are most effective where one finds a mass disfranchised population with a relatively homogeneous set of organic, concrete and attainable demands around which to articulate their voice in the absence of any other medium of expression or communication.
     Here too there was also broad agreement on the source of the particular social ill afflicting that society (the ruling political class) and a belief that, through sustained collective action (in this case the moral force of the protest), the problem could be resolved.
     The problem with many of the protest marches in Ireland, like the forthcoming G8 protest, is that they will very probably be organised by a dominant coalition of groups that have limited anchoring in the mass of the population, at least if we take electoral results and opinion polls as reliable measures of this (accepting that these might be imperfect barometers). Furthermore, it is very likely that such groups will organise and present their marches around slogans that, if past evidence is reliable, will hold little capacity to sway or mobilise the mass of the population in any appreciable or sustained way.
     It is likely to produce no coherent set of demands, given the heterogeneity of groups apparently participating in it. One suspects, on latest readings, that the demands in some cases may well be incoherent. One prominent activist, Eamonn McCann, has claimed that the Enniskillen protest will be an attempt to raise resistance against the “global politics of austerity,” failing to note that at least one G8 member, Japan, is actively pursuing expansive Keynesian stimulus.
     Finally, the protest marches will not be sustained: they will be one-off affairs, incapable of maintaining any meaningful momentum.
     This should not be taken as a call to jettison the G8 protest march as such, or as a defeatist exercise intending to demobilise or discourage anti-capitalist protest. Broad-brush anti-capitalist protests are entirely legitimate. But, operating in a milieu where the mass of the populace still appear inclined towards atomistic social behaviour and broadly, if not entirely, acquiescent to political and economic conservatism, it would seem unwise to bet on any significant gains accruing to the left from protest marches of the G8 variety in the near future.
     Rather, a more careful consideration of the subjects for mobilisation and the demands to be generated and resolved might offer a more fruitful route to growth and influence. This would position the protest march tactic not as the first, knee-jerk port of call, to be tacked on to the latest potentially advantageous political cause, but as a weapon to be used more selectively in the class struggle.

■ This is an opinion article and is not intended to reflect the views of the CPI.

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