Friday, January 21, 2011
The protest thing...
My, some of you are sensitive souls! All I did was suggest that the recent student protests were ‘pointless flailings' and I get savaged by the Left, the feminist contingent, and then most of you vanished into a circular debate about who began the violence - and so missed my point completely.
What is the purpose of protest? Is it to purposelessly voice an inchoate anger at the world? Or is it intended to actually cause a change? If protest is intended to alter the course of policy then the student march failed - hence my comment about pointless flailings. It may have been a success in terms of organisation, in terms of harnessing a voice and raising the issue to the forefront of politics. But in terms of changing the policy they object to, it indisputably failed. Or was the sole purpose of the march to get worked over by the Old Bill and the media? In which case, medals all round.
The essence of non-violent action is to level the playing field between the powerful and the powerless. It is only when the powerful find it expedient that they will deign to open discussions with those they could otherwise ignore. And yet another march is just the type of thing that government can ignore. It was done with the Stop The War coalition demo and it can be done with student loans.
The question, then, is what non-violent tactics would level the disparity of power? And what tactics must be avoided?
Non-violent direct action has two mechanisms of leverage, the practical and the moral, both inseparable. In the practical sphere, non-violent action can cause genuine disruption to such an extent that the pain felt by the powerful is sufficient to bring them to negotiate. My examples of this in terms of 'sticky students' was economic disruption - to bring rail, road and air
travel to a halt. That wouldn't merely be gesture politics, it would cause actual pain to the powerful.
In the moral sphere, the power of non-violent action lies in self-sacrifice, the willingness to demonstrate the belief in the just nature of the cause to the extent that those involved are willing to undergo sacrifice to propagate their goal.
This is why I argue that who began the violence in the protests, police or marchers, is completely irrelevant. In lifting their fists, even in self defence, the marchers lost moral authority. Protestors who allow themselves to be beaten carry a stronger message. This is why non-violent direct action is so difficult a path, why it requires great strength in the individuals involved.
Its effectiveness has been demonstrated countless times, but one illustration will suffice. The Civil Rights marches in the American South reverberated through the body politic, and around the world, because those involved had the strength of purpose to allow themselves to be clubbed by the police without defending themselves.
Each of these activities - the moral and the practical - are played out within the media culture. To ignore this is just silly. We may wish that the world were different, but the reality is that most people's views of an event are shaped through the mainstream media. And some of the protestors played into the hands of a malign media by causing violent actions. Poking the next Queen was just plain stupid in media terms.
The tightness of the cause, the strength of the arguments, are not enough. The message must be propagated through a cynical media. This is why I suggested Baywatch-babes gluing themselves to the royal limo. It would be a picture that the media couldn't resist. Sexist, objectifying women...blah, blah, blah. If you want to influence the images portrayed by the media, you must manipulate that media. And scantily clad women are like catnip to editors. The world shouldn't be like this - but it is. To pretend otherwise, to ignore media predilections, is to play into the hands of a media which will - and did - use any possible image to malign the protestors. Play them at their own game, give them irresistible images. If that means 'betraying the sisterhood', well, sacrifices have to be made. The picture that could be circling the globe is one of Charles grinning as he letches at a bikini babe stuck on his bonnet. Instead, the look of horror on Camilla’s face as their car is attacked is the image cemented into posterity. That's just a raised opportunity.
The media can be manipulated like puppets once their agenda is acknowledged. Rather than finding pics of students raising their fists, why aren't the media presented with rows of students dressed as, say, nuns and monks, being beaten by the police?
Who began the violence is irrelevant, a point that reveals ignorance of the philosophy and methodologies of active nonviolent campaigning. Pictures of violent students - acting in self defence or not - are instantly grabbed by the media. They also undermine the moral power of non-violent action. Both the message and the campaign are damaged.
Having a small cadre of students sticking themselves across roads and railways may well be 'elitist', though that term somehow fails to acknowledge that not all people have identical attributes and gifts. Active non-violence is difficult, it is hard on the individuals involved, and only some will have the courage to make that self sacrifice. It may be elitist, but it would work a damn sight more effectively than marching down a street for a few hours.
Protesting is an ancient art. Sometimes it works, often it doesn't. For those involved in the present campaigns to ignore the losses, to fail to adapt to new strategies and ways of thinking, is to embrace failure and disappointment.
If I had any influence over the course of events, I would have organised a march. But one stuffed full of people dressed in innocent costumes - monks, cartoon characters, etc - all wedded to the notion of non-violence. Not one image of a raised fist would be available to the media, all they would have would be pictures of Bugs Bunny and nuns being clubbed by coppers dressed like a stormtroopers. Suck on that, Murdock.
If the actions of the police are problematic, then degrade their abilities. Come on people, this is basic stuff! Rather than bitching about those mean coppers, do your research and impair their abilities. Where are the vans of the TSG based? Where's the depot that holds the row control barriers? Where are the horses based? Which police stations are used to detain those arrested?
Non-violent disruption at these key locations could impair the police ability to deploy their thuggish tactics. Gluing students to entry gates, in custody suits, to TSG vans, even across the routes that the police use to deploy to the demo route...All of these actions would impair the police. Why are they not used? Why are organisers of demos wedded to old fashioned and failed tactics?
I repeat my main criticism of the demo. The student fees issue is a legitimate one to debate. There was the possibility to gain social, media and political traction for that debate. But the actions of some involved squandered all of that capital. And, from my perspective, their failure to embrace non-violent action is to squander a tool of unprecedented effectiveness.
Now, who have I upset this time? Form an orderly queue...
Labels: student protests