What are Today’s Protests Missing?

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Joshua Keating makes the common observation that latter-day western protest movements—either the diffuse group that protests at major international gatherings, or the anti-war street demonstration in the United States—haven’t had much success. And he offers a common diagnosis: They’re too vague and slipshod:

Collins names Gandhi’s march to the sea and Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington as the ultimate effective demonstrations in this sense. They mobilized huge groups in support of a defineable and acheivable goal rather than opposing an amorphous concept like “capitalism.”

The fact that much of the street activism against the U.S. war in Iraq has been led by a group called Act Now to Stop War & End Racism is a good indication of why the antiwar movement has never really been a factor in debates over U.S. foreign policy. Rather than organizing around a specific political goal, ending the war, these marches tend to devolve into general lefty free-for-alls encompassing everything from Palestine to free trade the environment to capital punishment.

I don’t really think that’s right. Both Gandhi and King led movements that were committed to vaguely defined and quite sweeping visions of social change that, among other things, included opposition to capitalism and all forms of war. Their goals look well-defined in retrospect because they achieved a great deal so, in retrospect, MLK’s leadership resulted in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Gandhi’s leadership led to independence for India. But all mass-movements are prone to ill-defined goals.

The difference is that the methods of King and Gandhi were quite different from sporadic sign-waving and noise-making, and also quite different from sporadic destruction of property. Both men led sustained campaigns of non-violent resistance. The point in both cases was that unjust systems, be they apartheid in the southern United States or British rule in India, couldn’t actually be made to work without the cooperation of the subject populations. You might have a rule against black people doing this or that, but uniformly enforcing the rule would be completely impractical. But the threat of enforcement was enough to keep violations of the rules rare, and thus the system worked. When enough people are mobilized, however, you can overwhelm the system’s ability to operate and force people to make changes.

In practice, this is just about the most difficult thing in the world to get people to do. Individually, it’s rational to mind your own business and just cope with mistreatment as best you can. And to get people out of that mode normal involves switching them into a mode of angry, violent resistance that stiffens the desire of the oppressor to beat the subjects down. Organizing people around disciplined, consistent non-violent resistance in which you neither meekly submit to injustice nor angrily lash out against it, but instead move in a calm and determined way to challenge it is extraordinarily difficult. But it works. Getting people to come out every once in a while hold a “protest” is, by contrast, pretty easy. And in the right frame of mind, it’s even fun. I’ve had fun doing it. But it doesn’t really change anything.