When are protest demonstrations reasonable?

May 23, 2011 By: erik Category: Complaining, Musings, Politics, Spain 176 views

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Manifestación Democracia Real Ya - Madrid 15 Mayo 2011For a long time, I have been unable to understand the point of political and social demonstrations and parades and such. I have at least two posts to this effect. What does Congress care if a bunch of rainbow-flag-waving hippies are out on the National Mall? That’s not going to change anyone’s mind!

With the combination of a number of successful political demonstrations – the most successful being that of Egypt – in the first quarter of 2011 and a video lecture I saw on YouTube, I finally had an epiphany about why demonstrations matter, and how they can be effective.

The whole video is wonderful, but the epiphany-inducing section about protests starts at 8:05.

I know that you know that I know

The whole point of assembling a mass of people in a public square is to stand in solidarity in the mutual knowledge that you all agree on something. When the Wisconsin Republicans had to walk through a mob of peacefully chanting protesters on their way to strip collective bargaining rights from state employees in March 2011, it was clear mutual knowledge for both the protesters and the legislators that the bill was unpopular. If the protesters had not been there, the legislators might have thought the general public was in agreement with their actions, and the would-be protesters might have been sitting at home thinking that they were in the minority in their opinion. When a protest is large enough, the person in power being protested may very well ignore the protesters, but everyone knows that the protesters are being willfully ignored. It strips the leaders of that wonderful phrase “plausible deniability”. I get that.

Note that changing the color of your Twitter avatar is still stupid, because there’s no guarantee that the “protestee” will have any knowledge of your subtle hue shift.

A protest needs an objective

The primary reason that regime changing protests like the one in Egypt earlier this year can be so successful is that they have a solitary objective. “We will protest until Mubarak steps down.” The leadership knows what needs to happen to get people to stop protesting and go back to work.

Even when a protest fails to achieve its goal, like in Wisconsin, if it had a singular objective, the fact that the leadership went directly against the will of the people remains salient and undeniable.

What does not work well is a generic protest of discontentment. This month has seen a large political protest movement in Spain erupt. They call themselves Democracia Real YA! (Real Democracy NOW!). Their manifesto reads a lot like the General Strike Manifesto I translated last September. They are unhappy with the government and feel that neither of the two primary parties actually listens to the will of the people, and they’ve had enough, dammit!

My reaction to this movement is to smile at the naiveté, like that of an 18-year-old who’s just read some Nietzsche or Ayn Rand and thinks she’s got the world all figured out. Welcome to life in a modern western democracy; this is as “real” as democracy gets, and it’s arguably the best and most fair system of large scale government humans have ever come up with. Is there room for improvement? Of course. Will it improve? Almost certainly. But for now, know that you’re on the very cutting edge of governance technology.

Getting angry at all political parties and all authority won’t fix anything. Even if one could get another party on the ballot, and everyone that supports the movement voted for that party, would anything change? No, of course not. Because A) Power corrupts, and B) Governing is really hard!

Yesterday was Election Day in Spain, for municipal and some autonomous regions (like states in the US), not for the national government. Of course the results were totally predictable. The mass discontentment swung the political pendulum from the left to the right. When a few years pass and people are still discontent, the pendulum will swing back the other way, and so on…and so on…and so on…

Conclusion

In the same way that The War On Terror was doomed to failure from the start merely by its name, a protest against everything cannot possibly succeed. If your manifesto has more than two bullet points, you’re sunk before you’ve left the dock. Protest can and does work, but the political weapon you’re swinging needs to have a very sharp edge.

 
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Josh-Grady/741574679 Josh Grady

     I was surprised that you hadn’t weighed in on this subject.  Unfortunately, i don’t think that you “get” what has been going on.  (Is the honeymoon over, lately I only write when I disagree with you.)  Looking at my super-dooper camp-out map, http://www.thetechnoant.info/campmap/, it looks like Cantabria has largely turned its back on the goings-on that have made Spain such an interesting place this last week.  A shame, because I think that you would have been fascinated by the opportunity to observe the process.  

    As far as any demonstration’s potential to effect a change, I share your cynical/realistic view of the “movement” grouped under the general heading of DRY.  However, our views of the “movement” are discrepant in that you feel that the camp-outs form part of some sort of strategic political process, while I think they are merely a symptom of a change in the way (part of) the Spanish public views the political process.

    My simple gauge for the validity of any article on the subject in the foreign press has been the use of the word “disenfranchised”.  If that word, or one of its derivatives hasn’t featured in the lede, I have assumed that the author has (poorly) researched the article by reading Spanish mainstream press rather than talking with and observing the “demonstrators”.  

    You may or may not understand how alien the American political process is to the average Spaniard.  We (USA), as a culture, have been encouraged to debate, discuss and analyze politics from the moment of our first civics class in third grade.  We grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock and have at least a vague sense of the legislative process.  Most of us have at least a nodding acquaintance with the Bill of Rights and the spirit, if not the reality, of the framing of the Constitution.  

    Spaniards, on the other hand, are the product of the educational equivalent of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.  Speech and Debate, Model UN, elementary level study of the Spanish constitution are all unknown and almost unfathomable.  This is a country which requires allegiance to broad concepts and has little tolerance for shades of grey.  (How many Real Madrid fans do you know who are willing to acknowledge the quality of a Barça play?  How many PSOE voters do you know who are willing to entertain the possibility of voting for a candidate from the PP?)  

    The result of this world view is a society which feels it is getting shafted, but is only now beginning to discover the various outlets of discontent available.  This “movement” is not so much a push for change, as an exploration of the possibilities afforded participants in political discourse.  

    I have been using quotes around the words movement, protest, and demonstration because I really can’t classify what I’ve witnessed over the last few days in the Plaça Catalunya as such.  Does your blog comment system censor words on a black list?  If not, I might be tempted to classify the camp-out as a sophomoric cluster f**k.  People spanning much of the moderate part of the ideological spectrum hung out and talked with other people.  Opinions were fervently defended, and just as strongly disputed.  The young folks burned with passion and the old folks came out of their shells and shared observations from their years of experience.  Here (Barcelona) Catalanistas spoke in Spanish without making an issue of language.  Banners, slogans and chants were almost non-existent.  

    I didn’t see a protest-like push to change the world, rather a recognition that the average José on the street has the possibility and the responsibility to participate in politics.  Vis a vis La Moncloa, this “movement” seems unlikely to become a watershed, but as far as the future of political conversation goes, I have high hopes. 

    • http://erikras.com/?utm_source=disqus&utm_medium=profile&utm_campaign=Disqus%2BProfile Erik R.

      One bit that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into my “smiling at an awakened teen” metaphor was that I was proud to see an interest in politics. That’s good, for sure.

      I’m not sure, exactly what your disagreement with me is, beyond my failure to mention that discussing politics openly is always a good thing.

      Re: “How many PSOE voters do you know who are willing to entertain the possibility of voting for a candidate from the PP?” This seems like an Americanism. In Spain, like in the UK, if I’m not mistaken, one votes for a party, and then the party chooses the leader. In this system, it seems to me, one must be even more mad (than in the “elect a candidate” American system) to switch parties. Perhaps I’m too far to one side of the political spectrum, but knowing what values the opposition party stands for, I’d be insane to vote for that party, no matter how uncharismatic the probable leader for the party that represents my values is. Of course all issues can’t be placed perfectly on the left-right spectrum, but still… If I’m missing something here, enlighten me.

      I’ll just assume that you are in total agreement with every post that you don’t comment on. How about that?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Josh-Grady/741574679 Josh Grady

        Every bit of your personality as portrayed by you various social media leads makes me sure that you would be fascinated by and pleased with the discourse.  I hope you didn’t infer otherwise.  

        My disagreement stems from your view that this brouhaha was a political protest with a specific, albeit naive, goal; whereas I view the DRY thing as social change in the way Spaniards perceive politics and their role within “The System(tm)”.  

        Re: shifts in party allegiance.  I agree that my political views were forged in the US, and the current Spanish system also drives me crazy.  However, unlike the US, it seems that Spain is mostly lacking the theocratic pressure from the wacko fundamentalists that appears to be the main cause of ideological divergence between the two main parties.  

        Here I just don’t see enough of a difference between the two biggies not to vote for one or the other indiscriminately from one election to the next.  This is particularly the case at a provincial or municipal level.  Do you really view the PP as so far to the right of your world view that you are unable to conceive of voting one of their lists rather than that of the PSOE?   Obviously, if you’re a hardcore IU follower, you won’t find much joy in the FE-JONS platform, but you should still be able to find a hypothetical rational substitute somewhere on the left.  Unfortunately, Spanish politics seems to run along the lines of that old joke about the Baptists: http://wilsonsalmanac.blogspot.com/2006/05/baptist-joke.html

        Even if I don’t totally agree with your every word, I’m secure enough not to quibble about minor discrepancies.  As you’ve said, life would be boring if we only hung out with people who always agreed with us.

        • http://erikras.com/?utm_source=disqus&utm_medium=profile&utm_campaign=Disqus%2BProfile Erik R.

          Yes, of course. I’m delighted by increased discourse, especially such respectful and intelligent discourse. Both you and Lee and other bloggers have added breadth and depth to my understanding of the DRY movement. I admit to being intentionally a little trollish in my original post. ;-)

          Re: party allegiance, It’s true that, for local elections, I can imagine possibly switching if my politically-aligned candidate seemed particularly inept or a jerk.

          Thanks for your opinions and that fantastic Baptist joke.

    • http://erikras.com/?utm_source=disqus&utm_medium=profile&utm_campaign=Disqus%2BProfile Erik R.

      One bit that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into my “smiling at an awakened teen” metaphor was that I was proud to see an interest in politics. That’s good, for sure.

      I’m not sure, exactly what your disagreement with me is, beyond my failure to mention that discussing politics openly is always a good thing.

      Re: “How many PSOE voters do you know who are willing to entertain the possibility of voting for a candidate from the PP?” This seems like an Americanism. In Spain, like in the UK, if I’m not mistaken, one votes for a party, and then the party chooses the leader. In this system, it seems to me, one must be even more mad (than in the “elect a candidate” American system) to switch parties. Perhaps I’m too far to one side of the political spectrum, but knowing what values the opposition party stands for, I’d be insane to vote for that party, no matter how uncharismatic the probable leader for the party that represents my values is. Of course all issues can’t be placed perfectly on the left-right spectrum, but still… If I’m missing something here, enlighten me.

      I’ll just assume that you are in total agreement with every post that you don’t comment on. How about that?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Josh-Grady/741574679 Josh Grady

     I was surprised that you hadn’t weighed in on this subject.  Unfortunately, i don’t think that you “get” what has been going on.  (Is the honeymoon over, lately I only write when I disagree with you.)  Looking at my super-dooper camp-out map, http://www.thetechnoant.info/campmap/, it looks like Cantabria has largely turned its back on the goings-on that have made Spain such an interesting place this last week.  A shame, because I think that you would have been fascinated by the opportunity to observe the process.  

    As far as any demonstration’s potential to effect a change, I share your cynical/realistic view of the “movement” grouped under the general heading of DRY.  However, our views of the “movement” are discrepant in that you feel that the camp-outs form part of some sort of strategic political process, while I think they are merely a symptom of a change in the way (part of) the Spanish public views the political process.

    My simple gauge for the validity of any article on the subject in the foreign press has been the use of the word “disenfranchised”.  If that word, or one of its derivatives hasn’t featured in the lede, I have assumed that the author has (poorly) researched the article by reading Spanish mainstream press rather than talking with and observing the “demonstrators”.  

    You may or may not understand how alien the American political process is to the average Spaniard.  We (USA), as a culture, have been encouraged to debate, discuss and analyze politics from the moment of our first civics class in third grade.  We grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock and have at least a vague sense of the legislative process.  Most of us have at least a nodding acquaintance with the Bill of Rights and the spirit, if not the reality, of the framing of the Constitution.  

    Spaniards, on the other hand, are the product of the educational equivalent of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.  Speech and Debate, Model UN, elementary level study of the Spanish constitution are all unknown and almost unfathomable.  This is a country which requires allegiance to broad concepts and has little tolerance for shades of grey.  (How many Real Madrid fans do you know who are willing to acknowledge the quality of a Barça play?  How many PSOE voters do you know who are willing to entertain the possibility of voting for a candidate from the PP?)  

    The result of this world view is a society which feels it is getting shafted, but is only now beginning to discover the various outlets of discontent available.  This “movement” is not so much a push for change, as an exploration of the possibilities afforded participants in political discourse.  

    I have been using quotes around the words movement, protest, and demonstration because I really can’t classify what I’ve witnessed over the last few days in the Plaça Catalunya as such.  Does your blog comment system censor words on a black list?  If not, I might be tempted to classify the camp-out as a sophomoric cluster f**k.  People spanning much of the moderate part of the ideological spectrum hung out and talked with other people.  Opinions were fervently defended, and just as strongly disputed.  The young folks burned with passion and the old folks came out of their shells and shared observations from their years of experience.  Here (Barcelona) Catalanistas spoke in Spanish without making an issue of language.  Banners, slogans and chants were almost non-existent.  

    I didn’t see a protest-like push to change the world, rather a recognition that the average José on the street has the possibility and the responsibility to participate in politics.  Vis a vis La Moncloa, this “movement” seems unlikely to become a watershed, but as far as the future of political conversation goes, I have high hopes. 

  • Lee

    I believe the people in Sol are going to hang out this week precisely to refine their platform. I think the point is, for the first time in the 21 years I’ve lived here,  I’ve seen a real, well organized grassroots movement get something done, get apathetic youth moving. It’s a start.

  • Lee

    I believe the people in Sol are going to hang out this week precisely to refine their platform. I think the point is, for the first time in the 21 years I’ve lived here,  I’ve seen a real, well organized grassroots movement get something done, get apathetic youth moving. It’s a start.

    • Isaac Garcia

      “Apathetic”? Lethargic would be a better description ;) But the not-so-youth are the key problem here, to boot.

  • Theresa Osinga

    Excellent point.  It’s been interesting to watch all this happening, but as you said, the outcome was predictable.  I do think that it has served the purpose of getting people who would otherwise pass on the whole political thing involved and while I don’t think that anything is really going to change, if it gets people to take an active part in deciding about their government, then it’s not such a waste of time after all. 

    • Lee

      “…and while I don’t think that anything is really going to change, if it
      gets people to take an active part in deciding about their government,,,” that in itself IS a major change. Listen, I live near c/Atocha in Madrid, and there must be a demonstration up and down the street twice a wekk. And I can guarantee you that the majority of the people who show up and march and chant don’t do squat the rest of the time. I really felt a difference in what happened here. The idea of a public forum, developing ideas, gives me some hope. And we’re going to need it when La Espe becomes Presidenta, and I don’t mean of just the CAM. Shudder.

  • Neil Rasmussen

    When you were talking about the birthday getter paying for everyone else’s meal all going out to eat all I could think of is how it would feel to not be able to afford this activity especially if all your friends never give it a thought. Well here I read that unemployment is 20% plus in Spain. Unemployment of “youth”is listed as 43%.
    Wh Where I live more than 99% of the land is uninhabited yet a

    • http://erikras.com/?utm_source=disqus&utm_medium=profile&utm_campaign=Disqus%2BProfile Erik R.

      Video games and alcohol? I’m not really sure. It’s pretty common to live with your parents until you’re in your mid-thirties, which keeps costs down (for the youth, not the parents).

  • Neil Rasmussen

    open to hunting, gathering, fishing, and independent gathering and creation of outdoor products, that can be sold, just a short step outside your door. What is there to do for unemployed, especially young people, in Spain?