Have left-wing protests become too broad to be meaningful?


9:55 am - June 20th 2013

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by Michael Jefferies

Many will have seen the spectacular photos documenting the recent protests in Brazil. The streets were full, block after block with people standing shoulder to shoulder – an impressive show of people-power by any measure.

Striking was the near invisibility of political parties and single issue pressure groups. In fact, there have been reports of the crowd shouting down fellow protestors that tried to raise political flags and emblems.

Contrast this with the G8 protests in Northern Ireland this weekend were we saw the full cacophony of the ‘usual suspects’ joined by more novel entrants. Nearly everyone has some sort of visible affiliation: Amnesty, Unison, anarchist groups, a spread of communist/socialist organisations, the County Sovereignty Movement, Free Palestine – the list goes on.

Notwithstanding the time, money, sweat and inconvenience that the G8 protestors endured – the strategic utility of their efforts was close to zero – mirroring the unity in their demands.

In Turkey, unity seems a little better. Turkey’s crisis of liberalism elevated a narrow-interest protest to a national, popular movement. Examining pictures (and with the caveat that I can’t speak Turkish), the presence of political organisations is by the G8 standards minimal (with the exception of the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP)).

Perception matters. It determines who will join a protest and it heavily influences the narrative that may result in the political change that protestors would like to see.

Should the presence of the TKP be perceived to rise, I fear moderate liberals – the majority of the protestors – will fail in their fight against illiberal democracy.

Increasingly, successful street protesting requires unity and harnessing the masses. Without mass support, street protests are easy to ignore, before being in practice curtailed as they encroach on the activities of wider society.

Small disruptive protests may gain publicity and represent tactical victories – but only on minor issues do they translate into strategic success.

Maintaining broad, united support requires marching for specific, realistically attainable objectives that are widely supported.

It’s essential that the protest remains open, non-partisan with a mutual expectation that people check their other grievances and ideological axes at the door – especially when this baggage may alienate potential supporters.

Essential that is, if people are interested in actually changing facts on the ground rather than clinging to narrower maximalist demands.


Michael Jefferies works in defence and blogs at Full Spectrum Strategy

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Reader comments


1. Baton Rouge

What is needed is a holistic manifesto that addresses the most immediate and transitional demands of the working class and that point the way to working class power and socialism. What we get is a mess. The lack of illegal socialist parties in the Arab world only the stinking corpse of cynical Stalinism meant that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist types who remained legal under the tyrannies were able to steel a march at least for now in places like Egypt and now in Syria where the Stalinists are openly backing the butcher Assad.

The `usual suspects’ as you describe the professional campaigners are invariably single issue and when they hold more than one position they are usually in direct contradiction with each other such as being massively opposed to globalisation but demanding open borders for everything. Take the new Left Unity initiative. It has already announced in a Mini Me style cloning of the New Labour methodology that it will be initiating a series of policy silos. No integrated manifesto for them just a series of vague single issue policies that its leadership can horse-trade with in deals with pseudo lefties. Left Unity is in danger of reproducing the anti-political sectarianism it claims to want to break from just as that form of sectarianism is imploding everywhere.

Interesting OP. Yes, our protests in the UK are pathetic.
I remember following the G20 in London one over the radio four years ago and it was all so predictable. All the usual subjects, meeting up at Bank station, and then the attacks on some bank windows – a Satrbucks or McDonald’d trashed, giving the excuse for macho-man police bullies to start kicking and bashing and kettling people. It’s a joke now.
The problem is the culture of protests. I went down to the Heathrow camp against further runways a few years ago and sat in and observed people practicing tactics for breaking through police lines and how to be the biggest pain in the ass possible if arrested. It was truly pathetic. As was the Cliamte Camp I saw at Blackheath.
As LC supports all this – and even thinks breaking a few windows at a student demo is OK if it gets the thing on the news, this site is part of the problem too.

It’s not just Britain of course but international. The riots in Sweden and Italy where one one violent protestor was even killed, have been quite disgraceful.

3. Shatterface

There’s a very big difference berween popular movements, which we are witnessing elsewhere, and harnessing the masses.

In the former the people are active agents, in the latter they’re a source of power for someone else.

The sad (perhaps?) implication of my perspective is that in a lot of cases street protest is ineffective beyond generating publicity. Publicity is not an end in itself, as it can actually be counter-productive in advancing the protestors’ aims.

An extreme classic case could be al-Zarqawi in Iraq. His beheadings and ultra-violent attacks certainly generated publicity, but it lost him enormous support. Locals that were previously supportive of him quickly ceased to be and he even the al-Qaeda leadership were furious that he was damaging the public support/sympathy they received in the wider world.

Similarly smashing up a Macdonalds isn’t an end in itself. As Damon notes, it lets the police get heavy handed, lets politicians paint the protestors as thugs and alienates the wider public (and even co-protesters) that might otherwise have had sympathy for the cause.

These sort of actions might well be described as tactical victories – but what’s the point if they aren’t advancing your strategic position?

Its like armies using kill-metrics as a marker of success – forgetting that they are really fighting for public support – and that support (can) diminish with every pull of the trigger.

@Shatterface: I’m not sure – as I understand the definitions, are there not significant overlaps? Surely a popular movement has be definition already harnessed the masses. Perhaps “harness” was the wrong word, as I agree it implies some sort of power relationship.

What is perhaps most strange is that it is always the left wing who take to the streets to protest about the government, yet it is their policies that dictate more government. Yet every time they bewail that its “the wrong type of government”.

The answer is less government in every form and ensure that it focuses on key components. Police, Defence, Law, and a basic health system.

The title seems somewhat off-kilter with what the main body of the post says.
The title implies that left-wing protests have become so broad as to be meaningless, while the main body declares that narrow single-issue groupings fail due to being sectarian and not broad enough.

Chances are both are correct, occupy was a broad movement, which very quickly died on its arse once it became clear it had no direction or political plan to be getting on with, whereas more focused left wing groups seem determined to find purity of association before owt else, and fragment into smaller and smaller insignificant parts.

@Freeman – I should probably declare that I don’t consider myself politically left or right wing. In some cases you may be right – but my take on this (which could very well be plain wrong) would equally apply to all types of street protest. I’ve not followed actual events in Venezuela recently, but I wonder what the characteristics were of the right-leaning protests there.

@Cylux – Title wasn’t mine, but the original was as dull and unclickable as they come. As for the concept of “broad” – it is being used to refer to the range of publicly perceived goals of the protestors. As in, the G8 protests were so “broad” that banners were lofted for Palestine, Irish County Independence, Political Prisoners, Environmental issues etc. This seems ineffective from a strategic point of view.

I see how it could be taken that protests should have “broad” appeal to be effective. That is true, but its not how the word broad as used in the title is intended. Rather I’m thinking of “harnessing the masses” and “unity” in demands as equivalents for that notion of broadness.

One criticism of this is that you would end up with lowest-common-denominator protesting. Those with strong or extreme beliefs may be advised not to display such thoughts at a protest if it is wished for a protest to become popular. Can anyone be bothered to March for an issue so far removed from their heartfelt goal?

Secondly is the problem of enforcing adherence to only the widely held moderate goals. Protesters in Brazil were successful at shouting down those that lifted political flags – how in practice are you going to stop SWP banners at a mass protest. You might be adamant that the SWP presence is counter-productive in actually getting results. Their rhetoric is too extreme, unachievable and for many moderates on the left – alienating. But kindly asking them not to raise their banners might not be effective.

This all sort of implies that mass protest for all but the biggest; most widely supported; and most important issues is fairly ineffective in the strategic sense. In short, you normally get a better ‘return on investment’ from other forms of political activity.

I’m sure its not as simple as that though, but I think the effectiveness question is important if we want democracy to function well.

@Freeman – I should probably declare that I don’t consider myself politically left or right wing. In some cases you may be right – but my take on this (which could very well be plain wrong) would equally apply to all types of street protest. I’ve not followed actual events in Venezuela recently, but I wonder what the characteristics were of the right-leaning protests there.

@Cylux – Title wasn’t mine, but the original was as dull and unclickable as they come. As for the concept of “broad” – it is being used to refer to the range of publicly perceived goals of the protestors. As in, the G8 protests were so “broad” that banners were lofted for Palestine, Irish County Independence, Political Prisoners, Environmental issues etc. This seems ineffective from a strategic point of view.

I see how it could be taken that protests should have “broad” appeal to be effective. That is true, but its not how the word broad as used in the title is intended. Rather I’m thinking of “harnessing the masses” and “unity” in demands as equivalents for that notion of broadness.

One criticism of this is that you would end up with lowest-common-denominator protesting. Those with strong or extreme beliefs may be advised not to display such thoughts at a protest if it is wished for a protest to become popular. Can anyone be bothered to March for an issue so far removed from their heartfelt goal?

Secondly is the problem of enforcing adherence to only the widely held moderate goals. Protesters in Brazil were successful at shouting down those that lifted political flags – how in practice are you going to stop SWP banners at a mass protest. You might be adamant that the SWP presence is counter-productive in actually getting results. Their rhetoric is too extreme, unachievable and for many moderates on the left – alienating. But kindly asking them not to raise their banners might not be effective.

This all sort of implies that mass protest for all but the biggest; most widely supported; and most important issues is fairly ineffective in the strategic sense. In short, you normally get a better ‘return on investment’ from other forms of political activity.

I’m sure its not as simple as this – but teasing out how political wishes can be expressed effectively has a certain value whatever your politics.


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