On Protests with No Identifiable Theme

This article is a good example of another recurrent thing that people say about G20 protests is “There are so many different issues here! Do you lot actually agree about anything?”

It lists “gender justice, queer rights and disability rights…environmental and climate justice…indigenous sovereignty…migrant justice…an end to war and occupation…income equity and community control over resources”, as well as Palestinian freedom, the legalisation of Cannabis, and what the author, quite wrongly, regards as a “simple” message, namely “fuck law and order”.

From personal experience, I can add Tibet freedom, Ethiopians against the tyrant of Ethiopia, Falun Gong legalisation, labor rights, animal rights, and a single person in a T-shirt reading “Mad Pride” (it read that on the back – I didn’t see the front, but I like to imagine it read ‘Mad Skillz’). Guevara and Mao, depressingly, had their hairy/chubby faces plastered everywhere, and there was a fair-sized 9/11-was-an-inside-job contingent.

“But”, worries the article’s author, “but you have to wonder: with so many messages, does any one of them really stick?” Moreover, the protests “seems to have no identifiable theme”.

Now, I’d be the last person to refuse a bit more articulation of systematic theories, or to deny that there’s less clarity than there could be in events like this. But I don’t think the whole is as chaotic as people sometimes suggest.

Not everyone who’s unhappy was there, after all. I didn’t see any indication of people demanding harsher action against illegal immigrants, nor any pro-life groups. I didn’t see any patriotic ‘support the troops’ placards, nor anyone angry that there was too much government spending, too much government involvement in healthcare, or too much welfare for the lazy and feckless.

And even though Obama was the presiding grande fromage, I suspect that there’s very little overlap between the people who would go to a ‘Tea-Party’ protest and those who would go to an ‘anti-G20’ protest, even though both groups are very diverse and almost equally lacking in an ‘identifiable theme’.

So there is something that unifies the different protesters, even if that something is hard to put into words. Some sort of psychological or sociological nexus is involved in determining which issues cluster with which others.

And the thing is, many of the protest groups have a theory of what that nexus is.

On the one hand, a communist who is very concerned with the exploitation of the working class can explain that the interests of the working class align with the interests of many of groups – drug laws tend to incarcerate the working class, environmental destruction is borne by the working class, oppressed races are turned into sections of the working class, border controls mainly affect working-class travelers, puritanical laws penalise sex workers, wars are mainly workers killing other workers, etc.

At least three reasons can be given for this:

1) The working class is defined by lacking a particular sort of power, namely sufficient wealth to provide an income independent of labour. Naturally, therefore, members of higher classes, possessing a greater measure of power, will be better able to avoid the negative effects of whatever society unleashes on them: to move house away from the crumbling coasts, afford better lawyers, etc.

2) For the same reason, higher classes tend to have more social influence, and so can better ensure that policies are crafted with their interests in mind. For working class groups to acquire comparable levels of influence is the outcome of painstaking and precarious struggle.

3) Finally, because the working class are thrust into conflict with the status quo by their class interests, they are the natural and default targets of every disciplinary measure taken, and hence of any aggressive or defensive impulse (wherever it originates – even working-class resentment can easily find a target in some other section of the working class).

For all these reasons, defending the cause of the working class commits one to defending more or less everyone who finds themselves brutalised, neglected, excluded or violated.

And it goes further. Why should anyone be brutalised or violated in the first place? Why are there wars and power-struggles and illiberal laws and repressive institutions? The particular causes in each case will vary, of course, but it would surprising if there was no common feature. If that common feature is itself a political issue, something to which one can meaningfully express opposition, then there’s reason to expect that many such issues will cluster around that causative one.

What might such a common feature be? It might be that our economic system is built around structural antagonisms – or it might be that our sexual psyches are built around ideas of eroticised submission or domination. Or it might be both, or one might explain the other. Or it might be something else.

My point is just that there are coherent ideas available about why a bewildering variety of issues might cluster together – of which, communist and feminist ideas are to my mind the most plausible (though of course not the only ones).

In proportion as we find protests that exhibit this sort of wildly diverse, but still somewhat regular, clustering, perhaps we should take this as supporting evidence for those coherent ideas, rather than as indicating the incoherence of the protests.

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