There is a certain breed of cynic on the left who will tell you there’s no point in demonstrations, that marches, protests etc are managed spectacles through which an authoritarian political system projects an illusion of democratic participation and offers a safety valve to release potentially dangerous and destabilising pressures. Such pessimism is not entirely unfounded, but it can lead to positions whose consequences do the left no favours whatsoever.
I have often heard this argument in connection with the great Iraq war demos. Look what happened, some people will tell you with a knowing shake of the head, more than a million people marched and they couldn’t stop the war. Well no we couldn’t, but people who make this argument rarely have any concrete suggestion to make as to what could have stopped it, beyond vague exhortations to ‘direct action’ that were not politically possible at the time and which had no more guarantee of success.
One historical response to the ‘if demonstrations would achieve anything, the system wouldn’t allow them’ argument is to adopt an ultra radical ‘realist’ position, in which nothing remains but to bash the rich and establish a revolutionary underground and start bombing and shooting NOW. After all, if managed political protest is only intended to disguise the reality of class war then let the war begin, right? This is the position that the Red Army Fraktion once adopted back in the sixties and seventies, when it set out to expose the ‘contradictions’ of the ‘raspberry Reich’, and we know how well that went.
Another ‘realist’ response to the pointlessness of demonstrations is apathy and passivity, because if demonstrations don’t change the world then the world won’t change, so why bother doing anything?
A more useful way of looking at demonstrations is to see them as part of a process, an extension of politics by other means that not only enables a movement of opposition to make itself visible to the wider society and also to itself. Because it is actually very important for individuals who dream of a different kind of society than the one we have to become part of a crowd from time to time and make their physical presence felt, to celebrate their activism and share the same same space with each other, and take heart from the fact that there are – contrary to appearances – many people around the country with very similar goals.
It is also necessary to send a signal to politicians, to the government, and the wider society, that there is a movement out there that does not accept the status quo and that has not surrendered to the bleak philosophy of TINA – there is no alternative.
All these objectives were met in yesterday’s terrific demonstration against austerity in in Parliament Square. Many of us who went on that march needed a filip after the massive defeat on election night. We needed to remind each other and ourselves that we were still here, and we did that. I was surprised to hear that 250,000 people attended – it seemed like less than that to me, but there was no doubt that there were a lot of people there:
They came from different professions and communities across the country to oppose the disastrous cuts proposed by a cruel and reactionary government, and the even more savage cuts that are beling planned:
Shelley once described a country governed by rulers like Castlereagh ‘who neither see, nor feel, nor know.’ Yesterday’s demonstrators might have said the same about his descendants, but some of them expressed it visually instead:
All of them were there to let the government know that winning an election does not give it a carte blanche to transform British society into a neoliberal corporate pastureland, and that its attempts to do so will be opposed:
And the defiance wasn’t just limited to them. As one woman put it succinctly, walking along smiling with her two young kids in tow, sometimes there is only one thing you can say:
A message that most of us who were in Parliament Square heartily agreed with. So no, yesterday’s demonstration didn’t change the world. Maybe ‘the system’ allowed it to happen, but I was glad to be there, and happy to be reminded that a movement of opposition was still out there beyond the sour, gimlet-eyed bigots of Ukip, and in spite of the pathetic excuse for an opposition that helped bring about the disaster on election night.
Many of the speakers made the point that this was only the beginning. And many of the demonstrators who went home at the end of the afternoon took that message home with them and hopefully felt, as I did, that whatever happens in the future, we still exist and Lord Snooty and His Pals still have a fight on their hands.