Marches, Protests, and Civil Disobedience?

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by Stuart Noble

The recent march on the Mall in Washington D.C. has produced a fair amount of publicity in the media and discussion around the blogosphere for, well, a couple of days.



Let me start by saying,

The streets are dead capital. There is nothing to be gained on the streets.

If there is nothing (don’t read this in absolute terms) to be gained in the streets then where should political dissent be aimed? Some have suggested that online political activism represents a new form of civil disobedience. I tend to agree. In one sense, online political dissent is more effective than street marches and protests, primarily because the elite media doesn’t have absolute dominion over the message. The blogosphere has real power because of the free flow of information and ideas. This last bastion of democratic free flowing communication is a critical element to the preservation of freedom and liberty in a post-industrial large-scale society. However, while the free flow of information and ideas can translate into political capital, it doesn’t necessarily translate into political victory.

In order for civil disobedience to have any real effect it must be aimed at the power structure and it must disrupt that power structure in some meaningful way. The proud traditions of Gandhi, and King promoted civil disobedience through non-violence but that tradition was not one of mere protest alone. Gandhi and King both participated and promoted marches and protests. These activities served well to draw attention to their causes but their more powerful civil disobedience tools went right at the heart of the ruling economic structure. They understood that public attention alone wouldn’t bring about any lasting or meaningful change.

Why are the streets dead capital today? Because there is nothing to be gained from owning the streets. There is no power on the streets, thus nothing to be disrupted. The most anyone could hope for is a little short lived media attention like what we’ve just witnessed. Am I suggesting that large-scale gatherings of public protest are entirely useless? No. I am suggesting however, that without an economic incentive tied to the protest the action becomes little more than a face-to-face “echo chamber” for folks who share the same views.

Some have criticized the so called 60’s style protest activities as being nothing more than nostalgia clouded judgment which distracts us from meaningful activity. Perhaps some of that criticism is warranted. A Saturday afternoon peace march alone certainly isn’t very lasting or convincing. However, much of that activity in the 60’s was incredibly effective in that it combined protest with economic disruption. Companies were boycotted, business disrupted, military service evaded, university campuses shut down. Labor movements achieved success through similar tactics. A picket line alone never achieved much of anything. Unfortunately that’s what the modern labor movement in America has been reduced to.

Already 70% of Americans are against the war in Iraq. No amount of main stream media covered demonstrations are likely to sway the other 30%, and frankly what difference would it make? An overwhelming majority is in favor of ending the war and the government is acting completely independent of the people (read authoritarian). Apparently, 80% or 90% or 95% of the country could be against the war and the government would continue as planned. The problem is not that there isn’t enough media attention, or that the vast majority of Americans are against this illegitimate war and that they desire an immediate de-militarization of American foreign policy. The problem is that the government has no meaningful incentive to stop its illegal actions.

If the goal is an end to the war, then the tactics should focus on providing immediate incentives in the only language that elites understand; risk vs. return. Let’s dispense with any false hopes in the government sanctioned “democratic process”. American democracy has been hijacked by corporate royalists and they don’t intend on simply returning power to the people on principal. The sooner “average” Americans begin to embrace this very simple but “radical” principal, the sooner any real action can be taken. Saturday marches on the Mall, while commendable, are ultimately useless because they miss the heart of the problem. It’s like administering a treatment for the wrong disease.

Unfortunately, many Americans, (Westerners for that matter) operate under that same very rubric of risk vs. return, emotionally trapped within the confines of consumer comforts. Most of us live in a golden prison. Yet there are cracks in the prison system. Consumer sedation and ambiguity depended on a large enough self-absorbed “middle class” cut off from the lower classes and working poor. This “middle class” is both shrinking (joining the lower-classes) and becoming politically and socially engaged. Can the non-elite classes join together to effectively disrupt the economic foundation of power, thus providing the necessary incentives to bring the elites to the bargaining table? This was the strategy which finally brought about an end to segregation in America and independence for India. In fact, while not a non-violent revolution, the American revolution was largely a product of upper-middle class and working class colonists united against corporate elites and the British crown. The British royalists, while absolutely more economically and militarily powerful than the colonists, ultimately decided the risk of continuing war far outweighed the potential returns.

The 2006 congressional victories alone won’t amount to much without forceful, careful, and well planned civil disobedience. The new congress at best merely represents a slightly more pliable body to the Will of the people, but that Will must be asserted effectively. It seems there are many who are stocking up all their political ammo in anticipation of a political Mosses coming to deliver them from Egypt (read DeNile). We may as well stock up on pork and beans and wait for the second coming of Jesus; both are about as likely.

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