While reading the book Bullshit jobs1 and discussing its themes with my partner, she floated the idea that just like bullshit jobs, there’s an idea of bullshit protests. Before I elaborate let me put a disclaimer, the purpose here is not to say protesting is useless, not at all, but rather to try to identify its purpose as part of strategies and tactics used by groups to advance their causes.
Living in Dublin, one can avail of a protest on any subject almost every day. From climate change to trade union rights, to housing, to civil rights, to everything – there is always a protest. This piece proposes that some protests are bullshit protests I.e they exist purely for the purpose of existing and contribute nothing to a struggle in a certain direction.
It dawned on me significantly at the recent Housing & Homeless Coalition while Richard Boyd Barret was speaking. He said something like “Ten years ago we protested for NAMA to use housing for public housing. Ten years now we’re here”
Although his point was that the struggle is on-going, a tangential point is that protests didn’t work then – and they’re not working now and that despite 10 years of protesting, we were in a worse position than where we started, so the logical conclusion is that the tactics that were being used didn’t work.
If you apply that logic to every protest, you’ve been to, what then can the conclusion be?
Many of us who attend a protest, do so because believe that the protest is a tactic that is achieving change on the given subject. But what it shouldn’t, and what if it isn’t?
If this is the case then the obvious question should be raised, what is the purpose of it?
Protesting for the sake of it is bullshit protesting
As mentioned above, I attended many different protests and most of them, didn’t change the circumstances of the situation they were focused on. I think as a side note, the reason most people don’t attend protests in Right2Water style numbers is because they know said protests are meaningless. Only recently did I assess the purpose of the protest and whether it would change the situation we protested about. Before, I too, like others, thought that protesting makes change.
The reality is that on 95% of the on-going issues, the act of protest as an individual form of resistance has done very little. I say individual specifically because I think that if protest is part of multiple strategies that are more confrontational or direct, then it can be valuable.
But what of protests disconnected from any wider strategy? What of the protests that really are protests for the sake of having said your party/group/team had a protest?
These forms of protests are bullshit protests.
It’s hard to tell whether the organisers know it, possibly they don’t, but protests that validate their existence through their existence are bullshit. They are there to aggrandize the organisers and the speakers, to put them on a platform on a certain subject. The disingenuous part is that this act is completely performative. The protest occurs, the protest finishes, nothing happens – you move on to your next protest / issue with largely the same pool of people, from the same groups/backgrounds/unions/parties. Indeed, sometimes one would think all some members of groups are paid for is to head out and represent their group at any given group.
This may be glim, but I think it’s a more honest assessment of the protest ‘scene’ in Ireland, but in typical left-wing fashion I’ll present a slightly different model that alleviates the ‘bullshit’ aspect of a protest.
Strict gauging of objectives, goals and strategies
In order to do that, the objectives, goals and strategies behind protests must change. We should set out, when organising a protest, to ask as to what it will achieve.
“Will issue X be resolved or come closer to being resolved if a protest occurs?” is the formula I would suggest considering. Although one criticism could be it’s a very strict application, the response would be that it’s a more practical one.
Protests should be a part of a wider strategy towards achieving a goal.
“Will issue X be resolved or come closer to being resolved if a protest, as part of a doorknocking/occupying/military/civil disobedience campaign/blocking water meters/etc occurs?” is essentially how the call for a protest should look like.
If there is hard work being on a specific issue, in a specific field/area, then the level of investment by those involved will automatically be greater. The ‘density’ of interest in a particular problem is one essential feature of a successful protest.
Protesting for change
The act of doing something meaningful toward the issue is the only way I can answer that question. It’s better to use examples.
Right2Water was successful because people got out of their houses, had street meetings and then got arrested, regularly for stopping water meters. This act of resistance and defiance is what motivated the numbers to mobilise behind R2W. It was the activity, the ‘struggle’ that brought people out.
Similarly, during the civil war, when Republican movements had active military wings through recruitment from the local community, the act of a military campaign and the many complex struggles (hunger strike) that emerge from one, pushed people regularly onto protests. Many who attended were effectively indirect participants of the other struggles, who opted to demonstrate their support by committing to the act of protest.
In both instances, protest existed as part of anchored campaigns that actively struggled. In the current environment in Dublin, many protests are attached to no campaigns, but occur none the less.
We go back to the example mentioned above, the housing rally. The housing rally occurred on the eve of a bill that was going to lie because of the party whip system. Everybody knew that, so the selling of the protest was that the protest would effect change, but then obviously the problem is that we know it won’t – what is the purpose of It? I’m not going to claim to have a definitive answer, but I would controversially say there was no point of it.
The result of the bill would have been the same with or without the protest. For the protest to be effective, it must be part of more is the practical conclusion that I am drawing here. If a protest didn’t affect the change it wanted to, then it wasn’t sufficient by itself and more must be done.
Conclusion and brief lessons
What that ‘more’ is, is for the group organising the protest to determine, but usually it takes the form of more direct activity & engagement with your class/community/workplace then just protesting. It’ll be different in every set of circumstances. But for instance, when there was the attempted violent eviction of the Sunnyvale occupation in Stoneybatter, a protest was called for. It had a clear purpose in mind – defend the communtiy and retake the area – and a clear fail/succeed guideline because of that purpose. Whereas if Sunnyvale didn’t exist and a protest was called outside the premise making a demand for public housing. The two are in sharp contrast in their impact on class struggle and people’s consciousness. But what I would do if I was to call a protest for any subject, is spend a considerable amount of time thinking whet the goal of the protest is, and how the protest will help.
If for example to combat racism in my community I started calling protests over the subject, they’d run out of steam very quick because in of themselves they wouldn’t do much. If I however spent time with my comrades assisting the overcoming of racism through practical personal and direct interventions towards formal/institutional/informal problems, the protest might carry more weight and purpose I.e it would be solidifying existing work.
In many ways, we don’t think about criticizing protest, because we’ve been imbued to think of all protests as having purpose because they’re occurring. Drop that good faith presumption and rigorously ask your comrades/colleagues/trade union members the purpose of the protests they organise or go to.
I suspect that in most circumstances, ‘more needs to be done’ will be the answer.
Don’t get me started on petitions and meetings….