Protesting is sensible, lobbying is unrealistic.

I’m sick of hearing that protests don’t work, that they are “unrealistic” and “idealistic”, and that what we need is “sensible” lobbying campaigns. The empirical research, and the social scientists working on the issue (not to mention vast reams of historical studies), support the claim that protest is massively effective. This holds whether they are qualitative ethnographers or “hard-nosed” econometricians. Two great articles are: Amplifying Public Opinion: The Policy Impact of the U.S. Environmental Movement and Social Movements as Extra-institutional Entrepreneurs: The Effect of Protest on Stock Price Returns. There are many others. On the other hand I’ve been unable to find a single article arguing that protests are generally ineffective.

Interestingly when I searched for papers illustrating the social scientific consensus on the effectiveness of protest, I also encountered numerous newspaper articles, opinion pieces etc. claiming with mysterious confidence that protests don’t tend to work. The contrast between wall to wall support for the effectiveness of protests by social scientists, and near unanimous scepticism by journalists interested in the issue was striking. The common picture painted by journalists was that lobbying campaigns are “realistic” and protests “idealistic”. If anything is idealistic, it’s thinking that having a nice friendly chat to decision makers without any power to back you up is a good way to make a difference.

The preference of fashionable journalists and centrist party hacks for the view that the “real action” occurs in the corridors of power finds its roots in the contempt of these folks for ordinary people qua political agents, and not a reasonable assessment of known facts.

Would that the anti-popular tendencies of the media were impotent! Sadly one of the best ways to make protest less effective than it could be is to declare it utterly ineffective and repeat this point as a mantra. An enormous wealth of material indicates that one of the primary factors in determining whether or not people attend protests is belief in their efficacy, and thus from the seventies onwards the press defamed protest as a hobby much like, and about as useful, as toy-car collecting. No doubt this was one of the many factors which led to it’s temporary decline. Protest is only now again beginning to wax not wane.

In a section in “Direct Action, an Ethnography”, Graeber documents the attitudes of journalists who increasingly refuse to cover protests. These journalists argue that they “marginal” and “ineffective” and that they are not real news because they are artificially constructed in order to become news. As if half of what journalists cover isn’t like this anyway! Countless, contentless press releases by politicians with no point except to criticise some recent slip of the tongue by their opponent are apparently less artificial than the anger of hundreds or thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) who want to be heard.

If you’re a journalist with some influence over public opinion and a substantial streak of scepticism about that public (most of them), spinning nonsense about the ineffectiveness of protest looks very tempting. Especially since the politicians whose tea you sip are no doubt keen to assure that it was rational argumentation and careful deliberation rather than a mass of yelling people (or worse, a mass engaged in illegal direct action) which changed their position.

None of this is helped by a generation of often spineless, thoroughly recuperated, protest organisers who are steadfastly committed to the principle that they exist to provide content on whatever topic journalists think is fashionable at the time. I remember once having helped organise a free education protest only to be told off by a journalist for being unrealistic. Apparently free education wasn’t on the agenda as if the affected people had no right or power to set the agenda for themselves.

Fortunately protests don’t need mainstream media support in order to work. Contrary to popular opinion, the primary route of their effectiveness is not generating news articles, and besides, much as a good chunk of the media would like not too cover them, in the final analysis protests are interesting, public events and the logic of competition leaves them little choice. Protest is something to be proud of, an expression of collective action and of hard-edged rationality, and not a whimsical indugelnce.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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4 Responses to Protesting is sensible, lobbying is unrealistic.

  1. Amount of rallies for recognition of sex and/or gender diversity: ZERO.
    Amount of Lobbying: YEARS of hard work by a dedicated few.
    Result: WIN.
    But please, tell me about your successful campaign/s won with rallies, Timothy.

    • In terms of campaigns I’ve played a big part in, the staff cuts campaign, and soon the strike have all been big wins. There have been many other smaller wins as well, but signficant in their own way. The title makes a stronger claim than I can backup of course, it’s irony, meant to mock the grandiose claims sometimes made for lobbying and against protest.

      Lobbying is sometimes effective as the S&G diverse movement has shown pretty well. I’ve got no animus against lobbying really- part of what I do for my job is lobbying and yes, sometimes it’s effective.

      The wins of the S&G diversity campaign have been enormous, but it’s worth noting that it was exceptional as a campaign in at least three respects (or at least from my relatively distant perspective it seemed this way, if I’m wrong let me know.). Firstly in that meeting the demands cost the government relatively little. Secondly in that there was no massive organised counter-movement. Thirdly in that important components were carried out through the courts which I wouldn’t quite regard as lobbying per se.

  2. David says:

    A blog post contrasting the efficacy of purely symbolic actions with direct action would be awesome, please.

    • Direct action is more effective than purely symbolic actions all other things being equal. The reasons for this are so obvious that surely no one could fail to spot them. Not sure I’ve got enough for a blog post.

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