American in Spain

When are protest demonstrations reasonable?

May 23, 2011

Manifestación Democracia Real Ya - Madrid 15 Mayo 2011For a long time, I have been unable to understand the point of political and social demonstrations and parades and such. I have at least two posts to this effect. What does Congress care if a bunch of rainbow-flag-waving hippies are out on the National Mall? That's not going to change anyone's mind!

With the combination of a number of successful political demonstrations – the most successful being that of Egypt – in the first quarter of 2011 and a video lecture I saw on YouTube, I finally had an epiphany about why demonstrations matter, and how they can be effective. The whole video is wonderful, but the epiphany-inducing section about protests starts at 8:05.

I know that you know that I know

The whole point of assembling a mass of people in a public square is to stand in solidarity in the mutual knowledge that you all agree on something. When the Wisconsin Republicans had to walk through a mob of peacefully chanting protesters on their way to strip collective bargaining rights from state employees in March 2011, it was clear mutual knowledge for both the protesters and the legislators that the bill was unpopular. If the protesters had not been there, the legislators might have thought the general public was in agreement with their actions, and the would-be protesters might have been sitting at home thinking that they were in the minority in their opinion. When a protest is large enough, the person in power being protested may very well ignore the protesters, but everyone knows that the protesters are being willfully ignored. It strips the leaders of that wonderful phrase "plausible deniability". I get that.

Note that changing the color of your Twitter avatar is still stupid, because there's no guarantee that the "protestee" will have any knowledge of your subtle hue shift.

A protest needs an objective

The primary reason that regime changing protests like the one in Egypt earlier this year can be so successful is that they have a solitary objective. "We will protest until Mubarak steps down." The leadership knows what needs to happen to get people to stop protesting and go back to work.

Even when a protest fails to achieve its goal, like in Wisconsin, if it had a singular objective, the fact that the leadership went directly against the will of the people remains salient and undeniable.

What does not work well is a generic protest of discontentment. This month has seen a large political protest movement in Spain erupt. They call themselves Democracia Real YA! (Real Democracy NOW!). Their manifesto reads a lot like the General Strike Manifesto I translated last September. They are unhappy with the government and feel that neither of the two primary parties actually listens to the will of the people, and they've had enough, dammit!

My reaction to this movement is to smile at the naiveté, like that of an 18-year-old who's just read some Nietzsche or Ayn Rand and thinks she's got the world all figured out. Welcome to life in a modern western democracy; this is as "real" as democracy gets, and it's arguably the best and most fair system of large scale government humans have ever come up with. Is there room for improvement? Of course. Will it improve? Almost certainly. But for now, know that you're on the very cutting edge of governance technology.

Getting angry at all political parties and all authority won't fix anything. Even if one could get another party on the ballot, and everyone that supports the movement voted for that party, would anything change? No, of course not. Because A) Power corrupts, and B) Governing is really hard!

Yesterday was Election Day in Spain, for municipal and some autonomous regions (like states in the US), not for the national government. Of course the results were totally predictable. The mass discontentment swung the political pendulum from the left to the right. When a few years pass and people are still discontent, the pendulum will swing back the other way, and so on...and so on...and so on...


In the same way that The War On Terror was doomed to failure from the start merely by its name, a protest against everything cannot possibly succeed. If your manifesto has more than two bullet points, you're sunk before you've left the dock. Protest can and does work, but the political weapon you're swinging needs to have a very sharp edge.