Why Protest the Conventions?

by Michael Albert

RAN.org web site


The usual answer to "why protest the conventions?" is to list various violations of humanity that the two branches of our one corporate party, the republicans and democrats, persist in maintaining, and to note that we are demanding change in all these areas: (pages of international policy); advancing domestic police and prison violence that turns communities into occupied battle zones; imposing welfare havoc that further impoverishes the already poor; facilitating generalized corporate rapaciousness that materially and socially diminishes workers lives; legislating health care collapse that drops people dead who ought to have been cared for and restored; entrenching citizen and worker disempowerment from all sides of economic and political decision-making; abetting media madness that robs culture of content; enabling dis-education of our young that they might fit awaiting social slots needing them to obey authority and endure boredom; partaking of the alienation of most sides of life by elevating profits over people; procuring weapons without limit; and battering and bashing the poor, the homeless, the gay, the female, the black or latino with minimal outcry and reply.

But while these lists explain why the Republican and Democratic Conventions are justifiable targets if we protest, they don't explain why anyone should protest in the first place. Whats the efficacy of it? Why will it help? Nor do the lists explain why the conventions or any other sites are especially good (or bad) targets supposing that we ought to be protesting at all? Nor why one method and focus is wise and not some other?

So assuming our one party with two branches polity is part and parcel of maintaining the many injustices noted, I want to address why protest at all, why not just resign and make the best of it? and what form and focus should we choose for our protest, if we undertake it?

Raise the Social Cost! The reason to demonstrate in this and other cases is to forcefully impact policy. It isnt that our demonstrations educate policy-makers so they then willingly change their choices. It isnt that our demonstrations awaken a moral sensibility in policy-makers, so they then willingly change their choices. A policy-maker could be educated or enlightened sufficiently to truly change priorities, conceivably, but the most likely outcome for a policy-maker whose comprehension or values changed so dramatically would be dismissal, not increased influence. When the (very) occasional and (very) unusual Daniel Ellsberg or Ramsey Clark are impacted by dissent to renovate their thinking and renounce their prior role in elite decision-making, they arent thereafter welcomed to still higher plateaus of power, they are expunged.

So how do demonstrations affect policies if not by enlightening or morally uplifting policy-makers to have different attitudes? Demonstrations coerce elites. At any given moment, elite policy-makers have a whole array of priorities. Change in policy occurs when policy-makers decide that not changing is not in their interest. Change occurs, that is, when movements raise social costs that policy-makers are no longer willing to endure and which they can only escape by relenting to movement demands. So what constitutes a social cost for elite policy-makers? What actions of ours bother them? What actions of ours have high impact, forcing them to comply with our agendas rather than persisting in their own?

Tactical calculation about movement tactics runs like this: If receiving lots of critical letters and email messages doesnt bother elites, and if this doesnt lead to other actions that will bother elites, then writing letters is not useful. If, on the other hand, lots of mail does bother elites by making them nervous about their base of support, or for any other reasons, or if it leads to other actions with these effects, then letter writing is one good choice for dissent. And the same holds for holding a rally, a march, a sit-in, a riot, or whatever else. If these choices either in themselves or by what they promise in the future raise lasting and escalating social costs for elites who are in position to impact policy, or if they organize and empower constituencies to do additional things that in turn will raise lasting and escalating social costs for these elites, then they are good tactics for dissidents to choose.

Reciprocally, regardless of how militant or insightful or morally warranted, if a protest or rally or whatever else would diminish social costs over time, say by reducing the number of dissidents or by causing dissidents to fracture and in-fight, it is not a good tactical choice. And of course, social cost doesnt mean dollar cost. Elites have deep pockets, it is their power they worry about and their power we must call into question.

Trying to win a new stoplight in a small community at a dangerous corner takes one level of social costs, not too large, aimed at the town powers that be. But when talking about matters as important to elites as world trade, the structure of the nations polity, the breadth of police violence to preserve elite rule, sexual injustice, racial profiling and inequity, pursuing education and healthcare that make profit but don't serve non-elite human needs, or poverty more generally and other class differences, the offsetting social costs we need to raise to cause them to change their agenda have to be very high to be effective. That means our dissent has to threaten to disturb relationships that elites care about even more than they care about the IMF, the expanding prison system, or other policies or projects we want cancelled,Äîand the only thing the qualifies for that is their own elite status via the institutional and ideological underpinnings of their material and social advantages.

The specter of more and more people not only being upset about the IMF and World Bank and WTO, or Mumia, or affirmative action, but also upset about unjust economic or race or gender relations per se, and not only upset about these, but being willing to voice their anger and to act on it,Äîvery much disturbs elites. But if dissent has no expanding trajectory then it is weak and can be ignored or placated. For example, if continuing to protest current global economic policies will result in a large subgroup of critics who, however, do not become steadily angrier, do not steadily grow in number, do not steadily expand their concerns from global to domestic economics and from symptoms to underlying causes, then the price to elites of permitting this activism is relatively easy to bear. So what if there is a periodic mass demo in Washington, stable in size and focus. As long as dissent is going nowhere that threatens basic interests, it is no big deal for elites.

This tells us that to have serious effects on policy we need to demonstrate a trajectory of dissent in which there are not only steadily growing numbers who reject a policy we want changed, but also steadily more people willing to demonstrate more militantly, as well as steadily more people who are making broader connections and becoming not just world trade dissidents, or prison policy dissidents, or poverty dissidents, but permanently pissed off opponents of elite rule and wealth per se. A steadily enlarging trajectory of dissent, growing in size and broadening in focus -- that is most certainly a big deal for elites, a social cost they must address.

We therefore need movements congenial to new participation and welcoming as many new people as possible into dissent, and which propel folks to become ever more conscious and aware, ever more militant, and ever more diverse in their priorities. This communicates what elites don't want to hear, danger to their status.

If our dissent about the IMF, or Mumias continued incarceration, or worsening distributions of income, or burgeoning defense spending and collapsing infrastructure and education, has a component that goes beyond the immediate target to talk about corporate power and other defining oppressive social structures and hierarchies per se, that is good. If it has a component that goes beyond taking a visible but relatively calm stand to also being civilly disobedient, that too is good. If it can link-up concerns of gender, race, ecology, economic poverty and disempowerment here in the U.S. with global economic concerns, that too is good. If it can stretch its members focus to encompass the diverse priorities of many movements, that is excellent.

The policy-related logic of dissent is therefore simple: Growing numbers plus broadening consciousness and deepening commitment each of which are carried through in constructive empowering ways says to elites, look at this trajectory. If you keep on with this global economics or police or welfare or other oppressive agenda you favor, not only will there be steadily more opponents of that, but there will also be steadily more folks questioning your elite position in society and the conditions that give you your power and wealth. If we hold demonstrations that convey that threat, you can bet they will hear us.

What Form and Focus for Protest?

Whatever galvanizes constituencies to display a trajectory of dissent that can win change is good. But that shouldnt be the whole story. One part of a good approach to a problem such as a heinous war, the IMF, growing police repression, or battering, is certainly to target an associated policy for termination (like the IMF) or for implementation (like a full employment act or affirmative action), and then mount campaigns to win the aim. Such gains better the lives of deserving beneficiaries, which is our immediate priority. But struggles for justice should have another dimension as well, a more far-seeing dimension.

We should seek immediate reduction of injustices or implementation of desirable programs, of course, but we should also seek to change the basic defining relations of society that breed injustices and impede liberation in the first place. And these short- and long-term agendas should be mutually supporting. The short-term effort to force elites to alter some major program or policy benefits when elites worry that the growing short-term opposition will ultimately challenge their overall power and position. Likewise, the struggle to permanently alter defining power, wealth, gender, and cultural relations benefits when immediate victories we win increase prospects for further activism and empower new structures of struggle.

The point is, when we demonstrate at a town hall, a corporate headquarters, a party convention, the capital mall, or the IMFs international meetings, we should not only try to win some immediate aims , remove the toxic dump, raise our pay, restore affirmative action, free Mumia and Leonard, end the IMF, make reparations, end the bombing, raise the minimum wage , we should also try to build a movement that fights to remove the causes of all injustice, overcoming the totality of oppressions and unleashing a world of liberation.

But this means we need to choose our focuses, methods, and organizational approaches so as to both strengthen the immediate prospects of victory around short-run aims and to also propel the longer term on-going effort of movement building. Both agendas are important, and they should be mutually supporting. In this light, here are five things I think Convention demonstrators and organizers and indeed all demonstrators and organizers ought address as problems we currently need to solve in our work.

Solidarity and Autonomy: The Umbrella Problem

Movements elevate different priorities because people endure different conditions depending on race, gender, class, and diverse other factors. This diversity of orientation is good, but that our movements often don't aid one another, or even compete with one another, is bad. In LA and Philly there will be feeder marches, rallies, teach-ins, and all kinds of occurrences with varying primary demands and agendas. This is perfectly reasonable because different agendas need space to develop, gain confidence, and retain focus, whether at big gatherings or in the country more generally. But to win, beyond space of their own, different agendas also need breadth of allegiance, which means each has to benefit from the strength and character of the rest. We thus need to solve the problem of respecting diversity and even autonomy while simultaneously building overarching solidarity. Even as we have our own agendas, everyone must ultimately also be mutually supportively fighting the totality of oppressions. One big step in this direction will be for larger movements to support smaller ones and for richer movements to help pay the way of poorer ones , unreservedly, with peoples bodies and with resources too. Thats something worth working on in our convention organizing, and beyond.

Keeping Folks Involved: The Stickiness Problem

Millions of people come into proximity of the left, participating in various events and projects, but later leave. There are many reasons why people often don't stick with it. Not least, however, a movement that can persevere over the long haul with continuity and commitment needs to uplift rather than harass its membership, to enrich its members lives rather than diminish them, to meet its members needs rather than neglect them.

To join a movement and become lonelier is not the way forward. To join a movement and become less humorous is not the way forward. We need to prioritize making our projects places that folks from all kinds of backgrounds would want to spend their time even if it werent the moral and socially responsible thing to do. I don't mean that changing the world can become all play and no work. Movement building of course involves lots of tedium, lots of hard work, and we cant always be doing precisely what we prefer, much less precisely what we would have preferred in a just world. But there is no reason to make movement building as deadening as possible, rather than as rich, varied, and rewarding as possible.

Movement participation should provide people full, diverse lives that real people can partake of, not merely long meetings or obscure lifestyles so divorced from social involvement that they preclude all but a very few from partaking.

Our Values, Our Movement: Our Own Structural Adjustment Problem

We seek to end racism and sexism in society. We know that to be credible at that we must also persevere to reduce and finally end racial and sexual hierarchies inside our movements , because otherwise we are hypocritical, we arent inspiring, we suffer the ills of these oppressions ourselves, our movements will not attract or retain much less empower women and people of color, and we also wont be able to retain our anti-racist and anti-sexist priorities outwardly. There is more work to be done on this score, but the insight is good.

However, we also seek to end economic injustice and class hierarchy in society. And we have to realize that to be credible at that, it also has implications for how we behave in our own movements. We must patiently, calmly, and constructively restructure our movements so that they no longer replicate corporate divisions of labor and of decision-making power and market norms of remuneration. This must become a priority to avoid class-centered hypocrisy, to become inspiring, to not suffer (or perpetrate) class alienations ourselves, to attract, retain, and empower working people in our efforts, and to retain our economic justice focuses outwardly. Class, needs to be brought back into priority alongside race and gender,Äînot in place of them,Äîand in ways that address not only the ills of capital, but those of high-level, decision-monopolizing, managerial and coordinative workers, too, and, in particular, the positive needs of labor.

Reaching Out: The Megaphone Problem

It is a constant refrain , how come you leftists are always talking to the choir? Yes, there are probably some activists who do this because it is easier than reaching out to people we don't know who may disagree with what we have to say, and who may even be hostile at times. Leftists with this insular attitude ought to rethink it, of course. But the main explanation for why people on the left are most often talking to people who are also on the left or who already wish to be on the left, is that the left doesnt have a megaphone that we can shout into that is loud enough to be heard by folks who arent already all ears to our messages.

Our media is still very small and therefore reaches overwhelmingly only folks who are already looking for it. We reach the choir because only the choir is in position to hear or see our shows, plays, print communications. So we need to strengthen our existing alternative media, supporting and enlarging it, and we need to pressure mainstream media as well , but we also need to take seriously the problem of how the left gains media mechanisms that place left views, analyses, agendas, and visions in the face of the whole population rather than appearing only in hard-to-find nooks and crannies that people have to search for to even know we exist.

Where To, and Why? The Vision Problem

What are you for is another constant refrain from those we try to organize, or from bystanders, and even from many people in the movement, especially as they sometimes feel doubts. It is a very fair question. And the absence of good, accessible, shared answers ought not be defended as somehow enlightened, nor justified as accurately reflecting the difficulty of the issues. Pure and simple, our absence of vision ought to embarrass us.

We need vision that is held openly and publicly, subject to continual refinement and not shrouded in obscurity. We need it about economics, political institutions and law, families and kinship, culture, the ecology, and international relations. We need it to inspire, provide hope, inform criticism of what is, orient long-term strategy and short-term program, and change us from being mostly negative to being mostly positive. The bottom line is, people in this country and around the world long since know that the basics of society are broken, or, more accurately, that they never worked humanely in the first place, and that countless lives are lost and endless souls sundered as a result. What people doubt is that anything better is possible. If we don't talk vision and strategy accessibly, compellingly, and with breadth and depth, we arent talking to the real obstacles that prevent most people from seeking change.

Pick Up the Tab: The Money Problem

Finally, there is a very odd condition in our movements. We know that money matters in society, but we don't seem to realize that money matters on the left too. Where does it come from? How is it handled? Is it empowering a few to the detriment of the many? Is there enough? Most leftists don't know the answers because this topic is basically taboo. Try to find essays and ruminations much less proposals about how events, projects, and demos should be funded; much less how the funds that do come in should be redistributed among efforts. Mostly, you cant. There is a gigantic silence. Heres but one current example: There is endless talk on the left about using the internet constructively, which is good, but there is almost no talk about how to have left internet operations generate revenues. Maybe this sixth focus should have been called the Ostrich Problem. At any rate, ignoring how we get and handle money is a dead-end approach beneficial only to those who monopolize control of what marginal monies the left now enjoys. This too needs to be addressed.

The Bottom Line: Why Demonstrate

So whats the bottom line? Why go to Philly? Why go to LA? How should we go, with what priorities, slogans, tactics? Even more important, why organize others to go there, or to protest at home, and to keep involved in the future? And why organize where you live, work, or go to school, not just about these events, but more broadly about social change generally?

The answer is that we protest and organize to raise the social cost to elites of maintaining the policies we want changed and to thereby force immediate gains benefiting those now suffering most. And the answer is that we organize to empower and enlighten diverse constituencies and to create lasting beachheads of organization and commitment in an on-going process of movement building aiming at fundamental , and yes, revolutionary change.

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