Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Protest Futile In The Absence Of Consensus Politics

Who's Listening? Protests remain effective only while the political and economic consensus that governments should respond to their citizens' grievances persists. New Zealand's neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and 90s overturned that consensus. All that protests do now is convince neoliberal politicians that their policies are producing the intended effects.

RELIABLE ESTIMATES of the size of the weekend protests against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) put the number of participants at a modest 2,500. Martyn Bradbury, colourful editor of The Daily Blog, speaking to more than 1,000 “It’s Our Future” protesters in Auckland, said:
 
“I think that it really shows that economic sovereignty issues are actually quite central to New Zealanders’ concept about who they are and how they see themselves and losing that kind of sovereignty is a major concern — it’s no longer just a fringe issue.”
 
Bradbury later described the nationwide protest effort as “an incredible turnout for the esoteric intricacies of free trade deals”.
 
Placed alongside the great protests of the past, a nationwide turnout of 2,500 in defence of New Zealand’s “economic sovereignty” is indeed “incredible” – but perhaps not in the way Martyn meant!
 
But even if the “It’s Our Future” protests against the TPPA had reached the 50,000 benchmark figure established by Greenpeace’s highly effective protest against mining in national parks, it is highly debatable whether it would have been sufficient to make this government reconsider it iron-clad commitment to free trade.
 
The presence of large numbers of protesters on the streets no longer seems to give governments pause. Evidence of widespread public dissent long ago ceased to be politically decisive because policy-makers are no longer driven by the need to preserve a broad political consensus. Opposition is generally anticipated by today’s politicians, and provided it does not come from those economic and social actors deemed critical to their re-election, it is also generally ignored.
 
One has only to think of the hundreds-of-thousands of “indignacios” (indignant ones) who poured onto the streets of Spain during the worst months of the Global Financial Crisis. Or, recall the grim street-battles between police and protesters outside the Greek parliament in Athens as that impoverished country’s legislators voted to accept the European Union’s rescue package – along with the vicious austerity measures that constituted its political price.
 
What was it, then, that made the maintenance of a broad political consensus so important in the past and why is that no longer the case?
 
In the three decades following World War II – a period sometimes referred to as “The Age of Consensus” – the maintenance of social peace and prosperity remained the No. 1 political objective of both the centre-left and the centre-right. The “historic compromise” between capital and labour (big business and the trade unions) which had given birth to the Welfare State required both sides to restrain their radical extremes and cleave to the middle way. With memories of the Great Depression and the War still fresh in the minds of most citizens, any other course of action would have been most unwise.
 
Throughout this period, any manifestation of widespread social and/or political dissent was, accordingly, regarded as a direct threat to the prevailing bipartisan consensus. Prime-ministers and Leaders of the Opposition, alike, responded quickly (and often favourably) to the protesters’ demands.
 
The socially levelling effects of consensus politics could not, however, endure beyond the point where they began to undermine the power and persuasiveness of capitalism itself. The extraordinary success of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan is largely explained by their willingness to challenge the core elements of the Age of Consensus by attacking the unions, abandoning progressive taxation and reducing the responsiveness of the state. The neoliberal revolution which Thatcher and Reagan unleashed was thus predicated on the assumption that if the minority who mattered in capitalist society were to go on mattering, then the majority was going to have to learn to be disappointed.
 
Hence the dwindling impact and effectiveness of protest. Far from spurring Governments to reconsider their policies, mass protests actually provided them with evidence that the contested policies were correct. The 300,000 workers who protested against the National Government’s Employment Contracts Bill during the first fortnight of April 1991, far from constituting proof of the Bill’s inequity, merely confirmed for the Right the urgent necessity of its passage.
 
But if protest no longer works how are we to explain Greenpeace’s success? Or, for that matter – Ukraine’s?
 
In the former case it was not Greenpeace’s mobilisation efforts alone that made the difference. Tens of thousands of National Party members and voters had directly communicated their outrage to National’s MPs through letters, e-mails and phone-calls. These were the government’s core supporters in rebellion. They counted.
 
The protesters who overthrew the Ukrainian Government possessed an advantage that all the protesters described above lacked: the covert support of the armed forces. They knew that violence against the police would not be answered by violence from the army. What happened in Kiev’s Independence Square wasn’t a protest – it was a coup d’├ętat by crowd.
 
Strip the state of its armed protection and mass protest rapidly escalates into full-scale revolt.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 April 2014.

12 comments:

Pete George said...

"The presence of large numbers of protesters on the streets no longer seems to give governments pause."

Possibly because they are seen for what they are, just another campaign tool, used too often and protesting issues that are not widely understood or cared about.

It's more effective to read public sentiments, pick your fights, pick the right moment and do them properly.

When perpetual protesters struggle for numbers and look jaded they are easily ignored, and not just by the Government.

And it's difficult talking up a revolution in one of the most benign countries in the best era ever in human existence. Sure there's problems but to most people they are quibbles compared to history and the movies.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

New Zealand is a society of pressure groups, even more so because of our small size. I'm pretty sure that governments respond to them at times demonstration or not. After all, they try to restrict the recreational fisherman's bag limits at one time and had to drop the whole thing. It would be interesting to know how many recreational fisherman vote National/ Labour, and how much the commercial fishing industry contributes to the National party coffers. Could be a thesis topic :-).

Jigsaw said...

Just been reading about the latest developments in Venezuela and then your blog-how come it never gets a mention now Chris? A socialist paradise surely-rationing, government spies, hunger and repression......

Chris Trotter said...

To: Paul Scott.

Your comments are becoming increasingly bizarre, Paul.

Until they start approximating something intelligible I will continue to delete them.

jh said...

What's the TTPA Chris?

jh said...

Wikipedia:
Psychologist Mark van Vugt recently argued that modern organizational leadership is a mismatch.[45]. His argument is that humans are not adapted to work in large, anonymous bureacratic structures with formal hierarchies. The human mind still responds to personalized, charismatic leadership primarily in the context of informal, egalitarian settings. Hence the dissatisfaction and alienation that many employees experience. Salaries, bonuses and other privileges exploit instincts for relative status, which attract particularly males to senior executive positions.[46].
..
In a way that person is speaking to us via the TV?

Chris Trotter said...

To: jh

The TPPA (not TTPA) stands for Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Here's the Wikipedia link

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Pacific_Partnership

Anonymous said...

Your core problem is this: Your supporters seem to think of protest as an expressive activity, a way for them to tell the world how they feel. But protest is not an expressive activity. It is a communicative activity. If you crave self-expression, join a creative-writing class. If you want to relieve your feelings, see a therapist. The medium is the message, as the saying goes. People won't hear what you have to say if they don't like how you behave. Or don't understand it.
— David Frum

Some brief media stories about violence – by police or by protesters, whether against people or merely against property, you can’t ever count on the mass media to distinguish between the two, and you ought to know better in advance that that will be the case – is about all that is left over when the show has packed up and gone. Nobody outside the event's own protagonists knows what the protest was about, or why it was done... Add a coherent political message, banners, leaflets, a dance tune that resonates with the message, and such to a dancing musical flash mob like these and you have the seeds of a new, more effective, kind of protest than the tired old marching around in circles of the last century that has ceased to win any cause for anyone.
— Al Giordano

Though astroturfed they may have been at times, Tea Partiers did essentially demonstrate--versus the hopelessly feckless Occupy movement--how a common cause can be launched by commoners. They networked, they organized, they ruthlessly elbowed their way into power, they out-Alinskied Alinsky, they brought America's entire political apparatus to its knees; but above all, they voted. Regarding which I would ask lefties, center-lefties, centrists, progressives, liberals, in short Democrats of every conceivable stripe: Why is that one simple act so hard for you to pull off?
— PM Carpenter

Guerilla Surgeon said...

You might like to mention anonymous – that the tea party was given huge amounts of money by the Koch brothers while the occupier movement basically got none. It certainly helps get your message across :-).

Anonymous said...

"The presence of large numbers of protesters on the streets no longer seems to give governments pause. Evidence of widespread public dissent long ago ceased to be politically decisive because policy-makers are no longer driven by the need to preserve a broad political consensus. Opposition is generally anticipated by today’s politicians, and provided it does not come from those economic and social actors deemed critical to their re-election, it is also generally ignored."

Consensus politics has been undermined and destroyed by way of manipulation, intimidation, blatant threats and even endless lies.

Voters and the public in general are individuals that are primarily concerned with their immediate survival and the increasingly loose networks they may belong to. Initially the challenge by the right to the unions appeared reasonable, as there was some evidence that union power had led to undesired outcomes, where it hampered change that was actually necessary.

But the right, which is usually always the political sector and movement that represents the forces behind it, which is the capital owning and controlling lobby groups, was good at keeping up the momentum, so to say. They realised that by conducting politics in a blitzkrieg fashion, they would be able to push over any dissent with brute power and force, as when in government they would have police and even military at their avail, to deal to situations getting out of control.

Most people in developed countries are simply security conscious "cowards", who do not want to risk what they have. So they will give in in the end, and comply, and sign off what governments tell them must be done.

The social democrat parties discovered they could use the same measures just as effectively, and seeing that the changed social and economic realities could not be reversed without much cost and pain, they settled for a more moderate continuum of a shift to the right.

This certainly told people that they could be trusted as little as the right political parties, and hence we have the situation we have now in most "western" and developed countries.

People have also adapted to subject themselves to a simple order of fit in and survive, or risk losing credibility and what you have.

So it is now all about division, me and my agenda, and nothing much of consensus and collective action and interest.

With that general situation, protests increasingly become events that are frowned upon or pitied, and participants as idealist dreamers or simply idiots, who cannot adapt.

Something major needs to happen, like war, major economic collapse or so, to recreate an environment where people start changing again, to become a "society", a collective body of individuals, following common interests for their survival and betterment.

So we may have to wait some time for things to change.

DeepRed said...

"Something major needs to happen, like war, major economic collapse or so, to recreate an environment where people start changing again, to become a "society", a collective body of individuals, following common interests for their survival and betterment.

So we may have to wait some time for things to change. "

In the words of Bucky Fuller: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

Jim Rose said...

Why don’t people use the good arguments against preferential trade agreements? That is their correct name in the economic literature.

Only a tiny amount of trade diversion is necessary before the welfare gains from any trade creation are cancelled out.

Then there are further welfare losses from trade deflection and from the spaghetti bowl effect.

This is the cost of complying with a growing number of conflicting roles of origin regard the minimum content needed to qualify for the concessional tariff.