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’état 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.