Better Than Nothing? Demonstrations can sometimes highlight a movement's weaknesses rather than its strengths. Why did nobody ask the question: Suppose we call for a massive, anti-mining-type, demonstration against the sale of state assets - and only 8,000 people show up?
POLITICAL ACTIVISTS should never be afraid of the truth. Sure, the praise of friends and comrades, good media coverage and inspiring photographs can all make activists feel good about themselves and their achievements. But, when it comes to determining the success or failure of an action, there's no substitute for undertaking a cold, hard analysis of the facts.
Unfortunately, my own cold, hard analysis of the facts of last Saturday’s Aotearoa Is Not For Sale demonstration has led me to the very upsetting (and no doubt highly unpopular) conclusion that, if it was intended to demonstrate to the Government that its “partial” privatisation plans have generated the same level of public opposition as its earlier proposals to permit mining on New Zealand’s conservation estate, then it failed.
The anti-mining march of 1 May 2010, organised by Greenpeace, was estimated by the NZ Herald to have attracted 50,000 protesters, which, if accurate, makes it one of the largest political demonstrations in New Zealand history. The key sentence in the Herald’s report states that: “Marchers left the bottom of Queen St about 11am and by the time the first of them arrived at Myers Park, just below Karangahape Rd, they were still leaving the bottom of Queen St.” That “end-to-end” description is the test of a truly massive Auckland demonstration – and Saturday’s anti-privatisation protest came nowhere near passing it.
So what? With somewhere between 6,000–8,000 participants the anti-privatisation march was still a very large protest. Why shouldn’t its organisers hail those numbers as a resounding success? The answer is brutally simple. A demonstration is called a demonstration precisely because its organisers have something they wish to demonstrate. If your intention is to prevent the Government from privatising state assets, then presumably the purpose of organising a protest march is to demonstrate the scale of public opposition.
And it’s important that the people you mobilise aren’t overwhelmingly representative of groups who would never dream of voting for the governing party. That was one of the most important features of the Greenpeace demonstration. Sure, there were plenty of ageing hippies and lots of young anti-capitalists on the march, but there were also thousands of people who looked and talked like National Party supporters. Greenpeace had mobilised a significant number of well-to-do suburbanites: people with batches on the Coromandel; people who went skiing in national parks; people who just might change their voting behaviour to prevent a mining company from spoiling their “favourite spot”.
Saturday’s protesters were, overwhelmingly, representative of the Left’s opposition to asset sales: people who’d rather die that cast a vote for the Tories.
So, why would the Government pay any attention to the anti-privatisation march? It was less than a fifth of the size of the anti-mining march, and was comprised almost exclusively of people who had voted for the Government’s political opponents. Reporting back to their masters, the Government’s spies undoubtedly reassured them that this was not a cause for which National Party voters were willing to put their feet on the street.
Many of the people I spoke to on the anti-privatisation march realised that there were “not enough” people to give the National-led Government pause, but added cheerily “still, it’s better than nothing”. Not necessarily. I would argue that Saturday’s march was, in fact, worse than nothing. By providing the Government with a vivid glimpse of its most vociferous opponents, and revealing just how few of them there really are (even in the country’s most populous city) the organisers of the anti-privatisation march have told the Government that it can now proceed without serious political risk.
Given the comparatively low turnout, it would have been safer to let the poll data on privatisation do the talking. The latter showed a clear majority of voters (in some polls two-thirds to three-quarters) opposed to “partial” privatisation. Those are scary numbers. But now the Government knows that, unlike the anti-mining sentiment of 2010, the anti-privatisation sentiment of 2012 isn’t strong enough to mobilise more than “the usual suspects”.
Perhaps anticipating this unfortunate outcome, some of the organisers added a subsidiary slogan to the official “Aotearoa is not for sale”. This new slogan - “What Parliament does, the Street can undo” - implicitly concedes that the Government-sponsored legislation partially privatising our state-owned energy companies and Air NZ has sufficient parliamentary support to become law. Not to worry though, because “The Street” (presumably mass protest on the streets) has the power to “undo” the Legislature’s evil deeds.
Assuming that this slogan is not mere rhetorical bravado, and that it reflects a sober assessment of the relative strength of political forces in New Zealand, how seriously should we take its insurrectionary sub-text?
Well, given the 6,000-8,000 turnout last Saturday, it would be foolish to dismiss it entirely. Six to eight thousand protesters, determined to directly challenge the power of the state, would pose a pretty serious headache for the authorities.
Except, of course, there are nothing like 6,000-8,000 people willing to confront state authority head-on. Of the people who marched up Queen Street on Saturday, I would estimate that no more than 500 would be willing to provoke such a confrontation – and abide the consequences. Saturday’s marchers were members of the Labour, Green and NZ First parties, trade unionists, environmentalists, students and academics: people who, by-and-large, remain attached to the institutions and praxis of our liberal democracy. The state-house tenants from Glen Innes; the radical Maori nationalists from Northland; and the members of the Mana Party and Socialist Aotearoa might sign-up for political insurrection – but that’s all.
And even if we are willing to engage in the thought experiment that concedes the revolutionary sloganeers’ insurrectionary moment. What then? Is the country to be run from “The Street” indefinitely? Are the institutions of the state: its administrative organs; its hospitals and schools; and all of the workers they employ; going to wait for “The Street” to meet their wage-bill? Will “The Street” raise the revenue required to keep society functioning? Will it determine the nation’s spending priorities? Or will the people on the street decide, instead, to elect representatives to do all those things? And, having done so, will these (now successful) insurrectionists be willing to allow a fresh group of revolutionaries (or counter-revolutionaries) from “The Street” to undo them?
The same heedless anarchistic spirit which produced the slogan “What Parliament does, the Street can undo” was clearly evident in the organisation of the anti-privatisation march itself. Its “post-democratic” praxis led to the sort of “issue-creep” that left participants on the day feeling, at best, bemused or, at worst, alarmed. It’s lack of a proper command structure gave rise to simple errors, such as putting an unrealistic figure on the projected turnout, and left the news media uncertain as to who, exactly, they should talk to, both before and after the event. As one veteran left-wing activist said to me: “I hate all this post-democratic shit. You never know who’s calling the shots. One day we’re going to find ourselves marching up Queen Street only to discover that the whole bloody protest’s been organised by the fucking fascists!”
I cannot end this posting without acknowledging that the organisers of Saturday's march put in a Herculean effort. I know that getting 6,000-8,000 people to a protest is no easy matter, and I have nothing but praise for the hard work, creativity and sacrifice that went into the event. What I am saying, however, is that much more thought should have been given to the political consequences of failing to turn out the same sort of numbers as Greenpeace. Why did nobody ask the question: “Suppose we call for a massive demonstration against the sale of state assets – and only 8,000 people show up?”
“Optimism of the will” is all very well, but we should never forget the other half of Antonio Gramsci’s famous formula: “Pessimism of the intellect”. It's important because, like it or not, there are some political occasions when activism for activism’s sake is simply counter-productive. When, sadly, nothing is a lot better than something.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.