CRF Blog

New Yorker: Is There Any Point to Protesting?

by Bill Hayes

In Is There Any Point to Protesting? for the New Yorker, Nathan Heller reviews the following books, which look at the effectiveness of protests: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Assembly by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism by L.A. Kauffman, and Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci.

For centuries, on the right and the left alike, it has been an article of faith that, in moments of sharp civic discontent, you and I and everyone we know can take to the streets, demanding change. The First Amendment enshrines such efforts, protecting “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” From the Stamp Act boycotts of the seventeen-sixties to the 1913 suffrage parade and the March on Washington, in 1963, protesters have pushed proudly through our history. Along the way, they have given us great — well, playable — songs. (Tom Lehrer: “The reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the People.”) Abroad, activism drove the Arab Spring and labor movements in Macau, while outrages shared across continents triggered such events as the feminism-and-rationalism-flaunting event known as Boobquake. So strident was Boobquake that it elicited a counter-campaign, called Brainquake. All this expressiveness, we think, is good.

Still, what has protest done for us lately? Smartphones and social media are supposed to have made organizing easier, and activists today speak more about numbers and reach than about lasting results. Is protest a productive use of our political attention? Or is it just a bit of social theatre we perform to make ourselves feel virtuous, useful, and in the right?

In “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work” …, a book published in 2015, then updated and reissued this past year for reasons likely to be clear to anyone who has opened a newspaper, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams question the power of marches, protests, and other acts of what they call “folk politics.” These methods, they say, are more habit than solution. Protest is too fleeting. It ignores the structural nature of problems in a modern world. “The folk-political injunction is to reduce complexity down to a human scale,” they write. This impulse promotes authenticity-mongering, reasoning through individual stories (also a journalistic tic), and a general inability to think systemically about change. In the immediate sense, a movement such as Occupy wilted because police in riot gear chased protesters out of their spaces. But, really, the authors insist, its methods sank it from the start by channelling the righteous sentiments of those involved over the mechanisms of real progress.

“This is politics transmitted into pastime — politics-as-drug-experience, perhaps — rather than anything capable of transforming society,” Srnicek and Williams write. “If we look at the protests today as an exercise in public awareness, they appear to have had mixed success at best. Their messages are mangled by an unsympathetic media smitten by images of property destruction — assuming that the media even acknowledges a form of contention that has become increasingly repetitive and boring.” [more]