Big Other of public opinion, hear our prayer

Protests don’t work. Whatever their efficacy was in past eras, it is spent. We all witnessed the largest coordinated protests in world history in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and the Iraq War not only happened but is still happening, under the watch of a president whose grass-roots support stemmed largely from his uncanny luck in not yet being in the Senate when the vote to authorize the Iraq War took place.

Today, there is a massive, coordinated protest march, complete with a hashtag and corporate sponsors. I don’t see the value of this aside from its role as a ritual observance. I don’t begrudge anyone their liturgy, to be sure. But I keep the Sabbath by staying at home. At least when I sweep my floors and clean the bathroom on Sunday morning, I produce some kind of tangible positive result. To each his own!

If the standard is making a difference on climate change, I’m failing just as much as the protest marchers. The fact that “at least I know it” doesn’t make any difference either way — not only in terms of effectiveness, but also in terms of distinguishing me from the marchers themselves, many of whom probably know that they won’t make a difference. We’re all in on the joke. The protest is incorporated into our public liturgy, our civil religion.

If we get all the right permits and don’t get in the way too much, hopefully the police won’t brutalize us while we exercise our sacred right to protest — though for some, the police brutality is part of the sacramental effect. Line up and get arrested! The strategy of martyrdom worked once, in an entirely different political and media landscape and in coordination with a disciplined political strategy that is absolutely and completely lacking in the present day… so it’ll work again!

If we suffer enough, they’ll relent. Except they never do. We live in a world where there are crowdfunding campaigns to support an incompetent and abusive police officer who murdered a teenager in cold blood. We live in a world where the rhetoric of non-violence has been irrevocably weaponized to delegitimate the oppressed and normalize the callous violence of the powerful. Line up and get arrested!

Is writing this post better than going to the protests? No. Is there something salutary or helpful about holding the correct cynical opinions? No. Am I doing anyone any good by writing this? Well, everyone needs to vent every once in a while. Some keep the Sabbath going to the protest — I keep it, blogging at home.

That the politicians in Washington will put the politics aside and seek the public good, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

That our elected representatives will embrace common-sense solutions to minimize the damage of global warming without hurting economic growth, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

That an informed electorate, replete with marketable skills, will show up at the polls in November and vote the right way, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

That we can somehow figure out a way to keep this shitshow running a little bit longer, we pray to the big Other. Public opinion, hear our prayer.

Let us pray: public opinion, you have blessed us with the means to express ourselves while interacting with our favorite brands. Aid and guide us, your loyal working families, as we seek smart solutions that enhance shareholder value in this, the greatest country on earth. Amen.

33 thoughts on “Big Other of public opinion, hear our prayer

  1. To the extent that we hope for our species we on the left mostly hope for more and better forms of solidarity. Traditional forms of public involvement like protest marches keep that principle in practice, like a second language.

    Especially among a certain class of academic intellectuals such practices ensure that their own principles don’t succumb to intellectualized atrophy. And for all their endless talks I hope those same intellectuals can spend the few hours a year it takes to walk the fucking walk.

  2. You said: ” Protests don’t work… We all witnessed the largest coordinated protests in world history in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and the Iraq War not only happened but is still happening,”

    As someone who scoffed at my anti-war protesting friends in 2003 before I joined the army to go fight in that conflict– and then became one of the loudest proponents against war– I have to say, I think you’re misunderstanding the dynamics of nonviolent action. The efficacy of the anti-war movement isn’t in the protest, it is built into the subject experience of the war itself; the protest is necessary for creating the conditions that make it possible for people who change their minds to act– not directly for the changing of minds.

    The reason, in other words, that we should protest isn’t as a prayer to the big other; it is as a going-through-the-motions of belief, as Zizek describes in his work as necessary: large protesting helps us “fake it till we make it.”

  3. When I was fairly new to protesting, an old communist said something which has really stuck with me: that marches aren’t aimed at the people at home watching or at people in power, they’re aimed at the people on the march. The point of the march, then, is to remind the people there that they are part of a larger group who, when they are not marching, are all able to take part in other activities that might actually produce some kind of change.

    I hope that being clear about the uselessness of marching, and affirming the protest march as a ritual observance, might encourage people to start thinking about the kind of political strategy you call for here, although the myth of marching as the nec plus ultra of political engagement is so strong it’s depressingly hard to see it being dislodged.

  4. I cosign what voyou said. That’s always been an important part of going to demos to me. I remember in Notts seeing police officers pushing around brown children at an anti-EDL march which also helped me to see that the British police were not “nicer” than US cops. Or the feeling you get, like I did at a recent Mike Brown protest, when you take a street and realize that this little thing is possible when you were told it wasn’t. It is not, of course, the fullness of that possibility, but it starts to make you think that maybe other things are possible if you can find the right force to make it happen. That requires analysis, but in some sense it also requires going and standing some place in a huge group of people even though you (in this case me) are feeling pretty cynical about it.

  5. Yeah, for me as well, public action/protest/demonstration/whatever has had enormous value not so much because of whatever practical effects it may have but because of the way it enables connections between people who might be able to work towards other, more sustained action, and because of the way it makes extremely visible (to the participant) lines of antagonism which might otherwise remain invisible or ‘merely’ theoretical. I know that for me, anyway, participation in various actions has led to a very visceral sense of what policing ‘is’ and does–a sense enabled by being directly witness to countless moments of police harassment, sexual assault, and outright brutality–whereas before, as a sympathetic sideliner, I might have had a general distaste for police as an ‘authority’ but one without any definite sense of reality, without determinate shape, and thus prone to all sorts of inadvertent erasure of the actual lived harrassment folks experience at the hands of the police in Los Angeles and Pasadena every day. To really ‘see’ an antagonism at work–and to see it collectively, to know that others have seen it, and to know, as Anthony said, that these small moments of ‘otherwise’ were possible for these people who have ‘seen’ together to enact–is invaluable, not just because it often produces collectivities that persist after the day’s demonstration (I can name several ongoing working groups in the LA area that would never have come together if not for the ‘ineffective’ marches that participants in Occupy LA, the Brown Berets, and other groups staged over the course of 2011) but because it produces a sense of non-isolation in the recognition of antagonisms that makes it seem possible to do more sustained work at all.

  6. While I’d like to agree that the big set piece march led protest has a secondary element of allowing bonds between protesters to be formed as well as assuring those present of a certain people power (and this speaks to my experience in some cases) I am afraid I have to agree with Adam more than I disagree here. Protests, even in the form of the march, are intended to antagonistic to the powers that be, to cause political change. Initially they were quite obviously a threat to the state – a huge mass of people. The effectiveness of the set piece march, facilitated very closely by the state, seems to be exhausted.

    Indeed, the movement from “marches are effective antagonism” to “marches are about the participants” seems precisely a sort of “secularisation” of logic of marching. Rather than (in religious ritual and here I am being very broad brushstrokes) talking about the ritual on the most obvious level of what it claims to be (say a supernatural event) one is rearticulating it in a way that enables you to go about doing the same thing with roughly the same content (the ritual is primarily about bonding the community and so on) but junking the real reason you did it in the first place. Or this is what feels to be the case for me. We are doing this near pathologically because it is what we, the left, do.

    If we admit that now “marches are about the participants” maybe we could do better than walk through the streets often in direct and pointless antagonism with the police and form this solidarity more in daily life?

  7. If we try to understand protests in utilitarian means-ends terms they tend to fail as they rarely lead to the change they are pushing for. Rather, their necessity lies in their indication of concern for a particular situation. Protests reveal that something is being done that disturbs and frustrates a substantial number of people. This often does not do much in terms of causing immediate change, but at least it shows that people have not become so resigned to the status quo that they see no attempt in taking public action to express their indignation.

    And of course protest allows people to see the public action is possible, and that they are not as hopelessly powerless as they may seem to be.

  8. It’s difficult to know but hard to believe that someone unwilling (for various reasons) to march will suddenly go along with more efficacious political actions when the need arises.

  9. “Public opinion hear our prayer!”

    A Fool’s plea. Gilen and Page’s important paper Testing Theories of American Politics shows that over the last four decades popular support has no effect in influencing public policy. While there is a strong status quo bias even for elites, it is organized interests and economic elites that change policies.

    It’s paradoxical that leaders who can organize a march of hundreds of thousands cant at the same time articulate a “disciplined political strategy” to achieve their goals. Is it because non-profit organizations might lose their tax-exempt status if they start lobbying/litigating, and they’ll see their funding dry up because it’s no longer deductible?

  10. Aha! When asked “Has a slate of candidates been picked?” to replace mayor and city councilmen in Ferguson, community leader @AntonioFrench replies “That part will come later. I’m not directly involved in that. As a 501c3, #HealSTL will focus on education and training.” —September 21, 2014

  11. “Stay in practice,” yes … would that most of us practice anything at all. But sometimes as important, often times more, it is . . . maybe not good or even healthy . . . simply necessary, like gasping in the most gross & unseemly way after choking, about being overtaken by & within a crowd. It is in all likelihood horribly sentimental what I have in mind, since I’m thinking specifically of nearly being brought to tears by something so mundane as a collective chant, “No!”, and to laughter by the improvisational wisdom of a parade eluding blockades. But if these tears and joy were real, as I must believe they were, so too was the defiant value of those crowds eventually dispersed, largely forgotten, and possibly repudiated.

  12. I dunno man, all this talk about protest being about affective and emotional response (though I have 100% experienced these things) seems rather self-indulgent. I’d rather get results than get kicks even though there is a joy to giving the authorities the run around.

  13. I don’t know that I’d call the affective stuff self indulgent. I personally hate protests. I never know people. They are never satisfying in any real way to me. I often find people who are loudest have the dumbest opinions. It’s crowded and usually not well organized.

    I still think gathering together though is something that really does push us to have to think about what kinds of coalitions have to get built in order for shit to get done. To me, it’s better to protest than to vote which seems way more affectively and emotionally self indulgent since folks keep being like “WHY WONT YOU VOTE?? PEOPLE DIED”

  14. Alex,

    No, I’m not saying they are simply affective (a term that is no longer popular) or about emotional responses. Maybe it’s self-indulgent, but I think this post is supremely unhelpful for actually talking about it since it paints the whole thing as a waste of time in a rather mean-spirited way. So it brings up emotional responses that get in the way of talking through the merits of protests as part of larger movements. Having been on my fair share of marches that didn’t “get results” (though what results are we looking for here?), I get that there are plenty of reasons for not giving a shit about going to a protest. I share many of those. Anyway, far be it for me to accuse anyone of being cynical, just think that if we’re gonna tilt at windmills we might as well form some interesting connections, bring out new antagonisms, and have our awareness that “it could be otherwise” at least raised. But, yeah, fuck it.

  15. I am unabashedly fine with self-indulgent affectation. Fling your stones — I’ll use them for the pyre to burn the soulless.

    Agreeing w/ Anthony here. I mostly don’t know what people mean whey they refer to a protest “getting results.” Compared to what, exactly? Compared to not doing the protest, presumably. In an old blog post during heady port-closing Occupy days, I recounted a conversation had with “A,” which I still find rather interesting. In it I said, “But, you know, nothing happens without adequate tension. In contemporary America, we’ve been more about sedation than provocation.” Not all protests are equal in this regard; but then again, neither are all conversations worth having, and yet we all inevitably chit-chat. This is not to say attending protests is for “everyone” — but what on earth meets this criteria, “for everyone”?

  16. Anthony,

    I’ll agree that Adam’s tone might be strong, and that a strong tone may sometimes inhibit discussion because it illicit an immediate emotional rather than rational register but is the question he raises any the less true? As you say, you share many of those, indeed, you’ve pretty much expressed the same frustration to me in the past. So lets lay that aside and discuss precisely the merits and demerits here of the big set piece march. I think it is, right now, tactically exhausted.

    My point is that to “form some interesting connections, bring out new antagonisms, and have our awareness that “it could be otherwise” at least raised” are all important things. But why do we have to do these things with the form of the big march? Might these things be better done if they were done directly rather than indirectly?

  17. Sean,

    “how you could come to trust fellow participants without other public demonstrations of willingness to put one’s body on the line”

    I don’t think public demonstrations at all “prove” trust. Intimate relations don’t either.

    Not all serious work needs to be done under the manner of the activist definition of direct action – think workplace organising.

  18. I could be wrong here, but the meaning of “getting results” via protest is benchmarked by history, and it seems as though, in the past, there are clear examples of “getting results” via protest. Self-consciously foreclosing the possibility of getting results by protest, or indeed, not being able to parse what it would even mean to get results, seems like precisely the novel posture towards protest Adam is critiquing.

  19. I’ll admit that the tone gets out of hand in the prayers in particular, when I was getting a little caught up in the gimmick in a way that probably wasn’t very welcoming of discussion.

  20. In my opinion, success for the Ferguson protests would have been obvious — the arrest of the murderer. Resignations would have been icing on the cake. None of that happened, and even worse, after a month of media coverage, a majority of Americans believe the shooting of Michael Brown was probably justified.

    I don’t want to cast aspersions on the Ferguson protestors. Far from it. They had no choice but to protest, and I don’t know what they could have done “better” (aside from somehow predicting and preventing opportunistic looting, which I don’t think they could reasonably be expected to do). They were also clearly in the right (for any unbiased observer) and had a clear, unambiguous demand. And the murderer is still walking free.

  21. To clarify: it is in my opinion & experience that things that happen w/in a crowd, the results that happen between bodies, are as crucial as what the crowd as a whole achieves (– and, frankly, power being what it has been for quite some time, they usually fail). Need these things occur in a parade? No. Have they? Yes. People like to — & have for quite some time — gather together; march together & shout in unison; and break things. I don’t see what’s so stomach-turning about this. The stomach-turning part is when what motivates the unity is insuring another crowd isn’t permitted to gather.

  22. I think Ferguson is a bad example here in that the protests have catalyzed a deepening of the community’s mobilization efforts, awareness efforts, political efforts, etc. I’m glad they are protesting rather than resignedly contesting themselves to be sad in isolation from one another. Part of the protest is wanting to be angry *with* others who share your frustrations over a thing. And that energy is carrying over into a multiplicity of actions re: community organizing and theorizing.

    Honestly it seems like you have a pretty weak idea of what protests have accomplished historically because by these standards you can only support protests if there is a 1:1 correlation between a particular protest and a particular change in the law or something rather than seeing protests as a part of a larger set of tools folks are using to get shit done.

    It just seems like an extremely reductionistic view of protests to the point where it’s not even a useful critique of them.

  23. I only wrote that last tweet because of what I thought was some serious obscurantism around “results” of protests, and Ferguson seemed to me like the clearest possible example of what a “result” would look like. I agree that much that was valuable came about due to those protests and will likely continue in the future — yet it’s still appalling that everyone is conceding in advance that arresting a cold-blooded murderer is too much to ask in response to a protest, that everyone agrees that the powers that be will literally never make even a token gesture toward fulfilling popular demands. The fact that some podunk suburban police department feels empowered to double down rather than sacrifice a pretty flagrant “bad apple” shows just how fucking fucked the American power structure is.

  24. I don’t think anyone on the ground was conceding “in advance” that point. Otherwise they wouldn’t be on the ground facing down assault weapons. When on the ground you believe a lot that, whether in hindsight or from a distance, you wouldn’t ordinarily. On the ground & in the midst of the anger, you don’t concede anything, and you truly believe you are on the brink. It is when that belief is breached, by circumstances or whatever, that your tactics change — whether from relative peace into violence or violence into retreat.

  25. Adam, it seems to me that you basically agree with the climate march protestors about the logic of protest – that the point of political action is to express your opinion, on the basis of which someone else will act. Within that logic, pointing out the non-existence or unresponsiveness of the other who is supposed to hear counts as a bitter critique; but it maintains the logic, and so, it seems to me, inhibits thinking about different political logics. The fact that your target is “protest” in general confirms that you are assuming one particular logic of political action – there’s all the difference in the world between the climate march and the Ferguson uprising, and to treat them both as “protests” which work (or fail to work) according to the same logic is entirely unhelpful.

  26. For my own part I’d like to restrict my thoughts to the “set piece big A to B march” – I don’t think Ferguson can be an example of this cleanly. I don’t want to think through other forms of protest just now, though I have my questions with most of them and their effectiveness. I think I’m not saying anything particularly new. People were saying this during the anti-globalisation movement, which led them to certain tactical innovations adding things to The March (construction of autonomous zones and so on), which I also think now are largely easy for the authorities to defend against.

    To the broader point, while it is right to say there isn’t a 1 to 1 mapping of cause to effect, this doesn’t prevent us from asking if an ensemble of tactics is worthwhile or not. We already make decisions of this kind before we go on a march – it isn’t enough, we say at the point we go on a march, to just lobby our representatives or write letters.

  27. Perhaps it was inappropriate to bring in Ferguson, though it does point to the larger problem that the public authorities don’t just ignore protest demands, but seem to actually view resistence to protest demands as a source of legitimacy and empowerment. And if that’s the situation we’re in, it seems like there’s a much bigger gap between the (salutary and necessary!) building of communal bonds through the performance of protest and anything like actual political change than anyone is really acknowledging here. If we have to build radically new social forms that displace the old before we can think seriously about responding to climate change, then we are beyond fucked. And if people in a small local municipality have to radically rethink every form of action before they can get some kind of satisfaction for an appalling injustice whose remedy should have been a matter of course, the murderer will grow old and enjoy countless Christmas mornings with his grandchildren.

    If public authorities believe they derive legitimacy from contradicting public demands, then I think we might be moving from MLK territory to Bonhoeffer territory.

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