Why Street Protests Don’t Work

Demonstrations and protests 1212“How can so many demonstrations accomplish so little?” asks Moses Naim at The Atlantic:

Street protests are in. From Bangkok to Caracas, and Madrid to Moscow, these days not a week goes by without news that a massive crowd has amassed in the streets of another of the world’s big cities. The reasons for the protests vary (bad and too-costly public transport or education, the plan to raze a park, police abuse, etc.). Often, the grievance quickly expands to include a repudiation of the government, or its head, or more general denunciations of corruption and economic inequality.

Aerial photos of the anti-government marches routinely show an intimidating sea of people furiously demanding change. And yet, it is surprising how little these crowds achieve. The fervent political energy on the ground is hugely disproportionate to the practical results of these demonstrations.

Notable exceptions of course exist: In Egypt, Tunisia, and Ukraine, street protests actually contributed to the overthrow of the government. But most massive rallies fail to create significant changes in politics or public policies. Occupy Wall Street is a great example. Born in the summer of 2011 (not in Wall Street but in Kuala Lumpur’s Dataran Merdeka), the Occupy movement spread quickly and was soon roaring in the central squares of nearly 2,600 cities around the world.

The problem is what happens after the march.
The hodgepodge groups that participated had no formal affiliation with one another, no clear hierarchy, and no obvious leaders. But social networks helped to virally replicate the movement so that the basic patterns of camping, protesting, fundraising, communicating with the media, and interacting with the authorities were similar from place to place. The same message echoed everywhere: It is unacceptable that global wealth is concentrated in the hands of an elite 1 percent while the remaining 99 percent can barely scrape by.

Such a global, massive, and seemingly well-organized initiative should have had a greater impact. But it didn’t. Though the topic of economic inequality has gained momentum in the years since, in practice it is hard to find meaningful changes in public policy based on Occupy’s proposals. By and large the Occupy movement has now vanished from the headlines…

[continues at The Atlantic]


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58 Comments on "Why Street Protests Don’t Work"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Apr 9, 2014 at 11:16 am |

    I likee: the problem is not enough hierarchy.

    Hierarchies–ALL hierarchies, without exception–get co-opted. That’s why we’re in the fix we’re in right now, with a morally bankrupt ‘left’ fighting an intellectually bankrupt right.

    If a thing can happen, it eventually will happen. Anyone realizing that he controls access to something that the rest of us depend upon will eventually try to wring rents out of it.

    What we need to do is implement a social model that creates bonds without nodes. Can this happen?

    Doubtful. Most models of social cohesion depend on displacement of aggression towards an outgroup (i.e., rely on a minimal # of critical institutions to reduce the burden of compassion fatigue).

    If we accept this bloke’s thesis, the question is not whether street protests can succeed, but why elites haven’t yet found a winning formula to co-opt them.

    • eric braun | Apr 9, 2014 at 11:27 am |

      ummm, i think TV has co-oped them, in so many ways…

      • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 9, 2014 at 12:10 pm |

        Are you serious? You depend on TV for your news?

        • eric braun | Apr 9, 2014 at 1:05 pm |

          did i seem to be referring to myself? are we talking about me or are we talking about our electorate that doesn’t vote and jacks off to the kardashians?

          no, i do not watch tv. some youtube. startrek and shit like that from when there was something on tv worth occasionally viewing.

          really, dude if you want to spew conspiracies, get you shit together… ok, you didn’t grok me…

          TV is the co-opting mind control, do we not totally agree? it is boob-toob hypnosis that is keeping people in line.

          it’s not the street protest that have been coopted, it’s the minds, therefore all occupiers, according to the vidiot sheeple, are “stinky hippies” who have nothing to say worth hearing, right?

          • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 9, 2014 at 1:24 pm |

            How is it possible to make a statement that does not originate in an observation? Of course the statement referred to yourself. Was I supposed to imagine that it referred to Napoleon?

          • eric braun | Apr 9, 2014 at 1:38 pm |

            O.K. you self-righteous prick, I admit it! Not only have I been an avid startrek fan, I also watched seseme street as a child and I at the age of forty, only stopped watching ten years ago!

            And, and, and Lord Jeebuz in heaven forgive me….when I am at a relatives or friends house and they have it on, I feel my attention drawn into it and a barely pay attention to anything else as my brain has been starved for vapid over-stimulation for so long…it’s eye-crack!

          • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 9, 2014 at 1:43 pm |

            Take it down a notch there, Spartacus. I don’t give a sh*t about any damned Star Track.

            You’d have had a valid point if you were to say that most people co-opt themselves by a lazy-ass dependence on establishment information conduits. But that’s a different thing than saying the actual folks on the street were co-opted.

          • eric braun | Apr 9, 2014 at 1:48 pm |

            yessir, that was intended as an over-reactionary dramatic response to being accused of being a vidiot.

            so, you are basically saying that the physical location of being on the street is what defines the hypothetical co-option.

            I am saying the IDEA of action has been co-opted by the vicarious inactivity of boob-toob ogling….the location doesn’t matter, the results do.

          • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 9, 2014 at 1:58 pm |

            Anybody can say or believe anything they like. By that criteria there’s no point in doing anything because all your opposition needs to do to co-opt it is to willfully contradict it. In my books, that’s nigh on to nihilism. I’m not that jaded yet.

          • eric braun | Apr 9, 2014 at 2:03 pm |

            hmm…you are frequently a website that often outs the reality of mind-control being used on the masses…

            i didn’t say there is not a point in doing. the point is that the powers that be have been working overtime to nullify the old ways of doing.

            what worked to stop the vietnam war, they have retooled their methods to counter it…”THEY”

          • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 9, 2014 at 2:42 pm |

            “THEY” . . . objectification leads to passivity. “WE”. Americans got so caught up in the triumphalism of Cold War ideology that we didn’t even notice what was being done to us bit by bit.

            “WE” f*cked up.

          • eric braun | Apr 9, 2014 at 2:44 pm |

            So, true. We have no-one to blame but ourselves.

            …cooked like snails on low-heat, slow-boil…

          • I still watch TV.

          • eric braun | Apr 9, 2014 at 1:54 pm |


    • emperorreagan | Apr 9, 2014 at 12:39 pm |

      Hierarchies run into the problem of leaderships that no longer have skin in the game. There doesn’t even really need to be an effort to co-opt them – labor union leaders, for instance, whose interests are playing golf with the CEO and maintaining their power are not likely to lend support to a wildcat strike unless all options to extinguish it have been tried.

      Most street protests never threaten stability or the interests of those sitting in power. Movements like Occupy are a novelty to be waited out.

      • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 9, 2014 at 12:54 pm |

        Re: Occupy: Maybe it’s useless. But possibly it’s purpose is to lay down the moral groundwork that will eventually justify violent revolution later on. Even failed revolts require a minimum threshold of shared ideals to gain traction.

        • emperorreagan | Apr 9, 2014 at 2:20 pm |

          I agree, it could very possibly serve that purpose. It’s quite possible that the movements we’ve seen in the past decade or two – from WTO to immigration to Occupy – will build to something else when coupled with the utter failure of the system to address the criticisms in even the most “do the minimum to save capitalism” sort of way.

          • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 9, 2014 at 2:51 pm |

            This is a thing I often wonder about. Like individual cells in a larger organism, maybe the purposes of separate movements are complementary rather than incompatible. It’s easy to see the various wings in conflict as they compete for limited resources, but in the long run they are probably inevitable concomitants of each other.

      • Anarchy Pony | Apr 9, 2014 at 2:09 pm |

        Whoever said violence never solved anything was either a fool or a tool.

        • mannyfurious | Apr 9, 2014 at 7:32 pm |

          My problem with violence isn’t that it isn’t effective, it’s that it’s just another “might makes right” ideal that, at it’s core, isn’t ethically, morally or psychologically different from what’s going on with those “on top” right now. Today’s victors are tomorrow’s oppressors, are the day after tomorrow’s losers.

          Any and every “movement” becomes co-opted and corrupted, because there will always be those human beings who care more about their egos than they do about any sort of real peace.

          • Anarchy Pony | Apr 9, 2014 at 7:43 pm |

            Well that may be an unfortunate reality of history, I don’t want to think that, but want rarely reflects truth. But I just don’t see how the current ruling class, (or any ruling class) can be fully circumvented without any force. Some pockets of the population that are isolated and removed from the geopolitical stage may be able to, but mass transformation will be resisted and repressed by those that benefit most from the status quo.

          • mannyfurious | Apr 9, 2014 at 8:54 pm |

            My own theory is that for as long as there is “civilization” there will be a “ruling” class. A subjugated population will occasionally rise up, but then they become the ruling class. One of the problems is that people aren’t actually outraged by inequality, they’re pissed that they’re not the ones on top. That’s sort of a subtle, but pretty significant difference.

            As something of a side-note, I like many anarchic ideas, but ultimately I believe anarchy is a Utopian ideal, only in that I don’t believe human beings will ever accept a society not determined by hierarchies.

        • Rhoid Rager | Apr 9, 2014 at 7:41 pm |

          Tell the cops that violence doesn’t work.

    • Rhoid Rager | Apr 9, 2014 at 7:53 pm |

      All models of social cohesion depend on minds to follow those models. The growing disaffected populace is enough to pull away from the nodes once they realize what the problem is–the pie is no longer growing, and there isn’t enough conventional ‘life-sustaining’ crap to go around.

      Displacement of aggression towards an outgroup is a behavioural model instilled in our faulty education paradigm that stresses competition. It’s an ideological pressure valve to gas off increasing frustration of being constantly told how to live by the nodes. All enemies are ‘domestic’.

      The bonds are always there, and the ‘nodes’ are only nodes because of clever ways to harness the impetus for the bonds in the first place–i.e. through money, political ideology and dreams for a better life through ‘progress’. Solidarity is a given in any time period; the ‘nodes’ understand this and use it. People will always cooperate–what matters is how they cooperate.

      • Liam_McGonagle | Apr 10, 2014 at 9:50 am |

        All true. But the historical persistence of competition does create the impression of inevitability. I don’t know if it truely is. I hope it’s not. But it’s difficult to present an historically viable society that did not incorporate the principle.

    • VaudeVillain | Apr 9, 2014 at 10:26 pm |

      “a morally bankrupt ‘left’ fighting an intellectually bankrupt right.”

      Far too generous an assessment: it implies not only that the “left” is not intellectually bankrupt and that the “right” is not morally bankrupt, but that there are in fact two ‘sides’ fighting at all. Right now we have the fascists and the other fascists squabbling over the specific details of how they will crush us underfoot.

      • There are two sides–you just described them. They have different minions in thrall and use different sets of trigger words. That they are both fascists doesn’t mean they are working together or aren’t battling for power. Sociopaths and psychopaths aren’t going to all get along with each other.

  2. They work in Chile. As far as I know.

  3. Anarchy Pony | Apr 9, 2014 at 12:41 pm |

    One of the reasons they aren’t effective is the difficulty in detaching from the system and functioning outside of it. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, and if you have lots to lose, putting yourself out on the line for change is hard. So keeping up the strike or protest for long enough to effect change is increasingly difficult.

    • > Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, and if you have lots to lose, putting yourself out on the line for change is hard.

      That’s something anarcho-capitalists have yet to understand.

  4. Gjallarbru | Apr 9, 2014 at 1:32 pm |

    No expression of power…

    Power is expressed by coercion and, when it comes to politics, coercion has been only expressed by armed forces, like the police, the army, or a milicia. That is why coups are usually found to depend on the agreement of the army. I would say that there is no real coercion available to any number of poor schmucks.

    So the inefficient nature of protest is that coercion is difficult to achieve by means of protest.

    • War is the continuance of politics by other means.

      Politics is the continuance of economics by other means.

      The living that is owed to me I’m never going to get, they’ve
      buggered this old world up, up to their necks in debt. They’d give
      you a lobotomy for something you ain’t done, they’ll make you an
      epitome of everything that’s wrong.

      I don’t know about y’all, but the gun to my head is economic. Subsistence farming is hard work and I don’t own no land no how. I sure as fuck can’t pay taxes on this theoretical land I own to scratch out a living with minimal external inputs. Property is impossible.

      Armed thug or basic biological need? Power. I do not think it means what you think it means…

      • Gjallarbru | Apr 10, 2014 at 7:15 am |

        If the physical gun wasn’t there, you could do a lot more about you state of economic slavery. The metaphysical gun of economics could only hold you for so long. For instance, if it weren’t for the fear of physical repercussion, you could plant food stuff anywhere, not just on what land you owned. Even the concept of ownership of the earth could disappear. Tell me again about power…

        • “IF”

          Cool story. Not the life I live. Not the life most people on the planet live.

          Enjoy your ivory tower.

          • Gjallarbru | Apr 10, 2014 at 9:52 pm |

            You have read the words, and missed the point. I don’t have a tower, of any kind. If I did have a tower, I would make it from steel and stone.

            I’m in a unique position to know how the system works. It will suffice to say that I have acted within the system in a priviledged capacity because of my profession. I know what you are talking about, and have been disgusted more than once. What you’re missing is why the “economics” has any power whatsoever. I will not argue further, just ask yourself why the economics has power over you, and find your own answer.

          • Existence?

          • The big owners make you pay to live.

          • My government name is a debt serf, so yes, yes they do.

          • Where does money come from, and why is it valuable?

          • I’m still trying to understand that. Truly.

            If I had to venture a guess at this point, mass insanity? No hyperbole, no joke.

            Wasted food when humans are starving to death?
            Polluted sky & water when humans are mostly oxygen / water?
            Empty, unused buildings when humans are dying of exposure?

            What do you think, Andrew? Do starving people want food in their bellies or do they want to discuss socio-economic meta analysis?

            Money does buy “happiness” for those living below a certain line. So as a tool, it has its uses. Maybe this toy needs to go in the box until we’ve learned to treat each other and ourselves better…

          • Starving people need food, not money. Unfortunately someone’s got to discuss socio-economic meta analysis, because most people seem to be under the delusion that the problem is a lack of money. Humans created money, we give it value, and we decide the rules by which it operates. It’s not a law of nature, as most finance capitalists seem to claim. Right now the owners of the means of production won’t give starving people food, homeless people shelter, or, worst of all, sick or injured people medical care unless they have money. And people who are starving, homeless, sick or injured don’t have the physical and/or mental capabilities to work hard enough to earn enough money to pay the big owners to get their needs met, precisely because of those needs. Unfortunately, the big owners run the game, keep most of us in thrall, and have control of the police and military in case someone decides not to follow the rules of their game. But money is worthless if nobody agrees to give you goods or services in exchange for it.

          • Readily agreed.

            But you need resources, or for lack of a better word, money to not only survive in this paradigm at present, any type of significant reform to the system that isn’t catastrophic in nature can only come about from having a significant amount of money.

            Somebody else mentioned “möbius strip” in the comments here recently. That’s probably a better analogy than I am capable of producing myself at this moment.

  5. We live in a results-driven culture of instant gratification, so the fact that it’s difficult to correlate political change to civil unrest means that civil unrest is useless. If you look at protest as cultural expression you can draw other conclusions. OWS, for instance, was caused by a financial collapse had a pretty simple message “the greed at the top wrecked things for those of us from the middle down,” but that message was somehow mostly lost because those at the top can control the message. I would say this is more a failure of our culture than it is any sort of failure of OWS. OWS was simply an expression and as a culture we mostly failed to understand that expression because we’ve let the things that lead to the financial collapse continue unabated. However, the energy of it is still hovering out there and there could still be a paradigm shift underway.

  6. Thurlow Weed | Apr 9, 2014 at 5:42 pm |

    Next story “Why Quoting The Atlantic Doesn’t Work”.

  7. Dread Raider | Apr 9, 2014 at 7:33 pm |

    They do work.
    They get people to talk about the issue. *or at least post in forums.
    What more are we expecting from doing very little?

  8. Echar Lailoken | Apr 9, 2014 at 7:42 pm |

    “I shall be quiet, but under protest.”


  9. Thurlow Weed | Apr 9, 2014 at 7:59 pm |

    Moisés Naím is a Senior Associate in the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That’s really all you need to know about the source of this stupid article and the asinine ideas presented. It’s the Matrix talking at you.

    Why does ruling-class fiction like this appear in this blog?

  10. Thurlow Weed | Apr 9, 2014 at 9:27 pm |

    Yet, the state reacted very violently to OWS protests and related public demonstrations. The 1% does care what common people think and will enlist all of its loyal agents to influence opinion including armed suppression, but that’s a last resort.

    • Agreed. I wondered why the state reacted so violently to the
      OWS protests across the country yet during the Tea Party protests in 2009 when protesters showed up wearing sidearms and sporting rifles, the police didn’t bat an eye. When it came out that the Koch brothers had co-opted the Tea Party, that finally made sense. I can only imagine what would have happened had the OWS showed up armed like the Tea Party did.

      On my better days, I imagine what would happen if the original Tea Party and the OWS movements combined their forces and how that would play on the nightly news.

      • I think the Tea Party had a lot of support from the police simply because they shared viewpoints on what was wrong and what needed to be done. Remember, the Tea Party came from the right, while the Occupy movement came from the left. (although I’m sure Koch’s support was welcomed by the Tea Partiers and a non-issue with those in the police.)

        I do know there had been discussions between some OWS groups and some Tea Party groups, as well as between Greens and Tea Party groups. Don’t think there was much fruit, but I’m sure there was enough shared ground between the groups to even allow the Tea Parties and Occupy groups to consider meeting in some cases.

        • I don’t anticipate “much fruit” until we are all in a really bad world of hurt or something really explosive is revealed that still puts us “commoners” in a really bad world of hurt. Then, it will be a whole new ballgame.

  11. Protest first, plan later! No compromise, no negotiation, no leaders! Grab your bongos and most ridiculous costume! Make sure your placards alienate passers-by! It worked for Martin Luther King!

    • Thurlow Weed | Apr 10, 2014 at 12:05 am |

      It’s been working just fine since the French Revolution. The existence of some people who seem to have never been enlightened by the advances made during the Renaissance do not prove that public protests by the the common people are ineffective, but that science has not yet eliminates stupidity from the gene pool. We are ever hopeful that they will someday join us in the 21st Century.

  12. Street protest don’t work simply because the police know what to do against a street protest in most places. I saw that in protests against the Iraq War in 2003, when protests were massive and easily corralled into boxes where the police could wail on protesters if they had wanted to (and when I showed up at one, had done so the day before). That scene repeated itself quite a few times over the years with a simple formula: let the big wave wash over, clean up after whomever’s left and take lessons for the next time (so that more can be done on more people).

  13. Thurlow Weed | Apr 10, 2014 at 10:21 pm |

    There is merit to that suggestion but you should probably still check in to a rehab.

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