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Counter-productive demonstrations

Big demo against the cuts in London today! Takes me back, that does. Maggie, maggie, maggie, OUT OUT OUT!

Simon Jenkins says British demonstrations scarcely ever achieve their aims. I think they often do. Not always quickly, not always directly, and the aims achieved are not always good, but the clue to the effectiveness of demonstrations is in the name. The demonstration demonstrates that there are enough people who care enough about some issue to fill up in Trafalgar Square. They vote, thinks the politician. Not that he panics; he knows that there are other voters shouting or yawning at their televisions as they show pictures of the Trafalgar Square lot, but the highly visible existence of this big shouty bundle of single-issue votiness seeps into his mind and affects his decisions, irrespective of whether he likes them or loathes them.

On the other hand, sometimes the demonstration demonstrates that there are not enough people who care about your issue to fill up Trafalgar Square. (There will be today; I speak in general terms.) If the mainstream media like your cause they will do their very best to help by means of what I think of as the squat shot. That’s when the cameraman squats on the ground and points the camera upwards so that the shot shows only bodies and not the tell-tale large areas of empty pavement between and around the marching feet. (Added later: however eventually, the use of this low-angle crowd-shot becomes a signal to alert observers that attendance was low, and the subject of ridicule. The BBC have wised up and reined back on its use in the last few years.)

And sometimes – in fact ofttimes – the demonstration demonstrates that quite a lot of your supporters are not very nice. The blogger Zombietime went to many anti-war demonstrations in the US while G W Bush was president and quietly snapped away. One of the results was this record of the signs calling for Bush to be assassinated. Here in Britain the student demonstrators against tuition fees did not endear themselves to the public by the fact that one or two of their number were photographed hurling fire extinguishers from the top of buildings or hanging from the flag commemorating the war dead at the Cenotaph. I sympathise with the demonstration organisers in these cases: they did not condone these actions – but like the scorpion in the fable who could not help but sting even at the cost of his own life, demonstrations cannot help but demonstrate something. You asked the public to watch and judge your cause by the people you assembled, and they will.

As will your own people. The demonstrations I went to in the 70s and 80s have merged in memory. Was it at the CND one, or the anti-NF one, or one against changes to the immigration laws where I saw the collection bucket being passed round for the IRA? The bucket filled up slowly, I’ll say that much for my fellow demonstrators, but it was not empty. At all of them I picked up piles of mimeographed leaflets that I now wish I had kept. They were revealing. They were insane. I realised that Searchlight, for instance, who I had thought of as just an anti-fascist group were very left wing indeed. Most of all I remember the posters. Three quarters of the posters, and almost all of the printed ones, were produced by the Socialist Workers Party. Busy little bees, they were. They still are: it is an astonishing fact that this tiny and fissiparous Trotskyist sect has twice dominated massive popular protest movements in my lifetime; the Anti-Nazi League / Rock against Racism movement of the 80s and the Stop The War Coalition of 2001-2008. Sorry, 2001-present, only they stop wars much more quietly now that Mr Obama is president. They were also big in CND.

Most demonstrators back then avoided carrying SWP posters. But it was difficult to refuse if someone asked nicely, so ordinary non-SWP people did end up walking for miles with an embarrassing commie placard thinking, how the hell did I end up doing this and I’m not doing it again. I suspect this will happen today as it did in the 80s.

The problem with demonstrators being turned off by weird extremist literature and weird extremist fellow attendees is not confined to causes that I dislike – even if part of the reason I now dislike them is that I was turned off by the weird literature and people. I sympathised with, although I did not attend, the big demonstration in 2002 against the hunting ban. My husband picked up a BNP leaflet for me while he was there because he had heard earlier verbal versions of the reminiscences about extremists at demonstrations that form much of this post. It depressed me that the originators of the leaflet were probably right in seeing that demonstration as a good opportunity to shift their stuff. One good thing, the leaflet had a picture of a squirrel on it. The good here is not the squirrel per se, fond as I am of the tree-rats, but at least they felt the need to hide behind cuddly things.

Oh yeah, another thing to avoid is having the same demo at regular intervals. Lie all you like about numbers, the media will help you if you are left wing, but when like for like comparisons can be made, decline will out. A left wing writer said in 2003:

The SWP’s main priority is recruitment. Why else did it continually call demonstrations week after week during the Iraq conflict? This was a big tactical error for the anti-war movement. When the bombing started, many people felt dispirited and tired, but were organising and carrying out further actions and protests. More importantly, the SWP had not realised that many people on the enormous demonstration in February were there because they felt they had been denied a democratic voice. These demonstrations were bound to result in diminishing numbers – and many were bound to judge that as the collapse of the anti-war movement.

Innovative forms of demonstration like Earth Hour (today, apparently) replace the crowd in Trafalgar square with the crowd at home doing something that shows up somehow. This avoids the “embarrassing supporter” problem and the “clashes with the other big demo” problem. However having a metric for your demonstration that is easier to count than crowd size, and having it as a regular event, makes this type of demonstration particularly vulnerable to the cold wind of comparison to last year. The better they do one year, and the more their success is hyped up, the tougher the target for next year.

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21 comments to Counter-productive demonstrations

  • John B

    Macmillan was right about sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind, but as with all good deceptions, it was the right stuff pointed at the wrong people.
    Likewise here.
    And likewise any time from mid 1970s onward.
    Anyone who had not sussed out the deception and the evil by then, well, I guess, inherited today’s mess.

    It does interest me, looking at today’s demo on Sky, that the type of activity and belief system that I think had become more or less accepted as stupid and without logical merit by the 1980s and up until around 2003, seems to be back in full swing.
    That was very clever of them in the short term.
    But of course, in the longer term, they will just inherit the whirlwind along with everyone else.

  • It’s a bit off topic, but MacMillan was “wind of change”. Sow the wind reap the whirlwind was either Bomber Harris, or maybe Churchill. It definitely referred to the bombing of Germany during WW2.

    On topic, I hate demonstrations, because I don’t control what I am saying. Others decide what me being there meant, not me.

    With blogging, you get to say exactly what you want to say. I like that.

  • John B

    The reaping of the whirlwind came in there as well. Perhaps it was an irresistible embellishment subsequently brought in. I know the link was exploited for propaganda purposes – that the whirlwind would be the consequence in southern Africa.
    Looking at TV coverage of today’s demo, and the whole message that is coming across: “while we all know there have to be cuts, these cuts are wrong and the legitimate concerns of those being impoverished should be heeded by this inept government” it is interesting that the ineptness of this government is to allow any credibility to be achieved by the demonstrators and backers. As though they made sense.
    It is clear that common sense and a partial appreciation of reality is being trashed into a fairy tale and this demo and its media coverage are the manifestations.
    The future does not look good. But I guess you know that.

  • I despair. I’ve been having one of those arguments on the Face Book today, you know, the ones you have with someone you don’t know, squatting on the status of some mutual acquaintance.

    This person was maintaining that “not all protesters are anarchists, you know” and that “some of them are just ordinary people standing up for their rights.”

    Unfortunately, my attempts to educate them on the meaning of ‘anarchist’ putting the “right” to demand more of my money to fund their pet cause in derision quotes had absolutely no effect.

    Such is the narrative irrevocably planted in the minds of those who watch the “news.”

  • Not that they don’t have the right to demand more of my money, of course. They do. They just don’t have the “right” to receive it.

  • PaulH

    It’s somewhat tangential, but I noted your use of the word ‘hurling’ to describe the actions of the youth with the fire extinguisher. Without access to Lexis-Nexis I can’t prove this, but it seemed at the time that ‘hurled’ was the endorsed verb for his action, as I saw it in what seemed like every account. It stuck in my mind because when I watch the video I see someone dropping a fire extinguisher, not hurling it. My point isn’t that dropping it is in some way better – the evil intent remains – just that it’s a nice little example of how the conventional narrative is established.

  • Laird

    Frankly, I’m astounded at the debate here over the provenance of “reap the whirlwind.” It’s from the Bible, of course, specifically Hosea 8:7: “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

  • veryretired

    The struggle for control of the future path of our societies will be decided in the street.

    After all the debate and discussion in classrooms and courtrooms and on the web, after all the media stories and media hype, after all the marches and speeches, the issue will be settled, not by a show of hands, but by the blows of fists.

    This is why the collectivists were so stunned and outraged by the appearence of the tea party demonstrations this past year.

    For decades, the street belonged to the anti-western, anti-american, anti-capitalist, anti-everything crowd.

    Not anymore.

    The issue will not be decided with rhetoric.

    There will be blood.

  • Laird

    It seems that the Daily Mail has no idea what the definition of “anarchist” is. There’s no possible way that people who are demanding more government spending can be legitimately called “anarchists” (they’re outright statists), but here’s the Mail referring to them as such in the headline and repeatedly throughout the article. At least the Guardian didn’t make that mistake (as far as I know).

    Actually, my suspicion is that at least a few of the Mail’s editors do know what an anarchist is, but are using the term as an all-purpose pejorative to describe any opposition to a governmental action. Sort of the way they use “fascist” as a generic term of opprobrium. Or the way the US government uses “terrorist”.

  • PaulH

    Laird, I believe the Daily Mail is using the term because it raises their readers’ blood pressure. That is the only purpose of the Daily Mail, and whether it’s done by using inflammatory words, deliberately lying about things, or showing starlets absent their clothes doesn’t really matter to them.

  • Ian F4

    Civil rights group Liberty said the march had been “infiltrated by violent elements” who attacked buildings before “melting into the demonstration once more”.


    Of course it’s a different story when the neo-nazi thugs hijiack an EDL protest. I’m not supporting the EDL, but it’s disgraceful that leftist groups can easily shrug off their violent element without question.

  • peter utara

    Those that call themselves anarchist don’t even know the definition of the word. These are violent idiots with too much time on their hand. I don’t condone police brutality but I would ‘understand’ if the police whack a few heads senseless.

  • The SWP really are a persistent bunch of cunts, I agree. Where do they get it from, exactly?

  • John B

    I must confess that until I was re-educated some years ago I had the image of an anarchist as some lunatic with a bomb, the fuse already lit, and I am sure I was not alone.
    Someone who just wanted to smash everything up. In fact I used to wonder what on earth could motivate an anarchist to be what he was other than insanity or plain evil.
    You see, there is a massive education campaign out there that needs to be done!

    Laird, re the whirlwind. It was just a question of who quoted it.
    I was saying MacMillan had warned the South Africans that they would inherit it if they didn’t change, but I was actually using it with reference to the idiots in yesterday’s demo who don’t even begin to realise what they are actually achieving.

  • John B

    This utter deception that surrounds the issue of “the cuts” is clearly demonstrated in this post(Link) at EU Referendum.

  • Steve P

    In fairness to the Daily Mail, I think it’s the trouble-making element of the protestors themselves who refer to themselves as anarchists, and the Mail is, I believe, simply taking their description of themselves at face value.
    Lazy perhaps, but no more than that.

  • Steve: indeed. Remember THAT picture from the student protests a few months back, where the protesters calling for more government money were daubing the circle-A symbol on things?

    That’s (one of the reasons) why I self-describe as anarcho-capitalist. People have to ASK me what it means, they don’t think they already know.

  • People have to ASK me what it means, they don’t think they already know.

    Yep, until the left catches up and assigns it a new meaning. These people should be kept away from human language…well, and from everything else, for that matter.

  • bloke in spain

    PaulH@ 8:37 27/3
    “… I believe the Daily Mail is using the term because it raises their readers’ blood pressure. That is the only purpose of the Daily Mail, and whether it’s done by using inflammatory words, deliberately lying about things, or showing starlets absent their clothes doesn’t really matter to them.”

    I’d go along with veryretired when he says this will end in blood. It’s regrettable that when that happens worthy intellectuals at Samisdata & elsewhere with their snide comments about the Mail will, as usual, be absolutely irrelevant. Like it or not the Mail’s policy of encouraging anger in their readers might actually produce an appropriate response to the left’s intimidatory tactics. In a fight the point is to win. No marks are awarded for artistic merit.

  • I’m interested in the dropping becoming hurling thing (PaulH, about 14 posts up). It’s something you see all the time: reality delivers a promising little anecdote, but we live in an age of primary colours and so everything has to undergo the hype treatment to make sure it registers. It’s sensationalism, of course, but it’s subtle and we all do it. The point is that to anyone with an imagination and a few seconds to spare, a quick mental comparison reveals that “dropping” a fire extinguisher is far more sinister and chilling an action than hurling one. The prizes in journalism go, or should go, to those who respect the facts enough to let them speak for themselves. Unfortunately, there aren’t many left of that breed.

    “Where do they get it from, exactly?” (SWP)

    Guy called Tony Cliff, one of an early (50s?) diaspora of anglo Trots that also spawned Ted Grant (Militant Tendency) and Gerry Healy (a Gadaffi sponger who successfully combined Marxism with Chicago gangsterism). “Fissiparous” (wonderful word from original post) is an understatement: there used to be at least 20 Trot sects in the UK (Judean People’s Front, anyone), of which the SWP were the most successful partly on account of Cliff having come to the conclusion that the USSR was not only not a workers’ paradise, but was not even in any sense communist. Whatever Marxism was, it definitely wasn’t anything the world had yet seen. You can see the attraction: not tied to any current alleged manifestation of the ideal society, you can denounce absolutely anything and everything as being of the devil. Most SWPers transported far enough back in time would have been Luddites or Quakers.

    (What it’s like now I don’t know. Been out of the country nigh on 25 years.)

  • oliver

    Interesting. I wonder if your BNP squirrel was red? There’s a small iconographic take on red squirrels from nationalists – indeed, one regular BNP commentator on blogs called herself ‘red squirrel’ – on account of the reds being destroyed by the imported greys.