Civil Society; the Unavoidable Limits of Protests (Part I)

The World

We are f**** angryThere has been a surge of civil society group activity in the Western world over the past years, partly as a result of the economic/ political climate.  This includes many public events such as strikes, occupations or concerts.  Though such events can be particularly beneficial in establishing arguments there overuse can hurt movements or interests by reducing the ratio of matter over manner.  At the end of the day policymakers and the State require argumentation and proposals that go beyond passion or impressive video/ photo opportunities.  Changing the status quo is a continuous and incremental process that demands multiple strategies and determination not one-off strikes.

In any type of crisis financial, economic or political one main condition arises: the status quo becomes (much more) fluid and is open to alterations.  Surrounding interests can benefit or lose ground as they fight to maintain/ advance over new ground that is up for grabs.  Under the current situation interconnected playing fields have been opened up; the fight is far from over.  In fact in many cases the battles are still waged while others are set up to take place in the near future.  Capitalism/ market liberalization/ the laissez faire economy are perhaps the main structures/ fields facing dramatic changes while groups from different ideological backgrounds (even from within) have opened up debates examining the next potential political/ ideological paradigm.  From a more practical perspective government plans for cuts and changes in the structure of budgets has meant battles over who gets/ loses what (or not) and when.

These plans will affect many different groups and millions of people across Europe, the Western world and to an extent will have repercussions across the globe.  Think for example of reductions in development aid.  Because of the multiple actors involved, this international dialogue more often appears like an amalgam of cacophonies than a civilised discussion with bullet points and arguments rolled out with smooth elegance by breezy speakers.  In this sea of active interest groups trying to defend or expand their territory a large roar can capture attention and cement a group’s position.

Action usually undertaken by civil society such as protests, occupations, strikes and so on often aim exactly at this: drawing enough attention to establish a line in the sand.  These actions are not only justified but also make a lot of sense.  One on one meetings between business interests and union leaders can cause the false assumption that the same number of people are affected on each side of the argument.  Exposing through e.g. a massive strike a representative sample of the number people affected by the debate can produce beneficial results, tipping points of discussions under a (possibly) utilitarian argument. 

However, just like business and pleasure, mixing matter with manner can be dangerous for the productivity of a discussion or the defence/ advancement of a position.  In other words, too many events or protests can reduce the validity of arguments brought to the table by creating internal disharmony and miscommunication of ideas.  Posts and arguments demanding that we rise and “occupy the world” are increasingly becoming the norm.  This does not mean that civil society groups should not promote these events.  But they should be honest about the impact they can actually have.  The availability of technology for the dissemination of information is no longer “real life” as the sole method of gathering attention.  Moreover, too many events and not enough good arguments or studies to back them can hollow out a movement by reducing its legitimacy. 

As political parties and policymakers become more wobbly due to the marginally improving (or not) economic/ political climate in the Western world it becomes ever more important that civil society has coherent positions over matters it wishes to debate, defend or change.  Especially bearing in mind the “policy follows science” concept that has been established over the past 10-15 years, policymakers require arguments that speak not only with passion but also with firm logic and data.  This would not only increase the legitimacy of movements but also their impact on the status quo not only now but also in the future. An image might be worth 1,000 words, but you need much more than that to examine/ analyse it.

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