Last Saturday's Demonstration Expressed Political Ambitions Before The Political Means Necessary To Realise Them Have Been Created

Mick Hall discusses John Berger's ideas on pubic protest. Mick Hall is a Marxist blogger @ Organized Rage.

Theoretically demonstrations are meant to reveal the strength of popular opinion or feeling: theoretically they are an appeal to the democratic conscience of the State. But this presupposes a conscience which is very unlikely to exist. Its now up to the UK left to create a viable vehicle of political change and by doing so become the conscience of the nation.

 John Berger wrote in the 1960's:
The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness. The delay between the rehearsals and the real performance may be very long: their quality – the intensity of rehearsed awareness – may, on different occasions, vary considerably: but any demonstration which lacks this element of rehearsal is better described as an officially encouraged public spectacle.

Agreed but surely any rehearsal must at the very least have the prospect of a first night in its sights, otherwise it becomes not a rehearsal but a one off show.

Berger continues:
A demonstration, however much spontaneity it may contain, is a created event which arbitrarily separates itself from ordinary life. Its value is the result of its artificiality, for therein lies its prophetic, rehearsing possibilities. A mass demonstration distinguishes itself from other mass crowds because it congregates in public to create its function, instead of forming in response to one: in this, it differs from any assembly of workers within their place of work – even when strike action is involved – or from any crowd of spectators. It is an assembly which challenges what is given by the mere fact of its coming together.
Today the very separation from ordinary life of a demonstration is its weakness unless it is linked to vehicle which can transform its main demands into actuality. If not, no matter how impressive the numbers attending the demo are it simple becomes a one off event, perhaps to be repackaged and repeated at a later time, like a political Jaws 2, but its impact will be lessened with each showing.

As John points out here:
The demonstration, an irregular event created by the demonstrators, nevertheless takes place near the city centre, intended for very different uses. The demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets they march through or of the open spaces they fill. They ‘cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, they transform them into a temporary stage on which they dramatise the power they still lack.
Undoubtedly true, but this could not be said about the mass demonstration against austerity, at times it marched through partially deserted streets on a Saturday afternoon. Far from interrupting the regular life on the streets it was marshalled along under the watchful eyes of the police. It was hardly surprising then when it got to Downing Street, and the Westminster parliament, it being a Saturday no one was home, demonstrators were reduced hollering into the mist. Cameron being at his grace and favour country estate and members of parliament scattered across the land. The only people whose lives were intermittently disrupted were tourists, cabbies and bus drivers. Sad, but absolutely true.

Finally, Berger writes there is another way in which revolutionary awareness is rehearsed in a demonstration:
The demonstrators present themselves as a target to the so-called forces of law and order. Yet the larger the target they present, the stronger they feel. This cannot be explained by the banal principle of ‘strength in numbers,’ any more than by vulgar theories of crowd psychology. The contradiction between their actual vulnerability and their sense of invincibility corresponds to the dilemma which they force upon the State authority.

Either authority must abdicate and allow the crowd to do as it wishes: in which case the symbolic suddenly becomes real, and, even if the crowd’s lack of organisation and preparedness prevents it from consolidating its victory, the event demonstrates the weakness of authority. Or else authority must constrain and disperse the crowd with violence: in which case the undemocratic character of such authority is publicly displayed. The imposed dilemma is between displayed weakness and displayed authoritarianism. Almost invariably, authority chooses to use force. The extent of its violence depends upon many factors, but scarcely ever upon the scale of the physical threat offered by the demonstrators. This threat is essentially symbolic. But by attacking the demonstration authority ensures that the symbolic event becomes an historical one: an event to be remembered, to be learnt from, to be avenged.
None of this happened in London at the weekend. Why? Because the state regarded the demonstration not as a threat but a useful tool to let people get their hatred of austerity out of their system. It was the equivalent of a boiler letting off steam.

Berger sums up this type of demo better than I:

The officially approved and controlled demonstration does not impose the same dilemma: its symbolism is censored: which is why I term it a mere public spectacle.A necessary spectacle for sure, but still only a spectacle.
I do not doubt at this very time comrades will begin the work organising for another anti austerity demonstration, but that too will fail in its main aim if the left is unable to build a viable political vehicle to challenge power on their own ground; in the parliamentary chambers.

Or as John Berger put it:

Demonstrations express political ambitions before the political means necessary to realise them have been created. Demonstrations predict the realisation of their own ambitions and thus may contribute to that realisation, but they cannot themselves achieve them.

The question which revolutionaries must decide in any given historical situation is whether or not further symbolic rehearsals are necessary. The next stage is training in tactics and strategy for the performance itself.

John Berger's full article can be read here.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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