Protests and the hollowing of democracy

In the aftermath of the Aboriginal tent embassy rally, Bob Carr shared his thoughts on protests:

Here’s the truth of it. Demonstrations hurt the demonstrators. On the electronic media they sound extreme, bitter, angry. The faces of the protestors are contorted with what looks like hatred. […]

As a Premier I never saw a demonstration that didn’t hurt the side that mounted it. And I was never persuaded by a noisy crowd with a few placards. A carefully mounted case with killer facts was a different proposition.

Now, anyone with even a passing knowledge of Australian history knows how tremendously silly this is. Actually, demonstrations played a crucial role in every social reform for the last two hundred years, from the campaign for the eight hour day to the ongoing struggle for same sex marriage.

Indeed, in the wake of the tumultuous seventies, the street protest was accepted in most liberal nations as a crucial part of the democratic project, an accepted avenue for citizens to voice their opinions.

Yet that tolerance now seems to be over. In the last year or so, a succession of pretty minor demonstrations (the tent embassy, the protests about the Islamophobic film, the CFMEU picket lines in Melbourne, the Occupy events) have all sparked moral panics out of all proportion to what actually occurred.

Consider this piece, taken from the ABC website: ‘Text messages and terror connections inflame Muslim protests.’

Gosh, that sounds bad, doesn’t it! Here’s the strap: ‘A protest in Sydney against an online video that mocks the Prophet Mohammed may have become violent thanks to a trail of text messages and the influence of known extremists, some with terrorist connections.’

Let’s look first at the ‘terror connections’. The allegation comes courtesy one Neil Fergus, the former ‘intelligence director’ from the Sydney Olympics: ‘I recognised a couple of people from the footage who are people who back when we were preparing for the Sydney Olympics, a couple of these people were persons of interest then and have been involved – some of them in some of the terrorist-related investigations that have taken place in Australia in the intervening 12 years.’

That’s the basis of the terrorism claims: a retired security consultant says he recognised unnamed people who may have been ‘persons of interest’ (whatever that means) or played an unspecified role in ‘terrorist-related investigations’ (whatever those might be). It’s pretty thin stuff, so it’s tricked out with the observations of ‘online editor and journalist Jamila Rizvi’, who explains: ‘Something like this [the protest] gives them someone to channel their anger and that’s incredibly dangerous.’

Yet the implication that Rizvi’s providing sort of an expert analysis becomes somewhat diminished when we learn she’s an online editor not for a national security journal but for a lifestyle website.

What’s most remarkable about the article is how text messages about the protest are somehow innately sinister.

For what do these dangerous messages actually say?

Here’s the first:

Stop everything, cancel all your plans. Tomorrow town hall 1pm is your calling to rise up and speak up against intentional and deliberate attempts to humiliate the Muslims …

Here’s the second:

They have mocked him in pictures and no they’re mocking him in a movie. Why are we allowing this? Why are we silenced? No, I will not accept this. We must defend his honour. Tomorrow at Town Hall Station, 1pm. We must act now!

Now, on any fair-minded interpretation, these are simply invitations to a protest, nothing more, nothing less.

The third text runs like this:

Allah Akbar. Well done my brothers and sisters that were at the protest. This is a form of jihad. We voiced our opinion and insha’Allah they will finally get the message. We the young and real followers of Muhammad rose up against the enemies of Islam.

Again, what does this actually say? It’s a demonstrator congratulating other demonstrators, not for violence or hooliganism, but for voicing their opinions! Again, how does this become an innate piece of criminality, unless you think protests themselves are innately problematic?

But that sentiment – the belief that protests are themselves the problem – seems increasingly taken for granted. Here’s another ABC piece: ‘A Muslim leader says text messages are circulating in Melbourne calling for another protest against the anti-Islamic film that has prompted violent demonstrations around the world.’

Once more, the implication seems to be that a protest against an anti-Islamic film is inherently troubling.

In part, what we’ve seen since 9/11 is an increasing normalisation of anti-terror laws, tactics and attitudes. Thus, when the Occupy Melbourne protesters were violently dispersed, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle justified the violence by asking ‘how do these protesters explain the knives, hammers, bricks, bottles and flammable liquids that we found in their illegal tent city? What were they for?’ The obvious answer ‘camping’ is not the response he sought. The explicit claim was that the occupiers were, as he put it, ‘professionals’, preparing for violent mayhem, and thus deserved to be treated as terrorists.

That was not an isolated episode.The various police forces have far more anti-protest equipment before and they’re increasingly willing to use it – witness the deployment of capsicum spray at the CFMEU picket.

But there’s more going on than that.

In a previous piece about the tent embassy protest (which I’m now going to cannibalise shamelessly), I contrasted the hysteria about that event, with a vignette about Bob Menzies electioneering in 1955.

This is an account from a newspaper of the time:

Boos, abuse and hysterical enthusiasm drowned most of Mr. Menzies’ remarks when he addressed 2,000 in Dr. Evatt’s stronghold of Hurstville tonight. It was the Prime Minister’s first excursion into the Labor leader’s electorate of Barton, and the noisiest meeting of his campaign. Organised groups counted him out seven times and the barrage of interjections was the heaviest in the memory of seasoned campaigners. At one stage a man marched to the dais, shook his fist and shouted abuse at Mr. Menzies till women in the front seats pushed him aside. […] His first words were drowned by screams of “You dirty mug” and “Sit down; you dirty liar.”

“It will be the last opportunity you Communists will have here because Dr.Evatt will be defeated in December 10,” he flung back.

Here was the PM in front of 2000 people, including communists he regarded as a national security threat, with hecklers shaking their fists in his face. Yet no-one considered the episode particularly scandalous. Raucous mass assemblies were part and parcel of electioneering; hecklers – and even the occasional tossed tomato – were simply another peril of the campaign trail.

Compare the reaction to the tent embassy protest on Australia Day. The hysterical denunciation of a small but noisy demonstration, from which Julia Gillard was (as she herself made clear) in no danger whatsoever, represents, on one hand, a shift in attitudes fostered by 9/11. But it also illustrates how unscripted interventions by ordinary people are now seen not as manifestations of democracy but as an attack upon it.

In Australia, neoliberalism is understood largely as an economic model, characterised by the sweeping privatisations that Carr championed in NSW. But, actually, it’s more than that. Neoliberalism differs from a classical free market orientation precisely because it extends beyond the economy to embrace the entire social world, which it then recasts on market lines. The neoliberal project doesn’t just assign to the market those roles previously understood as quintessentially responsibilities of government (such as, say, the provision of utilities); rather, it recasts governance itself as an entrepreneurial project, with productivity and profit increasingly normalised as the criteria to judge success and failure.

In other words, neoliberalism effects a thoroughgoing depoliticisation. Most obviously, this manifests itself in a belief, now shared by almost all mainstream politicians, that government should not intervene in the market. This conviction – a consensus about the role of politicians as simply economic caretakers – already renders out of bounds most of the policies that previous generations of social democrats would have taken for granted.

More importantly, neoliberalism also recasts governance and the democratic process in market terms. The resulting political culture casts citizens as autonomous economic agents, relating to each other and to the state as individual entrepreneurs. The politician no longer appeals to party members, unionists, religious believers or specific communities; instead, he or she addresses individual consumers, touting for their business in much the same way as any other corporation.

In the neoliberal polity, it makes no more sense for citizens to rally than in does for, say, users of Apple computers to hold a march. In both cases, their role is simply to consume, with the ballot box understood as an extension of the cash register. If the latest iPhone is a dud, buy an Android; if the Labor Party’s been in power too long, vote Liberal.

Because democracy is understood as a market, rallies, protests, demonstrations and strikes seem, to the neoliberal, not as expressions of the popular will but as outrageous assaults on the democratic system.

To be clear, we’re not seeing the end of the right to protest, so much as its hollowing out. In the neoliberal era, tightly-controlled top-down events are still considered legitimate – witness the staged spectacles at the recent Republican and Democratic conventions in the US.

But had Menzies’ speech been delivered in 2012, the fist-shaking hecklers would have encountered anti-terror police and the papers would have breathlessly reported the ‘Hurstville riot’.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Indeed, it seems the 911 is the gift that keeps on giving for the ruling classes.

    When one side has all the power on their side, the state, the various organs of oppression, the media, the scientists, and of course BIG money, and the other side has no access to these structures, what can
    be expected but demos.

    Her in SE Tasmania the community is organising to fight against a C-Cell, that is a hazardous waste dump that the local councils want to have built. In Hobart the print media is a pure Murdoch monopoly. The
    local paper has called out the big guns to criticise the protesters. One Murdoch luminary even recalls Polybius in calling the opponents of the Dump and the Super Trawler as members of a so called Ochlocracy, that is mob rule.

    But of course this is taken out of context, as Polybius is describing the history of end of the Roman Republic. This type of mob rule was based on physical violence and even political inspired murders. Does the Murdoch press think that a passionate electorate using the few avenues available to them are in the same mode as the rioting proletariat of ancient Rome? And of course this long class struggle in Rome ended with the mob being beat back, the Republic overthrown and
    the rise of the Empire giving us such democratic ideals as Nero and Caligula.

    Is there something wrong with passion and commitment, or do the powers that be want us to only vote every three years and the rest of the time sit quietly and come up with ‘killer arguments’ to state our case? This is political naivety. As we have seen in the last few years even killer arguments and years of world wide scientific modeling and observation are not enough to allow us to come up with a sensible and long term plan to stop global warming. Indeed when the ice cap melts in the Arctic the plutocrats see only the opportunity to extend drilling into the damp cold lands of the Arctic.

    Stay on the streets and do not be cowed by the lies and distortions of the few who want it all. As the IWW said, ‘Direct Action gets the goods.’

  2. Great post, Jeff. Elections are a pretty cynical game nowadays. The right to vote is a step towards democracy, not the end state.

    As Ranicere says: ‘Representative
    democracy’ might appear today as a pleonasm. But it was initially an oxymoron.’

  3. The balance between the ‘mob mentality’ and individual opinion goes both between and rolls within democracy and consumerism. Its a funny thing. Or maybe it’s not funny at all.

    Love the compartison of iphones and demonstations.

    Whatever collective is, the beauty is in the thoughfulness and respect among people and place, not the market.

    “Unscripted interventions by ordinary people are now seen not as manifestations of democracy but as an attack upon it”

    “Because democracy is seen as a market, rallies, protests, strikes seem, to the neoliberal not as expressions of the popular will but as outrageous assaults on the democratic system”

    Reading today – Anotinie de Saint-Exupery, when about to die in the Sahara Desert (when he, lucky, was able to be a part of extraordinary human feats of making new flight paths in aeroplanes…. now the new finger swish thing is all we have to marvel at i.e. our ‘right’ to have technology) he thought to himself:

    “We cannot read the world in whose order we are living, if we ourselves are not locked within it”

    Well there are a lot of people who refuse to be locked within it. The people condoning media reports have to one day answer the big bullshit hoo-ha media beat-ups about protests and anti-terror stuff. It cannot stay the way it is, democracy as a market! Jesus! NO WAY!

    There are a lot of people who might at least try to think seriously about something other than their iphone and avoiding the shitty feeling and condition of where we got to today in ‘deomcocracy’.

    I love the article Jeff.

  4. Thought provoking post Jeff! Two related thoughts on the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy:

    1. It seems to me neoliberalism is a project of occupying the state in order to transform it into something else. That it is not a project for limiting the state per se, but having the government bring about a ‘neoliberal’ market and state.

    2. Linked to this is the question of democracy, where it seems to me neoliberalism is about shrinking what is seen as within the rightful responsibility of ‘democracy’. So it is not just about marketising everything, but then establishing that those areas are now the management responsibility of markets — forever shrinking what a liberal democracy is or should be responsible for.

    Worth restating that neoliberalism was only made possible through conscious political decisions (to deregulate trade, adopt competition policy, privatise, cut in corporate taxes, restrict welfare eligibility etc). But that these decisions were argued as both inevitable and a necessity. And moreover that they are irreversible and that democratic decision making cannot, ever again, be exercised over them. Although these sorts of policies were reversed in the inter-war period, and in a more limited and temporary way in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 onwards.

  5. I actually think there is something else going on here that is not about neoliberalism per se. In fact I think there is a real danger for the Left to see its own political weakness as the product of the logic of the market invading every sphere of life.

    The neoliberal era has indeed led the political class to constantly proclaim how little it can do on the main socio-economic questions of the day (which are under the control of apparently “natural” phenomena like “market forces” or “globalisation”). But that doesn’t stop most people believing ever more strongly that the state / the government should do something. And because governments constantly say they cannot do something about what really affects people directly, they need to seek authority by some other kind of manoeuvre.

    Hence we see a proliferation of reliance on the coercive powers of the state (or at least the threat of using such powers) against minority groups that can be easily othered. That includes ratbag protesters, boat people, Muslims, construction workers, etc. This is actually a position of great weakness from which to govern. People expect politicians to deliver on what counts and mostly what they deliver is materially meaningless to people’s lives. I think that while the rhetoric of the market explains some of the behaviour of politicians, we shouldn’t mistake this as the general public actually buying into it except perhaps at a very superficial level.

    Instead I think we have to grasp that the weakness of the Left lies not in the market process but its political collapse in the face of the ruling class offensive that started in the 1970s but reached its apogee in the years of the Hawke-Keating Accord with the unions. Because most of the Left accepted the necessity of this project it allowed the breakdown of long-held cultures of solidarity. So there is no automatic support for a building strike or some rowdy Muslim kids being attacked by the cops or even Occupy among the wider Left (I recall the sneering tweets of Greens staffers during the latter protests, for example, or how Left Greens MP David Shoebridge rushed to condemn Muslim violence this week when he has defended other rowdy protests in the past).

    So why do the elites go so nuts about this stuff? None of these protests would seem to threaten the fabric of our society yet that is how they are treated. Here’s Paul Kelly in The Oz, for example:

    “The sustained and mass violence in Sydney last weekend represents a failure of Australia’s immigration and integration policies and demands a reappraisal from our political elites and Islamic community leaders working together.”

    “Sustained”? For an hour or two. “Mass”? Tiny numbers involved. “Failure of policies”? A storm in a teacup.

    My argument is that it is precisely the weakness of the ability to govern that leads to such bluster and menace. This is the sign of a desperate political class, not an all-powerful one. It has very little to do with the marketisation of politics and very much to do with the failure of the market project of the post-1973 period to fix the underlying problems in society and thereby restore politicians’ authority.

    There is a deep danger in this kind of talk from the politicians — it contributes to a “fascisation” of a minority of society through its legitimation of tropes about the need for authoritarian methods and the failure of really existing democracy. But we should also not get that consequences of this stuff confused with the weakness of the mainstream political class.

    I think it’s very important that we understand how their side is weak; lest we give it authority through our own sense of demoralisation.

    1. “And because governments constantly say they cannot do something about what really affects people directly, they need to seek authority by some other kind of manoeuvre.”

      Late to the comments section, but just wanted to say that this is a really important point. Not just the right to protest, but other principles of modern social democratic constitutions such as the right to work and social participation and the right to welfare are inherently anti-authoritarian. Dismantling them requires an authoritarian state and the foreclosure of all forms of dissent that can’t be reduced to balancing a television panel.

  6. Thanks for those interesting and thoughtful comments.
    I’ll try to come back to the substantive points later when I have more time but I wanted to throw someone else into the mix. Paul Kelly’s rant about how Muslims needed to embrace secularism ended on this quite odd note: ‘The message for Islam and other religions is the need to uphold Australia’s secular state and, in so doing, find a common cause in all faiths against the approaching assault on the secular state from non-believers.’
    It strikes me that this is a potential fault line: in the US, for instance, some sections of the religious right have floated the possibility of alliances with conservative muslims against the secular Left. But, of course, it’s a difficult road to trod while you’re simultaneously pursuing a neoconservative foreign policy in the Middle East.

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