On Protest as a Tactic

I’ve been thinking about the whole notion of “protest” lately – specifically the variety where a bunch of people gather together at some physical location to demonstrate their objections to policies or institutions that they disagree with. (I’m deliberately using “protest” to refer to this, not to individual acts or boycotts or other varieties of expressing displeasure.) We’ve had a lot of these hit the news this year: Greek austerity protests, the protest/riots in London, the “Arab Spring” wave of protests, and the Occupy movement, to name but a few. Gathering somewhere to publicly air grievances is a very old tactic, and obviously still popular. Still, I can’t help wondering about the efficacy and utility of this tactic in the context of your “average” Western society (if there can be said to be such a thing). I don’t have any concrete conclusions, but here is my thinking so far.

I think that the notion of a bunch of people gathering, maybe with signs, to yell and/or occupy a space works largely on a threat principle. Either the target of the protest is threatened with the possibility that the “non-violent” group of protesters could turn into a violent mob, or is “non-violently” threatened with a reputation hit for failure to resolve the issues that the protesters raise. Historically, this was somewhat effective when a group of people could gather outside the dwelling or halls of the person(s) with the power to resolve the issues with immediate action, usually the stroke of a pen or a simple proclamation, and shame or intimidate the target[s] into compliance with the demands of “the people.”

Secondly, these sorts of protests traditionally took advantage of the time it took for information to spread. What I mean by this is that if you, as the person with the power to effect change, were faced with a mob outside your door, you didn’t have immediate access to the counter-opinions of millions of people around the world arguing for the exact opposite. You only had your personal judgment and convictions, and whatever physical force you were willing to employ to maintain your position.

In modern Western societies, we generally face a different situation. First, the representative structure of our governments and the election cycle mean that protests are necessarily symbolic. In the US context, when you rally outside Wall St. or on Capitol Hill, you are not facing people with the power to effect immediate change. There is no one such person — not even the President. At best, you could set gears into motion to have someone draft a bill that might be passed into law if you are able to emotionally sway the bulk of 535 people to agree with you. More likely, you might generate some minor debate and perhaps have some subtle influence over events two or four years later – most likely insufficiently large influence, and not nearly soon enough if the issue is something causing enough discontent to draw out a protest group to begin with. In addition, even if you manage to rally a literal million people to show up in support of your cause, it’s easy to find ten million voices online criticizing your position and arguing the precise opposite. This, of course, is the perfect “out” for officials to say that an issue requires more study in order to find a “balanced” solution (since the search is for whatever pleases the largest percentage of an electorate, not for the solution that actually solves the problem at hand).

I realize that this is sort of a double-edged sword. The intent behind longer election cycles and the dual-house system is to deliberately introduce some delay in effecting change for the purpose of ensuring that more considered solutions prevail over knee-jerk legislative changes. This can be a good thing when the issues are purely cultural (e.g., do we really want to ban violent video games?), but a bad thing when the issues are technical and relevant to physical survival and well-being of some or all of a population. That said, the entire representative/democratic system is vulnerable to poor decision-making in the first place, because effectively the people making the decisions are the most popular, not the most competent. (No, I don’t pretend to have a better solution — but I am also not going to pretend that what we have is even very good.)

Moreover, the above comments only apply to government. When the target of your protest is an economic system as a whole — or even simply specific corporations — protest is largely useless. Unless you can generate enough public embarrassment, a corporation is unlikely to change its behavior. It is immune by law to direct violence, so attacking its property or its representatives brings the risk of direct criminal consequences. Its property is considered “private,” so there is no right to occupy its premises or disrupt its business – you’ll simply be removed for trespassing. If you’re protesting the entire economic system, then you are facing the fact that capitalism as we know it is woven into the very language we use, and it’s ridiculously hard for people to even sanely discuss alternatives as a result. In addition, instead of trying to convince one person or a small group of people to change, you’re literally trying to apply a “threat,” as I’ve defined it above, to millions of people with your protest — this tends to be laughed at, and I would suggest that to expect any other result is naive.

In the case of government, then, the implicit “threat” of a protest is limited – modern society is highly reactive to violence (you will be met with and dispersed by disproportionately larger force for even minimally aggressive or destructive behavior), and the representatives are beholden to their local electorates back home, not to the protesters outside the door of the legislative assembly. A vote by representatives against the interests that elected them is much more potentially embarrassing than ignoring a bunch of “hippies.” In the case of business, the threat is also limited – violence will not work for the reasons above, and the reputation risk is weighed in terms of the resulting media coverage: “does this make us look bad, or the protesters?” If the answer is the former, there might be some business motivation to change, otherwise the protest will simply be ignored. In the case of the “system,” you’re unable to bring even the hint of a credible threat to bear through a protest.

The only argument I can really think of in favor of protests is that they are capable of raising awareness; however, this almost always comes at the cost of protesters being abused. Awareness, in our society, comes largely through traditional media (papers, radio, and television – online or offline), and the media is drawn to sex and violence. If the protesters are merely ignored, they will fade into obscurity, as both supporters and detractors have observed in regards to the Occupy movement. If there is a hint of sex or violence, the coverage skyrockets and positive or negative awareness jumps.

I’m still trying to decide exactly how I feel about it all, but my instincts tell me that, while protests such as the Occupy movement’s are admirable and the need for change is real, the tactic is largely useless. Politicians look to home, and businessmen to their markets – neither looks outside at the protester waving a sign. The energy would be better spent creating real change on a local level, I think – in trying to organize people into participating in activities that reduce their reliance on distant corporations and governments, subverting the system instead of merely railing against its largely symbolic headquarters.

As an aside, at least one observer (John Robb) thinks that protests might simply become impossible in the near future. I completely agree that it’s technologically possible already to auto-disperse protests before they become entrenched, but part of the function of protest, from a cynical sociological perspective, is precisely to allow the most disaffected groups a harmless outlet for their frustrations — after all, nobody really pays attention to them in any serious way, and eventually the cops have an excuse to disperse them or they get bored and go home. Either way, things proceed as they were. I strongly suspect that the dystopian “crush the protests” outcome is unlikely — what’s more effective is to allow people their protests and just ignore them.

As a sort of postscript, I emphasize again that my thoughts only apply to the sort of largely non-violent “street protests” we’ve seen. When they cross the line into full-blown rioting, the threat scales and the implications change. There are also other types of protest, like boycotting and educating, that have much different dynamics, but I’m not really discussing those either. Not to say I haven’t been thinking about them, but that’s for another blog post.:)

Thoughts on Occupy and the State of the Global Economy

Advance Warning: I have no formal background in economics. I have a master’s degree in sociology and a lot of experience working on the topic of knowledge economies, but that’s about the short of it.

Time for my $0.02. 🙂 Comments/criticism encouraged – I’m always interested in improving my understanding of the world.

I’ve been following the Occupy Wall St. movement and the associated #Occupy movement worldwide for a few weeks now with a fair amount of interest. I’m trying to make sense of it, as is everyone else. As anybody who’s been following the mainstream news is undoubtedly aware, we’ve been cycling in and out of economic crisis mode now for the last four or five years, and we seem to be poised at a “make or break” point yet again with regards to global markets and more than a few national economies, with the global economy at stake. It makes sense to me that people would be upset and looking for solutions when the rich are getting exponentially richer at the expense of everyone else, even getting away with outright fraud in multiple instances (robosigning, etc.).

Part of the beauty of the Occupy movement is that it has steadfastly refused to produce any concrete list of demands that would allow it to be easily categorized and then demonized or dismissed. That said, a lot of the discourse is still framed from an approach informed by capitalism and the global economy we’ve worked and lived with for most of the last hundred years (I realize I’m horribly generalizing, but to address this properly is more writing than I can do as a quick first commentary). This bothers me, because I believe that the underlying premises that we derive our systems of resource distribution from have changed fairly abruptly in a way that is not yet appreciated.

In short, there will never be enough jobs again.^

Globally, the stats I can find (ILO’s Global Employment Trends 2011) indicate:
* 3.1 billion workers globally out of a population that has recently crossed 7 billion.
* 660+ million in industry (slightly declining).
* 1.06 billion in agriculture (declining).
* 1.3 billion in services (increasing).
* 220 million unemployed (increasing).

As globalization continues to break down the barriers for access to these labor markets, Western countries have increasingly found themselves competing directly with this global pool of labor, resulting in cries for increased protectionism and spawning anti-globalization movements from people of all political colors. This is an implicit recognition of the fact that there will never be enough jobs again^ – these calls seek to artificially prop up labor markets by limiting the competition to labor pools inside national borders, but the internet has reduced the relevance of national borders to the average citizen in almost every area besides employment and nationalist emotion.

It’s hard to get an exact figure, but the estimates I’ve found (google “how many people can one farmer feed” – I’ll try to find some easy-click sources later) indicate that somewhere between 100 and 1000 people (150-ish being a more common estimate) can be fed per farmer using modern farming techniques. I presume this refers to grain and livestock and probably not to more obscure types of farming (saffron, anyone?:P), but in terms of simply providing a base amount of food, the number of people working in agriculture can only be expected to drop massively as technological improvements and increased education hit the rest of the developing world. By today’s “modern” standard, at a low number of even 75 per farmer (a number more in line with the 1970s), we actually need less than 100 million, or one-tenth, the number of agricultural workers that actually exist. This suggests that, in agriculture alone, approximately 900 million jobs currently only exist due to massive systemic inefficiency (I won’t even go into market factors that result in outright waste, farmers destroying crops because they can’t afford to transport them to markets, etc.).

I haven’t even tried to find numbers for industry, but I’m presuming that at least a couple hundred million people working in modern industry are employed making “widgets,” textiles, etc. These are currently things that are impractical or impossible to produce easily at home – but with home fabrication under intensive development and the price of both open-source and consumer fabrication devices falling rapidly, I don’t think I’m out of line in predicting that the upcoming revolution in personal-scale manufacturing by simply downloading designs and “printing” real objects at home a la RepRap is going to utterly decimate jobs in both manufacturing and service which are related to the design, manufacturing, and delivery of these types of objects.

A conservative guess is that maybe half of the global workforce is currently necessary to maintain current levels of production if obstacles to efficiency were removed (patents, lack of access to capital, etc.). It’s not inconceivable to think that in 20-30 years, we could be facing an extra billion “unemployed” workers from technological improvements in agriculture and industry as well as from simple population growth, and the number of “necessary” workers could drop to a tenth of the available pool. And the truth is, we don’t need everyone to work to produce enough for everyone.

I realize that a lot of people believe in the magical free market fairy that “creates” wealth and jobs out of thin air (yes, improvements in resource use and efficiency do result in improved standards of living, a sort of wealth-by-adding-energy-to-the-system that is still subject to degradation like every other form of order in the universe), but short of utterly useless service jobs like everyone having a personal hairdresser or a maid, I don’t really foresee there being enough jobs ever again. And to further complicate matters, artificial intelligence and robotics are increasingly proving more efficient at a lot of previously service-oriented tasks as well, so I think that even this segment of the global workforce will ultimately see decimation.

The short of it is, we’ve reached a point where our collective technological advancement has outpaced our ability to know what to do with ourselves as a species. “Liberals” think that “conservatives” are keeping them poor. “Conservatives” believe liberals are lazy hippies who just need to get a job. Communists say that communism will save the world, and the Ayn Rand fans wave the banner of individualism and capitalism as some sort of cure-all. All of them, I think, are wrong.

The debate must be reframed in terms of a world where we no longer need everyone to work and there will never again be enough jobs.^ What sort of world do we want that to be? While I believe that not everyone needs to work, I believe most people are happier if they are being productive members of society in some way, so we need to refashion our economic realities to provide them an opportunity to do so and to have a basic standard of living. I don’t know what this world will look like. I don’t know if we will ever get there. I don’t believe capitalism is the answer, nor do I believe that communism is. Humans have a competitive instinct that must have an outlet, but must also be channeled for the greater good. All I know is that we – all of us, not just the Occupy movement – have to put our thinking caps on now because time is running out, and forgiving student loans, making the rich pay an extra percent in taxes, and/or building more Starbucks for barista jobs will not solve a damn thing.

^ I keep marking this statement because there are a couple of ways that there could actually be more jobs, only one of which is really currently feasible, and that’s simply annihilating large percentages of the working population so that there is suddenly sufficient demand for the remaining labor pool again. I don’t think anyone thinks this is a good solution, but historically humans have resorted to war when resource distribution goes out of whack, and we are naive if we believe that it will not happen again. The other is finding some magical way to colonize the oceans/space/whatever that isn’t outrageously resource-intensive, since that would provide a lot of work for a lot of people. Pure fantasy, at least in the foreseeable future.:)

Reminder Re: Atlanta Hostage and Purpose-Driven Life

A while ago, I posted about Ann Coulter’s “Purpose-Driven Left”, where she went on for a while about how Ashley Smith, by reading aloud from The Purpose-Driven Life, “about serving God by serving others,” was able to save the Atlanta judge-killer’s life, and her own, after she was taken hostage.

I still get the odd hit on that story, so I thought it might be important to note that Jesus shouldn’t get all the credit for the tidy resolution after all; seems like meth deserves some credit too. I haven’t decided whether meth should get ALL the credit, or if it’s just that meth + Jesus = calm killers and churches everywhere should add meth to their regular services. “Did you hear Pastor Smith? Have you heard Pastor Smith…on meth?!

Just a quick $0.02. Have fun!

Bill Gates and China’s “New Capitalism”

There’s an interview floating around on Yahoo! News where Bill Gates is raving about China’s “new capitalism” and how great it is. According to Gates, the best part is:

It is a brand-new form of capitalism, and as a consumer its the best thing that ever happened…[the Chinese model is characterized by a] willingness to work hard and not having quite the same medical overhead or legal overhead”.

The translation, of course, is that Chinese workers are willing to work hard because they have no alternative and would otherwise starve. They have no medical benefits, work long hours, and have no freedom to engage in strikes if they don’t like their working conditions. And China-based corporations have less of a burden or incentive under Chinese law to make sure that their products are safe.

I’m quite sure that Bill Gates would love to have such working conditions imposed upon every employee of his. This is the man, after all, who equates free software with communism and seems to believe that corporate intellectual property rights should be unlimited – notwithstanding the fact that “rights” ultimately derive from the people. I guess it doesn’t matter because corporations are people too and obviously they’re much bigger and richer people than the rest of us.

I wonder how he sleeps at night? I guess it’s the giant band-aid on his conscience. Of course, the cynic might suggest that he just wants to make sure he has healthy slave…er…workers for his future corporate-totalitarian society…but I’m not a cynic, of course. Nope, not lil’ ol’ me.

Let It Be

A couple of months ago, I ran into this NYT article discussing Ralph Nader’s inclusion on the Michigan ballot. It appears that Mr. Nader had only 18% or so of the signatures he needed to make the ballot, but miraculously ended up with an extra 45,000 signatures on the petition, courtesy of the Republican Party. The motive, according to the executive director of Michigan’s Republican Party, was to “ensure that Michigan voters are not disenfranchised.”

Today, I happened upon this new little gem. In a related move, Florida’s Division of Elections director Dawn Roberts declared that Nader could appear on the Florida ballot despite legal questions about whether Nader qualifies under Florida state law. And apparently, “Analysts said most of the nearly 98,000 votes Nader got in Florida would have gone to Gore had Nader not been on the ballot.”

What I find interesting about these cases is twofold. First, it intrigues me that the bar to get on a ballot is so high. Okay, I suppose there are technical reasons why not just anyone can be placed on the ballot; it might be overkill to have 5,381 presidential nominees. But from the perspective of freedom and democracy, it seems to me that if someone could get 50,000 signatures nation-wide, he or she should automatically qualify to be on all state ballots. Part of the problem with current American politics is a lack of choice, and the two parties prefer to maintain that status quo.

More interesting, however, is this notion that somehow by including Nader on a ballot, you are “costing” one or another of the established parties the election. This, of course, is the Republican motive to place Nader on a ballot, and the reason that Democrats are screaming. I really doubt that anyone particularly cares whether or not voters are “disenfranchised” these days. Still, there are problems with this “costing” logic.

The Democrats, in my honest opinion, are being extremely pathetic and anti-democratic with the whole thing. By whining about Americans getting extra choices in the election, what they are effectively saying is that:
1. Americans do not deserve to have multiple choices; Republican or Democrat are all they should be allowed, and
2. the Democratic party is not confident enough in its attraction to voters to believe that it is capable of winning an election should it face extra competition on the ballot.

But the problem isn’t solely with the Democrats. The Republicans, by using unethical tactics, are basically saying something else. Specifically, that:
1. it doesn’t matter if Americans have more choice, because the Republican party will use whatever methods they have to in order to win – ethical or not – and
2. the Republican party is not confident enough in its attraction to voters to believe that it is capable of winning an election without extra competition to dectract votes from its only practical competitor.

Overall, a sad state of affairs. Basically, both parties are participating in insuring that Americans have two effective choices come the elections – and if the Republicans successfully manipulate the election process enough, only one viable candidate. Whatever happened to sportsmanlike democracy, where you take your wins or losses with grace without using slimy tactics to undermine your competitor? Oh, wait – democracy…that has to do with politics, and what are politics if not slimy? Oh well. Maybe one day Americans will get fed up with having limited (or no) choice and actually do something about it – and maybe one day pigs will fly. Neither one is gonna happen any time soon.