Protest in an Unjust Society

Not just Micah White’s The End of Protest, but also the essays of Martin Luther King, to which I have been sent by a wonderful essay by Alex Livingston, a political theorist at Cornell, and Livingston’s own book on William James [Damn Great Empires!  William James and the Politics of Pragmatism (Oxford UP, 2016)], have pushed me to this question: if the mechanisms of democratic accountability are broken, then what forms should protest take?

Let’s frame this question in Martin Luther King’s terms.  “The American racial revolution has been a revolution to ‘get in’ rather than to overthrow.  We want a share in the American economy, the housing market, the educational system and the social opportunities.  This goal itself indicates that a social change in America must be nonviolent.  If one is in search of a better job, it does not help to burn down the factory. . . . The nonviolent strategy has been to dramatize the evils of our society in such a way that pressure is brought to bear against those evils by the forces of good will in the community and change is produced” (“Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom [1966].)

But what is the appeal to “the forces of good will” does not work?  Even King realizes that things seldom happen because that is the right, the moral, the non-evil, thing to do.  He is quite realistic that other pressures—especially economic pressures through boycotts and political pressure through disruptive non-cooperation—must also be applied.  The bigger point, it would seem, is that these other pressures cannot be effective if the moral high ground is lost.  The social movement must be on the side of justice, must be seen as appealing to the community’s best self, in order for its other tactics to bear fruit.

Success in the rhetorical battle over right and wrong is, thus, necessary for success, but not sufficient.  At issue right now is what other ingredients are needed to complete the circle, to give us the magical combination that is gives us the necessary and the sufficient.

A big obstacle here is a fundamental asymmetry.  Protestors almost always lose the high ground if they resort to violence.  The use of violence is also tantamount (it would seem; I am on shaky ground here) to seeing overthrow of the existing power and social relations as the movement’s goal.  If you want in (as King puts it), if the goal is fuller inclusion—and inclusion along more egalitarian lines–, then it seems as if violence is ruled out.

Yet—and here is the asymmetry—the forces opposing change get to use violence without undermining their cause.  This is not a blanket statement.  There are many ways the state—and other established power centers—can lose legitimacy and popular support by resorting to violence.  But there are also many cases where state violence is not condemned, or is even applauded.  Thus, incarceration of those deemed criminals rarely generates any dissent.  Similarly, police actions against “rioters” are most often applauded and almost universally tolerated.  The present of gun-toting policeman on the streets of our cities and villages is taken for granted.

Similarly, various forms of surveillance of employees is mostly accepted and the summary firing of employees deemed trouble-makers is also immune from protest or legal redress.

In short, we have a double standard.  Violence—both direct and indirect—establishes inequality and differential treatment of citizens—and is used to uphold that unequal state of affairs.  Such violence is often unremarked, and is seldom condemned, and even more seldom openly contested.  But if those who would contest this “maintenance violence” (to coin a phrase) resort to violence, they jeopardize their whole cause.  But in a battle so unequally joined, how can the contenders, the protestors, ever hope to win.

There are, by now, both historical examples and theoretical accounts, of non-violence winning this apparently hopeless contest between established violence/inequality and those who would hope to transform prevailing conditions.  SO: never say never.

One way the civil rights movement did win some successes was by pitting some laws against other laws.  The legal system—especially on the federal level—did provide some protection against, and even the ability to annul or override, injustices legally established at the state level.  Even if democratically elected politicians were unresponsive to the protest movements, the courts were another site of possible progress.  And, of course, with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the1965 Voting Rights Act, even the politicians were responsive.

The contrast to the anti-Vietnam war movement is instructive here.  There was never any avenue of legal redress to pursue.  Swaying politicians was the only way to get the government to change course.  And that never happened.  The New Left could not win enough elections to advance its cause; it couldn’t even scare enough politicians in the ways that the conservative movement since 1980 has been able to do.  (The “no new taxes” pledge is one example of frightening politicians into compliance; enforced attitudes toward legal abortion and gun control are another example.)  The only thing the anti-war movement accomplished was the end of the draft.  The politicians decided they could wage war so long as they didn’t force any citizen to actually fight in those wars.

As matters currently stand, conservatives—through wealthy donors and strong single issue groups—can influence politicians to a degree that the left cannot.  Although, it must be said, the conservative control only works for negative action: no gun control, no new taxes, no expansion of legal abortion rights.  Conservatives are not able to accomplish anything positive.  And now—with the failure to repeal ObamaCare and the probable failure to pass new tax cuts—their ability to do anything at all in Congress is in serious doubt.  The Trump administration, of course, can do considerable damage on its own, starting with the sabotage of ObamaCare and moving on to destructive dismantling of environmental and financial industry regulations.

More troubling is that we have now have minority government—and that minority is doing everything it can to retain its hold on power.  Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and allowing big money to dominate politics are all designed to keep a Republican Party that gets a minority of votes in power.  The dysfunctional rules of the electoral game in America are being exploited in a straight-forwardly undemocratic fashion.

Most troubling is that this Republican gaming of the system has extended to a quite deliberate—and frighteningly successful—take-over of the judiciary at every level.  The cherished path of using legal recourse to undermine the system’s inequities and injustices is being taken off the table.  In other words, where violence was, legality is about to rein.  The Republicans have done nothing illegal—as they love to keep shouting from the mountaintops, even as they gerrymander, and refuse to ratify court appointments that are put forward by Democrats.  They are, they insist, playing by the rules—even as, naturally, they use the rules to further their own interests.  That’s what winning is.  You play the game to win.  Both sides do.  And you don’t cheat.

The upshot is that an undemocratic political system and an increasingly unequal economic system is now being fully legalized.  Recourse within the system is now deeply endangered because even winning a majority of votes in an election does not give you any leverage over government, while the legal system is packed with judges who will not countenance any challenges to the electoral system or to the rights of corporations.

So: what is a protest movement to do?  I am fully willing to believe (even though I think leftists are often deluded on this score) that a majority of our fellow citizens in these united states of America do not want what our current government is delivering.  But—and this seems to me the crux—I also believe that a vast majority of those citizens are not willing to step outside the bounds of legality to challenge what is going down.  Either things have just not gotten bad enough—or do not touch them personally enough—or there is a deep in-grown habit of legality.  Whatever the explanation, this is where asymmetry hurts.  A social movement that acts outside the bounds of legality will lose any chance of mass support.  Yet the structures of legality are tightening to the point where action within their limits has less and less chance of being effective.

Massive civil disobedience is one possibility.  The classic tactic of non-cooperation.  But no suitable target immediately offers itself.  The rush to airports after the first Muslim ban was the most hopeful—and useful—response to the Trump administration to date.  The problem here is the site of noncooperation.  Civil rights activists had two obvious sites: segregated public places and voting registration offices.  In each place, they could dramatically stage their attempts to overcome unjust laws.

No such obvious sites are on offer right now.  Occupy went to Wall Street, which makes sense.  But they didn’t actually confront the financiers who were responsible for the mortgage crisis.  And they didn’t have any rhetorically effective way to force such a confrontation.

I am going to stop here.  But the search for answers will continue—not that I have any on the tip of my tongue.  Subsequent posts will keep worrying this topic.  I don’t promise any solutions.

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