(I’ve been invited by the Society for Philosophy and Culture here at VUW to host a session of their Symposiumon “Protest” on 5 April. I have taken this as an opportunity to try to figure out what I think about protest in general, and to speculate wildly on a bunch of related themes. Also, a riot of mixed metaphors)
Dissatisfaction with the social and political world can take many forms – everything from resignation and escape to covert resistance and sabotage to full-blown collective action. It is only sometimes that such dissatisfaction expresses itself as what we have come to understand as protest: collective public action that aims for social or political change. The past year has seen a great global wave of protest movements, among which the Arab Uprisings and the Occupy Wall Street movement are only the most well known. But what can protest accomplish in highly complex societies? What are the limits of protest?
Protest takes many forms: the repertoire of protest is large, and is constantly being re-invented in local idioms and adjusted to local circumstances. Some protests make clear “demands” on specific authorities; others enact their dissatisfaction in more or less spectacular ways, or refuse to speak with one voice. Some forms of protest are meticulously planned and organized; others happen spontaneously, taking advantage of very temporary circumstances, and are as much of a surprise to participants as to the putative targets of the protest. Protesters have pursued all sorts of goals, from the liberatory to the repressive. Yet all protest is ultimately a form of voice (in contradistinction to exit, in Albert Hirschmann’s famous scheme). And voice generally has two dimensions: an instrumental dimension, and an expressive or communicative dimension. (I am tempted to say: there are locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary dimensions to protest, but that would complicate things needlessly).
Instrumentally, protest is (roughly) a form of coordinated public action that uses diverse tactics to put pressure on specific institutions to address particular problems or issues in more or less specific ways. (We should understand the tactics of protest very broadly: "symbolic" action - including, for example, sharing a video or wearing certain clothing - can be part of the repertoire of protest.) From this perspective, the success of protest is measured by the degree to which it forces these institutions to respond to the problems or issues in question in accordance with the claims or values articulated by protesters. Protest can (sometimes) do this because it can signal changes in the support of members of political coalitions within particular institutions, or in the commitment of important actors to support these coalitions; it can turn the attention of powerful actors within institutions towards the problems raised by participants in protest; it can communicate information about potential solutions acceptable to influential coalition members; and in general can shift public discourse in ways that frame the concerns of the protesters in favourable ways. These are not the only things that protests can do, but they are the main things that matter for the instrumental success of protest. (For example, protest can sometimes directly create or destroy institutions, but in general it is best to conceive of protest as acting on institutions rather than generally creating or destroying them. More on this point below.)
Consider the protests in Egypt that forced Mubarak from power. How did a relatively small proportion of the population occupying in a mostly nonviolent manner a variety of public spaces succeed in overthrowing a ruler who had been in power for over 30 years and was apparently backed by the USA and a professional military force? The protests did not threaten him physically; rather, they provided the opportunity for members of Mubarak’s coalition of influential supporters to reconsider their support of the old dictator. The very costly signal of commitment given by the crowds assembled for 17 days at Tahrir (and elsewhere), bringing the country to a halt, probably made the upper echelons of the army recalculate the costs and benefits of standing with Mubarak (and having to potentially direct soldiers of uncertain reliability to massacre the assembled crowds). The protests further focused the country's attention budget on a single, specific issue (who should be in control of the state) and framed the problem in a way that was favorable to protesters. Finally, the fact that the protestors had articulated a clear, unifying demand (Mubarak must go) made it possible in turn for the members of Mubarak’s coalition to respond in ways that would defuse the protest. Yet though this was no mean achievement, it is obvious that 17 days of concentrated mass action (with longer roots - there was a lot of preparatory work before those 17 days) are hardly sufficient to completely reconstitute the institutions of the Egyptian state, not just shifting elite coalitions. I do not mean to imply that many people believed that they would, though some of the rhetoric coming from participants and supporters of the Egyptian uprising sometimes gave that impression; only that we need to understand the fundamental limitations of protest as an instrument of social and political change.
I can think of at least three important limitations. The first is perhaps the most obvious: though, as I noted above, the protest repertoire is large and protesters constantly innovate (the Egyptian protests succeeded in part because of innovative ways of deceiving the police, building up a movement, and identifying promising political opportunities), they are in a race with other actors who are not sitting tight. Develop a tactic that exploits a vulnerability in the political opportunity structure – like the “Occupy” tactic we have seen spread in the past year – and opponents on the other side of the issue will often enough develop something that, if it doesn't entirely counteract the effectiveness of your tactic, will certainly render it less effective. Revolutionaries are creative, but dictators can be too. Technology can give a temporary advantage to one side rather than another, but these advantages rarely last: Facebook and Twitter can help protesters organize, but they can also help opponents track protesters down and infiltrate them. Among the only generalizations that we can make with any certainty is that during the last century "nonviolent" tactics (of which there is an enormous variety) seem to have worked better (and produced better ultimate outcomes) than "violent" tactics to produce political change even in highly repressive contexts. (We are talking here about protest from a purely instrumental point of view; non-violent protest may well be normatively justified in other ways). But in the long run, I suspect the advantage remains resolutely with the defence: states and large institutions typically have resources that allow them, if nothing else, to wait you out or overpower you, as long as those at the top can learn from the mistakes of others.
To be sure, resourceful and creative protest organizers can create new opportunities, while lumbering institutions are sometimes slow to react. As in "regular" warfare, raw numbers and luck sometimes count for more than tactics. But there is no known protest method that can systematically grow a movement and be invulnerable to all counter-tactics, no “nuclear bomb” ensuring unconditional institutional surrender. In the long run, all protest tactics can be counteracted by some counter-tactic, and every counter-tactic in turn will be likely rendered ineffective eventually; hence the advantages of second-comers (Egypt) where protest movements can learn from first-comers who demonstrate the viability of particular protest methods (Tunisia), but the disadvantages of late-comers (Syria) where regimes have observed ways to foil these tactics. More importantly, there is no protest tactic that can ultimately reconstitute the whole of society if only enough people joined in - no grand general strike that can put an end to the system once and for all. Great social movement protest campaigns are thus typically hard slogs, not lighting victories; they can last many years (indeed, the uprising in Egypt had roots in movements going back a decade or so, and many failed actions through which a movement was built and much was learned), and at the end of the day they only steer the great ship of state slowly in one direction rather than another. (The image of the ship of state is very old - as old as Plato in Western political thought - but it can still serve as a useful analogy for social and political change: if society is like a supertanker, significant political change requires immense energies to turn it around even a little, but too much pressure - civil war, etc. - occasionally breaks the ship and sinks it, spilling the toxic waste all over the place.)
The second important instrumental limitation of protest is also pretty obvious, and has to do with the scarcity of the most important resource that voice requires to be effective: time (or, more specifically, coordinated time). Protest works to focus attention; it concentrates the diffuse and uncoordinated dissatisfaction of many into a unified chorus, and amplifies this dissatisfaction in ways that attract the attention of publics that might share some of these dissatisfactions, and of political coalitions that can act to change the circumstances giving rise to them. But in the short run, the attention budget for all issues of interest is limited; attention can be shifted, not created, since we are a finite number of human beings who live only a finite amount of time. So protesting X means not protesting Y; and protesting X means not doing A, B, and C, at least for the duration of the protest. There is always some other pressing issue that loses out in the competition for attention, some other problem that could be plausibly argued to be more important: to protest is to make a claim about the proper priorities of an institution. (But how could we know?).
Of course, sometimes X and Y can be subsumed under Z: instead of protesting the gender gap in pay or racism in some particular institution, people protest inequality in general, or capitalism, or the system. But insofar as the effectiveness of protest depends on its ability to shift support within political coalitions, it should be more effective when the "solution" to a problem depends on shifts within one or a few such coalitions (e.g., when it is a matter of of dumping a dictator) than when it depends on untangling multiple coalitions in complex networks of institutions (e.g., when the problem is to democratize an entire society). The best protest can do for more complex problems is to trigger shifts in public discourse ("put things on the agenda") that in turn may catalyze forms of deliberation and "social cognition" capable of generating useful ideas about how to unravel these knots (without resorting to the classic Gordian solution with its attendant violence). And here the communicative or expressive dimension of protest also plays a role: a protest brings forth a public and induces a conversation within it, even if the conversation often leads in directions neither planned nor approved by the protesters.
Here it is also worth noting a difference between protests and institutions. Institutions as it were "store" coordinated action and constantly regenerate it as they use it for specific purposes (but they can squander it if they use it for purposes for which they are not well designed); a protest, by contrast, is always in danger of exhausting its fuel supply. A protest discharges its forces like a battery or perhaps a capacitor; an institution is more like a generator, capable of powering complex circuits of action for longer periods of time to act on complex problems. This is why it makes sense that protests are often directed at institutions, but also why their effects can be so ephemeral. Long protest campaigns can at best transform movements into institutions, continually regenerating the possibility of protest as coordinated action (consider classic human rights institutions like Amnesty International). But instrumentally effective protests will normally tend to simplify and narrow the focus of collective action – to paper over differences of opinion and interest among participants and focus on specific, clearly articulable and above all simple messages that economize on the "coordination energies" necessary to keep the movement together, like the demand that Mubarak step aside; and they will become less effective as the problems they tackle increase in complexity (involving more tangled coalitions of people) and their potential solutions impact participants in more complicated ways. Local protests about issues that are of concrete significance to participants and where key political coalitions are well known will thus tend to be more effective than protests about global, diffuse and complex problems where it is not even clear which political coalitions should be the targets of action (e.g., protests about global warming).
This is connected to the third important limitation of protest. Effective protest tends to run on simple moral narratives, because human beings tend to be energized to act collectively by simple moral narratives, and protests that do not articulate simple moral narratives will ceteris paribus mobilize fewer people; but the world does not run on simple moral narratives (especially not modern complex societies with many only vaguely visible and poorly understood interdependencies). Protest is often very effective for making dictators leave power, but it is only marginally useful for ensuring that a constitution makes sense, and it is much easier to coordinate large numbers of people to do something about "bad guys" than to coordinate them in ways that will make a lasting difference to complex problems. (There is probably an evolutionary reason for this). Consider the example of the Kony #2012 video: a simplistic moral narrative was able to mobilize millions of people in symbolic solidarity against a bad guy (and perhaps shift the agenda within powerful institutions), but it is highly unlikely that such action will produce lasting and significant positive change where it matters most (though in the best case it may get people involved with local groups in Northern Uganda, and perhaps to learn more about complex problems).
None of this is to say that because protest has limits, it should not be used. Far from it! Social change of any kind is hard; but protest, as a form of voice, is only one potential method of change. (Various forms of exit are also important; and the parallel building of institutions - starting a new society in place of the old - is also a time-honored way of acting in the world). Moreover, protest should not be viewed only in instrumental terms. Protest at its best opens up public spaces of appearance, where people can experience the joy of acting together, as Hannah Arendt put it. It is expressive as well as instrumental, and there is nothing wrong with that: protest can be a tactic and a party.
[Update 4/6/2012: minor typo fixes]
[Update 2, 4/7/2012: fixed errant pronouns, link]