“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”
I’ve only really been to two protests in my life. The first was in Moscow in 2014. It was a few months after Putin’s “little green men” had invaded Crimea, and the whole country was riding on a giant torrent of nationalism that sent Putin’s approval ratings through the roof and thousands of young Russians to Donbass. We heard that there was going to be a demonstration in support of those fighting against the Ukrainian government, and thought it might be fun to go and take a look.
There were about 400 people there – a mix of crazy nationalists, religious freaks and curious Moscovites, all gathered in a car park right next to the main road and just in front of some old Soviet-era apartment blocks. A platform was erected on which an array of energetic speakers shouted absurd nonsense about the “murderous fascist junta” across the border and something about “invisible tanks”. There was a kiosk where some middle-aged women were giving out propaganda, a big water container which the organisers must have brought along to help mitigate the effects of the Russian summer heat, and an array of curious flags. Alongside the obligatory Russian ones, people were carrying around two variations on the flag of Novorossiya, one of which featured a picture of Jesus that looked far more like Rasputin. We enjoyed this freakshow for about fifteen minutes, then got back in the car and left.
The other time was in London on the 12th of September, 2015. It was the Refugee Solidarity march that was organised in response to the government’s initial refusal to accept any of those fleeing the war in Syria. Just to be clear, I’m far from your stereotypical leftist who believes in open borders and other delusional crap, but I thought at the time that Britain had some sort of obligation to take in a reasonable amount of those fleeing wars that we helped create and while our European partners were feeling the brunt of the crisis on their own.
There were about 70,000 people there that day. My friend and I got off the tube at Marble Arch and immediately stumbled into the whole procession, which was to head South along Hyde Park, by Trafalgar square, through Whitehall and finally finish at Parliament. The tens of thousands present at the march were a huge left-wing coalition ranging from the reasonable to the outright nutty. If you’ve never been to one of these things, there is practically never any uniformity and all the various factions like to make their presence known. There were signs and banners representing Amnesty International, the Liberal Democrats, Left Unity, the Socialist Workers Party, The People’s Assembly Against Austerity, Stop The War Coalition and so on.
Some of these groups clearly had a larger agenda which they were keen to use the refugee crisis to exploit. Near the start of the procession, around Marble Arch, some old Marxists were trying to sell copies of their newspaper. Stop The War activists were handing out leaflets urging people to travel all the way to Manchester and protest the Tory Party conference (clearly their middle-class followers have nothing better to do with their time). Supporters of the Socialist Party, the descendants of Militant (the hard-left faction that tried to infiltrate and got booted out of the Labour Party in the 1980s), were carrying signs that read “#Refugee Lives Matter, TAKE THE WEALTH OF THE 1%”… Nothing like a bunch of irrelevant Marxist garbage to ruin a perfectly good protest.
The idea, almost fetishised by parts of the left, that large protests can sweep away injustice and any of the other things we don’t like is a long-established piece of idealism, but not much more. The left loves protests, they love their chants and flags and placards. For some, it brings memories of the Civil Rights Movement, of Mandella’s campaign against apartheid, of the Suffragettes and of every other big issue on which they were on the right side of history. For others, it echoes distant cries of revolution – of waving red flags during the Paris Commune and of brave young Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace despite fierce resistance from a group of terrified teenage cadets and a women’s death battalion.
Large crowds are a spectacle. They make us feel like a part of something huge. They’re psychologically enthralling. However, unless you’re prepared to charge at the gates of Parliament, molotov cocktail in one hand and a copy of Das Capital in the other, then crowds are a pretty weak vehicle for change. They let you vent your frustration while inconveniencing varying numbers of commuters, but not much more. As our march arrived in Parliament Square, a man carrying a union flag jumped atop some platform and started shouting at the protesters. “You wouldn’t take any of them into your own home!” he cried as the masses bellow heckled back. It felt almost like the House of Commons on a bad day, just a lot more irrelevant.
During the 1983 election campaign, Labour’s Michael Foot would speak to packed halls of enthusiastic supporters. He would shout about the need for nuclear disarmament and about renationalisation, and they would cheer back. Afterwards, his aides would show him the latest polling figures, which projected a massive landslide in favour of the other side.
“That’s impossible” Foot would say. “There were three thousand people in there waiting to hear me speak.”
“Yes, Michael” they would tell him, “that’s everyone that agrees with you.”
Twenty years later, no longer Labour leader, Michael Foot addressed another meeting of people, this time in London’s Hyde Park. This time, instead of three thousand people, he spoke to about a million. They had assembled that day, on February 15th, 2003, in protest against their government’s plans to invade Iraq. As passionate and brilliant as ever, Foot cried of the need for peace and for the world to ditch nuclear weapons. About a month later, American missiles started landing in Baghdad. Both George Bush and Tony Blair would go on to win re-election.
In late June 2016, after Britain voted to leave the European Union, tens of thousands once again descended on Central London. This time they dressed in blue and carried flags with twelve yellow stars. “The people were lied to” they cried. “We love Europe” they cried. “I have a human right to go on holiday to the South of France without having to bother getting a visa” they cried. Yet if just over a million more people voted Remain, they could have saved themselves the trouble. As always, the traditionally pro-EU youth vote couldn’t be bothered to turn up at the voting booth in numbers anywhere near as large as their older counterparts. Despite the paranoid cries, their future wasn’t stolen from them – they just couldn’t be asked to vote for it.
Later that year, the world was aghast in outrage at the events occurring in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where the final destruction of encircled rebel forces presented yet another bloody twist in an already long and brutal civil war. The well-oiled global outrage machine spun into action. Commentators left and right wrote countless opinion pieces calling for their respective governments to do something. New and catchy Twitter hashtags were created to feed the marching armies of slacktivists. The American ambassador to the UN launched a fiery tirade against her Russian counterpart. She accused him of having no shame, of throwing decency and human rights down the dustbin of history – all while American bombs continued to fall on Yemeni hospitals.
In the heat of the moment, old habits die hard – and another protest was organised in Central London. This time it would work. This time a few hundred well-meaning Britons holding makeshift cardboard signs will force Vladimir Putin into submission. I’ll leave you to guess as to how successful that one was.
And then Trump was elected President. Across the United States, from the District of Columbia to Los Angeles, millions took part in the “Women’s March.” It was the largest day of protests since Martin Luther King and the Civil Right Movement. A few days later, sitting in the Oval Office and surrounded exclusively by men, Trump signed an executive order that cancelled funding to NGOs providing abortion in the developing world. It’s almost as if he couldn’t care less as to what the protestors thought.
The President then enacted his new and controversial immigration ban. I already wrote about it here. It’s stupid and wrong and probably won’t save a single American. It was also perfect fodder for the self-righteous outrage mob. What could they possibly do to stop the new American President? How could they convince their own Prime Minister to stop shamefully licking his boots? Perhaps they could get together some money and launch a campaign? Perhaps they could hire smart and capable people, sign up volunteers, knock on doors and when the time came, kick the pair of them out of office and replace them with someone who would do their bidding. But that’s not what happened. Instead, they got their makeshift cardboard signs and their banners and their placards and their flags and their Twitter hashtags and they marched on Central London.