A protestor holds up a banner reading ‘I’m too young to be this angry’, as thousands protest against Government’s austerity policies in 2012
First of all, this is meant for the most part to be an observation, as opposed to a died-in the wool political article.
I have been a political activist for most of my adult life, though I came to it rather than being born into a political family. So, I have been part of and (I hope) shaped at least in a small way, some of the political debates and discussions from the past.
I mention this to point out that I have been on more than my fair share of demonstrations, meetings, occupations, picket lines, etc. Over the last two-three years however, I would say from 2012 or 2013, something different has been taking place on these demos. I must say at this point, that I can only speak for the UK, as that is where I am based, so I’d be interested in the experiences of other comrades in other parts of the world.
The demonstrations that I have been on, before then tended to be of a muchness in that we marched from A-B This was a common complaint on sections of the left, including the more *ahem, wilder section of anarchists who just want to smash shit up. While I can understand the frustration, it also misses the point. Which is to make a visible protest not to warm our-selves, at the glow of seeing Starbucks go up in flames.
These demonstrations tended to be organised in conjunction with various sections of the trade union bureaucracy, and various other groups linked to it, such as the; People’s Assembly, StW (Stop the War), Hope not Hate, UAF, (United Against Fascism), etc. It should be noted that although a trade union can give support to/organise a demo/meeting that is not a guarantee of mass attendance. Yet, on a consistent basis, I have seen people attending these demos in the tens of thousands, and at times, the hundreds of thousands.
But the point I am getting to (my apologies if this has been a tad long winded), is that unlike in the past, it could be said there has been a mass attendance of what might be termed “ordinary people” at these demonstrations. I would venture to say that there has been, within a relatively short space of time, a dramatic change in the attendance and political demographic. Let me explain, on the demonstrations, rallies, etc. that I have been on, what might be called ‘the usual suspects’ are there in the form of left-wing newspaper sellers and bookstalls.
Nothing wrong with that by the way, but added to them and outnumbering them by a thousand to one (if not more) are the masses of young to middle aged people that are either newly active or have been called back to activism over a particular set of issues. Whether it is over refugees or against Trident, etc.
I would say, that they are left-leaning; many are in or were the Labour Party, involved at some level in the trade union movement, in the public or charitable sector, or in education, students, committed to a (somewhat reformist) radical politics. I have also noticed that on these demonstrations, they have become more of a family friendly event. In many ways, this is a reflection of the fluidity of the social relations in various forms of social democracy.
So, as part of a demonstration, there will be various autonomous groups with a sound system, the Hare Krishna’s, will be giving out free vegetarian food, mum, dad and the kids will also be in attendance, along with various buggies and push chairs. Also, for reasons I have never understood, demonstrators seem compelled to take their bikes along, and the stewarding is not as rigorous as it was in the past.
So, is this all a major problem for those of us on the left? I do think it is for these reasons. Whatever its faults in the past, the standard demonstration was working to a basic understanding of challenging major aspects of capitalism, it was a physical manifestation that Labour and trade union leaders viewed with a certain wariness.
What has replaced this has been political atomisation, rejection of political structure. This is combined with a more hazy understanding of the relationship between the citizen and state. There is a tacit looking towards solutions that will come through the election(s) of an electoral saviour. I’m not arguing for the clock to be turned back by the way.
But it is a worrying trend that the changing nature and demographic of demonstrations has come alongside a certain passivity. It seems that activists are expected to tailor their message to avoid putting off a new audience, that rather than raise the political threshold, the expectation is that we lower our horizons.
Anti-cuts protesters march in London on 26 March 2011