Do Protests Work? – Time for Class Warfare

illustration by Adam Maida in 8/21/17 New Yorker
illustration by Adam Maida in 8/21/17 New Yorker
iIllustration by Adam Maida in 8/21/17 New Yorker

In the August 21, 2017 edition of The New Yorker Nathan Heller writes about the efficacy of protest as a method for social and political change. “Out of Action – do protests work?” raises many interesting questions about protest movements as a means to achieving change. Protected by the First Amendment Americans are largely free to take to the streets and soap boxes to protest or support whatever pleases them. Citing a number of works by others,1 Heller notes that, excepting for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, very little sustained change has resulted from protests. This outcome is not limited to the US, the much talked about Arab Spring of 2010 largely ended with one repressive regime replacing another after a brief interlude. Heller closes his essay with this:

What was the Women’s March about? Empowerment, human rights, discontent—you know. Why did it matter? Because we were there. Self-government remains a messy, fussy, slow, frustrating business. We do well to remind those working its gears and levers that the public—not just the appalled me but the conjoined us whom the elected serve—is watching and aware. More than two centuries after our country took its shaky first steps, the union is miles from perfection. But it is still on its feet, sometimes striding, frequently stumbling. The march goes on, and someday, not just in our dreams, we’ll make it home.

This analysis, “We’ll muddle our way to a brighter future”, entirely ignores the lessons the ruling class learned and has been applying to our politics for the last 45 and more years. They did just what Heller describes in his review of the civil rights movement. They planned carefully, strategically and tactically, then worked with great patience to put their plans in motion.

Class Warfare in Action

This resulted during the 1970s and early 1980s in a complete change in the framework of political and social policy. Free-market capitalist ideology became dominant in every sphere of government, the academy, and mass media.2 Remember President Reagan’s first inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem” – that flowed directly from this campaign. Labor unions were attacked. The none too robust social safety net was further weakened. Taxes on the rich and corporations were reduced. All in the name of getting the government off the backs of the job creating class. By the 1990s centrist Democrats, lead most famously by Bill Clinton came to embrace market-based solutions to every problem in sight. This culminated in 1999 in the deregulation of the banking industry. And, note that this phenomenon was not limited to the US. Margaret Thatcher applied the same policies in UK and the World Bank and other global institutions forced it on many other countries.

The enormous growth in income and wealth inequality that has come to light in the last few years has been greatly aggravated by the capture of the government by the rich and corporations. They won the class war by applying themselves to the conquest of the levers of government power. Mass rallies and protest movements were not part of their play book.

Time for the Next Class War

Many Americans don’t like the notion of class. After all, America is the land of equality and opportunity. Hard work brings great rewards. Each generation leaves its children better off. This is part of our national religion. The cruel joke here is that the rich and corporations mouth these same words while consistently, with great vigor, grabbing the levers of power and using them to gain advantage and pass it along to their children. The 80 percent of Americans, 260 million strong, who have experienced no real income or wealth growth since the 1970s, nearly fifty years, have got to recognize that they have lived through a war that they could not see but that has made them the losers. The rich and corporations are the victors.

This brings us to the question of how the 80 percent can take back control of the government from the minority 20 percent (the upper middle class including the much mentioned top 1 percent super rich). The only reasonable path is to take back the Democratic party from the Clintons/Obama clack that has been so beholden to Wall St. Without engaging in the question of Bernie Sander’s future viability one undeniable lesson of his 2016 run is that the Democratic Party can separate itself from big money donors and still have the resources to run a robust national campaign. But lets not get ahead of ourselves. There is an enormous need for democrats to run in local and state elections. Then there are the problems of gerrymandered districts and big money to over come. Lots to do.



  1. including among them: Srnicek, Nick, and Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without WorkHardt and Negri, Assembly; Tufekci, Zeynep. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.
  2. Heller makes snide comments about “neoliberalism” – the term used everywhere but the US for free-market capitalist ideology: “(Neoliberalism can broadly refer to any program that involves market-liberal policies—privatization, deregulation, etc.—and so includes everything from Thatcher’s social-expenditure reductions to Obama’s global-trade policies. A moratorium on its use would help solidify a lot of gaseous debate.)” Heller might do well to spend some time understand free-market ideology and its history to know that in fact Thatcher and Obama do belong in the same sphere in this regard.