Some commentators I’m reading claim demos are dead and play into the hands of conservative commentators because the protesters look like rabid left-wing loonies. What a load of rubbish, I reckon. Protesting has a proud history and works when all else seems to have failed. Protests are still an avenue for social change like they were in the 60s or 70s, although we don’t see the same crowds like we did in the past.
But what might bring the end of protests are the protestors, or lack of, themselves. The protests against the Iraq War in so many cities around the world were probably the last time we witnessed large-scale civil uprising against governments. I can’t recall any mass protests against inaction on climate change even though there’s been numerous demonstrations in Sydney where I live they haven’t been attended in huge numbers. But maybe I’m forgetting some?
The Arab Spring shows us that ‘people power’ can still make a difference and what an effect it had – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and uprisings in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. When it really counts, people hit the streets to show their anger. The Occupy movements have been replicated around the world, but have probably been less successful in changing anything. Occupy has certainly injected the national conversation with arguments about who economies are serving today and have given us the 99% phrase but may be in danger of becoming a brand of protest without achieving real change.
I think one of the ways to explain the drop-off in numbers at protests in that the student movement isn’t what it once was. Students have to pay fees which means it’s expensive to go to uni and they don’t want to ‘waste’ time on activities that aren’t related to their studies and most have to hold down jobs so on a practical level they just don’t have the time to organise and attend rallies and demos. There’s a sad irony that when education was free in Australia under PM Gough Whitlam there were more protests about the condition of universities and social issues and now, at a time of rising fees and question about quality of teaching, we never hear about campus uprisings.
So the most effective way to end demos is to make people pay for what they’re receiving or what they’re attending and your protests will go away. Governments have achieved this in the last 30 years as people now pay for their health, pay for their retirement, pay for their education and combine this with generally higher standards of living and people aren’t as concerned with rising interest rates as rising sea temperature to get out onto the streets.
Why is this? Are the issues of today of any less importance than in the past in the Western world. Civil rights, women’s right and protests against war mobilised people in the past. But today issues of climate change, wars and equal rights for women and gays, for example, are no less important than in the 60s and 70s. Are we just less angry or less concerned? Is an internet or Twitter protest the same?