Saturday, June 2, 2007

Anti-Globalisation Protest in Germany

The BBC runs a story today about a large protest rally in Germany to protest the upcoming G-8 meeting there. These protests happen fairly regularly, and the question on the minds of many is: does it work?

Or perhaps more accurately, most have decided their answer to that question, and far too many have decided, NO, protest rallies are not effective at changing policy.

But its not too difficult to see that demonstrations are more effective than they get credit for being. It seems to me they serve three primary purposes.

1) Expose policies as contested: Many CEOs and right-wing think tanks would have people around the world believe that laissez-faire economic policies are generally accepted by the peoples of the developed world as the right way to run international economics. But these policies are not clear cut and there is not consensus about them. A protest demonstrates to undecideds that there is a debate to be had on a subject, and that their participation in the debate is important.

2) Build connections and solidarity within a movement: When thousands of individuals participate in a single rally together, they are likely to strengthen the ties of ideology that bind them. At the rally they may make new contacts with other activists, learn and develop new ideas for further action, and deepen the cultural appeal and strength of the movement. Consider the prevalence of different kinds of political theater during rallies: giant puppets, people in costumes, etc. These are designed to look good in the media, but also to strengthen the social bonds among protesters. Then when marchers go home, they are full of new ideas and energy for carrying the movement forward.

3) Support elites' efforts to change policy: Perhaps the best example of this was the famous Battle in Seattle , when protests helped create an atmosphere in which negotiators from developing countries were more able to resist the pressure of concession-hungry G-8 negotiators. Maybe protests are unlikely to change the minds of those dead-set to oppose them. But they can certainly shape the opinions of those in and out of power who have yet to take an active role in a debate.

So will the rally in Germany be effective in these respects? Tens of thousands of people think so strongly enough to go there. For now, at least, I'm willing to take their word for it.

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