Marching in Circles:
The Tactics of Dizziness and Despair

02.11.2003 | ACTIVISM

On the occasional weekend in Washington, DC, peace activists from all over the USA gather to give speeches to people who already agree with them. After applauding each other for their fine political insights, they set off on a circular march through empty streets. At no point does this parade without spectators impede the war machine. At best, the purely symbolic protest will merit a few paragraphs in one or more national newspapers or even a mention on the national television news. Most local media will not mention it at all. No one knows if the event has any impact at all on public opinion. Nonetheless, the activists go home feeling as though they have done something and that the vast expenditure of time, funds, and energy has been worthwhile.

This pattern persists despite the fact that the tactic of rallying and then marching in circles has not prevented or in any way mitigated past attacks on Iraq, Kosovo, or Afghanistan (or anywhere else since Vietnam). The pattern persists despite the fact that the demonstrations do little but supply fuel for the pro-war propaganda machine by helping to maintain the fiction of American democracy. (On 17 January of this year, the White House released a statement saying that "The president welcomes the fact that we are a democracy and that people in the United States, unlike Iraq, are free" to dissent.) The pattern persists despite the existence of alternative actions that might make more strategic sense.

The tendency toward self-satisfied speechifying and pointless marching is by no means a purely domestic proclivity. The Forum for Food Sovereignty in Rome last June might well have been subtitled "Let them eat words." Representatives from activist organizations from all over the world came together purportedly to share information and craft cooperative strategies for ending hunger and malnutrition. Instead, participants spent most of their time denouncing transnational corporations, UN-FAO, and the United States and then applauding each other for doing so. Since neither transnational corporations nor UN-FAO, nor the United States government were in attendance, the point of the denouncements was not evident.

Hunger was hardly ever mentioned. The ugly realities were eclipsed by an upbeat mood and occasional cheerful songs. Just as at the World Food Summit attended by the governments, the people living with acute hunger or chronic malnutrition were silent and invisible, lost in the pageantry. There was, of course, the obligatory march, this time at least through crowded streets. Most of the organizations were content to parade, making no effort to educate or inspire those observing the spectacle. While one coalition of Italian organizations did pass out literature intended for a popular audience, the rest talked only to each other.

Fast forward to the 2003 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, where a similar pattern prevails. Sanctimonious speeches peppered with applause lines are the order of the day. Small workshops at which real work might be done are forced to compete with major events at which movement 'stars' tell the participants that they are already doing what they need to do. Needless to say, most people forgo potentially productive meetings for the excitement and feel-good mood of the big happenings.

Marches are in abundance. Poor Porto Alegre! It welcomes the World Social Forum with open arms and is rewarded by traffic jams. The march that opened the event would have been understandable, as a parade rather than a protest, were it not for the activists screaming at onlookers as if they didn't already agree. Of the subsequent marches, my personal favorite is the march against ALCA (aka FTAA). During rush hour on a blazing afternoon, activists tie up traffic for hours marching against US economic and military domination of Latin America. Never mind that US officials are nowhere in sight, that the Brazilian government is on the side of the activists, and that the people enduring the traffic jams are the very people oppressed by ALCA... marching is what we always have done and marching is what we will do now.

The marches through the Social Forum itself are also a treat. At unpredictable intervals, there are suddenly crowds of people, at least one of whom has a megaphone, marching and chanting among or even through the buildings in which other activists are trying to hold workshops. Inevitably the march is either for or against something that all Forum participants can be presumed to be for or against, so it's not clear who the marchers intend to influence or persuade.

As I write this, yet another group of people is marching, shouting, and shaking their fists as they wind their way through dense crowds of people who already agree with them. What, I wonder, are they hoping to achieve? What leads otherwise rational people to march in circles with no object at high noon on a hot summer day? Habit? Hope? Despair? Or, the pursuit of happiness? How might our precious time and energy be better spent, taking into account the need for both results and rewards?

Habit is the nemesis of effective activism. It's easy, so easy, to jump up and go, to act without thinking, to slip into comfortable routines ("you paint the banner, I'll write the chants"). With so much to be done, who has time to stop and think? But think we must if we want to make a difference rather than simply demonstrating our dissent.

We do hope to create change. Implicit in every march is the (often unrealistic) wish that this time will be different, that this time our walking will not be in vain. For some, this hope is rooted in memories of the days when rallies and marches did provoke change. For others, the hope springs from vague ideas about successful movements of the past. In both instances, marches are remembered out of context, as isolated actions, when in fact the successful marches of the past were usually well thought-out elements of larger strategies for social change.

The flip side of hope is despair. Activists who despair of ever creating change often march with a sense of futility. "I know it won't affect anything," they say, "but at least we have demonstrated our dissent." Marching in circles can be both cause and effect of such defeatism. Worn out after years of walking into walls, dissidents begin to assume that their efforts will be in vain. As a result, they no longer bother to try to come up with tactics and strategies that might have a tangible effect. Instead, they express their feelings of helplessness by engaging in sheerly symbolic actions. When those actions do not lead to change, the self-fulfilling prophesy of weakness in the face of power is affirmed.

To combat despair, we must keep our spirits up. Marching sometimes can help to do that, but only if it is clearly understood in advance that the purpose of the event is to motivate activists and that the parade is not in itself activism. Marchers must not be allowed to go home feeling as though they have already done something, because then they will be less motivated to take actions that have a better chance of success.

It's necessary, even critical, for activists to stop and celebrate themselves and their victories every once in a while. Marches also can help to do that. However, again, everyone must understand what is happening and why. Encouragement easily can contribute to denial. When people feel as though they have won or are in the process of winning when the opposite is true, they are unlikely to engage in the sober assessments and revisions of strategies that are needed in the course of a protracted struggle.

While marches and rallies can raise our spirits superficially and temporarily, I would argue that a much more profound and abiding happiness is possible. As the Wobblies like to say, "Direct action brings satisfaction." When your actions in some way, however small, actually impede what you oppose or facilitate what you support, you can go to bed at the end of the day knowing that you have made a concrete contribution. Anyone who has ever gone on strike, reclaimed land, squatted a building, given out clean needles or medical marijuana, or physically blocked a munitions train or a truck headed for the slaughterhouse knows this.

Direct action needn't be as dramatic as these examples. The simple act of withdrawing your implicit support from what you overtly oppose can feel just as good and make just as much of a difference. How many people have marched for peace but supported the war effort by their purchase of US corporate commodities and their excessive consumption of fossil fuel? What if everyone who opposes US attacks on Iraq were to collectively withhold their money from US corporations while also reducing their consumption of fossil fuel? Wouldn't promoting and participating in such a boycott (or any other direct action against the war) have a higher probability of making an impact than marching in circles and shouting slogans to people who already agree with you?

This is not to say that marching is never an effective tactic. Under certain circumstances, the trusty rally and march formula may be the action of choice. Here are some questions to ask to determine whether the time is right for marching:

The slogan of the times is "Another World Is Possible." That's true, but making that possibility a reality will require more planful action and less self-indulgent expression. Let's stop marching in circles at least long enough to come up with a collective strategy that augments symbolic demonstrations with pragmatic direct action.

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