‘March in March’: Is this protest worthwhile?

Written by Tom Greenwell.Image

On the March in March: Failings and Contradictions

On Sunday afternoon I marched with an estimated 30,000 of my fellow Melbournians in angry defiance of the LNP and the prime ministership of Tony Abbott. I marched with families, the elderly, unionists and students. I stood with environmentalists, animal liberation groups and socialists. I stood with the people, across all barriers and all strata. Even as I stood, I felt despair sink in to my heart. Despite laughs gained at protest signs and the applause at the occasional speech that fired my heart, I have not since been able to shake a feeling of disillusionment and discomfort. Dressed up in so much rhetoric and paradoxical demands, the March in March did little else than make the symptoms of a wider political problem painfully obvious.

IMG_1845“The march offered no clear alternatives. It, and the people organising and participating in it, shied awkwardly away from the important question.”
In an article for The Guardian criticising the March’s oppositional tactics and mismatched demands, Simon Copland rather bluntly and correctly diagnoses the problem: ‘Instead of licking its wounds and working on new ideas, the Australian left has focused on tearing the government down. This won’t work.’ Copland’s words could not be more correct, and lay at the heart of the disillusioned sense of melancholy that gripped me this afternoon. The March offered no clear alternatives. It, and the people organising and participating in it, shied awkwardly away from the important question. Shouting with passion enflamed, they made the following demands: ‘What do we want? Abbott out! When do we want it? Now!’ Yet this only addresses the symptom, not the problem itself. They were deeply unprepared, and profoundly unwilling, to ask the question that surely must follow: What then? What comes next? 
Rather gratifyingly, Labor was distinctly absent; probably painfully aware that it offers not much more than a smokescreen and perhaps a watering down of the conservative policies of the LNP. Labor is, as they themselves tacitly seem to be aware, corrupted beyond saving and no better than the party the rally opposed. Yet none of the other parties offered anything in the way of hope. The Greens, for all their posturing about the environment and Ludlam’s – admittedly wonderful and funny – critique of ‘predator capitalism,’ offer not much more than a Left-ish displacement that still plays directly in to the system that has ground to a halt. I suppose I could side with the revolutionary Left, Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance, but their worker-laden rhetoric obscures nothing other than an outmoded and infantile disorder: Leninism. Built in to this pseudo-Marxist ideology is violence, autocratic party control and an intellectual arrogance that asks for the vanguard to liberate the working class from the shackles of Capitalism – despite Marx’s claim that the working class must emancipate itself. Amongst the parties who at least partly practice what they preach, no honest alternative that I feel prepared to stand by in good faith emerges.

Even this aside, the rhetoric of the speeches illuminated the strong cognitive dissonance of an angry body with no hope as to where to direct its anger and its future. Not five minutes after acknowledging that Corporatism and State has fused, with the speaker astutely noting that this is called ‘fascism,’ the next speech demanded from Abbott that he release the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – an agreement written in secret by corporate power for corporate power. What the latter speaker failed to understand is that fascism does not give ground to people, not if capital and profit are possible. All the speakers did was illustrate their own and the marcher’s directionless anger: acknowledging that a formally democratic, corporate controlled capitalism doesn’t work, but still trying desperately to hold up this broken system. The aimless March was trapped in its own fear and not prepared to think the uncomfortable, the possible, and push beyond the fractured system in place now towards the future.

This is where we are now, at a crossroads that many are unwilling to take the first step upon. The March in March and the speeches given with honest consciences rather clearly stated the problems. They stated that Abbott must go. They stated that State and Capital have fused in to a twisted democratic parliamentary fascism. They stated that we cannot go on like this. They screamed for gay rights, environmental action, and worker’s rights, for freedom of information and for equal and effective internet. But who were they screaming at? Who were they asking for these things? They were asking precisely those people they had acknowledged were, and would continue to, withhold all they were asking for. The March in March was trapped within the mechanisms and procedures that are holding politics still; it was too afraid to push beyond them. It offered no alternative, and as a result an air of melancholy pervaded. What the Australian people need to do, when they stand angry and before that anger dissipates, is be prepared to ask for more. They must be prepared for the fear of the unknown, of leaping into a political space that is no longer comfortable and safe.  They must be reasonable and demand the impossible.

March in March: Certainty of change

Whilst bearing witness to one of the largest showings of national support for change, I felt revitalised. As a regular activist, I often feel as though I preach to the converted and I wonder what impact I have. However, on this overcast day in March, I witnessed people from all walks of life, passionate about a myriad of issues, join together as a community seeking a common goal: Equality.  Some marched for a fair go for refugees, others for sustainable environmental stewardship, equal marriage rights, women’s rights, penalty rates, education, the list goes on. It gave me hope, that one day, we will build a better world.

IMG_1856“This protest wasn’t an avenue to provide solutions, it was a demonstration to make it clear to our government that we do not support their actions.” 

Yet I find myself confronted with the view that such a protest was a waste of time, that collectively we “…shied awkwardly away from the important question [what is the solution?]”. Such a stance may be eloquently argued, yet fails to mention their primary assumption: that those in attendance were merely sheep following a social media campaign. Not to mention the naivety of what a protest is all about – change. Solutions already exist, they’re written, revised, agreed upon—yet left to collect dust in the offices of those representing us. This protest wasn’t an avenue to provide solutions, it was a demonstration to make it clear to our government that we do not support their actions. For me it’s simple—to not campaign against education funding cuts or the revoking of our forests World Heritage Status, just to name a few, is to show support for the government’s actions.

Solutions such as switching to renewable energy sources need not be explained in such a protest. What would you rather, an in-depth lecture on transferring our energy sector from fossil fuels to renewables? Doesn’t that sound like an avenue for change! Beyond Zero Emissions have already done the work, showing us how to transition Australian society, in its current environmental and economical state, to a 100% renewable society within 10 years. What we wanted was “Abbott gone” for that would make way for a political party to enact the change desired by the community, for the Abbott Government will not. So no, we were not a mindless bunch of sheep following one another to treasury gardens with no real comprehension of the world. We were fighting for a change in government, a change in policies, a change to a world I would be proud to say I was a part of. Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that as a result of today’s protest there will be a vote of no confidence in the Abbott Government. I do, however, believe the Prime Minister has been put on notice; that we will not lay down and let them pull the wool over our eyes. That we see him, we hear him, and we disagree with him. Throughout history change has only been achieved through people standing up and making themselves heard – whether Abbott will publicly acknowledge our actions or not, he’s heard, and knows change is coming. He will fight to the end, taking environmentalists rights away, ignoring leading scholars such as Tim Flannery’s professional opinions, yet he will not outlast us. There is one thing I am sure of, it’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’, for the logic is undeniable—a system of infinite growth (our economic system) cannot survive on a finite planet. If we continue, we will end up like bacteria restricted to a Petri dish—killing ourselves.

A reply to an Anonymous Critic

Tom Greenwell

I find that my criticism of the March in March has garnered its own response. For this I could not be gladder; it is deeply important for practice and ideas to struggle with one another. From this, clarity and a new political practice can emerge. However, that being said, I find that I have been rather misrepresented. To my critic, I offer this reply for the sake of clarity and good conscience.

My critic has asserted that I viewed the protest as ‘a waste of time.’ This view is unfortunately mistaken. On the contrary, my claim is that the fault in the March was not that it took place; rather, I am concerned that it offered no clear alternative. What it did was ‘little else than make the symptoms of a wider political problem painfully obvious.’ This does not necessarily make it a waste of time, although for the sake of intellectual honesty I will admit that perhaps my words were misleading. What it has done is make the problem painfully obvious. This, to my mind, and if the message can be made clear to other activists such as my critic, is opening up a new possibility. If we can see through to the problem, we have an open avenue to finding a solution. My critic, too, rhetorically asks ‘what is the solution?’ To this I can only respond in good faith: I don’t know. I can promise to try and find that solution, but I cannot do it alone. Such a solution requires a unity of thought and practice, of activism and consideration. If I had a solution, I would not be writing of disillusionment; I would be screaming at the top of my lungs in the centre of a mass movement to all who would listen. I can, however, never presume to know the solution. Philosophers tend to be focussed on working out the problems. On that, at least, I think some ground has been made.

Similarly, my critic has been led to believe that I think ‘that those in attendance were merely sheep following a social media campaign.’ I made no such claim. I never would. My point was that they were angry, as they had every right to be. My point was also that the potential of that anger had no clear direction; paradoxical demands that played in to supporting the system while acknowledging it was beyond repair. People prepared to demonstrate, and who are angry at their political system, tend not to be sheep in the service of media. That domain is more likely occupied by those who will not protest. But they don’t concern me – that is a problem for sociologists and political scientists. I do not think suggesting the protesters were angry but lacking a clear direction and solution necessarily implicates them in being sheep.

My critic also notes that the scientific solutions have been discovered. They write: ‘Solutions already exist, they’re written, revised, agreed upon – yet let to collect dust in the offices of those representing us.’ There are two things worth clarifying here. I am not worried about scientific solutions to the environmental crisis; those are for scientists to work on. My disillusionment stems from a lack of political solutions, the means to implement those scientific solutions. It might be worth asking why these scientific solutions gather dust, despite their veracity and worth. The conclusion that jumps to mind is this: Something is refusing them entry into political consideration because it contravenes and negates their ability to maintain profit. This, they would say, would harm the economy as multinational investment leaves for shores where they can continue their business. This noting of scientific solutions, made by my critic, illustrates precisely the problem I wish to point out: The system does not work; it is restricted and controlled by the interests of capital and corporate business, the ones governments in practice represent. The citizen body require something else, a system representing their interests.

My critic is correct to argue that this protest was a demonstration that many do not support Abbott’s policies and government. By the March in March’s own admission it was ‘a symbolic gesture of protest – it is a powerful demonstration of the level of dissatisfaction with the Abbott government.’ That said, to stand against something is not necessarily to stand for something. Yes, protests and demonstrations are an avenue to voice discontent. Indeed, to not actively campaign is, in an uncomplicated way, ‘to show support for the government’s actions.’ That is why I stood with my fellow activists today, why I have done so in the past and why I will continue to place myself at the heart of the political struggle. Yet I don’t see how that invalidates my point. As I argued in the first paragraph of my article, I am addressing ‘a wider political problem.’ The problem is the hesitance to push beyond what is towards what could be. My critic is correct: We will be trapped and killed if we maintain the system as it stands – corporate capitalism with the façade of democracy. This is a system where representatives are detached from those represented, not fully accountable and tend towards making law the interests of big multinational corporations.

My contention is that we must face this limitation and problem head on. My problem is that we are talking about problems, showing defiance but with no unifying goal. We are not addressing the root cause, and are afraid of an unknown future. My concern is that we need to be prepared to be afraid and demand the unknown, the impossible. It is for this that I hope to stand. I wish to stand for something, not simply against. I want a future, hope and something better.

Do you have an opinion about the March in March protests? respond here or write an article and send it in. We want to know what you think. What was the march about and do you think it will make a difference? 

Tom’s work appears in the Untitled, Awkward, Time, O’week, Space, That’s So May, and March editions of WORDLY Magazine.

One thought on “‘March in March’: Is this protest worthwhile?

  1. Tom,

    I too was at the March last Sunday, and while I heard the same things, and saw the same signs as you, I can’t say I shared your feelings of disillusionment or discomfort. Perhaps this is because I went into the March with no preconceived expectation (or “illusion”) that a protesting body is ever obliged (or even able!) to provide tangible, workable solutions to the precise source/s of the political dissent being voiced by virtue of attending a march. While real world fixes may be usefully obvious in cases of single-issue marches, I don’t believe that the confluence and clash of issues at this particular march did any disservice to its ultimate purpose and agenda as I saw it – to demonstrate with undeniable visibility our dissatisfaction with a style of leadership and to encourage a change in that style – one towards honesty, accountability and transparency – the anchors of public confidence.. . .

    I went because I am personally outraged with many of our Government’s actions thus far – evidence of what I and many, many Australians see as an unacceptable brand of leadership that eschews public engagement, is deceptive and exists in service to interests that are ultimately destructive to ordinary Australians. (For concrete examples of this destructive agenda, see http://sallymcmanus.net/abbotts-wreckage/).

    Ultimately it is the style of leadership we were there to protest – a secretive and paternalistic style that has already brought about many unwelcome actions and policies – yes many people chose from these policies to adopt as a particular issue of note. But each of these issues were distillations, exemplars of an overarching dissatisfaction with our leadership that I believe the protest was about at its core. Taken in that light, the only purpose of the march was for enough people to BE THERE to gather together a tangible, visible body of real people showing real political engagement. By acknowledging its creation of such dissent, a Government willing to improve its standing in the public may easily discern tactical changes it could make to mitigate the negative accusations and to regain confidence.

    The first step, however is to be heard. That was the purpose of this March in March. On election night Tony Abbott promised his would “be a Government that listens” – he has failed to live up to that promise (on the NBN, on Marriage Equality to cite a few instances) – this Government also states paradoxically that its very election is tantamount to our unequivocal consent on all its policy decisions. We are demanding our Government first pay attention. If it continues to refuse to acknowledge this march (as Tony Abbott so arrogantly proceeded to do, claiming he knew “only” of a St Patrick’s Day parade in Sydney), the dissent and numbers will only grow. The “solution” obvious here is first, for the Government to acknowledge this dissent. A capable Government is surely able to address a situation of no confidence by addressing the approaches that most foster such a negative response!

    This Government consistently refuses to be held accountable, is deceptive about its intentions, motivations and the economy, attempts to control the flow of information and has isolated itself from its people, refusing to engage meaningfully with a public it is obliged to serve. If you’ve watched Question Time lately, you’ll see that this behaviour – unbecoming and unprofessional of an active Government – is being enabled from within by the House Speaker, and from without by a biased Murdoch press. Abbott MUST see, MUST be made to understand, and eventually will not be able to ignore the fact that this behaviour, while good enough for Parliament, is unacceptable to the people themselves, and it HAS resulted in a loss of confidence in his leadership.

    The purpose of this protest, as I took it that day, was to provide decision makers with a clearly visible show of open dissent to the tactics of deflection, deceit and destruction that we are being unapologetically subjected to. This simple fact is undeniable, and yet our Government continues to deny and to ignore issues that are of non-negotiable importance to a vast proportion of Australians. The March was far from fruitless, or lacking in purpose. Abbott’s refusal to acknowledge it further exposed the Government’s deflective agenda. The March itself destroyed the illusory comfort of a docile and apathetic public, and it gave real voice to real dissent, and as the movement grows, that voice WILL reach a Government who chose to ignore when it promised to listen. . . . , .

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