“Riot – worthwhile work for everyone.” I have a t-shirt that says that. I bought it because I thought the message made sense. It was back in 2001, just after the riots at the EU summit in the Swedish city Gothenburg had happened, and I was appalled by the reactions from the general public. First there were lots of very violent demonstrations and clashes between the protesters and the police, and then a guy was shot by the police, in Sweden that’s not something that happens every day. In fact, it was pretty much unheard of. But the strange thing was that it was the protests themselves that were questioned, not what the police did. Suddenly the “fight for your right” credo seemed to belong more to the police than to the people. I thought that was scary. And i think that’s why I bought that t-shirt. To make some sort of statement about the right to protest.
So does it help? To protest and challenge the establishment? Is there a point? Yes, I hope so. I hope it helps to raise your voice when you think something is wrong. After all, that is one of the fundamental rights in a democracy, to speak your mind. As citizens we do have a right to protest. And that right should be exercised. Thankfully most of the political establishment realizes and recognizes this. But what strikes me is how few conclusions are drawn from this realization.
If you watch the news or read the paper anywhere in Europe these days you are bound to find a story about protests taking place. Protests against the path politicians are saying they want society to go. Usually it’s singular issues, like the current protests against Stuttgart 21, the building of a new main train station in Stuttgart, or the French retirement policy changes, the Greek taxi licenses, the German nuclear policy. The list goes on and on. Usually the response from the official government side is that they will not let themselves be swayed by these protests, that they have to stick with the chosen path and ride the storm out. Tens of thousands of people are protesting and the response is “we have to stick to our chosen path”. But chosen by who?
In a democracy we do not only have the right to protest, we also have the right to vote. The right to decide who we want to represent us in the governing of our society. We cast our vote for the party or person we feel can best execute this task. We have elections and the winner gets to rule until it’s time for the next elections. We are giving the politicians our vote of confidence, we are saying that we think they will be able to do the job. This is the form of democracy that we have chosen – the representative democracy. Instead of having all citizens have their say in all questions, we appoint a smaller group that will take care of this on a day-to-day basis. More than anything it’s a question of logistics – it’s hard for everyone to get to have a say in everything. It’s a rational system. But what if the people we have given our vote are actually doing a bad job? What if we feel that the decisions they are making are the wrong ones and the politics they are conducting aren’t a reflection of what we believe is right? Do we then have to hold our silence and resign to a realization that we made a bad decision and wait till the next election? No, we have the right to speak our mind. We have the right to protest. Like people are doing in the examples above. That is how we understand the concept of democracy as we have defined it for ourselves in Europe today. The people do have a right to speak their minds even between elections. We’ve all agreed on that. So isn’t it rather strange that the answer to these protests is pretty much “we don’t care what you say”? Because that’s the only way to translate the “we have to stick to our chosen path” response. “You people have no idea what you are talking about and we will not listen to you.” Every time. Wether it’s Westerwelle warning his fellow politicians in Germany to not get swayed by the Stuttgart protests, or whether it’s Sarkozy defending the pension system reforms, the advice, or even command, is always to not listen to what the people exercising their right to protest against the decisions being made are saying. And in the next breath these elected leaders will talk about how important it is to work for democracy in Afghanistan. And of course it’s important to work for democracy in Afghanistan, but isn’t it rather strange that this belief is accompanied by a strategy of ignoring citizen protests on the home front? One might even say hypocritical.
What is also a bit striking in the “trust us, we know what we’re doing” reasoning is the disbelief in the population, i.e. the voters. If they can be trusted to vote how come they can’t be trusted when it comes to pointing out what they feel are incorrect decisions?
Stuttgart really is an excellent example of how there seems to be a massive discrepancy between what the elected politicians are doing and what the voters actually want them to do. This time the people protesting aren’t just the usual suspects with black hoodies, but also grandmas and schoolchildren. It’s the general population of Stuttgart, a traditionally very conservative city, saying that they actually think the whole idea of rebuilding the main station is really bad and that they as citizens would very much like this to be stopped. The people who voted are telling the people they voted for that they are not happy with the work being done. One would hope that this would be met with a bit more appropriate reaction than saying “we don’t care”…
Could that also be one of the reasons for the ever-increasing distrust in official politics? Because I don’t think people actually care less about political issues today than they did 30 years ago. All the independent political movements speak volumes to the opposite. But it seems like the political establishment aren’t really picking this up. They are deliberately choosing to ignore the issues that the citizens actually feel are important. And if anyone in their own ranks should try to actually address any of the issues being raised by the citizens they are met with a strict order to get with the program. Usually by accusations of being populists and irresponsible. Is it really irresponsible to think that the current structure of things could be changed? That a different society could be possible? Well, most conservatives would probable scream yes, but if you think about it this stance isn’t very sustainable. If humanity would really embrace this credo we would pretty much still be, well apes I suppose. (Looking at the environment issues we are facing that could of course arguably have been better…) But I think most conservatives would agree that the wheel was actually a good change. Just like fire. Or electricity. Or the fall of the Berlin wall.
If we look at protests from a historical perspective it actually seems like the protesters in most cases also ended up being right. A perfect example of this is of course the fall of the Berlin wall. The Wall came down and brought with it all of the Iron Curtain. Germany was reunited and Eastern Europe got rid of the dictators. Today I don’t think anyone in their right mind would argue that the people protesting against the oppression in Eastern Europe didn’t know what they were doing. Nor would anyone dare to claim that they should have listened to the government saying “trust us, we know what we are doing”. They obviously didn’t. And I also don’t think anyone would claim the French revolution was a bad idea. Political protests are often very violent, but that doesn’t mean that the protesters are the ones who are wrong. They are simply pointing out something that is very wrong with society and usually end up igniting the change that is needed. And the examples where the protests have been crushed are not really the proudest moments in modern history. Prague 1968 being a very good example. Burma 2007 another. Or Tiananmen Square in Beijing 1989. In light of that one might think that it’s rather foolish of a government to ignore the voice of its citizens. But it seems like this is some sort of implicit rule in modern society: “Don’t listen to the masses unless when election is imminent.” A sort of push and pull situation where change never comes without a fight. But the question is if this stance really makes sense. It seems a bit… well, inefficient and senseless. And mighty arrogant. “We will not be swayed by popular opinion” = “We don’t give a shit what you think.”
For a politician to say that he, because it’s still usually a he, will not listen to the people who voted for him, that gave him his job, when they are telling him that they aren’t happy with the way he’s doing that job, is pretty sick. Actually, it’s disgusting. And it’s even more disgusting when that is accompanied by a “I know what’s best for you” attitude. If we agree that the people should have a say in how government is executed, that they have the right to say something about it through elections or protest, then those elected are obliged to listen. We have a right to demand that. They have to listen to us when we tell them how we want them to govern. If you give someone a job to do, say build a house, and you then discover that they are not really doing what they said they would do and what they are doing instead is actually not at all what you wanted, you would want them to listen to you when you say they are doing it wrong, right? Even before the deadline. If they are not building the house you wanted the answer “trust me, I know what I am doing” isn’t really going to cut it. And even if you change the provider after the deadline and go with a new one for the next stage, you’ll still end up with a huge mess from the first one. And that’s kind of where we are right now in Europe. They are not really building the house we wanted, and we suspect there will be a huge mess to deal with, but the answer we get is “trust us, we know what we are doing”. Do they really?
Take the principle of the welfare state and what that means in terms of having a social safety net and protection, something that exists in most European countries. No one has actually agreed that we should get rid of that. But it’s still happening. It’s slowly being dismantled. We are told it’s because we don’t have enough money to support it. Yet we are still paying taxes. And as long as we are actually paying taxes it seems only fair that we should at least have a say in what it is we’re paying for. And sure, it’s not good if the economy collapses and sure something should be done to prevent that from happening. But the point is that it seems like a reoccurring event. And the conclusion that could be drawn is that the system itself is actually not working. It’s broken. And all we do is keep on repairing it. We aren’t living in the best of worlds and it just seems getting worse. I think that’s what the protests are actually about. We’re on the wrong track. Just like the communist eastern block was on the wrong track. Or the French aristocracy. And that’s what people are trying to say. We actually don’t want our tax money to go to be used for saving banks and companies and building flashy new things that aren’t really needed. We actually want to have it used for things like pensions and social welfare and daycare and healthcare. And we’re no longer buying the “we can’t afford it” argument. Because we could. If we re-prioritized. If we changed things. If we gave up the greed game just ever so slightly. We actually don’t need a new cell phone every year and we only want it because we are told to want it. The Market is just a figment of our collective imagination and has nothing to do with reality. It’s all make-believe. And maybe we are finally starting to notice that. Maybe we’re finally coming to our senses. I hope so. I really, really hope so. Because we do have to fight for our rights. The establishment is only all too willing to take it all away. Right now they are trying to do so with money and fear.
It has been repeated endless times, but it’s so true: democracy is not something we have, it’s something that has to be actively maintained. We have to speak our mind today to make sure that we are still allowed to do so tomorrow. We have to protest. Especially if they say they won’t listen. Riot is indeed worthwhile work for everyone.