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How to make protest effective

We need to do more than march from A to B if we want political change.

A demonstrator at Saturday's protests in Lisbon. (Photo: Getty.)

It’s so difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said about the crisis in Europe. This past Saturday, I watched closely as Portuguese rallied in enormous numbers against the foreign imposed austerity measures. The energy of tens of thousands filling the streets is momentarily intoxicating as ever, especially when they sing Grandola, Vila Morena, a song charged with revolutionary energy and optimism. But as soon as the last verse is sung, the crowds begin to demobilise; videos, photos and memories are the only evidence that there was even a protest of such scale. Because the next day, as the political leaders remain indifferent, the discussion already switches to the next austerity measures and the next bleak economic headline.

This has played out countless times in each crisis hit country in the eurozone. The social anxiety of the public spills out onto the streets as anger and then recedes back into anxiety. Then, a sense of defeat sinks in during the following weeks and months, until the latest provocation of yet more sacrifices transforms that anxiety into yet more protests by thousands of angry, crisis-fatigued citizens.

I think the reason for this is obvious, though I suspect many who attend, promote and organise these protests don't want to hear it. The protests aren't to challenge the government, but only to probe the government's resolve. When the government's resolve proves to be unshaken, since there is no policy alternative within the current framework of the Troika, there's nowhere to go but to return to that state of social anxiety. The point A to point B marches play it safe, expressing their demands but not setting out an objective that is to be reached through various tactics. I would call it public relations but I think organisers of protests like Que Se Lixe A Troika on Saturday sincerely believe mass marches every few months can stop the austerity. I'm here to say that this is a miscalculation.

It’s easy to see how opposition to austerity will eventually triumph, the policies undoubtedly cause tremendous economic and social damage. Each round of cuts and tax hikes align more people against the government and the international creditors known as the Troika. Inevitably, the protests in Spain, Greece, and Portugal has swelled with each passing year. But this slow grind of declining legitimacy for governments in southern Europe has great risk. As we can see in Greece, a neo-nazi party, Golden Dawn, has surged onto the highest stage of Greek politics, now polling 3rd overall, this as its militias violently attack immigrants on the streets. Spanish society, if eroded by a similar amount of austerity, could see regional and cultural differences hardened. Portugal, with no parliamentary far-right in existence, could be tempted by similar extreme nationalists in the years ahead as frustration with mainstream parties grow.

There is a clock ticking away in Europe, but it isn't necessarily counting down till the day when the streets banish the troika's authority. Rather, this is a clock ticking down to when that far-right menace erupts to break up the European project on its own terms, all the while fanning once-dormant national rivalries. This isn’t without precedent in Europe. It was during the 80s that another federation of nations, Yugoslavia, was subject to fierce austerity which provoked strike action like we see in Europe today. But they fell short, and by the early 90s, nationalists would assert themselves and give Europe another bloody chapter of warfare and ethnic cleansing.

The forces opposed to austerity must set political objectives, and deploy tactics to reach those objectives. This doesn’t have to mean preparing for insurrection and the siege of congress like some in Spain are organising for. In Portugal, daily mobilisations could replicate the success of the recent protests in Bulgaria. With the right-wing coalition government in Portugal plotting further austerity to the tune of 4 billion euros in cuts, the urgency should be widely shared. The streets must themselves become political actors, not merely a visualisation of the discontent politicians see in any monthly political survey. There has to be a willingness by anti-austerity forces to fail, to overplay their hand. It doesn't require the approval of the whole country or hundreds of thousands of people to get involved. Even thousands, if they are committed and share common purpose and tactics, can achieve a government's resignation. Those thousands shouldn’t be hard to find amid the misery that exists across southern Europe today.

This is a cross-post from David Ferreira's blog Igualitárista