Has the death of public protest been exaggerated?

Dennis Phillips

Alasdair Roberts The End of Protest: How Free-Market Capitalism Learned to Contain Dissent, Ithaca, New York, Cornell Selects, Cornell University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8014-7003-5 (e-book edition) RRP $12.63.

On 23 December 2014, ABC Radio National’s ‘Big Ideas’ program ran a fascinating report on the emergence of ‘ag-gag’ laws in the United States and Australia. These laws are designed to silence animal rights protesters, who have for decades used technology (cameras, microphones, etcetera) to document and expose the overcrowding and outright abuse of animals such as chickens and pigs. Ag-gag laws are aimed at eliminating protest by redefining anything interfering with the pursuit of agricultural profits as a form of domestic terrorism and subject to comparable legal penalties (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2014).

Ag-gag laws are but one prominent example of a general movement on the part of powerful interest groups to contain and discredit many forms of what traditionally has been considered legitimate protest. The result, already evident, is a chilling effect on the whole idea of public protest. Consider, for example, the United States in the year 2008 when the worst financial crisis in a generation failed to incite violence or widespread social protest. America’s ‘quiet crisis’ differed markedly from that of other countries and even by comparison to earlier US history. Traditionally, major economic downturns and associated job losses often led to strikes, demonstrations and riots (Roberts 2013, loc. 30–36).

It wasn’t that people were happy to greet hard times in 2008. By 2011 a Gallup Poll indicated a record high 81 per cent of Americans surveyed were dissatisfied with the way their government was leading the nation (Saad 2011). Nevertheless, despite some localised dissent, such as the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, no widespread and sustained public protests appeared (loc. 52). At a time when economic inequality in the United States was worse than at any time since the Great Depression, there was no mass protest (loc. 60–71). What was happening here? Had the whole country simply resigned itself to apparent economic decline?

Not according to Alasdair Roberts, a Canadian-born professor of law at Suffolk University in Boston. In The End of Protest: How Free-Market Capitalism Learned to Contain Dissent, the first e-book published in Cornell University Press’s new digital imprint, ‘Cornell Selects’, Roberts focuses on the long term effects of a Reagan/Thatcher led ‘neoliberal’ counter-revolution. After the Second World War and especially during the 1980s, neoliberals like Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States worked assiduously to ‘liberate’ free market capitalism from what they considered misguided restraints imposed during decades of economic and social meddling (loc. 131, 720–765).


Roberts argues managing public protest became an important feature of the neoliberal strategy. This included reducing the capacity of unions and protest movements to organise and demonstrate, expanding police powers and increasing the authority of technocrats to manage the economy in the hope of softening the impact of financial crises. Ironically, neoliberals who prided themselves in the free market and limited government were happy to use the instruments of government to quell dissent when the free market failed to ‘self-correct’ (loc. 110–117).

While Roberts focuses on the United States and Britain, it is worth noting Australians have had considerable experience with the art of silencing dissent. In an interesting survey conducted ten years ago by The Australian Institute, nine of ten non-government organisations (NGOs) surveyed believed organisations and individuals dissenting from current Australian government policies risked having their funding cut or denied. Since at least the mid-1990s, the leaders of many Australian NGOs have been concerned about various government activities aimed at limiting dissent and discouraging public protest (Maddison, Denniss & Hamilton 2004, pp. 43–45).

Roberts details other ways in which influential capitalists worked to control dissent.

Roberts reminds us that managing dissent has a long history. For more than two centuries Britons and Americans have been conditioned to accept the ‘inevitability’ of periods of boom and bust. Bad times must be endured before good times can return. The invention of the roller coaster in the 1880s, Roberts argues, stands as a perfect metaphor for the neoliberal view of the economy: the system is essentially stable, but periodically it can rise to ‘giddy heights followed by sickening plunges’ (loc. 143).

One hundred years after the roller coaster appeared, President Ronald Reagan used a different metaphor in an attempt to explain away growing inequality in the United States. He reassured the world that economic growth guaranteed social stability. Borrowing heavily from the rhetoric of former president John F. Kennedy, Reagan declared ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ (Lazere 2009). Sadly, not all boats rise when the seas are rough. Some are swamped, others sink. People lose their jobs, savings, homes and security. With their hurt and deprivation comes anger often expressed through public protest. The immediate response of dedicated neoliberals is to stifle the protest rather than reform the system (loc. 152–160).


In the 19th century, high-flying capitalists had it all their own way. Roberts notes that in the first half of the century, Britain ‘established itself as the vanguard state of laissez faire capitalism’, a role eagerly picked up by US ‘robber barons’ (Josephson 1962) after the American civil war (1861–65). In the golden age of buccaneer capitalism, the ruling elite wrote laws that banned unions and collective bargaining. These ‘captains of industry’ controlled the politicians and could call upon police forces and even the military to suppress dissent (loc. 212).

The 1894 Pullman strike, like the Carnegie Steelworks strike two years earlier, provides an instructive example of how this worked. The strike arose when members of the fledgling American Railway Union stopped work because George Pullman (the boss of ‘Pullman Town’ where railway sleeper cars were manufactured) refused to negotiate with them over a range of worker complaints. Because rail transport was vital, the situation soon came to the attention of US President Grover Cleveland, who turned the matter over to Richard Olney, his Attorney-General (head of the Justice Department). Before Olney was appointed the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, he had been a lawyer for a railroad company. He promptly obtained a federal court injunction banning union leaders and union activity in the Pullman affair. When some union leaders ignored the injunction, the US government called upon 12,000 armed troops to break the strike and get the trains moving again. Battles between workers and the military broke out across the country, ultimately leaving 30 dead and many more injured (Zinn 2005, Ch. 11).


Historically, conservatives who preached the virtues of limited government had no problem when it came to calling upon the instruments of government (often in the form of state and federal troops) to crush worker protests. Altogether, federal troops were used in ‘more than three hundred labour disputes in the last quarter of the nineteenth century’ (loc. 388–415). Nobody seemed too concerned about the obvious contradictions when the ‘free market’ required a raft of legal, social and even military interventions to keep it afloat. The courts also got in the act by banning ‘unlawful assembly’ and ‘conspiracy in restraint of trade’ (loc. 430). In 1930 New York City police broke up a demonstration by 35,000 unemployed protestors who were accused of ‘unlawful assembly’ and ‘breach of peace’ (loc. 454).

Roberts details other ways in which influential capitalists worked to control dissent. Concerted attempts were made to shape public opinion to favour big business. Conservatives made the call for ‘law and order’ a rallying cry, especially when workers resorted to strike action (loc. 509). During the 1920s, three strongly pro-business presidents—Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover—praised and promoted the role of leading ‘free market’ capitalists in building an orderly society. When in 1929 the market collapsed, most people were convinced the crisis was just another dip in the economic roller-coaster and the ‘inevitable’ rise to new heights would surely follow (loc. 609–616). It didn’t. The crisis deepened.

Throughout the 1980s, Thatcher and Reagan fought a fierce battle against organised labour.

In November 1932 American voters finally turned their back on the Republican Party and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) as their new president. Five months before the election 43,000 protesters, including unemployed veterans of the First World War, descended on Washington DC in what came to be known as the Bonus Army March. President Hoover called upon Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur who used federal troops, cavalry and tanks to burn the Bonus Army camp and drive the protesters and their families out of Washington (Authentic History Center 2012).

Inaugurated as president in March 1933, Roosevelt faced an economic and social crisis constituting the worst domestic disaster since the Civil War. He went to work immediately to strengthen the hand of the federal government to intervene when the ‘free market’ ran amok (loc. 649). This is not the place to consider the many changes wrought by Roosevelt’s New Deal. Others have done that in minute detail (Leuchtenburg 2009). Despite being born into one of the nation’s most aristocratic and wealthy families, FDR recognised organised labour had a significant role to play in the nation’s political and social life. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, often called ‘the Magna Carta of labor’, while somewhat limited in its immediate application, nevertheless recognised the legitimacy of private sector unions and collective bargaining (Conkin 1967, pp. 63–64). The ‘Roosevelt revolution’ in social security (superannuation), health, welfare, etc. was so extensive and important that for many years subsequent presidents representing both major political parties accepted and built upon it.

Counterrevolution came in the 1980s, with the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. Reagan capitalised on historic American suspicion of centralised government by arguing the US Government—the very government he sought to lead—was too active and too powerful. Reagan argued that wealth created by a growing economy would filter down to help the poor as well as reward the rich. Therefore, he reasoned, most government assistance programs were unnecessary because the free market would take care of everyone. It was an obvious throwback to decades-old ‘trickle down’ theories (loc. 743).

In addition to the myth of the rising tide, Reagan also successfully sold ‘the myth of the stable market’. It was an appealing idea, something most people wanted to believe. Periods of boom and bust, he said, were now a thing of the past. Here again, the obvious contradictions eluded many. Reagan, the apostle of the ‘free’ market, claimed the ‘self-stabilising’ market was sustained only by a variety of factors (technological innovation, bureaucratic management) he chose not to describe as interventions (loc. 758–765).

The 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) provided conclusive proof the so-called ‘stable market’ was not so stable (loc. 841). Riots broke out in the Baltic countries, followed by various forms of public protest in Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal (loc. 865). The United States and England, however, remained free of major unrest (loc. 892). Why? The gradual decline in the power of organised labour provides one obvious explanation. In the United States, union membership dropped from 22 per cent in 1980 to only 11.3 per cent by 2013 (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014). In the United Kingdom, union membership fell from 50 per cent in 1980 to 25.6 per cent overall in 2013, and as low as fourteen per cent in the private sector. Throughout the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan fought a fierce and often successful battle against organised labour (loc. 931; Glass 2008).


Reagan and Thatcher held office three decades ago at a time when ‘top down’ suppression of dissent was easier than it is today. Beginning with the public introduction of the Internet in 1991, new technologies enhanced communication and thereby changed protest from its old-style, hierarchical organisational structure to a more rapid, decentralised and individualistic approach (loc. 1004). This made protest more difficult to suppress, but it also made it harder to organise and sustain. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement began enthusiastically in September 2011, but lacking clearly articulated goals and a centralised leadership structure, it began to fade within a year and soon disappeared (loc. 1023–1048).

Meanwhile, development of both the theory and practice of crowd control did not fade. Law enforcement authorities took special interest in what came to be known as ‘technocratic crisis management’. State and local governments increased funding to supply ‘riot gear’, ‘nonlethal’ equipment and new forms of gas for their police forces. In some cities remote ‘demonstration zones’ were designated so protesting crowds could be controlled more easily. Closed-circuit cameras were installed to provide detailed identification and surveillance (loc. 1097–1212).

Roberts is almost certainly premature in predicting the end of ‘crowd politics’.

In the aftermath of the 2008 GFC, the Obama Administration also used less coercive measures to meet the economic crisis and head off social unrest. Obama took what came to be known as the ‘stimulus path’, pouring more than $US800 billion into new spending and tax relief programs. As Roberts indicates, the President and federal government agencies took the lead, rather than the US Congress. The US central bank, led by Ben Bernanke serving as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, played a crucial role. In March 2009, with the aim of reducing long-term interest rates (a practice known as ‘quantitative easing’), the Federal Reserve began large scale purchases of US Treasury securities (loc. 1259–1334). Roberts contrasts this ‘technocratic’ response to the 2008 financial crisis with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s largely ‘political’ handling of the 1930s Great Depression. In 2008 technocrats associated with the central bank, and not politicians, decided ‘who would be thrown a lifeline, and who would not’ (loc. 1357, 1382).


The concluding chapter of Roberts’ brief book is titled ‘The end of crowd politics’. He reminds us the United States, a nation theoretically opposed to ‘big government’, has not hesitated to use the instruments of government to manage ‘crowd politics’. It is certainly true that the ‘instruments’ of control (legal, police, etcetera) have been refined to reduce militant labour union activity, but it is questionable whether popular expressions of discontent have been blunted.

Despite ominous ‘Ag-gag’ moves to criminalise certain forms of protest, Roberts is almost certainly premature in predicting the end of ‘crowd politics’. A survey of recent headlines containing the word ‘protest’ suggests, both globally and within the United States, demonstrations and acts of public protest are not on the wane. In September 2014, for example, more than 300,000 people marched through the streets of Manhattan in what was described as the largest climate change protest in history (Resnikoff & Sakuma 2014).

Public protest continues around the world. On 10 August 2014, The Guardian led with ‘Thousands march through London in protest at Israeli military action in Gaza’ (Khomami 2014). A month earlier a Sydney Morning Herald headline read ‘Thousands in Sydney join global Gaza protests’ (Ting 2014). These numbers were more than matched in January 2015 when more than a million citizens of France marched through the streets of Paris to pay tribute to the victims of radical Islamic violence (Melander, de La Hamaide & Ponthus 2015). In terms of sheer numbers involved in public protest, it would be hard to top a 17 February 2003 Guardian headline: ‘Millions worldwide rally for peace’. The accompanying article reported, ‘huge waves of demonstrations not seen since the Vietnam war jammed more than 600 towns and cities around the world … as protesters from Tasmania to Iceland marched against war in Iraq. Up to 30 million people demonstrated worldwide, including 6 million in Europe’ (Chrisafis et al. 2003).

This sounds more like the heyday of protest rather than ‘the end of protest’. It also suggests Roberts’ title is misleading. His focus is not so much on the ‘end’ of protest as it is on ways in which powerful conservative interests have worked for a century or more to manage protest and keep it confined within ‘acceptable’ limits.


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Dr Dennis H. Phillips taught US history and politics at Macquarie University and The University of Sydney. His PhD in American history is from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1972). He is a dual Australia/US citizen.