Dublin Anarchist MarchConsider viewing a political march as if you were seeing it for the first time: You would see a group of people assembling at some point in a city, possibly giving speeches to themselves and certainly having a good catch-up session amongst themselves. Then you’d watch them walk along the road as a group, directed by protest marshals and police seemingly working together to direct the crowd. Many are carrying signs and screaming chants and seemingly trying to convince those others on the streets with the loudness of their chants and the size of their banners. Those on the street largely continue with their shopping, some stop and watch. After much walking, the crowd will stop and regroup. Again, they’ll give speeches to themselves. They’ll individually disperse and later that day will be found in front of televisions looking if they can see themselves on that night’s news.

So, please tell me, exactly which part of this is supposed to be effective political action?

I tried to do some extensive research on the origins of the political march (I clicked the next button in my google search 15 times!) but I’ve failed to find any information. The most likely origin, as far as I can see, is the military march. This would involve a strategic grouping of forces outside a city and then a march into the city, as an overwhelming display of strength, to take control of the city. Or else, failing the servitude of the local population, it would mean battle.

It seems to me that this tactic, originally quite self-conscious of its aims, has somehow become a mere political ritual, utterly ignorant of its history and original intentions, and completely unreflexive of its effectiveness. Gone is the overwhelming display of force, gone is the original aim of using the march as a form of tactical grouping to effect direct action elsewhere, gone is any conscious notion of exactly how a march effects change.

Instead, say hello to the media spectacle. Any actual physical display of force has been replaced with a deferred show of force in the media, upon which the power of those present is utterly reliant. A show of numbers, colourful costumes, the creation of pseudo-contestations, scuffles with the police and arrests are all used to promote the value of a march as a media spectacle. Far from building the strength of those present in the march, the march-come-media-spectacle works to reinforce the institutions of the media and political apparatus and leaves those present, more often than not, feeling particularly disempowered.

“Building the movement” is the only other justification I have ever heard for the march. It’s the notion of small steps to bigger things, getting people hooked. The assumptions here are that, presently, we are too weak to have any real effect or that anything of direct effect will simply scare away the politically uninitiated. Eternally “building the movement”, we seem to be teaching people that political activity is always and only a symbolic, disempowering spectacle rather than exploring new forms of direct action that are open to mass participation. In contrast, the 2006 Te Papa demo is a good example of mass direct action (which, incidentally, employed the use of the march as a grouping tactic).

It’s time to get passed unreflexive, unconscious and ritualised political activity, and I think this begins with the end of the spectacularised march.