Beware the ides of March

Edwin Montoya Zorrilla marched in March for not much.

Image: MsTaralyn, via Flickr.
Image: MsTaralyn, via Flickr.
Image: MsTaralyn, via Flickr.

For a protest that inspired over 100,000 people to converge around the country, March in March has received very little mainstream media coverage, an oversight that betrays the Liberal tendencies of editors across Australia. I attended the march and saw the families, the climate activists, the academics, and the socialists wielding anti-Abbott placards. No doubt it was diverse and chaotic; no doubt it was immense. Comparisons with the extensive coverage given to the Convoy of No Confidence, which attracted a couple of hundred people, are well-founded.

But what kind of coverage did the march deserve, and what kind of message was sent? If there is a litmus test of the success of such protests with no unified legislative agenda, it is that they should create power. They should bring diverse groups together and embody power by strengthening relationships and alliances around common causes.

This particular crowd was brought together by the maxim “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Many organisers and leaders credited the march with engaging the otherwise politically apathetic to rally together in opposition to the current government. Yet is there pride in empowering people who care little when Labor enacts rather similar policies, paving the way for this conservative onslaught? Without a unified structural critique of the problems in our entire political system, such a gesture merely reinforces the brokenness of the left, not its values.

To be fair, the forces of neoliberalism are too diffuse to conceptualise; it is difficult to identify, let alone rally against, a singular target in such a campaign. One cannot, therefore, expect those disempowered by this ideology to have a clear platform or to articulate the totality of their oppression. Rarely is oppressive ideology as evident as when Gina Rinehart claims that we should follow in Thatcher’s footsteps, a statement that Billy Bragg, the embattled English artist and activist who attended the Sydney March, made short work of when comparing it to his own struggles and experiences under the Iron Lady.

How should the left react to such diffuse oppression? Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, in his recent adjournment speech, defended Western Australia’s diverse and progressive history with great dignity. The Occupy Movement proclaimed, “We Are The 99%”. Such protests challenge ideology by re-imagining the disempowered as the powerful, by using a collective identity that simultaneously creates solidarity among the masses and challenges the authority of those
in power.

Conversely, one of the march’s most popular slogans was “Not In My Name”. Yet what name is that? March in March never rallied around a common identity. Instead it focused on spiteful and negative jabs, which suggested that our Prime Minister’s authority is illegitimate, and offered no critique of the system that put him there.

The MC at the Sydney march pointed to and lionised the students from Newtown High School who had grilled the Prime Minister with embarrassing questions in Canberra. Perhaps these students best embody the movement’s powerlessness. While such ridicule can be a good mask for our anger, the embarrassment matters little as long as the frame remains the same — the Prime Minister spoke down to some idealist kids, but his power base lay elsewhere.

Like it or not, Tony Abbott is Prime Minister, and will probably continue to be so for a few years. I say this because, in coming to understand how such a man became our legitimate leader, the left will have to look at its own identity and values. Harder still, it will have to look at how it has failed. To face how words such as “humanity, decency, fairness, social justice, and equity”, the March’s proclaimed principles, have failed to unite communities in a way that makes them powerful.

“Our greatest enemy is not capitalism or conservatism, it is cynicism,” said Billy Bragg at the march. It is cynicism that makes the left disavow its connection with the current state of politics while doing little to create a credible alternative other than a somewhat more palatable Labor Prime Minister. The participants of March in March would do well to heed his words.