By William E. Klein, Professor New York University Florence
We are here to discuss the recent protests from different theoretical points of view and within different historical frameworks. We are not trying to develop a unified general theory of protest, or of the crisis of capitalism or of the crisis of representative democracy. We may not even agree that there are any crises–or if we agree on that we will no doubt disagree on what the crises are and mean within larger contexts.
Protests are rarely expressions of a majority point of view to begin with. In a representative democracy a protest that captures a well-established majority view would normally indicate a crisis in representative institutions. Instead, protests in representative democracies have evolved as forums for the expression of strong minority points of view. We don’t need to assume that even a strong string of protests indicates a crisis in the basic institutions (though maybe some of us now think there is such a crisis in the Western representative democracies). Whatever the original context of the American First Amendment, the practice of protest it protects has evolved to become a normal part of the life form of the public sphere. The view that public opinion does not progress in linear sequences that can later be celebrated in some form of progressive history would itself be a minority view, I believe–held only by certain types of fundamentalist conservatives. In the standard “Whig” histories (to use the expression of Sir Herbert Butterfield) of the abolitionist movement, of the women’s rights movement, of the civil rights movement, the majority has “lagged behind” the vocal minority in striking ways.
On the other hand, of course, a protest in an authoritarian government or one that is designed to hear grievances rather than legislate according to democratic procedures, could well represent a majority opinion. If the protest is against the very frame of the existing government, the outcome could be revolution. But then a revolution could occur without the agreement or participation of any majority. And the long view of these sorts of events will of course depend on the point of view of the historian within the framework of the outcome. Similarly, a protest could be against the incompetent managing of a just system or against a system ill-understood but perceived to be unjust. In either of these cases, mere negative protest would have different functions but could be effective without particularly intelligent or organized ideas leading the way to more just systems.
The account of a movement is therefore always historical, and assumes the relevance of protests in an indeterminate, yet-to-be-achieved future state. But the point of view at the end of such a process is often comfortable and smug–hence “Whig”–and so is the opposite of the point of view of the struggling participants of the actual story. What looks like a “movement” retrospectively may look like a pitiful scattering of protests, incorporating the incompetent and the rash, from a presentist point of view. So what we say about these protests today must fall into what Hobbes would discount as unfalsifiable (for the near future) prophecy, and we can hope for no miraculous confirmation of our guesses.