Why Protests Rarely Work


On September 17th, 2011, New York City’s Zuccotti Park became Occupied. Thousands of protesters took to the park, which is situated in the heart of New York City’s financial district, to protest a wide variety of issues, the most prominent being the growing income inequality in the United States. Over the course of the next two months, thousands of protestors occupied the park to have their voices heard. Eventually the protestors were forced out of Zuccotti Park on November 15th, 2011.

Almost three years later, nothing has materialized out of these protests. Income inequality has actually increasednone of the demands or goals of the protestors have been achieved. Critics will point to the fact that the Occupy Movement was incredibly disorganized, which was certainly one of the reasons for its ineffectiveness, but other much more organized demonstrations have been met with a similar fate. Why is this the case? In order to understand the reasons for most protests’ failures, we need to examine the history of counterculture as a whole.

Theodore Roszak
Theodore Roszak
The term counterculture was first coined in 1953 by, Theodore Roszak in his work The Making of a Counter Culture, but instances of counterculture have been in play for centuries. Romanticism was one of the first documented counter cultural movements, the ideologies of which eventually led to the French Revolution. The Hippie movement of the 1960s is perhaps the most synonymous with counter cultural movements, and many Baby Boomers were a part of this generation. Widespread protests about war and the destruction of the environment formed the core of hippie activism. This movement continued into the 1970s, and was replaced by the punk counterculture into the 80s, and the latter supplanted and rebranded as grunge in the 1990s, culminating in the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Modern day activists vary from hipsters to anarchists, and the causes all of these counter cultures stand for are very similar in nature; what is different is how the message is conveyed.


In their work The Rebel Sell, philosophers Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter discuss the condition that exists for many counterculturists. What unites all counter culture is an opposition to the mainstream; “the man”; the “system”. A rejection of mass media and corporations that control the lives of the masses and a taste for the alternative and revolutionary will always define a counterculturist. Capitalism is also met with great opposition and heavily criticized by counterculturists, which, as Heath and Potter discuss, is ironic because counterculture is actually one of the driving forces behind capitalism. In their work The Pirate Organization, Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Phillippe Vergne discuss the benefits that industry “pirates” – essentially, counterculturist companies or services – impact and often improve the capitalist system. How can that be? Why are the opponents to a system they treat with such disdain actually assisting in its development and perpetuation? Two words: Market competition.

When the hippie movements of the 1960s protested corporations, some of their largest targets were the Detroit Big 3: Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. These three automakers were criticized as promoting a culture of “planned obsolescence” and forcing consumers to purchase new vehicles every few years by constantly innovating and updating existing models. The cultural effect of “keeping up with the Joneses” was in full effect in North America during the 1960s, and automakers were guilty of this as any appliance manufacturer or clothing retailer. The hippies wouldn’t stand for it, and ironically, a marketing opportunity was born. Enter the Volkswagen Beetle. Volkswagen saw an opportunity to market its iconic sedan to hippies as an alternative to anything produced by the Detroit Big 3, and it produced massive dividends. Hippies were victims to the exact mass media and corporatization that they had been protesting against.


Punk culture of the 70s and 80s was not immune to this as well. Far more aggressive than their hippie counterculturist predecessors, punks preferred mohawks to long hair and beards, Doc Martens, Blundstones, and Chuck Taylor sneakers to Birkenstock sandals, and leather jackets to tie-die t-shirts. However, all of these products were created by large companies similar to those being protested against, the only difference was the marketing strategy. In the rejection of Nike, many punks and grunge counterculturists protested heavily against the sportswear company’s use of sweatshops, which culminated in the Seattle Riots of 1999. There is a famous example of some protesters kicking in the store windows at a Nike flagship store in Seattle while wearing Nike sneakers.

The lesson to be learned from all of this?

There is a great deal of hypocrisy and misdirected hate present in counterculturists, and in fact, there is no such thing as “counterculture”, as the very culture being countered is simultaneously being supported by the actions of the “counterculturists”. There is no one “system” or evil entity that can be targeted, as society is far more complex than that. The “system” does not exist; our world is a grab bag of social institutions that are loosely sewn together to create the fabric of our society. There are simply popular tastes and alternative tastes, and many different ones at that. It all depends on how “cool” you want to appear by your product associations and lifestyle tastes.

When imperialism ended, capitalism became the dominant form of economy on the planet. Peasants who were literally forced to toil in fields and factories now had the choice to work in order to pursue life’s pleasures. Whenever there has been a protest against the wealthy and/or large corporations, counterculturists often seek allegiance with the working class. Unfortunately, to protest and upheave the very economic system that provides them with the liberties of life seems counterintuitive to the average working class citizen, so these protests almost always fail as a result. In the protesters’ eyes, what they are offering the masses is liberation from the “system”, but protesters are misguided in the sense that everyone shares their views that the “system” is this controlling, depressing force. It is simply a division of views on how happiness is gained in life.

Counterculturists view the culture, or "system", they are rebelling against like the scenario presented in The Matrix
Counterculturists view the culture, or “system”, they are rebelling against like the scenario presented in The Matrix
Despite the counterculturist notion that mass media is dictating our lives for us and corporations are controlling us with their products and services, those who participate in mainstream culture do not necessarily share this view. They treat the world like a form of The Matrix, in which everything that exists in our world is a lie manufactured by a “system” (akin to The Machines in The Matrix), and that in order to reach true salvation, members of society must be “unplugged” and take the red pill. In the eyes of a counterculturist, there is a dichotomy of good and evil in the world. Big corporations and governments are inherently evil, and everyone else is “good”.  But what if this “system” -these “machines”- did not actually exist as described? Our society is much more complex than simply mainstream and alternative. Humans have much more complex interests that simply cannot be grouped into two columns.

It is this misdirection that is the primary limiting factor of protests and solidarity demonstrations. Several ongoing examples exist in North America today. Protestors far too often take up causes that do not directly affect them, and those directly affected are rarely, if ever, found among the protestors. During the infamous Paris uprising of 1968, students composed the bulk of the initial wave of protestors, denouncing capitalism, consumerism, and the “system”. Workers did eventually join the strike, but they weren’t protesting against any of these ideologies in the hopes that they could instead flock to art galleries or poetry recitals; the workers simply wanted higher wages, which they eventually received. The higher wages were used to further indulge in the very “evils” of capitalism that the students were protesting against.

1968 Paris Uprising
1968 Paris Uprising
The students’ allegiance with the workers was only in the form of protest, but the fact that the workers did not desire any of the “freedoms” from the “system” that the students did is evidence that what is a class interest is not always a general interest. Just because one group feels that there is an injustice in the world doesn’t mean all others will.


Perhaps no company has come under more criticism and protest than biotech giant Monsanto. Protestors of Monsanto and other biotechnology companies point to the fact that these companies actively manufacture and promote the use of GMOs and strict regulations for farmers that use their products. They cite past examples of lawsuits the company has taken up against farmers in the past and accuse them of bullying and forcing farmers to bend to the company’s will. The ironic thing is that these protestors are never directly affected by the actions of a company like Monsanto; i.e., they are rarely, if ever, farmers.


The farmers that were sued in the past were all guilty of stealing seeds manufactured by Monsanto and replanting them in significant amounts without purchasing them. But if you look at most people largely opposed to GMOs, a large majority of them are not farmers, or even scientists. They are individuals who have a preference for the alternative to the products of a big corporation, and as a result, define the mainstream products and corporations as “evil”. It is this mistrust of government and large corporations that produces quack science as well.

Under the ideology of counterculture, those affected by the “system” are all victims, but as Heath and Potter argue, “The problem with assuming that everyone is the victim of a total ideology is that it becomes impossible to state what would count as evidence for or against this thesis. In a world of this type, countercultural rebellion is not just unhelpful, it is positively counterproductive.”

The misdirected hate placed on large corporations like Monsanto is not due to the fact that they are “evil”; they are simply the mainstream choice and those with alternative tastes do not like that. There is no right or wrong in this case: it is simply a matter of preference. The large corporations are merely painted as “wrong” because of the victim complex employed by many counterculturists. Humans are emotionally wired to feel sympathy for a victim, so it is difficult to form an argument against counterculturists without inciting an emotive, and largely unresolvable, response.

clicktivism/armchair activism: activism born on the Internet
clicktivism/armchair activism: activism born on the Internet
In addition to the misdirection of protests, the course of action undertaken by counterculturists is the other major downfall of public demonstrations against an issue. Tangible reform is not something that can achieved overnight or even within a few months of occupying a park. It is incredibly easy for individuals to become involved with a cause over social media or by signing an online petition, but this “armchair activism” ultimately does not produce any results. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a brilliant essay on the shortcomings of armchair activism published in the New Yorker: “The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

Political reform is a painfully lengthy and boring process, and the reason that most protests don’t work is that counterculturists don’t have the proper attention span to achieve their goals. The Occupy Movement was a perfect example of this: protestors threw a massive list of changes in their opponent’s face without any clear course of action or leadership. Our generation is famously impatient, and the Occupy Movement highlighted that fact.

The world has undergone some fantastic changes in terms of social justice in the past hundred years. But if you examine all of those causes, from women gaining the right to vote to racial segregation ending, those processes took decades to achieve, and they were universal in their appeal. In order to achieve real change in the world, protestors must often work for decades to make an impact, and by that time their concerns may have already been separately addressed without their input, or society may have shifted in a sense that these concerns no longer warrant change. The bottom line is, politics aren’t sexy to an activist, but protesting and causing a public ruckus is. Unfortunately, all that most protests achieve is a blurb in the news, some minor annoyance at the expense of the public and police officers, and wasted paper in the form of educational pamphlets and handouts.


If counterculturists want to actually create change in our society, a few things are required. First, you cannot achieve much in our world without power. This is not equivalent to wealth, but you do need to work hard to gain enough power to have influence over others to meet your agenda. The civil rights movement would not have had the effect it did if Martin Luther King Jr. did not possess the power and influence that he did.

Second, you need to accept that politics are boring and laborious in nature. Decisions take time, because there are so many important issues on the desks of politicians. Be patient and be prepared to work for years for your cause, knowing that all your hard work may still be for nothing. Third, make sure your issue is actually of importance for the greater good or truly atrocious in nature, and not just the groupthink or misplaced victimization of a minority. It simply will not hold any ground among the powers that be if not enough people think it’s important or terrible enough to be changed. Too often the mistake has been made by counterculturists assuming that “good for me” means “good for society”.

On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam  to bring attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic Diem regime that controlled the South Vietnamese government at the time.
On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam to bring attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic Diem regime that controlled the South Vietnamese government at the time.
The world needs activism to spread awareness, education, and promote change. Truly great things have been achieved by counterculturists throughout history. What we often forget is that these individuals worked incredibly long and hard at what they hoped to achieve. They had a distinct, measurable vision of their goal, but they also understood limitations inherent in the system. Their methods may not have always been the flashiest, but they got the job done. Our culture of instant gratification often leads us to ignore that fact.






4 Comments Add yours

  1. This is really well written! Sweet post

  2. Sept.17, 2001? I think you may have a typo

    1. Thanks for spotting that! Fixed.

  3. money online says:

    What’s up, I read your new stuff named “Why Protests Rarely Work | Thoughts.” like every week.

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