Soup, Sabotage, and Spectacle Activism

I’ve been around liberal activism for most of my life. Specifically, I’m very familiar with what you might call “Liberal Protest Activism”(LPA for short). This is the kind of protest where you gather to demonstrate the numbers and determination of your movement, and to call for the government to make a change in response to popular pressure. In a lot of ways, it’s the main form of activism that’s viewed as “acceptable” within our society. In some sectors it’s the only form of activism that’s considered at all effective, which is something I used to believe.

You know the story – Ghandi’s movement was able to win freedom for India and Pakistan, M.L.K.’s movement was able to end Segregation and bring about racial equality. Anything that hints at violence, or that damages property or interferes with business is out of line and counterproductive.

In reality, both of those movements had militant elements, and took place within broader geopolitical contexts that had as much influence as any peaceful protest – probably more.

But within the framework of LPA, spectacle is extremely important, and there are a lot of different opinions about how to do it “right”. Some people think that the more “respectable” the conduct of the protesters, the better the optics, and the more likely that others will join in. Others think that doing silly, loud, or dramatic things will draw more media attention, and stir more conversation about the issue. There are also some who believe that a sincere demonstration of their sincerity, love, or faith will move other people on a spiritual level, and protests can become a sort of ritual.

In a lot of ways, this is the same as the arguments atheists have had about how we should defend or promote our unbelief. Should we mock religious beliefs and practices that seem silly to us? Should we be respectful and patient, and avoid ruffling any feathers? What tone is the most likely to get people to overcome their prejudices and listen?

My view on both of these arguments is the same. Different approaches will work on different people, at different points in their lives. There is room for a wide variety of approaches, and that’s what we should expect for such a strange and diverse species as humanity. More than that, I defy anyone to make a compelling case that it’s even possible to get everyone to agree on messaging and tactics. That’s not what humans are. Some will definitely go for uniforms, planned messages, and so on, but trying to get everyone to do the same thing feels a bit like saying that if everyone just agreed with me, then the world would be doing fine.

That may or may not be the case, but it’s largely irrelevant, because that’s not how people work.

This is not me saying there’s no point in trying to convince people of things. I hope this doesn’t need saying, but if I believed that, this blog would not exist. I just don’t think that I can persuade everyone. I don’t even think that I can persuade anyone by myself, I’m just trying to be part of the process that moves some people in the right direction.

In that same spirit, while I don’t think that LPA is sufficient to change the world in the ways we need to change it, I do think it’s a valid part of a larger movement. For myself, I’m fairly uncomfortable with theatrics, and I have a hard time persuading myself that dressing up and dancing around or something like that is worth the effort. My preference has been to find conversations about theatrical protests, and try to direct them towards the issue the protest is about. They did their job by making people talk, and now it’s my turn to make something useful of that conversation. If people are going to be doing silly and dramatic things, then the media is going to focus on that. It just makes sense to try to make use of that attention while it’s there, and it’s not like I can stop people from doing that stuff anyway.

Which brings us to the recent decision of a couple activists to throw tomato soup on a glass-protected Van Gogh painting and glue themselves to a wall.

Was this useful? Not particularly, but within the framework of LPA, it fits. No real damage was done, and it certainly generated a lot of buzz. The thing is – while I believe some people are genuinely upset at the disrespect shown to a great work of art, I don’t actually believe that anyone’s seriously changing their mind about climate change because of it. If someone’s opinion on whether or not climate action is necessary is swayed by two kids throwing soup at a painting, then I don’t know that it’s worth trying to discipline a global movement specifically for that person’s benefit. I also don’t see a lot of point in saying “they don’t represent all of us”, because I don’t think anyone believes they really do. Some may pretend to believe it because they already opposed the movement, but those folks will also believe that people are going to give their kids free drugs. Trying to appease them doesn’t seem worth the effort to me.

So my initial reaction was to point out that more conventional protest has not resulted in adequate climate action thus far.

I still think that’s the case.

We’ve certainly made progress. Renewable energy is booming around the world, and that is slowing the rate at which annual emissions are increasing. At the same time, emissions are still increasing, and people are dying because of climate change now.

If you think the action that’s been taken to date is adequate, then I have to question to what degree you value human life.

That said, my initial response was wrong, at least in one way. I think it was a holdover from my fairly recent days of believing in the efficacy of this kind of protest, combined with a lack of new reflexes for a different approach. See, from what I can tell, a majority of the world – even in Western countries – believes there’s a need for more action on climate change. If I have a role in redirecting the attention from activism like this, it probably should be to try to get people talking more about organizing and direct action. What we’re lacking isn’t a desire for change, but the tools for change. If conventional protest doesn’t work, what does work? Doing stranger more offensive forms of protest amounts to trying to do more of the thing that’s not working, in the hopes that “more” is what’s needed.

What I probably should have done in response to this was work on updating my direct action post, since it’s overdue for a tune-up, and trying to have a conversation about more effective forms of activism.

There’s been some discussion around whether or not Just Stop Oil is actually trying to undermine the climate action movement, but while I think that’s worth investigating, it shouldn’t be the basis for how we react to any given action by them. The reality is that there are people trying to sabotage that movement, and there will be for any movement that’s trying to get large-scale change. There will be corporate infiltrators. There will be government infiltrators. We should be on guard against that, but I don’t think that means trying to find and expose every single one. That seems like a futile effort, and a great way to create division and enmity within any movement.

The focus, rather, should be on what goals we want, what tactics we want to use, and making sure everyone understands why a group wants to do things a certain way for a certain action. What material effect will a given action have? If there’s a media buzz around something like this soup-throwing protest, is that something we should try to use, or should we just ignore it and focus on what we were already doing?

As I’m fond of saying, I don’t have all the answers, I’m just trying to figure out some of them. I don’t think this protest was helpful, but neither do I think there’s much point in getting worked up about it. Personally, I shouldn’t have given in to my reflex to defend this one in the way that I did. I think the best conversation for me to try having next time something like this happens, is about what kinds of activism would actually work.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!


  1. Cutty Snark says

    I find this one a bit tricky. I certainly don’t have the answers either – I think if it was understood how to effect change through protest, people would already have done it! – but I think basically where I come down is that if you are going to go down the “acts of significant protest” route (as opposed to “more acceptable pressure and protest”), then it should be more clearly linked to the thing you’re protesting about.

    I’ll admit I’m reluctant to criticise other people’s tactics (after all, it is easier to criticise than to do), but while it is true it has “got people talking” I don’t see that it has really helped either (getting people to talk about their tactics rather than climate change seems rather a good way to get people talking about “how the message was delivered” rather than the content of the message itself). I think if they’d just stuck to spraypainting the Met. Police’s HQ it would have been a lot more effective and generally supported (at least, amongst the people who support protests).

    I wonder if you’ve read Andreas Malm’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline”, and if so had any thoughts? I’m not opposed to dramatic action in principle (so long as it doesn’t affect the material needs for subsistence), and I think Marcus made some good points in his two posts on this sort of thing over on Stderr (“Cosmopolitanism and Defensive Warfare” and “The Opposing Viewpoint”). On the other hand, I get the impression that pro-active acts of violence are typically only successful when the general cause has broad popular support. I’m reminded of “You can’t blow up a social relationship”, which makes the point (broadly speaking) that it isn’t enough to attempt to overthrow the current system – you have to offer an “acceptable alternative” otherwise people will just fall back on what they’re familiar with (e.g. replicating the system you’ve just overthrown).

    I understand it is difficult given the general societal apathy (after all, someone immolated themselves outside the Supreme Court and it was little more than a blip in the media), but I think they would have been better off throwing soup over BP’s headquarters than a painting in a museum.

    But then again, it isn’t like I’ve achieved any more success, so take it with a pinch of salt…

  2. says

    I haven’t read it, but from what I understand of the thesis, I would say it holds water.

    I would say that that hypothetical scenario falls well outside the domain of LPA, and solidly within the framework of direct action. It’s extremely relevant to the situation at hand, and while there is definitely collateral damage (pollution, etc), it’s nothing that doesn’t already come with that industry’s normal operations.

    Likewise, opposition to police, actions aimed at the powerful, and at other aspects of the system that are causing problems.

    There are a number of reasons I don’t focus on sabotage on this blog, but the biggest is that I do want to focus on direct action aimed at building that alternative rather than tearing down the current system. I think that the best path to something that’s actually different is to find a way to trust in humanity as a whole. I can offer my views on what a better society would look like, but following the vision of any one person would be contrary to the whole project in my view.

    In building collective power, and in working to make direct action more a way of life, we also stretch our ability to imagine what we could do with that power, and that approach to change. And, hopefully, we can trust that everyone else will be pulling in the same general direction, and we can rely on our fellow humans to come up with ideas that we haven’t thought of.

    I’m doing my part as best I can, and I’m trusting others to do the same. In a lot of ways it’s a leap of faith, I guess.

  3. Cutty Snark says

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply – I appreciate your taking the time, both with the post and with the response. I think “do our parts as best we can” is all anyone can do – and hope that conditions of a society which produces harm may be overthrown and replaced with productive alternatives.

    I have seen Owen Jones has interviewed Just Stop Oil, so I will try to have a listen soon to hear their perspective. Just in case it might be interesting for you and you haven’t already seen it, the link is here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *