Berger argues that the true purpose of demonstrations is not to convince the authorities of something. “Such an aim is only a convenient rationalisation,” he says. “If the State authority is open to democratic influence, the demonstration will hardly be necessary; if it is not, it is unlikely to be influenced by an empty show of force containing no real threat.”
“Empty shows of force.” This is exactly what demonstrations are if you take them for attempts to transform power, as if they were actual battles in which the demonstrators could actually win.
Nor is it the case that demonstrations are some kind of “speaking truth to power.” What does state power care about your little “truths”? They have their own much bigger “truths” and the guns to back them up.
But in fact demonstrations are about something else entirely:
The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness. … Any demonstration which lacks this element of rehearsal is better described as an officially encouraged public spectacle.
One way demonstrators rehearse revolution by taking over public spaces and temporarily transforming them into a “stage on which they dramatise the power they still lack.” Think of Occupy Wall Street and Zuccotti Park.
Another way is that demonstrators “present themselves as a target to the so-called forces of law and order,” forcing the authorities use violence:
Either authority must abdicate and allow the crowd to do as it wishes: in which case the symbolic suddenly becomes real, and . . . the event demonstrates the weakness of authority. Or else authority must constrain and disperse the crowd with violence: in which case the undemocratic character of such authority is publicly displayed.
Demonstrations cannot overturn power. They cannot change power. They cannot persuade power. But they can transform the consciousness of people. And someday, maybe, this could lead to revolutionary change. Nothing else can.