[...] But first, we must theorize the concept of demonstrations and protests. How does a protest function, how does it 'work'? I will briefly outline a sketch of a theory of demonstration on the basis of gift exchange.
Protest and demonstration can be understood most easily through the concept of gift exchange in Bataille's anthropology, as appropriated by Baudrillard in Symbolic Exchange and Death1: Aristocracy – power –, it is argued therein, shows itself through expenditure, through waste, through excess. It must be noted that, while Symbolic Exchange and Death constructs most explicitly on the basis of Bataille, on the whole Nietzsche is a more sustained and permanent influence on the thought of Baudrillard; and indeed, traces of Nietzsche's thought can be found within this analysis of aristocracy – which Nietzsche sees as [...] (Albert Camus, a keen reader of Nietzsche, though much more of a moralist than either Baudrillard or Nietzsche, notes that the latter's concept of aristocracy is one of duty, not of privilege – i.e. one of giving, not of taking.)
Power, so says the hypothesis, shows itself through expenditure and waste. Expenditure and waste has to be seen as a sign – a sign that signifies identity. "I am the kind of person who can afford to be wasteful." Wasting money for a useless gadget points to the fact that one has so much more money to spend.
Protests and demonstrations, then, are never principally a demonstration for or against something – they are a demonstration of – of power. The demonstrating masses communicate an identity: "We are the kind of people who are willing to 'waste' our time [and, if the opposing regime uses violence, willing to waste our lives] here on the streets." This signifier, suspended invisibly in the air, is supposed to say that We have so much more time [so many more lives] to spend – violently if necessary. The masses signify that they are willing to 'storm the palace' without actually storming the palace. Give in, or else... One can, indeed, read the nuclear bombs dropped upon Japan during the Second World War in much of the same way, as Dr. Gerry Coulter has, noting that the Allied represented themselves as the greater evil.2 We are the kind of people who are willing to lay waste to your cities, the Allied signified. Surrender, or else...
The total and utter failure of most contemporary protests can now be dissected; it comes down to two simple reasons.
One, many demonstrations explicitly disavow violence, as e.g. the Occupy movement does, thereby removing any trace of the threat. The signifier is devoid of meaning, a free-floating sign. It is still there – the people are occupying the street – but that which is supposed to be signified – the possibility of action, of violence, the self-identification of someone who is willing to be violent – is stricken. "We are the ones who are willing to waste our time." Okay, then what? I am not saying that the Occupy movement should have been violent – but it certainly should have signified a willingness to be. Instead, there was no threat at all. Give in, or we will vote for Obama again? Who will feel threatened by that?
Two, an obvious point: Demonstrations within the digital simply are not wasteful enough. The price to pay for a digital protest is about two seconds of your time. Within the digital, then, the whole logic of the gift is rendered impossible. Buying you a DVD set for your birthday feels meaningful because it is implied that I spent money on it, that I wasted for you. Copying the data onto your computer results in no loss for me and hence doesn't feel as purposeful. (And therefore the mixtape, the personalized curation of art so as to say: I did not spend money on this music, but I did spend time handcrafting this selection.) But within the digital process, no time is consumed, and so the "efficiency" of a digitally-networked protest is paradoxically the cause of the protest's ineffectiveness.
1 See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard/#2
2 "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you," then, does not mean that one should avoid battling monsters at all costs, but that one should first be willing to become the bigger monster.