As I went into in this video:
I see demos as like religious rituals. People go on demos and on the whole few people notice or care and the policy, organisation, political party or government about which they're demonstrating stays the same, although it should also be pointed out that it would be in the interests of those who are perceived as having gathered power over, such as corporations and governments, to give hoi polloi the impression that their efforts have been fruitless so that they don't start to realise they're more powerful than they think. This is of course why the demonstrations against the Gulf War in 1991 had so much influence in bringing that event to a close. Leaving cynicism aside for at least the time I take to write this blog entry though, maybe, but I want to look at something else.
Demos are rituals akin to religious rituals, and as such they do serve an important function for the participants. I will of course assume that it doesn't matter how many people come out on the streets to shout, give speeches and wave placards, the government is never going to change its policy and that is of course the permanent government, not any particular political party we imagine is currently in power. Given that, demos are still worthwhile.
Going back to 1991 when I protested with many others against the Gulf War (and don't worry, you can feel free to assume instead that I was instead expressing my opposition to the legalisation of homosexuality or something if you disagree with that particular perspective - it has no consequences for my argument), I did so in full awareness that nothing I could do would stop the war. The question arises of why I bothered. The answer for me was that I couldn't stand back and allow the atrocity to be perpetrated in my name. I just wanted to express my opposition because it was a very emotional time for me, in two ways oddly, but I'll come back to that some other time. Hence we have our first reason for demonstrating: it's worth protesting because you feel strongly about something, so you might write a poem, smash a cup or you might wander around the streets with a couple of thousand other people shouting a lot. It's a form of self-expression.
Demos are also good at making the protestor feel less isolated. When I went on the Vegetarian Society demo against Smithfield (read "Countryside Alliance protest against banning foxhunting" if you like), there were about two hundred people there, many of whom couldn't be bothered even to give up dairy, marching in the opposite direction to the meat market. This was very discouraging and pointless of course, but if it had been bigger and going in the other direction it might have made me feel there were other vegans who felt the same way as I did about the situation. That would've been nice.
Finally, demos encourage people when they go home to do something practical and active about the situation. A discouraged peace campaigner on a CND march (sorry, I can't be bothered to think of an alternative here, probably due to a failure of empathy) might then go back to their family and find they are more willing to resolve conflicts between them and their parents, partner or children more positively and with less recourse to aggression. The more people do this, the more likely it is that the world will not only talk softly but also carry a smaller stick, or even throw it away altogether. This is a practical result of a demo, and I must admit that it stretches my credulity that this could happen, but who knows, maybe.
So demos are not pointless at all. They're more like religious rituals. They achieve a lot for the wellbeing of those who go on them and for those with whom they come into contact.
I realise this may not be why many people consciously go on demos but then it's probably not why many people consciously go to church either, but I see them as basically the same thing, and these are sufficient reasons for doing both regardless of the realism of the ostensive purpose of either.