The murder of five police officers in Dallas has killed street protest. Activists are partly to blame.
You knew your protest marches weren't working. And yet you failed to acknowledge the crisis. The result was predictable and horrifying.
As I warned in April: “it is dangerous to continue to use tactics that aren't effective. What we don't want is for people to lose hope in the possibility of protest entirely. Because then they become more violent.”
Who will march in the streets now that in the best of cases it achieves nothing and in the worst of cases it is used as a cover for lone-wolf terrorism? This is the end of protest.
Now that protest as we know it is no longer an option, activists are faced with a dilemma: win wars or win elections.
Either we gain sovereignty through an armed insurrection that devolves into martial law; or we gain sovereignty by building an electoral social movement capable of sweeping the people into power.
Those are the only options remaining: nihilism or optimism.
I wrote: “Dear Americans, this July 4th dream of insurrection against corporate rule #occupywallstreet” The tweet didn't get liked or retweeted. It didn't trend. No one replied. I must have sounded naive, outlandish and slightly absurd.
Back then Occupy was just a seed in the minds of Kalle Lasn and I. Nine days later we released our tactical briefing and the Occupy meme bloomed into a worldwide, leaderless spiritual insurrection.
Now it is 2016, the fifth anniversary of Occupy is approaching and activism is in a paradigmatic crisis. Here's why:
Contemporary forms of protest are no longer effective. Sincere activists ought to know this now because the great social movements of the past two decades—from anti-globalization to anti-Iraq war to the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, climate change protest, Nuit Debout and many more—have failed to achieve their desired social change objectives. Whatever the people publicly opposed happened anyway. The monied elites are still in power. The economic inequalities have increased. Disruptive protests have failed to halt the rise of Donald Trump. Democracy continues to decline. The months have never been hotter. And, most disturbing of all, frontgroups are proliferating that use the rhetoric of revolution to destroy the possibility of revolution by turning protest into a pre-scripted, performative, springtime farce.
The protest rituals we keep repeating may have worked for a previous generation but the repressive regime has evolved and these nostalgic tactics no longer work today. We are in, what I call, the end of protest.
What I have just written is taboo within the activist scene. It is practically forbidden to discuss whether the movement’s triumphalist rhetoric might be leading us astray. Many passionate activists are ostracized by their protester friends, and deemed persona non grata by their movement buddies, for expressing these sentiments. And that is one of the most disturbing symptoms of the crisis within activism: anyone who points out that the standard repertoire of protest tactics is not working, and suggests innovations that might break the script, is accused of being anti-protest.
But it is the ones who shun unconventional activists for speaking up against the groupthink of activism that are truly anti-protest.
It is no coincidence that at the same time as a growing consensus of experienced, veteran activists are becoming disillusioned with protest theater, the chorus of giddy pro-protest rhetoric grows louder and louder on social media. With dazzling photographs of thousands in the streets, behind exciting declarations that this is an era of uprisings, riots and general strikes, the protest industry—the well-funded NGOs, marketers, clicktivist frontgroups, corporatized progressives and police masquerading as polyamorous militants—attempt to drown out productive revolutionary criticism with retweets, likes and shares. They exclude dissenting voices from their conferences, use their slush funds to reward conformists with fellowships and deny access to their progressive media channels for any discussion of the ongoing crisis within activism. Why? Because the end of protest is an integral part of the political pageant. The illusion of democracy would be ruptured without the spectacle of dissent and so their purpose is to encourage the simulacrum of protest.
The prohibition on speaking honestly about the dismal state of activism is beyond dangerous: it is suicidal. The stakes are too high for protest to remain ineffective.
When a paradigm is in crisis adherents to the old way of thinking tend to react in one of two ways. Some will deny that the crisis within activism exists. These people usually occupy the positions of power within the hierarchy of the protest industry. They make a lot of lofty noise, get a lot of attention and take up most of the discourse space. But their unwillingness to see the change that is underway ultimately makes them irrelevant. It is safe to ignore the ones who insist that disruptive protest is working: they will be forgotten tomorrow. The second reaction is to become an innovator. These are the activists who acknowledge the crisis and embark on a period of wild experimentation. Their attempts to define a new paradigm are often marked by successive failures until one day, unexpectedly, they achieve a massive breakthrough—a revolutionary moment—that rewrites the destiny of activism.
Only a sustained period of soul-searching and innovation can save activism now.
The most important thing we learned from the constructive failure of Occupy Wall Street is that social movements are born when two things happen. One, when there is a new tactic that arises that unlocks the people’s collective hope and imagination. And two, when a new kind of mood spreads throughout society. For example, during the Arab Spring, a Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire, triggering a mood of fearlessness that spread all over the world. People were no longer afraid of the authorities or of losing their jobs and rushed into the streets to protest. And at the same time, with Occupy Wall Street, we gave the people a new tactic which was the combination of the acampadas with the Tahrir Uprising: let’s go into the financial districts and set up consensus-based assemblies. The combination of these two ingredients is the formula for social movement creation.
There is a detrimental narrative that activists like to repeat which is that everything is a success. We like to tell each other that Occupy wasn't defeated, it just splintered into a thousand shards of light. And you know, that is a positive story, but it is not actually the truth. And false positivity won't get us closer to an effective revolutionary strategy. The truth is that Occupy set out to achieve very specific goal: to end the power of money over our democracies. And we failed. So I call Occupy Wall Street a constructive failure because in failing it revealed the limitations of contemporary activism. The movement was not a total failure, it did achieve some things and it did have some positive outcomes. But it was a constructive failure because it showed us that our methods of protesting and our theories of activism are false.
Occupy Wall Street gave birth to a new generation of activists. It made activism cool again; it made protesting cool again. And I think a lot of those people, and the ethos of Occupy, filtered into Black Lives Matter. But at the same time—and I totally support Black Lives Matter—if I could give a gentle criticism of the movement, I think that Black Lives Matter learned the wrong lesson from the constructive failure of Occupy Wall Street. The truth is that Occupy Wall Street did not fail because we weren’t disruptive enough. Occupy didn't fail because we didn't block enough streets during rush hour. Occupy failed because contemporary protest is based on false assumptions. The number one false assumption is that if you can get millions of people into the streets and be disruptive and have a unified message then our elected representatives will have to listen to us. Occupy Wall Street completely demolished that assumption. We had occupations in 82 countries, we had millions of people in the streets and Obama did not even mention the movement until we were evicted from Zuccotti. So we learned that our elected representatives do not have to listen to street protests: they are not required by the Constitution, they are not required by any sort of law. In fact, they can ignore us because protesting has become part of the daily work of the state. Protests happen and they manage protests and protests are irrelevant to the daily decisions that are being made. The continued reliance on disruptive protest tactics, like blocking traffic, demonstrates that Black Lives Matter learned the wrong lesson from the constructive failure of Occupy Wall Street.
Black Lives Matter actually represents a regression from the planetary perspective of Occupy Wall Street. I think what Occupy achieved is that we created a social movement that linked up with all the global struggles simultaneously: the people in Spain’s indignados movement, the people in the Arab Spring, we were all fighting the same struggle. And that was the most beautiful thing about Occupy Wall Street. We were part of a global social movement. And I see Black Lives Matter as a kind of a regression back to national social movements and a return to national concerns and American-centric politics. We need to keep imagining global social movements because that really is the future of protest.
Here is something most people don’t consider: why was one of the greatest social movements in recent American history created by a Canadian magazine? Why didn't the call for Occupy Wall Street emerge from an American activist organization? And the answer is that American activism is fatally risk adverse. Too risk adverse to call for something like Occupy Wall Street. It is important to remember that people died during Occupy. A person died in Oakland, another person died in Vancouver and there were other deaths of participants in our movement. And that is a really intense truth and responsibility. Occupy Wall Street was one of the most grassroots movements that America has ever had precisely because it was started in Canada: we relied on local activists in New York City and beyond. Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, and I did not go to Zuccotti and try to direct things. Occupy’s origin within a Canadian magazine actually amplifies its grassrootedness.
Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street are the manifestation of a collective awakening. Social movements are moments when people suddenly wake up and something that has been happening all the time—like police shooting black people—suddenly becomes something that is no longer tolerated. Or, with the example of Occupy, the fact that corporations were giving unlimited campaign donations to elections suddenly became intolerable. So these movements are manifestations of collective awakenings, collective epiphanies. And we’re going to continue to see these collective awakenings. But the challenge now is how will these social movements become more effective. How will these movements use protest in ways that are even more effective?
Black Lives Matter did not fully internalize why Occupy Wall Street failed. The next social movement that truly understands why Occupy failed will be more powerful than both Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
One of the things that Occupy Wall Street was unable to do was develop the processes of complex decision making. If you look at the original poster for Occupy Wall Street, you’ll see that it says at the top: “What is our one demand?” Well the movement was never able to figure out its one demand because our general assemblies were not able to agree on a one demand. But at the same time, I think you must distinguish between revolutionary aims and reformist aims. A revolutionary aim for Black Lives Matter would be to become the force that appoints the police, to become the force that controls the police. Whereas a reformist aim would be something like putting body-cameras on the police. We need to dream even bigger than reform. One of the problems of contemporary activism is that we’re dreaming at a low level. Black Lives Matter can achieve something even greater that body-cameras. It can achieve something like being the President or maybe even being the President of multiple countries. A social movement is going to arise that will win elections in multiple countries in order to carry out its agenda globally.
We have prototypes of this World Party in Europe. We have the 5 Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain. The difference between what they’re doing and what we’re going to see next is that we’re going to have global social movements that spread across borders—like we saw with Occupy Wall Street—but that these movements will win elections in multiple countries. Protest will be used not to influence elected representatives, but to win elections. One way to imagine how this could happen is to place all of the elections of the world in chronological order. Then you’d build a social movement that didn’t happen simultaneously around the world but happened, instead, sequentially around the world, leaping from election to election.
Black Lives Matter, or the movement that comes next, needs to figure out how to be both a social movement and a political party. We need to become the ones in power rather than protesting the ones in power.
There are some things about Black Lives Matter that are more advanced than Occupy Wall Street. And one aspect that is more advanced is that for Occupy the tactic was synonymous with the movement. So once the tactic of occupy stopped working then Occupy Wall Street was defeated. Whereas with Black Lives Matter, it is smarter not to have your movement be synonymous with a specific tactic. Instead, the movement is synonymous with its message.
There have been large scale protests and revolutions every generation. And we have records of revolutions going back to ancient Egypt where there is a papyrus that talks about the king being overthrown by the poor people. Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter are all episodes in a multi-thousand year uprising that has been going on since the beginning of inegalitarian society. And during Occupy, we were very consciously channeling the spirit of the Arab Spring. And I think that Black Lives Matter very consciously channeled the spirit of Occupy Wall Street. And there will be another movement that will channel the spirit of Black Lives Matter into its movement. This is how we pass along the torch of revolution. It is a beautiful thing.
The intensity of the protests are increasing and the frequency of the protests are increasing too. But I want to push back and say: I don’t know if the effectiveness of the protests is increasing. And that is one of the core messages of my book, THE END OF PROTEST. The frequency and intensity might be increasing but is the effectiveness? And that is something that, as activists, we really need to be careful about. There have always been protests and there will always be protests. It is easy to settle for just protesting but we also need to be concerned with whether these protests are working to achieve revolutionary social transformation. At the same time, the only way to overcome a broken paradigm of protest is to replace it with a new paradigm of protest—critique is not enough to spark a revolution. And that is the task I've set for myself with THE END OF PROTEST: I've tried to go beyond critique to develop a new unified theory of revolution, and a method of tactical innovation, that will be the foundation for the next planetary revolution.
Could social movements replace conventional warfare?
The idea might sound far-fetched. But President Obama’s steadfast refusal to send occupation forces to fight the Islamic State in Syria may be evidence that the old methods of regime change—boots on the ground—are being rendered obsolete.
Going forward, governments will increasingly rely on catalyzing contagious social protests to topple terrorist states and influence autocratic regimes. Russian military theorists were the first to openly discuss this shift in the art of war—and to accuse America of pioneering techniques of fomenting viral protests abroad. Whether or not their accusations hold water, social movement warfare may well be the wave of the future.
Last year, defense ministers and high-ranking military personnel from several less-than-democratic societies, including Belarus, Iran, Egypt, Myanmar, Vietnam, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and China, gathered in an opulent Stalinist-era hotel in Moscow to discuss a grave threat to their governments. The occasion was the third annual Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS), an event hosted by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Unlike previous years, not a single military officer or official representative from a NATO member country participated in the two-day event.
The reason for the conspicuous absence of NATO representatives became apparent during the opening speech by Russia’s minister of defense, army general S. K. Shoygu. He announced that the focus of the gathering would be “on the problems of how so-called ‘color revolutions’ … affect global security.”
Pointing to the social protests that rocked the world from 2011 to 2014, beginning with the Arab Spring and continuing through Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution and Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, Shoygu argued that Western powers are deploying social movements as a technique devised “according to the rules of the art of war” for overthrowing unfriendly governments.
A turn toward social movement warfare could be a strategic response to the impracticality of direct confrontation, or conventional war, against great militaries and nuclear-armed states. As one scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies explains, the Russian military now considers social movements to be “a new US and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at low cost and with minimal casualties.”
The idea that seemingly disparate social movements involving millions of people around the world could be manufactured—or “staged and managed,” as one Russian general puts it—to influence geopolitics will probably dismay many movement participants. Most protestors experience uprisings as organic phenomena. However, rather than rush to ignore or refute the accusations levied by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, activists would be wise to understand the implications of casting social movements as a new form of warfare, and the impact this shift will have on the next generation of protests.
At the very least, we might assume that, as philosopher Jacques Ellul once proposed, “The accusation … clearly reveals the intention of the accuser.” In other words, Russia’s accusation might reveal its own intention to manufacture social movements in America and beyond.
So is this good or bad for social justice? Placing social movements within the context of military science contains two dangers—and an opportunity—for activists worldwide.
The first danger is that authoritarian societies will use the excuse that protests are a form of war to justify cracking down on domestic dissent with military force.
However, democratic and repressive regimes alike are already responding to protests as if they are a form of social movement warfare. Witness, for example, the conspicuous deployment of a Long Range Acoustic Device, the notorious sound cannon often used in war zones, during the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park in 2011 and during the protests in Ferguson in 2014. Activists who understand, rather than deny, this change in how their protests are being interpreted by authorities will be better equipped to develop effective counterstrategies.
The second danger is that repressive societies may try to create social movements in a bid to negatively influence democratic societies.
Every new protest invention is ultimately a double-edged sword. Jihadists use hashtags to spread extremism. Anti-immigrant movements in Germany co-opt the “We are the people” slogan that toppled the Berlin Wall to push a negative agenda. The leaderless organizing style of Black Lives Matter might one day too be appropriated by reactionary forces.
It is worrisome to consider how repressive authorities could use nonviolent popular protest tactics. But even this is preferable to destructive conventional warfare that relies on brute force.
Fortunately, social movement warfare also offers reason for genuine optimism. Any government that tries to spark social movements abroad while suppressing protests at home is in for a nasty surprise. In our hyper-connected world, revolutionary events are akin to a tsunami that crashes against every shore. Movements have a tendency to spiral outside the control of their creators, spreading across all borders and swerving in democratic directions where participants dictate the outcome.
Ultimately, the ascendancy of social movements, and their coming adoption by militaries as a method of social change, gives me hope that this is the end of war as we know it. And it could be the beginning of a planetary uprising for democracy that the people have been dreaming of. A revolution anywhere brings us one step closer to a revolution everywhere. So any repressive governments that choose to create social movements abroad are digging their own graves.
—Micah White is the author of THE END OF PROTEST and the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street. This article originally appeared on Quartz
What I want to present is a counter-narrative about activism. It begins with Occupy Wall Street and realizing that Occupy was the consummation of our story of activism. There is a story of activism that we tell ourselves which is basically: if you can build a social movement with millions of people and they are largely nonviolent, that the movement cuts across demographics and has people from all over the country and different socioeconomic levels, and that the movement has a somewhat unified message then real change will happen.
So we had that with Occupy Wall Street. We had a once in a generation social movement that achieved a lot of the criteria of what is supposed to create social change. And we realized, in fact, that the story of activism wasn’t true. Occupy Wall Street didn’t create the social change that it set out to achieve.
I call Occupy Wall Street a “constructive failure.” It failed. But in failing, the movement revealed something very important about activism: it revealed that activists have been chasing an illusion. We’ve been chasing a story about how social change happens that isn’t actually true.
So if you look at the last fifteen years. We’ve been having the largest protests in human history and yet they haven’t been creating change. There was recently a protest in India with 150 million people, and in 2003—and this is probably the best example to refer to—we had a global synchronized march where the entire world protested against the Iraq War, which happened anyways. And of course, we have Occupy Wall Street.
The failure of these protests reveals that the story we’ve been telling ourselves and chasing after as activists isn’t true.
Now the end of protest doesn’t mean we have an absence of protest. Instead, the end of protest means we have a proliferation of ineffective protests. Protests as it was originally intended to be—something that changes the social situation in which we live—doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
So what’s our way out of this?
Revolution basically means a change in legal regime. It is when you make something that was once illegal legal or what was legal illegal. With Occupy Wall Street we wanted to change the law around money in politics. We wanted to make something that is legal—corporations and unions giving unlimited money to candidates into something that is illegal. This is a kind of revolution.
Now revolution is the interaction between the human and the natural world.
And almost all activism falls into the category of voluntarism. Voluntarism is the belief that human action creates social change. Activists do actions because we believe our actions are what creates change. Voluntarists believe revolution is a human process that intersections with the material world. That is the most common understanding of activism and it is why people organize protests. Because the idea is that to change something humans need to act.
Well, there is another option. It is called structuralism. This is the idea that revolution is a natural process that doesn’t involve humans at all. It is a natural phenomenon that is the result of, for example, food prices. And there have been studies that have shown that the Arab Spring and Occupy coincided with historically high food prices. And those food prices were the result of climate change. Therefore, revolution is actually the result of natural phenomenon and that it doesn’t involve human action. So you don’t need to organize protests because revolutions just happen without intervention of humans.
There is a third option: subjectivism. This is the idea that revolution is a human process that doesn’t involve the material realm at all. Revolution is a change of mind. Subjectivists believe that if you want to change reality then change how you perceive reality. In this kind of activism, we would all just meditate. We’d change our inner reality to influence external reality.
And then there is the fourth possibility: theurgy. Theurgists believe that revolution does not involve humans and is also a spiritual, or supernatural, phenomenon. This is the idea that revolution is an act of God and that it is an intervention of divine forces into our political reality. This, of course, is the hardest for contemporary activists to think about. What would it mean? God is creating revolutions? So I’ll just give you one example: the conquest of Christianity.
How is that Christianity which was persecuted for three hundred years, and christians were killed in front of cheering crowds, ultimately conquered and became the dominant religion of the Western world? Well it was two spiritual conversations. The first: St. Paul. But the second, and most significantly, of Constantine.
I’ll just briefly summarize that Constantine was going to battle against a rival emperor in Rome when at noon on the eve of the battle he saw a cross in the sky. Apparently his whole army saw the cross too. And that night he dreamt that he talked to Jesus and Jesus told him that he would win the battle. And he did. He won the battle and promptly converted to Christianity and that’s why Christianity won. It was an example of a divine intervention in his eyes.
Right now, Activism needs fundamental reorientation in the way we think about activism. We have the break the script, the storyline that we’ve been telling ourselves about activism. And that it involves opening ourselves these these four ways of thinking about activism, social change and protest.