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.
The interview covers a wide array of topics: from the future of protest, to race in America, and the possibility of a rural revolt. Here's an excerpt:
JUSTIN CAMPBELL: And so, when Patrisse Cullors, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, recently said that we are living in the land of creative protest, she’s saying that we’re living in a time in which groups like Black Lives Matter are moving beyond ineffective protest tactics of the past. Do you agree with this assessment?
MICAH WHITE: So I really respect what she’s doing and in my heart, of course, the Black Lives Matter movement, I want as a black person, for it to succeed. At the same time, it’s very easy to fall into the kind of critical or negative perspective. But if I could give some gentle criticism, it would be that, if Black Lives Matter is living in the time of creative protest, then I would say they were only being creative around one theory of social change, which is the voluntarist model. They are too focused on the idea that we need to innovate the specific human actions that we do. I think that’s fine, but there needs to be innovation within the other three perspectives on revolution, that I mentioned earlier. You can’t just maintain a kind of materialist, disruptive perspective on protest. That would be the point that I would make. Innovation needs to happen in all the different kinds of ways we think about activism. Simply changing the ways we are disruptive, doesn’t in itself really solve the fundamental problem, which is, how are we going to become sovereign?
If you want to end police violence, if you want to stop police from killing black people, killing other people, then you need to be in a position where you’re appointing the police, where you’re picking the police commissioner, where you’re actually picking who the police chief is going to be in each city. If you want to change the police or abolish the police or become the boss of the police, then you have to win elections, you have to be in power. You can’t just be disruptive at the end of the day.
JUSTIN CAMPBELL: So when Patrisse talks about how we have to protest the police because we live in a police and prison state, and that’s why we have to protest them, is that kind of what you’re referring to when you say we shouldn’t protest police?
MICAH WHITE: I’ll say this. There’s this really great military strategist named B. H. Liddell Hart and he lays out these principles of military strategy. One of the principles that he says is that you should never attack an opponent who is on guard, waiting for your attack. This is the nature of the police. The police are a force designed to be waiting for your attack. That’s why they’re wearing riot gear and armored gear and they have shields and helmets. That’s why they’re allowed to hit you and you’re not allowed to hit them. The police are like a mirror of our own inner reality; they’re just a distraction. They’re a phantasm. They’re designed to distract. They’re bullies who are designed to take your blows and hit back harder than you’re able to hit them.
I think that if you want to defeat the police, if you’re asking, how do I defeat the police in actuality, and that’s your real campaign objective, taking a step back from what I just said, there is a way to do it....
Advice for the next generation of social movements: “Never protest the same way twice.”
“Protest is Broken.”
Attracting millions of people to the streets no longer guarantees the success of a protest, says Micah White, 33, the cocreator of Occupy Wall Street.
“Occupy was a perfect example of a social movement that should have worked according to the dominant theories of protest and activism. And yet, it failed,” says Micah in an interview with Folha de São Paulo, the largest daily newspaper in Brazil.
Micah White argues that the use of violence in protests is effective, but only in the short term. And he argues that learning to use social networks to benefit social movements is one of the greatest challenges of activism. “The biggest risk is becoming spectators of our own protests” he says.
Living in a rural community on the Oregon coast, with about 300 inhabitants, Micah, and his partner Chiara Ricciardone, now run Boutique Activist Consultancy, an activism think tank specializing in impossible campaigns.
Micah was in São Paulo, Brazil on May 26th to participate in the launch event of GUME (“Knife Edge”), an engagement agency founded by Regina Augusto.
Folha de São Paulo: How would you analyze Occupy Wall Street today? What went wrong?
Micah White: This is the big question and of course I've been thinking about it since the end of Occupy. For me, the Occupy movement was a “constructive failure,” which basically means it was a failure that taught us something about activism.
The real benefit of Occupy Wall Street is that it taught us the contemporary ideas and assumptions we have about protests are false. Occupy was a perfect example of how social movements should work. It accorded with the dominant theories of protest and activism: it was a historical event, joined millions of people across demographics from around the world around a series of demands, there was little violence. And yet, the movement failed. So my main conclusion is that activism has been based on a series of false assumptions about what kind of collective behavior creates social change.
F: What are these assumptions?
MW: First, the central idea of contemporary activism: urban protests, with large numbers of people in the streets, primarily secular, and that revolve around a unified demand. The idea is basically, “Look, if we get a million or ten million or a hundred million people in the streets, finally our demands will be met.” However, if you look at the last ten, fifteen years, we have had the biggest demonstrations in history. And the protests continue to grow in size and frequency, and yet they have not resulted in political change.
F: Now what?
MW: What we learned from Occupy, and also with the Arab Spring, is that revolutions happen when people lose their fear. So I think the main trigger for the next revolutionary movement will be a contagious mood that spreads throughout the world and the human community.
For me, the main thing we need to see is activists abandoning a materialistic explanation of revolution—the idea that we need to put people in the streets—and starting to think about how to spread that kind of mood, how to make people see the world in fundamentally different way. That's about it. The future of activism is not about pressing our politicians through synchronized public spectacles.
F: It's not about pressuring politicians?
MW: No. I think the standard forms of protest have become part of the standard pattern. It’s like they are expected. And the key is to constantly innovate the way we protest because otherwise it is as if protest is part of the script. It is now expected to have people in the streets, and these crowds will behave in a certain way, and then the police will come and some of the people will be beaten up and arrested. Then the rest will go home. Our participation in this script is based on the false story that the more people you have in the streets the higher your chances of getting social change.
F: Can you explain better what you're proposing?
MW: What I am proposing is a type of activism that focuses on creating a mental shift in people. Basically an epiphany. In concrete terms, I think there is much potential in the creation of hybrid social movement-political parties that require more complex behaviors of people like running for political office, seeking votes, participating in the city administration.
F: The use of social networks is quite controversial among contemporary activists. Some say it is a key tool to increase the reach of the protests, others say it exposes the movement to monitoring by the authorities. What's your opinion?
MW: This is one of the key challenges. Social media is one of the tools that activists have, and we need to use it in some way. But in fact, social media has a negative side, which goes beyond police monitoring.
During Occupy, we experienced it: things started to look better on social networks than in real life. Then people started to focus on social media and to feel more comfortable posting on Twitter and Facebook than going to an Occupy event. This to me is the biggest risk: to become spectators of our own protests.
F: What do you think of the Black Lives Matter protests that are happening in the United States since last year, the result of racial tension in the country?
MW: Of course I fully support this movement. I am black, I have experienced the discrimination that they are protesting. But thinking strategically, I believe it is very important never to protest directly against the police. Because the police are actually made to absorb protest—the objective of the police is to dissipate your energy in protesting them so you'll let alone the most sensitive parts of the repressive regime in which we live: politicians and big corporations. We must protest more deeply.
F: What do you think of the use of violence in protests?
MW: Studies suggest that protesters who use violence are more effective than those that do not. I think violence is effective, but only in the short term, because you end up developing a kind of organized structure that is easy for police to infiltrate. In the long run, it is much better to develop nonviolent tactics that allow you to create a stable and lasting social movement.
F: But doesn’t violence exclude the public from the movement?
MW: People become alienated and become frightened when they see the black bloc tactic because they do not understand and can not imagine doing it. And movements work when they inspire people, when they are positive, affirmative and make people lose their fear.
It's a difficult balance, because you also do not want to be on the other side and only support forms of activism that are tepid and tedious—you have to find a middle ground that excites people and also leaves them with a little fear. No one really has a remedy to resolve the issue.
F: Your book THE END OF PROTEST decrees the end of the protest as we know it. Can we reinvent protest?
MW: Protest is reinvented all the time. Every generation experiences its own moments of revolution. The main thing is that we are now living through a time when tactical innovations are happening much more often because people can see what others are doing around the world and innovate in real time.
I think the future of revolution starts with people promising themselves that they will never protest the same way twice. This is very difficult for activists because they like to follow patterns. But when we are committed to innovation, we will invent totally new forms of protest. People did not expect to see something like Occupy when it emerged. And now we do not expect the next big movement... but it will come.
Micah White's first book—THE END OF PROTEST—will be published by Random House of Canada on March 15, 2016.