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Don’t protest the same way twice. If there’s a single message to be gleaned from Occupy Wall Street co-initiator Micah White’s idea-packed polemic against conventional protest, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, that’s probably it.
Luckily, the author is not short on ideas for how activists can mix things up as we attempt to change the world.
White, who mostly watched Occupy Wall Street (which he initiated with Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn) from his desk in San Francisco, is an ideas person. He draws many lessons from the Occupy experience, of which the main one is the importance of not getting attached to a tactic that works.
Instead, he argues, we need to anticipate that any given tactic will have a limited shelf life — for example, occupying public spaces and setting up prefigurative democratic structures as a launchpad for protests.
White traces historical examples of tactics working briefly, drawing on military history and mapping the spread of revolutionary blockades of narrow streets, and the subsequent widening of streets by city planners, in 19th century Europe.
Readers embark on a whirlwind tour of historical examples. The case studies White draws lessons from include Arminius’ epic ambush of the Romans in AD 9 to Constantine in 312 to a riot that almost overthrew the emperor in Constantinople in 532, passing a unique take on the ghost dance movement to modern movements in Italy and Egypt.
At times, the book feels like looking through the activist equivalent of a genius designer’s scrapbook.
White follows with anecdotes from Occupy Wall Street and critiques of clicktivism and big marches. He’s particularly hard on groups that follow proven formulae and privilege messaging over authenticity Surprisingly, he singles out the big NYC Climate March and Avaaz.
A favourite technique of White’s is to stake out the ends of a spectrum of possibilities. Protests will speed up, he writes, as technology-fuelled youth culture begins to create new forms of protest “ultrafast in relation to the status quo,” but protest will slow down as activists think about their effect on people who are not yet born. “Today’s protests aren’t failing: our protests are setting in motion a victorious process that will take generations to unfold.”
If there’s a second message The End of Protest conveys, it’s the convergence of spirituality and activism. In what he announces as a “unified theory of revolution,” White stakes out a grid of four poles of revolutionary ideas. Spiritual-material make up one axis, and subjective-objective make up the second.
The intersections indicate the four extremes of revolutionary theory:
- Voluntarism (Subjective-Material): Individual actions and decisions (usually adopting existing tactic) can change the world
- Subjectivism: (Subjective-Spiritual): Changes in consciousness change external reality, and social uprisings are a sort of collective epiphany
- Structuralism: Forces outside of human control, like food prices, or structures like economic systems lead to uprisings
- Theurgism: Divine intervention, potentially influenced by prayer and ritual, can bring about changes in consciousness and on the physical and social planes as well
It’s an interesting tool, and one of many that provides plenty of food for thought when it comes to the strategic and tactical innovation that is White’s main aim.
Looking at the list, Theurgism wins the “which one of these doesn’t belong?” award, despite its structural inevitability within White’s categories.
The author repeatedly states that Theurgism will play an important role in future activism, but never quite makes the case for what is probably the most fascinatingly wacky idea for social change to be advanced by an activist in decades. Divine intervention?! I want to know more. But White remains coy. And that’s where his claim of advancing a “unified theory” falls short.
To drop divine intervention into a serious discussion of activism begs a discussion of the nature of consciousness, and its relationship to matter. Does consciousness shape physical form outside of the spatial constraints that seem to limit it? White isn’t telling, short of repeating stories like Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky and Ghost Dancers’ epiphanic episodes.
The End of Protest stakes out a unified schema and spectrum of possibilities even if it falls short of unifying theories, and that might be enough for one book.
Serious activists will be frustrated by some of White’s flip innovation-über alles pronouncements. The critical-minded will find much to debate, but they may also find much-needed ideas for how to protest a little differently — and more effectively — next time.
Dru Oja Jay is a Montreal-based writer and organizer. He is co-author, with Nikolas Barry-Shaw, of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism. Dru is a co-founder of the Media Co-op, where he served as an editor for 12 years, and has been active in anti-war, Indigenous solidarity, and climate justice organizing since 2003.