The End of Protest

Book Review

By Micah White
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016

A title that appeals to right-wingers who dismiss occupations and traffic disruptions. A subtitle that intrigues radicals. An author who formerly worked at the magazine Adbusters and is billed as a co-creator of Occupy Wall Street. Now available in eight languages, including Chinese and Japanese, there’s no disputing that Micah White’s book is an international marketing success. In Canada, White’s book tour in the spring of 2016 was widely covered in the mainstream media.

The fact that the author of a book about social change taps mainstream media interest isn’t by itself a good reason to pan their ideas. But the attention paid to White, whose book’s website proclaims that “mass mobilizations no longer change society,” is nothing to celebrate.

The failure of Occupy Wall Street to do what White thought it could do – “bring an end to the influence of money on democracy, overthrow the corporatocracy of the 1 percent [and] solve income inequality” – led him to rethink his politics. That kind of rethinking is not a bad thing. Unreflectively holding on to a set of ideas about how to change society is a recipe for dogmatism, even with the best theory. The problem lies in the conclusions that White drew from Occupy: The End of Protest suggests that the future of efforts to change society will be a combination of electoral politics and cultural “meme warfare.”

White is clear about the beliefs that he once held (and that plenty of people share), which were proven wrong by the U.S. state’s response to Occupy: “that we live in a representative, responsive democracy that ultimately bows, out of self-restraint, to the demands of the people … that the people could gain sovereign protection from police repression by enacting collective, consensual democracy … no government could resist the united chorus of its citizens expressing themselves with democratic fervour.” Such comforting notions are central to the liberal-democratic ideology that gives legitimacy to capitalist democracy, even as governments of all stripes move to make people more dependent on markets and oversee rising greenhouse gas emissions. White may have shed these beliefs, but he expounds others that are even more implausible.

White proposes a grandiose “unified theory of revolution” and a strategy for change. The theory purports to synthesize the major theories of revolution. What’s missing is a coherent understanding of how societies in general and capitalist societies in particular actually work. He argues that, today, the approach that will yield the highest results combines an emphasis on both theurgism – “the esoteric branch of activism,” with its belief that “only God can save us now” – and subjectivism, whose maxim is, “change your inner reality to change your external reality.”

Loosely defining revolution as a change in “legal regime” leaves White unable to distinguish between major reforms, political revolutions that alter the state or who controls it, and social revolutions that bring about a change from one socio-economic system to another. The reader is treated to erroneous interpretations of historical events (the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the new official religion because of a successful meme that he dreamt … yet this move apparently didn’t have anything to do with Christianity’s appeal to a group of rulers in a particular place and time…?) and society today (“Climate change is happening because of the state of our minds” is one of many howlers). There are plenty of pretentious predictions about the future, too.

What’s White’s political alternative? An “Internet-enabled participatory populism” that goes beyond left and right. He argues for taking control of municipal governments in rural areas and scaling them up on a global level; he also predicts the emergence of a women-led World Party that will embrace this electoral plan. The example he connects most strongly to the World Party strategy, though, is Italy’s Five Star Movement – evidence of White’s poor political judgment. This Italian party is, as David Broder wrote for Jacobin, “a hybrid of the Pirate Party and the U.K. Independence Party. Its platform is libertarian, skeptical of the eurozone, and populist; opposed to the liberal establishment and governed by strong anti-migrant and anti-public-sector sentiments.”

People who are rightly worried about the weaknesses of today’s protest activism won’t find a productive exploration of them in The End of Protest. Instead, start with Umair Muhammad’s Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism. Then move on to Richard Seymour’s Against Austerity: How We can Fix the Crisis They Made and Alan Sears’ The Next New Left: A History of the Future. These books help us to understand why resistance in recent years hasn’t been more effective. And if it’s revolution in the 21st century that’s on your mind, look online for “The Realism of Audacity: Rethinking Revolutionary Strategy Today” and other articles by Panagiotis Sotiris.

David Camfield teaches labour studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba. He is a member of Solidarity Winnipeg.