Micah White’s The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution

Micah White was one of the people who inspired (?)/initiated(?) Occupy Wall Street.  He certainly can’t be said to have organized it since he did nothing beyond publicizing the idea and setting a date for its occurrence.  He never visited the site and made no effort to direct how it unfolded or what it demanded.  He thinks the Occupy movement was a “constructive failure.”

I was drawn to his book The End of Protest (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016) because White is adamant that “change won’t happen through the old models of activism.  Western democracies will not be swayed by public spectacles and mass media frenzy. Protests [especially marches and other mass demonstrations] have become an accepted, and therefore ignored, by-product of politics-as-usual.  Western governments are not susceptible to international pressure to heed the protests of their citizens” (27).  That last statement is a little odd, but is explained (somewhat) a bit further on.

“We have been acting as if people have sovereignty over their governments when they act collectively.  Now it is clear that the people’s sovereignty has been lost.  We were wrong to believe that bigger and bigger street protests could force prime ministers and presidents to heed the wishes of the people. . . . [T]ese ritualized spectacles of tens of thousands in the streets are only effective when applied against autocratic regimes that are vulnerable to international pressure.  It seems that popular protest functions only when it is aligned with the pre-existing Western geopolitical agenda” (36).  We must recognize that we live a “precarious historical moment of broken democracy and the rule of the wealthy” (43)  Having lost “faith in the legitimacy of representative democracy” (38), an entirely new set of tactics must be developed to ferment change in our plutocratic and oligarchic condition.

There is a lot here to unpack—and I will be doing that work over the next few posts.  But, today, I just want to hone in on White’s commitment to revolution.  “[R]evolution’s chief characteristic,” he tells us, is “the transfer of sovereignty and the establishment of a new legal regime” (60).  But those two things are not the same at all.  “Revolutionary activism,” he asserts, “is any attempt to make the illegal legal or the legal illegal” (60).  I like that claim a lot.  I have nothing at stake as to whether one instance of political activism is deemed revolutionary while another is not.  Worrying about whether something is reformist or revolutionary does not interest me.

But I do think it very useful to focus in on this question of legality.  Segregation was legal, was the law, in the Jim Crow South.  The civil rights movement worked to change that.  Domestic abuse was not specifically illegal, and was almost entirely deemed outside the law’s purview, until feminism changed laws and attitudes toward violence in the home.  We know, of course, that reforming the law is only half the battle; cultural change—a change in attitudes—is also required to have fully successful social transformation.  But pinpointing the legal change that is desired gives social movements a focused goal, a clear message, and a benchmark for progress, even for success.

Hypothesis #1: Where social movements do not have an unjust law to focus upon, they have much more trouble gaining traction.

The second point for today is to think about transfer of sovereignty.  Only very fringe social movements in today’s US imagine overthrowing the government.  So it is not clear to me what a “transfer of sovereignty” means in our context right now.  It is absolutely true that power has been concentrated in the hands of the few—and that it strains credulity to call the US a functioning democracy at the present moment.  But the concentration of power is very different than the legal apparatus of sovereignty.  It does not appear that anyone is interested in undoing that legal apparatus.  Instead, as White himself says, “activists may use one law to overturn another” (61).  The prevailing strategy is to work through the legal means afforded by the system to alter, rewrite, or abolish the laws and practices that undermine our democracy, that keep it from truly representing the will of the people.  (Let me get away with that solecism for the moment.  White has a very bad tendency to believe in Rousseau’s “general will.”  Let’s just note for the moment that, when it comes to gun control and the tax code, the legal and governmental status quo is demonstrably not in aligned with the view of the majority.)

But, and this is where I will end today and resume tomorrow, what if we no longer have any faith that the current legal and institutional system afford any possibility of reforming it back into the direction of making government responsive to the people?  In other words, if we accept that we no live in an oligarchy, what alternatives do we have for fighting that reality.  I fully agree with White that marches and petitions are not going to get the job done.  They are ignored with impunity.  So what should we be doing?

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