Arm in Arm: reviewing The End of Protest by Micah White5 min read
Micah White is not a household name, but his influence as a writer and activist in the past decade has been extraordinary. In 2011, he called on his readers and followers to “flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.” And they did. Occupy Wall Street was one of the largest (and longest-lasting) coordinated protests in the history of the United States. It inspired similar occupations in 950 cities across 80 countries as part of what would eventually be called the Occupy Movement. It was huge. It was unprecedented. And, according to Micah White, it didn’t work.
In 2016, White published The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution. Part memoir, part guidebook, part treatise, The End of Protest is the culmination of White’s decades of work as a protestor, organiser, and thinker. It is exciting, ambitious, unusual, and compelling.
White’s theory is unexpectedly spiritual and, in my view, reductive. He imagines a linear methodological path along which all protestors march, from “voluntarism” through ”structuralism” until they arrive at “theurgy,” the notion, according to White, “that revolution is an objective supernatural phenomenon.” Do spiritual forces stand behind revolutionary forces? I’d say no, but I won’t argue with you about it.
What makes The End of Protest valuable is its encyclopedia’s worth of protest tactics, some dating back to antiquity. White draws on events ranging from the Nika Revolt in Constantinople to the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine by way of the Russian Revolution. He has a keen eye for disobedience, and his book is full of provocative connections. Did Christianity begin as a “revolutionary underground social movement”? I buy it. And White’s takeaway for future activists is spot-on:
The most advanced form of meme warfare is to provoke life-changing epiphanies in future generations. Christianity succeeded because it created a meme (Jesus Christ) that found its way into the dreams of Constantine. Similarly, movements can succeed by influencing how rare future events will be interpreted.
If only Jesus Christ were around to whip today’s activists into shape. The end of protest has come about, at least in the Western world, because “governments today are not required to listen to their citizens or need their marches”. White is particularly focused on the role that money plays in politics, especially the relationship between politician and lobbyist that cuts out the constituent. If the powerful can remain in power without popular support, there’s no reason for them even to acknowledge mass protests.
We can certainly see evidence of this not only in the West, but throughout the post-Soviet space as well. In Belarus, tens of thousands have protested reigning President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been silencing and imprisoning opposition candidates in advance of the country’s upcoming elections. Even the most optimistic analysts predict that Lukashenko will win the election and carry on business as usual, despite expressions of mass outrage on the streets.
Protests are an almost daily occurrence in Russia, where, for the past few weeks, authorities have been on a spree, arresting academics, politicians, and artists on obviously trumped-up charges. But Russia prefers revolution to evolution, and for the past 100+ years, the only protests that bring about structural change are the ones that involve tanks.
This, White would say, is proof of the inefficacy of street protests. His view of protest is fundamentally teleological; that is, a means to an end. A protest must be an instrument of change, “a form of non-violent warfare”. If Lukashenko wins a sixth term, if Yulia Tsvetkova goes to prison for her drawings, the protests will have failed.
I respectfully disagree. White is so focused on the protests, he largely overlooks the protestors. Who are these people carrying signs and shouting in the town square? And what do they want? Some people, it’s true, are after change. But I’d argue many others turn out for the sense of community. What is a protest but a gathering of like-minded people?
Attending a demonstration can be comforting, empowering, exciting. It’s a chance to see old faces and make new friends. To sing together, cry together, go to jail together. Protestors tend to be disenfranchised people: racial and sexual minorities, migrants, the working classes. Gathering in public gives marginalised people a sense of strength and confidence that for some, especially those who are victims of abuse and prejudice in their daily lives, may be otherwise unattainable.
Earlier this year, Silvia Travasoni recorded her impressions at an Equality March in Wrocław, Poland:
The police were dressed in black, the sky was grey, and rain dribbled down, but the character of the March was joyous. Rainbow flags, rainbow umbrellas, and colourful jackets could be seen everywhere, and we could easily breathe the joyful atmosphere in the air.
Although the march had clear political objectives, it was also a community gathering, an opportunity for people who live in fear to feel safe, to be happy in the company of each other.
Is protest pointless? Micah White thinks it is, at least in its current form. He believes that, unlike the protestors of the 19th and 20th centuries who took to the streets demanding material change, “Activists of the future will target the mental environment to spark collective epiphanies that achieve real-world victories.” Maybe activists today do need to explore a wider range of tactics. Maybe Occupy Wall Street was a failure; maybe Lukashenko won’t be brought down. But as long as marches and rallies bring marginalised people together, there will be a place in the town centre where they will gather.
Micah White’s The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution was published in 2015 by Penguin Random House.
The featured image for this post was adapted from a photo by Bogomolov.PL and used under license CC BY-SA 3.0.