- Oct 2021
White finds reason for optimism: the end of protest inaugurates a new era of social change.
Beginning, Middle, End
Micah White wrote of the end: The End of Protest.
Micah White is the award-winning activist who co-created Occupy Wall Street, a global social movement, while an editor of Adbusters magazine.
Occupy Wall Street was a constructive failure but not a total failure. Occupy demonstrated the efficacy of using social memes to quickly spread a movement, shifted the political debate on the fair distribution of wealth, trained a new generation of activists who went on to be the base for movements ranging from campus fossil fuel divestment to Black Lives Matter protests. Occupy launched many local projects that will have lasting small-scale impact. Occupy buoyed many institutional activist organizations that were able to materially profit from the renewed interest in protest. All of these are signs that our movement was culturally influential. It may be comforting to believe that Occupy splintered into a thousand shards of light. However, an honest assessment reveals that Occupy Wall Street failed to live up to its revolutionary potential: we did not bring an end to the influence of money on democracy, overthrow the corporatocracy of the 1 percent or solve income inequality. If our movement did achieve successes, they were not the ones we’d intended. When victory eluded Occupy, a world of activist certainties fell apart.
I call Occupy Wall Street a constructive failure because the movement revealed underlying flaws in dominant, and still prevalent, theories of how to achieve social change through collective action. Occupy set out to “get money out of politics,” and we succeeded in catalyzing a global social movement that tested all of our hypotheses. The failure of our efforts reveals a truth that will hasten the next successful revolution: the assumptions underlying contemporary protest are false. Change won’t happen through the old models of activism. Western democracies will not be swayed by public spectacles and mast frenzy. Protests 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. Occupy’s failure was constructive because it demonstrated the limitations of contemporary ideas of Protest. I capitalize p to emphasize that the limitation was not in a particular tactic but ratter in our concept of Protest, or our theory of social change, which determined the overall script. Occupy revealed that activists need to revolutionize their approach to revolution.
Failure can be liberating. Defeat detaches us from a theory of revolution that is no longer effective, reopening the possibility of true change. “For a revolutionary,” writes Régis Debray, professor of philosophy and associate of Che Guevara, “failure is a springboard. As a course of theory it is richer than victory: it accumulates experience and knowledge.”