On The End Of Protest


“Activism is broken. Recent years have witnessed the largest protests in human history. And yet, these mass mobilizations no longer change society.”

So speaketh  Micah White, Ph.d, former editor of Adbusters and co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, as he makes the rounds on social media and the big ideas festival circuit promoting his upcoming book, The End of Protest.

While it is too early to comment on the book, which will be released March 15 2016, it is worth discussing Doctor White’s premise, that activism and protest are no longer effective.

Protest serves as a critique of a social problem, and also, hopefully, presents an alternative as a remedy. Protest generally seeks revolution or reform.

Revolutions, true revolutions, in which not only the regime but the method of governance itself is overthrown and replaced with a positive alternative are possible, as the recent examples of Poland and the Czech Republic and the reunification of Germany demonstrate.

The process is rarely bloodless, and the transition to the new order can take generations, as is becoming evident in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring: the refugee crisis washing over Europe, the brutal civil war in Syria, the disintegration of Libya into chaos and BengaziBengaziBengazi, and the rise of ISIS. It is true that the recent wave of revolutions have failed to achieve their ends, with horrific, unintended consequences as the outcome.

But what of reform?

Here in the United States, reform directed protest is making real progress in bringing items up for discussion in the “social agenda”, and on many fronts, bringing about the desired incremental reforms.

Here are just a few examples:

  • The $15 Minimum Wage has been adopted as an official part of the Democratic Party Platform. This is the result of years of organizing by labor activists and the recent strikes and pickets of fast wood workers. Various cities have already passed local ordinances raising the minimum wage, and California and New York, two of the most populous states, have campaigns underway to also raise the minimum wage.
  • Black Lives Matter has pushed the demand for police reform to the forefront, releasing a 10 point plan to end police violence. (Civic geeks will especially want to visit the Feedback section of the Campaign Zero site to see how comments, questions and critiques are incorporated or addressed.)
  • Campaign Finance Reform is making progress through the race for New York state Governor by Zephyr Teachout and the Mayday.us campaign led by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig. Teachout has moved on to become the head of Mayday.us and Lessig has announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. His participation in the upcoming candidate debates will force a public discussion of campaign finance reform, and has indeed already helped pressure candidate Hilary Clinton into announcing her plans to fix how campaigns are funded.

The role of activists and protest in pushing these incremental reforms forward has been vital to their success. The small and large wins along the way should, if anything, be cause for encouragement.

It’s tempting to include Occupy Wall Street among the list of utterly failed revolutions. As a movement, it was never successful in articulating its aims or laying out an alternative vision for society, and so collapsed.

Yet in the aftermath of the Citizen’s United ruling by the Supreme Court and the economic implosion of 2008, it was Occupy Wall Street which first attempted to give voice to the grotesque injustice of the actions of the “banksters” and their subsequent free ride, and to see it as a natural outcome of the Citizen’s United ruling and the transition of the United States into an oligarchy.

Occupy burnt out and faded away, but in its aftermath left behind 10,000 seeds and helped prepare the ground for the new generation of committed activists and society hackers who are working to make things better, one step at a time.

Are protest and activism really broken?

I for one don’t think so, and am looking forward to the release of Dr. Whites book and his reflections on The End of Protest, and the spirited discussion to follow.

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