Open Letter: On The Taboo Within Activism
Is protest broken? Micah White, the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, former AdBusters editor, and the author of The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, thinks so. Recent years have witnessed the largest protests in human history, yet these mass mobilizations no longer change society. Activism is at a crossroads: innovation or irrelevance. A lifelong social activist with a twenty-year record of innovative approaches to creating social change, Micah takes audiences through his theories of mass movements that are destined to inspire—and catalyze—the next generation of global actions. Below, Micah shares an open letter on the state of activism today:
Five years ago today, I sent the first Occupy Wall Street tweet.
I wrote: “Dear Americans, this July 4th dream of insurrection against corporate rule #occupywallstreet” The tweet didn’t get liked or retweeted. It didn’t trend. No one replied. I must have sounded naive, outlandish and slightly absurd.
Back then Occupy was just a seed in the minds of Kalle Lasn and I. Nine days later we released our tactical briefing and the Occupy meme bloomed into a worldwide, leaderless spiritual insurrection.
Now it is 2016, the fifth anniversary of Occupy is approaching and activism is in a paradigmatic crisis. Here’s why:
Contemporary forms of protest are no longer effective. Sincere activists ought to know this now because the great social movements of the past two decades—from anti-globalization to anti-Iraq war to the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, climate change protest, Nuit Debout and many more—have failed to achieve their desired social change objectives. Whatever the people publicly opposed happened anyway. The monied elites are still in power. The economic inequalities have increased. Disruptive protests have failed to halt the rise of Donald Trump. Democracy continues to decline. The months have never been hotter. And, most disturbing of all, frontgroups are proliferating that use the rhetoric of revolution to destroy the possibility of revolution by turning protest into a prescripted, performative, springtime farce.
The protest rituals we keep repeating may have worked for a previous generation but the repressive regime has evolved and these nostalgic tactics no longer work today. We are in, what I call, the end of protest.
What I have just written is taboo within the activist scene. It is practically forbidden to discuss whether the movement’s triumphalist rhetoric might be leading us astray. Many passionate activists are ostracized by their protester friends, and deemed persona non grata by their movement buddies, for expressing these sentiments. And that is one of the most disturbing symptoms of the crisis within activism: anyone who points out that the standard repertoire of protest tactics is not working, and suggests innovations that might break the script, is accused of being anti-protest.
But it is the ones who shun unconventional activists for speaking up against the groupthink of activism that are truly anti-protest.
It is no coincidence that at the same time as a growing consensus of experienced, veteran activists are becoming disillusioned with protest theater, the chorus of giddy pro-protest rhetoric grows louder and louder on social media. With dazzling photographs of thousands in the streets, behind exciting declarations that this is an era of uprisings, riots and general strikes, the protest industry—the well-funded NGOs, marketers, clicktivist frontgroups, corporatized progressives and police masquerading as polyamorous militants—attempt to drown out productive revolutionary criticism with retweets, likes and shares. They exclude dissenting voices from their conferences, use their slush funds to reward conformists with fellowships and deny access to their progressive media channels for any discussion of the ongoing crisis within activism. Why? Because the end of protest is an integral part of the political pageant. The illusion of democracy would be ruptured without the spectacle of dissent and so their purpose is to encourage the simulacrum of protest.
The prohibition on speaking honestly about the dismal state of activism is beyond dangerous: it is suicidal. The stakes are too high for protest to remain ineffective.
When a paradigm is in crisis adherents to the old way of thinking tend to react in one of two ways. Some will deny that the crisis within activism exists. These people usually occupy the positions of power within the hierarchy of the protest industry. They make a lot of lofty noise, get a lot of attention and take up most of the discourse space. But their unwillingness to see the change that is underway ultimately makes them irrelevant. It is safe to ignore the ones who insist that disruptive protest is working: they will be forgotten tomorrow. The second reaction is to become an innovator. These are the activists who acknowledge the crisis and embark on a period of wild experimentation. Their attempts to define a new paradigm are often marked by successive failures until one day, unexpectedly, they achieve a massive breakthrough—a revolutionary moment—that rewrites the destiny of activism.
Only a sustained period of soul-searching and innovation can save activism now.