You might be among the tens of thousands of well-meaning people who participated in Occupy Wall Street. I was.
So was Micah White, director of the for-profit Boutique Activist Consultancy, whose new book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, is here to offer us "tools for hastening social transformation."
Some, remembering the activist language of those days, might smile sympathetically and say, Thank you, but I'm not in the market for social transformation tools today. Worry not, White says in his introduction, "this book is for you, too." And for those who oppose the idea of a people's revolution? "Uprisings always need people who convert," White writes, adding, with an unsettling confidence that carries throughout the book: "You may oppose us today but you will join us tomorrow."
In a tomorrow not far from today, two political anniversaries are due to arrive: the fifth anniversary of Occupy, which arguably began with a call to action on July 13, 2011, and the eightieth of the start of the Spanish Civil War. Along with Hemingway, Neruda, and volunteers from around the world, George Orwell was among those who joined the Republican fight against Franco's Nationalists. He documented his experience in Homage to Catalonia, an account of his time as a front-line militia officer for the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification, just one of many groups that formed the Loyalist's fractious coalition of leftists and anarcho-syndicalists. Apart from a few dull chapters concerning "the horrors of party politics," Homage is a cracking good book about shooting fascists. It's also a book about being shot at by fascists, which happened with increasing frequency toward the end, as the Republican alliance collapsed under the organized weight of fascist and Stalinist opposition. Barely making it out of Spain alive, Orwell returned to England, reflected on the failure of the war, and wrote his book.
Though below Orwell as a stylist and thinker, Micah White can claim a special role in the history of Occupy. As the senior editor for the Vancouver-based "culture jamming" magazine Adbusters, he and its publisher, Kalle Lasn, e-blasted a "tactical briefing" to 90,000, calling on the addressed to target Wall Street and urging them to "bring tent" [sic]. Shortly thereafter, a group of roughly 200 – the founders of Occupy Wall Street – "seized the meme," to use White's turn of phrase, and began strategizing. Working independently of White and Lasn (based at the time in Berkeley and Vancouver, respectively), the founders carried out their mission: at noon on Saturday, September 17, around 5,000 people arrived at Zuccotti Park. Three hundred staked camp.
While I wasn't among the founders, I did join Zuccotti early in its occupation. On Monday, two days after the tents went up, I biked to the park and was immediately endeared to the People's Library – at that point just a narrow, vulnerable row of books, plus an envelope stuffed with around $80 in donations. After several minutes spent trying to find someone in charge, I was told by an exasperated woman in dreadlocks that nobody was in charge of anything. That settled, I walked to the nearest Staples and used library funds to purchase Sharpies, which I used to write "Occupy Wall St Library" on the tops of books. This, reader, was my great contribution to Occupy. Apart from sorting titles, sweeping, and narrowly avoiding arrest during two unsanctioned marches, I spent the rest of my time in meetings. Many, many meetings.
It's important to remember the positive, though, before dwelling on the horrors of consensus-building. Here's the truth: those first two weeks in Zuccotti were exhilarating. Though White's description (taken second-hand) needlessly romanticizes the experience – there were free kitchens, but they certainly weren't preparing "superb" meals; and while the bike generators did work, sort of, the power they generated was negligible – he's right about the enthusiasm of those who volunteered. It was infectious. Questions about the occupation's greater mission aside, what held everyone together were two collective, existential desires: 1) Keep the park. 2) Keep it growing.
At the same time, on the other side of country, White spent most of his days screening calls and e-mails from the media. While he doesn't name the job title in his book, it wouldn't be wrong to say that White took it upon himself to serve as Occupy's publicist. Erasing himself from the picture (like all good publicists should), he worked remotely from his apartment in the Berkeley hills, directing journalists to a select group of "activists that Adbusters could trust."
Though written almost as an afterthought, this is an important point. Many still think Occupy began as a movement to reform Wall Street. The truth is its direction was initially shaped by a small group of revolutionary anarchists who, in White's words, "believed [they] could attain sovereignty [from the government] … by holding consensus-based assemblies in the public sphere." When White tells us that Occupy was a failure, he's writing from that perspective. The movement's faction of reformers – folks who today might consider Occupy a minor victory, especially in light of the grassroots spirit and language adopted by Bernie Sanders – came later, drawn by the media attention. Not surprisingly, they took issue with calls for revolution. As the park grew, its participants' ever-expanding diversity of ideas led to disunity and distrust. Tensions rose. Reformers lectured anarchists, anarchists snapped at reformers, communists yelled at everybody, and everybody yelled at the drum circle.
Meanwhile, city, state, and federal agencies were on conference calls, strategizing on best practices to break the camp.
By the time of the November 15th eviction of Zuccotti, I'd mostly removed myself from the scene. Even at my janitorial-level involvement, the nightmarish inefficiency of horizontal power sharing and cliquish nature of those contesting power within various groups was intolerable. I never liked twinkly fingers; I liked getting things done. With nothing being done, my friends and I left.
It wasn't long before White left, too. Decamping from Berkeley soon after the failure of Occupy's 2012 May Day protests, he moved to the hamlet of Nehalem, Oregon, where he lives today. Apart from occasional jaunts on the college guest lecture circuit, White, like Orwell after Spain, reflected on his movement's failure. Then he, too, decided to write a book.
The first half of The End of Protest delivers a rather dry history of activism, followed by a postmortem of Occupy itself. Nothing new or particularly controversial is revealed. In White's view, there were four fundamental problems: 1) lack of any vetting process for new members. 2) Inability to outmanoeuvre the plans of the organizers that sought to end the movement. 3) Inability on the part of the protesters to agree upon a simple set of demands. 4) Use and reuse of outmoded tactics.
Puzzlingly, the issue that White focuses on as the most problematic to the future of protest is the fourth point. While it's true that protest art, carnivalesque spectacles, and mass marches haven't done much to sway policy, this, to most, was one of the least problematic aspects of Occupy. A much larger problem, in the view of many who participated, was its allergy to leadership.
Though it offered its founders a beautiful media hook, open-floor direct democracy proved a horribly exploitable weakness. White references and agrees with Naomi Wolf, whose 2012 article for The Guardian outlined how effortlessly the FBI infiltrated the movement, but he can't bring himself to abandon fundamentalist egalitarianism. His entire revolutionary strategy – culminating in the establishment of a "supranational world government" brought to power by an anarchist World Party – is predicated on a commitment to the idea. As with most of its prescriptions, though, the book fails to explain how horizontalism can be made popular and effective. He writes, "Our task is to develop … sophisticated social movements that are able to accomplish the complex mission of winning elections in multiple countries and running legislatures without a leader." How? White's content to leave the details to others.
I suppose he deserves some credit for proposing solutions. Unfortunately, they're all sketchy and difficult to follow. They're also occasionally baffling – if not downright bizarre. The best example is his instruction for revolutionizing protest culture. Based on a complicated four-way synthesis of volunteerism, structuralism, subjectivism, and theurgism, White calls this his "New Unified Theory Of Revolution."
NUTOR's most controversial aspect is, of course, theurgism. Presented as a muddled cocktail of neopaganism and Unitarian Universalism with a twist of Zen, I doubt many except White would swallow its tenets. I certainly wouldn't. When he writes, "Theurgist protesters will prophecy a future event, like an earthquake, that converts the powerful to their cause by signalling the righteousness of the movement," it's hard to take it on faith. When he goes further, advising protesters to study the sacred texts of Hermes Trismegistus and others, saying the mastery of occult rituals will lead them to the final level of NUTOR, granting them status as "ascended activists," the "???" I wrote in my margin ripped the page. It's possible that theurgism, like older forms of esoteric knowledge, can only be passed along through discipleship – presumably paying clients of his Boutique Activist Consultancy? – but that's never made clear, either.
For a book that so strongly espouses horizontal power-sharing, a model that, by its nature, can only survive through conversation, White's style is anything but conversational. Whether it was the sensation of auditing a sociology lecture or watching an excruciatingly long TedX talk, I consistently felt spoken to. Rather than present a straightforward case, he assaults with page after page of confidently asserted bromides, half-formed ideas, pseudo-spiritual bumph, and techy nonsense: "old tactics must be abandoned," "true activism is an inner practice of liberation," "our mastery of contagious memes … is the essence of meme warfare."
Because nothing in the book establishes White's authority as an especially original thinker, canny strategist, or wizened mystic, the unassailable assurance he has in his own voice is borderline distressing. There's no humour. No self-reflection. The book's tonal range seems limited to two registers: Low White, the functional, flat prose he uses throughout most of the work; and High White, the paroxysms of Zarathustra-lite prophecy and exclamation that attend a few section introductions. The lapses in High White rankled at first. The more he persisted, the more unintentionally funny they became. But by the end, long after the joke died, they seemed so terribly sad. When he opened the final chapter of his book proclaiming, "Hear, people of the world, I bring glad tidings to you. Tomorrow will be better than yesterday. Your family will prosper. Songbirds will serenade. Eagles will soar," I felt like wrapping a blanket over his shoulders.
There's a revealing section toward the end of Homage to Catalonia, where Orwell recounts the propaganda war that raged between the various factions within the Republican coalition. When the issue of objectivity and honesty arises, he stops to admit his personal failings. Orwell opens his heart to us: "I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes." It's statements like this – statements of vulnerability and humanity – that I missed most in White's debut. They might have saved it from its evident flaws. Instead, we're left with a book that speaks with messianic confidence, yet fails to deliver clear, substantive content. The ambiguity of its prose and positions, its recourse to lofty speculation, and its misguided faith in pop tactics don't convince me that the right lessons were learned, if any were learned at all.
Grant Munroe is a writer living in Kingsville, Ontario.