The subjects of protest and revolution as addressed by Micah White, in his 2016 book titled, The end of protest : a new playbook for revolution, sounded like it should be an interesting read. So, I thought. Although, it is interesting. I’ve read a number of “The End of blah-blah-blah” books. It seems to be a popular hook. I’ve even used it myself once. As with someone shouting, “The End of the World is Coming!,” it’s got a certain can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it attraction. And like most of the “End of. . .” books that I’ve read, it wasn’t particularly inspiring.
The Beatles (White Album)
White claims, “Progress is made by protest.” He really believes it. And no doubt, he has made a few ripples in the pond. Nevertheless, by his own admission, the revolutionary change he and other activists have a hankerin’ for has not materialized. The crux of his book is to find a remedy for this lack of results. The hope and belief that grassroots efforts can and will, in some imaginary future, yield results springs eternal.
I can’t see change coming from the bottom. Change that sticks, from viewing history, has its antecedents from the top. Protest may coincide with change, but never actually makes it happen. Think about it. Neither governments nor corporations are going to bend because a few hundred, or thousand, or a few million people shout a silly rhyming chant in the streets. Fairness, honesty, and equanimity have to start in the minds of those who currently have the power to stand up for the powerless multitude. Public demonstrations may help support good causes, but they won’t, can’t affect the deep change necessary.
We have ample evidence. For example, did the war protests in the sixties get the US out of Vietnam? They certainly brought attention to the fact that the war was not accomplishing its stated goal, but the real turn came with mounting negative reports, military admissions, and general public support for withdrawal–not from protesters, hippies, and “make love, not war” t-shirts. Nothing changed until the top brass decided it was a lost cause. Did the protest resistance to the second Gulf War get any traction? Did the Arab Spring or Occupy Movement get rid of dictators or fix the world banking system? Nope, nope, and nope.
Not a quarter the way into his treatise (manifesto?), he gets trapped in his own whirlpool of “internal theories,” “signifiers,” “political milieus,” “protest scripts,” “horizontalism,” “verticalism,” “unified theory of revolution,” and other endlessly tedious phrases. Sorting through the conflation is tiresome–but if taken from a lighter point of view, hilarious. If only he were a comedian I’d have had a hardy har har.
While recognizing the failure of protest, he views it as a failure of old methods. He believes there’s need to adapt new methods to the new times. The problem is activists are using yesterday’s techniques, which today routinely get thwarted by the ruling class. He sees the solution in technology. Yet, he still believes in the power of riling the masses with emotional appeal. Easy enough, citing the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example. However, emotional affect is exactly the root cause of failure. Although emotions are a strong motivator, sustaining the high emotional state necessary to follow through, keep focused, and establish the changes sought, is impossible. High emotional states are short term, temporary, even for an individual. The probability of maintaining concerted effort through emotional excitement in the hearts of millions simultaneously is near absolute zero. There is the reason protest fails.
With my hopes dwindling, I read on.
Finally, at the beginning of Part Three, we get something unexpected, a strike at commercial propaganda.
“Our communal reality is constructed through our shared culture. And every time we experience a commercial interjection, a fatal lie lodges in our world view. The true danger of pervasive advertising is the damage it does to our mental ecology, the inexplicable interior world that is uniquely human. A clean mental environment is an indispensable ingredient to a thriving civilization. Perhaps we cannot conceive a sane future because our collective imagination has been usurped by advertisers, money worshippers and commercialism.
Our culture is infected by a commercial virus, a disease that keeps us distracted by illusions while the world collapses. And we did not contract the illness by mistake. For decades, corporations have consciously and strategically pursued the commercialization of culture. Their winning strategy has been to integrate advertising into public culture. By snatching the role of funding culture away from the people and their governments, corporations have made us dependent on ‘free’ information, entertainment, services and software that are subsidized by advertising and come at grave cost to our psyches and our world.”
He sees commercial threats with open eyes, but washes over them quickly to move on to another fantastical fable. Fantasy and hope and magic are not a strategy, neither is hyping up people’s emotions. Appeals may include the heart, but they need to be lead by the intellect to keep the goal focused and rational.
If protest doesn’t work, then the masses are powerless. The question becomes, how to motivate the minds in power? What does it take to get them to realize that the world’s best interest is in their best interest? How can the realization that poverty, pollution, over population is threatening their world? How can they see that they are not above it? How can the concepts of fairness and honesty enter their minds? The ugliness around the corner is a blight on their neighborhood and a reflection of their negligence. Until they understand that the problems of the world are not only in their hands, the problems are caused by, and aggravated by, their avarice and indifference to the suffering around them. Their world will be in constant turmoil until they change their minds. They brag and take the credit for the good; they must also take the credit for the bad. The power for change is theirs.
Unfortunately, we have a situation in which wealth has gotten far out of hand. The super wealthy isolate themselves. They turn a blind eye. They believe that if there were a catastrophic collapse tomorrow, they’d be untouched by it. There’d be lots of talk, lots of finger pointing, lots of hand wringing, but the top percent would remain, relatively, warm and well fed. They think they can get away with it. But before long, their lives would be severely altered. Problem is, it hasn’t come to that, yet, and they bank on it not happening because they’re in control and think they can keep the collapse at bay. They got away with the last banking crisis, and the dot-com bust, and the 1980s savings & loan bust, and the. . .
I wish Micah knew where he wants to go with protest and revolution. His goal was to rewrite the protest playbook. After over 200 pages of drivel, there wasn’t a single clear statement of what the new methods could be. That’s not to say he doesn’t throw a few dozen melons at the wall. The problem is his aim is erratic. The melons are flying willy-nilly. One of his biggest melon lobs makes the show a splash. “The spread of Christianity owes its success to two high-profile conversions, a rare celestial phenomenon and a theurgist symbol, not public protests and mass actions.” Even if that were true, it disallows any hope for directed movements to make any positive social advancement. To him, it comes down to magic. Had he a cogent idea, he could have written a potent book. As it is, it starts on shaky ground, proceeds without a foundation, and ends neck deep in his own muck. The saddest part is that his number one goal is revolution, not resolution.
Everything in his mind is a struggle. He’s in constant battle mode. He compares protest to war ad nauseam. Here’s one that smacked me, “Gandhi was no less a warrior than Napoleon.” Whaaaah? While he insists that protest be peaceful, there can be only contrast between war (Napoleon) and peace (Gandhi). Unless the definition of war goes through a revolution of its own, nonviolent protest cannot be warlike. Yet the real message in his writing may lie hidden under the bellicosity. Micah is deceiving us, and himself, with the constant talk of battle. The message I see is that confrontation breeds confrontation. There will be no solution until the “enemy” is won over by reason, not defeated by antagonism. That emotional protest will not change the minds of those in positions of influence, nor the majority of people. Protest and revolution are anachronisms. Revolutions spin out of control. Productive change is methodical.
Reading The End of Protest feels much like an hour-long infomercial. The rant bombards the reader relentlessly in an effort to wear down one’s defenses using pseudo-intellectual-quasi-mystical babble as a bludgeon. Just when I thought he had finished hammering the “Occupy movement,” he keeps regurgitating it through to the bloody end. Makes you wish it could be erased from history. Between the solipsistic boasting and the naive belief in magic there’s little left to recommend. His blurred definitions and incongruous analogies of protest with war leave the indecipherable argument thoroughly muddled. Adding to the inner confusion is his personal flip flop from atheism to theurgist fancies. With revelations flying over the cuckoo’s nest into blusmurfdominity, it’s impossible to take such sophomoric discourse seriously. If only he were a fool on a hill.
Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour)
The End of Protest : a new playbook for revolution, Micah White, Knopf Canada, 2016