[bestbits] Fwd: Why power needs protest

Carolina Rossini carolina.rossini at gmail.com
Wed May 15 08:26:16 EDT 2019

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: Micah White <mwhite at activist.boutique>
Date: Wed, May 15, 2019 at 8:25 AM
Subject: Why power needs protest
To: <carolina.rossini at gmail.com>

I'm heading to Paris to present a talk at the Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development (OECD) annual gathering. The OECD is one of
those international organizations that I vehemently protested against
during the anti-globalization movement. Now they've asked to listen.

The audience for my talk at the OECD will be, almost exclusively,
representatives of nation states, corporations and elites committed to

Here's what I will say to this powerful audience:

*Use the momentum of social protest to achieve great changes.*

Read on for a preview of my OECD talk on why activism is becoming
indispensable to power:

[Click here to read these remarks in your browser

*Activism is Fundamental to the New Social Contract*

The social movements that emerge when an activist is young deeply influence
the protests they will create or envision in the future. For me, as a high
school activist, it was the anti-globalisation movement—in particular, the
spectacular Battle in Seattle that shut down the World Trade Organization
meeting in 1999—that would indelibly mark my sense of what a protest ought
to look like. This conception would later shape Occupy Wall Street, a
social movement that I co-created in 2011.

In protesting against the bureaucratic gatherings of international
institutions, the anti-globalisation movement drew attention to global
organisations, trade agreements and ideologies that have an outsized impact
on local communities. Activists woke the public up and got them protesting
in large numbers—over 30,000 participated in the Seattle protests—with the
rallying cry that the difficulties their communities faced were being
caused by the decisions of distant elites.

[Invite Micah White to speak at your next event.

The movement of movements, as it would later be called affectionately by
organisers when the movement grew to encompass many different causes,
demonstrated the capacity of disciplined activists to outwit police and
disrupt international structures that are otherwise untouchable. The direct
action activists who descended on Seattle brought lock-box protest methods
that were developed by anti-abortion activists and refined by anti-logging
activists. Above all, the anti-globalisation protests pioneered new ways of
decentralised, leaderless and internet-enabled organising—from Indymedia to
spokescouncils—that have become fundamental to the contemporary activist
social imaginary, the shared conception of what activist ought to look

The eruption of social movements serves to funnel new recruits deeper into
the culture of protest. My participation in anti-globalisation protests led
me to Adbusters magazine, anti-consumerism and anti-corporatism. And from
there, as an editor at Adbusters, it inspired me to co-create Occupy Wall
Street, a social movement that spread to 82 countries in 2011.

Now, 17 years after I protested in New York City against the World Economic
Forum, I am speaking at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD) Forum in Paris, a gathering of developed nation states,
corporations and civil society committed to globalisation. The OECD founded
the Forum in 2000, partly in response to the anti-globalisation movement.

When I reflect upon how activism has changed in the two decades since the
creation of the OECD Forum, I am struck by two significant evolutions that
members of the OECD ought to be attuned to: the role of activism has
changed and the form of activism is changing.

1. The Role of Activism Has Changed

Against the backdrop of a world in crisis, social movements have emerged as
key players in determining how the future will play out. While
traditionally seen as a manifestation of dissent, protest movements today
are increasingly conceived as one of the key forces vying to mobilise
public support for bold, historic action by governments on a range of
issues, from climate change-induced migration to gender equity.

Moreover, from a governmental perspective, the global challenges facing
humanity will likely require a level of popular participation of the
citizenry that is potentially on par with a wartime mobilisation. Social
movements have the potential to provide governments with this active, broad
participation in an efficient organic way without resort to military

This shifting role of activism was anticipated by the United States
National Intelligence Council in its most recent Global Trends Report

The most powerful actors of the future will be states, groups, and
individuals who can leverage material capabilities, relationships, and
information in a more rapid, integrated, and adaptive mode than in
generations past. They will use material capabilities to create influence
and in some instances to secure or deny outcomes. They will demonstrate
“power in outcome”, however, by mobilizing large-scale constituencies of
support, using information to persuade or manipulate societies and states
to their causes.

This concept of “power in outcome” is immensely useful for understanding
why international institutions now need activists and why an activist like
myself has been invited to address members of the OECD. It is no longer
sufficient to be materially powerful: the sovereign power must also
demonstrate a high-level immaterial power through the active engagement of
its citizenry.

That the powerful actors now need to mobilise “large-scale constituencies
of support”—a skill that activists have demonstrated a remarkable aptitude
for—has initiated a tussle over control of these new social movements, the
activists who create them and the social networks that facilitate their
spread. Will the social movements be right or left, revolutionary or
reformist, nationalist or globalist, civil or violent? And, above all, will
the movements be legitimately grassroots or remotely fomented by foreign
governments? Elsewhere, I have described this phenomenon as social movement
warfare to emphasise the ways in which activism is increasingly utilized as
a strategic option to achieve foreign policy objectives.

Activism, once suppressed by governments, is being absorbed by governments
who wish to go beyond co-optation—the goal now is the creation and control
of these movements. And while it may be easier to cast this struggle to
control activism in a purely negative light, there is clearly an upside:
activists now have an opportunity to play a significant role in the outcome
of events that will impact us all.

2. The Form of Activism is Changing

The changing role of activism in society has fueled an evolution in the
form of activism, from a critique of globalisation to an embrace of
globalised activism.

In order to confront global forces, activists in the anti-globalisation
movement were forced to create a social movement that was “as planetary as
capital itself, and hence capable of doing battle with it”. I’m quoting the
Invisible Committee here, the anonymous radical collective whose
publication The Coming Insurrection anticipated the global uprisings of

The model of the anti-globalisation movement was to hop from summit to
summit, protesting with an aim to disrupt. Successive cities—London,
Seattle, Washington DC, Montreal, Genoa—experienced intense street
protests. The movement was spread globally by activists who traveled

The turning point for the form of activism occurred on February 15, 2003
when the anti-globalisation movement was absorbed into the anti-Iraq War
movement. It was on this day that millions of people in cities across the
world marched in the streets. I remember the feeling of being among the sea
of people protesting in New York City. We failed to stop the Iraq War, but
instead we demonstrated for the first time the capacity of activists to
organise protests nearly everywhere at once. Activists no longer hopped
from summit to summit, now they organised simultaneously and independently
in their own community. This culminated with Occupy Wall Street, a movement
that spread to 82 countries and nearly 1,000 cities.

The anti-globalisation movement began as a critique of globalisation and
ultimately gave birth to an activist culture that has become itself a
global institution, albeit a weak institution whose power ebbs and surges.

In the years since the Arab Spring and Occupy, a staggering number of
people around the world have protested. In the United States, according to
the Washington Post, around 20% of citizens have protested at least once
since 2016—an astonishing number.

Seeing that a global movement is necessary to solve a global challenge,
activists have embraced the global outlook of the international
institutions they once derided. Activism is globalised: social movements
easily mobilise people in many countries simultaneously.

3. Activism is fundamental to the new social contract

At the same time as these changes are taking place, activism as a
discipline is experiencing decreasing effectiveness, a phenomenon I call
"the end of protest".

The success of the anti-globalisation may be arguable. Activists did, for a
while, succeed in disrupting the ability of international organisations to
hold their meetings. Successive protest movements have not, however,
achieved their short-term objectives: the anti-Iraq War movement failed to
stop the war; the Arab Spring only briefly resulted in greater democracy in
the region; Occupy Wall Street did not end the power of money in Western
democracies; March for Our Lives has not ended gun violence in the United
States, etc. In naming these particular protest movements, I am not
critiquing the specific activists that took part. Instead, the decreasing
effectiveness of protest results primarily from the intransigence of
governments who fail to see the enormous potential in giving into protest
movements in order to achieve great things.

Activism is becoming integral to the functioning of power. And yet,
activism is losing its ability to create the social change that activists
desire—and that society needs. This is paradoxical and has led to much
confusion among activists who assume the proliferation of activism is
inherently a positive sign. One would expect that if activism were becoming
necessary for the functioning of power then it would also be growing more
effective. But that is not the case.

I want to end by understanding why the proliferation of protest within
democratic societies has not led to an increasing effectiveness of protest.
In particular, I want to focus on why members of the OECD may want to
reconsider their posture towards activism in order to heal the social

It is fitting that one of the core themes of the 2019 OECD Forum is “a new
societal contract”. From an activist perspective, the breakdown of the
social contract underpinning Western democracies is the primary reason why
protests have experienced diminishing returns despite their tremendous
speed and size.

When activists mobilise large numbers of people to go into streets behind a
message, they are evoking a core principle of the social contract that once
guided democracy:

“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.

This statement from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted
by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Most of the members of the
OECD are signatories to this declaration. This promise that the sovereignty
of our governments would ultimately derive from the will of the people is
what has motivated activists to get people into the streets to perform the
rituals of modern protest: marches, occupations, etc.

The increasing failure of protests to move governments is bad for activism
but it is worse for democracy.

When faced with a substantial popular mobilisation—think again, for
example, of the February 15, 2003 anti-Iraq war protest, the largest
synchronised global protest in human history—Western democracies have a
choice. They can interpret this manifestation as the expression of the will
of the people, invoke the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
voluntarily bend to the movement’s wishes. Or they can resist. And, because
of the substantial improvement in riot control technologies, if a
government chooses to ignore the demands of massive social protests they
will, more often than not, survive the crisis without a scratch. George
Bush led the United States into war against Iraq a month after the world’s
largest social protest. And then he was re-elected as President.

The OECD’s search for a new societal contract must begin with a resolution
of this problem: ought the individuals elected into office submit to the
will of the people? Should more powerful entities voluntarily change course
when asked to by weaker, collectively mobilised people?

My recommendation would be for Western governments to take heed of the
changing nature of power and make a renewed commitment to grounding their
sovereign authority in the will of the people. This means that governments,
corporations, powerful elites ought to willingly submit when confronted by
people mobilised in the streets. This holds true even if these governments
have the capacity to forcefully defeat social protests by deploying law
enforcement resources.

The integration of activism into the functioning of power must be
accompanied with an acknowledgement that movements are sacrosanct—ending
the movement by force ought to be prohibited. Otherwise we will continue to
experience the degradation of democracy and the devolution of power.

The shift toward heeding activism has the potential to unlock tremendous
creative capacity from the citizenry, allowing seemingly impossible
problems—like economic inequality and climate change—to be solved with
ease. By submitting willingly to social movements that arise, governments
can harness their tremendous momentum to achieve great things and reorient
society through sudden leaps forward.

—Micah White is the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, the author of The End
of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution
and the director of Activist Graduate School
Learn more at micahmwhite.com

Don’t want to hear from me again? No worries: let me know by clicking here.

*Carolina Rossini *
+ 1 (617) 697 9389 | skype: carolrossini | @carolinarossini
PGP ID:  0xEC81015C
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.igcaucus.org/pipermail/bestbits/attachments/20190515/6b079f2b/attachment.htm>

More information about the Bestbits mailing list