Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, by Micah White

Micah White is that rare blend of activist and gifted writer, and his book comes just as we’re wondering whether we’ll be able to halt the descent toward fascism that Donald Trump represents. More than suggesting that ‘another world is possible’, it lays out coherent guidelines, broadening the discourse from nuts and bolts to theories and memes by blending the Ph’d’s reading list with the eager mind of the iconoclast. 

White took the best that academia has to offer, but also acted as a human shield in the occupied Palestinian territories, learning what it means to allow one’s life to depend on the solidarity of others.  His trajectory from Swarthmore college to Occupy via the Middle East and Adbusters has fashioned a modern-day renaissance man, evocative of Che Guevara for his ability to combine action with philosophy and who, while involved in the daily life of a small settlement, sees the world in all its complexities, past and present.

Adbusters can hardly be accused of mysticism, and most observers saw Occupy encampments around the world drawing together every imaginable strand of secular protest. They will be surprised when White mentions casually that he is no longer an atheist, suggesting a return or a turn toward Christianity. They will be even more surprised to see his denunciation of “intolerant secularism” paired with a “spiritual understanding of revolution’. White’s “unified theory” gives equal importance to theurgy, an approach to politics epitomized by the feminist/Wiccan Starhawk, as to structuralism, subjectivism and voluntarism.

"I actively entertain the possibility that revolutions may indeed be a supernatural phenomenon and therefore inexplicable, immeasurable, unpredictable and potentially outside the natural order. Leaving open the possibility that revolutions may be a supernatural (or divine) process allows us to find elements of truth within theurgism and unblind ourselves to approaches to social change that reigned in previous historical periods…. Theurgists believe that divine forces can be made to intervene in the world."

White is fascinated by the ancient history of revolt and does not hesitate to call up figures little known outside academia, seeing the strands that unite the Ghost Dancer Voyvoka of Wounded Knee fame and the Nika revolt against the Byzantine Empire in 532.  How better to drive home the fact that revolution and revolt are as eternal as the defense of one’s tribe or country?

Again and again, however, White is drawn to Christianity, detailing the origin of the Chi Ro, a sign in the heavens composed of a heart and a cross that is said to have inspired Constantine’s victory over a rival emperor and his conversion in the 4th century.  White notes that:

"Contemporary social movement often tell only one story about the signs that will precede the revolution: lots of people will be in the streets. The victory of Christianity challenges activists to wonder whether another story might be told, one in which an unexpected and rare natural phenomenon heralds a paradigm shift. Perhaps three hundred years from now a leader will be swayed to embrace our people’s movement by a long-prophesied event - an earthquake - that strikes on her inauguration day."

White comes down repeatedly on the side of women who are ‘on the brink of rising up against a male culture that has been fatally poisoned by pornography and video games,” echoing, perhaps inadvertently, Vladimir Putin’s and Western post-modernists’ condemnation of the decay of Western culture that is also at the root of Islamist attacks. And while White is clearly more taken with witchcraft and miracles than with liturgy, like many of today’s thinkers, he shares their conviction that humans have spiritual needs.

In A Taoist Politics: the Case for Sacredness, I explore the commonalities between ancient wisdom and modern physics, inviting the scientifically literate to see belief in God as a way of naming the order/disorder dyad of modern physics and the ancient Chinese Yin/Yang. Where White sees divine forces intervening in the world, I see the flow of energy through systems creating instabilities which, through bifurcations, can lead to revolutions. Noting that the idea of a steady state has been misinterpreted in the public mind as ‘static’, I describe it as “a magic moment in the vibrant regime of order/ disorder, poised far from equilibrium at the edge of chaos”. For White, revolutions are “a magic moment that leads to a new order, in a process repeated ad infinitum”. 

White’s view of activism gives an oblique nod to Malcolm Gladwell when he says that: “Voluntarists often think of activism as a ladder of engagement that begins with non-action …and climbs toward direct action, the goal being to escalate engagement up the ladder.” According to Gladwell, by disseminating information, networks create weak-tie connections, while strong-tie connections are needed to persevere in the face of danger. The difference between people who abandon an action and those who stay is not commitment, but a personal connection to the movement: close friends who are participating create the ‘strong tie’ necessary for high-risk activism. Requests for aid on the internet that demand little personal commitment may bring many responses but the ties they create, if any, are ‘weak’. Networks make it easier for activists to express themselves, but harder for that expression to have any impact.

While apparently accepting Gladwell’s analysis, White approaches activism from a more theoretical point of view. diagraming his ‘Unified Theory of Revolution” in four quadrants: subjectivism, theurgism, voluntarism and structuralism.  Encouraging activists to think outside the box, he states that “the playbook must be rewritten by each generation’, usefully noting that “repressive democracies encourage forms of protest that are least revolutionary and most ineffective.”

While for Gladwell, successful activism is organized hierarchically (the NAACP’s anti-bus campaign succeeded because top-down cells organized private rides for residents), for White it is many-faceted. He cites the Italian Five Star Movement that, unlike Occupy, formulated concrete demands. Highlighting another difference, White tells us that the Italian movement combines popular direct democracy, decision-making on-line, with a vetted membership.

One of White’s more disturbing scenarios is related to the environmental crisis. Pointing out that the world has already passed the key threshold of 400ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, he is ‘haunted by an eco-fascist nightmare’ in which humans fed on high-yield genetically modified corn replace machines to carry out physical labor:  “The virtues of 100 percent employment will be touted. We will see people chained to bicycle-powered charging stations for the elite’s electric vehicles.”

This ambitious work, part testimony, part history, part plan of action, lives up to its promise, even if it appears to be reaching for what may seem like a far-off goal: global revolution, and a “commonwealth of free world cities” achieved through a World Party. “Our long-term strategy is mundialization, forming these liberated cities into a global amalgamation that exerts a unified political will.”

The question of whether a World Party will be comfortable with the notion that revolutions could be a supernatural phenomenon pales in comparison to emergence of a Barnum and Bailey Hitler who doesn’t even tolerate peaceful protests.

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