White on the (constructive) failure of Occupy Wall Street

I call Occupy Wall Street a constructive failure because the movement revealed undelying flaws in dominant, and still prevalent, theories of how to achieve social change through collective action. Occupy set out to “get money out of politics,” and we succeeded in catalyzing a global social movement that tested all of our hypotheses. The failure of our efforts reveals a truth that will hasten the next successful revolution: the assumptions underlying contemporary protest are false. Change won’t happen through the old models of activism. Western democracies will not be swayed by public spectacles and mass media frenzy. Protests have become an accepted, and therefore ignored, by-product of politics-as-usual. Western governments are not susceptible to international pressure to heed the protests of their citizens. Occupy’s failure was constructive because it demonstrated the limitations of contemporary ideas of Protest. I capitalize p to emphasize that the limitation was not in a particular tactic but rather in our concept of Protest, or our theory of social change, which determined the overall script. Occupy revealed that activists need to revolutionize their approach to revolution.

White, Michah. The End of Protest. p. 27 (paperback)


University of Ottawa to divest

This evening, the following motion was passed at the University of Ottawa:

The board should ask the finance and treasury committee to do the following:

  • Develop a strategy to shift Ottawa fossil fuel related investments towards investments and enterprises, especially those in Canada, involved in creating and selling technologies of the future, including renewable energy and other clean technology solutions.
  • Determine a reasonable time period within which that shift can occur
  • Report to the board annually starting in the fall of 2017 on its progress seeking further direction as it may require

    The exec committee further recommends the board reassess this strategy to determine whether market conditions or any other factors require a change in this strategy.

Obviously the team there deserves huge congratulations for their success. Every institution that takes action makes it easier for campaigns elsewhere to succeed, and harder for opponents to argue that taking action is too risky or not necessary.

That being said, this motion is arguably similarly vague to what U of T decided (although they are admittedly not putting UTAM in charge of implementation). The U of T campaign could have taken a radically different approach to the decision here and portrayed it as a partial success building toward something adequate. Such a response would have had to be agreed in advance, however, and given the mood of the U of T group may not have been possible. Even suggesting it may have exacerbated the deep disagreements about what sort of tactics and messaging are desirable and how success should be measured.

Democracy within social justice movements

My friend Stu sent me a long article about the functioning of social justice movements of the Occupy / Arab Spring variety, discussing how their efforts at being internally democratic work.

Much of it is of interest, but this passage made me think of the climate movement especially:

When the anarchist participation prevented the Trotskyists, Real Democracy activists, and other grassroots politicians from producing the sort of unitary demands and manifestos that the general assembly had earlier vetoed, the Commission was broken up into a dozen sub-commissions. Every single day, in multiple sub-commissions, the grassroots politicians made the same proposals that had been defeated the day before, until one meeting when none of their opponents were present. The demands were passed through the commission and subsequently ratified by the general assembly, which ratified nearly every proposal passed before it.

Social movements suffer from extreme forms of some of the problems of traditional representational democracy. Participants lack training, time to do research, and support from experts. Procedures designed to (a) make good decisions (b) through participatory means are imperfect and often feel tedious and frustrating to participants. There is no ideal way to deal with situations where a plurality of people have reached general consensus, but smaller groups have principled and fundamental objections to the most favoured popular course.

“Grass on the other side is greener” thinking about democracy makes me wonder about alternatives like an agenda-setting vanguard or movements governed principally by a charismatic leader. As I have argued before, the virtue of democracy is more in mandating restraint than in necessarily making good decisions.

That might be as good as we can do when it comes to governing nation states. Whether popular movements pursuing environmental or social justice objectives can do better is an open question.

John Green on his often-banned book

I have written before about banned books.

In this video, a contemporary author discusses the experience of having his novel banned for containing apparently mature content:

His closer — about deferring to librarians to make such judgments – differs from the more common narrative that rejects such curation entirely.

Explaining Trump

The often disturbing spectacle of the rise of Donald Trump as a leading Republican contendor in the presidential race prompts many emotional and analytical responses: about the long decline of America as a superpower since 1945, about the dysfunctional features of party politics and American politics in particular, and about the chasm between quality information on one side and public policy and (especially) public opinion on the other.

Many interpret the Trump phenomenon in terms of disaffected voters, as this passage from The Economist describes:

The reason evangelicals vote for Mr Trump has little to do with faith or specifics of policy. It is more a question of attitude. A study by the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, has found that the most reliable way to tell whether a Republican voter was going to support Mr Trump was whether he agreed with the statement: “People like me don’t have any say about what government does.” Trump voters feel voiceless, and whatever attributes Mr Trump lacks, he has a voice. He lends it to them, to express their grievances and their aspirations for greatness, and they love it.

All this at a time when people are prosperous and governments are making easy choices, at least compared with what is likely in coming decades because of our criminal unwillingness to stop burning fossil fuels.

We had better hope that worsening global conditions eventually have a rallying effect, rather than prompting a scramble of every state, region, and ideology for itself.

An Abwehr agent in Canada

There were large expanses of the globe where spying, or even a pretence of it, seemed an unproductive activity because they were strategically irrelevant. When a question was raised in London about running some double agents out of Canada, the responsible MI5 officer — Cyril Mills, of the well-known British circus-owning family — demurred. Even the Abwehr, he said, could see that nothing of much importance was happening in Canada. [Abwehr chief] Canaris disagreed. On 9 November 1942 a U-boat landed his man Wener Janowsky on the Gaspe peninsula. Following his subsequent arrest he was found to be carrying a Quebec driving license taken from a Canadian PoW captured at Dieppe, but with an Ontario personal identification and address. Most of the $5,000 in Canadian currency with which Janowsky was supplied was time-expired — a mistake which prompted his capture after he used it to pay a New Carlisle hotel bill. He had already roused the proprietor’s suspicions by smoking German cigarettes and taking a bath at mid-morning. Among the possessions appropriated by the Canadian police were a Wehrmacht travel pro forma and diary, a .25 automatic pistol, radio, knuckle-duster, five US$20 gold pieces, a microfilm copy of coding instructions and a copy of Mary Poppins as a code crib. Janowsky was a thirty-eight-year-old former French Foreign Legionnaire who had a wife living in Canada, and knew the country. But no Allied secret service, even on a bad day, would have dispatched an event into the field — at the cost of a substantial investment of Nazi resources, including the U-boat — so absurdly ill-equipped. Janowsky was fortunate to survive the war in British captivity.

Hastings, Max. The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939–1945. p. 466–7 (hardcover)