White on the (constructive) failure of Occupy Wall Street

2016-04-27

in Economics, PhD thesis, Politics

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)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

. May 6, 2016 at 5:49 pm

But online activism cannot be dismissed. Some movements have had real impact, either by putting an issue on the political agenda or by taking over an existing organisation. Without the Occupy movement, the debate about income inequality in America would be much less prominent. The same goes for the Black Lives Matter campaign and violence against African-Americans. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters managed to commandeer the Labour Party. In America, Donald Trump seems about to do the same with the Republican Party (though whether he can do it to the whole country remains to be seen).

. February 6, 2017 at 4:46 pm

The classic military formula for success: concentrate superior force at a single point. The Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled out in large part because of its ridiculously fissiparous list of demands and its failure to generate a leadership that could cull that list into anything actionable. Successful movements are built upon concrete single demands that can readily be translated into practical action: “Votes for women.” “End the draft.” “Overturn Roe v. Wade.” “Tougher punishments for drunk driving.”

People can say “yes” to such specific demands for many different reasons. Supporters are not called upon to agree on everything, but just one thing. “End the draft” can appeal both to outright pacifists and to military professionals who regard an army of volunteers as more disciplined and lethal than an army of conscripts. Critics of Roe run the gamut from those who wish a total ban on all abortions to legal theorists who believe the Supreme Court overstepped itself back in 1973.

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