In 2011, phrases like “we are the 99%” entered the popular vocabulary as Occupy Wall Street began in New York and inspired similar protests. Micah White was one of the co-creators of that movement; although, as he discusses in this book, one of the strengths of the movement was that it took an organic leadership approach and he wasn’t a sole leader.
Of course, one of the motivations behind the movement was the vast income inequality in the US and across the world today. More about that on my post about Thomas Piketty’s book.
The main focus of White’s book The End of Protest isn’t the motivation behind why radical social change is needed, but rather how revolutions take place. He combines research with what he learned first-hand from Occupy Wall Street– what worked, what didn’t work, and what eventually caused the movement to end without achieving lasting change to income inequality.
You may not have the same political opinions as Micah White, but if you have a vision of a better world you want to help create, then an open-minded and clear-headed look at what makes revolutions tick could help you succeed. So we should take it seriously and it’s great to have someone like White lead the discussion.
There are many thought-provoking ideas in the book, but for this post I’ll focus on his discussion of the different planes of revolution.
The Different Planes of Revolution
White divides the types of revolution into four sections, which in practice can play out in sequence or in parallel. The left-to-right axis is pretty familiar: whether a revolution takes place through the decisions of everyday people, or through large trends beyond anyone’s control. The vertical axis is a bit more outside the usual political discussion and may feel more unfamiliar or even uncomfortable: whether a revolution takes place in the material world or in the spiritual one.
Let’s jump into each of the four quadrants to make them more clear:
The most familiar and most mainstream form of revolution is the one in the bottom-left, voluntarism. From this perspective, revolutions live or die by the shoes and signs on the street, the calls made from the campaign phone banks, the events disrupted, and the ballots in the voting booths. Smart, direct actions by individuals accumulate and make change.
One research-backed note that White makes about this quadrant is that coalition-building is not as necessary as mainstream political parties would try to have us believe. In other words, multiple organizations working on a single issue may not agree on tactics or even goals. This should be good news for those who don’t get excited about the “lesser of two evils” mentality of voting, or for those who are told their ideas aren’t politically feasible (the recent primary campaign between Sanders and Clinton comes to mind). Campaign for what gets you excited in the way you want to, because that is much better for everyone than holding your nose and reluctantly compromising.
In the bottom-right, revolutions take the form of structuralism. Here, it’s all about timing, not methods. These theorists hold that revolutions that occur at the right moment (often determined by global food prices, climate-dependent resource shortages, etc) will succeed, and ones not at the right moment will fail.
If this is true, then your methods don’t really matter– you’re free from having to worry about optimization and calculation about what you need to spend your time doing to be most effective. Just doing what feels best to you is good enough, and if the time is right then you may meet with the success you seek.
This idea can be disappointing for fans of voluntarism, who may prefer to think that their own carefully-planned energy and action leads to their outcomes. But it also provides a reassurance for the revolution that fails– perhaps it was carried out with the right energy and action, just not at the right time.
Now we jump up into the top half of the grid, to subjectivism in the top-left. We are back to believing in the efficacy of individual actions, but now those actions are spiritual rather than material. What does that mean?
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was explained by musician/poet Gil Scott-Heron as meaning that revolutions start in your mind. There is power in changing your mindset and discovering what you believe and want to fight for, and you need to continuously refresh that process in order to be effective and authentic doing anything worthwhile.
Thus in subjectivism, a successful movement will be made at whatever time by whatever means, but will live and die by the ability of its members to resist outside voices and be true to themselves.
The last box, theurgism in the top-right, admittedly triggered the most skepticism inside me as I read it. Here, like in structuralism, revolutions take place on a scale too large for any one person. However, rather than something material like food or water prices, theurgism claims that a divine power is what decides when the time for revolution has come.
White acknowledges that this idea is often dismissed in mainstream discussion, and I tend to agree with that dismissal. But there is a point to be made that throughout history, many revolutionaries have believed this to be the case, and actually then enacted a self-fulfilling prophecy. So there is at least credence to this idea as a theory of historical revolutionary change, regardless if the divine intervention the revolutionaries believed in truly occurred or not.
I didn’t give the idea much more thought, until I just watched the episode of The West Wing where President Bartlett is conflicted over whether he should run for re-election when a sudden freak storm hitting Washington DC sparks a vision of his recently-deceased assistant and mentor, Mrs. Landingham, that ultimately shapes his decision.
While fictional, the West Wing episode (a great one, by the way) echoes the historical Vision of Constantine, wherein the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision that supposedly inspired him to victory in a key battle as well as conversion to Christianity. He went on to have a key role in expanding and strengthening Christianity throughout the empire and history. Micah White notes that “Christian writers laid the foundations for Constantine’s conversion by integrating the appearance of a rare astronomical phenomenon into their social movement’s expectations of the future.”
There is an uneasy part of me that reads about writers imbuing hard-to-predict natural phenomenons with their own preferred spiritual meaning and just thinks of it all as pseudoscientific manipulation. The plot of Dune comes to my mind, wherein a revolution spurred by a fulfilled prophecy overtakes a seemingly-invincible galactic empire, even though that prophecy was originally just “planted” by a secret society on an inhospitable desert planet as a means of control.
But where I see an element of truth is that the battle for people’s imaginations can have powerful, unpredictable results on a larger timescale than the battle for people’s votes in a specific moment– just look at the important role of art in progressing society forward. In that vein, White closes his introduction to the concept of theurgism with an excellent quote: “[A] part of our humanity needs symbols and myth and mystery, yearns for a connection to something broader and deeper than our surface life… We ignore [this need] at our own peril, for if a movement of liberation does not address the spiritual part of us, then movements of repression will claim that terrain as their own.”
After introducing these four quadrants, White describes how many people will cycle through them over time. Maybe you are going through a period of high energy action, when you are “Feeling the Bern” and always out campaigning and making calls. If you’re not successful, you can keep trying with the hope that your ideas are “ahead of their time” and factors outside your control aren’t favoring you just yet. Or, you can shift focus from trying to optimize the effectiveness of your actions to simply trying to be your truest self no matter what you do. Finally, you may decide to campaign on a higher, more imaginative plane and engage with art and symbols that convey your ideas. Any of these stages may happen in any order, or may not happen at all, depending on the person.
Micah White writes in practical terms about these ideas, as well as plenty of other aspects of the fight for enacting change in our world today. In the end, the book is a very interesting discussion about how we actually might change the world. Whatever vision you have that motivates you to remake the world into a better place, you can learn from it. Recommended! (You can buy a copy here.)