The End of Protest: A new playbook for revolution

micah white



“All right, you ninety thousand redeemers, rebels and radicals out there … On September 17, we want to see twenty thousand people flood into Lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.”With this wild wish, a global uprising was unleashed. The clamour was tremendous, the mood contagious. For a few magical weeks in 2011, the Occupy Wall Street meme spread from city to city, financial district to public park: Occupy Toronto, Occupy Oakland, Occupy Vancouver, Occupy London, Occupy Sydney … People’s encampments sprang up in 951 cities across eighty-two countries. For many it was an all-consuming experience; the event was in them and they were the event. Participants started losing their fear, jeopardizing the status quo, quitting their jobs and living without dead time—fully awake in the moment. Occupy celebrated people for becoming authentic and sharing themselves. Unleashing humanity’s collective creativity was the essence of our movement.Occupy Wall Street was a political miracle, a rupture moment that redefined reality, pushed the limits of possibility and transformed participants into their best and truest selves. Without leaders, we all became leaders. Beautiful ideas did not have to wait for approval. If someone desired to create a people’s library, she or he was encouraged, and book donations flowed in. If another wanted to organize a march, that person was empowered and people joined the action. Thousands of hungry people were fed by the movement’s free kitchens. People were attracted because our encampments were a space outside the normal rules of hierarchical consumer society. For many, Occupy provided the first experience of radical democracy; the freedom was intoxicating.A better world seemed imminent and already manifesting. The border between ironic detachment and ardent hope had finally been breached. With revolution seemingly within reach, amid the vertigo-inducing fever of a social uprising, it is easy to forgive our naivety.In the end, the encampments were evicted with paramilitary force. Occupy evaporated, and normalcy returned to financial districts worldwide. And yet nothing will ever be as it was before the people tasted the power of a global social movement.Asked to explain why our movement vaporized, Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, asserted that Occupy revealed the limits of our conception of protest: “Occupy Wall Street had such limits because the local authorities were able to enforce, basically in our imaginations, an image of what proper civil disobedience is—one that is simply ineffective.” Snowden is right to blame authorities for developing counter-tactics that constrain protesters to ineffective, performative and symbolic acts. These counter-tactics include requiring protest permits, encouraging organizers to work with authorities on orchestrating pre-planned voluntary arrests, establishing so-called free speech zones in areas where being heard is impossible, or forcing protesters to keep moving on sidewalks rather than block traffic. These counter-tactics were developed to neutralize the effectiveness of activism, and they work to prevent protests from achieving social change. Snowden is also right to suggest that contemporary activists must share the blame for their role in perpetuating failed protest behaviours and outdated social change theories. All too often, protesters recycle tactics that have been overused for decades and are simply destined to fail today. Authorities encourage these nostalgic protest rituals because they follow a predictable script that is easy to control. These tactics may have worked in the past, but times have changed. Now we succumb to a vague theory of social change, as the activist Peter Gelderloos once put it, in which we “protest, protest, protest, and eventually the ‘people’ will rise up, the state will crumble, or something like that.” The first step toward creating positive social change is to take responsibility for the failure of the “protest, protest, protest” paradigm. This process begins from the acknowledgement that contemporary protest is broken and the willingness to fix it.The only way to fix a broken paradigm is to replace it with a new paradigm. Occupy was a gift to activists across the world who are now searching for the next paradigm of social activism. The event was a wake-up call to break the script of contemporary protest and rethink the principles of achieving social change through collective action. Above all, the lesson of our movement was to embrace the challenge that each generation of revolutionaries has had to overcome: to discover the new form of protest that is effective in the present historical moment.

Chapter 7. A Unified Theory of Revolution

What is the connection between protest and socio-political change? The parable of the three pigeons illuminates the nature of activism.Imagine an experiment with three pigeons. Each pigeon is placed in a separate box. Inside the box is a lever. The first pigeon is given a pellet of food whenever it pecks the lever. The next pigeon must peck the lever twice to receive food. The last pigeon, however, receives food on random pecks—for the third pigeon there is no connection between the number of pecks and when it receives food. After the three pigeons have learned the system, the experimenter disconnects the link between the lever and food. Now what happens when pecking the lever no longer releases food?The first pigeon notices the ineffectiveness of the lever immediately. This pigeon strikes the lever twice, realizes that food is no longer being released and stops pecking. The second pigeon understands more slowly. It taps the lever six times before stopping. The third pigeon, however, never comes to realize that its behaviour will not release food. It just keeps pecking the lever over and over and over again.One way to understand this parable is to see the pigeons as activists, pecking the lever as their form of protest and the food as revolution. Activists protest to release positive change in their life, their community, their environment. Forces more powerful than pigeons, and activists, govern the release of revolution. From this perspective, the experimenter represents the layer of existence that stands outside the control of the individual. At rare times, when the historical moment is ripe for change, this layer of existence is responsive to protest. At other times, symbolized in this parable as the experimenter disconnecting the lever from the food, the effective form of protest shifts. Pecking the lever is the activist’s repertoire of actions. The pigeons have only one protest tactic: tap the lever. The pigeons are taught to protest one way until their behaviour becomes predictable. The pigeons may cry or hop or be silent, but only pecking is acknowledged as protest and thereby brings food. Unlike the experimenter’s pigeons, activists have more than one way to push the lever. Activists use a repertoire of actions, but don’t let the diversity of tactics fool you.The third pigeon, the one that keeps pecking the lever, represents the ideal pacified activist. This pigeon goes on protesting predictably, foolishly, acting without real influence over when change is delivered or denied. Nearly all activists are of the third order of pigeon: we rush into the streets and push the (metaphorical) lever repeatedly in the hope of change. We are happy when a protest yields results and disappointed when it fails, without considering whether there is actually an underlying correlation between our protest methods and success or failure. Activists are told that every so often a protest yields a magical result, so we try over and over. The third pigeon was fooled by randomness. Food was delivered on random pecks; therefore, it acquired a false theory of social change that saw a pattern where there was none. The third pigeon was deceived into believing that its behaviour was hastening food when in actuality the change to its environment was controlled by a structural force outside the pigeon’s influence.The second pigeon is the self-reflexive activist with an effective theory of revolution. This activist knows when protest has stopped working. She can tell when the rules of the game have changed and a new theory is called for. It is important to notice that the second pigeon’s actions were not always effective. It took two pecks to achieve change; however, the pigeon was able to correctly discern a pattern. Those activists who can distinguish failure that is a natural part of the cycle from failure that signals the end of protest, and who can sense when a paradigm shift is necessary, have reached the level of the second pigeon.And the first pigeon? This is the rare one who sees outside the box. She knows the appropriate moment for action and the proper path to revolution. She knows when to act and when to switch tactics, and thus her every protest achieves success. This pigeon is the historic revolutionary who has developed an accurate theory of change.The Axes of RevolutionA theory of revolution grants foresight regarding whether a protest will bring change. It is the only playbook to activism, and it must be rewritten by each generation. Activism based on accurate principles yields social change. Without a theory of why revolutions happen and a hypothesis of the behaviours that will hasten the next uprising, there is no way to distinguish between a destined event and an ineffectual happening. Lenin made this clear: “without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” A repressive status quo functions by promulgating broken theories of change, thereby disconnecting the link between protest and change so that our actions will fail and our time will be squandered. Repressive democracies encourage forms of protest that are least revolutionary and most ineffective. The ideal situation for a false democracy is to have frequent ineffective protests that give the illusion that dissent is tolerated while discouraging any tactics that might actually change the legal regime.I classify general theories of revolution on a vertical y-axis that represents the role of the world and a horizontal x-axis that represents the role of the activist. The vertical y-axis ascends from material to spiritual, and the horizontal x-axis moves from subjective to objective. On the material end of the axis, the forces that influence revolution are presumed to be within the natural physical reality that surrounds us. Spiritual means the belief that revolutions are brought about by supernatural forces—divine factors (gods, faith and destiny) that stand outside the natural world. The horizontal x-axis is existential. Here the role of the individual in revolution is classified as either subjective, meaning internal to the activist, or objective, outside the activist. On the left side of the x-axis are general theories of revolution that stress the importance of the protester: his or her action or inaction and the underlying psychology, subjectivity or inner reality. Internal theories emphasize the role of humans in revolution. On the opposite side are theories that place importance on objective, structural and societal forces outside of human subjectivity such as energy prices, the cost of bread or unemployment rates. External theories prioritize objective non-human forces. Finding the proper intersection of these two spectrums—world and individual—is the basis of all revolutionary theory. As the sociologist Irving L. Horowitz explains, “revolution is the point at which individual psychology connects itself to universal history. Because of this the study of objective factors alone can never yield a knowledge of when or how revolutionary transformations take place.”A unified theory is not the same as an eternal theory. Times change and so too does the revolutionary theory appropriate to your era. The way you protested effectively yesterday may not be effective in a week. Likewise, any true theory will not remain effective forever. Thus, all four quadrants are true, to varying degrees, at all times. The challenge is to not limit yourself to one quadrant. Instead, the goal is to ascend from material to spiritual and internal to external, attaining an understanding of each theory and a sense of when each is most appropriate.Imagine there are two layers of reality: one that is accessible to human understanding and another that is not. Theory can only know the accessible first layer. The second layer is ultimately inaccessible to human understanding, although intuition, chance and destiny can grant temporary access. The inaccessible layer of reality comprises the innumerable and unknowable factors that influence history. I picture these layers as strips of wood with holes in different places. The layers slide back and forth unpredictably. Occasionally the holes align. When these holes overlap, and if the proper protest happens at this moment, a revolutionary event opens. The ancient Greeks had two distinct concepts for time: chronos, which referred to the linear sequence of time stretching from past to future, and kairos, the advantageous moment for action. When we say that a moment is ripe for the revolution, we are referring to the temporality of kairos. Auspicious moments for revolution are rare, and yet they follow cycles and patterns.Our objective in developing a unified theory of revolution is to increase the probability that our protest will effectively align with the unknowable second layer, by cultivating a detachment from adherence to any particular theory or repertoire of protest. Instead, we need to allow our quest toward revolution to be guided by an intuitive understanding based on repeated experimentation and a risk-it-all attitude.

Chapter 12. Protest bot

In the near future, the process of recruiting, training and deploying activists will be conducted by autonomous protest bots—computer programs augmented by artificial intelligence that spread the movement’s memes and rituals. I came to this realization while lingering in an Internet chat room hosted by Anonymous. A disaffected youth entered the chat and began to complain bitterly about the state of the world. Very quickly one of the participants in the chat room adopted a mentoring tone and started asking a series of questions that ultimately led the new member from apathy to action. In this case, the prescribed action was to distribute the latest Anonymous video communiqué calling for revolution. By the end of the encounter, the recruit experienced that magical feeling of being part of a growing social movement. The remarkable thing about the dialogue between the recruiter and the new participant is that it was entirely unclear whether the recruiter was an actual human or a computer chat bot following a script.It may seem farfetched that a protest bot could carry on a conversation with a stranger and persuade the person to join the revolution. However, we may be closer to that point than you realize. In 2014, for example, a chat bot named Eugene Goostman convinced ten out of thirty judges that it was a thirteen-year-old human child from Ukraine. And while Eugene was programmed to carry on harmless conversation, it is not difficult to imagine a bot that hangs out in chat rooms, picks up on signs of political discontent and continually steers the discussion toward building a revolutionary World Party.
If a persuasive protest bot were developed, it would have several obvious advantages over human social movement creators. For one, it could talk to countless people simultaneously. Another advantage would be that autonomous protest bots would continue to propagandize for a cause long after the original adherents had been arrested, creating a steady supply of new recruits.
The protest bot that I’m imagining is rudimentary compared with what may be possible in a generation or two. One technologist in particular, Bill Hibbard, emeritus senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Space Science and Engineering Center, has gone further than most in imagining a future where a super-intelligent machine comes to intervene in the political fate of humanity. Hibbard’s 2002 book, Super-Intelligent Machines, is a meditation on the “technological singularity,” an event prophesied by futurists who believe that computers will birth a machine that is more intelligent than humans. Hibbard disproves the logical and scientific arguments against the possibility of super-intelligent machines and then imagines their emergence and the effects on the world. Once machines have reached super-intelligence, Hibbard believes humans will willingly turn over all affairs to their management. The super-intelligent machines will ultimately become a single machine capable of interacting with and knowing every human on earth. And Hibbard does not shy away from saying that the super-intelligent machine will become our new God.The machine will be omnipresent and omniscient: with the decreasing price of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, cameras and microphones, all man-made objects will come to have built-in sensors that will form the eyes and ears of the machine. “The super-intelligent machine’s voices, ears and eyes will be built into our clothes, jewellery and just about every manufactured object,” writes Hibbard. And, “in a sense, the entire human-made world will be the physical body of our companion, the intelligent machine.”The most surprising conclusion that Hibbard makes is that super-intelligent machines will autonomously decide the course of human history and carry out the work of ensuring that their political decisions are followed. The machines will simply persuade humans to follow the path they have selected. “Given that they will be clever, intelligent machines will be able to engineer it so that manipulation of human behaviour is enforced by social pressure.” And, Hibbard continues, “they will be so convincing via the force of their logic, and via their intimate personal relationship with every human, that they will not need heavy-handed coercion to promote the general welfare of humans.” Of course, this sentence does not preclude the use of “heavy-handed coercion”; it just says that as long as the humans accept the “force of their logic” such violence will be unnecessary. A chilling thought.Perhaps protest bots will be used only at the most basic processes of recruitment, or maybe we will see the day when urban revolutionaries equipped with smart glasses and smart watches are given real-time strategic instruction on how to avoid the police and most effectively swarm the streets by a computer algorithm that monitors their (and the adversary’s) collective locations.With the increasing automatization of warfare, and recent concern over the emergence of killer robots that select their own targets, it is increasingly plausible that some aspects of the political revolution will be automated. Protest is, after all, war by other means.

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