The social movements that emerge when an activist is young deeply influence the protests they will create or envision in the future. For me, as a high school activist, it was the anti-globalisation movement—in particular, the spectacular Battle in Seattle that shut down the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999—that would indelibly mark my sense of what a protest ought to look like. This conception would later shape Occupy Wall Street, a social movement that I co-created in 2011.
In protesting against the bureaucratic gatherings of international institutions, the anti-globalisation movement drew attention to global organisations, trade agreements and ideologies that have an outsized impact on local communities. Activists woke the public up and got them protesting in large numbers—over 30,000 participated in the Seattle protests—with the rallying cry that the difficulties their communities faced were being caused by the decisions of distant elites.
The movement of movements, as it would later be called affectionately by organisers when the movement grew to encompass many different causes, demonstrated the capacity of disciplined activists to outwit police and disrupt international structures that are otherwise untouchable. The direct action activists who descended on Seattle brought lock-box protest methods that were developed by anti-abortion activists and refined by anti-logging activists. Above all, the anti-globalisation protests pioneered new ways of decentralised, leaderless and internet-enabled organising—fromto —that have become fundamental to the contemporary activist social imaginary, the shared conception of what activist ought to look like.
The eruption of social movements serves to funnel new recruits deeper into the culture of protest. My participation in anti-globalisation protests led me tomagazine, anti-consumerism and anti-corporatism. And from there, as an editor at Adbusters, it inspired me to co-create , a social movement that spread to 82 countries in 2011.
Now, 17 years after I protested in New York City against the World Economic Forum, I am speaking at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Forum in Paris, a gathering of developed nation states, corporations and civil society committed to globalisation. The OECD founded the Forum in 2000, partly in response to the anti-globalisation movement.
When I reflect upon how activism has changed in the two decades since the creation of the OECD Forum, I am struck by two significant evolutions that members of the OECD ought to be attuned to: the role of activism has changed and the form of activism is changing.
The Role of Activism Has Changed
Against the backdrop of a world in crisis, social movements have emerged as key players in determining how the future will play out. While traditionally seen as a manifestation of dissent, protest movements today are increasingly conceived as one of the key forces vying to mobilise public support for bold, historic action by governments on a range of issues, from climate change-induced migration to gender equity.
Moreover, from a governmental perspective, the global challenges facing humanity will likely require a level of popular participation of the citizenry that is potentially on par with a wartime mobilisation. Social movements have the potential to provide governments with this active, broad participation in an efficient organic way without resort to military conscription.
This shifting role of activism was anticipated by the United States National Intelligence Council in its most recent(2017):
The most powerful actors of the future will be states, groups, and individuals who can leverage material capabilities, relationships, and information in a more rapid, integrated, and adaptive mode than in generations past. They will use material capabilities to create influence and in some instances to secure or deny outcomes. They will demonstrate “power in outcome”, however, by mobilizing large-scale constituencies of support, using information to persuade or manipulate societies and states to their causes.
This concept of “power in outcome” is immensely useful for understanding why international institutions now need activists and why an activist like myself has been invited to address members of the OECD. It is no longer sufficient to be materially powerful: the sovereign power must also demonstrate a high-level immaterial power through the active engagement of its citizenry.
That the powerful actors now need to mobilise “large-scale constituencies of support”—a skill that activists have demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for—has initiated a tussle over control of these new social movements, the activists who create them and the social networks that facilitate their spread. Will the social movements be right or left, revolutionary or reformist, nationalist or globalist, civil or violent? And, above all, will the movements be legitimately grassroots or remotely fomented by foreign governments? Elsewhere, I have described this phenomenon asto emphasise the ways in which activism is increasingly utilized as a strategic option to achieve foreign policy objectives.
Activism, once suppressed by governments, is being absorbed by governments who wish to go beyond co-optation—the goal now is the creation and control of these movements. And while it may be easier to cast this struggle to control activism in a purely negative light, there is clearly an upside: activists now have an opportunity to play a significant role in the outcome of events that will impact us all.
The Form of Activism is Changing
The changing role of activism in society has fueled an evolution in the form of activism, from a critique of globalisation to an embrace of globalised activism.
In order to confront global forces, activists in the anti-globalisation movement were forced to create a social movement that was “as planetary as capital itself, and hence capable of doing battle with it”. I’m quoting thehere, the anonymous radical collective whose publication anticipated the global uprisings of 2011.
The model of the anti-globalisation movement was to hop from summit to summit, protesting with an aim to disrupt. Successive cities—London, Seattle, Washington DC, Montreal, Genoa—experienced intense street protests. The movement was spread globally by activists who traveled incessantly.
The turning point for the form of activism occurred on February 15, 2003 when the anti-globalisation movement was absorbed into the anti-Iraq War movement. It was on this day that millions of people in cities across the world marched in the streets. I remember the feeling of being among the sea of people protesting in New York City. We failed to stop the Iraq War, but instead we demonstrated for the first time the capacity of activists to organise protests nearly everywhere at once. Activists no longer hopped from summit to summit, now they organised simultaneously and independently in their own community. This culminated with Occupy Wall Street, a movement that spread to 82 countries and nearly 1,000 cities.
The anti-globalisation movement began as a critique of globalisation and ultimately gave birth to an activist culture that has become itself a global institution, albeit a weak institution whose power ebbs and surges.
In the years since the Arab Spring and Occupy, a staggering number of people around the world have protested. In the United States,, around 20% of citizens have protested at least once since 2016—an astonishing number.
Seeing that a global movement is necessary to solve a global challenge, activists have embraced the global outlook of the international institutions they once derided. Activism is globalised: social movements easily mobilise people in many countries simultaneously.
Activism is fundamental to the new social contract
At the same time as these changes are taking place, activism as a discipline is experiencing decreasing effectiveness, a phenomenon I call ".
The success of the anti-globalisation may be arguable. Activists did, for a while, succeed in disrupting the ability of international organisations to hold their meetings. Successive protest movements have not, however, achieved their short-term objectives: the anti-Iraq War movement failed to stop the war; the Arab Spring only briefly resulted in greater democracy in the region; Occupy Wall Street did not end the power of money in Western democracies; March for Our Lives has not ended gun violence in the United States, etc. In naming these particular protest movements, I am not critiquing the specific activists that took part. Instead, the decreasing effectiveness of protest results primarily from the intransigence of governments who fail to see the enormous potential in giving into protest movements in order to achieve great things.
Activism is becoming integral to the functioning of power. And yet, activism is losing its ability to create the social change that activists desire—and that society needs. This is paradoxical and has led to much confusion among activists who assume the proliferation of activism is inherently a positive sign. One would expect that if activism were becoming necessary for the functioning of power then it would also be growing more effective. But that is not the case.
I want to end by understanding why the proliferation of protest within democratic societies has not led to an increasing effectiveness of protest. In particular, I want to focus on why members of the OECD may want to reconsider their posture towards activism in order to heal the social contract.
It is fitting that one of the core themes of the 2019 OECD Forum is “a new societal contract”. From an activist perspective, the breakdown of the social contract underpinning Western democracies is the primary reason why protests have experienced diminishing returns despite their tremendous speed and size.
When activists mobilise large numbers of people to go into streets behind a message, they are evoking a core principle of the social contract that once guided democracy:
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.
This statement from thewas adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Most of the members of the OECD are signatories to this declaration. This promise that the sovereignty of our governments would ultimately derive from the will of the people is what has motivated activists to get people into the streets to perform the rituals of modern protest: marches, occupations, etc.
The increasing failure of protests to move governments is bad for activism but it is worse for democracy.
When faced with a substantial popular mobilisation—think again, for example, of the February 15, 2003 anti-Iraq war protest, the largest synchronised global protest in human history—Western democracies have a choice. They can interpret this manifestation as the expression of the will of the people, invoke the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and voluntarily bend to the movement’s wishes. Or they can resist. And, because of the substantial improvement in riot control technologies, if a government chooses to ignore the demands of massive social protests they will, more often than not, survive the crisis without a scratch. George Bush led the United States into war against Iraq a month after the world’s largest social protest. And then he was re-elected as President.
The OECD’s search for a new societal contract must begin with a resolution of this problem: ought the individuals elected into office submit to the will of the people? Should more powerful entities voluntarily change course when asked to by weaker, collectively mobilised people?
My recommendation would be for Western governments to take heed of the changing nature of power and make a renewed commitment to grounding their sovereign authority in the will of the people. This means that governments, corporations, powerful elites ought to willingly submit when confronted by people mobilised in the streets. This holds true even if these governments have the capacity to forcefully defeat social protests by deploying law enforcement resources.
The integration of activism into the functioning of power must be accompanied with an acknowledgement that movements are sacrosanct—ending the movement by force ought to be prohibited. Otherwise we will continue to experience the degradation of democracy and the devolution of power.
The shift toward heeding activism has the potential to unlock tremendous creative capacity from the citizenry, allowing seemingly impossible problems—like economic inequality and climate change—to be solved with ease. By submitting willingly to social movements that arise, governments can harness their tremendous momentum to achieve great things and reorient society through sudden leaps forward.
- Should governments voluntarily submit to the wishes of protesters?
- What are the global challenges that can only be solved through the collaboration of social movements and governments?
- Is the will of the people still the basis of the authority of government?
- What is the role of activism in establishing a new social contract?
Micah White is the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, the author of and the director of . Learn more at
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