Globe and Mail Interview: The Next Debate

In this series, Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, Canada’s leading public-affairs forum, discusses issues and trends just over the horizon with renowned analysts and policy-makers.
Micah White is considered a co-creator of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, which sprang from an idea put forward while he was a senior editor with Adbusters magazine in Vancouver. Now based in Oregon, he is the author of The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, published this week by Knopf Canada.

Rudyard: Micah White, welcome to The Next Debate podcast.

Micah: Thank you very much. I'm so glad to be here.

Rudyard: Well, let's dive right in here, and have you unpack an interesting title for this book, The End of Protest and a New Playbook for Revolution. Those two ideas seem in conflict. What are you getting at?

Micah: Well, the book basically comes out of this realisation that we've been having the largest and most frequent protests in human history, and yet these protests don't seem to be creating the social change that we desire. So on the one hand we're living through the end of protest, which is a time when protest is no longer effective, but on the other hand I see that there is optimism about the possibility of revolution. So the book is really dealing with both of those things. It's how we break out of this period of stagnation around protest. How do we make it effective again, and what kind of revolution is possible? What would it look like, and how do we imagine that?

Rudyard: Let's go to the stagnation quandary first, because you're right, there are all kinds of reasons why we would expect people on the street…record levels of economic inequality across Europe, the United States, increasing dissatisfaction with political elite so, again, why the lack of the type of social ferment that we saw throughout the 20th Century?

Micah: There are basically two factors that play against each other. On the one hand there's the common response, which is that we live in a time of unprecedented police control, where we have surveillance of the internet. We have armoured police using military grade technology to disperse crowds and this kind of stuff, and that renders a lot of those contemporary urban protest tactics obsolete. On one hand, I think that's probably true, but on the other, I think there's a more significant and deeper insight, which is that the paradigm of protest, the theory of protest, that underlies contemporary activism is actually broken, and the main idea underlying contemporary protest is that if we get millions and millions of people into the street and they say a unified message and they're largely non-violent, then our elective representatives will have to listen and real change will happen. But we've seen, repeatedly, that when activists actually achieve that goal, which is very hard to achieve but it's happened during Occupy Wall Street, the anti-war marches in 2003, the climate marches – when that happens it actually doesn't yield the social change that activists have been chasing, so activists have been following an illusion about what creates change and that's, I think, the deeper insight about why these protests aren't working.

Rudyard: So let's go deeper on that. You're saying, in a sense, that activists are feeling empowered by getting out on the streets, making their voices heard, but the actual mechanisms for change are within governments, within power structures that seem immune to the influence of the street?

Micah: Right. I think that there's a paradigm of activism, and one paradigm is that our human actions create change, and that if we can get lots of people into the street to force their representatives to do things, then they will. But on the one hand we've learned that that's not true because elective representatives are not required to listen to protests. In fact, protests have become just part of the spectacle, so that protests don't indicate that they need to do change in their behaviour, it's just something that is part and parcel of doing politics. So I think that there's a deeper, more philosophical thing going on here, which is the idea that social change only happens during historic moments of economic crises that aren't impacted by human agency, that don't involve human action. And then there are other options. Another option would be that social change actually happens when we change how we view the world, and that this process, this kind of inner-transformation is what actually changes the world and stuff like that. So I think that, on the one hand we have elective representatives who aren't beholden to these street protests, but on the other hand we have to realise that street protests are just acting out one theory of what creates change, and then there's other theories of change that I try to get into in my book.

Rudyard: Do you think part of the challenge of protest, in our day and age, is that we're just ... we're too successful. We're too satiated, too much cable television, too many Smartphones. We're in a post-revolutionary age.

Micah: So, to take the first part of your question, you're right that there's one theory which is called the J curve, which is that if you have a period of economic prosperity, that suddenly reverses, then the people are more likely to have a revolutionary moment and that's echoed by Marxian historical materialism and this kind of stuff. And on the second part, about have we moved into a post-revolutionary age, I think that's not true. I think that there is an interesting phenomenon that seems to be that democracy is more resistant to old style revolutionary change…like democracy seems to be more resistant to the kind of revolutions that swept Russia and China and stuff like that. But on the other hand I think that revolution seems to be even more likely today because of various factors, like the speed of the internet and the ability to move tactic, and that what seems to happen in human history is that revolutions happen at the precise moment when they seem least likely, and that's something that's observed throughout history … that revolutions actually seem to happen precisely when we think they're not possible. So as soon as I hear people say we're in a post-revolutionary age, I'm like wow, I'm like even more convinced that we're closer than ever.

Rudyard: Good point. Let's talk about ... again, you say revolution comes about through changes of how people see themselves, their own agency, a kind of reimagining of the world. You must be familiar with the work of labour historian Steve Fraser who, in his recent book, The Age of Acquiescence, makes this interesting point that the great revolutions around the Gilded Age, the revolutions in labour, for instance, were the result of people having a memory, a lived experience of a world before the capitalism that they were facing off against, a more pastoral, rural, agrarian world, whereas now, according to Steve Fraser, we're so deep into the capitalist matrix, as he would characterise it that, again, it's just very hard for protest to take momentum, to have real impact beyond the Occupy Wall Street-type model.

Micah: The one thing that seems to be a key to triggering these revolutionary moments now, and I really get to this question about changing people's minds, is that it's like a collective awakening, and we're probably diagnosing a situation correctly, which is that a lot of people, nowadays not only think the revolution isn't possible, they also think it might not be desirable. And what happens though, is that in moments like Occupy Wall Street, all of a sudden they wake up. It's like coming out of a dream, and all of a sudden they see like wow, it's possible, it's within reach, it's desirable, I want it, and they lose their fear and they start jeopardising the status quo and they start quitting their jobs, like we did during Occupy Wall Street. So I think that the challenge for activists is how to trigger these collective epiphanies, and I think that these collective epiphanies are always possible, but it has to do with how do you trigger them. And then nowadays, I think a lot of activism is so based around rationalism and facts and all this kind of stuff, that it misses out on the deeper problem…to really spark these awakenings, these emotional awakenings, is a question of appealing to people's spirits and people's hopes and imaginations and dreams.

Rudyard: Tell us about the time that you really felt this with a big crowd, 30,000 people, I believe it was part of one of the early Occupy Wall Street protests. You looked around, it was your friends, your neighbours, others, and you felt that there was this, kind of, electrical revolutionary charge in the air.

Micah: Right, yeah. I think that one of the most beautiful moments of Occupy Wall Street that I experienced was in Oakland when we shut down the port, and it was after a protest that an Occupier had been seriously injured by police, and basically the whole Bay area just marched down to the port and we shut it down, and I remember on that day, you know, people were sitting in small groups. They were sharing food, everyone was smiling, everyone's eyes were bright. I remember telling my friend here, everyone's so beautiful, you know? Everyone looks so beautiful, they were so alive, and I think that that is the key to what constitutes a revolutionary moment today … it's a process of waking people up and having that sudden epiphany spread through that society.

Rudyard: Okay, well so to move onto the second part of the title of your book, A New Playbook for Revolution, what are you recommending to your fellow activists here? What are the, kind of, tactics and strategies that you think are going to get us over this, kind of, malaise, or this entropy around ... not mass movements, because these exist, but mass change?

Micah: Well, I think that’s kind of a tactical question, and that relates to what we've been talking about theories of change, but I think one of the aspects of my books, that people will, I think, dig into and really enjoy, is this idea of well, what are some of the revolutionary scenarios that could happen, you know, and I lay out three. Three revolutionary scenarios, directions that activists could be pushing. One of them is the idea of a, kind of, rural revolt. You know, I live in rural Oregon, and one of the things I've realised is that the actual power is, I would say, a little bit weaker in the rural areas. The idea of small groups of people gaining control of city councils and mayorships and all this kind of stuff, it actually seems possible and easy, and so that one idea is some sort of rural revolt, where people gain sovereignty in local communities. The second idea is this idea that we're going to have global social movements that can win elections in multiple countries, and we've already seen that start to develop in Europe, the idea that we don't need to just win elections in Greece or in Spain, we need to win elections in Greece and Spain and Germany and Canada, under one social movement. So the idea there is that social movements need to start learning how to not just protest, but also do the behaviours typically associated with political parties, which would be winning elections, putting forth candidates, and stuff like that. And then the third revolutionary scenario is this idea that we're going to develop autonomous artificial intelligences that will ... I call them protest bots … that will allow us to spread social movements using technologies and artificial intelligence in a new kind of way.

Rudyard: Let's probe deeper on some of these, specifically your idea of social movements translating themselves, converting themselves into political movements, and doing that on a global scale. What do you think what happened with Syriza? There was a very powerful, progressive social movement that captured government in Greece, and then signed a bailout deal that embraced German-style austerity?

Micah: That's a very good question. So, if we backtrack and we look at what Occupy Wall Street was doing, Occupy Wall Street was holding these general assemblies in public squares and acting in, kind of, a consensus-based democracy, because we believe that somehow sovereignty would translate into these assemblies. That if every day people started discussing amongst themselves, having these democratic assemblies, that the police wouldn't be able to attack us because we would be the sovereign power. Well, we realised that that's not true. Actually, sovereignty, in our societies, is only given to the people who either winelections or win wars. You know, there are only two ways to really gain sovereignty, and winning wars doesn't seem like a possible thing. So winning elections actually seems like something that can happen and we've seen happen in Europe, but winning elections, as you pointed out, presents its own challenges, because if you use the old party model of winning elections, then you're electing the leaders, and these leaders, again, fall under the same ego traps that we tried to escape with Occupy Wall Street. They, again, become representatives instead of delegates, and they can sacrifice the ideals of the movement that got them into power. So that's why I look at the future as a hybrid between a movement model and a party model. Movement model being that it's decentralised, horizontal, it's based on the people. And a party model being that there are certain behaviours that parties do that social movements need to learn, such as canvassing and caucusing, and a way of gaining signatures and getting on ballots and getting people to vote. So there's really this tension between how are social movements going to gain control over the party, control over the leaders, without letting them just do the old game, which we've seen so many times before, which is get into power and then all of a sudden sacrifice the ideals of the party, but I think that’s where we're going. Those are the challenges that need to be addressed.

Rudyard: Let's talk a little bit about Black Lives Matter, because this is a new movement that we're seeing. It certainly has currency, it certainly has profile. You though ... well, you embrace its goals and its purpose you're critical.

Micah: First it's important to say ... I'm black, so I totally support, obviously, Black Lives Matter as a concept, but I think that if we look at it critically, self-critically, as activists, then I think it's very clear that Black Lives Matter didn't learn the fundamental lesson of Occupy Wall Street. The fundamental lesson of Occupy Wall Street was that protest alone, you know, public spectacles alone, mass movements alone won't force elective representatives to do anything, and I think if we see Black Lives Matter repeat the same disruptive behaviours and maybe innovating new disruptive behaviours like blocking traffic and stuff like that, you see that they haven't learned that fundamental lesson, and then I think, on the other hand, you know, Black Lives Matter, it's a regression back to the kind of national social movement, American-based politics that I think Occupy Wall Street really escaped. Occupy Wall Street was beautiful because it was a global social movement that spread to 82 countries that linked up with the Arab Spring, with the movements that were happening in Spain, and that's what really, I think, made it powerful and so I think we'll see activists are going to have to learn the lessons of Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street in order to launch what will be something great to come.

Rudyard: You characterise Occupy Wall Street as a constructive failure. What were you getting at there and what do you see as Occupy 2.0 that would understand what the failure was, how it was constructive and improve upon it.  

Micah: Well, there's an attitude amongst activists that is really detrimental, and that is basically that there's no such thing as failure, that we haven't ever failed, that everything's a success. They like to say oh, Occupy Wall Street it splintered into 1,000 shards of light, it wasn't defeated, it just merely transformed itself, all this kind of stuff. I mean, that rhetoric is really positive and it feels good, but it's not true. Occupy Wall Street was a constructive failure because we set out to achieve a very specific goal, which was to get money out of politics, and we failed, and we failed because, as I've been saying, we based our actions on a theory of change that wasn't true, and we didn't know it wasn't true. We had to test the hypothesis and we tested it, and we found out it's not true. So we need to do a new message, and I think that that's really important to say, as I told you, it's a constructive failure because it taught us something very important. It wasn't a total failure, because it did achieve some goals. So you look at like, what could Occupy 2.0 look like? I think it gets back to this question of how are social movements going to actually gain and control power, and the only way I see social movements to actually do that, is to figure out how to win elections, and a lot of times when people hear me say this they think I'm talking about Bernie Sanders. I'm not talking about Bernie Sanders, I'm talking about a social movement, a decentralised social movement, a horizontal social movement that is global, that goes into multiple countries, that carries out a unified agenda by targeting elections, winning elections in all of these different countries, and figuring out how to use the process of consensus-based decision-making or new forms of decision-making, to give voice to the people, and that's the direction that we're going to go, and it might seem difficult to imagine, but Occupy Wall Street was also very difficult to imagine. And we have new capacities … the internet allows us to do these, kind of amazing things now, socially, that are going to be quite surprising.

Rudyard: Just on that point of consensual decision-making, because you and others have rightly brought up that, you know, this was one of the weaknesses of Occupy Wall Street – the way that it empowered people and made them really enthusiastic about the cause but, at the end of the day, that highly consensual model caused some real problems, in terms of, again, operationalising the movement.

Micah: Well, you know, if we get real, we're talking about creating social movements that are trying to institute dynamic social change, transformative social change, and there are forces in this world that don't want that. They're called the status quo, and the status quo will use the norms of a movement against itself, and so what we saw with Occupy Wall Street, is that there are forces that use consensus-based decision-making against the movement in order to paralyse the assembly, and this is something that you see in every movement. I was just reading about how, in the Russian Revolution, Lennon's secretary was a police agent, so there's always going to be these forces that will be in there infiltrating, messing with and stuff like that. The real failure of Occupy Wall Street is that we weren't able to adapt. We weren't able to see that that was happening, and then at the same time adopt new decision-making models. Instead we just became paralysed, weren't able to make the complex decisions that were necessary. For example, we weren't able to come up with one demand. We weren't able, as a movement, to negotiate. We weren't able, as a movement, to like articulate clearly enough for the mainstream, and so these are all things that need to be addressed, but the main problem is figuring out how do you switch tactics midstream, as a movement?

Rudyard: Final question then. As you said, you can't describe it, you can't put a finger on where and when and how revolution will happen but having written this book, having thought about this for a while, what are the signs that you would look for? What would be the symptoms that you'd diagnose in the body of politics, suggesting it was moving towards a revolutionary state?

Micah: Good question. Now, basically, I think it's a little bit of each of the four areas of social change that I get into in my book. So if you want objective factors ... I think there's been some compelling studies that have said food prices indicate a revolutionary moment. So when food prices break a certain threshold on the UN Food Index, a revolutionary moment is more likely to occur, and we saw that during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. On the one hand, I would start to look for are food prices increasing or decreasing, and then on the other hand, I think there's a, kind of, spiritual, intuitive ... a mood among the people. You know, are people, in their gut, are they happy with the society? Is there a quiet before the storm, which is what I think we experienced right before Arab Spring, you know, those dictators that ... you know, Mubarak, and in Tunisia … they seemed so powerful and invulnerable, but then, of course, they would pop up so quickly. So I think, on the one hand, it's a, kind of, spiritual mood among the people, among the youth, and then we have external factors like food prices, how the economy's doing, and then I think there's just factors outside of human control, and possibly not knowable for us, you know, that we can get into in a future interview maybe.

Rudyard: Micah White, always provocative, always interesting. This is an important book and an important topic, and congratulations for putting pen to paper and bringing it to us.

Micah: Thank you, and for the interview, it was very interesting.