Chuck Mertz: Occupy Wall Street was a failure. Okay, it was a constructive failure. But are we looking at the end of protest as we know it? Let’s hope so. Here to tell us what we can learn from Occupy and the potential future of protest: Micah White, who is credited with being the co-creator and the only American creator of the original idea for the Occupy Wall Street protest.
An honor to have you on This is Hell!, Micah.
Micah White: Thank you for having me, Chuck.
CM: Micah’s new book The End of Protest: A New Playbook for the Revolution comes out next March. His writing will cover the future of activism, global social movements, the paradigms of protest, and the influence of media on the mental environment. Micah is the co-founder of Boutique Activist Consultancy, a social change consultancy specializing in impossible programs. Their motto is “We win lost causes.”
You are the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street. And you argue Occupy failed. but call it a constructive failure, and we’ll get to that in a moment. Let’s start with the beginning of Occupy. Some people may not even know that Occupy was actually created by a couple of people at an anti-consumerist magazine in Vancouver. So how did you and Kalle create Occupy Wall Street? And more to the point, what was your idea in creating it? Did you foresee what it was going to become? Because it’s a leaderless movement, so I would think you wouldn’t know what direction it was going to go in.
MW: Right. I mean, those are all really excellent questions. I think one of the reasons Occupy Wall Street worked so well is because very few people actually even knew where it came from. It kind of just seemed to emerge spontaneously, all of a sudden. But what really happened is that—if you go back into that time, you’ll remember that in 2010-2011, there were these uprisings happening. The Arab Spring was going on; there was an uprising in Tahrir Square in Cairo, where millions of people were gathering in the square and making the demand that Mubarak step down. And then on May 15th of 2011 there was a Spanish uprising where all of these citizens started going into their squares and holding general assemblies where they started using consensual decisionmaking processes.
So what Adbusters did is we wrote a tactical briefing where we suggested to the world, “Hey, everyone, let’s combine the model of the Egyptian uprising (go to a place of symbolic importance) with what’s happening in Spain (the idea of these general assemblies) and then let’s take that to America and do that in Wall Street. Let’s occupy Wall Street and have these general assemblies.
And we made a surrealist poster of a ballerina dancing on the Wall Street bull. And we basically wrote a two-page tactical briefing explaining why this would be the next tactical breakthrough that could trigger a revolution.
The moment was just so ripe that 24 hours after we sent that out to our email list and then started posting it on the internet, it got taken up by people in New York City. It got taken up by a computer programmer named Justine Tunney, who started coding the Occupy Wall Street website that became the central hub. And people in New York City took the idea and they ran with it. They started holding weekly meetings in Tompkins Square Park, and that’s how it unfolded.
CM: So this is the thing that I don’t understand. There are two aspects of this. One is that all of the major TV networks—ABC, NBC, CBS—they’re out there interviewing people at Zuccotti Park, and they are annoyed by two things. One is that it’s a leaderless movement, and the movement needs a celebrity; they want to have the charismatic personality that they can have on GMA the next day. So that was one thing they really hated. And the other thing that they didn’t like was the lack of demands, apparently. Because they couldn’t create a story, they couldn’t create a narrative. They couldn’t create a storyline.
So this is the thing that I don’t understand: why did they say this is a leaderless movement, when at any point, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, FOX, CNN could have interviewed you or Kalle Lasn on TV and said, “Okay, explain to me what’s going on here and what this is about.” It wouldn’t take that much research. It would take thirty seconds of research to figure out that you and Kalle were behind this, because it goes right back to Adbusters magazine.
To you, what explains this unwillingness to find not necessarily the leaders of the movement, but this unwillingness to find the people who created the movement?
MW: Well, the simple answer is that we made the decision, Kalle and I, to turn down all television interviews. So there were no television interviews because especially Kalle didn’t feel that we should accept them. So there was a kind of rejection of the media.
But about the question of demands—if you look at the original tactical briefing that we wrote, it actually does have a demand. It says that we think Occupy Wall Street should demand that President Obama set up a presidential commission to investigate the influence of money on politics. And that didn’t get taken up, because of the activist culture of New York City. So you have to also take into account what the pre-exisiting activist culture of New York City was, which was pre-figurative anarchism. They wanted to reject the use of demands.
But the second thing about why weren’t on television is that we refused that role. I turned down all interviews from network television. It was not easy to interview Kalle or I about Occupy Wall Street. And whenever journalists would get in touch with Adbusters about interviewing about Occupy Wall Street, then we would refer them to the local activists. I referred them to a local activists who then referred them on to other local activists. So we kind of stayed in the shadows intentionally, and the only real article that was written about Occupy Wall Street that interviewed both Kalle and I and revealed the origins was for the New Yorker. So the New Yorker article is basically the definitive account of the origins of Occupy Wall Street.
CM: How much of an obstacle to the success of Occupy Wall Street—what you would see as a success of Occupy Wall Street—was New York City activism’s embrace of anarchism?
MW: Well, I think the embrace of anarchism was good. But I think that there was a specific kind of anarchism, this idea called pre-figurative anarchism, the idea that you don’t make demands of the society, instead you try to create the society you want to live in and somehow magically it will just work. There was this magical thinking, which was that we can just set up this encampment in Wall Street and somehow that will be the microcosm of the ideal society, and then the bad society around us will somehow crumble and everything will be great. And that kind of obviously turned out to be a failure.
But on the other hand, I think the reason why I call Occupy Wall Street a constructive failure is because it revealed our false assumptions about activism. And so on the one hand it revealed the falseness of pre-figurative anarchism, but I think on the other hand it also revealed the falseness of the ideas underpinning Adbusters’ approach, which was that if you can bring millions of people into the street making a large, unified demand, and if they were able to stay dignified under police repression, then somehow the government would be forced to listen to them.
But I think it’s very significant that that’s not true. President Obama didn’t even mention Occupy Wall Street until after the Zuccotti camp was evicted. So he didn’t mention the movement until the movement was defeated. And so I think that we’ve learned that it’s so easy to blame other people, but I think we also have to blame ourselves. Occupy was a constructive failure because all contemporary breeds of activism were false, not just because pre-figurative anarchism is false but also because of this idea of mass spectacles in the streets that are somehow supposed to influence elected representatives.
CM: You were just saying how Occupy failed—in the beginning you were talking about how you were influenced by both the Arab Spring as well as the Indignados movement. But there are a lot of people who really believe that this came out of nowhere. At least people in the media; I’m not saying that progressives or people who are activists who are paying attention to this—they may have known about the Indignados movement. Obviously they would have seen the results of the Arab Spring online. But they may not have ever heard of the Indignados movement.
Do we miss something in understanding Occupy when we do not put it into the historical context of activism at that point in time? Because I kind of see—and tell me if I’m wrong—I kind of see Occupy in this bigger arc of protest that maybe goes back to the beginning of NAFTA and the Zapatistas, and then goes through the anti-globalization protest at the Battle of Seattle and then goes to the anti-World Bank and IMF protests that were taking place in April of 2000 before the war, and then the antiwar protests and so forth. And afterwards, even Black Lives Matter and what’s happening with protests in Ferguson and around the country when it comes to police violence—I kind of see these all as one larger context, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily if that’s a correct thing to do.
Should it be placed in the historical context of all these protests, as a new kind of protest that started in the mid-nineties?
MW: Yeah, I mean I think that Occupy was another chapter in a very long story that goes—like you just said—goes back to the anti-globalization movement. But I think it goes back even to the dawn of civilization. People have been rising up against kings and tyrants since ancient Egypt and before. Occupy is part of a long storyline that people have been acting out for a very long time, for thousands of years.
But I agree with you, in the more recent past—if you go back and read the original tactical briefing that inspired it, Occupy was very consciously created as the synthesis of the Arab Spring and the Indignados, and we situated it within the context of an ongoing revolutionary moment that was happening worldwide. And that’s why it succeeded. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Instead, it succeeded because we were able to integrate it into an ongoing social movement storyline.
And I agree with you that what is—and we learned a lot from the previous tactics that had been happening. So there is a kind of destruction of movement knowledge or activist knowledge that happens when we divorce these things from where they came out of. I mean, that’s a kind of way that the status quo neutralizes our ability to create these things again. Because people don’t realize that.
I had lived in Egypt for nine months a few years before the Tahrir uprising, so I was very aware of how unique and special the uprising against Mubarak was and how historic it was, and I was very aware that this was some sort of historical rupture moment that could bleed into America in some way. And Kalle knew that too, and we talked about it on the phone, very consciously. And so Occupy was—yeah, Occupy was very consciously integrated into that story.
CM: How much—you were talking about how protest hasn’t worked…that is, you talk about in one of your speeches that I was watching online—you were talking about how tens of millions of people take to the streets in India and nothing changes; how millions around the world take to the streets in order to stop the Iraq War, and nothing changes.
So all these people take to the streets. The numbers of people in the street are supposed to motivate politicians; they see votes out there and they’re supposed to have an impact on their policy and they’re supposed to change policy. And as you point out, changing the law is really what a revolution is. Getting social change is really through changing the law.
But we have this concept that that kind of protest works because—whether it’s true or not—millions of people went into the streets against the Vietnam War, and that’s what ended the Vietnam War.
So how much does that idea—that the Vietnam War was ended by a mass popular uprising here in the United States and protests on the street—how much does that idea undermine the efficacy of today’s protest?
MW: That’s an excellent question. What happens in human history is that a new tactic will arrive, and it’ll suddenly unlock the passion and the anger and the desire for greater freedom among people. A perfect example is 1848. In 1848, there was a European-wide insurrection that toppled the king of France, spread to Germany, every country in Europe. And the reason it happened is because they created this new method of using barricades to lock down the urban streets in order to have protests. That use of barricades spread everywhere, and the police, the authorities, didn’t know how to respond.
But as soon as they figured out how to respond—which was by using cannonfire and destroying the barricades with cannons—they ended the revolution across Europe within about a month. Ever since then in human history, whenever barricades have been used (for example in the Paris Commune of 1871), they have failed. The same thing happens with other tactics like mass marches.
So a great tactic only works once, and one of the lessons for contemporary activists is that we always need to protest in different ways. We should never protest in the same way twice. Same thing with occupying. Occupying was very effective for about two months. Police didn’t know how to deal with these encampments that were spreading all over the world so quickly. But as soon as they figured out, basically, the Bloomberg model of using paramilitary police forces to just forcefully evict the encampments, then all of the encampments were evicted within a week, basically. And occupying never became effective again.
That’s why whenever we see ourselves repeating a tactic nostalgically, whether it’s mass marches in the streets like in the sixties or occupying like in 2011 or other things, then we know we’re making a mistake. I mean, the interesting thing about it, though, is that sometimes very old tactics can become useful again. So in a certain sense, maybe building barricades would work with some tactical twist to it, because in a certain sense the authorities forget how to respond. But still, the larger point is the idea that when we follow the pattern or the script of protest, then our protests are no longer effective. Then they just become part of the ritual, and even though they’re exciting, they’re not going to achieve the social change we want.
So “the end of protest” doesn’t mean the absence of protest. The end of protest means the proliferation of ineffective protest.
CM: One of the things that American culture is into is very quick gratification. You argue that Occupy Wall Street was a failure, but at least a constructive failure. Can we even say it was a constructive failure up to this point in time? Because maybe this social movement will take decades, or I would even argue this: why isn’t “changing the narrative” enough? After all, terms and concepts like the 1% are now in dinner table conversations, assuming people still have dining tables, and still have enough money to eat dinner.
Why isn’t the degree to which the narrative has changed, due to Occupy, enough to say Occupy was a success?
MW: Well I think there are two sides of time. There is slow time and fast time. I think in the long, slow time perspective, I agree that Occupy will have a tremendous influence on our culture. There might even be a revolutionary moment some time in the future, whether it’s one year, ten years, or a hundred years, that directly maybe will even be called Occupy or will reference Occupy. And in that sense, Occupy in the long term might be effective.
But there’s also this fast time perspective, which is when we protest in the streets, we are trying to create an effective event in our own lifetimes, in the present moment. And so I think that it might be —for example, Christians had to wait three hundred years for their protest to effectively win by converting Constantine. And it might be that social movements do need to adopt that larger perspective. Like some people have argued that all revolutions take three generations.
So social movements do need to adopt a long-term perspective, but at the same time, these “fast” protest techniques that we’re developing, the techniques that get people into the streets or are intended to create those events that then fit into a large slow-time narrative—I think those are what are not working.
But it’s complicated. Social change and revolution is probably one of the most sophisticated and complicated phenomena of human society.
CM: You said, “Our tactic was synonymous with our movement, so when occupying quit working, Occupy ended.” I was just saying how people should be careful when it comes to the situation with Sandra Bland; that you cannot make the movement about the individual because what happens if more news or more information comes out that reveals something else about the situation? Her mother was on a local news station here in Chicago, and she was saying that she is not on anybody’s agenda. Her whole deal was she’s on “God’s agenda,” for God to reveal the information that she needs to know, and in the meantime she doesn’t want anybody causing any harm against other people. And so she was pointing out how we shouldn’t just be focusing on her daughter.
On the other hand, maybe you should be talking about injustice in this country. Can you make the same statement about making the tactic synonymous with the movement—can you say the same thing about making a person synonymous with a movement? Because it seems some of the Black Lives Matter momentum was hurt by what was eventually claimed about Michael Brown.
MW: Yeah, I mean, I think the greatest challenge for social movements is to be able to adapt and change in mid-course. And so it was very obvious—I mean, Occupy started on September 17th, and Zuccotti Park was evicted on November 15th. So within two months it was obvious to people who were paying attention that encampments were over.
But you know, Occupy still was not able to change, and it persisted on December 17th by trying to occupy another space, and ever since then it’s still about, “Oh, we have to occupy another space…” And so it’s very difficult for a movement to change course in that way. And I think that that’s actually one of the greatest challenges and what we’re going to have to see are social movements that adopt tactics but then abandon tactics when they stop being effective, in order to create new tactics.
And I think it’s similar with this question of over-identifying with certain people and this kind of thing. It’s the same problem, which is that whenever your tactic relies exclusively on one approach, you end up being defeated. We’ve experienced this—the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine experienced this because they had this idea that internationals wouldn’t be harmed by the Israeli military, therefore they could do acts of nonviolent resistance. But then the Israeli military started harming international activists and they murdered Rachel Corrie. So that tactic ceased working.
It’s a constant game. It’s an arms race, basically, between protesters and power.
CM: You’ve said, “For me, the main thing we need to see is activists abandoning a materialistic explanation of revolution—the idea that we need to put people in the streets—and starting to think about how to spread an epiphany mood, how to make people see the world in fundamentally different ways. That’s about it. The future of activism is not about pressing our politicians through synchronized public spectacles.”
Do you believe that protest is far too geared toward having an impact on electoral democracy?
MW: I personally think that the next generation of social movements will be a hybrid between a social movement and a political party. It’ll be a kind of social movement that is able to win elections in multiple countries in order to carry out a unified global agenda. For example, the situation in Greece: imagine if SYRIZA didn’t just have the prime minister of Greece but also won elections in Germany and became the Chancellor of Germany and was able to negotiate with itself because it was a global social movement.
I think that electoral politics are a key battleground for social movements, and I think that social movements will probably be able to defeat traditional electoral parties.
But at a deeper philosophical level of What Is Activism? and What is Protest? there is a kind of materialist secular conception that has dominated activism since Marxist historical materialism. And that materialist perspective says that the only forces that matter are the material forces.
Well, one thing that we learned during the Arab Spring that was very important, is that revolutions are actually caused by a change in mood within a society. The Arab Spring, for example, was triggered by someone setting themselves on fire. And then more people started setting themselves on fire, basically in this demonstration of a sudden loss of fear. They were willing to sacrifice themselves to demonstrate the injustices in society.
And that fearlessness spread throughout the entire world. All of the sudden we were all swept up in this revolutionary mood of losing our fears. “I don’t care if I lose my job, I’m going to the encampment,” and all this kind of stuff.
So revolutions are actually caused by a spiritual kind of awakening that happens within people. And that’s not a material process. That’s a deep inner process. And what I’ve just described is the foundation of Adbusters’ approach to activism. We were conscious of that. When I used to work there, we talked constantly about “creating epiphanies” within people and that kind of thing. That was consciously our approach to activism, and I think that’s why we were able to spark Occupy Wall Street, is because we did see it as a kind of awakening within people.
What I would basically say is how to create an awakening within people that also translates into the ability to win elections in multiple countries and make complex decisions and these kinds of things. It’s a real challenge.
CM: So, is fear and—we were talking to Chase Madar at the beginning of the show, and he was talking about people with Conceal and Carry and people arming themselves to the teeth because they need to “protect their home from crime,” even though crime historically low. Then we talked to Sarah Kendzior about the “I am not afraid” campaign that’s going on in Uzbekistan, with Uzbeks standing up against their very oppressive and brutal dictatorship that disappears people on a regular basis.
So my question is, how much is fear not just the enemy of activism and protest—but how much does it actually help activism and protest in getting people out on the streets? Is fear both an obstacle to activism as well as the fuel for activism?
MW: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s a really excellent insight. There’s one notion of activism which is that there is a ladder of engagement, and you need to lead people from the lowest, lamest levels of activism (like clicking links) to the highest levels of activism (like direct action). I think that approach is completely misguided. Instead it seems to me that what really triggers a revolutionary moment is that you ask people to do something that’s really scary.
For example with Occupy Wall Street, we said, “Hey, let’s camp in Wall Street. Let’s camp in the middle of lower Manhattan!” Which is actually a terrifying thing to do. I don’t know. Sleeping on the streets in an urban area is not something that most people are comfortable with. And so a lot of people—that gave them a little bit of butterflies in the belly, a little bit of fear. But when they saw other people doing it, all of a sudden they felt inspired. They lost their fear, and then it became a contagious kind of thing.
I think that the true activism is always something that is a little bit edgy. You ask someone to do something that’s a little bit scary. But when they do it and they display their courage, then other people start to lose their fear, and they start to do those behaviors, and then it becomes a spiral behavior.
But at the same time, fear is a weapon that’s used against us. The most effective way to break street protests is just to brutally beat up protesters, because the average person cannot withstand—we saw this in Oakland—the average person cannot witness police violence more than two or three times before they say, “I’m staying home.” It’s traumatizing to see people get beat up by police, to have sound grenades and tear gas fired at you. And most people will not—or cannot—deal with that more than two or three times. And police know that. That’s why they use those techniques against us.
So fear is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you want to use fear in order to motivate people, because when they experience the loss of it, it’s a tremendously uplifting experience. And on the other hand, you do need to be—we need to protect ourselves from being overexposed to fear and getting traumatized by the police.
CM: You have said, “Studies suggest that protests that use violence are more effective than those that do not. I think violence is effective, but only in the short term, because you end up developing a kind of organized structure that is easy for police to infiltrate. In the long run it is much better to develop nonviolent tactics that allow you to create a stable and lasting social movement.”
So do you believe that while violence may be more quickly and temporarily effective, it’s not as sustainable? Does violence work in the short run but is not a good continued strategy?
MW: I mean, this is one of the most controversial topics within contemporary activism. I got a lot of pushback for even suggesting that we think about violence at all. Because I believe in nonviolence, but I want to have a kind of critical perspective on violence and what is its use, and what is it? And a lot of people in the movement want to refuse that discussion completely.
So for me, protest is a form of war. The definition that Clausewitz—he says that war is politics by other means. And I think you can say the same for protest. Protest is politics by other means, it’s a way of influencing or changing our laws and creating social change by unconventional means, instead of lobbying we protest in the streets. We use forms of direct action and pressure.
So it’s a form of war, so what kind of war is it? That’s really the question. It seems to me that violence —in the seventies there was a study called the Strategy of Social Protest where they did this empirical study of protest movements between 1850 and 1940, and they tried to figure out: is there anything that we can see in the data that determines their success? And this guy, William Gamson, saw that groups that used violence seemed to be more effective than groups that didn’t.
And that was extremely controversial then, as it is now. In the 1970s of course, they had all the urban guerilla movements and all this kind of stuff. So I think that looking back historically we’ve learned that groups that made violence one of their core organizing strategies completely failed. If you look at the experience of Che Guevara in Bolivia where he died trying to use the tactic of mobile guerilla units in a rural environment. It was a complete failure. If you look at the urban guerilla that were used by the Red Army Faction in Germany or the experiences of Italy or Japan, which all developed their own kinds of leftist terrorism—complete failure.
So it’s not that we want to advocate violence. Instead, it seems that violence, if it’s effective, only seems to be effective in the short term, and what you want to do is you want to develop a much larger, broad-based movement that is able to adapt and change.
Groups that pursue violence ultimately lose because they become so insular. The Red Army Faction, in the end, only had about twenty-five members, ever. It’s laughable how small it was.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we need to reject violence, but we also need to understand why we’re rejecting violence. When people don’t understand why we’re rejecting violence or why we’re doing this or that, then you just fall into uncriticalness that leads to more ineffective protests.
CM: You argue that the current model of protest just doesn’t work. But at times, and in limited ways, I would argue that they do cause change, although they may not cause the larger change one might want. For instance, the protests in Ferguson are not going to end institutionalized racism and white supremacy and all the problems within the justice system within that region. But it did clean house in Ferguson’s police department.
When you say, “The story we tell ourselves on social change through protest isn’t true,” is it true that when the target is small and even possibly a political distraction from the real issue at hand—can then protest be a success?
MW: It really depends on what you define as success. I think that the thing is—anything that happens, anything that is an event has consequences, creates some sort of change. It’s kind of like dropping a pebble into a lake. Obviously there are ripple effects, and we can go back and say, “Well, Occupy Wall street changed the discourse,” or it created a next generation of activists, and that kind of thing.
But the goal of Occupy Wall Street wasn’t to create these reformist changes. It was to have a revolution. It was to have a regime change in America where we got rid of the power of money over our elections, where we overthrew the supremacy of the corporation, where we changed the very way in which we live.
So protest is not effective right now in the sense of creating these revolutionary changes. Whether or not when people go into the streets and make lots of noise—whether or not there are results that happen in the sense of…”things happen…” Yeah, of course, when you drop a pebble in a lake, there are ripple effects. But it’s not a tsunami.
It’s easy for the movement to sometimes just settle for these lower feel-good ways of analyzing what happened. There’s an industry that promotes that perspective. There’s an industry of ineffective activism that actually benefits from ineffective activism by building their email list, by getting donations from people, by elongating their institutional existence. I think we need to be really critical of those stories, and say, yeah, of course, things happened after the protest. It’s not like history just stopped. And it’s not like the protest was completely erased from history.
Things happened, and it altered things. The reality after the protest is different than reality would have been without the protest. But are we having revolutions? Are we creating social change? That’s the real question we’re getting towards. And how do we have a real revolution? Because what we need right now is a fundamental reorientation in the way that we live. And that seems to be what is most elusive.
CM: You define revolution, as I was saying earlier, as making something legal illegal, or making something illegal legal. And with Occupy, you wanted to change the law around money in politics. When I was taking beginning journalism classes, every instructor told me that the most important beat anyone can have, and the most important news story, is always Supreme Court decisions. The real news is made at the Supreme Court, because that is what makes law and that is what makes news.
So can confronting the law—if that’s where revolution resides—is that the next step that protesters are too often unwilling to take? That they want change, but they want it within the law or the agreed upon rules of the game?
MW: Yeah. I mean, there are all these different definitions of revolution that float around, and they really strain our concept of what we’re trying to achieve. And I think one definition that’s been floating around for a long time is basically that a revolution is only what happened in 1917 in Russia, or what happened in Communist China. Revolutions are these communist takeovers of the state. That’s what a revolution is.
I think that a broader definition is more helpful. That broader definition, like you said, is when we change the legal regime. When we make something that’s illegal legal or when we make something that’s legal illegal. And so I do think that the challenge is once you identify that that’s really what a revolution is, is a change in the legal regime, then you start to think through, well, what are the ways in which that can happen?
And I think one of the most important ways that can happen is by becoming the legislature. By becoming the sovereign who decides what the law is. And that would be the ultimate revolution, if the people became the sovereign government. That would be democracy. If we restored democracy, and the people started to be able to dictate the laws that we live under, that would be a true revolution.
I do think that activists have shied away from confronting the more difficult challenges in favor of a kind of culture of dissent that just celebrates protesting in the streets as an end in itself because it felt good to march or whatever, or they adopt a kind of radical posture which is just kind of like liking certain bands while liking certain ways of protest, too. It’s a cultural front.
And it does seem like the larger challenge is how is the 99% actually going to gain power, actually going to carry through and change the laws and have a real revolution? That’s the real challenge that we need to confront.
CM: You talk about other concepts on protest, for instance you talk about structuralism, that is protest as a natural phenomenon, as you point out was the case with the Arab Spring being about rising food prices caused by climate change. In other words, there’s no need to actually organize protest; protests will naturally, organically happen when the public is confronted with hardship.
We got so many angry emails, Micah, about our interview with Slavoj Žižek back in October. We also got a lot of angry emails before he ever came on, that we shouldn’t have him on This is Hell! We also got angry emails about historian Ian Morris being on to discuss his book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels. Listeners didn’t want Žižek on because his book, Event, kind of embraces this structural approach in that there is something happening in the background until circumstances take place and we have an Event. And Morris says we didn’t become a democracy because we were intellectually evolving, as much as we were reacting to the fuel we were using and the best system for that industrialization is democracy.
Is a structuralist approach bad for an activist’s ego, in that it implies you are reacting not to some injustice but to the fact that you have less money or there has been some technological innovation?
MW: I love that question. There’s basically like four paradigms of activism that we operate under. And the dominant paradigm, the dominant theory is called voluntarism. Voluntarism thinks that human action is the most important determining factor in revolution. Revolutions happen when humans act. It’s a very—it feels great to believe in voluntarism, because it often starts with this idea of “if only everyone would do x, then there would be a revolution.” I get emails all the time, like, “Hey! Hey, I have a great idea. If only everyone would do this idea I have, then we would have a revolution.” That’s the core of voluntarism’s assumptions. And it feels great, because it celebrates human agency.
There’s another perspective, which is structuralism. And that’s the idea that revolutions are the result of forces outside of human control. And this is actually really interesting, because there have been these studies that looked at food prices. And it turns out that if the Food Price Index, which is this index of food prices compiled by the UN—if it reaches a certain point, then uprisings seem to be much more likely. And that point coincided with the Arab Spring. And as soon as it dropped below that point, that coincided with the decline of Occupy Wall Street and the global movement. And since that time, the Food Price Index has continued to decline. Now it’s at the lowest level it’s been at for several years. And so at this time it actually seems like possibly the revolution is farther away than ever.
But I actually don’t believe in the structuralist approach either. I think there is another option, which is subjectivist. The idea that if we change our minds, then somehow we also change reality. And then there is a fourth option, which is that revolutions are actually some sort of process outside of human control but non-materialist. They are divine interventions.
I think it’s a mixture of all four of these things, and all four are true. But coming back to the thing about structuralism: the most important insight about structuralism is that—and I think Engels and Marx understood this—if you’re not living in a revolutionary moment, and also if your actions don’t actually create revolution, then it’s actually very liberating, because as an activist you are freed to act in any way that you want. If you have the same chance of having a revolution if you protest in the streets as if you plant a community garden or feed homeless people or create art, and each of those is equally protest, then you just do the one that expresses your inner self the most. And that will be the most revolutionary behavior.
So I think structuralism actually kind of liberates us from the voluntarist assumptions that force people to think that the only way to be a protester is to be an urban militant, which is a faulty notion. Structuralism says, instead, “Hey, look! It’s out of our control anyway! All you have to do is be recognized as protesting, and that can take many forms, so be your best self.”
CM: How much does representative democracy undermine the ability for protest to change the law? Wouldn’t—it would seem like there would be a lot more ability for protest to change the law if we had a direct democracy, because then you would have a direct impact on the people that you’re trying to have a direct impact on.
So how much of an obstacle to the ability of protest to change the law is representative democracy?
MW: If you look at it, I think the defining defeat of democracy happened on February 15th , 2003. On that day, the entire world, millions and millions of people, in every country—if people don’t remember this they need to look it up on the internet, because it’s an amazing example of activism— basically in every country in the world, millions of people went into the streets and protested against the Iraq War. They had one simple demand. If you look at the pictures from the UK, it’s amazing: everyone’s just holding up a sign that says “NO.” No to the war, no to the war.
Everyone in the entire world protested and said "No!" to the Iraq war on the exact same day. But it did not stop the war. No government, no representative democracy listened to the protests. That, I think, was the defeat of our concept of democracy today.
Instead what we need to do is stop thinking that mobilizing the "collective will" will somehow force our representatives to listen, and realize that actually for the last decade or more that is no longer true. We need to base our actions on a whole different kind of conception. And where I see us going now is this idea of a global democracy. I think that there’s a lot of challenges there, too, which how are you going to make decisions as a global democratic movement? How would a social movement that won elections in multiple countries—how would local manifestations differ? How would it make decisions among the people? How would it avoid authoritarianism? All these kinds of questions.
But opening up and solving those questions seems to be the most productive route, rather than maintaining these kind of nostalgic views that somehow, if we can rally the constituents, that elected representatives somehow will listen or cave or bend.
CM: So just a couple more questions for you, Micah. You’ve said how “people don’t protest when they think it doesn’t work. They will if things are seen to be possibly changing.”
How do you prove to prospective and potential protesters that your protest, this one, will actually cause change, this time?
MW: That’s a really good question. People don’t vote for the strongest horse, they vote for the horse they think is going to win. And I think that’s really a little bit where the mystery of social movements comes in. People have an intuitive sense of what might be an effective moment to join a protest. I think before a protest—before Occupy started, people were not able to recognize it as being something that would be successful. The media ignored us. The many people I told the idea to beforehand dismissed it. Only 200 people showed up to the organizing meetings in New York City, for example, if you think about how large the activist community is in New York—the idea was shunned by the traditional activist community.
So before an event happens, people don’t really know if it’s going to be success or not. But as it unfolds, they seem to have a kind of intuitive sense of, “Wow, this is really going in an interesting direction.” I think a lot of activism pretends as if people have no memory. It pretends as if the only protesters are 20-year-olds who have never seen a movement before. Anyone who’s older, 30, 40, or 50 years old now, has seen multiple protests and has seen multiple social movements, and has a sense of which ones follow a pattern and which one is really breaking out and going a different direction.
So it is a really interesting challenge to think about. What is it that makes people suddenly believe in a social movement? What was that moment that made people suddenly believe in Occupy Wall Street? And for Occupy, it seemed to be triggered by accident. The first accident that woke people up was when some women were pepper sprayed about a week after Occupy started. That got John Stewart’s attention and was broadcast over the news, and all of a sudden people were like, “Whoa, this is kind of strange what’s happening there.”
And the second event that woke up the entire world was when 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the largest nonviolent civil disobedience arrest in American history since the Civil Rights era. So when those 700 people were methodically arrested while being peaceful, that suddenly woke people up. They suddenly realized, “Wow, I have not seen 700 people be arrested in this country in a nonviolently militant way like that, since the Civil Rights era. This is really something special.”
And within 24 hours, I remember, there were a thousand encampments around the world within 24 hours after that event. And that’s when all the traditional activist organizations in New York also joined and started to pretend as if they had been there from the beginning and all that kind of game.
But I think it’s about that kind of giving people that sense that, wow, this is really something different. This is really something magical that could really change things.
CM: Micah, I’ve got one last question for you. We do this with all of our guests: it’s the Question from Hell, the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate your response. You say how the most common understanding of activism is that you’re trying to cause change. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the right—Sarah Palin, FOX News—they were making fun of the term “community activist” as it was applied to Barack Obama. That said, by 2010 FOX News and the right are embracing the Tea Party, which they argue is a grassroots movement (of course never using the words “community activism,” although it did cause change).
Was the Tea Party a more effective social movement than Occupy Wall Street? And if so, what can the left learn from the right when it comes to social change?
MW: You’re throwing me in hot water here. I believe—and I advocated at the very beginning of Occupy Wall Street—that Occupy should have teamed up with the Tea Party. I believe that the 99% is neither 100% left nor 100% right, and that the kind of leftist factionalism that refuses to even create a coalition with the right is one of the things that’s holding us back.
So whether or not the Tea Party was more effective than Occupy, I think it just represents different organizing styles. I think at the beginning the Tea Party was a legitimate movement that became coopted by corporate forces. Occupy in the beginning was a legitimate movement that also, less successfully, was co-opted by institutional activist forces. And what’s really going on here is that there are millions of people all over the world, billions of people, who are demanding change and waking up, and I think that we overemphasize whether or not they—we overemphasize how they express that dissent, and then we judge them. Are they using the words of the left or the words of the right?
I believe that a global coalition will always need to be some sort of blend of left and right, and that’s probably one of the least popular opinions on the left right now.
CM: Micah, I really appreciate you being on the show this week. Really a fantastic conversation. I’m looking forward to your book coming out, and I will bug you like crazy to have you back on the show in March when it does come out. I’m hoping that you will put out some more stuff between now and then so we can have you back on! Biggest mistake you ever made was giving me your email address.
MW: Thank you, Chuck, it was wonderful.