Tag Archives: Micah White

The Crisis Within Activism is a Crisis Within Democracy

lonovocarta

June 3, 2015

“ACTIVISM IN CRISIS”

Micah White Interview with CartaCapital

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“We are living through a period with the largest protests in human history. But they are not working. And when you reach that point, instead of repeating the traditional protest behaviors, screaming and holding posters, you have to innovate.”

Micah White, co-founder of Boutique Activist Consultancy and co-creator of Occupy Wall Street.

CartaCapital: Is there a crisis in today’s representative democracies?

Micah White: Absolutely. In addition to a crisis in representative democracy, there is a crisis in the model of activism, how people protest. There is a crisis in the power of people to force governments to do what they want. We live in a time when there appears to be no way for ordinary people to influence their governments through protest… This means there is no democracy.

CC: Does this mean that the democratic system does not work anymore?

MW: I do not think in any way that the dream of democracy is dead. The dream of democracy has been going on since the beginning of civilization and humans have always been fighting for democracy. For five thousand years we’ve been overthrowing pharaohs, kings and tyrants in a struggle for democracy. Now we’re in one of those moments in history when we have a low point of democracy, but there will be a high point of democracy soon. This requires, however, a kind of innovation within our concepts of activism.

CC: How is it possible to reduce the power of corporations in government?

MW: The only way to remove the power of corporations in our society would be to create a social movement capable of winning elections in multiple countries to carry out a unified agenda. As movements and as activists, we have avoided the only solution, which is: we have to build social movements that can also function as political parties. This is a need that we do not want to hear. We think we can just organize large protests and get really angry. Occupy Wall Street was a once in a lifetime event and it did not work because we were chasing a false theory of how social change happens. We believe, or wanted to believe, that a large number of people going to the streets can cause changes in their governments, but when we achieved a historical social movement, we realized this story of change is not true. Now it is clear that the only way to win power is to create a hybrid between a social movement and a political party. Something that does not have leaders, but has spokespeople and an organizational structure that lasts more than six months.

CC: How is it possible to achieve social change through protests?

MW: Today, social movements ask their participants do very basic and small actions: to take to the streets, holding posters and shouting. These are very basic behaviors and no longer have a political effect. Occupy Wall Street and the 15M in Spain, brought more complex behaviors, such as participating in general assemblies or utilizing hand gestures, but these are still very simple behaviors. I think we have to ask more of social movement participants. We must show that social movements require difficult behaviors like, winning elections, drafting legislation, governing our cities … We need to demand a greater investment than just show up. The Internet allows us to ask for more. Thanks to social networks, it’s time to treat participants as capable of developing sophisticated behaviors and teach each other how to to spread these actions globally.

CC: Do social networks have a new role in organizing and promoting protests?

MW: Absolutely. I think the role of the Internet is spreading contagious emotions. If we look at the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, it seems that the trigger was a mood that spread all over the world and was basically a sensation of losing one’s fear. People said “I do not care about the risks, this is the time to act” and went to the streets. That’s what social networks do: they allow us to transfer that contagious mood of rebellion to the whole world.  The other power of the Internet is in allowing us to innovate our tactics in real time. From the moment when a new tactic emerges in one city, it can be deployed in another city. So it was with Occupy Wall Street.

CC: Can the internet become something more than a network in which feelings are spread?

MW: There is a hope that perhaps the Internet allows us an electronic democracy. That’s the idea of the 5 Star Movement in Italy. Participants use the internet to decide on legislation and to select candidates for the elections. The idea of the Internet enabling collective decision-making is very interesting, but difficult to achieve.

CC: Some people prefer digital activism to the street. What do you think?

MW: In the early stages, the Internet is very important for social movements. However, over time, the Internet becomes harmful because things start to look better online than in real life. This happened with Occupy. The protest looked better on Facebook than it did in the streets. This is negative because people start to prefer the online experience to the real world. So the Internet is a double-edged sword. The internet is a weapon that is not fully under our control, and it is very difficult to wield effectively.

CC: Do you believe that the advance of neoliberalism has helped reduce the importance of social movements around the world?

MW: Protests are a form of war and war is politics by other means. Protests are ways of influencing the political system by unconventional methods. And the revolution is a change in the legal regime. It is transforming what is legal into something illegal or making what is illegal legal. If social movements are a form of warfare then it is clear that the forces that are in power will use all possible means to destroy social movements. The problem is activists do not see their protests in the context of war. We see them as a big party or something, while the other side realizes the importance of the event.  Above all, however, it is crucial not blame others. We must blame ourselves. Social movements do not fail because the police are very strong. Throughout history, people have overthrown governments with a much stronger police, either because they found a way to defeat them in the streets or because they managed to get the police to change sides. So when our protests fail it is because our theory of change was wrong and not because the other side was stronger.

CC: Occupy Wall Street was born in 2011 and influenced many movements around the world. To date, we have several social movements emerging in Europe also influenced by 15M or Occupy. What is the role of the internet?

MW: What happened is that a new tactic emerged and it worked, so it spread worldwide. Occupy Wall Street combined tactics in Egypt with those of Spain and applied them to the United States. The police could not anticipate this new protest strategy and that’s why the movement worked. Once the police discovered how to respond to our encampments, they destroyed all the movements worldwide in the same way. Protest is a constant war of new attack strategies and counter-attack. Interestingly, at the moment we are increasing the frequency of protests. This is very good, but on the other hand, we must be skeptical because we are living through a period with the largest protests in human history, but they are not working.

CC: Do you believe that we can be in a historic moment of rupture?

MW: What I imagine is the birth of a social movement that wins elections in a country and then begins to win elections in multiple countries. Then you will see Syriza or the 5 Star Movement in three, seven or ten different countries. Yeah … I really think it’s about this storyline of a global social movement.

CC: You do not think that is too optimistic?

MW: I think we live in a time when activists are so focused on what seems possible that we do not achieve anything. We need to disturb the power and not act only in safe ways. That’s what Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring did. The best activism is the one that does the things we fear.

Source: http://www.cartacapital.com.br/politica/a-…
Learn more about Micah White at: http://endofprotest.com/news/activism-in-crisis
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Protest Innovation or Protest Irrelevance

August 10, 2015

Chuck Mertz of the This is Hell! radio program interviews Micah White, PhD, co-creator of Occupy Wall Street

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.

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The poster that started it all

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.

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Poster from the failed D17 re-occupation attempt in NYC.

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 ofAdbusters’ 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.

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. 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.

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.

Interview source: This is Hell! Radio
Transcription by: Antidote Zine

The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution

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Justin Campbell at the Los angeles Review of Books interviews Micah White, PhD, co-creator of Occupy Wall Street

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WHEN A FRIEND PULLED A COPY OF ADBUSTERS out of a black plastic bag and showed it to me, I felt like what we were doing was wrong. We were sitting in the parking lot of our small Christian high school. For a black kid who grew up in a conservative, Republican home, this felt like crossing a line: for me to be readingAdbusters might as well have been the same as looking at porn. 

As I started collecting copies of my own, I was afraid my parents would find them, hidden under T-shirts in my dresser drawers. I didn’t fully get what the magazine was trying to do then, really — what it meant to call yourself an “anti-capitalist”; I just thought it felt edgy, and allowed me to question the narratives I was being told. Years later, the same magazine was the catalyst for a movement that would surge through every major city in the world.

Micah White, along with the cofounder of Adbusters Kalle Lasn, began one of the most powerful social movements of the 21st century with an email — calling all who were concerned about our current political state to combine the tactics of the Tahrir Square uprisings with the Spanish anti-austerity general assemblies and bring their voices in order that they might occupy Wall Street. The name stuck, and soon, the entire world was watching as encampments popped up all over, demonstrating that citizens of all governments were tired of their voices going unheard.

Since then, activists have been asking what effective social movements look like and how social change comes about in a post-Occupy world. This is something Micah has been hard at work thinking about, ever since police in riot gear drove protesters out of public parks all over the world at the end of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

As we see new movements come on the scene, like Black Lives Matter, we must continue to ask: What can we learn from the past to avoid the same mistakes that ultimately prevented previous movements from achieving their revolutionary potential. 

I interviewed Micah White by phone for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He spoke with me from his small rural town of Nehalem, Oregon, while I was in Los Angeles. We covered a wide array of topics, ranging from the future of protest and politics, race in America, and the future of our species. The following contains the majority of our conversation. Micah White’s book

The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution will be published in March 2016 by Penguin Random House Canada.

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JUSTIN CAMPBELL: Would you mind by first telling us about your childhood? 

MICAH WHITE: I grew up in Maryland and Michigan. The defining feature of my childhood was that my dad is black and my mom is white. My parents were middle class and that meant that I grew up in the suburbs. One thing that’s really important about American history is that intermarriage between races was illegal until 1967. My parents would tell me about how even though it wasn’t technically illegal for them to get married by the time they got married, it had only been a few years since you could be imprisoned in some states for what they did. They would tell stories about how they went to certain restaurants and how they wouldn’t be served and how they faced discrimination. They were also hippie, antiwar type people, which means that I was raised on a lot of stories about activism in the ’60s.

That’s interesting you mention being biracial; I think that’s a huge component when we think about the demographics of the next few generations. Scholar and activist john a. powell has said that mixed race people are the fastest growing demographic in America. In regards to your upbringing from a political standpoint, was there an event in your childhood that triggered your activism?

Really, for me, activism has always been my passion. I’ve been doing activism since I was 13 years old. In high school, the earliest successful campaigns that I did was around atheism in Michigan. I started an atheist club at my high school which lead to me writing an op-ed in The New York Times which led to my being on Bill Maher’sPolitically Incorrect on ABC-TV. That was the earliest expression of my activism. In short, I’ve always been an activist who never really received much institutional support, but at the same time was constantly doing my own thing and innovating my own approach.

It’s obvious that your passion for activism led you in 2011, as the senior editor of Adbusters, to be a part of starting one of the most significant social movements of the 21st century. In your opinion, where does Occupy Wall Street stand today? Is there something next for the movement that you’re involved with or that other people should be involved with? 

So I usually start by calling Occupy a constructive failure. For me, that means that in failing it taught us a lot about some of the failed tactics used by contemporary activists. I think that Occupy Wall Street on the one hand changed the whole argument. It changed the discourse and brought a lot of prominence to certain types of activist organizations that now benefit from a new protest pool. It made activism cool again. That’s one story line that exists out there: Occupy didn’t really fail, it splintered in a thousand shards of light.

I think that that’s the kind of false positive outlook that underlies a lot of contemporary activism and leads us astray. The reality is that, actually, Occupy failed to achieve its revolutionary potential because the movement was based on a false notion of what creates social change. A lot of people want to hold on to the nostalgia of Occupy, but for me, it’s easy to say that it was a constructive failure, as opposed to a total failure. It did good things; it had a positive effect, but it didn’t succeed. It’s no longer real, it no longer exists anymore, and it hasn’t existed since the May Day general strike of 2012. Part of what happened is that because of social media accounts, we have the sense that things go on forever. But imagine if Twitter existed in 1968; would there still be an SDS account on Twitter? Would there still be a Weathermen account on Twitter? There’s still Occupy accounts that exist and Facebook accounts and all this kind of stuff, but they’re essentially just walking ghosts.

How do you feel about Occupy being a creative failure as opposed to a revolutionary success? 

For me, I’m okay with seeing Occupy as a failure because I think that humans are part of a many thousand-year struggle that goes back to the dawn of inegalitarian civilization. We’ve been overthrowing kings and tyrants for thousands of years. Occupy was just another episode in that long storyline of uprisings. There will be another one. At the same time, there will only be able to be another one if we’re able to let go of our nostalgia for the past. We have to let go of Occupy in order to create another Occupy.

That’s an interesting insight in light of what’s being said about the relationship between the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s and the Black Lives Matter movement. Essential contemporary black activists are arguing that we have to let go of our nostalgia for the former to be able to achieve real change with the latter.

I would agree with that.

So in reading a lot of your pre-Occupy Adbusters work, it seems as though there is a kind of prophetic expectancy for revolution in America in your early writings. Do you feel like there is a system, political, religious, or otherwise that will save us from ourselves? I guess another way to put it is, post-Occupy, is there hope for humanity? Or are we just doomed? 

There is absolutely hope for humanity. I think one of the signs of that is the kind of apocalyptic tone that’s dominated leftist activism for a long time is coming to an end and ought to be abandoned. The kind of tone I worked on at Adbusters and promoted there is no longer sufficient.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how near the end of his life, Martin Heidegger, the great German philosopher, was interviewed by Der Spiegel and he said, “Only a god can save us now.” And people have really wondered, “What does that mean?” As a kind of theoretical perspective, I think that’s also the situation we’re in right now. Only a god can save us now means that only a kind of divine intervention can shift humanity off the course that it’s going. Only a kind of magical or supernatural occurrence can really knock us out of our patterns that we’ve set and put us onto a new path. I think that could happen at any time; any sort of moment could arise that gets us off that path to destruction. That’s the kind of abstract perspective.

In terms of the concrete perspective — and I think this is really important in terms of Black Lives Matter — one of the gifts of Occupy Wall Street is that it demonstrated the absolute necessity and practicality of having a global, as opposed to national or local, social movements. During the height of Occupy Wall Street, not only were there Occupys in 82 countries, but we were communicating with protesters in the Arab Spring; we were linked up with Spanish indignados and we were all part of the same social uprising, all over the world at the exact same time.

I believe that the future of social change is going to be a kind of World Party: a hybrid between a social movement and a political party that will be able to win elections in multiple countries in order to carry out a unified geopolitical agenda. In terms of how we get there, I think it’s going to have to be some sort of divine or magical intercession into our lives that really shifts the human perspective.

For you, is divine intervention something that can be brought about by human will or human force? Or do we just have to kind of prepare and wait for this to happen?

So the core thing to understand about activism is that there are basically four competing visions or paradigms for what creates social change. I promote a kind of theory of revolution that unifies the four competing paradigms. This is something I get into more in my book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution. But briefly, one theory of revolution is called voluntarism. This is the belief that the actions of humans create social change. Another perspective is structuralism. This means that economic forces, outside of human control, such as food prices, cause revolution. The third perspective is that revolutions are an inner process inside of the individual only; this is called subjectivism. In this perspective, revolutions are actually a change of mind and we just need to meditate and change our perspective on reality. How we see reality actually changes and that becomes a revolutionary shift. The fourth is that revolution is a supernatural process that doesn’t involve humans at all. This is known as theurgism; it’s the idea that revolution is a divine intervention. I think that what you want to do is balance all four of those together. It’s not that you can create a divine intervention, but you can be ready for it, you can tell stories about it coming, you can do other things and that’s where the human action element, in terms of voluntarism, comes into play. I think that one of the critiques that I would levy against the Black Lives Matter movement is that it overemphasizes the voluntarism side of activism. In fact, voluntarism is the dominant conception of activism and it’s this idea that all we need is to do physical actions and that will create change.

It seems too that many of these four ways of thinking could be applied and seen in the worship rituals of different religious traditions. I say this because, at the first street protest that I went to, my friend and I couldn’t help but notice how similar the street protest felt to a church service, specifically a service you would find in the black church. What I’m referring to here is the call and response, the passion, the “spirit” moving through the crowd. Do you think comparing religion to protest is appropriate? Do you think that the communal spiritual energy that we felt is part of the draw of protest movements in general, whether that be in Zuccotti Park or Ferguson?

I think that what you observed is absolutely true. When my wife and I went to the Oakland port shut down during Occupy, there was a point, after the crowd of 30,000 people, people who were our neighbors and friends, were there in the streets and it was a beautiful thing. We looked around and we were just in awe. Everyone was just glowing with this inner beauty. In other words, I believe that Occupy was a spiritual experience. It was, in the words that we used at Adbusters, a spiritual insurrection. It was a kind of inner awakening for people where, all of a sudden, people started following their dreams, rather than their fears.

Revolutions, real revolutionary moments, exceed material explanation. The force of the crowd during Occupy Wall Street exceeded the number of people there; there was this shared spirit and shared intensity. So absolutely I think the spiritual part of revolution is one of the greatest and most important parts. That being said, it’s also one of the parts that contemporary activism has the most difficulty talking about or thinking about because of a kind of secular legacy from Marxism.

That totally makes sense, when you think about the fact that specifically within anarchist circles, you find an aversion to religion and therefore an aversion to supernaturalism. How do you sell supernaturalism to folks that are skeptical of systems of religion?

I think part of the way we push back against that aversion is by challenging the dominant theories of social change. I think that one of the mistakes that a lot of contemporary anarchists make is that they confuse symptoms with cause. For example, what they say is that during a revolution, bank windows get smashed; therefore if I smash a bank window, then that automatically means a revolution is happening at that moment the window breaks. But that’s faulty thinking; it’s confusing the symptom with the cause. During revolutions, people smash bank windows, but they also do a lot of other things too. Just because you smash a bank window doesn’t mean a revolution has been created.

Revolutions happen through a kind of collective awakening. The challenge is, how do we create that collective awakening? I think sometimes anarchism figures out how to achieve this awakening, and some kinds of volunteerist theories get to it as well. For example, with Che Guevara and Latin American Revolutionary theory, they talked about having mobile guerrilla units who did acts of violence that somehow would awaken the larger public through their spectacular acts of violence. Ultimately it didn’t work, but they were still getting at the idea that there needs to be something that awakens people.

Whether or not people agree that spirituality plays a role in social revolution, they still benefit from the spiritual nature of social change movements. They can deny that spirituality has a role in social revolutions, but at the same time, they’re benefiting from the fact that spirituality is causing and playing a major role in social revolution.

And perhaps that’s part of why people are drawn to these movements in the first place.

Right.

So I want to go back a little bit to this idea of theories of protest. I think that one of the fundamental premises of protest is that the status quo can be changed. Do you feel that this is a realistic notion? Or is the idea that we can change the world, as Simon Critchley writes, “quaintly passé, laughably unrealistic or dangerously misguided”?

Let me start by saying that I have the highest respect for Simon Critchley; he’s one of the writers I recruited forAdbusters and I always think about what he says very deeply. From my perspective, we know for a fact if we look at the last 2,000 years of human society, we see that revolution is a recurring phenomenon. It seems to be one of the strangest and most complex human phenomena that exist. No one quite knows what causes revolution, but we do know that every once in a while, all of a sudden, people go into the streets, overthrow kings, and institute wild new social reforms.

A good example of this is the French Revolution: they guillotined the king and all of a sudden, they’re shooting all the clocks and changing how time is supposed to be structured; they redid the calendar. So revolution is a phenomenon that we know exists and that we know happens. But at the same time, there is a disconnect because we know that it exists but we don’t know how to create it. That’s where we are right now. Contemporary activism actually doesn’t know how to create a revolutionary social moment. That’s kind of the horrible situation that we find ourselves in. That being said, I don’t think that we should stop believing the possibility of social change. At the same time, I do think we should be self-critical of all the methods that we’re pursuing on that path toward social change.

I agree with you in the sense of thinking about the Civil Rights movement for example, of saying, well there’s a model that Dr. King et al. used that worked then, so therefore that’s what we should be doing now. The first question we should be asking is did the method actually work and what does it even mean to have “worked” in the first place? What did it accomplish? Then, if we decide it didn’t really work, then we shouldn’t be modeling it wholesale without discerning what worked and what didn’t work. I don’t even think King was as uncritical of his methodologies as some would want us to be now; he was always critiquing the movement himself. 

Let me put it this way. I think that one way to help us rethink the way we do protest, is think of protest as a form of warfare. I say that because one definition of war is that “war is politics by other means.” Protest is a form of warfare that’s designed to change our political realities using unconventional methods. Once you realize that protest is a form of warfare, then you’re able to say that just because a certain weapon or fighting technique may have worked in the past, obviously it wouldn’t work today. They used to have a cavalry, but we don’t bring out the cavalry out against tanks today. The methods of warfare have changed throughout history. That’s why protest has to be constantly innovating. The grand marches of the Civil Rights era may have worked then, or maybe they didn’t, but it would be a mistake to assume that we can transport them from that time to our time. That’s, I think, the grand challenge of protest in our time.

Since we are thinking about Dr. King, one thing he often talked about was that protest was a means of pricking the consciences of whites through exposing the physical brutality of racism. I see his notion as the ideological precursor to your idea of the collective epiphany. I think we’ve been taught that that’s what happened in Selma. There was a collective national epiphany after whites saw Southerners beating black folks on the bridge and people from the North and pretty soon there were thousands and thousands of people walking across the bridge in Selma. 

The reality is that, as Rev. Sekou likes to say, if all the people alive today who said they were on the bridge were on the bridge, the whole thing would have probably collapsed. Thinking about this moment in history, would you classify what happened, in say Selma, as a collective epiphany? If it is, how did that movement lose the energy of that collective epiphany? My take is that people lost interest once the marches were over. If you weren’t a black person, you had the ability to lose interest without that affecting your life. What happens when we have collective epiphanies, but the interest dies out? 

One of the recurring features of revolutionary moments is that there’s this sudden overwhelming peak that seems to grow exponentially. During Occupy Wall Street, within 48 hours of the Brooklyn Bridge arrests, there were 900 encampments all over the world. It was growing at such a rate that we couldn’t even conceive of what was going to happen next. It was impossible to predict what was going to happen with all of these sudden manifestations. You can’t maintain that exponential growth forever; people get burned out. That’s just not how energy works, you know? That sudden peaking has to somehow be locked in, some way of giving it a structure that is able to persist. Looking at where we need to go today in terms of social movements, we need to be able to combine the sudden peaking of a social movement with the ability to create structures that give it a permanence. That’s why I talk a lot about the hybridization between social movements and political parties.

That’s also how I view the Civil Rights era. You can only go so far when you make demands on the people in power. What you ultimately need to do is become the people in power. If you look at Occupy Wall Street, the reason why we had those encampments is because we believed that holding the general assemblies would give us some kind of democratic sovereignty over our government. Somehow because we were a consensus-based general assembly, the police couldn’t evict us.

That turned out to not be true. We learned again that actually if you want to have sovereignty in this world, you have to either be elected or you have to militarily overthrow the sovereign. I think that right now the only practical or viable option is to become elected. I don’t think you could actually realistically conceive of a military overthrow. I think you’d just end up with a situation like Libya or Syria where it just degrades into a proxy war between nation-states. And so we have to win elections. Social movements have to win elections. That’s a real challenge because you can’t rely on leaders and at the same time you can’t rely on national party politics. You have to be a global social movement that wins elections in multiple countries. That’s the real challenge before us.

Can one be an anarchist and still want to be in politics?

Absolutely! I think that what we’re trying to achieve ultimately is sovereignty. We’re trying to achieve a situation where the people, the collective, say, “We want X,” and then X actually happens because when the people say they want X that’s what happens. Right now, we have a world system where if you hold certain positions and you say certain words, that’s what happens, due to the power of your position. For example, if you’re a governor and you say, “I pardon this death row inmate,” they’re pardoned! They’re off death row. But if you’re the people and you have a protest at the prison and try to pardon that person, it doesn’t work. So I think that if anarchism means trying to gain sovereignty over one’s life or the community gaining sovereignty over itself, then there has to be some process of self-governance that is viable. I think there’s a kind of childish or infantile anarchism that doesn’t even want to engage with the problems of self-governance. But if we’re not going to govern ourselves, then somebody else is going to. And then you’re stuck in a position of just complaining and arguing with this person in power, instead of being the ones in power.

When we read Mattathias Schwartz’s piece on the Occupy Movement in The New Yorker, we see it speaking about the challenges of consensus model for getting stuff done. I wonder too, do you feel as though in the current system there really is no reason for an elected official to listen to a protester? They don’t have to listen to us, and that’s part of the reason Occupy didn’t get as much stuff done as it could have? 

One of the greatest stories that we tell ourselves as activists is that if only I can get one million or 10 million or 100 million people into the street, then there will be social change. The reason why we tell ourselves that story is because we believe that we live in a democracy and we believe that means that when large numbers of people go into the streets, the so-called elected representatives have to listen to them. The fact is that that’s not true. This is the core insight of contemporary activism: elected representatives do not have to listen to street protests. We know this because of the February 15, 2003, global antiwar march. On the same day, there were antiwar marches in every single country. There were people in every major city with signs that said no to the war. President Bush went on television and said, “Well I don’t have to listen to those protests because I don’t listen to focus groups.” He called the protests a focus group! Millions of people are in the street and he called them a focus group! That was a defining moment because after that, Western Democracy didn’t even have to pretend that to listen to social movement protest. And so you get into the situation then, where you start doing ridiculous things like having a People’s Climate March that’s destined to failure because everyone knows that synchronized global marches don’t work. They’re designed to get publicity for large nonprofits and NGOs. They’re designed to get more donations and these kinds of things. These actions are not designed to actually succeed because if they were designed to succeed, then we would start from the assumption that, “Well that’s not gonna work; let’s figure out something new.” If you look at it objectively, you can only have one or two large social mobilizations per year. More like one, really. The People’s Climate March was a waste of effort. When you look back at 2014, there was nothing else. You only get one chance to get everyone in the streets.

And can get disillusioned as well. I experienced this a little bit myself with a protest this past April. A buddy of mine and I went to Downtown LA for it. The march was flanked by the police almost like a parade. We ended up going through Skid Row, the poor parts of Downtown LA. That’s where we spent most of our time marching. My buddy and I were looking at each other thinking, “Why aren’t we going to the financial district? Why are we not going to financial district? Why are we not going to the hipster areas? Why are we not going to these places that would not be aware?” The people in Skid Row know about police brutality. They know about poverty. They don’t need to be convinced of anything. I think that’s a prime example of what you’re talking about, where protest just becomes a ritual that everybody does to make themselves feel better, but it doesn’t actually change anything. 

Right, that’s absolutely true. On the one hand, there is the benign view that says people are being naïve and public street protest is a compulsive behavior where people say, “Well it didn’t work the last 20 times I did this, but I’m just going to do it again.” That’s the naïve approach. But I think there’s also the possibility of a sinister approach, a sinister perspective, and that’s that they’re intentionally doing this behavior. During Occupy Wall Street, it’s important to remember that there was something called the 99% Spring which was an intentional effort by the progressive community to dissipate the energy of the movement.

Another example for me is that I remember that on the general strike day in Occupy Oakland, they took everyone from Oscar Grant Plaza and we marched all the way out into the middle-of-nowhere Oakland. By then, everyone was completely exhausted. I went back to Oscar Grant Plaza, and meanwhile, while we were gone, the whole area had been surrounded by police with armored personnel carriers. It was obvious that whoever was leading that march was, to me, probably in cahoots with the police. I mean, who are these people who decide the march route, and why can’t we start to suspect that they’re working for the police? I think that’s kind of the problem, which is that it’s systemic. We have activist organizations in this country who are front groups; groups designed to dissipate the energy of revolutionary movements, who receive money and resources and whose people are promoted into high positions within social movements in order to turn them and ruin them. That’s one of the theories that I have that’s difficult to prove but that people need to speak about, that it’s a possibility.

It’s not new either. COINTELPRO demonstrated that this way of operating was the way the FBI dealt with revolutionary movements. Even going back to what you were saying politicians not listening: Nixon ignored a large portion of the nation coming out and saying, “End the war,” and said that instead of listening to the protests, he was going to listen to the silent majority. That’s swinging it, in that direction. That’s an interesting kind of thing to recognize about how our protests are perceived by the “mainstream.”

Definitely.

And so, when Patrisse Cullors, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, recently said that we are living in the land of creative protest, and here I think she’s referring to some of the most recent protests involving Bernie Sanders and other presidential candidates, she’s saying that we’re living in a time in which groups like Black Lives Matter are moving beyond ineffective protest tactics of the past. Do you agree with this assessment? 

So I really respect what she’s doing and in my heart, of course, the Black Lives Matter movement, I want as a black person, for it to succeed. At the same time, it’s very easy to fall into the kind of critical or negative perspective. But if I could give some gentle criticism, it would be that, if Black Lives Matter is living in the time of creative protest, then I would say they were only being creative around one theory of social change, which is the voluntarist model. They are too focused on the idea that we need to innovate the specific human actions that we do. I think that’s fine, but there needs to be innovation within the other three perspectives on revolution, that I mentioned earlier. You can’t just maintain a kind of materialist, disruptive perspective on protest. That would be the point that I would make. Innovation needs to happen in all the different kinds of ways we think about activism. Simply changing the ways we are disruptive, doesn’t in itself really solve the fundamental problem, which is, how are we going to become sovereign? If you want to police violence, if you want to stop police from killing black people, killing other people, then you need to be in a position where you’re appointing the police, where you’re picking the police commissioner, where you’re actually picking who the police chief is going to be in each city. If you want to change the police or abolish the police or become the boss of the police, then you have to win elections, you have to be in power. You can’t just be disruptive at the end of the day.

So when Patrisse talks about how we have to protest the police because we live in a police and prison state, and that’s why we have to protest them, is that kind of what you’re referring to when you say we shouldn’t protest police? 

I’ll say this. There’s this really great military strategist named B. H. Liddell Hart and he lays out these principles of military strategy. One of the principles that he says is that you should never attack an opponent who is on guard, waiting for your attack. This is the nature of the police. The police are a force designed to be waiting for your attack. That’s why they’re wearing riot gear and armored gear and they have shields and helmets. That’s why they’re allowed to hit you and you’re not allowed to hit them. The police are like a mirror of our own inner reality; they’re just a distraction. They’re a phantasm. They’re designed to distract. They’re bullies who are designed to take your blows and hit back harder than you’re able to hit them.

I think that if you want to defeat the police, if you’re asking, how do I defeat the police in actuality, and that’s your real campaign objective, taking a step back from what I just said, if you want to defeat the police, there is a way to do it.

I think we can take a historical lesson from Arminius. He was a Germanic chief who united the German tribes in 9 AD and ambushed the Roman legion in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. He carried out the greatest defeat of the Roman legion ever; he destroyed them all. It was such a shock that the news spread to Rome, and the Roman empire never again tried to occupy Germanic territory beyond the Rhine. If you want to defeat the police, what you would need to do is have a single decisive victory that so shocked, at a psychological level, the establishment that they would never again try to do the behaviors that lead to that overwhelming defeat. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re going to protest against the police, then only protest against the police once. But when you do, do it in a grand, spectacular way. But in actuality, you know, it’s not about the police; it’s about who’s appointing the police. The challenge is to become the people who appoint police.

That’s a fascinating thought, when you talk about Arminius, and I think it leads us directly to the violence vs. nonviolence debate. When we think about the revolutionary founding of this country and you mentioned the French Revolution and Che Guevara — what all these movements had in common was the fact that they were violent revolutions. In your opinion, must a revolution be violent to be successful? What are the chances that we will see a war on American soil, be it revolutionary, civil, or otherwise?

That’s an excellent question. It’s important to really tread carefully, of course, on this topic of violence. In one interview that I gave, I talked just a little bit about the question of violence. I received tremendous pushback. One well-known Occupy publication said that they’d never publish anything that I write if I talk about violence. This is absurd! There’s a censorship within the movement around even discussing or thinking about the question of violence and the connection to revolution. This is very bad because then what you do is you allow a kind of naïve perspective on violence to persist, rather then having a nuanced nonviolent perspective. That said, the question about violence, again, I think it gets back to a confusion between symptom and cause. During the American Revolution, during the French Revolution, during all revolutions, there is violence. Violence is a symptom of the breakdown of the normal social structures. Again, it’s a symptom of the revolution, but it’s not the cause of the revolution.

Political organizations that have believed that violence is the cause of the revolution and then try to use violence to cause a revolution have always failed. I’m thinking about the Red Army Faction or all these urban terrorist organizations in the 1970s. Even Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia because he believed he could use sporadic violence with his guerilla forces to cause a revolution in Bolivia. It not only failed miserably, he himself was killed and died trying to do this. The thing is that the American Revolution was not caused by violence orcaused by a war. Instead, it was caused by a new method of warfare. The reason why the American Revolution succeeded was because the Americans were fighting in nontraditional methods. They were using guerilla warfare: hiding behind trees and shooting at the British soldiers rather than getting in a line. They were using all kinds of new kinds of warfare that the British soldiers couldn’t deal with. And so the core insight is that revolutions happen when the weaker side uses unconventional methods. Those unconventional methods don’t necessarily have to be violent. You can use unconventional methods, but they don’t necessarily have to be violent.

On whether or not there’s going to be a kind of violent uprising in America, I think the only possible scenario that I see for that, is a kind of split between the urban and the rural area of this country. I think that this country is so urban-centric in its culture, in its outlook, in its perspective, that the rural areas, like where I live, are basically neglected or seen as a kind of storehouse for national resources, where they can come in and clear cut our forests and extract our natural wealth. And plus there’s a lot of poverty out here. So I see a possibility for an urban-rural conflict where the urban areas go their own way and the rural folks go their own way. Ultimately, what we need to move toward is a world Party and a world government. The specter of civil war ultimately needs to be avoided because no one really wins civil war scenarios. When civil war seems to break out, it seems to signal the death of any genuine revolution.

So going back to what you were saying about how you defeat the police, what I hear you saying is that there shouldn’t be a massacre of police officers, but rather that’s where the creativity needs to come in; we need to be thinking about creative ways to make this mass spectacle happen nonviolently.

Absolutely. I don’t think that you have to harm the police at all. What I’m imagining would be a kind of humiliating defeat that’s all the more humiliating because it’s not violent. For example, if you look at police tactics of warfare, they always march forward toward the protesters. They hate having anyone behind them and they absolutely do not want to be surrounded. Sometimes I imagine or visualize what would happen if a protest surrounded a large number of police officers and forced them to give up their badges, their weapons, throw them in a fire or whatever, film the whole thing on YouTube and then just walked away. I think it would be all the more humiliating if it were nonviolent. I would definitely advocate thinking about a nonviolent thing. I think when you look at Arminius, nonviolence wasn’t an option. If you nonviolently protested against the Roman Empire, it was called an insurrection and you were crucified. I think we fortunately live in a situation, due to the evolution of civilization, where we now see a distinction between nonviolent civilian protest and armed military intervention.

That’s really interesting, that we’re talking so much about agendas and demands because critics of Occupy have always said that there was no demand. The New Yorker piece talked about how vagueness was a virtue of the community in the park in Zuccotti Square and so therefore the movement doesn’t stand for anything. BLM is getting accused of the same thing. What’s your take on framing protest movements as directionless? How do you respond to the notion that Occupy stood for nothing?

So what happened with Occupy, or if you look back at how we created Occupy Wall Street, I think it’s important for people to transport themselves back into that time, because it was not the same time that we live in right now. What was going on in that time was very special and it was very different from where we’re living right now. What was going on in 2011 was the Arab Spring. In February 2011, the protesters in Tahrir Square beat back people who were thugs sent to kill them; people were shooting guns at them and the protesters defeated those people and forced Mubarak to step down. And then in May of 2011, the Spanish went into the square and started having these general assemblies protesting anti-austerity measures. At Adbusters, we saw the revolutionary potential of this moment. A lot of people did; a lot of people wanted to start a revolution in America. We were the ones who were somewhat successful. What we did is that we sent out an email to our network and said, let’s combine the tactical models of the Tahrir uprising with the general assemblies and bring it to Wall Street. We then need to hold a general assembly and decide on our one demand. And if you look at that tactical briefing, we even suggested a demand. We said that Occupy Wall Street should demand that President Obama set up a presidential commission to investigate the influence of money on politics. We actually called for something; we called for a presidential commission to investigate the influence on money on politics.

When we put that out, I was based in Berkeley, California, and Adbusters and its cofounder were based in Vancouver, British Columbia, so that meant we were relying on activists in New York City to take this idea and make it their own. When we did that, the people who took it up, the culture that took it up, was prefigurative anarchism. They believed you should not make demands of the elected representatives; instead you should build this microcosm of the ideal society and that, somehow, out of that microcosm of the ideal society, the bad society around them would collapse. The purity and goodness of our general assembly would cause the rest of the society to collapse somehow in this magical process. Well that turned out to be not true.

At the same time that it’s not true — that Occupy was never able to develop the kind of complex decision making processes that would have allowed it to settle on one demand or would have allowed it to move toward negotiating with the elected representatives and actually becoming the people in power — it’s also an illusion to say that Occupy didn’t have a core demand. Everyone knew that the core demand was “money out of politics.” We are the 99 percent; we want control over our government. The story that is told now is just one of those stories deployed against social movements.

I think the best response that people can give to that story, the story being, “Well if you guys had a clear demand, then you would have succeeded,” is to refer naysayers back to the February 15, 2003, anti-Iraq war protest, where there was a single demand that was obvious; no one suspects that Bush didn’t know what the demand was. And it also didn’t work. I think that what we need to do is be self-critical and we need to not make demands on the people in power; we need to be the people in power. So the mistake of prefigurative anarchism wasn’t that we needed to not make demands; the real mistake was thinking that we don’t have to be the people in power. We can just build our sovereignty collectively through general assembly. That turned out to be not true. I suspect that President Obama very clearly understood that the Occupy protest was about the question of the influence of money on politics. If he didn’t understand that, it would have been obvious because he would have tried to figure out what these protests were about. Part of the signal that he understood was that he didn’t try to figure out what they were about. He knew what we were about.

That’s interesting because Citizens United had just happened and that’s partially what allowed him to be elected in terms of money. There’s a kind of self-implication that would have occurred if he had listened to the demands and put a commission in place, which was kind of the point.

Right!

So what would be your advice to BLM in terms of having demands?

My first bit of advice for any social movement is to never protest the same way twice. The biggest mistake that we made with Occupy Wall Street was that our movement was synonymous with our tactics. So once occupying stopped working, then the Occupy Movement stopped working. Once we were no longer able to occupy squares, we were no longer able to grow as a movement

In terms of Black Lives Matter, in terms of demands, we need to start challenging ourselves as social movements to do the greatest and most difficult tasks because that’s what’s actually going to save us. What’s actually going to save black people from being killed by the police is by becoming the force that’s appointing or abolishing the police in our communities. Where I live, for example, there are no police. We have a sharing agreement with the nearby town. It’s not inconceivable that social movements could become so powerful that they could be elected into positions of power to actually abolish the police in their own communities, or institute a different form of policing or appoint a new police chief that’s not from the police. There’s so many ways to imagine it once you’re the one who gets to decide. I think that’s the core thing: How do we get to be the ones who decide, without falling into the trap where you rely on leaders and party politics?

There’s also a sense though in which there’s a counterargument that says, “But look at Baltimore! They have a black mayor, a black police chief, and nothing has changed for black folks and their communities. Therefore, becoming the elected officials in power doesn’t really change anything.” So perhaps change must go deeper then race; it’s about ideologies. Part of the question too is, what are the things you have to do to get elected that make you part of the problem, like the money stuff. How do we get around that? This is the question that Bernie Sanders and also Donald Trump are presenting. As we even think about 2016 election, in the post-Obama administration, what are some of the most pressing issues America faces? Is it race? Is it economics? 

One of the things that Occupy really did was that it was a global movement. I think that’s also one of the ways that Black Lives Matter represents a micro-regression away from that, in that it’s very much a national movement, or an insular movement focused on America. I think that after 2016, rather than seeing a retreat into American politics, and an obsession with activists in America, that we need to see a return to thinking about a global political situation, a global political party, a global political social movement. These are the real things that we’re facing. I think that on the one hand, it’s the challenge of how to create a social movement that can exert global, social, political power.

I think also on a personal level, I see a growing conflict between the urban and the rural areas. Living in a rural area has really shown me that America is far too urban-centric. Culture is oriented around New York City, and out here we don’t really have newspapers or magazines to orient people’s cultures. That being said, there’s something very important happening in the rural areas as we represent an alternative to the kind of urban-centric mindset. For example, we don’t have a police force, so there isn’t the same tension. In my tiny little town of 280 people, we don’t have any banks, we don’t have any large corporate offices, there aren’t any of these forces that activists have been so obsessed with fighting against. It’s a practical solution that is, moving to rural areas and gaining political sovereignty. That’s one thing I think BLM should think about. Why not gain political sovereignty of small town communities? If you come out here, you realize that the average age is 50 or 60 years old and people are actually excited about the idea of change and passing on the torch to another generation. They’re sad to see their rural communities age out and be abandoned by their youth.

That being said, are there any political action groups that rarely receive mainstream media attention that we should know about?

That’s a really good question. I think that in general, one of the things that’s really important for activists is to constantly be searching the edges of politics, looking for the tactics that are being used by minor movements that aren’t necessarily being effective at that time, but if they are transposed into a new domain, might become effective. Even with Occupy, the occupation tactic emerged out of the student occupations of 2009. Or look at the antiglobalization movement: they used these lockbox tactics that were created in the forests and anti-abortion activism. For me, it’s important to be constantly looking at the edges to see what’s coming up.

But in terms of specific movements or things that I think are interesting, for me, again it comes back to the rural situation. One of the things that’s fascinating about the rural communities is that we’re surrounded by forests, but these forests are actually tree farms, and these tree farms are no longer owned by single corporations. Instead they’re owned by these large real estate investment trusts. These real estate investment trusts are actually traded on the stock market. This means that our forests are being pulped. They’re clear cutting our forests and sending them to China! So the global economic situation therefore has a tremendous impact on our own tiny rural community of 280 people. The stock prices of these timber investment trusts that large institutions and universities are invested in, they’re putting their stock portfolios in companies that own large parts of our forest. That has an impact on our community. What I find fascinating is, how do you fight back against something like that that’s so powerful? I think that the environmental movement is just like Occupy, in that it’s under a period of constructive failure where it needs to reassess. I think that a return to the rural communities could be a kind of trigger for a new kind of generation of tactical thinking. Even by just trying to challenge clear cutting in my community, they’re coming up again against Wall Street in these real estate investment trusts.

I guess my main thing is that activists need to stop being so urban-focused and start looking at the other parts of America and exposing themselves to what’s going on out here.

I agree. When you think about how in the ’20s and ’30s and even before, there were blacks who went to places like Oklahoma and Florida and tried to start their communities. The only reason they did not succeed is because they were torn down by white supremacy. So there’s a model that could be reused without that kind of state-sanctioned white supremacist reaction that occurred then. As we end, I guess I’m curious about whether you see yourself being in politics.

I think that life is long and so I’d never foreclose possibilities for myself. I’m fascinated by the intersection of social movements with social parties. For example, I went to Italy and met with a movement called the Five Star Movement. Within five years, they had become the third largest political party in Italy, and yet they don’t call themselves a political party, they call themselves a social movement. When I met with one of the cofounders of this movement, one of the first questions he asked me was, “Are you a politician?” I told him, no, I’m an activist. And so, I feel that I’m an activist as opposed to a politician. I feel that the future of social change requires social movements to gain political power in our communities, and so whether or not I would specifically run for office, I sometimes think about doing that, but I think that I am more interested in figuring out the deeper question of like, what would be the tactics that would be needed to create that social movement that could become that planetary political party? Those are the challenges that I’m particularly passionate about. I would only run for office if there was an absolute necessity for me in particular.

It might be, though, like the Five Star Movement. The founder abstains from running for office. It might be that the next iteration of social movements are able to be political parties; it might be that their founders don’t run for office to resist that kind of leadership. We saw with Syriza, that once Alexis Tsipras became the leader of this anti-austerity party, then he could renounce anti-austerity and sell everyone down the river. So it might be that it’s not possible for me to run for office because of those views.

Syriza is a great and fascinating case study in the political-social movement hybrid you’ve been talking about. In closing, if you could describe, in a couple of sentences, what kind of world you want your son to grow up in, how would you describe it? 

I want my son to grow up in a world where he can freely travel across borders. Where he can go to places in a world that’s heterogeneous. I want him to be able to go to some places that still have indigenous culture and then go to other places where people are living in some kind of virtual reality, cybernetic future, and that they he experience the full range of the human experience, and then be able to kind of travel freely without destroying the heterogeneity of the human experience.

I imagine a world in which there’s one state and it’s called Earth and we’re all on it. People who are refugees are given free passage to move to other places. I was just reading about how Japan’s population is so substantially declining. Why can’t we just let people from all the climate-hit places of Africa go to Japan and meld with that culture? That’s the kind of world I’m imagining: cosmopolitan, in the sense that we’re all citizens of the universe, citizens of the world. I’m a globalist. Only social movements with a global perspective can succeed. Any social movement that doesn’t start from a global perspective is already dead on arrival.

Source: https://lareviewofbooks.org/interview/the-…