What Micah White Learned from the Failure of Occupy Wall Street
Is protest broken? Micah White, the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, former AdBusters editor, and the author of The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, thinks so. Recent years have witnessed the largest protests in human history, yet these mass mobilizations no longer change society. Activism is at a crossroads: innovation or irrelevance. A lifelong social activist with a twenty-year record of innovative approaches to creating social change, Micah takes audiences through his theories of mass movements that are destined to inspire—and catalyze—the next generation of global actions. Micah has been touring to promote his book, and sat down with NOW magazine to talk about it:
Micah White has been conducting experiments in revolutionary activism since he was 13, beginning with his refusal to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by an Equal Access Act fight to form an atheist club in high school. That last one landed him on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect.
Now the former Adbusters editor and co-instigator of the Occupy movement has some choice words for today’s activists: protest is broken. It’s time to revolutionize the pathway to social change.
NOW chatted with White about the power of spiritual epiphanies and the future of protest ahead of his appearance at the Toronto Reference Library on Thursday (March 17).
Not everyone knows that the Occupy movement started as an idea developed at Adbusters by you and Kalle Lasn….
Kalle and I wrote a tactical briefing that called for American activists to bring the tactics of [the Tahrir uprising in Egypt] and [the anti-austerity movement] in Spain to Wall Street to break the stranglehold that money has over our democracies. Our briefing captured the imagination of activists, and events quickly spiralled out of our control. Occupy Wall Street spread to 82 countries because few people knew the true origin of the movement. This was both an intentional strategy and a by-product of the horizontal and leaderless structure of the movement we’d called for in the original tactical briefing. The participants, and not the creators, controlled the destiny of the movement.
You say Occupy was a gift to global activists, both in its success and its failure. What illusions did it help bust up?
Occupy Wall Street was a nearly textbook example of a social movement that should have worked. But it didn’t. That is why I call Occupy a constructive failure. The movement taught us that contemporary activism has been chasing an illusion: the idea that the most effective form of protest is to get millions of people into the streets because then our elected representatives will be forced to heed the wishes of the people. The first goal of my book is to shift the paradigms of protest by challenging activists to question this dominant theory of activism.
Organizers of recent climate marches would counter that the presence of millions on the streets around the globe pressured world leaders to take action on climate change. Do you totally reject that?
I certainly reject the notion that single-day, large-scale, docile marches exert any real pressure on global leaders. On the contrary, these events have become an integral part of the political spectacle designed to distract the people from pursuing an actual revolution, dissipating their energy and wasting their time. Rather than trying to build movements that “pressure” global leaders, it’s time for activists to imagine how a social movement could replace global leaders.
You’ve said newer protest methods like the Clicktivism of Avaaz are ruining left-wing activism, too. Are you seeing any signs of innovative activism percolating?
I see signs of innovative activism happening at the edges of politics both on the left and the right. Social movements require a willing historical moment, a contagious mood and a new tactic. A new tactic can be consciously created by importing new protest behaviours from abroad, like we did with Occupy Wall Street. I just returned from Bali, where I gave a talk to 250 international high school student activists from across East Asia. I was amazed at the sophistication of their thinking about activism, especially the students from Singapore and China. I also met with some of the organizers of Tolak Reklamasi, a social movement whose impetus to stop the destruction of a grove of trees I found eerily similar to Turkey’s Occupy Gezi. The innovative aspect was the movement’s use of pre-existing indigenous local governance structures at the neighbourhood level to quickly scale up the protests.
Your book is surprisingly spiritual. Your “unified theory of revolution” suggests that prayer, ritual and faith in divine intercession may be one of the most effective forms of revolutionary activism. That’s quite a shift from your early days fighting for -atheist rights.
Social movements are a collective awakening, or a contagious epiphany, that spreads throughout society. Anyone who has experienced one of these magical moments has felt this. The spiritual side of protest was openly discussed by many participants of Occupy Wall Street. My shift away from strict atheism is motivated by the experience of Occupy and the conviction that secular materialism has dominated leftist revolutionary theory for too long, preventing activists from developing new tactics that go beyond physical action.
A palpable spiritual vibe is definitely spreading in parts of the activist community. But a lot of activists are staunch atheists. What is the big spiritual epiphany that you hope to see become an “emotional contagion”?
The epiphany that changes the world is the loss of fear. This spiritual sensation of fearlessness, of submission to a higher purpose, quickly inspires people to break their old habits and start living without dead time. Atheists can rationally resist the spiritual side of social movements, but they still experience it emotionally and benefit politically. Creating epiphanies is a form of warfare that all activists, religious and secular, must learn to master.
You write that environmentalists have fallen down a rabbit hole of computer modelling and proving climate abstractions, and that there’s a direct line between today’s “technocratic environmentalism” and a future hijacked by disaster capitalism and authoritarianism. Could you explain?
Environmentalism is overly dominated by scientific empiricism. This has led to an arguably failed activist approach based on abstract goals, like 350 ppb of CO2 in the atmosphere. I see the potential for technocratic environmentalism to be used to justify totalitarianism, or eco-fascism. Given the dramatic scale of the problem, and if the apocalyptic storms continue to grow in strength, we may see the rise of dark forces that cynically use the crisis to gain power. Ultimately, only a planetary social movement can mitigate climate change in an equitable way. And I believe it is important to resist efforts by leaders who may use environmentalism as an excuse to restrict civil liberties. The true revolutionary goal for environmentalism therefore ought to be a global people’s democracy capable of mitigating the climate catastrophe and facilitating the resettlement of climate refugees by breaking down borders.
How can a shift to “mental environmentalism” save the movement?
The pollution of our minds is the source of the pollution of our world. The biggest pollutant of our mental environment is advertising that poisons our collective unconscious with the vices of consumerism.
Your Boutique Activist Consultancy offers full-service social movement creation. Can you talk about some of the campaigns you’re working on?
Our model is unique: we rely on people worldwide who contribute a small amount of money each month to empower us to work on the campaigns that matter most. Instead of becoming beholden to clients who dictate our aims, we rely on patrons worldwide who free us to follow our passions. The End Of Protest is the first major result of this crowd-patron model. Going forward, the birth of a women-led World Party is the main revolutionary scenario we’re working on and the one I’m most excited about.
What gives you hope for the future?
Revolution is one of the most complex, recurring phenomena of human social existence. Although revolutions have been happening nearly every two or three generations since the dawn of civilization, they remain very difficult to predict. In fact, revolutions often occur when they appear least likely. I’m optimistic about the future of protest because I know that revolution is an indispensable part of being human and it is one of the only ways that the people can inaugurate new eras of history.