Activism Against Activism at the Roskilde Festival

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On July 4th, Micah will give a participatory talk on “Activism Against Activism: How to Change the World” at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, the largest music and arts festival in Northern Europe. Approximately 160,000 people attend Roskilde. This year’s headliners include Bob Dylan, Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, Vampire Weekend and lots more. Enliven your audience: bring Micah to your next event.

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Why Power Needs Protest

“We have to ask why activists are being brought to this gathering of elites. Why are we being listened to? What is it that we're providing the powerful?” says Micah White at the OECD Forum in Paris.

 

“The nature of power is changing. You can no longer be a superpower who just has material superiority, and therefore gets to dictate onto the world. You now need to be able to demonstrate a kind of engagement among your citizen population... What's changing is this conception of protest and activism as an adversarial force, and instead we're going to see governments who start to realize that their power is derived from their capacity to work with social movements, or even create their own social movements. Climate change, income inequality, these global social challenges will only be solved through some sort of collaboration with global social movements.”

Full Transcript of Micah White’s remarks at the OECD Forum in Paris (May 2019)

Micah White: I have been an activist my entire life. It's all I've ever done. I started organizing protesting campaigns when I was 13. The very first thing I did is I refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, which is a kind of mandatory pledge before class begins in public schools in America.

Shiv Malik: Why did you refuse to do that?

Micah White: When you're 13, honestly, the reasons are never quite as rational as you... At my age, looking back, I can give you eloquent reasons, but disobedience, dissatisfaction with how I didn't feel like I fit in. Then the words of the pledge of allegiance give a very glorified story of liberty and equality for all and all this kind of stuff. But rebellious spirit.

Micah White: I was 17 in 1999, and actually, I had been an activist for a while. But my story is I would reading a magazine called Adbusters, and Adbusters had been talking about a social protest that was going to happen in Seattle in 1999, and when it did actually happen and it emerged as this amazing thing, I became a devotee of Adbusters. And that's ultimately where Occupy Wall Street came from. It was a call put up by Adbusters Magazine.

Micah White: So from the Seattle protest, it brought me into Adbusters magazine, I started to work there, and then so many years later we created Occupy Wall Street. I was a high school student, and it showed me the power and the capacity of disciplined militants to disrupt global structures through coordinated action, and their kind of non-hierarchical format is what really influenced Occupy, I think, in their consensus-based assemblies.

Shiv Malik: Micah, same question to you. What did it mean in a sense to feel, as a co-founder of Occupy, that sort of personal responsibility, and did you suffer from burnout?

Micah White: Well, I mean absolutely burnout is one of the great challenges of activism. I've been activist, like I said, since I was 13, and as I get older and older, I see fewer and fewer activists. I think that though it's important to not overestimate the roles of individual activists in creating these social movements, I think that a lot of times activists, we take credit for things that might be structural forces outside of our control. For example, the birth of Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring might have more to do with food prices than with the specific actions of activists calling for social change and all this kind of stuff.

Micah White: The way that I avoid burnout is two things. One, the study of social movements and revolutions show that they tend to emerge when they seem least likely. Whenever I feel despondent and like I'm burned out, that's actually when I think that it's about to break out, like the movement's about to break out. This is true. Trotsky talks about this with the Russian Revolution. If you talked to people before Occupy Wall Street they said, "No, nothing's going to happen in our country." Even when the Arab Spring was breaking out, people said, "Occupy is never going to happen in our country."

Micah White: Similarly, I think that when you feel low is when possibilities emerge, and when we feel overconfident, when we start celebrating the effectiveness of social protest and all this kind of stuff is when I start to get a little skeptical and start to feel like I need to pull back.

Shiv Malik: Occupy wasn't obviously a march. It was an occupation. Why that tactic? Was that tactic particularly effective, and do you think actually it's those kinds of tactics which can be even more effective, because it shows real dedication? Is that the thing?

Micah White: Yeah. I mean I think this gets back to basically questions of theories of change behind activism. I mean, if you look at the long history of social protest... It's amazing. We actually have records from Ancient Egypt, so 5000 years ago, that talk about the king being overthrown by the poor people in the streets. We know that for the last 5000 years, periodically, that people go into the streets, they overthrown their governments and try to demand changes.

Micah White: But I think that if we look at the trajectory of social protest, how it's changed is that definitely since the 20th century, social protest has stopped being about basically overthrowing the government and trying to replace it, and it's started to be either trying to influence the government that's in power, or even now, today, to become some sort of form of marketing and social marketing and trying to change the discourse and spread awareness and all this kind of stuff.

Micah White: I think that the reason why, if you ask specifically, why did Occupy choose the general assembly consensus-based assembly model, it's because we were trying to manifest a form of popular sovereignty. We were trying manifest a form of popular will, a more direct form of democracy. I think that ultimately that's what social protests trying to do. Social protests are trying to assert a kind of people power, but specifically, getting back to this question of the social contract, really a popular will or like Rousseau's concept of the will of the people and all this kind of stuff.

Micah White: That has been, at least the democratic myth is that our governments are based on the consent of the governed. That's what I think social movements have been trying to do is demonstrate, "Well, you don't have our consent." That's where things are breaking down.

Shiv Malik: Just to go back, was a deliberate tactic to say, "You know what? We're going to just stay here. Stay on this spot right here?"

Micah White: Yeah. The Occupy specifically was the merging of two social movements. It was the merging of the Tahrir Square uprising, where the people went into Egypt and they said, "We will not leave until Mubarak goes," and he did go, and with the Indignados in Spain, where they instead went into the squares and they said, "We're going to hold these assemblies and demonstrate a superior form of democracy. We wanted to demonstrate that there is another form of democracy." And Occupy did both. It said, "Let's go to a place of symbolic importance, which is the financial districts, and let's hold these general assemblies." That's what we did. We merged those two movements, brought it to America, and then it exploded to 82 countries.

Shiv Malik: You mentioned that different... Run through maybe a few hand actions. Just explain to people what that means, and the famous call and response.

Micah White: Social movements emerged out of a combination of like a new tactic, and like a willing historical moment, and also like a contagious mood. Occupy had a whole series of rituals that we did that were-

Shiv Malik: Were they rituals? Rituals almost sound like... Oh, go on. I'll let you finish. Sorry.

Micah White: Well no, I think that they were rituals because I mean the thing about a social movement that's interesting is... When we created Occupy Wall Street, I was working in Adbusters, and Adbusters is based in Vancouver, Canada. It's not even an American magazine. And I was living in Berkeley, California, not even on the east coast. The movement was taken up by people in New York City who I had never met, never heard of, and they came along with their own baggage. They had ideas like don't make demands. So when we actually put out the call for Occupy, we actually said, "Let's get an assembly and come up with a demand." And then the people in New York were like, "Well we believe in prefigurative anarchism. We don't believe in demands."

Micah White: The reason why I call them rituals is because in New York, we had a whole series of things, like there was twinkle fingers to show that you agreed with something. You put your fingers down to show you disagreed with something. We had the people's mic, which is that you would basically chant what someone was saying in order to broadcast it without microphones to larger audiences. But when those rituals translated to other environments-

Shiv Malik: So you would say...

Micah White: I'd say, "Hello everyone," and-

Shiv Malik: And everyone in the room would go...

Audience: Hello.

Shiv Malik: Yeah, you're terrible. But you get the idea.

Micah White: Well we started it by saying, "Mic check," and everyone says, "Mic check." And then whoever said mic check gets to be listened to.

Micah White: That was an amazing and powerful experience, because part of what social movements do is the theme of this conference, is emotion, and part of what Occupy did is that it was a tremendous sense of belonging to sit in a space and chant each other's words.

Micah White: I think that then those things... We would see those behaviors repeated without a consciousness about why they were being done in other environments. It became self-destructive. I mean I think the thing about social movements is that it's very hard for them to change. Even when Occupy started to fail, we weren't able to actually change the tactics of the movement, which is something that I think all social movements subsequent to Occupy have also had trouble with.

Shiv Malik: Do you think Occupy failed, in the Rebecca Solnit sense of the word? Look, there's someone here who was inspired by what you did, and she's still going, and there's thousands of kids on the street still going?

Micah White: Look, it has to do with the definition of success. The definition of success for an activist in 1917 was, "My movement overthrew the government and we are the ones in power." Now the definition of success has become, "I'm at a conference of powerful elites, and they are using my words." And I'm glad they are using my words, but that's not success. Occupy's not in power. The 99%'s not in power.

Micah White: Similarly, I think that there's a real danger in... I mean we have to ask why are activists even being brought to this community of elites? Why are we being listened to? What is it that we're providing the elites? I think that yes, Occupy was a constructive failure. Obviously it created a new generation of activists, it did lots of positive things, but does the 99% have more power today than we did when Occupy started? No. Absolutely not.

Micah White: Even the Arab Spring, all of these movements. Did Occupy manage to overthrow the power of money in our democracies? No. There's positive things that came out of it, but to call that a success is to degrade the meaning of activism to a point where it becomes social marketing. Social marketing has its role, but we need that old kind of activism, where literally it meant this movement is going to take power away from the people who have power.

Micah White: Well I mean I think that there is basically a global culture of dissent. With Occupy, what happened is... If you look at the sociological data of who took part... Occupy spread first of all, let's remember, to 82 countries and 1000 cities. It was everywhere for that brief period of time. And if you look at who took part in the social movement, they shared a few common features which is that they were what is called the cognitariat. They were over-educated, highly indebted, digitally enabled young people, and that was true whether or not you looked at the protests in Russia or the protests in America.

Micah White: Part of it is that I think we are part of a... There's these global cultures of dissent. But getting back to this point of anti-globalization, I think when that when the anti-globalization movement started in 1999, it definitely was anti-globalization, and I think it became something like Alter Globalization, which is what you're kind of referring to. I think that part of what happened is that we had to absorb the global structure because we were fighting global forces.

Micah White: What's happening now is that activism has... We are globalists. At least I'm a globalist, because we build global social movements in order to solve global social problems. That's, I think, one of the kind of distinguishing things, is that we ended up accepting that yes, you need global institutions. We just want global activist-y institution I would say, or that activism itself becomes a global institution perhaps.

Micah White: I think it gets back to this question of revolution versus reform. I think that if you look at the history of social protest on the left, we were extremely successful. We had the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, we decolonized Africa, et cetera. But those came with a tremendous amount of pain. We had the gulags and... Basically there was a kind of disavowal of revolution among the left after we saw what the consequences of revolution were.

Micah White: I think the left has tended towards reform, and on the right, I think it's a different experience. I think the reason why you're seeing that they're more effective, quote, unquote, is because they've gone for power, and through electoral means or otherwise. They've literally gone for power, whereas if you look at what the left was doing after the failure of Occupy Wall Street, is we just doubled down on street protests. We had Black Lives Matter. We just had endless street protests. Very, very, very little attempts at actually gaining power. I think the left is afraid of power in a certain sense, and I'm talking about the radical left, not the elite left, which I think the elite left really wants to hold onto its power and is scared of losing its power.

Micah White: But I'm talking about the capacity of social movements. I mean to point to a leftist-

Shiv Malik: Why are they afraid of gaining power?

Micah White: Because look what happens. Even if you point at the French Revolution, the French revolutionaries put people on the barges, had mass kangaroo courts, and then drowned them en masse. All of the leftist revolutions, if you look at what happened, was horrible, and I think that this gets back to-

Shiv Malik: Can we say that that was a long time ago at this point?

Micah White: No. I think that's deep in our DNA, which is that I think that we're still afraid to open that can of worms. In the opening panel someone asked, "What's the pain we're willing to take?" And I think the left is not willing to say, "Look, I'm going to have a revolution, knowing that horrible things are going to happen because it's somehow necessary." That's the thing. I think that the Russian revolutionaries, the Chinese revolutionaries, they understood that horrible things happen in revolutions, but it was necessary. I think the left is very scared of saying, "I'm going to take power and institute my popular will," because look at the consequences.

Micah White: No. I mean I don't want to go so far to say that all protests are failures, because like I said, I think that a revolution would be a success, at least temporarily-

Shiv Malik: Well if they're successful to get it rebranded is what I'm trying to say.

Micah White: Oh, I see what you're saying. Yes, they-

Shiv Malik: "Oh, that's just a protest," or, "Oh, it was an uprising," kind of thing.

Micah White: Yeah, maybe. I mean think maybe if they stay within the level of protest they fail. But I want to respond to this question of what's new, because I think that what is new is that I think that governments elites are starting to understand that their power cannot function without some sort of interaction with social movements. Even more so, that they might actually need social movements in order to achieve the things that they want to achieve.

Micah White: I think that that's what new is, that the nature of power is changing. You can no longer be a superpower who just has material superiority, and therefore gets to dictate onto the world. You now need to be able to demonstrate a kind of engagement among your citizen population in order to achieve these things. So it's both demonstrating an engagement among your population, but also realizing that climate change, income inequality, these things will only be solved through some sort of collaboration with global social movements.

Micah White: So I think that what's changing is this conception of protest and activism as an adversarial force, and instead we're going to see governments who start to realize that their power is derived from their capacity to work with social movements, or even create their own social movements, which frankly gets back to, I think, how it was with earlier revolutionary movements.

Shiv Malik: You write that we need to move to a more nuanced theory of protest. Actually, protest failure, I should say. What's so un-nuanced about our current theories of protest failure and why they fail?

Micah White: Well I mean I would say that most activists ascribe their failure to either police repression or a failure of tactics and strategy, which I think that... Actually what's happening is that there's something deeper. On the one hand, I think that protests are failing because the activist culture that we have is broken, so that we are not the activists that we need. I'm including myself in that. I think that that's kind of a sad realization, that there's something about activist culture itself that is unable to withstand the tremendous pressure to conform to movement orthodoxy, and that's why you see activists repeating the same failed tactics and behavior, such as organizing one day large scale marches and stuff like that.

Micah White: I think that what's broken is a kind of activist culture, but I think that also, getting back to my earlier point, there is something about movements' relationship to power that is shifting, and I think that both elites haven't caught up to that fact, and I think that movements also haven't caught up to the fact.

Micah White: I think that the radicals of the past were much more sophisticated in their understanding both of social change and the history of attempts at social change. I mean, just if you read Trotsky or Lenin or any of those older thinkers, the first thing that happens when you read that is you're just lost. You're like, "Wow, I can't even understand the nuance between the different parties and ideologies that are arguing with each other." Really, I think that's true. I think that today's level of discourse about social change and activism is very much lower than it was 100 years ago. I think that that comes out in a lot of ways. I think that they were much-

Shiv Malik: Is it lower than it was 20 years ago?

Micah White: I mean if I were going to put my finger on when the breakdown happened, I think that it started to happen, like I was saying earlier, around the '60s or '70s, with a kind of disavowal of that history. I think that there was this movement against... No one wants to say that they're a Leninist or Stalin... I mean some people... No average person wants to say that, whereas I think that there was a-

Shiv Malik: Can we say no one should want to say that?

Micah White: Well I don't know if we should or shouldn't. I mean I think that the issue is that most of us agree that we should not, and I think that with that has been a tremendous loss of a complexity of thought. I think that today's people, activists, myself included, I'm not saying I'm anywhere better, but I'm saying that today's activists would have a lot of difficulty parsing the sophisticated intellectual and historical and political arguments that would've been commonplace to a worker who was part of the Communist Party 100 years ago.

Shiv Malik: Yeah, but then people don't know that much about the Bible anymore, and that turns out to be really important to culture, and yet we still have cultural conversations that are incredibly complex. I mean I could probably talk to almost anyone in this room for about four hours of Game of Thrones. I mean Game of Thrones isn't clearly the Bible. But people have complex conversations. It's just they're not about certain things and they are about certain other things. We're about to have an incredibly complex conversation about new digital methods in about one and a half minutes when I shut up. But there are new conversations going on, though. I mean why harken back to the past?

Micah White: I think what I'm trying to say, if you look at... Like Lenin and they... They studied for example, to give a specific example. They actually studied the Paris Commune, and developed theories for why the Paris Commune failed, and then used those theories to change their behaviors when their turn came. I think that today's activists have lost a lot of that sophisticated nuance, such that we don't have a theory for why the Russian Revolution or what we would do if we were the Russian revolutionaries, because we don't want to be the Russian revolutionaries, and also because we don't have that capacity anymore.

Micah White: I think that that means that if you were to transport back in time and have a conversation with the average activist in the past, I think we would be out of our depth, myself included. I think we would just be like, "Whoa, I can't even understand the difference between Menshevik and Bolshevik, and why does this matter?" We would just be out of our depth. I think that's the danger of activism today.

Micah White: Yes. One of my secret passions is I'm way into cryptocurrency. The anonymous inventor of Bitcoin, embedded a reference to the financial collapse in the original source code. I've been following Bitcoin since basically Occupy Wall Street, because I remember they were a similar kind of concept.

Shiv Malik: They were born at the same moment. Of the same moment.

Micah White: Yes. They came out of the same kind of... They were a different form of protest. I think that yeah, absolutely, I think that one of the things which is developing which will have a tremendous impact on the future is the development of smart contracts, moving a kind of distributed governance to a kind of decentralized way. But I also think that there's a tremendous need for skepticism. I think it's very dangerous. If you look at the distribution of wealth within cryptocurrency economies, it's even worse than our current economy. The distribution of wealth among Ethereum and Bitcoin is even worse.

Micah White: It's like one step forward, two steps back in this weird way. But I would rather take that step forward, because I do think that smart contracts, cryptocurrencies, offer some sort of way out.

Shiv Malik: The general idea is that for example, you could run insurance systems, you could run governance systems, you could run any organization in a way that there wasn't necessarily any equity. Or if you wanted to run big platforms like Uber say, you didn't have to have an Uber in the middle. You could just have these things, and you can have these things decentralized. People are building them, and they've got billions behind them, so it's not like they're just sitting there tinkering away in their garage. They're actually well-funded.

Micah White: They ar a demonstration of a kind of leaderless model. But I mean oftentimes the idealism of cryptocurrency outpaces the reality of cryptocurrency. But the idealism of cryptocurrency is great, and I've been an early adopter myself. Yeah, it's wonderful.

Micah White: I want to answer this question here real quick. I would just say that for a young activist, I think the most important thing is to never protest the same way twice. I think that the continuation of the same protest tactic oftentimes is why movements fail.

Shiv Malik: Which is weird because-

Anuna De Wever Van der Heyden: I did it already 19 times. She told me a while ago.

Shiv Malik: But isn't persistence the thing?

Micah White: No. I think that the way that the status quo works is that it becomes more and more resistant to the repetition of the tactic. Something about the social organism that inculcates itself. I would say that they are already training to deal with that tactic times 10. They see the tactic, and they train to defeat it.

Micah White: Yeah, absolutely I agree that a revolution is necessary. I think to use your paradigm, the challenge is to get the under 30-year-olds to want to have power. I think that the issue is that the under 30-year-olds, maybe even under 50-year-olds, it's like out of fashion to want power because we think it's somehow dirty or bad. I don't know the reason. I think that absolutely, if we could get under 30-year-olds to suddenly be like, "We need a revolution, and our generation is the one to do it," then I think we would see some beautiful things. But I think until then, we're just going to be kind of spinning in this circle.

Shiv Malik: That was great.

Watch the full panel discussion here.