If you're looking for a path from protest to power, please read Micah's new book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution.
Time To Move Beyond Memes And Street Spectacles
Disillusioned with traditional protest, activist, writer and Occupy Wall Street co-creator Micah White moved to rural Nehalem, Ore. — population 280 — not long after the Occupy movement fizzled out to run for local office and test out an idea of social change.
"We could have activists take over small towns for the benefit of people who live there and the people who are going to move there, and actualize all of the grand ideas that we have on the left," he tells me. "That's where I'm at as an activist, thinking, 'Is that possible?' "
I reported from Nehalem and toured the town with him. I also interviewed White at length at his home there. Here's that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
You've gone from trying to look at the big picture, global "We are the 99 percent," stop the money in politics, end corporate greed down to 280 people. Why go small?
I think one of the things about being an activist is what you have to do is you have to first create a theory of social change and then also you have to test it out. Occupy Wall Street tested out a grand theory of social change, which was basically, "If you can get millions of people into the streets, largely non-violent, and unified behind a central message, then change will have to happen." I think we spread to 82 countries. It was amazing. And it didn't work.
In that constructive failure I re-assessed and I was like, "You know, I think the reason it didn't work was because there's something fundamentally broken about protest." I ended up moving to small town Oregon and realizing, "Here's another theory of how social change could happen."
There's certainly debate about Occupy's overall impact, but ultimately, both in your book (The End Of Protest: A New Playbook For Revolution) and in your talks, you seem to come down pretty firmly on one side of that debate, as someone who helped co-found it and get it started. You see it as a failure.
This is the fundamental thing. I think one of the problems with contemporary activism is that we've really lowered our horizon of possibility. We've really changed what we think success is. If you look at the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, what did success mean as a political activist, a political revolutionary? It meant the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution, or the American Revolution. Taking control of one's government, changing the way power functions.
Success now has become something like getting a lot of people to hear about my meme. Or changing the discourse. We changed the discourse. We trained a whole new generation of activists, but we didn't change how power functions. That's what our real goal was. I think that's an indictment of contemporary activism. We spread to 82 countries faster than any social movement has ever spread that fast. And it didn't work. I think it's really important as an activist to constantly learn from one's past failures. I think a lot of activists don't want to learn from Occupy Wall Street.
When I look at activism in the six years since Occupy, they're repeating the same mistake over and over and over again. We have become obsessed with the spectacle of street protests, and we have started to ignore the reality that we are getting no closer to power. You would think that with the triumph of Trump there would be a fundamental reassessment among activists. But there hasn't been. They've just doubled down on the same behaviors!
Right. When you say it was a constructive failure, it's constructive only if people learn from it. You're saying, in the age of Trump, there is a kind of fetishization of street protest and spectacle over substance?
Yeah, we've come to a dangerous point where what's really going on, and this is the deep thing that no one wants to talk about, which is that the left has been taken over by anti-revolutionaries. The left actually doesn't really believe in the desirability or possibility of revolution anymore. I think that has a lot to do with the trauma of our past revolutions: the experience of the cultural revolution in China, the Stalinist gulags. All of that kind of stuff has turned the left into people who believe in reform, not revolution.
Now look at the right. The right's all about revolution worldwide. That's why they're winning. I think that's really the fundamental problem here. People who celebrate the grand successes of Black Lives Matter and Occupy and Standing Rock and all these protests. It feels really good to celebrate those things as success, but it's leading us further and further away from real success, and that's dangerous. I mean we're seeing how dangerous that is right now with Trump in so many ways. He is fundamentally pushing our world into a dark place. So it's very dangerous for the left to continue to treat online social marketing as if it were social activism. Protest alone does not give us political power. That's why we have Trump right now.
But an activist who's been in the cold at Standing Rock, or out in the street for Black Lives Matter, or who was at one the many Occupy protests might say, "Micah's sitting in Nehalem, Ore., population 280, telling me the best way to protest? He needs to walk the walk." What are you really doing to walk the walk here in your community?
I've been an activist since I was 13, so my whole life has been doing this. I think it's very possible for us to build a social movement that would win elections in many, many rural communities very quickly. Much more quickly than anyone's ever seen. I think that it is conceivable that we could wake up and we could have activists controlling literally the local level in a way that we've never seen before. With that power, we'd have the sovereignty to pass legislation that really fundamentally affects people's lives.
In Nehalem, Ore., where I live, we have a $700,000 budget surplus [Note: the city manager calls it an emergency fund] because of all the timber land that we own. If there were activists who controlled city council, it would be very easy for us to say that no child shall be hungry within our community. Or we could say, "Every child shall have college grants" if they want that. Or student loan forgiveness. Or whatever. Basically all of these ideas that have been floating around within activist communities, we could actually carry them out quite simply. I look at it and I just see that we've become very good at getting millions of people into the streets and we're very bad at winning elections.
You ran for city office. Tell us how that worked out?
Yeah. I ran for mayor (in November). It was probably one of the most fascinating experiences in my life and it was a huge growing experience for me. Nehalem's a microcosm. The reason why I lost the election I think is so much tied in to what's going on nationally and globally right now. First of all, just to give people a sense of what happened, I got 20 percent of the vote which I think is actually pretty amazing as someone who's a black American in rural white Oregon speaking about revolution. I wrote a book with revolution in the title, I'm a former Occupy guy. Still, one out of five people voted for me.
The basic platform wasn't vote for Micah White. It was instead this idea of, "Let's create something called a Nehalem's People's Associations and before each city council meeting let's go to those people's associations, let's get together with our neighbors and let's talk about what city council should do the following day. Let's move power away from city council to these Nehalem People's Associations." I told people, "If I'm elected mayor, then I will basically abide by the decisions of the people who come to these meetings." I had five of them before each city council meeting over the course of five months. There were so many people who showed up. We passionately debated things. People were on both sides — against and for. It was like the first time, I think, that people from across the political spectrum who live in this tiny town sat in the same room together and debated things like, "Change is happening in our community. How do we navigate it? What do we want it to look like in the future?" and all this kind of stuff. It was really beautiful.
What did the opposition do? It's the same thing that happened on the national level. All of a sudden I was hit with fake news. All of a sudden there's these rumors going around. People started asking me, "Are you a satanist?" I was like, "Whoa. First of all, what is even a satanist?" People literally believed I'm doing Satan worshiping exercises somewhere. I had no idea how to respond to that. It was like Pizzagate, if people remember that. All of sudden people were convinced that there was a child pedophilia ring in the basement of a pizza place in D.C. It's like that. They were just convinced I was a satanist!
Wait. Satanist. How did the satanist charge start? Did you say something that got twisted, or no?
Someone in Portland decided that they were going to try start satanist clubs at elementary schools in Oregon. They just by chance happened to pick Nehalem Elementary School, which is a few blocks from my house. So a disconnected event, someone tried to start a satanist club. Other event — Micah's running for mayor. There must be some sort of connection here!
So people were like, Micah White, he's an after school satanist?
Exactly. And meanwhile I don't have a child at the elementary school. I'm not a satanist. I don't believe in Satan. I'm against Satan. I actually love good. That's why I do social activism. I'm trying to create a better place. The thing about fake news is they don't ask you. They don't ask you.
So this activist from Berkeley and Occupy comes out here to a small town saying we need a local revolution? Talk about the kind of pushback you got besides the satanist charge.
That's what I think is so interesting again about the Nehalem experience and I think why solving how to win elections in rural communities will actually unlock a global challenge. People actually started a counter-campaign against me called, "Keep Nehalem Nehalem." Basically that summarizes what it was about, which was basically, "We don't want change. Keep it the way it is." They wanted to say that I was the driver of change, when instead I was saying, "Change is happening in this community. The demographics are changing already. I'm a symptom of that but there's other people here — the 20 percent who voted for me — who are also symptomatic of that. Let's figure out how to navigate the change."
I feel like it's the forces who can navigate change who will win right now. The forces like Trump who just want to say, "Let's close our borders. We don't need to figure out about climate change. We don't need to figure out about immigration or understand why (refugees) are having to move here." They're the ones who are ultimately going to lose.
Well you say "they're ultimately going to lose." But there's these right-wing populist nationalist movements in the U.S. and across many countries, especially Europe — Netherlands, Hungary, Poland — saying, "This change is really scary. I'll help you navigate it." What do you say to a Steve Bannon or others who might say, "You still don't get why Donald Trump is president. He attracted working-class folks who were fed up with elites trying to spoon-feed them their solution"?
I think the best example is climate change. Donald Trump doesn't have a plan for solving climate change because it would require a global response. He doesn't believe in global responses, so he denies that it exists.
Ultimately they can't solve the thing that really needs solving. Because of that, I think that we're going to swing back into power. We need a global populism. We need another vision of globalism. That's what's really at stake here, is two visions of populism. One, charismatic single individuals like Donald Trump and Putin. Another, social movements that can win elections in multiple countries, things like Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, the Pirate Party in Iceland. These are competing visions for how power should function, and I think our vision is ultimately better — if we can figure it out.
Do you think the Democratic Party could ever be a vehicle for real transformation, or in your view is the party too tainted by money to ever be able to become a viable progressive vehicle again?
I'm much, much more tantalized by the possibility of a new social movement. A new political party that can sweep America and also other countries too. I think the Democratic Party, these establishment types, they're so desperate to co-opt social protests back into getting themselves into power that ultimately I think they're very, very detrimental to our success. I'm not into the Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Party resurgence stuff. I think that those people will constantly pull us back into a vision of globalism that seriously is broken. They're not challenging the way power functions. They're not saying, "Let's use Internet voting." They're not putting forward any different way for how power should function. They're just basically saying, "I'm a better person, so I should be in power."
What's fundamentally wrong about Donald Trump isn't whether or not he's a good or bad person. It's about how he thinks power should function, which is autocratically.
President Trump has explicitly stated an anti-globalist view. He has said, basically, "I'm not president of the world. I don't salute some world flag. I'm president of the United States and it's America first."
That's the deep irony and every time I end up talking about Donald Trump I give him some weird underhanded compliments. What he really represents is he's the shadow of Occupy Wall Street. He's the shadow of the anti-globalization movement. He basically is the "get-money-out-of-politics" candidate. He won the election by spending half as much as Hillary Clinton. We thought that wasn't possible. Look, he did it. He's anti-globalization. He's the negative shadow of the positive vision that we were trying to put forward.
You're giving Donald Trump a kind of grudging hat tip. He's an outsider who harnessed populist power to win an election. He didn't spend a lot on advertising. He held rallies. He mobilized ordinary people and they won real power.
Yeah, Donald Trump proves that it's possible for an outsider to win elections in America. So I celebrate him for that. I love his spirit. I love things that he said during the debates. I love his anti-establishmentism. I love that he says things like, before the election he said, "If I don't win the primary there's going to be riots in the streets." I love that. And I love Steve Bannon's Leninist spirit. I love all that stuff. Ultimately what's wrong with it is that they are ill-equipped to deal with the actual challenges that we face. They're scapegoating the weakest people in our community in order to not solve the real challenges like economic and environmental problems.
When you look at people planning things like the March for Science coming up in April and other planned marches and protests, what would be your message to them?
I think that my message to activists today is — never protest the same way twice. Social protest seems to work most effectively when the tactics that we use are new. I think that as activists, we have a tendency instead to do the opposite. We have the tendency to repeat. If you look at Occupy Wall Street, it started as Occupy Wall Street, and then it became Occupy London, and then it became Occupy Sandy, like we occupied a storm. Basically everything becomes Occupy. Every time you repeat a tactic it becomes less effective. So if you're going to use traditional social protest, at least, at the very least vary your tactics such that it's always a surprise.
When you look at the history of direct action protests, sometimes smaller change-it-up groups, like ACT UP, arguably had a bigger impact overall than some of the big anti-war marches.
We do live in a time of increasing frequency and size of social protests. But that does not mean that these social protests are becoming more effective.
You can get 4 million people into the streets and there is no requirement in our Constitution or in our laws that the president has to listen. He's able to say, "Thanks, go home now." And they go home. We need to stop with this naïve belief that if we just get more people into the streets, then we'll get what we want. No, it's not true! They don't have to listen anymore.
Justin Campbell at the Los Angeles Review of Books chats with Micah White about the crisis of sovereignty, the failure of DeRay McKesson's concept of protest and the inspiring enigma of Dr. Lenora Fulani.
WHEN I FIRST spoke with Micah White for the Los Angeles Review of Books, it was the fall of 2015. Looking back, it feels like we were speaking to a tremendously different world. I know full well that the problems we have seen since the inauguration were not born out of a single presidential campaign: they are ideas, practices, and beliefs about people that existed far before they were uttered from the podium during a Trump stump speech. That being said, when Micah and I did talk, Barack Obama was president, and the Justice Department, while far from perfect, had reinvigorated the Civil Rights Division. Then, little more than a year ago, when I thought of protest, I was thinking specifically about the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, Donald Trump is president, the attorney general was deemed too racist to be approved as a federal judge in the mid-1980s by both sides of the congressional aisle, and, while protest still needs to be focused on law enforcement, it’s now more frequently discussed in terms of resistance to the machinations of the current administration as a whole. Protest, essentially, is our means of responding to the entire federal government.
But can marching in the street really carry the political load that people are asking it to bear? To explore the effectiveness of protest as resistance, I reached out, once again, to Micah White, PhD, author of The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution published in 2016 by Knopf Canada. He spoke with me from his home in rural Oregon.
JUSTIN CAMPBELL: I want to start with a two-part question based on your recent piece in the Guardian entitled “Without a path from protest to power, the Women’s March will end up like Occupy.” There, you worry that the Women’s March might be “destined to be an ineffective, feel-good spectacle adorned with pink pussy hats.” Women were marching, you write, based on “a false theory of how the people can assert sovereign power over their elected president.” In your mind, what is sovereign power exactly, and if peaceful protest isn’t how we exert this kind of power, how do we exert it effectively?
MICAH WHITE: The issue of sovereignty is the most important question that activists need to be thinking about right now. And to have that conversation, we have to of go back and trace where the idea of sovereignty comes from. When you go back, you find that the notion of sovereignty that American activism is using, which happens to be the same notion that most democracies use as well, actually, are ideas that were inherited from the work of Rousseau, the 18th-century Swiss-born French philosopher. Rousseau argued that the sovereign wasn’t the king; rather, the sovereign for Rousseau was this kind of mystical force that emerges when large numbers of a population that are representative of that city or state get together and then decide on things together. When they exert their general will together, that’s how you manifest sovereignty.
His whole theory was that governments are just when the people making the decisions are both numerous and representative of the population. What’s happened is that, over time, we’ve had a collapse of the kind of sovereignty Rousseau wrote about, such that now, sovereignty has become synonymous with the sovereign, with the president, with the king, and sovereignty has been concentrated into the hands of one single, absolute individual, like we saw with 20th-century dictators. It’s happened again now with Donald Trump and Putin and President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, who kills drug users. That’s the crisis that we’re in; the concept of sovereignty that initially activated contemporary activism is dead! It’s gone. It doesn’t exist anymore. There are no large-scale assemblies of the people that can exert power over governments.
So essentially you’re saying that there is no way to get the government to do what you want them to do?
Yes, that’s correct.
What about the protests at the airports after the immigration executive order? Some would say they did make the government to change its course.
Implicit here is the deeper question of how do we, as activists, know when our protests are effective in creating change. Like the old saying: “Even a broken clock is right twice a day” — it could be possible that our protests are entirely ineffective and that we are ascribing a causal connection between our actions and change when there isn’t one.
In this particular case, I’d ask: How do we know that protests at airports influenced the judicial branch’s decision on Trump’s immigration executive order? Do activists have any evidence for this claim? Or is it just a story that makes us feel better: we did a rain dance, it drizzled, and we are happy to think we caused the rain. But maybe it was the lawyers and not the protesters who temporarily blocked the immigration order? Or, to be even more specific: Perhaps the form of protest used by lawyers was effective while the form of protest used by the people at airports was not.
There is another layer to this question that I find very interesting. Notice how, from a political theory perspective, activists have been unable to use protest to sway the executive and legislative branches of government — the two branches that are supposed to be influence-able by protest — and so now we find activists claiming that they are influencing the judicial branch — the branch of government that is supposed to be above influence and concerned only with the law. This claim immediately makes me skeptical. Why should I believe that judges are more influenced by protest than the president? Isn’t it more likely that they were influenced by constitutional legal arguments and the protesters just happen to be on the right side of the Constitution?
Finally, I’d like to say that there is a pernicious paradigm of protest that says our street protests are simply designed to provide proof of public opinion. Their goal is not to take power and govern; their goal is to influence the decision-makers. One of the benefits of this paradigm is that it transforms repeated failure into victory. From the perspective that protest is supposed to get the people into power and govern, activists are obviously failing. But, from the perspective that protest is just designed to influence the people in power then activists are often able to convince themselves they’re winning.
But if you want to know who is really winning, just ask yourself: Who is the president?
James Baldwin in a television interview in the mid-1960s has the following to say about violence: “We, [Americans], are produced by a civilization which has always glorified violence, unless the Negro had the gun. This country is only concerned about non-violence if it seems that I’m going to get violent. It’s not worried about non-violence if it’s some Alabama sheriff.” In our last interview and you said violence is hard to talk about, but in your Guardian piece, the women storm the armory at the beginning of the French Revolution, and they come out armed, go to the palace, and are able to get in. How much does being armed play in their success, in your opinion? Is this a principle of revolution, or is the fact that they were armed specific to the context of that revolution?
The women during the French Revolution marched on Versailles, brought out the king and the queen and his entourage and his court, and they marched them back to Paris under a threat of violence, and then within a few years the king was killed. That’s the revolutionary history of the Left. The Left went out, physically captured the sovereign, killed the sovereign, and instituted a new government. That was what a revolution was, literally.
That being said, they were dealing with hereditary political power, where the ultimate sovereign has to be someone in blood lineage. Therefore it makes perfect sense that they would have to kill a specific individual in order to achieve revolution. Today, the person who is given sovereign power is actually just the person who’s gone through some sort of magical ritual that we call “elections.” We know that those elections can be bought, can be hacked by a foreign power, and still, we’ll accept them as legitimate. All the leaks coming out basically show that Russia owns Trump, and that the government had this information during the election, but didn’t act on it, because they wanted to protect the transfer of power and protect the notion of elections as a powerful, magical ritual.
I guess what I’m saying is that I see violence and elections as two different paths, and I leave it up to activists themselves to choose. I personally think elections are more viable and more realistic; if we look at violence, then we’re forced to look at groups like ISIS. ISIS has gained sovereignty in their territories, but at what cost? Ultimately, I think the two paths might collapse into one path, and that’s the danger that we face right now. I think we’re in a very dangerous kind of, pre-civil war moment in America, actually.
In our last interview, you were prophetic in identifying the rift in the country between the coasts and the center of the country. Is your view of another civil war in that same kind of prophetic spirit?
Look, it’s very clear what’s happening, and I don’t like to tell the future, but here’s what I’m going to say. I think that what Americans are about to experience is the Arab Spring.
When we brought Occupy Wall Street to this country, we specifically, at that time, linked it to the spirit of the Arab Spring. That mood came here in 2011, and it led to the first stage, which was a kind of mass, social movement in the streets. We didn’t achieve what they achieved in the Egyptian Arab Spring; there, they toppled their dictator, and put a new person into power. We didn’t achieve that with Obama, but now it has been achieved, in a way, through Donald Trump, who I would say is our Mohamed Morsi.
Then let’s look at the second half of the Arab Spring. I was just in Egypt, meeting with some Egyptian activists, and we talked about what happened in the second half of the Arab Spring there. Basically Morsi got into power because the secular youth didn’t put forward a viable candidate to govern the country when they toppled Mubarak. Only the Muslim Brotherhood did that, so the Muslim Brotherhood got into power. And then, all of a sudden, things start going wrong, and the mood shifts against Morsi, and the intelligence community and the military orchestrate a second revolution, and a lot of the secular youth in their country, jump on it. They say, “Yeah, we need to get rid of Morsi. He’s killing people in the streets. The economy is terrible. He’s the Muslim Brotherhood. We’re secularists. Get him out of here!”
Well, if we go through impeachment in the traditional sense the next leader would be Mike Pence.
But that’s not happening, because the whole administration would be caught up in the scenario that I’m describing.
So, yes one scenario is that this is just going to be some sort of Watergate, Nixon-type thing. President Trump steps down, and everything goes just fine. I don’t think this will happen, though. I think much more deep state machinations are at work. Let’s just pray that it’s more like a gentle handover of power to Mike Pence, and not the alternative, because — and this is really controversial — but when I look in my heart, right now, and I ask myself, “Would I rather support the Russian puppet, or a military coup?” I’m not so sure that I want to support a military coup. If I were in Eygpt during the Arab Spring, I’m not so sure I would have been against Morsi. I think that People’s Democracy might lie on the other side of Donald Trump. I think that the People’s Democracy in Egypt could have been on the other side of Morsi. When you go the military coup route, you can’t get back to that other side.
You lose that window.
Totally. You lose that window of opportunity. Right now, in the United States, we have a window of opportunity, which is, we could elect an equally radical, leftist candidate into power in four years. We could do that! Donald Trump showed us that we could!
Some people on the left may hear what you just said as being overly apocalyptic. They’re the ones who would tell you that, “Look, we had Nixon. Nixon was just as bad and we survived him. Why is everyone getting so worked up?” Then you have the other side of the left, which is currently saying, “No, the Republicans are burning down the house, while the Democrats are still inside playing Monopoly, hoping to win the board game.” What do you think about this image?
That metaphor is perfect. Look, democracy as we knew it, is over. This is because the United States became very good at creating what I would call “color revolutions” abroad. We deployed these very effectively against Communist regimes in multiple countries. I would argue that those color revolutions have come home to roost. Russia has learned the art of the color revolution. Imagine that! I’ve written about how they have been studying these revolutions, that they had a gathering of military leaders a couple years ago, around how to build a color revolution, how to counter color revolutions, and so now they’ve created a color revolution in the United States. They have created a color revolution in our country. Our country has been taken over by a clique of puppets, who, probably all have some sort of really terrible blackmail material on them. Let’s be real, I think we all know Donald Trump is some sort of sexual pervert. There’s something really gross in that file of theirs about him.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think people who try to pretend like everything’s going to swing back to the progressive establishment, and that somehow Elizabeth Warren’s going to become the next president, or that Bernie Sanders is somehow going to rise from the ash, aren’t serious. Their kind of thinking is the kind of thinking that didn’t allow the Egyptian activists to build a credible alternative to Morsi and why Egypt has a military dictatorship right now.
One of the things you’ve said in your Guardian article is that “in America, there is no pro-democracy anti-establishment party,” and then you mention that the Pirate Party in Sweden and Italy’s Five Star Movement as examples for where the Left could go. Those countries are both multi-party systems, though. Does a third party ever have a chance to break into the mainstream, or does a movement have take over a party, like the Tea Party did back in 2009, 2010.
There are two different options, and I think people have to realize that Trump just did what I’m saying needs to happen for the Left. Whenever someone tries to tell me that a revolutionary government is not possible, I’m like, “Who is our president right now? A white supremacist is our president right now, with Russian ties.” Like, seriously? It’s time to just stop closing our eyes to the fact that we can obviously figure this one out. If we wanted to create an exact analogue to Trump, then one option could be to create some sort of social movement, that is maybe backed by China, for example. China being a counterweight to Russia. China provides the same resources that Russia provided to Donald Trump, to this movement. This movement uses those resources to get into power. That’s one option. Do I think it’s the preferable one? No. I think a more preferable one would be an actually grassroots American social movement à la Occupy Wall Street meets Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, all rolled into one glorious People’s Democracy.
Thus we have two options: we can either do what Donald Trump did, which is enter into the Democratic Party, seize control of it from the top, or we can build a third party that is on the ballot of 50 states. I don’t really care which one we choose. Let’s split into two groups and do both. I personally think we should start a third party. I think that that is probably the cleanest and most exciting and most viable way to move forward. But, you know, if someone thinks that I’m wrong, like the “Our Revolution, Bernie Sanders” people, fine. Please show me that I’m wrong. Regardless, let’s be orienting in the direction of action, otherwise we are all totally screwed.
We talked about Simon Critchley a lot during our last talk, and I actually returned to his work again, recently, in light of the election. In his bookInfinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, he talks about the fact that the Right has a very strong sense of political motivation, that’s almost like a spiritual energy, that the Left can’t seem to generate. Where does the secular Left find this kind of unifying spiritual energy? We talked last time about what you call the collective epiphany, but what are some strategies for generating these collective epiphanies around multiple causes? We saw this kind of collective epiphany energy at those Tea Party rallies in 2009 and 2010 that lead them to back candidates who took seats in the House and the Senate in the midterm elections. How do we generate that?
Well, I think that what’s at the bottom of what’s happened here, is that the Left has given up on the possibility and desirability of revolution. This is because they were so discouraged by the experience of the 20th-century revolutions. Up until the 20th century, the Left was motivated by, basically, a religious idea that many people have been oppressed, forever, but [gasp] lo and behold, capitalism has created a situation where the oppressed have some sort of great power.
Right. If only the proletariat were to grab control of their machines, that only they know how to operate, then they would instantly have greater power than the people who own the machines. What I’m saying is, when they created this story, they even said that it was inevitable, like Christians did. “We’re all going to go to heaven,” says the Christian, “if we do certain behaviors,” and the Communists said, “We’re all going to gain some sort of power on earth, if we do certain behaviors.”
The Left gave up on that vision, which means that now, we don’t have a story line. Everyone calls themselves “progressives,” but we don’t have any story of what we’re progressing toward. We don’t have any vision of real revolution that puts The People into power. The Right, on the other hand, does have this story, this vision. They have stories about the decline of civilization, the decline of Western civilization, reviving this Western civilization. Even Hitler would talk about creating a thousand-year Reich. The powerful vision that motivated Nazis was the idea of creating a thousand-year government. Who on the left talks about that kind of stuff?
The hubris embedded in that kind of vision scares the shit out of me. It sounds like Icarus flying straight into the eye of the sun.
I know it’s scary, but that’s what I’m saying. While this kind of vision scares the Left, we have to ask ourselves: Why does it scare us? It doesn’t scare me! It’s beautiful. That being said, I do think that either we figure this out, or we will enter into a rehash of World War II. We know what happened. I’m not the only person who feels like we are entering into a prewar period, okay? I’ve talked to other activists and they feel the same way. People before World War II felt this same way. They were right. We could also be right. What happened during World War II? Millions of people were sent to death camps. I don’t want to take it to that level, but I’m just saying, that it’s possible that our fears are real. If that’s true, then we have to have a revolution.
One of the things Critchley also pointed out in 2008, is that “[t]here’s an increasing sense amongst, especially people on the left,” that “electoral politics is irrelevant to the lives of citizens,” leading to what he calls “passive nihilism.” This is essentially the belief, consciously or subconsciously, that I’m just my own island, I’m just going to go to my mindfulness class, go to my meditation, and I can just kind of not do anything and that the arc of the universe bends toward justice. We’ll eventually get there. Is this kind of passivity how we arrived at our currently political moment?
I think that is definitely part of it. I just got a message on Facebook that said, “Look, Micah, I’ve been listening to your stuff. Don’t you think electoral politics is always going to pull us into the system, and it’ll never really work?” and I said to this person, “Why are we concerned about Donald Trump, then? If electoral politics always results in lame weakness that doesn’t create revolutionary change, why are we so concerned about Donald Trump?” Oh wait, we actually don’t believe what this person said about electoral politics in our hearts; we just use that as a justification to keep ourselves from doing what scares us. Obviously, it’s terrifying to have Donald Trump be president of the United States, because we realize that comes with immense power. If we, as a social movement, were president of the United States, we would also have immense power. We would have, for example, nuclear weapons. We would have a military. We would have billions and trillions of dollars. Be realistic, people. Look at the resources of the US government, and then ask yourself, what if a social movement had those resources? Seriously, it’s time to just stop with this whole infantile rejection of electoral politics. It’s like — it’s a joke. Electoral politics comes with challenges. We have to solve those challenges, instead of avoiding them.
How do you make the case for that when those things — nuclear weapons, the military — are what some on the left feel like they are fighting against in the first place? It’s almost as if some are fighting without expecting to ever get into power.
I think that’s absolutely right. I think this ties into what I call the worship of youth. I’ve been active since I was 13, and I get it; but now looking back, at 34 years old, 21 years of activism, I realize that we do this thing which is really self-destructive, which is that we celebrate the people who are protesting for the very first time, the people who are 19, 20 in the streets. We take these beautiful pictures of them, and then we use that as a justification to not to do that deeper thing, which is to ask, “Who’s going to govern?” Most presidents of the United States are 50, 60, 70 years old? Who among us is going to govern? Is it going to be a 19-year-old? No, it’s not going to be a 19-year-old, let’s just be real. I remember what I was like when I was 19. Did I have any idea of reality? No. I didn’t have any idea. They make good people on the streets, it’s great. Please, youth, keep protesting. But please, let’s be realistic, too.
I think the reality is that the world is messy and dirty, and there’s this Sufi, spiritual reading that talks about how you’re not supposed to just shut yourself up in the Cave. You’re not supposed to just flee from the sin of reality; you’re supposed to immerse yourself in the sins of reality, and maintain your course. The most powerful and positive political figure is someone who has access to the nuclear codes, and doesn’t use them. We need to grab control of the state in order to change how the state functions, and we need to grab control of the resources of the state in order to put them to good use. That’s the next step. But it’s quite possible that we will be stuck here forever. Let’s be real, the Germans had a Communist revolution in 1919, and no one even talks about it; it failed, a Spartacus uprising. And then right after that there was Fascism. Destiny is not always on our side.
The activist DeRay McKesson was on Pod Save America, and he said that the protests that he has experienced through Black Lives Matter taught him that, “protest is about telling the truth in public.” Is “telling the truth in public” what youth are doing in the street? Is protest then useful as a part of this larger mechanism of revolution?
Look. DeRay’s great, but he’s not a theorist of activism. Here’s what I would compare what he said to: We had an example of this in ancient Greece; we had Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes the Cynic was a man who lived in a barrel. He had no property, he had no items, he wore a sack. He was famous though, because he would stand on the streets of Athens and he would scream the truth at people. “Oh, you rich people, the way you’re living is disturbing. You don’t need possessions. Look,” one of his famous examples is he tells people, “I don’t need a cup to drink water. I have my two hands.” It’s beautiful, it’s lovely, it’s wonderful, but Diogenes the Cynic didn’t have political power.
I love it. It’s great, and we need that, but that’s not what protest is. That’s not what activism is; that’s something else. What DeRay is talking about is like living a beautiful spiritual life. He’s talking about performance, doing social marketing, but at the end of the day, what he’s talking about is not protest. Protest is literally behaviors designed to create social change, specifically, I would say, through a revolution, which means a change in legal regime. Telling the truth and these kind of things, are great, they’re wonderful, but people who say that that is what protest is, are really just misleading us, and they’re pushing us to forget the fact that, let’s be real: Who would have been the DeRay or the Micah White during the French revolutions? Who would have been the people calling for the death of the king? Come on.
I get it though; some of these Black Lives Matter activists got a lot of fellowships, and it got really cushy up there. It’s easy to start thinking about protest like that, but it’s not the reality. It’s not the reality.
One of the issues that’s been raised to you, I know, a million times about Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, is this idea that they’re leaderless movements. This is levied as a critique against their effectiveness. Is there some way, in the internet age, of gaining group consensus in a way that we can move forward without a leader?
Again, the world I think is dividing into basically, two positions. They’re both populist. One position is a kind of authoritarian populism that says, “We need a strong, charismatic, single individual to make decisions for us,” and that’s Donald Trump, that’s Putin. But there’s another vision of populism, which is a kind of horizontal, or democratic populism, or maybe you would even call it a leaderless populism, which is that the people themselves are going to make the decisions that benefit them. There’s a difference.
Right now, though, if you were to ask which one actually works, sadly, authoritarian populism does, and the other doesn’t. That’s just where we’re at. Imagine a real social movement we have, like Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street, trying to make a complex decision together about how we should govern the United States, or what kind of health insurance we should have. Literally, it’s not going anywhere, because we lack those mechanisms.
I do think that we will see that as long as we understand that that’s a problem, and not run away from it, we could solve it. I think we could solve it. I think the European movements, especially the Five Star Movement in Italy, have taken steps toward solving that, and that the Five Star Movement in Italy does make complex decisions together, about the direction of the movement and the legislation they should be proposing, and this kind of stuff. I remain optimistic, and I also think that this form of organization is superior in the long run, and so it’s just a matter of figuring out, “How do we do it?” That, again, is a challenge for activists to figure out — people like DeRay and others should be figuring that out. Not speaking truth on the streets. They should be asking, “How do we govern, as a social movement?” That’s what we should be trying to figure out right now.
So this next question is obviously me baiting you and you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. Who do you see building this kind of movement? Can anybody participate? Or do you need to be educated in certain ways?
Do you mean, who would take part in this kind of movement?
Yes, or even just, if there’s not going to be a charismatic leader, who leads? Who instigates?
We know, going back to Rousseau, that if we’re going to revive sovereignty — that’s what we’re trying to do, revive sovereignty, bring it back from the dead — if we’re going to try to revive sovereignty, the group that ultimately makes decisions about our community and our city has to be both numerous — it has to have lots of people involved — and representatively diverse. You can’t just have one group or another in charge. Over the years, I’ve been talking about Five Star Movement, and some people hate it. Why do they hate it? They absolutely hate it because the Five Star Movement has right-wing elements to it, but also has left-wing elements to it, and they hate that. The Left say to me, “No, you should only talk about Podemos, because Podemos is fully on the left.” Meanwhile, Five Star Movement is doing way better than Podemos.
What I’m saying is, it has to be both numerous, representative, and diverse. Then I think, though, that if you want to talk about specifically who we should be learning from, right now in the United States, I’m going to tell you who I think we should be learning from. Everyone should be talking to Dr. Lenora Fulani. Who is Dr. Lenora Fulani? I just discovered her myself. In 1988, Dr. Lenora Fulani ran for president. She’s an African-American woman and she ran for president in 1988. She was on every state ballot, 50 state ballots. The Green Party in 2016 did not get on every state ballot. What I’m saying is that she knows it’s possible. Why do I have to wait until 2017 to learn about someone who did this in 1988? Everyone’s telling me it’s impossible but here’s a black woman in 1988 who did this. We all pretend like Hillary Clinton was the first, but here’s a black woman who did this. She’s still alive, people. She should be in every single interview right now. I think what I’m saying, is, there are people out there who we can learn from, but again, notice she didn’t just stay on the left. She worked with Left and Right, and Lefts hated her for that. Again, there’re these people who’ve been ostracized, but who they hold wisdom, and we need to start tapping into it.
That’s interesting. Would you call hers a centrist position?
I wouldn’t call it centrist, because I think that what you do is, you work with the extreme Left and the extreme Right, and it doesn’t pull you toward the center. It — I don’t know if we have a word for it — it’s like the backside.
Like a line that’s pulled into circle by bending the ends until they meet?
Totally. I would call it an alliance, a strategic alliance. I think that that’s what we need — a new form of populism, to counter Donald Trump, and unless we have that, then the progressive establishment will cheer a military government. That’s what I think. I think all protest at this point that isn’t backed by a political movement that can take power is implicitly an argument in favor of a military coup. That’s how I feel.
Because a military coup is what will end up happening eventually.
Literally. Trump was elected president. What if he was a radical communist, and we were seeing these articles coming out like this, accusing him of “treason”? What I’m saying is, either the United States continues the tradition that whoever wins the election by any means, is the president, or we start a new tradition that’s like, “Well, maybe you won the election, but we’re going to overthrow you afterward.”
Doesn’t that sound like a dangerous thing for the Left then, as well? Couldn’t the Right do the same thing to the leaders of the Left?
Right now, the horrible thing to think about, is that Donald Trump most likely won the presidency with the support of a foreign government. Does that mean that the Left would have to have support of a foreign government in order to win the election? Like I said earlier, that would be China, and I think that once you start going down that path, then it does become very alarming. In essence, I think it’s troubling, on all sides.
So there’s been this kind of meme floating around that we should bombard our representatives with letters and notes and calls. Is this just saying that “We may not be able to have this revolution now, but in the meantime, we can annoy the crap out of the people making decisions”? Do you think that is a viable short-term solution? Or is it just cathartic, a way to release some steam?
I love the activist community, for this reason. On the one hand, it’s really good. We’re at a period right now with large-scale, creative explosion and innovation; all kinds of new tactics. What’s really funny, though, about the activist scene, is they’ll get these ideas, and then all of a sudden, everyone has to do it.
A few weeks ago, I got a letter in the mail, and it had no return address. It said: “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t put this letter online, this is an off-line guerrilla campaign.” The guerrilla campaign was to send letters to Donald Trump saying basically, “You don’t represent us,” and the goal was to just flood him with postcards. Flood him with postcards! And then, lo and behold, a couple weeks later, the Women’s March happens, and what does the Women’s March say? They say, “Now that you’ve marched, send postcards!” It’s like, all of a sudden, the activist world gets obsessed with certain tactics, like postcards. And to be honest, I’m like, “People, can we please just stop it? No, not postcards.” It’s dangerous, I keep saying this, but people don’t listen! It is dangerous for us to keep taking legitimate revolutionary energy, and channeling it into behaviors that people know will not breed social change. Donald Trump is not reading their postcards. There’s some poor, minimum-wage worker in the White House who takes your postcards, and throws them in the trash. That’s what’s happening. He throws them in the trash. His life sucks because of your postcards. That’s it.
You feel maybe better in the moment, but, ultimately, you’re not affecting anything.
Totally. And I don’t know, I feel like telling people to send postcards is dangerous, because there were a certain percentage of people, like for example in the Women’s March, who went home and heard that the next action was going to be, “send postcards,” and a certain percentage of those people may turn to themselves and say, “You know what? That’s not going to do anything. I better go turn toward violence.” That’s the danger here, you see what I’m saying? If we alienate people from the possibility that positive protest that can actually achieve regime change in the United States, then we’re going to have a much darker scenario. We really need to stop asking people to do things that will not create a change that we want.
What would you like to see the Left do, in say the next six months to a year, and how would you measure progress or success?
We know where we need to go, which is that we need to figure out how to build a social movement that can win elections, and govern, and make complex decisions together. We know that’s where we need to go, so what we need to be doing in the next six to eight months, is, even though, let me see … What are we at, February? No one wants to talk about this, but I’m going to tell people the truth: there is an election this year. There’s an off-year election in multiple communities, and we have an opportunity to test out our ability to build a social movement to win elections in this year. We don’t have to wait two years. It’s happening this year, 2017. Again, why don’t we start a discussion among activists, and identify those communities? The great thing is that there’s not that many, I think it’s a dozen or so, but to identify where those communities are, what positions will be up for grabs, and then figure out how to use social protest to win, by any means necessary. Maybe we need the support of China. Maybe we need to hack their computers. Maybe we need to relocate there, and become voters. Whatever! Let’s all experiment on that.
Let’s talk about that, let’s talk about these elections in 2017, and how we’re going to win them. And not just win them, but govern afterward, and then use that as a stepping stone to 2018. I think until we’re willing to have that conversation, then I’m sorry, but we’re not going to see the change we want. And to be clear I’m not talking about electing progressives; I’m talking about electing a social movement. That’s a different thing, and that’s really important.
By progressive you mean a Democratic Party progressive, right?
Electing Democratic progressives as a goal still assumes that what’s holding us back is that we don’t have good people in positions of power. That is not true. It’s not that we don’t have good people in positions of power, it’s that we don’t have The People, we don’t have a social movement in power. We need to get away from thinking about finding singular individuals who are going to make decisions we agree with, and start figuring out, “How do we get individuals who are going to make decisions that I’ve decided on? That we’ve decided on, together?” That’s the difference.
You said nobody wants to hear this. What did you mean by that?
Because, look. I get it. I know I’m saying all this stuff, and you’re like, “What does he know?” Well, I started as an activist as a teen. I’ve been arrested for blocking traffic to try to protest the war. I’ve been to Palestine. I’ve done direct action in Palestine, nonviolent direct action, I put my body on the line. I’ve done all forms of activism, every form. I created a social movement. I’ve done all of it. What I’m saying though, is that there’s one area, this one big area that I never experimented with until recently, an area that activists refuse to experiment with, which is, gaining power through elections. Think about this. We act as if it’s so difficult to organize something like the Women’s March, and yet we’re amazing at it. We can create an event with four million marchers. It only took like three months to organize. We can do that, yet we can’t even win an election. It blows my mind. It’s just something that no one wants to talk about. It’s like being a savant in mathematics and not knowing how to eat with a fork.
Right now, what frustrates you the most? Sometimes I see you as a John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness. You even said yourself that it doesn’t seem like the Left is listening or ready for what you’re saying. What are some of your frustrations currently, with all of this?
Well, John the Baptist, I believe, baptized Jesus Christ.
He did, yes. Eventually, yes.
Well, if I get to be John the Baptist, who is somehow going to bump into some activist down the road, and say something to this activist, and then they go and create the thing that I’ve been dreaming of, then I’m quite happy. That would be the best possible scenario. What I think that I’m trying to get across to people is that we as activists need to always ask ourselves, “Why are we doing these specific behaviors?” We need to understand that the specific behaviors that we’re choosing to do, they’re arbitrary. They are historically defined, and they are arbitrary. If we had been activists during the American Revolution, we would be going and tarring and feathering people. If we had been activists during the Cultural Revolution, we would be painting banners with calligraphy and marching down the streets, or whatever. Every generation protests in their own culturally dependent way, so let’s stop being obsessed with the specific, historically defined and culturally defined way that we protest right now, and let’s think strategically and say to ourselves, “Okay, we can get large numbers of people to do any behavior that we want. We can get them to march, we can get them to occupy, we can get them to riot, we can get them to jump up and down, we can get them to meditate. We can get them to do anything, so what should we get them to do?”
I think what gets me frustrated is basically that we’ve allowed our imaginations to atrophy, and we’ve allowed ourselves to give up on the hope of revolution. I just think, what if we are in a moment before World War III? If this were 1933, what should people have done? They should have taken it a little more seriously! People could die. There could be a war. Russia just moved their missiles, violating a treaty with the United States, to test Donald Trump. Donald Trump hasn’t even said anything. Is Donald Trump walking us into a war that we’re going to lose?
On Twitter, no less.
Right. Look. I don’t want to be alarmist, but at the same time I do want to say that the good thing about Donald Trump is that he’s firmly moved us into world historic time. We should all be grateful to be alive right now. He has made America great again, because the greatest generation in America was the one that fought World War II. That’s what he’s really talking about, is that we are entering into a world historic moment of life and death.
The point here is that we do need to bring a little bit more realization of the historical severity of our situation, and a little bit more urgency, not urgency of like, “Let’s rush into the streets,” but urgency that says, “We’ve got to think really carefully right now. We’d better start gathering our resources for a real resistance movement.” Stop using the word “resistance” until you’re living in underground cells and eating bats. Come on. Until you’re hiding resistance leaders in your attic.
What you’re describing feels like Star Wars.
Exactly. It’s ridiculous! All the language of revolution has been taken over by people who use it lightly and I’m like, “I’m sorry, it’s not a resistance yet, guys.” I don’t know. I want to see it, though.
One of the things you’re saying, is that you’ve tried every form of activism except the mainstream one, electoral politics. Is this like when you get older and realize, okay, maybe I should have a savings account, or things like that?
I think also it’s temperament. I ran for mayor in my tiny town, and I lost, and now people are like, “See? It’s proof. It didn’t work.” I think that’s like, okay, it’s the first time I’d ever tried something like that, and I still got 20 percent of the vote. But I also think, it’s temperament. Most activists aren’t politicians. I’m not a politician; so when I ran a campaign for mayor, I didn’t act like a politician, which alienated people, who felt like, “I don’t understand why you’re doing these behaviors. A politician would never do that,” and I’m like, “I know. I’m an activist.” A lot of it, I think is that people who are drawn to activism aren’t necessarily the same people who are drawn to politics. That being said, I do think that if activists could kind of swallow that bad taste they get by engaging in politics, we could be quite good at it. I think we’re amazing at getting lots of people to do behaviors. We should be celebrating ourselves more often for how good large numbers of people to do behaviors together. At the same time, we can bring that intelligence to a different game, and it could be quite beautiful.
In terms of strategizing, I wonder if keeping the false dichotomy of the Left and the Right makes sense anymore, in terms of people’s actual lives. The people who voted for Donald Trump who are low income, who want their jobs back, who want their idea of the Dream restored; did their lives change from the eighth of November to the ninth? If you’re fed up with the fact that maybe it’s not any better, then is that a place we can organize around, almost a kind of neo-Baconian rebellion type thing, across these supposed differences?
Yeah, I think that’s the only solution. The 99 percent is not 100 percent Left or 100 percent Right. As I said, when I say these kind of things, I get so much pushback from the Left. They hate this. They absolutely hate the idea that we should work with people on the right. Let’s look at the origin of the terms “Left” and “Right.” It’s just referring to where different parties sat during the French Revolution; it doesn’t mean exactly what we’re trying to say. I think that’s why I like “populist” instead, because populism points back to democracy. It points back to the idea that the people, many people, can have power.
I think right now the sad thing is that populism’s become like a dirty word. Everyone’s rejecting populism. But I think that’s precisely why Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton lost, is because they didn’t embrace populism. Populism is the future; but populism’s not going be a leftist or a rightist movement. It’s more complicated than that. It has to do with giving power to the people and benefiting their lives concretely. Things are really dark right now for a lot of Americans. I live in rural Oregon, and I can see that. I’m looking out my window right now at a house whose siding is all blown off; he doesn’t even have money to put proper siding on his own house. I saw him up there the other day, fixing his roof by himself. That’s real stuff.
And there’s a sense in which his issues are not left or right. They’re human.
I remember right before Trump, I used to go to DC sometimes, and I’d be like, “Good God, look at all the construction that’s happening here.” It’s like DC was a money cow. People in the liberal establishment were living it up under Obama, you know? So when I got home, I could totally get that resentment, because that kind of opulence is not the reality for the rest of Americans. The rest of Americans have rundown buildings, rundown houses, the shops are out of business, people can barely make enough to live. You go to DC and it’s like, “Where’s all this money coming from?”
It’s like Versailles, in a way.
It is. I do think we need to get over this obsession with just being on the left, you know? I don’t appreciate that obsession anymore.
In closing, if people didn’t get anything else out of this interview, what would you want them to walk away with, whether they be on the left, or on the right, or in the middle, or in outer space? What would you want them to walk away with? What charge, what challenge?
My core message is this: all activism needs to be oriented around taking power and governing. That’s it. It’s not enough to say we’re going to topple Donald Trump, or influence Donald Trump. If we’re not willing to develop an approach toward actually taking power and governing, then everything else that we’re doing is meaningless. That’s the challenge that’s staring us in the face right now, and that’s the challenge that we have to solve. If we don’t solve that challenge, if we keep avoiding that challenge, there could be some super dark stuff. Super, super dark stuff. Worse than Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s probably more like Mussolini, and there could be another Hitler coming our way. Let’s put it that way.
A figure we don’t even know about yet.
Right. Everyone thought Mussolini was bad, and then Hitler showed up. And Mussolini, let’s look at how Mussolini ended his life, and last moments of his life and all that stuff. People can look into that. I think it’s time to start getting a little more historical, but the core idea is: Activism is oriented around taking power, and then governing.