Are we creating the activists that we need?

Micah White in conversation with Mila Atmos on Future Hindsight


Mila Atmos: Is the end of protest as we know it, the beginning of our future? That's the question for a guest on Future Hindsight today, Micah White. He's the lifelong activist who co-created Occupy Wall Street, a global social movement that spread to 82 countries while also being an editor at Adbusters Magazine. He's the author of The End of Protest: a New Playbook for Revolution and also the cofounder of Activist Graduate School, an online school taught by and for experienced activists.

Mila Atmos: Thank you for joining us.

Micah White: Thank you for having me.

Mila Atmos: It's been almost eight years since Occupy, which didn't play out the way you had envisioned. In your book, you call Occupy a constructive failure. What does that mean?

Micah White: I mean, the reason why I called a Occupy Wall Street a constructive failure is to basically say two things. One, Occupy Wall Street did not achieve what we had hoped. We didn't end the power of money over our democracies. We didn't fundamentally give more power to the 99%. We didn't put any of the bankers in jail really. It was a failure in that sense but it wasn't a complete failure. Obviously we did a lot of great things. We kicked off a whole wave of social unrest, we trained a whole new generation of activists, we made protest cool again. It did teach us something about the limitations of contemporary protest and I think that activists can learn from the failure of Occupy Wall Street and they can use that knowledge to make protest work again.

Mila Atmos: So what are your prescriptions here? How can we make protests work again?

Micah White: I've been an activist since I was 13 and for that whole time, the story line had been that if you can create a social movement that cuts across demographics, involves lots of different people, is nonviolent, and all these kinds of things that we did with Occupy Wall Street, then social change will happen. In achieving that and realizing that the social change that we wanted didn't happen, I think that it forced me to kind of consider why did it fail and I think that there's basically three explanations and it depends on how deep you want to get, but I think there's a strategic explanation which is that the strategy of street protest is broken. There's a more tactical explanation, which is basically the way in which we're protesting is broken. And then I think there's a deeper explanation, which is that there's something about contemporary activism and the kind of activists that we are creating that is also broken.

Mila Atmos: Let's go with the deeper problem. Tell me a little bit more about that in the way that we're training activists.

Micah White: In the first basically five, six years after Occupy Wall Street, I think I really did believe that the failures of contemporary activism had to do with primarily strategic and tactical things, and so I did a lot of writing and thinking and talking about questions of sovereignty, trying to get engaged in elections, basically trying to solve those problems. And in believing that those problems could be solved, it meant that they were short term solutions that we could reorient as movements in the short term and make changes.

Micah White: As I've been going deeper and deeper, I've started to wonder if actually the reason why activism is broken is because we, and by we, I mean activist culture, is producing the wrong kinds of activists. One way to think about it is that originally activism was designed as this thing that you were this person who stood outside of the status quo, who was able to resist the orthodoxy, not only of the status quo, but also the orthodoxy of the movement in order to try new tactics. I think that that's basically what is being lost. I think that a lot of activism has become a kind of group think. It's heavily oriented around consensus. A lot of activists are actually afraid to go against the movement consensus or the movement's ideas about how things should be done. In a certain sense, we are not the fighters that we need. We're not the activists that we need and I think that that's a more longterm thing that we're going to have to figure out how to solve and that's a more troubling problem.

Mila Atmos: Right. Yeah, I agree that there is definitely group think. Well, there's group think everywhere, right? In your book you talk about spiritualism and the spirit and theurgism. It's really this new way of thinking that I had never discovered about protest and the way that we are civically active. What does this mean, subjectivism and theurgism? How can you explain it to the lay person?

Micah White: One way of looking at it is basically to start with this question of why do people protest the way in which they do? What they were doing with the 2003 Antiwar March, which, if people remember, basically it was synchronized protests around the entire world on February 15, 2003 where we tried to basically say we are against this war. What was happening is that we were trying to basically show our governments that the people dissented because there's this myth that the authority of our governments derives from the consent of the governed. A lot of activism has been oriented around basically this question of how can we get as many people as possible to do prescribed behaviors in order to create social change? And that's what I call theurgism. This is this idea that in order to create change, you have to do actions in the material world and it makes a lot of sense and it is true, but it's not the only truth. I talk about in my book. there's other options. There's also, for example, the idea that social change is really a process that doesn't involve humans. I mean it involves humans, but that there's structural forces at play that are even greater.

Micah White: Even if you get 100 million people into the streets protesting around the world, ultimately change won't happen unless there's some sort of economic crisis or food crisis. But then I think there's other answers, other questions, which is this idea of subjectivism and theurgism.

Micah White: Subjectivism would be like that change is a process that happens within us so that our inner reality controls our external reality. You'd want to basically meditate or you'd want to do these behaviors of transforming how you see the world because that that will have some sort of impact on the external world.

Micah White: But then there's this other option which is theurgism, which is that maybe social change is a process and revolution is a process of divine intervention and if not divine intervention, at least intervention of forces that are completely outside of our control. It's very hard for people to grasp, but one way to look at it is that humans seem to be more susceptible to erupting into social movements at certain times than other times. And we'd like to think as activists that it's like, oh, it's because I came up with this great idea called Occupy Wall Street, or a March For our Lives or the Women's March, but actually what if it's something else? What if it's some sort of other force that we're not aware of?

Mila Atmos: You say that actually we are in need now of the revolution more than ever. What are the preconditions to revolution at this time?

Micah White: I think that the first precondition is a question of willingness to have one. Even though Bernie Sanders uses the rhetoric of revolution, people actually don't want a revolution anymore. A lot of activists, if you actually ask them if they want a revolution in the sense that their movement will topple the existing government and then become the new government and then govern the society for better or worse, that's actually not a very favored position. People prefer now actually, coming out of the 70s, people are much more into reform, incremental change.

Micah White: But I think that the second step has to do with these questions of orienting towards sovereignty. A lot of activism right now is oriented around influence operations, changing the discourse, convincing people, basically cultural shifts and those are important and those are great, but almost all activism is not focused around this real question of like, well how do we actually become the ones in power? And that would be, I think, the next step.

Mila Atmos: All right, how do we get there? How do we get to be the people in power?

Micah White: There's two paths. One Path is you can attain sovereignty in our current world, and I'm talking about the world as it actually is, this literal world in which we live through some sort of war that captures territory. This is what Isis tried. Or you can attain sovereignty by winning an election, which is what Donald Trump succeeded in doing. So activists have a choice. They can either try to do this war method, which I think seems at least within Western countries, farfetched based on the experience of those who tried that in the 70s like the Red Brigades and terrorist organizations like that. Or you can develop some sort of new way of winning elections that that gives power to social movements versus parties and that I think is conceivable, but it comes with a lot of, in itself, difficulties.

Micah White: Whenever I try to argue towards elections, I see that it's very easily co-opted into contemporary, progressive electoral strategies that also won't be the solution. When I say we need to win elections, I'm not saying we need to find another Bernie Sanders or Obama type figure, I'm saying we need to reimagine how a social movement can win elections and maintain power as a social movement and not degrade itself down back into representative democracy.

Mila Atmos: Let's say a social movement wins an election, what would it look like?

Micah White: In order for a social movement to win an election, the movement itself would have to be able to make decisions because obviously one of the key functions of being a government is being able to decide and make those decisions binding on all of the people that you represent. And then the second step is that the movement has to be more powerful than its quote unquote representatives.

Micah White: Because obviously these people would have to be more like delegates than representatives. Someone has to occupy the literal position of power. The president of United States will never be Black Lives Matter, the movement or March For our Lives, the movement. It has to be some person. You need a mechanism for the movement to make decisions collectively and effectively and you need a mechanism for the movement to maintain control over the person that it chooses to be its mouthpiece. Those would be the two components.

Micah White: And I think that in the American context, it seems very difficult to imagine but there are good examples of this and I think the best example is something like the Five Star movement in Italy. They call themselves a movement but they are a major political party. They've won major elections, they have an internal decision making process. There are examples of the movement taking control away from the people that it elect when those people violate the core principles of the movement.

Mila Atmos: Tell us a little bit more about the Five Star Movement. I think a lot of people don't know what that is.

Micah White: The Five Star movement, it's one of these fascinating examples of a social movement that the Left has largely ignored. The Five Star movement got started I think about three years before Occupy Wall Street and the way it got started is there was this comedian named Beppe Grillo and he was a famous TV comedian but he got blacklisted by the TV stations for something that he had said. He started the Five Star movement as an anti-corruption party, but what they did is they oriented around winning elections.

Micah White: They have been very successful and I think a really interesting example that people can tune into is most recently they won the mayorship of Rome. But shortly after the election, their party representative was herself embroiled in a corruption scandal. Her right hand person was corrupt and selling access. And what's fascinating is that when this broke into the news, the Five Star movement didn't try to lie or pretend it wasn't a big deal. Instead, they very quickly issued a statement saying that we are an anti-corruption party and it's completely unacceptable that this person is corrupt and so from this point forward we are going to make the important decisions for her. That was the move that demonstrates how groundbreaking this is. And she agreed. Imagine if Donald Trump was president and then the movement that got him elected took power away from him because they disagreed or he violated some principle and then he submitted to that. I mean that's completely outside of the imagination of American progressive politics, but that's what the Five Star movement has actually achieved. That I find extremely inspiring.

Mila Atmos: Yeah, it is, but let's say we will never do it here in the United States. What if we never do it or if we don't get there fast enough? One of the examples that you had in the book is about the environmental movement and that basically the end game is the end of the planet and so there's no vindication of doing it a certain way. What are the dangers of the status quo for us here?

Micah White: Obviously there's a kind of urgency to the moment, but I'm also seeing things from a subjectivist point of view is to be wary of the ways in which apocalyptic or urgency mindsets might be harmful. In recent months and years, I've really been thinking that in a sense, yes, things are urgent, obviously the planet is dying and there's these major problems and catastrophes, but in a certain sense it's like the catastrophe is already behind us and it's irreversible at this point. There's a growing number of scientists who think that we will never reverse climate change. We will never bring the carbon dioxide levels down enough. Urgency is important but I think there's also something to be said for welcoming this new post catastrophe moment that's, oddly enough, looks just like the previous pre-catastrophe moment and trying to figure out how do we build something out of that though that can radically transform how we live?

Mila Atmos: What do you think is the future of activism?

Micah White: That's a huge question. From a strategic perspective, I think we're going to see the return of the social movements that are leaderless like they were during Occupy Wall Street, but leaderless in a way that is much more sophisticated. The decision making capabilities of Occupy Wall Street were so primitive that we actually couldn't even make any decisions at all. And part of the blow back against that has been the birth of social movements who basically have given up on this idea of being leaderless. We have things like the Women's March that have a quote unquote leadership, who they themselves didn't actually even come up with the idea, but they control the brand as it were. I think that we're going to see a return to the leaderless-ness approach of Occupy Wall Street, but in a much more sophisticated way that privileges the capacity to actually make decisions and achieve things.

Micah White: There's a deeper challenge, which is how do we create the activists that we need? And that's not quite clear. Name an activist whose children themselves became important activists and the reason why I say this example is it seems like activism, it might not be teachable. We can turn someone who has athletic skills and we can train them to become Olympic athletes. It's a much different and harder thing to take someone and turn them into a Martin Luther King or turn them into a Gandhi or turn them into even someone who would create something like March For our Lives.

Mila Atmos: Right. I think that goes right back to subjectivism and theurgism in a way that maybe there's a spark someplace that moves certain people and not others and it makes them into these leaders. I feel like I should've asked you this question before and that is what is the crisis that faces our humanity?

Micah White: That's another really big question because there's so many ways of looking at it. I think that the crisis that I'm most concerned about is the loss of power that everyone is experiencing. If you look at the evolution or de-evolution of democracy from ancient Greece until today, at each step of the development of the process, the citizens, the majority of people have lost more and more power. We've lost the ability to draft legislation. We've lost the ability to vote on legislation. We've lost basically all the way down until finally we've gotten to this state where in between elections, people have very, very little power. We've created these governing structures that are incapable of changing the world and solving the problems that we face. At the same time as we've found ourselves in a position of vast and increasing powerlessness as people and I think that that's the kind of wake up call that I'm trying to give to activism, which is that activism can keep doing what it's doing. We can keep having larger and larger marches that dissipate more and more quickly without any fundamental change in our world. Activism can just be something that is part of the experience of everyday life and not something that kind of ruptures or changes everyday life, that the greatest crisis is this tremendous loss of power that we're all experiencing.

Micah White: When I was 13 starting as an activist, activism wasn't cool and I got a lot of flack for being an activist, but something happened with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter and the generations after that where now activism is cool but that has the downside, it becomes a kind of performance. It's like going to see a band.

Micah White: It's like, what's your favorite band? Oh, I like March for Our Lives. Oh, I'm kind of a more of a Women's March person myself. I'll see you at the march. And there isn't this expectation that the behaviors that we're going to do are going to create substantial change. And moreover I think there's actually a fear that the behaviors would create substantial change. A lot of activists, they're not participating in these marches because they want to fundamentally change American society. They're participating in these marches because it's part of their identity as progressives. Something's happened to activism, that I think is very dangerous.

Mila Atmos: Yes, it has. You've mentioned that you have been an activist since you were a teenager. How has your long experience in activism informed your view on what activism should be?

Micah White: It's not like I chose to be an activist, it's that I, at a very young age, started doing protests and organizing campaigns that, if not effective, they got a lot of attention. At the age of 17 I was on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect for a protest that I had organized at my high school and then of course Occupy Wall Street when I was 28 and all this kind of stuff. Activism is all I've ever done. It's all I know and everything that I experienced is filtered through that.

Micah White: One of the things that has been my experience of activism is that truly groundbreaking activism can only be achieved when activists step outside of the activist orthodoxy. This has the been the most difficult path and the most difficult thing for me to experience and every stage of my activism, there's been other activists who have been telling me that I'm doing it wrong.

Micah White: The actual story of OCcupy Wall Street is that when we came up with the idea and told people about it, I didn't receive any positive encouragement at all. And that's true of all my protests and that's not a dig or an attack on anyone that I know or my friends, that's just the nature of what it means to create a groundbreaking social protest. We also know this from, for example, Martin Luther King's letter from a Birmingham jail. What he's responding to is not criticism from outside the movement, it's from criticism within the movement that's telling him to stop using the civil disobedience tactics that ultimately win victory for the Civil Rights movement. This is something that I think is the most poignant and important thing to realize as an activist, which is that as an activist you have to do things that the rest of the movement says is not the right way to do it.

Micah White: That's the main change I see with today's activists is that they are very committed to doing things that the rest of the movement says is the right way to do it and that's the problem. If Martin Luther King had sat down and listened to those people and said, you know what? Yeah, civil disobedience, I shouldn't break the law. I should do these other behaviors. Well, we wouldn't have had, all of the changes that ensued. I think that that's the main thing that I'm seeing and I'm concerned about, which is that activism has somehow been linked into the ideas of popularity and maybe it's because of social media, I'm not quite sure, but being popular is not the same as being an effective activist. Let us not forget that Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, they were all assassinated. We think of them as extremely popular. They were not popular. They were influential and they were controversial and they were provocative but a lot of people said, you are doing this wrong, so much so that we will kill you. I think that that's been the main thing that's kind of bothering me about contemporary activism.

Mila Atmos: Yes, I can see that. We do forget that they were assassinated. Now that we're properly scared, what do you think is the most effective thing we could be doing today.

Micah White: At one layer I think that the most effective thing that we could be doing is solving this problem of how can social movements make effective decisions together. For example, I mean I keep bring up the Women's March because I think it's a perfect example of contemporary social movements in the sense that something like 1.5% of Americans participated in the Women's March. That's an insane astronomical number. But now imagine, how would you make a decision with those 1.5% of Americans? How would you come to a decision among them? That could be a technical solution, like some sort of app, that could be more of a cultural solution like we tried with Occupy Wall Street, which is that we developed these assemblies and these hand gestures and these kinds of things.

Micah White: And then I think that the other question is how do we create the activists that we need? What would it take? What does it look like? I have a three year old son. What's the appropriate things to teach him about activism at his developmental stage of a three year old? You can't lecture at him about the Russian Revolution or the Civil Rights protests but is there other ways to teach him the lessons of how to be a good activist? What I'm trying to do is teach him how to change society in ways that the majority resists. That's what activists do. They say here's the thing about the world that I want to change that most people think shouldn't be changed, now I'm going to change it and here's how I'm going to do it.

Mila Atmos: Right on. Last question. Looking into the future, what gives you hope?

Micah White: What gives me hope is one of the strange things that I've learned about revolutions and social movements and uprisings from my study of them is that great social transformations and revolutions tend to occur when everyone thinks they can't occur and that they will not occur. The social revolutions are not a phenomenon that are easy to predict. In fact, they tend to surprise everyone. If you look at Trotsky's history of the Russian revolution, he literally says that the Bolsheviks, the most militant and the most militant segment of the Bolsheviks told everyone don't protest. The time is not right. This is not the time for revolution. And then the women textile workers ignored them, went out and protested, and that's the start of the Russian Revolution. I think what gives me hope is that when I feel most down, I'm convinced that that is when we're closer than ever to a revolutionary moment.

Mila Atmos: I'm not sure how to respond to that, but that's totally awesome. Your book is beautiful. Everybody should read it and thank you.

Micah White: Thank you.

Mila Atmos: I have a soft spot for thinkers so I was really into it when Micah said he had been thinking and writing about activism. I also love that he was open about evolving and changing his mind. We often forget that we are allowed to change our minds and that it's healthy to challenge our assumptions, assess our past actions and see how we can improve. But perhaps what's most exciting about this interview is that Micah is such a different thinker. He talks about things that I have never heard of and in ways that have never occurred to me. For example, now is the time for revolution? As I walk through my daily life it seems totally inconceivable, but the way that he talks about it, it sounds inevitable and almost like a process that will happen outside of ourselves. He didn't give us concrete things to take action on, but he posed important questions that we need to grapple with. What can we do to rectify our experience of loss of power? How do we create effective activists? These are big questions. I recommend you all read his book, The End of Protest.