let's talk about how a social movement could actually take power
go deeper, read the new playbook for revolution that is capturing the imagination of activists
here's where to find your copy of THE END OF PROTEST
our most in-depth television interview yet goes into new territory
In late 2011, when police moved in to evict Occupy protesters and their tents from financial districts and public parks around the world, Micah White was devastated. White had cofounded the original protest in New York City while working for Adbusters magazine, and as a lifelong activist he had dreamt of a new, defiant action that would spark a movement and go IRL viral. So when Occupy Wall Street hit the mainstream, picking up where the Arab Spring had left off, and spread around the world, it seemed the revolution was at hand. But while some protesters held on for several months, pushing their message of economic inequality, Occupy fizzled, and the status quo remained.
Now 34 years old and almost five years out from Occupy, White can look critically at the movement and call it what he believes it was: a constructive failure. In his new book, The End of Protest, he lays out why protest is broken, how to reinvigorate activism, and how to prepare for the next shot at revolution.
VICE met Micah White at St. James Park in downtown Toronto, the site of the 2011 Occupy Toronto protest camp.
VICE: In your book, you're arguing for the end of protest as we know it. We're talking about marches, sit-ins, rallies... Why is that?
Micah White: The simple answer is basically that these forms of protest that we are kind of ritually repeating are broken. They don't work. And we know that because when we've taken them to the furthest possible conclusion like we did with the Occupy Wall Street, creating a social movement that spread to 82 countries, it didn't create the social change that we wanted. So, I'm calling for the end of protest as we know it because that's the only way to revive the possibility of social change and create new forms of protest, new forms of activism.
What would you say to the people who cite examples to the contrary? There was a massive student protest a few years ago in Quebec that basically resulted in the halting of tuition increases and forced the government to back down on an anti-protest law.
I think that the key thing to realize is that it's not that protest has no effect whatsoever. It's that it doesn't have the kind of dramatic, transformative effect that we're actually dreaming of. And the way that a lot of contemporary activists get around this conceptual problem is they lower the horizon of possibility. So you'll hear a lot activists today say, "What do you mean protest isn't working? We changed the discourse. We raised awareness. We did these things." But those are things that I would associate with social marketing, the idea of getting ideas out there, and not the revolutionary goals of activism which is to, you know, change the regime in power, to put the people in power.
So you're not satisfied with familiarizing more people with the idea of the 1 percent or the 99 percent, that's not enough.
No, that wasn't the goal at all. That's just a symptom of the successful growth of our movement. If you create anything, I mean, if you get 100,000 people into the streets about any issue whatsoever, obviously it's going to spread awareness, people are going to start talking about it. If you make noise, you know, if you drop a pebble in the ocean, it still makes ripples. But we shouldn't mistake those ripples for a tsunami. We shouldn't start thinking that just because people are talking about something that somehow it's created some sort of revolutionary change. And I think there's been a trick that was played on Occupy, which was basically to tell Occupiers, "Hey, you guys didn't fail, you raised awareness," but that's the kind of game that the progressive left and the reformist left plays to keep you from realizing that, oh, actually we failed to achieve the revolutionary goal. And I think that's because the progressive left doesn't actually believe in revolution anymore. They don't believe it's possible, they don't think it's desirable and they're more content to play a kind of loyal oppositional role.
Right now we're in St. James Park; this is where Occupy Toronto took place. This place was packed with tents, there were thousands of people, doing mic checks... Was that all a waste of time for those people?
No, no, absolutely not. It's not a waste of time. Revolutionary theory progresses through experimentation and failure. And so you can't just like—you know, you have to educate yourself through failure. We were testing a hypothesis about how social change worked, and I think if we hadn't tried it then we wouldn't know whether or not it's true.
You talk in the book about having to wait until 2014 to have enough distance from that failure of Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement, but it must have been a pretty bitter pill to swallow at the time. What was that like for you, personally?
Yeah, I mean, it was horrible. I think it was horrible for everyone who was part of Occupy in all the countries that experienced it. Because you have to remember in 2011 we thought we were going to have real revolutionary change because it was happening in Egypt, it was happening in Tunisia, and Occupy, for like 60 days, basically it felt like it was going to work. But once they evicted Zucotti and then the movement started to get evicted around the world, it was seriously traumatic. So yeah, it was one of those moments in life where you have to kind of grow and transform yourself. You can't just do what most activists want to do, which is just repeat the same behaviours, pretend it wasn't a failure, and hope that it will come back.
One of the things that you advocate in your book is changing the way people view the world and think about the world and the importance of social media and memes. Specifically, so what's so valuable about memes?
I think at the concrete level, the way you create a social movement is, first you have to have a willing historical moment and then you combine a contagious mood with a new tactic. And so what we saw with Occupy Wall Street there was this mood of fearlessness that was spreading around the world starting with the Arab Spring. And with Occupy we took a new tactic: we combined what was happening in Egypt and what was happening in Spain and we told people, "Hey, let's bring that to Wall Street," and that's what kind of kicked off the movement. So memes are a way for us to transmit those contagious moods and those new tactics. But at the same time, I think it's really important to realize that what we really need to do is expand our understanding of what creates social change. So on the one hand is the theory that it's human action, but I think you're right to say that it's also kind of an inner process of changing our perspective of reality. But I also think it involves structural factors—things like economic factors outside of our control. And then the fourth element, I think there's some element of divine intervention or some sort of spiritual element there. So it's all four. It's not that you wanna focus on just memes, or just changing people's minds or just direct action or just praying, but it's all four of these things somehow combined.
You talk about one potential solution with a name, the World Party. What is the World Party to you?
The World Party is this tantalizing idea, this tantalizing vision that there will be some sort of movement that will go from country to country, winning elections in chronological order and basically getting into power in order to negotiate with itself. I think what we're seeing in Spain with Podemos, in Italy with 5-Star Movement, and now the new party called Diem. These are examples of social movements pivoting and saying, ''Wait, we can use these techniques of getting lots of people into the streets and online organizing and all this kind of stuff to hack elections." I mean, elections as a concept are very outdated. And if we start thinking in new ways about how do we detour this system. So the World Party kind of represents this revolutionary scenario that we might see happen.
Speaking of elections, in the US right now we're seeing the primary season and a lot of talk about a possible Republican candidate in Donald Trump. How does Trump fit into this? Could he be a unifying force for activism?
I think that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders represent a symptom of Occupy Wall Street, and the fact that people are desperate for social change, but they know in their hearts the protest is broken. And so they're regressing psychologically into putting their hopes again on these strong leaders. And, you know, they start to think, "Oh well Donald Trump, he'll smash the state and mess things up, or Bernie Sanders will do it." And I think that, on both sides—the left and the right—shows a kind of regression that's negative. Because what I really think we need to do is remember that we, the people as a social movement, almost toppled. We don't need to put our hopes in these Donald Trumps and these Bernie Sanders. What we need to figure out is how we the people can start winning elections.
But I will say there is something about Donald Trump that is cool. He has this risk-it-all attitude the left in America just sucks at. I mean there's a reason why Occupy Wall Street was started by a Canadian magazine and why my book is being published by a Canadian publisher. It's because America lacks this kind of intensity. The American left is very weak and squishy. They wouldn't call for something that's so dangerous. So when I hear Donald Trump say, 'If I don't get the convention vote, there's going to be riots and protests in the streets.' To me it's like, Bernie Sanders should have been saying that two months ago—and I tweeted about that. Why isn't Bernie Sanders saying, "I'm going to drop out of the primary right now and we're going to use protest to get into power?" And the answer is because he doesn't have a risk-it-all-attitude. He's not really a revolutionary. So I think instead of hating on Donald Trump, we gotta be a little bit like, "Isn't he stealing the left's mojo?" And the left is to blame for that. The left could've easily... It's the failure of a revolutionary imagination, really.
You used to be atheist. In the book you say you no longer are. What are you now and why?
I dunno, something like a mystical anarchist. That's what I said a long time ago. I think it's more about that there's more to reality than the materialist perspective. I think materialism that we've really inherited from the left with Marx and everything has come to be a justification for consumerism in a way. So for me, I'm just open to other options. I do think that social movements are created through some sort of magical process that involves a dream becoming reality. That's how I experienced Occupy Wall Street. It was a dream, a vision that Kalle [Lasn] and I had and shared, and all of a sudden everyone started having it and inhabiting it. It's difficult to talk about what this process is, but I do think it brings us closer not further away when we start to think about these things.
So what do you call for people to do now, in the present reality?
Well, I think in the present moment, we definitely live in a revolutionary moment where people are desperate for social change, but protest is broken. So the first thing we need to do is innovate new forms of protest, we need to prepare ourselves for historic moment when revolution can actually break out—for example, perhaps [with] food prices going up. But basically I think revolutions always happen when we least expect them. So I think it's an element of preparing ourselves by studying theory and history and innovating new tactics, looking at what's going on abroad, studying different movements everywhere, and experimenting and trying. So instead of repeating the same behaviours, we never protest the same way twice. And we just prepare ourselves for something that might suddenly take off because it could be tomorrow or in five years, but I have a feeling that we're still living under the same revolutionary shadow that sparked the Arab Spring, that sparked Occupy Wall Street, and it's just waiting to get started again.
Susan Cole: So we only have 45 minutes to figure out how we're gonna change the world, so let's get started. So let's start by the fact that you challenge us right from the beginning with the title of your book, THE END OF PROTEST.
Micah White: Yeah.
SC: Because most of us have the sense that we're supposed to be getting our voices heard, and yet here you are almost advocating, almost advocating the end of protest, or describing it. Tell us a bit about why you called this book The End of Protest, and to what extent does that phrase frame our conversations?
MW: Yeah, I think that's the perfect place to start, thank you. Yeah. So what I mean by "the end of protest" isn't that there's an absence of protest, but instead, on the contrary, that we have a proliferation of ineffective protest, that we have more protests in human history that are larger than they've ever been in human history, and yet these protests don't seem to be creating the social change that we desire. So for me, the end of protest is it's part of the cycle of social change. It's that time during the cycle of social change when the tactics stop working, the activists don't know what to do, and it requires a kind of innovation and renewal to break out of that period. But I think that you can't realize that you're in the end of protest until you start... You can't break out of the end of protest until you acknowledge that you are in the time of the end of protest.
SC: Well, you were involved in the Occupy Movement, and we had our own contingent taking over the St. James Park out, downtown. There would be some people who would say that, actually, there were many things that Occupy did accomplish, and yet you've referred to it consistently as a constructive failure. So, talk a little bit about the extent to which you think Occupy failed.
MW: Right. Okay. So there's a common narrative, I think, within activism, which is that nothing's ever a failure, nothing's ever a defeat, especially in reference to Occupy Wall Street. Very frequently we'll hear people say that, "Well, you guys changed the discourse. Look at the national elections that are happening right now. Bernie Sanders is using this language, even Hillary is using this language." Those are... It's true, and other things that we did, we trained a new generation of activists, we launched, we made activism cool again. Okay, fine. But those are symptoms of the fact that we created a global movement that spread to 82 countries. Those weren't the objective; those are merely just byproducts of the fact of what we created, this large, global social movement. So I call it a constructive failure, which is not the same as a total failure. A total failure would mean that we did nothing good. Of course, we had many good things. I'm glad that Occupy happened, we should all be glad that Occupy happened. But it's a constructive failure because it taught us about the limitations of our current notions of activism. I think it's very important to realize that with Occupy Wall Street, we basically achieved the paradigm, the storyline of what the ideal social movement should be. We had it for about 60 days. It was global, largely non-violent, had pretty much a unified message, it's cut across demographics, but it didn't achieve what we set out to achieve.
SC: But what's interesting, Micah, is that I had done this little test with a number of activists, friends of mine, to ask them, "What did you think was the primary impulse, the first impulse for the Occupy movement?" I'm not gonna test my audience here tonight, but most people say, "Oh, it was to talk about the income gap," and "Oh, it was to talk about how there's too many people controlling all of the money." But in fact, it started off as an attempt to change legislation regarding who can contribute money, including unions and other corporations to campaigns. Is that the case?
MW: Yeah, yeah. If you go back to the original tactical briefing that we wrote at Adbusters, so having at Adbusters is we basically, we wrote this tactical briefing and calling for the Occupy Movement. And in that tactical briefing, we basically said, "Let's go down to the financial districts and have these general assemblies and come up with our one demand, the one demand that's really gonna change the world." And we put forward the idea that it should be to get money out of politics.
SC: Okay, so let me stop you here. How many of you actually knew that? I see seven hands in the audience. [laughter] But the reason why I mentioned it is because at the same time, Occupy... None of us... Many of us didn't actually know what the initial impulse was. It didn't work until this incredible conversation, and you mentioned this in your just previous comments about, nobody was talking about the 1%. Now that's almost a mean. I mean, it's just going viral to a certain extent, but you wouldn't be considered raising consciousness enough. Right?
MW: No, I think that's precisely the point. I think that when we... I think that seeing raising consciousness as a success lowers our horizon of possibility. Occupy Wall Street was a revolutionary social movement. It was born out of the Arab Spring that had toppled dictators abroad, and our goal was to fundamentally transform society. So I think that one of the dangerous things that's happening right now is this idea that social activism, the best you could possibly hope for is informing people or getting people to talk about an issue, which I would call social marketing, not social activism. [chuckle] And I think that social activism is actually about transforming the world, having revolutionary transformation of the way we live. And so I see this kind of argument that, well, you guys changed the discourse. That's symptomatic though, of our own defeat because we're not able to point to something greater. We comfort ourselves with this lesser, lesser thing.
SC: In fact, you have three cardinal rules of activism. So I will share them with you. One is never broadcast inaccurate news. The other is never conceal defeat. And the other is never exaggerate victory. And I think what you're saying is that in the case of Occupy, all of those things, in fact, happened. Is that the case?
MW: Right. Yeah. And those three rules, those are from Regis Debray. And so I think that probably the reason why we broke those rules was because of social media. There's this tendency to want to make ourselves feel good. I think that we... It's social marketing again. It's this idea that, why don't I just throw up some pretty pictures of the protest movement and make myself feel better? But instead, I think that that tendency is the reason why we aren't really breaking through to the next level.
SC: You have a... I don't know whether it's a strategy. I think you'd be happy if I used the term "theory of activism" in which a successful revolution can only exist if four paradigms are integrated together. So, I'd like you to go through the four of them so that our audience can get a sense of exactly what we're talking about. So, the first... So what we're talking about are four different approaches to change that have to be integrated in order for a movement to be successful. So we start with volunteerism, right?
MW: Right, right. We realize that revolution is the interaction between humans and, let's say, in the world of arts, okay? So there's basically, if you draw or think of a grid, there's a few different ways it can interact with us and it comes up with four options. On the left side of the grid would be theories that place an emphasis on human agency, human action. And on the right side would be theories that say revolutions don't actually involve human agency. There's something outside of human control. On the bottom would be theories that say revolution is a material or a natural process that involves physical forces in our world. And then at the top we have things that say, no, revolution is some sort of supernatural or possibly spiritual, but in any case, it's immaterial. It's not a material thing. So we're gonna start with the most common understanding of activism, which is volunteerism in the bottom left-hand corner. And what that says is that revolution is an interaction between humans and the natural world. So if we want to change things, then what we need to do is, we've all heard this phrase, direct action. Right? We need to put our bodies on the line. We need to get out into the streets. We need to block the traffic or go up and stop the coal factories with our physical bodies, because social change under that paradigm is the result of humans acting on the natural world. It's called volunteerism.
SC: Gotcha. Now we can get to structuralism.
MW: Structuralism is another option. Now, if you go to the bottom right-hand corner, and that's the idea that actually revolution is a material, a natural phenomenon, for sure, but doesn't involve humans at all. And this we kind of understand from like Marx and historical materialism, the idea that we need... There has to be a willing historical moment. There has to be an economic crisis. And there's been really interesting studies. I think that people should check out this idea that they've studied. They've found that, actually, if food prices pass a certain threshold, that, more than any other factor predicts revolution. And if you go back in time and you look at the food prices, you'll see that the Arab Spring and Occupy coincided with record high food prices. And then, as soon as those movements started to decline, that's when the food prices pass this threshold. And now we live in a time of decreasing food prices. I know in Canada, you guys are experiencing some, but overall, internationally, it's lower then. So that's structural in the idea that social change happens. It doesn't involve humans at all, it's some sort of other process involving...
SC: Does the digital revolution fit into that?
MW: In what way?
SC: Well, I'm looking at events outside of human... Well, obviously, the digital revolution is propagated by humans, but it's something that kind of feeds itself. But no, that's not it.
MW: Well, I mean, I think under... It depends on... There are different arguments about what kind of structural factors could be... I think in terms of what kind of empirical studies have been done, food prices are the primary one. I think Marx's theory would probably just say general economic crisis, but we have seen that stock market crashes don't necessarily entail a revolutionary moment.
SC: We move onto subjectivism.
MW: Subjectivism. So, if we go up into now the top left-hand quadrant, this would be the theories that say, "Well, revolution is a human... It involves humans, but it doesn't involve the material world at all." And here we have ideas that are like, "If you want to change the world, you have to change how you see the world." Because the way we see the world, or the way we... Our internal reality dictates external reality. So, the best kind of activism here is some sort of like mediation, yoga, things that make us feel more positive about reality. This is the subjectivism; target people's interior minds in order to change how they perceive reality.
SC: So it's about perception of reality. It's not like, if I take care of myself, I can become a better activist?
MW: Right, no. It's about... It would be literally like this idea that the world seems so gray when you've been dumped, but then you fall in love and everything is like, "What are you talking about? I love life. Everything's going great."
SC: That was a good example. [laughter] And let me get to more challenging, the most, from my point of view, and I'm sure that this will surprise some people. I wanna make sure I'm pronouncing it right, theurgy?
MW: Right. Theurgism. Theurgism.
SC: Theurgism. Theurgy?
SC: Okay. Go. [laughter]
MW: So, this is the area that... The reason why I diagrammed it out is because, if you do the diagram, you realize, "Oh, there is a whole fourth quadrant that no one talks about." And that's this idea of, could revolution possible be something that is both, that doesn't involves humans and is not material? What would that be? And so, I talked about this idea of theurgism, the idea that revolution is some sort of divine intervention into our world. It's a process that involves supernatural forces that are not under the control of humans, and are also not physical and material. And this is for western activists, obviously. You cannot go to this territory. Don't go there.
SC: Well, no, because it sounds like God to me.
MW: Theurgy means "God work" in Greek. So, literally, we're talking about sorcery, we're talking about theories of social change, though, that were dominant in the past. There had been times in human history when people did, for example, before a battle or whatever, pray to the gods and think that that was the result of it. But I think that this type of theory of social change is really helpful to think about, if you consider the case of the origins of Christianity, I mean, the victory of Christianity really, because Christianity is a social movement that was persecuted for 300 years. It was the only social ideology in Rome that was outlawed. It was the only belief system. They had a pluralistic pagan society, but only Christianity was oppressed. The Christians were thrown to the lions and killed in front of cheering audiences. So, how could it possibly be that Christians conquered the world? How can it be that so much of the world is now Christian? And the answer is because two people, Saint Paul and then Constantine, had visions of Jesus Christ in their dreams, right?
SC: Well, I guess what might be problematic about that is that even though many of us are aware of the radical origins of Christianity, its current manifestation is not the most progressive, and over the centuries has been problematic rather than something you would want to celebrate.
MW: Right. No, of course, but I'm not talking about its current manifestation. I am talking about its path to victory.
SC: This Christianity thing really got me, I gotta tell you. There are many who would argue regarding Christianity, because we know that Saul had the revelation, became Paul.
SC: But we also know that the church could not have grown without basically direct action, which is to say to go out into the people who are alienated from Kings, and give them a piece of the cross and say, "This is a piece of the cross or a piece of the shroud or whatever." So, there still had to be some kind of organization...
MW: No, that's a really good point, and I think that leads me to the point which is that, you can't just pick one of these four options and then focus on that and say like, "No." I think contemporary activism just basically wants to be voluntarist. They don't wanna really think about the other ones and if they do, maybe they'll consider subjectivism sometimes. But structural makes them really uncomfortable because it might mean that they're protesting for no reason or something like that. So, what I'm saying though, is that successful revolutions and successful social movements involve all four elements. So as activists, we need to combine them to varying degrees.
SC: So let's go through some of the current movements that I'm sure members of our audience are involved in or have been involved in the past that have the most potential, possibly, to integrate all of these four elements.
SC: Okay, so obviously, I wanna start with environmentalism because I can see the potential for all of them to coalesce, except for the fourth, the most challenging, and you are saying supernatural, so a natural disaster doesn't qualify, right?
MW: I'll give you an interesting example for the fourth one. Okay. Here's one thing to think about, and people can debate. Maybe this is structural, maybe this is theurgism. But now, there's been this really weird study that a Russian cosmologist did in the early 20th century, that he said proves sunspot activity predicts revolutions on earth. So, what does that mean?
SC: Are you buyin' it? Let's see.
MW: I mean...
SC: No, seriously.
MW: No, really. Yeah, that's the truth. So he went back and he... I don't know if you guys know this, but there's basically storms in the sun, and this scientist went back throughout human history and he found statistically significant evidence that revolutions most often occur during elevated sunspot activity. So, the sunspot obviously is something that we can't cause on earth, but some people worship the sun as god, that's why I call it theurgistic example. So the sun is kind of a deity, and the sun's sunspot energy and activity is somehow creating revolutions. I'm not necessarily saying it's true, but I'm just saying that, what if it were true that revolutions like Occupy coincided with sunspot activity? What would you do as an activist?
SC: Well, yes. That's what I was gonna say. Would we have to look and kinda predict when these solar events are gonna take place? Or do they reflect what's going on? Or do they influence what's going on?
MW: Right. I mean, this is something that I think about now because we are entering... I mean, if this theory is true, it's bad news for activism because we're entering a period of sustained low sunspot activity. [laughter]
SC: No, no negativity tonight. No negative... You have actually some, I think, really valuable critiques to make of the current environmentalist movement and in particular, you have said that there have been some you find problematic, the catastrophic approach to what's happening and you have some certain fears about how, about the development of ecofascism, and you throw some words around that are very powerful. I'd like you to share some of those views with our audience this evening.
MW: Yeah. I think that the main thing I find troubling about contemporary environmentalism is that it's become so dominated by technocratic or scientific world view. For example, almost all of environmental activism has been oriented around this idea that we need to keep the temperature below a certain degree, raise, or more importantly, that we need less than 350 parts per billion of carbon dioxide. All these things are things that only scientists and technocratic people can tell the people. We can't feel how much carbon dioxide is in the air and stuff like this. And I think that that, more importantly though, it kind of justifies a potentially negative approach in the sense that, I think that there will be people who start to see that actually because of the severity of climate change, the fact that it's a global existential crisis that affects the survival of us all, is a tremendous political power that can come from being the one who promises to be the saviour on that issue. And so, I think that right now, we see traditionally on the right, or whatever, "Oh, they're gonna deny climate change." But I could see it actually flipping right to the other side where they say instead, "Oh, no we're gonna save climate change, but it's gonna mean no civil liberties for any of you because we need to completely extend the scientific world view to every aspect of our lives."
SC: And prescribe how we're living our lives as well, right?
MW: Right, right. And control how our living our lives and all these kind of stuff. So I think that, yeah, for me I think that the main thing about environmentalism is that it needs to find its soul again and realize that it doesn't need to be purely a scientific movement, and I think we also have to put our faith in a social movement. Only a social movement's gonna be able to solve climate change. Only a global social movement will be able to gain sovereign control over the planet in order to break down barriers and borders, and allow climate refugees, and all those kind of ideas...
SC: So you've been clear that huge demonstrations protesting climate changes have been... They're kinda useless.
MW: Yeah. I do think they're useless. I think that they're not designed... Let's put it in clear terms. Large marches for climate change are not designed to overthrow or change the regime of any government on this earth. They're designed... They're social marketing. They're designed to publicize the presence of an issue in order to give the elected representatives a way to say, "I'm responding to this constituency that's in the streets, that's why I'm doing this thing."
SC: Well, why is that bad? We've experienced a time where the climate change deniers were winning, and now, I think they're losing. We don't know how it's gonna shake down in our own country because I'm not sure where the pipelines are going or anything like that. I sometimes think that raising consciousness is kind of a good thing. I see that as happening with Occupy. I definitely feel the environmental movement has it. We have the experience here with the plastic bags. It just was completely transformed. People look at you with plastic bags now as if you're not so good. So, I mean, those kinds of things to you are not as meaningful, or are they just the first step in something bigger?
MW: I think what I'm saying is that, that's easy stuff. That's easy stuff to accomplish. And so, if you set your sights at only doing that, then you miss out on the much larger and the more difficult and far more important challenges of gaining sovereignty for the people in order to actually institute the changes they wanna see instead of demanding changes from our government and this kind of thing. So, I'm not denying that activism is able to achieve those kind of things, like the ketchup debate that you guys just had. Yes. We successfully got...
SC: We love our ketchup! [laughter]
MW: Successfully got them...
SC: Canadian tomatoes taste better than American tomatoes.
MW: Right, exactly. And that's great and everything, but at the same time, let's be real. It hasn't fundamentally changed the economic structures of Canada. So what I'm saying is those things are easy, and we shouldn't just content ourselves with them.
SC: Maybe we should stop for a second and talk about what we mean by revolution, because I think that might help the conversation, which I'm enjoying by the way, but this still might help the conversation. I remember when they were demonstrating in Tahrir Square and then Mubarak left, and I looked around at the NOW offices and I said, "We gotta go out in the streets, man." I couldn't believe that you could have a demonstration and actually overturn a government. Now, of course, that didn't last long and no good has come of it. But one of the things you say very pointedly is that we have to take over. We, or the people, the good guys, have to take over legislative and executive powers, which I think... I was kinda surprised when I read that, Micah, because it sounded almost like, and I know that you don't mean this, and I don't mean this as a judgement, a soft revolution, that it's almost like working through the system. But that's not what you mean when you say we have to seize those powers.
MW: No, I don't mean... Wouldn't it be great if it was soft, though? I mean, I don't think that we should somehow fetishize a hard revolution. But that's not what I'm saying. I think that, if you take the example, I think the example of Egypt is really, really important. So, what happened in Egypt, it seems to me, is that they basically had these secular youth who inspired a beautiful uprising and they got all the people into the streets and Mubarak stepped down due to international pressure, because the international community was able to say, "Look, you have these people in the streets. You have to step down." So he steps down. But then the secular youth made a major tactical mistake, strategic mistake, which is that they didn't then run for power. They didn't run for power. They stepped aside. The Muslim brotherhood got into power. So I think what I'm trying to...
SC: Well, there was a candidate from...
MW: ElBaradei. Yeah, but he just... He didn't... You know what I mean? He didn't have the base... He didn't have that backing. The Muslim brotherhood saw that this was...
SC: The vacuum.
MW: Yeah, they saw the vacuum and moreover they realized, "Oh my God, we were just like a literally illegal organization moments ago, and now we're about to become the leaders of this." So, I think that the thing is that activism, that's kind of what parallels what happens in a lot of countries. In a lot of countries, we just think that our role somehow is to protest and make noise, but we don't think about the second part which is we could actually protest as a means to becoming the government and gaining control of the government in order to actually carry out our desires. That's what a revolution is. So revolution, it's very hard to define, but I think the definition that I try to put forward that I think helps us give a broader horizon is, "A revolution is a change in legal regime." That's it. That's why some revolutions can be very small, like overturning a law, a specific law, it's kind of like a revolution. But in the broadest sense, what it really is, is it's a struggle over who creates the laws. It's a change in legal regime. And so the goal of activism is to become the power that sets the laws, that creates the laws.
SC: So I think it's useful to distinguish between a single issue protest, 'cause many of us in this audience have been... Every time Henry Morgentaler's clinic was busted, we were out there in the streets trying to make sure that women had access to reproductive freedom. We've had an issue here with police carting black people, and a huge response and trying to develop change in that way. And sometimes in those situations, we've been successful. But you're looking at something bigger.
SC: And I was interested in your section of the book where you talk about the slow change versus the short change. So, I wanna talk a little bit about feminism 'cause I think it's a really interesting example, and another movement that could, I mean, possibly integrate all four of your paradigms except in terms of theurgy, in which case, somebody like Gloria Steinem would have to be considered a goddess or something like that. But I don't mean to trivialize your point, but I mean those of us who are involved in that movement... Somebody like me who's been involved for now 40 years, have... It's so not over, but we have seen unbelievable change. When we started, nobody was talking about sexual assault. And what was so wonderful about the movement is that we knew that we could approach change in almost every single level of our living lives, that everywhere we looked there was an issue we could take on. And in fact, you see much potential in women as a power. And we can see what's going on in India with sexual assault there, we can see how women are almost beginning to change some of the economics in Africa. Tell me a little about how you see feminism fitting in, or women's movement fitting into your paradigm.
MW: Yeah, for sure. The thing about revolution is it always comes as a surprise. And I think that people... It's very difficult to predict when it's gonna happen, in fact, just as an aside, it's kind of interesting to note that the Russian Revolution of 1917 started on International Women's Day, and that in fact, at that time, everyone, the Bolsheviks included, they said, "The time isn't right for revolution or protest." In fact, they tried to ban protest on International Women's Day, but it was the women textile workers who went into the streets, and from that action, it spiralled into this whole revolutionary moment. So I think when I look into the future and try to get, "What's my revolutionary instinct telling me about what could happen next?", I think it's a women-led social movement. I think a women's social movement could emerge that eclipses Occupy Wall Street so fundamentally that one day we could wake up, and just like when we woke up and we saw people in the squares, in their encampments, we could wake up and we could see women protesting, of all ages, and we don't understand, where did they come from, and what's going on, but suddenly it's spreading to 82 countries just like Occupy did. So, how would that happen? I think that the core thing to understand is that social movements are created by a contagious mood combined with a new tactic. So I can imagine some sort of contagious mood just sweeping among women, and then all of a sudden, it's just like, "Yeah, I feel that, too." And then there's some sort of new tactic, we won't know what it looks like, but something that surprises people and suddenly makes them believe, "Wow, this is it. This is gonna work, we're gonna get the feminism. We're gonna have that feminist revolution, or matriarchal revolution, or whatever, that we finally ever wanted." So, I see that as one of the beautiful scenarios that we could see in years ahead.
SC: You made a point of saying that one of the big challenges of revolutions and activism is that the power, and the powers that be have become more and more adept at responding and co-opting, and getting ready for us. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MW: Yeah, yeah. I think that protest has become part of the political spectacle. I think we all kind of know that in our hearts, that we realize that these politicians are able to absorb a certain level of protest. I think the best example of that, of course, is the 2003 anti-war march that happened in every single country, basically, all over the world. People went into the streets with a unified message of no war...
SC: This was to oppose the proposed war in Iraq?
MW: Yes, so February 15, 2003, so about a month before the war started. Everyone went into the streets, it was beautiful, it was amazing, and if you Google images of that, you Google February 15, 2003, you'll see these amazing shots of like a million people in London all holding a sign that says, "No to the War." It was very obvious what this was about. And something really important happened that night is that after all the protesters went home, George Bush got on television and he said, "I don't listen to these protests, because if I listen to the protests, it's like listening to a focus group, but I base my politics on what I believe, not focus groups." And so he just dismissed all of these global protests as a focus group, and I think ever since then, actually, politicians have realized that actually, we can just do that. These protests are just people's opinions, they don't matter. That's how they treat them. So I think that as activists, we've been chasing this paradigm of, "No, no, if we can just get more people into the streets rallying behind this thing... " And I think that's kind of a poor insight. The truth is that there's no reason or power that forces elected representatives to like, "Oh, what? You got 10,000 people in the streets? Oh okay. I agree." That doesn't exist. We act as if it does exist, it sounds funny, but we do, we really act as if it does exist. Well, if a million people marched in New York City, then I guess the President would have to listen, but no. Why? There's no law that says that, nope.
SC: I see your point. [chuckle] But let's talk a bit, I mentioned it briefly, about the long view versus the short view. Because I know that a couple of years ago, I guess it might have been in the nine... I can't remember exactly when it was, but a bill to give same sex benefits to gays and lesbians did not pass in our Ontario legislature, and I was really, really upset. I had a real personal crisis, and a great old activist came up to me because I was doing an event, and I had made this impassioned plea and explained how upset I was. As a lesbian mother, I was just freaked out. And he came to me and he said, "Do you know how long it took us to get Medicare in this country? It did not take us a week, and it didn't take us a month, and it didn't take us a year. We worked for decades to develop," what I think we'll all agree, "is one of the great social policies of this country." You guys need one, by the way. [chuckle] But it's not your fault that we don't have one. I'm not pointing at you there. And yet, at the same time, sometimes we do see incremental change in short moments. But talk a little bit about the long view versus the short view. You have the 28 days thing, I like that, too. So if you can integrate some of that into your answer, I'd appreciate it.
MW: Right. So, there's basically two timescales of activism: There's the fast time, and there's the slow time. So the fast time is that amazing ability that we see of social movements to suddenly arise suddenly, go into the streets, all of a sudden, within 20 days or 28 days, they basically... It took 28 days for Occupy to basically reach... 50% of Americans had heard of the movement, which is a tremendous feat. 150 million people knowing about a word, a phrase, "Occupy Wall Street" within 28 days. So we have this fast time perspective, which is enabled by the internet and social media. But then there's also this slow time perspective, there's this... The slow time perspective, it says things like Thomas Jefferson, who said that the generation that starts the revolution rarely lives to complete it, or other people have said that all revolutions actually take three generations. Or, if you think about it on an even larger scale, you realize that the people have been rising up against tyrants and against dictators and trying to get to a more egalitarian society since ancient Egypt. We actually have papyrus from ancient Egypt that talks about revolution against the king. So from the long-term perspective, we are just kind of a blip in a much longer human journey, multi-generational journey that's 5000 years old. But on the other hand, we do, as activists, are trying to create social change within our own lifetimes. And so you have to balance the two against each other. I think that it's really important not to just... There's a kind of quietism that can happen when you just say, "Well, revolutions take three generations, I'm probably the first generation, so there's probably two more, so I should just kinda chill out a little bit."
SC: Chill, right? [laughter]
MW: But it's hard to say, maybe we're the third generation. You always have to fight as if you are the third generation or something. But at the same time, I think that what that activist said to you is correct. We do have to have this kind of nuanced perspective about how time works. But on the fast side, I think the fast side is really crucial for activists to realize, which is that when planning a protest, I think a rough metric for how fast it has to be, is that we shouldn't plan protests, fast protests, that lasts more than 28 days. 28 days is how long it took for the Arab Spring to topple Mubarak, it's how long it took Occupy to reach mass consciousness. And when we try to go past that point, we inevitably start to lose. And there was this moment, I think, with Occupy Wall Street, that was so telling, which is that in early November, things were really turning sour, the winter was coming, the police were sending all these drunks into the encampment in Zuccotti, really changing the mood. And at Adbusters, we sent out this tactical briefing, saying like, "Hey, guys, we should... Why don't we just declare victory and wrap it up until the spring?" But I would talk to people on the phone, these occupiers in New York, and they would say, "No, no, no, we have so much money, we're gonna buy $40,000 winter tents, and we're gonna live in these winter tents in the square." And I would say to them, "No, it's not that the winter's too cold, it's that it's too long." They had no sense of the fact that it cannot last that long. And as we saw very soon, it was evicted. So for activists, I think we have to figure out, how do we do these fast events that achieve their objectives very quickly, while also maintaining this long-term perspective that kind of ties it into a longer story?
SC: So when you look out into the world, and I know that you're frustrated with the way activism has unfolded, that it's not taking into account all of the elements required for successful revolution, but, are you feeling hopeful at all? What gives you hope? Or are you...
MW: Yes, absolutely hopeful. I do think it's really important that people realize that revolutions always happen when they seem least likely. And so...
SC: And when there's a sunspot.
MW: And when there's a sunspot! I don't know, you guys. Check that one out, I mean, that's interesting stuff. But it is true that the Russian Revolution in 1917 started at a time when no one expected it. Occupy started at a time when no one expected it. I know that because I was editor at Adbusters and we solicited people, asking them, "Can a revolution happen in America?", and they all said no, and then of course, Occupy happened. So there's no use getting demoralized at all, because it's almost as if it needs to seem impossible before it can happen. So it's almost like when you're losing, you're about to win, so you might as well just be really happy at all times. [laughter] I think that we are still within that revolutionary shadow that inspired Occupy Wall Street. I think we're still within that time in which people are desperate for social change. And our challenge right now is merely to innovate activism. It's merely to develop new forms of protest, new ways of inspiring people and then I think we'll see social movements that eclipse Occupy Wall Street. But we do stand at a kind of a choice. We can stay here, celebrate ourselves, tell ourselves that Occupy was this great success, that Black Lives Matter is doing this amazing thing, and all this kind of stuff. Or we can start to say, "Okay, how do we get serious about this? How do we really do this?" Yeah, I have a feeling that when I look at the world, the international community, international protests, I think we're gonna see some amazing stuff happen. Even in Brazil right now, there's a million people in the streets... It's not unlikely that they could innovate some sort of new tactic that does topple that government. And then we might see a kind of Brazilian Spring that inspires a wave this direction.
SC: It's interesting you mention Brazil, because you did comment that part of the problem with the situation in Egypt was that government was toppled, but there was nothing to come in afterwards. And when you were mentioning about seizing legal and executive control, I think that's the big question. I guess, in Russia, they take over the Kremlin and it's done. I guess that's what baffles activists. And that's... Because you're right; the protest is the easy thing. "Here I am, here's what I care about, listen to my voice." And finding that way to innovate to actually figure out what the next level is supposed to be the biggest challenge, don't you think?
MW: Absolutely, yeah, I think that the Brazil thing is really telling, because they had a social movement in 2013 that was very much like Occupy. It started around a fare hike; it spiralled into a massive social movement, and then it dissipated just like Occupy did. And now they're getting a second chance, 2016, it's early in the year, just like Arab Spring started early in the year. But they also... They still have to solve that problem of, how do we not just topple the government, but how do we, and I think, how do we run the government? I think a lot of activists are afraid of that question. I think that we don't want to... There's something weird if you read the history of the Russian Revolution, the same thing happened; the people wanted to protest and then as soon as the tzar was overthrown, they're like, "Okay, let's give the government to the bourgeoisie now." [laughter]And that's what the Bolsheviks had to fight against. They were like, "No, no, stop trying to give the power away." I think we kind of... Which is what the secular youth did in Egypt, too. It's like we're scared to hold the power, because it's so much easier to be the complaining side that's throwing temper tantrums in the streets. But we have to combine the ability to overthrow governments with the ability to be a good government. So it's really a challenge.
SC: So are you feeling hopeful versus challenged versus... But you're not depressed, obviously? [laughter] You're feeling hopeful.
MW: Yes, I feel hopeful. I will never forget... You have to remember the experience of Occupy and how it came out of nowhere. And I just... It could happen at any time. It could happen any, any time. We could wake up tomorrow and Brazil could be toppled, and all of a sudden people are inspired. We could wake up tomorrow and there could be women in the street. That's the nature of social movements is that they bubble up seemingly spontaneous, but right now there could be a group of activists who are really planning something beautiful. And I think that that's one of the reasons I wrote my book is to kind of like increase the sophistication of how we think about activism. So yeah, I think there's no use being demoralized at all. It's not... The end of protest is not a permanent state. It's just one of those phases within the cycle of social change that we have to break out of. I mean, we could be here a long time for sure, but I remain optimistic instead that activists that are more innovative than we ever have been before, and that somehow, because of the power of the internet and our ability to move tactics around the world very quickly, within 24 hours we could, if something did come out of Brazil or China, it could be in Canada within 24 hours, and all of a sudden, it's just a beautiful time again.
SC: It could happen in this room, for all you know.
MW: Yes, it could.