‘Occupy Wall Street was a constructive failure’

In this interview with Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, Canada's leading public-affairs forum, Micah White discusses the future of activism. Originally published in The Globe and Mail.

You think mass protest, as a means for social change, is losing its efficacy?

The common refrain is that we live in a time of unprecedented state control, where we have surveillance of the Internet, police using military-grade technology to control and disperse crowds, which renders a lot of the tactics of contemporary urban protest obsolete. All of this is true, but I think there's a deeper analysis at play here, which is that the paradigm of protest, the theory of protest, that underlies contemporary activism is broken. The main idea underlying contemporary protest is that, if we get millions of people into the street with a unified message and they're largely non-violent, then our elective representatives will have to listen, and real change will happen. But we've seen repeatedly that, when activists actually achieve this remarkable feat – it's happened during Occupy Wall Street, the anti-war marches in 2003, the climate marches – it doesn't yield the social change that activists are demanding. Too many in the activist community are subscribing to illusions about what creates mass change.

Is this because we are too successful as societies, and there isn't the mass suffering that historically has been a springboard for revolution?

In other words, are we living in a post-revolutionary age? I don't think this is true. Rather, it seems to me that the potential for revolution is even more likely today because of various factors, such as the speed of the Internet and the ability of social movements to create and adapt their tactics instantaneously. Human history is filled with examples of revolutions happening at the precise moment when they seem least likely. Everyone says revolutions are no longer possible, but I'm more hopeful than ever that we are moving closer to a moment of social upheaval.

What is the way forward you're re-commending to your fellow activists?

I am excited about the potential to create global social movements that can win elections in multiple countries. We are already seeing this trend start to develop in Europe. The idea I am exposing is that we don't need to just win elections in Greece or in Spain; we need to win elections in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Canada, all under one mass social movement. My key insight is that social movements need to start learning the behaviours associated with progressive political parties – which would be winning elections, putting forth candidates and campaigning.

How does what you are suggesting differ from the Occupy movement?

Occupy was holding assemblies in public squares to create a consensus-based democracy that we hoped would give us broad social legitimacy. The thinking was that, if every day people convened in these democratic assemblies, the police wouldn't be able to attack us because we would be the sovereign power.

Well, we realized that that's not true. Actually, sovereignty, in our societies, is only given to the people who either win elections or win wars. Winning wars isn't possible or desirable. Winning elections actually seems like something that can happen.

Is Black Lives Matter a template for the next wave of social movements?

I'm black and I support Black Lives Matter as a concept. But I think that, if we look at it critically as activists, it's clear that Black Lives Matter didn't learn the fundamental lesson of Occupy Wall Street: that public spectacles alone won't force elective representatives to do anything. If they repeat the same disruptive behaviour as Occupy, then it's clear they haven't learned how to effect lasting and real social change. I also think Black Lives Matter is a regression back to the kind of politics that Occupy Wall Street transcended. Occupy was beautiful because it spread to 82 countries, and that's what made it powerful.

Yet you've characterized Occupy Wall Street as a 'constructive' failure.

There's an attitude among activists that is really detrimental, and it is that there's no such thing as failure, that we haven't ever failed, that everything's a success. They like to say. 'Oh, Occupy Wall Street, it splintered into 1,000 shards of light; it wasn't defeated, it just merely transformed itself.' The rhetoric is really positive and it feels good, but it's not true. Occupy Wall Street was a constructive failure because we set out to achieve a very specific goal, which was to get money out of politics, and we failed because we based our actions on a theory of change that wasn't true, and we didn't know it wasn't true. We had to test the hypothesis – and we tested it, and we found out it's not true.

The real question is: How are social movements going to gain power? I'm not talking about Bernie Sanders. I'm talking about a decentralized, horizontal movement that goes into multiple countries, that carries out a unified agenda by winning elections and figuring out how to use the process of consensus-based decision-making to give voice to the people. That is the direction that we need to go.