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.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.