As I started collecting copies of my own, I was afraid my parents would find them, hidden under T-shirts in my dresser drawers. I didn’t fully get what the magazine was trying to do then, really — what it meant to call yourself an “anti-capitalist”; I just thought it felt edgy, and allowed me to question the narratives I was being told. Years later, the same magazine was the catalyst for a movement that would surge through every major city in the world.
Micah White, along with the cofounder of Adbusters Kalle Lasn, began one of the most powerful social movements of the 21st century with an email — calling all who were concerned about our current political state to combine the tactics of the Tahrir Square uprisings with the Spanish anti-austerity general assemblies and bring their voices in order that they might occupy Wall Street. The name stuck, and soon, the entire world was watching as encampments popped up all over, demonstrating that citizens of all governments were tired of their voices going unheard.
Since then, activists have been asking what effective social movements look like and how social change comes about in a post-Occupy world. This is something Micah has been hard at work thinking about, ever since police in riot gear drove protesters out of public parks all over the world at the end of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
As we see new movements come on the scene, like Black Lives Matter, we must continue to ask: What can we learn from the past to avoid the same mistakes that ultimately prevented previous movements from achieving their revolutionary potential.
I interviewed Micah White by phone for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He spoke with me from his small rural town of Nehalem, Oregon, while I was in Los Angeles. We covered a wide array of topics, ranging from the future of protest and politics, race in America, and the future of our species. The following contains the majority of our conversation. Micah White’s book The End of Protest will be published in March 2016 by Penguin Random House Canada.
JUSTIN CAMPBELL: Would you mind by first telling us about your childhood?
MICAH WHITE: I grew up in Maryland and Michigan. The defining feature of my childhood was that my dad is black and my mom is white. My parents were middle class and that meant that I grew up in the suburbs. One thing that’s really important about American history is that intermarriage between races was illegal until 1967. My parents would tell me about how even though it wasn’t technically illegal for them to get married by the time they got married, it had only been a few years since you could be imprisoned in some states for what they did. They would tell stories about how they went to certain restaurants and how they wouldn’t be served and how they faced discrimination. They were also hippie, antiwar type people, which means that I was raised on a lot of stories about activism in the ’60s.
That’s interesting you mention being biracial; I think that’s a huge component when we think about the demographics of the next few generations. Scholar and activist john a. powell has said that mixed race people are the fastest growing demographic in America. In regards to your upbringing from a political standpoint, was there an event in your childhood that triggered your activism?
Really, for me, activism has always been my passion. I’ve been doing activism since I was 13 years old. In high school, the earliest successful campaigns that I did was around atheism in Michigan. I started an atheist club at my high school which lead to me writing an op-ed in The New York Times which led to my being on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect on ABC-TV. That was the earliest expression of my activism. In short, I’ve always been an activist who never really received much institutional support, but at the same time was constantly doing my own thing and innovating my own approach.
It’s obvious that your passion for activism led you in 2011, as the senior editor of Adbusters, to be a part of starting one of the most significant social movements of the 21st century. In your opinion, where does Occupy Wall Street stand today? Is there something next for the movement that you’re involved with or that other people should be involved with?
So I usually start by calling Occupy a constructive failure. For me, that means that in failing it taught us a lot about some of the failed tactics used by contemporary activists. I think that Occupy Wall Street on the one hand changed the whole argument. It changed the discourse and brought a lot of prominence to certain types of activist organizations that now benefit from a new protest pool. It made activism cool again. That’s one story line that exists out there: Occupy didn’t really fail, it splintered in a thousand shards of light.
I think that that’s the kind of false positive outlook that underlies a lot of contemporary activism and leads us astray. The reality is that, actually, Occupy failed to achieve its revolutionary potential because the movement was based on a false notion of what creates social change. A lot of people want to hold on to the nostalgia of Occupy, but for me, it’s easy to say that it was a constructive failure, as opposed to a total failure. It did good things; it had a positive effect, but it didn’t succeed. It’s no longer real, it no longer exists anymore, and it hasn’t existed since the May Day general strike of 2012. Part of what happened is that because of social media accounts, we have the sense that things go on forever. But imagine if Twitter existed in 1968; would there still be an SDS account on Twitter? Would there still be a Weathermen account on Twitter? There’s still Occupy accounts that exist and Facebook accounts and all this kind of stuff, but they’re essentially just walking ghosts.
How do you feel about Occupy being a creative failure as opposed to a revolutionary success?
For me, I’m okay with seeing Occupy as a failure because I think that humans are part of a many thousand-year struggle that goes back to the dawn of egalitarian civilization. We’ve been overthrowing kings and tyrants for thousands of years. Occupy was just another episode in that long story line of uprisings. There will be another one. At the same time, there will only be able to be another one if we’re able to let go of our nostalgia for the past. We have to let go of Occupy in order to create another Occupy.
That’s an interesting insight in light of what’s being said about the relationship between the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s and the Black Lives Matter movement. Essential contemporary black activists are arguing that we have to let go of our nostalgia for the former to be able to achieve real change with the latter.
I would agree with that.
So in reading a lot of your pre-Occupy Adbusters work, it seems as though there is a kind of prophetic expectancy for revolution in America in your early writings. Do you feel like there is a system, political, religious, or otherwise that will save us from ourselves? I guess another way to put it is, post-Occupy, is there hope for humanity? Or are we just doomed?
There is absolutely hope for humanity. I think one of the signs of that is the kind of apocalyptic tone that’s dominated leftist activism for a long time is coming to an end and ought to be abandoned. The kind of tone I worked on at Adbusters and promoted there is no longer sufficient.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how near the end of his life, Martin Heidegger, the great German philosopher, was interviewed by Der Spiegel and he said, “Only a god can save us now.” And people have really wondered, “What does that mean?” As a kind of theoretical perspective, I think that’s also the situation we’re in right now. Only a god can save us now means that only a kind of divine intervention can shift humanity off the course that it’s going. Only a kind of magical or supernatural occurrence can really knock us out of our patterns that we’ve set and put us onto a new path. I think that could happen at any time; any sort of moment could arise that gets us off that path to destruction. That’s the kind of abstract perspective.
In terms of the concrete perspective — and I think this is really important in terms of Black Lives Matter — one of the gifts of Occupy Wall Street is that it demonstrated the absolute necessity and practicality of having a global, as opposed to national or local, social movements. During the height of Occupy Wall Street, not only were there Occupys in 82 countries, but we were communicating with protesters in the Arab Spring; we were linked up with Spanish indignados and we were all part of the same social uprising, all over the world at the exact same time.
I believe that the future of social change is going to be a kind of world party: a hybrid between a social movement and a political party that will be able to win elections in multiple countries in order to carry out a unified geopolitical agenda. In terms of how we get there, I think it’s going to have to be some sort of divine or magical intercession into our lives that really shifts the human perspective.
For you, is divine intervention something that can be brought about by human will or human force? Or do we just have to kind of prepare and wait for this to happen?
So the core thing to understand about activism is that there are basically four competing visions or paradigms for what creates social change. I promote a kind of theory of revolution that unifies the four competing paradigms. This is something I get into more in my book, The End of Protest. But briefly, one theory of revolution is called voluntarism. This is the belief that the actions of humans create social change. Another perspective is structuralism. This means that economic forces, outside of human control, such as food prices, cause revolution. The third perspective is that revolutions are an inner process inside of the individual only; this is called subjectivism. In this perspective, revolutions are actually a change of mind and if we just meditate and change our perspective on reality. How we see reality actually changes and that becomes a revolutionary shift. The fourth is that revolution is a supernatural process that doesn’t involve humans at all. This is known as theurgism; it’s the idea that revolution is a divine intervention. I think that what you want to do is balance all four of those together. It’s not that you can create a divine intervention, but you can be ready for it, you can tell stories about it coming, you can do other things and that’s where the human action element, in terms of voluntarism, comes into play. I think that one of the critiques that I would levy against the Black Lives Matter movement is that it overemphasizes the voluntarism side of activism. In fact, voluntarism is the dominant conception of activism and it’s this idea that all we need is to do physical actions and that will create change.
It seems too that many of these four ways of thinking could be applied and seen in the worship rituals of different religious traditions. I say this because, at the first street protest that I went to, my friend and I couldn’t help but notice how similar the street protest felt to a church service, specifically a service you would find in the black church. What I’m referring to here is the call and response, the passion, the “spirit” moving through the crowd. Do you think comparing religion to protest is appropriate? Do you think that the communal spiritual energy that we felt is part of the draw of protest movements in general, whether that be in Zuccotti Park or Ferguson?
I think that what you observed is absolutely true. When my wife and I went to the Oakland port shut down during Occupy, there was a point, after the crowd of 30,000 people, people who were our neighbors and friends, were there in the streets and it was a beautiful thing. We looked around and we were just in awe. Everyone was just glowing with this inner beauty. In other words, I believe that Occupy was a spiritual experience. It was, in the words that we used at Adbusters, a spiritual insurrection. It was a kind of inner awakening for people where, all of a sudden, people started following their dreams, rather than their fears.
Revolutions, real revolutionary moments, exceed material explanation. The force of the crowd during Occupy Wall Street exceeded the number of people there; there was this shared spirit and shared intensity. So absolutely I think the spiritual part of revolution is one of the greatest and most important parts. That being said, it’s also one of the parts that contemporary activism has the most difficulty talking about or thinking about because of a kind of secular legacy from Marxism.
That totally makes sense, when you think about the fact that specifically within anarchist circles, you find an aversion to religion and therefore an aversion to supernaturalism. How do you sell supernaturalism to folks that are skeptical of systems of religion?
I think part of the way we push back against that aversion is by challenging the dominant theories of social change. I think that one of the mistakes that a lot of contemporary anarchists make is that they confuse symptoms with cause. For example, what they say is that during a revolution, bank windows get smashed; therefore if I smash a bank window, then that automatically means a revolution is happening at that moment the window breaks. But that’s faulty thinking; it’s confusing the symptom with the cause. During revolutions, people smash bank windows, but they also do a lot of other things too. Just because you smash a bank window doesn’t mean a revolution has been created.
Revolutions happen through a kind of collective awakening. The challenge is, how do we create that collective awakening? I think sometimes anarchism figures out how to achieve this awakening, and some kinds of volunteerist theories get to it as well. For example, with Che Guevara and Latin American Revolutionary theory, they talked about having mobile guerrilla units who did acts of violence that somehow would awaken the larger public through their spectacular acts of violence. Ultimately it didn’t work, but they were still getting at the idea that there needs to be something that awakens people.
Whether or not people agree that spirituality plays a role in social revolution, they still benefit from the spiritual nature of social change movements. They can deny that spirituality has a role in social revolutions, but at the same time, they’re benefiting from the fact that spirituality is causing and playing a major role in social revolution.
And perhaps that’s part of why people are drawn to these movements in the first place.
So I want to go back a little bit to this idea of theories of protest. I think that one of the fundamental premises of protest is that the status quo can be changed. Do you feel that this is a realistic notion? Or is the idea that we can change the world, as Simon Critchley writes, “quaintly passé, laughably unrealistic or dangerously misguided”?
Let me start by saying that I have the highest respect for Simon Critchley; he’s one of the writers I recruited for Adbusters and I always think about what he says very deeply. From my perspective, we know for a fact if we look at the last 2,000 years of human society, we see that revolution is a recurring phenomenon. It seems to be one of the strangest and most complex human phenomena that exist. No one quite knows what causes revolution, but we do know that every once in a while, all of a sudden, people go into the streets, overthrow kings, and institute wild new social reforms.
A good example of this is the French Revolution: they guillotined the king and all of a sudden, they’re shooting all the clocks and changing how time is supposed to be structured; they redid the calendar. So revolution is a phenomenon that we know exists and that we know happens. But at the same time, there is a disconnect because we know that it exists but we don’t know how to create it. That’s where we are right now. Contemporary activism actually doesn’t know how to create a revolutionary social moment. That’s kind of the horrible situation that we find ourselves in. That being said, I don’t think that we should stop believing the possibility of social change. At the same time, I do think we should be self-critical of all the methods that we’re pursuing on that path toward social change.
I agree with you in the sense of thinking about the Civil Rights movement for example, of saying, well there’s a model that Dr. King et al. used that worked then, so therefore that’s what we should be doing now. The first question we should be asking is did the method actually work and what does it even mean to have “worked” in the first place? What did it accomplish? Then, if we decide it didn’t really work, then we shouldn’t be modeling it wholesale without discerning what worked and what didn’t work. I don’t even think King was as uncritical of his methodologies as some would want us to be now; he was always critiquing the movement himself.
Let me put it this way. I think that one way to help us rethink the way we do protest, is think of protest as a form of warfare. I say that because one definition of war is that “war is politics by other means.” Protest is a form of warfare that’s designed to change our political realities using unconventional methods. Once you realize that protest is a form of warfare, then you’re able to say that just because a certain weapon or fighting technique may have worked in the past, obviously it wouldn’t work today. They used to have a cavalry, but we don’t bring out the cavalry out against tanks today. The methods of warfare have changed throughout history. That’s why protest has to be constantly innovating. The grand marches of the Civil Rights era may have worked then, or maybe they didn’t, but it would be a mistake to assume that we can transport them from that time to our time. That’s, I think, the grand challenge of protest in our time.
Since we are thinking about Dr. King, one thing he often talked about was that protest was a means of pricking the consciences of whites through exposing the physical brutality of racism. I see his notion as the ideological precursor to your idea of the collective epiphany. I think we’ve been taught that that’s what happened in Selma. There was a collective national epiphany after whites saw Southerners beating black folks on the bridge and people from the North and pretty soon there were thousands and thousands of people walking across the bridge in Selma.
The reality is that, as Rev. Sekou likes to say, if all the people alive today who said they were on the bridge were on the bridge, the whole thing would have probably collapsed. Thinking about this moment in history, would you classify what happened, in say Selma, as a collective epiphany? If it is, how did that movement lose the energy of that collective epiphany? My take is that people lost interest once the marches were over. If you weren’t a black person, you had the ability to lose interest without that affecting your life. What happens when we have collective epiphanies, but the interest dies out?
One of the recurring features of revolutionary moments is that there’s this sudden overwhelming peak that seems to grow exponentially. During Occupy Wall Street, within 48 hours of the Brooklyn Bridge arrests, there were 900 encampments all over the world. It was growing at such a rate that we couldn’t even conceive of what was going to happen next. It was impossible to predict what was going to happen with all of these sudden manifestations. You can’t maintain that exponential growth forever; people get burned out. That’s just not how energy works, you know? That sudden peaking has to somehow be locked in, some way of giving it a structure that is able to persist. Looking at where we need to go today in terms of social movements, we need to be able to combine the sudden peaking of a social movement with the ability to create structures that give it a permanence. That’s why I talk a lot about the hybridization between social movements and political parties.
That’s also how I view the Civil Rights era. You can only go so far when you make demands on the people in power. What you ultimately need to do is become the people in power. If you look at Occupy Wall Street, the reason why we had those encampments is because we believed that holding the general assemblies would give us some kind of democratic sovereignty over our government. Somehow because we were a consensus-based general assembly, the police couldn’t evict us.
That turned out to not be true. We learned again that actually if you want to have sovereignty in this world, you have to either be elected or you have to militarily overthrow the sovereign. I think that right now the only practical or viable option is to become elected. I don’t think you could actually realistically conceive of a military overthrow. I think you’d just end up with a situation like Libya or Syria where it just degrades into a proxy war between nation-states. And so we have to win elections. Social movements have to win elections. That’s a real challenge because you can’t rely on leaders and at the same time you can’t rely on national party politics. You have to be a global social movement that wins elections in multiple countries. That’s the real challenge before us.
Can one be an anarchist and still want to be in politics?
Absolutely! I think that what we’re trying to achieve ultimately is sovereignty. We’re trying to achieve a situation where the people, the collective, say, “We want X,” and then X actually happens because when the people say they want X that’s what happens. Right now, we have a world system where if you hold certain positions and you say certain words, that’s what happens, due to the power of your position. For example, if you’re a governor and you say, “I pardon this death row inmate,” they’re pardoned! They’re off death row. But if you’re the people and you have a protest at the prison and try to pardon that person, it doesn’t work. So I think that if anarchism means trying to gain sovereignty over one’s life or the community gaining sovereignty over itself, then there has to be some process of self-governance that is viable. I think there’s a kind of childish or infantile anarchism that doesn’t even want to engage with the problems of self-governance. But if we’re not going to govern ourselves, then somebody else is going to. And then you’re stuck in a position of just complaining and arguing with this person in power, instead of being the ones in power.
When we read Mattathias Schwartz’s piece on the Occupy Movement in The New Yorker, we see it speaking about the challenges of consensus model for getting stuff done. I wonder too, do you feel as though in the current system there really is no reason for an elected official to listen to a protester? They don’t have to listen to us, and that’s part of the reason Occupy didn’t get as much stuff done as it could have?
One of the greatest stories that we tell ourselves as activists is that if only I can get one million or 10 million or 100 million people into the street, then there will be social change. The reason why we tell ourselves that story is because we believe that we live in a democracy and we believe that means that when large numbers of people go into the streets, the so-called elected representatives have to listen to them. The fact is that that’s not true. This is the core insight of contemporary activism: elected representatives do not have to listen to street protests. We know this because of the February 15, 2003, global antiwar march. On the same day, there were antiwar marches in every single country. There were people in every major city with signs that said no to the war. President Bush went on television and said, “Well I don’t have to listen to those protests because I don’t listen to focus groups.” He called the protests a focus group! Millions of people are in the street and he called them a focus group! That was a defining moment because after that, Western Democracy didn’t even have to pretend that to listen to social movement protest. And so you get into the situation then, where you start doing ridiculous things like having a People’s Climate March that’s destined to failure because everyone knows that synchronized global marches don’t work. They’re designed to get publicity for large nonprofits and NGOs. They’re designed to get more donations and these kinds of things. These actions are not designed to actually succeed because if they were designed to succeed, then we would start from the assumption that, “Well that’s not gonna work; let’s figure out something new.” If you look at it objectively, you can only have one or two large social mobilizations per year. More like one, really. The People’s Climate March was a waste of effort. When you go back to 2014, there’s nothing else. You only get one chance to get everyone in the streets.
And can get disillusioned as well. I experienced this a little bit myself with a protest this past April. A buddy of mine and I went to Downtown LA for it. The march was flanked by the police almost like a parade. We ended up going through Skid Row, the poor parts of Downtown LA. That’s where we spent most of our time marching. My buddy and I were looking at each other thinking, “Why aren’t we going to the financial district? Why are we not going to financial district? Why are we not going to the hipster areas? Why are we not going to these places that would not be aware?” The people in Skid Row know about police brutality. They know about poverty. They don’t need to be convinced of anything. I think that’s a prime example of what you’re talking about, where protest just becomes a ritual that everybody does to make themselves feel better, but it doesn’t actually change anything.
Right, that’s absolutely true. On the one hand, there is the benign view that says people are being naïve and public street protest is a compulsive behavior where people say, “Well it didn’t work the last 20 times I did this, but I’m just going to do it again.” That’s the naïve approach. But I think there’s also the possibility of a sinister approach, a sinister perspective, and that’s that they’re intentionally doing this behavior. During Occupy Wall Street, it’s important to remember that there was something called the 99% Spring which was an intentional effort by the progressive community to dissipate the energy of the movement.
Another example for me is that I remember that on the general strike day in Occupy Oakland, they took everyone from Oscar Grant Plaza and we marched all the way out into the middle-of-nowhere Oakland. By then, everyone was completely exhausted. I went back to Oscar Grant Plaza, and meanwhile, while we were gone, the whole area had been surrounded by police with armored personnel carriers. It was obvious that whoever was leading that march was, to me, probably in cahoots with the police. I mean, who are these people who decide the march route, and why can’t we start to suspect that they’re working for the police? I think that’s kind of the problem, which is that it’s systemic. We have activist organizations in this country who are front groups; groups designed to dissipate the energy of revolutionary movements, who receive money and resources and whose people are promoted into high positions within social movements in order to turn them and ruin them. That’s one of the theories that I have that’s difficult to prove but that people need to speak about, that it’s a possibility.
It’s not new either. COINTELPRO demonstrated that this way of operating was the way the FBI dealt with revolutionary movements. Even going back to what you were saying politicians not listening: Nixon ignored a large portion of the nation coming out and saying, “End the war,” and said that instead of listening to the protests, he was going to listen to the silent majority. That’s swinging it, in that direction. That’s an interesting kind of thing to recognize about how our protests are perceived by the “mainstream.”
And so, when Patrisse Cullors, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, recently said that we are living in the land of creative protest, and here I think she’s referring to some of the most recent protests involving Bernie Sanders and other presidential candidates, she’s saying that we’re living in a time in which groups like Black Lives Matter are moving beyond ineffective protest tactics of the past. Do you agree with this assessment?
So I really respect what she’s doing and in my heart, of course, the Black Lives Matter movement, I want as a black person, for it to succeed. At the same time, it’s very easy to fall into the kind of critical or negative perspective. But if I could give some gentle criticism, it would be that, if Black Lives Matter is living in the time of creative protest, then I would say they were only being creative around one theory of social change, which is the voluntarist model. They are too focused on the idea that we need to innovate the specific human actions that we do. I think that’s fine, but there needs to be innovation within the other three perspectives on revolution, that I mentioned earlier. You can’t just maintain a kind of materialist, disruptive perspective on protest. That would be the point that I would make. Innovation needs to happen in all the different kinds of ways we think about activism. Simply changing the ways we are disruptive, doesn’t in itself really solve the fundamental problem, which is, how are we going to become sovereign? If you want to police violence, if you want to stop police from killing black people, killing other people, then you need to be in a position where you’re appointing the police, where you’re picking the police commissioner, where you’re actually picking who the police chief is going to be in each city. If you want to change the police or abolish the police or become the boss of the police, then you have to win elections, you have to be in power. You can’t just be disruptive at the end of the day.
So when Patrisse talks about how we have to protest the police because we live in a police and prison state, and that’s why we have to protest them, is that kind of what you’re referring to when you say we shouldn’t protest police?
I’ll say this. There’s this really great military strategist named B. H. Liddell Hart and he lays out these principles of military strategy. One of the principles that he says is that you should never attack an opponent who is on guard, waiting for your attack. This is the nature of the police. The police are a force designed to be waiting for your attack. That’s why they’re wearing riot gear and armored gear and they have shields and helmets. That’s why they’re allowed to hit you and you’re not allowed to hit them. The police are like a mirror of our own inner reality; they’re just a distraction. They’re a phantasm. They’re designed to distract. They’re bullies who are designed to take your blows and hit back harder than you’re able to hit them. I think that if you want to defeat the police, if you’re asking, how do I defeat the police in actuality, and that’s your real campaign objective, taking a step back from what I just said, if you want to defeat the police, there is a way to do it.
I think we can take a historical lesson from Arminius. He was a Germanic chief who united the German tribes in 9 AD and ambushed the Roman legion in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. He carried out the greatest defeat of the Roman legion ever; he destroyed them all. It was such a shock that the news spread to Rome, and the Roman empire never again tried to occupy Germanic territory beyond the Rhine. If you want to defeat the police, what you would need to do is have a single decisive victory that so shocked, at a psychological level, the establishment that they would never again try to do the behaviors that lead to that overwhelming defeat. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re going to protest against the police, then only protest against the police once. But when you do, do it in a grand, spectacular way. But in actuality, you know, it’s not about the police; it’s about who’s appointing the police. The challenge is to become the people who appoint police.
That’s a fascinating thought, when you talk about Arminius, and I think it leads us directly to the violence vs. nonviolence debate. When we think about the revolutionary founding of this country and you mentioned the French Revolution and Che Guevara — what all these movements had in common was the fact that they were violent revolutions. In your opinion, must a revolution be violent to be successful? What are the chances that we will see a war on American soil, be it revolutionary, civil, or otherwise?
That’s an excellent question. It’s important to really tread carefully, of course, on this topic of violence. In one interview that I gave, I talked just a little bit about the question of violence. I received tremendous pushback. One well-known Occupy publication said that they’d never publish anything that I write if I talk about violence. This is absurd! There’s a censorship within the movement around even discussing or thinking about the question of violence and the connection to revolution. This is very bad because then what you do is you allow a kind of naïve perspective on violence to persist, rather then having a nuanced nonviolent perspective. That said, the question about violence, again, I think it gets back to a confusion between symptom and cause. During the American Revolution, during the French Revolution, during all revolutions, there is violence. Violence is a symptom of the breakdown of the normal social structures. Again, it’s a symptom of the revolution, but it’s not the cause of the revolution.
Political organizations that have believed that violence is the cause of the revolution and then try to use violence to cause a revolution have always failed. I’m thinking about the Red Army Faction or all these urban terrorist organizations in the 1970s. Even Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia because he believed he could use sporadic violence with his guerilla forces to cause a revolution in Bolivia. It not only failed miserably, he himself was killed and died trying to do this. The thing is that the American Revolution was not caused by violence or caused by a war. Instead, it was caused by a new method of warfare. The reason why the American Revolution succeeded was because the Americans were fighting in nontraditional methods. They were using guerilla warfare: hiding behind trees and shooting at the British soldiers rather than getting in a line. They were using all kinds of new kinds of warfare that the British soldiers couldn’t deal with. And so the core insight is that revolutions happen when the weaker side uses unconventional methods. Those unconventional methods don’t necessarily have to be violent. You can use unconventional methods, but they don’t necessarily have to be violent.
On whether or not there’s going to be a kind of violent uprising in America, I think the only possible scenario that I see for that, is a kind of split between the urban and the rural area of this country. I think that this country is so urban-centric in its culture, in its outlook, in its perspective, that the rural areas, like where I live, are basically neglected or seen as a kind of storehouse for national resources, where they can come in and clear cut our forests and extract our natural wealth. And plus there’s a lot of poverty out here. So I see a possibility for an urban-rural conflict where the urban areas go their own way and the rural folks go their own way. Ultimately, what we need to move toward is a world Party and a world government. The specter of civil war ultimately needs to be avoided because no one really wins civil war scenarios. When civil war seems to break out, it seems to signal the death of any genuine revolution.
So going back to what you were saying about how you defeat the police, what I hear you saying is that there shouldn’t be a massacre of police officers, but rather that’s where the creativity needs to come in; we need to be thinking about creative ways to make this mass spectacle happen nonviolently.
Absolutely. I don’t think that you have to harm the police at all. What I’m imagining would be a kind of humiliating defeat that’s all the more humiliating because it’s not violent. For example, if you look at police tactics of warfare, they always march forward toward the protesters. They hate having anyone behind them and they absolutely do not want to be surrounded. Sometimes I imagine or visualize what would happen if a protest surrounded a large number of police officers and forced them to give up their badges, their weapons, throw them in a fire or whatever, film the whole thing on YouTube and then just walked away. I think it would be all the more humiliating if it were nonviolent. I would definitely advocate thinking about a nonviolent thing. I think when you look at Arminius, nonviolence wasn’t an option. If you nonviolently protested against the Roman Empire, it was called an insurrection and you were crucified. I think we fortunately live in a situation, due to the evolution of civilization, where we now see a distinction between nonviolent civilian protest and armed military intervention.
That’s really interesting, that we’re talking so much about agendas and demands because critics of Occupy have always said that there was no demand. The New Yorker piece talked about how vagueness was a virtue of the community in the park in Zuccotti Square and so therefore the movement doesn’t stand for anything. BLM is getting accused of the same thing. What’s your take on framing protest movements as directionless? How do you respond to the notion that Occupy stood for nothing?
So what happened with Occupy, or if you look back at how we created Occupy Wall Street, I think it’s important for people to transport themselves back into that time, because it was not the same time that we live in right now. What was going on in that time was very special and it was very different from where we’re living right now. What was going on in 2011 was the Arab Spring. In February 2011, the protesters in Tahrir Square beat back people who were thugs sent to kill them; people were shooting guns at them and the protesters defeated those people and forced Mubarak to step down. And then in May of 2011, the Spanish went into the square and started having these general assemblies protesting anti-austerity measures. At Adbusters, we saw the revolutionary potential of this moment. A lot of people did; a lot of people wanted to start a revolution in America. We were the ones who were somewhat successful. What we did is that we sent out an email to our network and said, let’s combine the tactical models of the Tahrir uprising with the general assemblies and bring it to Wall Street. We then need to hold a general assembly and decide on our one demand. And if you look at that tactical briefing, we even suggested a demand. We said that Occupy Wall Street should demand that President Obama set up a presidential commission to investigate the influence of money on politics. We actually called for something; we called for a presidential commission to investigate the influence on money on politics.
When we put that out, I was based in Berkeley, California, and Adbusters and its cofounder were based in Vancouver, British Columbia, so that meant we were relying on activists in New York City to take this idea and make it their own. When we did that, the people who took it up, the culture that took it up, was prefigurative anarchism. They believed you should not make demands of the elected representatives; instead you should build this microcosm of the ideal society and that, somehow, out of that microcosm of the ideal society, the bad society around them would collapse. The purity and goodness of our general assembly would cause the rest of the society to collapse somehow in this magical process. Well that turned out to be not true.
At the same time that it’s not true — that Occupy was never able to develop the kind of complex decision making processes that would have allowed it to settle on one demand or would have allowed it to move toward negotiating with the elected representatives and actually becoming the people in power — it’s also an illusion to say that Occupy didn’t have a core demand. Everyone knew that the core demand was “money out of politics.” We are the 99 percent; we want control over our government. The story that is told now is that one of those stories deployed against social movements.
I think the best response that people can give to that story, the story being, “Well if you guys had a clear demand, then you would have succeeded,” is to refer naysayers back to the February 15, 2003, protest, where there was a single demand that was obvious; no one suspects that Bush didn’t know what the demand was. And it also didn’t work. I think that what we need to do is be self-critical and we need to not make demands on the people in power; we need to be the people in power. So the mistake of prefigurative anarchism wasn’t that we needed to not make demands; the real mistake was thinking that we don’t have to be the people in power. We can just build our sovereignty collectively through general assembly. That turned out to be not true. I suspect that President Obama very clearly understood that the Occupy protest was about the question of the influence of money on politics. If he didn’t understand that, it would have been obvious because he would have tried to figure out what these protests were about. Part of the signal that he understood was that he didn’t try to figure out what they were about. He knew what we were about.
That’s interesting because Citizens United had just happened and that’s partially what allowed him to be elected in terms of money. There’s a kind of self-implication that would have occurred if he had listened to the demands and put a commission in place, which was kind of the point.
So what would be your advice to BLM in terms of having demands?
My first bit of advice for any social movement is to never protest the same way twice. The biggest mistake that we made with Occupy Wall Street was that our movement was synonymous with our tactics. So once occupying stopped working, then the Occupy Movement stopped working. Once we were no longer able to occupy squares, we were no longer able to grow as a movement
In terms of Black Lives Matter, in terms of demands, we need to start challenging ourselves as social movements to do the greatest and most difficult tasks because that’s what’s actually going to save us. What’s actually going to save black people from being killed by the police is by becoming the force that’s appointing or abolishing the police in our communities. Where I live, for example, there are no police. We have a sharing agreement with the nearby town. It’s not inconceivable that social movements could become so powerful that they could be elected into positions of power to actually abolish the police in their own communities, or institute a different form of policing or appoint a new police chief that’s not from the police. There’s so many ways to imagine it once you’re the one who gets to decide. I think that’s the core thing: How do we get to be the ones who decide, without falling into the trap where you rely on leaders and party politics?
There’s also a sense though in which there’s a counterargument that says, “But look at Baltimore! They have a black mayor, a black police chief, and nothing has changed for black folks and their communities. Therefore, becoming the elected officials in power doesn’t really change anything.” So perhaps change must go deeper then race; it’s about ideologies. Part of the question too is, what are the things you have to do to get elected that make you part of the problem, like the money stuff. How do we get around that? This is the question that Bernie Sanders and also Donald Trump are presenting. As we even think about 2016 election, in the post-Obama administration, what are some of the most pressing issues America faces? Is it race? Is it economics?
One of the things that Occupy really did was that it was a global movement. I think that’s also one of the ways that Black Lives Matter represents a micro-regression away from that, in that it’s very much a national movement, or an insular movement focused on America. I think that after 2016, rather than seeing a retreat into American politics, and an obsession with activists in America, that we see a return to thinking about a global political situation, a global political party, a global political social movement. These are the real things that we’re facing. I think that on the one hand, it’s the challenge of how to create a social movement that can exert global, social, political power.
I think also on a personal level, I see a growing conflict between the urban and the rural areas. Living in a rural area has really shown me that America is far too urban-centric. Culture is oriented around New York City, and out here we don’t really have newspapers or magazines to orient people’s cultures. That being said, there’s something very important happening in the rural areas as we represent an alternative to the kind of urban-centric mindset. For example, we don’t have a police force, so there isn’t the same tension. In my tiny little town of 280 people, we don’t have any banks, we don’t have any large corporate offices, there aren’t any of these forces that activists have been so obsessed with fighting against. It’s a practical solution that is, moving to rural areas and gaining political sovereignty. That’s one thing I think BLM should think about. Why not gain political sovereignty of small town communities? If you come out here, you realize that the average age is 50 or 60 years old and people are actually excited about the idea of change and passing on the torch to another generation. They’re sad to see their rural communities age out and be abandoned by their youth.
That being said, are there any political action groups that rarely receive mainstream media attention that we should know about?
That’s a really good question. I think that in general, one of the things that’s really important for activists is to constantly be searching the edges of politics, looking for the tactics that are being used by minor movements that aren’t necessarily being effective at that time, but if they are transposed into a new domain, might become effective. Even with Occupy, the occupation tactic emerged out of the student occupations of 2009. Or look at the antiglobalization movement: they used these lockbox tactics that were created in the forests and anti-abortion activism. For me, it’s important to be constantly looking at the edges to see what’s coming up.
But in terms of specific movements or things that I think are interesting, for me, again it comes back to the rural situation. One of the things that’s fascinating about the rural communities is that we’re surrounded by forests, but these forests are actually tree farms, and these tree farms are no longer owned by single corporations. Instead they’re owned by these large real estate investment trusts. These real estate investment trusts are actually traded on the stock market. This means that our forests are being pulped. They’re clear cutting our forests and sending them to China! So the global economic situation therefore has a tremendous impact on our own tiny rural community of 280 people. The stock prices of these timber investment trusts that large institutions and universities are invested in, they’re putting their stock portfolios in companies that own large parts of our forest. That has an impact on our community. What I find fascinating is, how do you fight back against something like that that’s so powerful? I think that the environmental movement is just like Occupy, in that it’s under a period of constructive failure where it needs to reassess. I think that a return to the rural communities could be a kind of trigger for a new kind of generation of tactical thinking. Even by just trying to challenge clear cutting in my community, they’re coming up again against Wall Street in these real estate investment trusts.
I guess my main thing is that activists need to stop being so urban-focused and start looking at the other parts of America and exposing themselves to what’s going on out here.
I agree. When you think about how in the ’20s and ’30s and even before, there were blacks who went to places like Oklahoma and Florida and tried to start their communities. The only reason they did not succeed is because they were torn down by white supremacy. So there’s a model that could be reused without that kind of state-sanctioned white supremacist reaction that occurred then. As we end, I guess I’m curious about whether you see yourself being in politics.
I think that life is long and so I’d never foreclose possibilities for myself. I’m fascinated by the intersection of social movements with social parties. For example, I went to Italy and met with a movement called the Five Star Movement. Within five years, they had become the third largest political party in Italy, and yet they don’t call themselves a political party, they call themselves a social movement. When I met with one of the cofounders of this movement, one of the first questions he asked me was, “Are you a politician?” I told him, no, I’m an activist. And so, I feel that I’m an activist as opposed to a politician. I feel that the future of social change requires social movements to gain political power in our communities, and so whether or not I would specifically run for office, I sometimes think about doing that, but I think that I am more interested in figuring out the deeper question of like, what would be the tactics that would be needed to create that social movement that could become that political party? Those are the challenges that I’m particularly passionate about. I would only run for office if there was an absolute necessity for me in particular.
It might be, though, like the Five Star Movement. The founder abstains from running for office. It might be that the next iteration of social movements are able to be political parties; it might be that their founders don’t run for office to resist that kind of leadership. We saw with Syriza, that once Alexis Tsipras became the leader of this anti-austerity party, then he could renounce anti-austerity and sell everyone down the river. So it might be that it’s not possible for me to run for office because of those views.
Syriza is a great and fascinating case study in the political-social movement hybrid you’ve been talking about. In closing, if you could describe, in a couple of sentences, what kind of world you want your children to grow up in, how would you describe it?
I want my children to grow up in a world where they can freely travel across borders. Where they can go to places in a world that’s heterogeneous. I want them to be able to go to some places that still have indigenous culture and then go to other places where people are living in some kind of virtual reality, cybernetic future, and that they can experience the full range of the human experience, and then be able to kind of travel freely without destroying the heterogeneity of the human experience.
I imagine a world in which there’s one state and it’s called Earth and we’re all on it. People who are refugees are given free passage to move to other places. I was just reading about how Japan’s population is so substantially declining. Why can’t we just let people from all the climate-hit places of Africa go to Japan and meld with that culture? That’s the kind of world I’m imagining: cosmopolitan, in the sense that we’re all citizens of the universe, citizens of the world. I’m a globalist. Only social movements with a global perspective can succeed. Any social movement that doesn’t start from a global perspective is already dead on arrival.
Justin Campbell is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.