7 Questions with Micah White on the Future of Social Activism
This week we sat down with Micah White and picked his brain on the future of Social Activism. Micah is the lifelong activist who co-created Occupy Wall Street, a global social movement, while an editor of Adbusters magazine. Widely recognized as a pioneer of social movement creation, Micah White has been profiled by The New Yorker, The Guardian and Esquire have named him one of the most influential young thinkers alive today. Micah is the author of The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution.
1. You say protest is dead. Does the success of the women's march make you rethink that?
Your question gets at the heart of what is wrong with contemporary progressive activism. We lower our horizons of possibility and then celebrate ourselves for small things. Social activism has been degraded into social marketing. The Women’s March is an example of what I call the end of protest: the proliferation of ineffective protest to the point where all revolutionary protest has ceased in America. I do not think protest is dead. On the contrary, I believe that protest is broken.
Contemporary activists have become masterful at a certain kind of protest behavior. Especially in America, we have a knack for creating rebellious social street actions that spread throughout the body politic very quickly. We can get a meme to spread from Twitter to encampments in over 900 cities and 82 countries like Occupy Wall Street. And we can get 4 million people to march together on a single day. But we are unable, and often unwilling, to go further. It is time that we raise the bar and start acknowledging that success means seizing sovereign control of our government and instituting a new legal regime that is for the people. This can be accomplished in only one of two ways. We can, as Trump is demonstrating, win an election. Or we can, as ISIS demonstrates and the revolutionary left attempted in the 1970s, embark on an armed insurrection. I think that it is far easier, and a better idea overall, to create a social movement that can sweep elections. So, let’s do that.
3. How did protest die, or was it ever effective?
Protest hasn’t died. It will never die. Or rather, protest is undead. We will witness an increasing proliferation of protests, an increase in their size and their frequency but these protests will degrade further and further away from achieving positive social change. I’m not saying don’t protest. As a lifelong activist, I’d never say that. Instead, I’m saying that we must protest differently. To understand the situation, we must ask ourselves: why do people protest? Question the tactics, not the motives. In very brief and abstract terms, the people protest because they believe their collective action will manifest a general will capable of asserting a higher form of sovereignty. We want to believe that our social ritual of protest will enact a kind of spell over our democratic governments where they will be forced to heed our—the people’s—wishes. Today, looking back on the history of social activism since the failure of the February 15, 2003, anti-war march, we know that this story is not true. When you start thinking about the concept of sovereignty—and this is what I’m urging all activists to do in 2017—then you realize that “sovereignty” is very difficult to define. I think that from the perspective of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is sovereignty that has died. There are plenty of sovereigns—would be kings—but the democratic principle that grants these sovereigns power is dead. Or to be specific, the people’s sovereignty can no longer be exercised, or manifested, by contemporary forms of street protest. Rousseau says that we are only truly free as people during an election because that is the only time that our general will can manifest in a sovereign decision that determines who is elected. So, let’s take a protest and apply it to the problem of how to elect a social movement into power.
4. Why are progressive activists still using social protest as a tactic-- do you see any uses for it in our current political climate?
There are two reasons. The first reason is historical. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries the left achieved a series of astounding revolutionary successes. We sparked the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the Cuban Revolution. We decolonized Africa. We triggered countless insurrections from the 1848 European uprising to the 1968 wildcat strikes. For three centuries, activists perfected the art of revolution, and we were quite successful. But then something terrible happened: our parent’s generation watched the 20th-century communist revolutions devolve into horrific crimes against humanity. It took a long time for many on the left to even acknowledge the truth about Stalin’s gulags. The trauma of these hopeful revolutions turned into negative events led many on the left to reject the possibility and desirability of revolution. Activists on the left today have therefore inherited a deeply ingrained anti-revolutionary sensibility. This helps explain why so many activists will celebrate protests that make us feel good but are generally uncomfortable discussing protests whose goal is the seizure of power. The second reason why progressives still use outdated forms of protest is that there is an industry—a protest industry—that encourages these behaviors. There are plenty of groups today that use the rhetoric of revolutionary protest to increase their email list size, raise donations or attract media attention without seriously contemplating revolution.
5. What current tactics inspire you?
The most inspiring tactics right now are emerging in Europe with the birth of social movements that are using protest to win elections. I’m deeply inspired by Spain’s Podemos, Iceland’s Pirate Party, and Italy’s 5 Star Movement. These movements are showing us the way forward.
6. What advice would you give to progressive activists in 2017, hungry to do something but unsure about what to do?
The first piece of advice is to sit with the uncomfortableness of not knowing what to do. Often, activists are so desperate to do something rather than nothing that they’ll do behaviors they know won’t change the situation. Activists overwhelmingly privilege action over inaction. But sometimes it is better to do nothing: to clear our minds, to gather our strength, to channel our fury. I would also encourage all of us to challenge the assumption that we are stronger when we create massive coalitions. This is one of the big myths of activism, and it is leading us astray. Working with coalitions does not increase the likelihood of victory. Instead, activists need to have the courage to experiment wildly, to put forward bold ideas and new protest tactics. Stop waiting for other established organizations to sign on first, if you have a theory of how to create social change then test it out—don’t ask for permission!
7. What's next?
A pro-democracy populist social movement that is capable of winning elections and governing in multiple countries to carry out a unified global revolutionary agenda.