Micah White on where the Occupy movement went wrong, and developing ‘new tactics for social change.’
The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 spread almost overnight from a New York park to more than 30 other countries. It was a brief, shining moment of protest, familiar to those who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s and lived through demonstrations about the Vietnam War, government corruption, the establishment. One of the people who inspired Occupy and its message of concern about the corporate funding of political parties is Micah White. White has written The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution.
It explains his understanding of social movements and his suggestions for future activists. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Jennifer: You say at the beginning of your book that the Occupy movement failed. Really?
Micah: Yeah, I think I am trying to resist the common narrative. There is this story we tell ourselves as activists, which is that nothing is a defeat. It is an enlightening, beautiful story. But that story stops us from understanding why we didn’t actually achieve our objectives. Why didn’t our encampment solve what it meant to solve: getting money out of politics? For me, when we celebrate our failures as success, we hold ourselves back from understanding how they failed. We failed because we didn’t achieve what we set out to do, that is, to get money out of politics. But we achieved a lot of other things. That’s why I call it a constructive failure.
Jennifer: I don’t think you failed. You changed the way the world is now thinking about economics and work. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were listening to you. Was it a failure because it didn’t incite a social revolution?
Micah: In Hillary’s emails, there is information about Occupy. Someone went down to Zuccotti Park and asked to get a poster for her. So clearly they are assimilating our language.
But it is important — and I think this is hard for people to understand — you shouldn’t confuse the head with the tail. Occupy Wall Street was the head and all of these other things are symptoms; they are the tails.
Obviously, Occupy had effects and consequences. It raised awareness around this issue, but those are just symptoms of our creation of a mass movement.
Take the example of Black Lives Matter: yes, it has raised the issue of black men being shot by police, but nothing has changed really. Black men are still being shot. If you start celebrating the awareness, you lose perspective about the deeper questions.
We made an effort to get money out of politics and it didn’t happen. I am not saying Occupy had no positive consequences. It buoyed a lot of social protesters. It made activism cool again. It brought certain arguments to the fore.
Jennifer: There is a tidal wave of change in the way people, after Occupy, think about the economy. You say Occupy didn’t create a revolution. What did you really want?
Micah: A revolution, I argue, is a change of legal regime and Occupy Wall Street was trying to change how corporations and unions give money to political candidates. When you create a social movement, your goal is not to raise awareness. Raising awareness is merely a symptom of the fact that you’ve created a social movement.
Are we content in creating movements that make the powerful stay in place and let the establishment use our language? Or are we trying to say, no, we want the people themselves in power.
Jennifer: Donald Trump is essentially leading a revolution. The core group supporting him is made up of disaffected, unemployed men who feel they have been deserted by the federal and state governments.
Micah: The left shouldn’t just assume they are going to be the best at creating mass movements.
There is a yearning to be part of a collective. Part of what was beautiful about Occupy is that you would go to these assemblies, you’d be immersed in the collective, everyone would be chanting in unison. It was a beautiful, spiritual experience.
Jennifer: Your book was supported and published by Canadians, even though you are American. Could it have been published in the States?
Micah: No. We tried to find an American publisher but we got an insane number of rejections and the rejections all said the same thing: This book is fascinating, it is well written, it is important, but there is no market for it.
Hundreds of thousands of people around the world were involved with Occupy. The American publishers were just worried about the saleability of the book.
What publishers didn’t understand was that people are very hungry for critical thinking and a perspective on activism, both spiritually and philosophically.
Jennifer: Revolutions can be good and bad. Jesus was a protest leader. Protests against the war in Vietnam helped push Lyndon Johnson out of the White House. But look at the Bolsheviks, the French Jacobins in the 18th century, the Nazis who both started as street parties, and Mao, too.
Micah: Yes, but we can’t continue to blindly follow the contemporary paradigm of activism, which is to get people into the streets. We saw that experience in World War II by Nazi Germany to give people a sense of collectiveness. Protest is a form of warfare and a kind of weapon. Ultimately I am optimistic that social movements will be more democratic than they are totalitarian. We have to create social change and Occupy didn’t work because it wasn’t able to get money out of politics. Even though Bernie Sanders is spouting ideas that sound very much like the Occupy party line, you have to understand that what was revolutionary in 2011 may not seem revolutionary the next year.
In my book, I am trying to offer new tactics for social change.
The core idea would be to build social movements to win elections and govern cities and carry out a social agenda. There is a model like that developing in Europe. The first model is Internet-enabled social movements that are able to develop complex decision making to create platforms and agree on laws. There is an emergence of new tactics.
We have become good at creating globally synchronized events. If you look at all the elections in the world and put them in chronological order, you can then imagine a social movement that can arise quickly and swing the election and then go to another country and swing the election there. So you go around the globe and try to win elections in each country.
Ideas from the edges of politics are the ones that suddenly inspire people and take off.
Jennifer: Revolutions have long-lasting results.
Micah: Some people say it takes three generations for a revolution to be truly complete. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it.”
Occupy changed my life forever. It changed other people’s lives forever. But what I am trying to get across is that we can do bigger and better. People didn’t think we could do something as big as Occupy, but I think we can do something bigger than Occupy. It requires a reassessment of our theories of social change and broadening our horizon of social possibility.
Jennifer: Good luck.
Union members and Occupy Wall Street demonstrators protest bank bailouts, foreclosures and high unemployment near Wall Street in New York in the fall of 2011.
Micah White, who helped inspire Occupy, offers his insights into social movements and provides suggestions for future activists in The End of Protest.