I dream of a hybrid movement-party that wins elections in multiple countries.
The Crisis Within Activism is a Crisis Within Democracy
“We are living through a period with the largest protests in human history. But they are not working. And when you reach that point, instead of repeating the traditional protest behaviors, screaming and holding posters, you have to innovate,” says Micah White, cocreator of Occupy Wall Street and former Adbusters editor, in an interview with Brazil's CartaCapital about his book, THE END OF PROTEST.
Micah spoke with CartaCapital during his recent visit to São Paulo for the launch of GUME ("Knife Edge"), a new engagement consultancy.
Micah White: Absolutely. In addition to a crisis in representative democracy, there is a crisis in the model of activism, how people protest. There is a crisis in the power of people to force governments to do what they want. We live in a time when there appears to be no way for ordinary people to influence their governments through protest… This means there is no democracy.
CC: Does this mean that the democratic system does not work anymore?
MW: I do not think in any way that the dream of democracy is dead. The dream of democracy has been going on since the beginning of civilization and humans have always been fighting for democracy. For five thousand years we’ve been overthrowing pharaohs, kings and tyrants in a struggle for democracy. Now we're in one of those moments in history when we have a low point of democracy, but there will be a high point of democracy soon. This requires, however, a kind of innovation within our concepts of activism.
CC: How is it possible to reduce the power of corporations in government?
MW: The only way to remove the power of corporations in our society would be to create a social movement capable of winning elections. As movements and as activists, we have avoided the only solution, which is: we have to build social movements that can also function as political parties. This is a need that we do not want to hear. We think we can just organize large protests and get really angry. Occupy Wall Street was a once in a lifetime event and it did not work because we were chasing a false theory of how social change happens. We believe, or wanted to believe, that a large number of people going to the streets can cause changes in their governments, but when we achieved a historical social movement, we realized this story of change is not true. Now it is clear that the only way to win power is to create a hybrid between a social movement and a political party. Something that does not have leaders, but has spokespeople and an organizational structure that lasts more than six months.
CC: How is it possible to achieve social change through protests?
MW: Today, social movements ask their participants do very basic and small actions: to take to the streets, holding posters and shouting. These are very basic behaviors and no longer have a political effect. Occupy Wall Street and the 15M in Spain, brought more complex behaviors, such as participating in general assemblies or utilizing hand gestures, but these are still very simple behaviors. I think we have to ask more of social movement participants. We must show that social movements require difficult behaviors like, winning elections, drafting legislation, governing our cities ... We need to demand a greater investment than just show up. The Internet allows us to ask for more. Thanks to social networks, it’s time to treat participants as capable of developing sophisticated behaviors and teaching each other how to to spread these actions globally.
CC: Do social networks have a new role in organizing and promoting protests?
MW: Absolutely. I think the role of the Internet is spreading contagious emotions. If we look at the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, it seems that the trigger was a mood that spread all over the world and was basically a sensation of losing one’s fear. People said “I do not care about the risks, this is the time to act” and went to the streets. That's what social networks do: they allow us to transfer that contagious mood of rebellion to the whole world. The other power of the Internet is in allowing us to innovate our tactics in real time. From the moment when a new tactic emerges in one city, it can be deployed in another city. So it was with Occupy Wall Street.
CC: Can the internet become something more than a network in which feelings are spread?
MW: There is a hope that perhaps the Internet allows us an electronic democracy. That's the idea of the 5 Star Movement in Italy. Participants use the internet to decide on legislation and to select candidates for the elections. The idea of the Internet enabling collective decision-making is very interesting, but difficult to achieve.
CC: Some people prefer digital activism to the street. What do you think?
MW: In the early stages, the Internet is very important for social movements. However, over time, the Internet becomes harmful because things start to look better online than in real life. This happened with Occupy. The protest looked better on Facebook than it did in the streets. This is negative because people start to prefer the online experience to the real world. So the Internet is a double-edged sword. The internet is a weapon that is not fully under our control, and it is very difficult to wield effectively.
CC: Do you believe that the advance of neoliberalism has helped reduce the importance of social movements around the world?
MW: Protests are a form of war and war is politics by other means. Protests are ways of influencing the political system by unconventional methods. And the revolution is a change in the legal regime. It is transforming what is legal into something illegal or making what is illegal legal. If social movements are a form of warfare then it is clear that the forces that are in power will use all possible means to destroy social movements. The problem is activists do not see their protests in the context of war. We see them as a big party or something, while the other side realizes the importance of the event. Above all, however, it is crucial not blame others. We must blame ourselves. Social movements do not fail because the police are very strong. Throughout history, people have overthrown governments with a much stronger police, either because they found a way to defeat them in the streets or because they managed to get the police to change sides. So when our protests fail it is because our theory of change was wrong and not because the other side was stronger.
CC: Occupy Wall Street was born in 2011 and influenced many movements around the world. To date, we have several social movements emerging in Europe also influenced by 15M or Occupy. What is the role of the internet?
MW: What happened is that a new tactic emerged and it worked, so it spread worldwide. Occupy Wall Street combined tactics in Egypt with those of Spain and applied them to the United States. The police could not anticipate this new protest strategy and that's why the movement worked. Once the police discovered how to respond to our encampments, they destroyed all the movements worldwide in the same way. Protest is a constant war of new attack strategies and counter-attack. Interestingly, at the moment we are increasing the frequency of protests. This is very good, but on the other hand, we must be skeptical because we are living through a period with the largest protests in human history, but they are not working.
CC: Do you believe that we can be in a historic moment of rupture?
MW: What I imagine is the birth of a social movement that wins elections in a country and then begins to win elections in multiple countries. Then you will see Syriza or the 5 Star Movement in three, seven or ten different countries. Yeah ... I really think it's about this storyline of a global social movement.
CC: You do not think that is too optimistic?
MW: I think we live in a time when activists are so focused on what seems possible that we do not achieve anything. We need to disturb power and not act only in safe ways. That's what Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring did. The best activism is the one that asks participants to do the things they fear.
Micah White's first book—THE END OF PROTEST—will be published by Random House of Canada in 2016.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015