Micah White: On The End Of Protest
The Co-Founder Of Occupy Wall Street Discusses His Newest Book, The Strengths And Shortcomings Of Current Movements, And His Unified Theory Of Protest.
On Tuesday, May 16, 2016, On The Ideal State Founder and Editor-in-Chief Samuel Oshay and On the Ideal State Editor Maxwell Sahlins interviewed Dr. Micah White, the sole American co-founder of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Dr. White’s newest book--The End of Protest--was released only a few weeks prior; it is available for purchase on Amazon.
On The Ideal State: In a political philosophy sense, why protests? What ends do protests and activism achieve that cannot be achieved by any other means?
White: Well, I think that human civilization moves forward through revolutions, and so protest is one of the few ways, if not the only way, that everyday people--people who aren’t career politicians and big money--are able to move human culture forward. So protest is vital to the human project. And what’s amazing about protest is that we know there’s been revolutions all the way back to ancient Egypt; we have a papyrus from ancient Egypt that talks about the people overthrowing a king, so it’s a recurring human phenomenon that goes back to antiquity.
On The Ideal State: And you are also the sole American co-creator of the Occupy Wall Street movement. What was your inspiration for the movement?
White: So you have to go back to that magical time in 2011, there was this… it started in Tunisia with a fruit seller; he set himself on fire, and then that intensity spread to Egypt, where the people of Egypt started rising up. They went into the squares, into Tahrir Square, and they stayed in the square and demanded that Mubarak step down. And then when he did step down, the movement spread to Spain, and the people of Spain started going to their squares, holding these general consensus-based assemblies. So at the time, I was working for a Canadian magazine called Adbusters, and the founder of Adbusters and I were close collaborators. We were dreaming: how can we bring this revolutionary wave to America? And so we just sent out an email saying that we need to combine the tactics of Egypt, which is to go into a place of symbolic importance, with the tactics of Spain, which is to hold these general assemblies, and then bring that to America. And that was the inspiration behind [Occupy], and then the idea took off.
On The Ideal State: So you note the Arab spring as an inspiration for Occupy, but are the two movements really comparable? Aren’t there significant advantages conferred upon Occupy based upon the nature of our democracy?
White: So revolution is a phenomenon that manifests differently in each country, but at the same time I think it’s necessary to see them as part of one overall, global movement. And so it’s true that if I were an Egyptian activist who was one of the co-creators of the Tahrir uprising... those people are in jail, some of them dead, some got tortured. That’s the reality, but in our country, we’re punished in different ways. At the same time, I think it was very conscious that we situated our movement within the storyline of the Arab spring. So they manifest differently in each country, but they are the same kind of human striving for a collective awakening.
On The Ideal State: And protest nowadays you think is broken?
White: So I call Occupy Wall Street "a constructive failure," because I think that if you look at Occupy Wall Street and other movements, you realize that we’ve actually attained the basic storyline of contemporary activism; we’ve achieved what we for so long believed would be the cause of social change, which is millions of people in the streets rallying behind a largely nonviolent message. So I think that the contemporary forms of protest are broken and that we need to stop repeating the same behaviors.
On The Ideal State: So you mentioned violence, and it seems historically that most successful revolutions and social movements have attracted violence with their success. Take for example the Jacobins or the Bolsheviks. Do you think that a modern day American social uprising would be any different?
White: Well, I mean, okay, so violence, violence, violence. Violence is the most difficult thing to talk about as an activist, because on the one hand, there is a prohibition from speaking honestly about this question because the activist industry doesn’t want you to touch it. They want you to blindly celebrate nonviolence. So at the same time that I think that nonviolence is absolutely/probably the best strategy, I do think that you have to have a nuanced understanding of why violence isn’t necessary. I think that revolutions always manifest differently, so a lot of the people who fetishize violence today do it out of a kind of nostalgia, like you referenced, for previous revolutions that involved some element of violence. But I don’t think violence is essential to the success of a revolution, no. To be quite frank, I think that revolutions can happen nonviolently, but what happens is that, once they are successful in one country, the revolution has to grow, otherwise it will die, and that’s when the violent elements come in. If you look at the Russian revolution or the French revolution, it really got violent when it was faced with the prospect of either having to expand into other countries or having to face other countries coming to invade.
On The Ideal State: So taking what you learned from Occupy Wall Street and the content of your newest book, what makes for a successful revolution? What makes for a successful uprising?
White: Well, the core thing is that you have to capture sovereignty. And capturing sovereignty can happen in various ways, which have changed throughout human history, but right now, there are only two ways of capturing sovereignty; you can win wars, or you can win elections. Those are the only two options. And I think the reason why protest is broken now is that a lot of activists have been acting under the impression that you can gain sovereignty by just having a lot of people in the streets. This is something that sounds ridiculous, but we, as activists, actually believe. If you look at the 2003 antiwar march, there was this idea that if they could get enough people in the streets saying something, then our elected representatives would have had to listen to them because somehow the people would have manifested some sort of magical sovereignty. But if that’s not true, then you have elections or wars. And so I think that the core thing is to orient around capturing sovereignty, and I think that you would probably want to do it by elections.
On The Ideal State: And speaking of elections, near the end of the book you mention mundialization as one opportunity for the next revolutionary moment. What is the theory; what is the aptly-named World Party; and why shouldn’t we be terrified of it?
White: So if we look at the fundamental challenges facing humanity right now, we realize that they’re all essentially global in scope. And you can only solve these global challenges by having a global governance, which is a stumbling block for contemporary activism: we need not only to gain power in one country, but gain power in multiple countries in order to carry out a unified political agenda. I mean, that’s the dream that the left has been having for hundreds of years, even though we kind of gave up on it. So the idea of a World Party is some sort of social movement that could win elections or win wars in multiple countries in order to carry out a unified political agenda. I think it is a terrifying prospect, but I think it’s also the only possible prospect, so we should do the things that make us most afraid in life.
On The Ideal State: So you keep mentioning the left. Is your new theory of protest inseparable from the progressive platform, or do you think the same tactics would aid the Tea Party, for example, in establishing their ideal order as well?
White: Well, I don’t think so. This is something that I think people would probably disagree with, but I see myself as post-ideological, in the sense that I don’t think that rational ideas are what motivate social movements. I think that social movements are actually motivated out of emotions. And so that’s actually one of the problems with the contemporary left is that we are so obsessed with having the correct ideas and politics and policies, because we have this assumption that the reason why people aren’t joining us is because we haven’t rationally convinced them of our correct policies. So I think that social movements are a form of warfare; they’re a form of weapon that can be used by all different kinds of political entities, but I think the forces that will be best at using social movements will be those that leave it up to the participants which way the movement goes. So some people would say that’s inherently leftist or progressive, but I’m not too interested in defining the politics that these things should have.
On The Ideal State: So when you talk about how the best social movements are the ones that allow the individual protesters to decide the direction, you talk about horizontalism in your book as sort of a methodology for that. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter don’t really have singular leaders like the social movements of the 1960s did. So is leaderlessness a boon or a bane, and is there a set of checks and balances that could make the placement of a leader more effective?
White: Well, I think that we, as the 99% or just as the people, are trying to get to a position from which we can create social movements that are able to make complex decisions organically and in a decentralized way; that’s the holy grail of activism right now. And so I think Occupy Wall Street was, in recent times, one of the first real large scale attempts, and we completely failed; we weren’t even able to come up with one demand; we weren’t even able to make any sort of complex decisions whatsoever. But now we’re seeing that other movements are getting better at this, like the Five Star Movement in Italy. So I think that the core thing is that we already know that leader-based social movements are necessarily and become evil. I mean that’s the lesson of the 20th century. We already know that. And so what we’re trying to figure out is the alternative, which is leaderlessness. And I think that what will happen is that some movement is going to figure out some sort of mechanism for making complex group decisions without a leader, and once they do, the movement will sweep power very quickly.
On The Ideal State: So in your prescription for the future of protest, you’re quick to appeal to social media and technology as vital tools, yet you’re also the man who coined the term "clicktivism." Can you first explain what exactly that is and how protesters can walk the fine line to use technology effectively?
White: Clicktivism is basically the marriage of computer science/marketing with activism. So a lot of contemporary activist organizations will base their decisions on analytics and metrics. Look at AVAAZ--one of the largest "activist organizations"; the people who run AVAAZ don’t have any sort of political intuition or revolutionary instinct. Instead, they just send out these teaser emails, and if it gets a certain open rate and a certain engagement rate, they'll blast it out. But the problem with that approach is that you can’t actually create revolutionary social movements using metrics, because metrics, first of all, lie. We know now from Edward Snowden that the Secret Service is influencing metrics. Also, I think it fundamentally mistakes why people join social movements. People join social movements because of how it makes them feel: this feeling of losing their fear. So clicktivism is this kind of metrics-oriented activism where people don’t trust their instincts. I think the key way to avoid clicktivism is to abandon metrics and instead to trust your instincts, while recognizing that the internet is a double-edged sword. We need the internet to spread contagious moods and new tactics, but we also know that the internet is very harmful in the later stages of movements. So it’s all about developing and trusting your revolutionary instincts.
On The Ideal State: So do you really think emotion is the best way to govern a movement or, if a movement is successful enough, to govern a country?
White: Yeah, I do. In order to create a social movement, you have to have a willing historical moment, then you need to have a contagious mood, and then you need a new tactic. And I think that people are drawn to a movement because of how it makes them feel to participate in it, and then their rational mind ascribes policies. So people say that they liked to be part of Occupy Wall Street because it gave them the sense of collective freedom, and then, if you ask them why, their rational brain will say it’s to get money out of politics, et cetera. So I think that emotion is the fundamental key, and then the trick is to connect that to a decision-making process that allows the movement to swerve and change.
On The Ideal State: You mention in your book the term "mental ecosystem." That chapter surprised me, because you actually faulted consumerism and specifically Proctor and Gamble for a lot of the social ills of our time; can you expand a little on your argument here?
White: So Adbusters is the magazine I used to work for, and that’s where the idea for Occupy Wall Street came from. The core thrust of Adbusters is the critique of advertising, the critique of consumerism, and the critique of overconsumption and corporations and stuff like that. So one thing that I find problematic about contemporary activism is that our horizon of possibility has been shrunk. So a lot of times when you ask activists what’s the highest possible thing that we could achieve, a lot of times activists will say that we can raise awareness. Awareness has become the only thing that we can do, because people’s horizon of possibility has decreased. And one of the ways that I think that society harms our horizon of possibility and our ability to see what is possible is through advertising, consumerism, and the media culture that gives us these storylines that are just fake. So yeah, I think one’s mental environment has to be clean before you can imagine the kind of revolutionary awakening that would be possible, and then that’s how revolutions are created.
On The Ideal State: So do you think that activism, which to many seems like an attempt by a dis-unified minority to force change upon a silent majority, will displace efforts to gradually educate individuals into willfully and happily accepting the same policies proposed by activists and revolutionaries?
White: Oh wow, okay, so I think that what we’re talking about is the process of social change: how does social change happen, how do ideas that are being promoted by minorities become the majority opinion, et cetera. This is why I think that it all comes back to the question "Are we fighting for ideas or are we fighting for moods?" I think if you’re fighting for ideas, then you end up falling into this position where you think, "If I make a lot of noise about this certain thing right now, in 20 or 30 years it will become a mainstream idea, and then I will have won." But if you take that position, then you actually haven’t gained any greater political power whatsoever. What I’m trying to say is that what we’re actually trying to achieve is collective liberation in our own lifetimes, rather than the implementation of specific ideas that don't necessarily put us into power. It’s like cool hunting in fashion; [clothing corporations] have to go into urban areas and look at what young people are wearing in order to get ideas to sell back to them, but that doesn’t mean that young people have gained any sort of greater power. So I think that just because they start using your words doesn’t mean that you’ve become powerful.
On The Ideal State: You have mentioned repeatedly "collective liberation," and in your book you note that “the moment is always ripe and has always been ripe for the people to rise up and demand greater freedom.” How do you define freedom there?
White: How do I define freedom? Well I think that for me it’s about the ability to live one’s authentic and true self, to actually live out your dreams without fear. I think a lot of people are afraid to do the things that they really want in life. When we had Occupy Wall Street, for a brief time, everyone did exactly what they wanted, whether it was to run a library or to go on marches or to feed the homeless; everyone was just doing it for two weeks. That’s what we did: sleep in tents, or some people wanted to do drugs, so they did that. So I think that it’s about being one’s true self, and I think that’s hard for a lot of people, because first, they have to figure out what that true self is, and then second, they have to [be their true selves], and that’s the most terrifying thing in the world.
On The Ideal State: Do you think there will be another revolution in America, and if so, what would it take, and what would its purpose be?
White: Well, there’s definitely going to be another revolution in America. There always is going to be another revolution. That’s the thing about revolution that’s so strange: it’s a recurring human phenomenon that will never end. Revolution always comes as a surprise, so if you read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, he talks about how none of the Bolshevik leaders had predicted the February Revolution. Even Occupy: no one could have predicted that! So revolutions always come as a surprise, and they’re always difficult. And they always come at a time when people think they’re impossible. So yes, there will be a revolution; it will happen when we least expect it. What will it be about? Well, I think that the politics of it are unpredictable, but the mood will be the same: collective freedoms, not wanting to be afraid anymore, to be one’s true artistic self.
On The Ideal State: When you talk about the unpredictability of revolution, in your book you state that “I actively entertain the possibility may indeed be a supernatural phenomenon and therefore inexplicable, immeasurable, unpredictable and potentially outside the natural order.” Why the mysticism around revolution?
White: Well, first of all, the mysticism is necessary because it’s an accurate description of what happens during those magical moments. We’re coming up on the five year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and we live in a time right now where everyone is back asleep, and it seems impossible that people could ever wake up and go into the streets the way they did five years ago. So why did they do that back then? Well it’s because it involves a spiritual process. And if you go back and [search for] "Occupy Wall Street spiritual experience," there were articles about people saying "Oh, it’s a spiritual experience." But I will say one thing about the supernatural and activism and revolution; I’m going to tell a short anecdote about sunspots, okay? In 1922 there’s a Russian scientist who studied 2,000 years of records of sunspot activity, and he came to the conclusion that revolutions and social movements tend to happen during periods of peak sunspot activity. And sunspots follow an 11 year cycle, so every 11 years, there’s a peak of sunspots called the solar maxima, and then it goes down. So the 1917 revolution and the 1905 revolution both happened during the [period of] peak sunspot activity. And then he was punished and thrown into a Stalinist gulag because his theory violates historical materialism. But the point here is that if you go to the first day of Occupy Wall Street, it was a day of record high sunspot activity. So there you go; that’s a perfect example. So sunspots, some force outside of our control, could be causing social movements. If that’s true, then the next revolution would happen in 2022.
Editor's Note: In the days following this interview, Dr. White sent the following information to the On The Ideal State editorial board.
The chart below communicates Russian scientist Alexander Chizhevsky's 1926 findings when relating sunspot activity (below) to universal human military and political activity (above) from 1840 to 1922.
Summarizing the implications of Chizhevsky's theory that sunspots make humans more susceptible to mass excitability, the Russian meteorologist Vladimir P. de Smitt writes: “Therefore, we must assume that there exists a powerful factor outside our globe, which governs the development of events in human societies and synchronizes them with the sun's activity... the electrical energy of the sun is the super-terrestrial factor which influences historical processes.”
On The Ideal State: I’ll mark my calendar. So we are coming up on the five year anniversary of Occupy, as you mentioned. Do you think that Occupy had a direct effect on our current election cycle?
White: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean I think that what’s happening now with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is a reflection of the profound influence of Occupy Wall Street, for sure. But it’s important to realize that you have to put things into perspective: Occupy Wall Street spread to 82 countries and 1,000 encampments. So anything that grows that large is going to have those kinds of cultural impacts, where people like Bernie Sanders are using the language of the movement, et cetera.
On The Ideal State: On the same theme of the current election, do you have a theory for the rise of Donald Trump?
White: A theory for the rise of Donald Trump? Well, I think it's the same as the theory for the rise of Bernie Sanders, which is that people are desperate for social change. If you look at the world [now, in comparison to the world] in 2011 shortly before Occupy Wall Street, nothing has fundamentally changed: none of the bankers are in jail, the 99% is not in any better position than they were then. I was just reading the news: we have had seven months of record high temperatures and all this kind of stuff, so basically nothing has improved at all. And so the same people who were angry then are still angry now, but at the same time, they realize that protest as we know is broken. Old methods of protest are broken, so they’ve regressed into putting their faith back into these leaders, which I think is a tremendous mistake, but that’s what’s going on.
On The Ideal State: Do you think the modern protest ideal of leaderlessness is incompatible with our current electoral system, where we elect a single president and two senators for the 40 million Californians and what not?
White: I don’t think so, but I do think that is one of the fundamental challenges. So one scenario is a social movement that arises and sweeps a single individual into power, which is what we’re seeing now with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and quite frankly, we saw that with Hitler, right? It’s this idea of millions and millions of people putting all of their faith in this singular individual, because if he gets into power, well, that’s going to solve everything, you know? And the way power works is that once they do get into power, there’s no mechanism for them to stay true to the movement. They’re in power; that’s it. So that’s one option, which I think is broken and fundamentally a mistake. Or there’s another option, which is that the people that are placed into power by social movements are somehow delegates or spokespersons of the movement and not representatives, and so they are impeachable. But that's the challenges that we have to figure out: how would that work? And I think that if you look at Europe, they’re trying to figure this out now, like with the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain. If there’s a decision that has to be made by the party, then they’ll actually ask the party to vote. So if Bernie Sanders were to say, "All major decisions that are put to me as president I will put to my membership to vote or whatever," that would be a fundamentally different way of doing it, so I do think we have to figure this out.
On The Ideal State: For yourself do you see a political career in the future?
White: Do I see a political career? Well, I don’t know. I think that for me, I’m much more interested in trying to change the way we think about contemporary activism and change the way we think about protests. I’ve been an activist since I was 13, so I see myself more as an activist than a politician. I think that if you [run for office] it's one of these ego traps [and it's] a mistake. So strategically no, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think it’s more important to be part of a revolution, not a normal election.
On The Ideal State: So if we could segue into social movements that are happening today, do you have any criticisms for Black Lives Matter?
White: Black Lives Matter? Well, I think that Black Lives Matter--which I am a supporter of, because I’m black, obviously--learned the wrong lesson from Occupy Wall Street. One gentle criticism would be that it learned the wrong lesson from Occupy in that it tried to become more disruptive and block streets, et cetera. But I think that Occupy failed not because we weren’t disruptive enough; we were plenty disruptive. And I think that disruption doesn’t disrupt anymore. That’s what’s weird about disruption. If you think about it, even trying to disrupt the Trump rallies didn’t work at all. So anyways, disruption doesn’t disrupt. Disruption has just become like a traffic jam: people just put up with it. So [the Black Lives Matter movement has] to gain power; they have to gain sovereignty. It all comes back to this question: how do you become the ones who control the police? Well, that’s sovereignty.
On The Ideal State: So how does this relate to the parable of the pigeons that you mention in your book?
White: The parable of the pigeons? Okay, imagine there are three pigeons, and each is placed into a box. (This [setup] actually is true, but it’s also a parable.) In [each] box is a lever, and the lever releases food. So every time that first pigeon hits the lever, it gets food every single time. Every time the second pigeon hits the lever two times, it gets food. And then the third pigeon gets food on random pecks, so there’s no connection between the lever and the food; it just gets food randomly regardless of when it pecks the lever. So once the pigeons have learned the system, and they’re feeding themselves, what happens when the connection between the lever and the food is disconnected? The first pigeon pecks the lever once or twice, doesn’t get any food, and then stops pecking. The second pigeon pecks the lever two, three, maybe four times, realizes that no food is coming out, and stops pecking the lever. And then the third pigeon, however, pecks the lever forever; it never stops pecking the lever, even though food isn’t being released. Okay, this is actually true. The third pigeon, because there was actually no connection between the lever and the food, never develops an accurate theory of when the food is released. So this is a parable about activism. The lever is protest, the food is social change, and the pigeons are activists. So almost all activists are the third type of pigeon, in that they just do these behaviors endlessly, and then if some sort of social change happens, they says, "Look, see, it works. I got some food." But it’s completely random; there’s no connection whatsoever. And very, very few activists get to be the second or the first order. But I think, as activists, we need to aspire to be the second, like Marx and Engels, who were definitely the second order of pigeon. Engels, after the failure of 1848, took a break; he literally took a break. No activists take breaks anymore. Like Naomi Klein: this woman needs to resign. Bill McKibben: he needs to resign. They have completely failed, they keep hitting that lever, and they will never take a break. And it’s bad; it’s a detriment to us all. So as activists, we want to become the second order and then the first order, but only [revolutionaries] like Lenin or Mao can be that great.
On The Ideal State: The title of this site is On the Ideal State, so obviously, we talk a lot about idealism. And in your book and here in this interview, you have talked a lot about the aspirations and the emotions and the mood of a protest, which all sounds very idealistic, but then you also talk about how protest itself is broken and how things need to become more practical. And I find the controversy over Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which you mention in passing in your book, as a very intriguing example. The book is heralded as a touchstone of the environmental movement, but it is also criticized for causing a reduction in the use of DDT as an anti-malarial pesticide, a reduction that may have been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people. So to what degree do you think protesters need to balance present and future benefits and costs, and similarly, does revolution need to be an idealistic or a pragmatic process?
White: Well, that’s a really hard question to answer, because it all depends on what you think is reasonable, and that totally depends on your horizon of possibility, right? For example, a lot of the Russian revolutionaries were coming out of a strongly Marxist tradition, so they had studied the French revolution, 1848, and the Paris commune, where the workers of Paris actually gained control of their city for a brief period of time. They had experienced that. Now, almost every person alive today in the West has never experienced a revolution; we’ve never experienced one. So our horizon of possibility is very small, and all of the sudden, it becomes, "Well let’s be reasonable here, we can’t actually get these things." What I’m saying is that what you think is reasonable depends on what you imagine is possible. If you read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution--which is fascinating--he says that Lenin was a realistic revolutionary, and this is precisely my point. Today we would call Lenin completely unrealistic, but for Trotsky, he was the only realistic one, and that’s why he succeeded. So I do think that if there’s a question about realism and in what way should we be realistic, we should be realistic about the fact that what we’re trying to do is gain sovereignty, and we should be unrealistic around how that could happen. That’s what I think. Because I think the way we can achieve sovereignty--winning wars or elections--is where we have to dream big, like in Mao’s Long March, where he marched for thousands of miles: the way you actually get there is where your imagination comes into play.
On The Ideal State: You've mentioned Mao twice now. Is it really appropriate to use him as a model?
On The Ideal State: Mao, given the happenings of China in that period.
White: Oh, because we’re on the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution now, and everyone is supposed to say it’s a horrible thing? Of course it’s appropriate. He’s a great man, you know? These people are examples of individuals who have birthed social movements that have fundamentally changed human society. Under Mao’s China, women and men were equal, all these kinds of great things happened, people were collectively liberated. So obviously bad stuff happened afterwards, but at the same time, we live in an society where you walk down the street, and there are homeless people starving to death all the time, and we walk past that, you know? There’s tons of stuff going on, you know? And so we put up with that; we think it’s fine; and then we go and critique Mao. I mean, yeah, revolution is dirty; it’s just as dirty as our world today, you know? I just saw a headline about how Obama has been having wars his entire presidency; we’ve been dropping bombs on people for eight years, right?
On The Ideal State: Nobel Peace Prize winner.
White: Yeah, exactly, that’s what I’m saying. And so I don’t think we should deify Mao, but at the same time, I think it’s a disservice for us to not be willing to celebrate these people who have fundamentally reoriented life. Yeah, Mao was a great guy, sure.
On The Ideal State: So you mention the dirtiness of revolution. And to throw a question back at you from your book when you mention the Russian revolution, “what measure do you use for telling which blows are essential and which superfluous in a fight?”
White: Yeah, that’s Lenin asking the question. I think that the core thing is that you don’t want to poison the well, which means that you don’t want to do any action that will make a peaceful resolution impossible, and I think that that’s where groups like ISIS have gone wrong, which is that they do behaviors that will never allow them to actually gain sovereignty. For example, Muhammad actually almost conquered the West; Islam almost conquered the West. And [the reason they almost achieved] that is because they didn’t [engage in] behaviors that forever [would turn] the populace against them. So ISIS does [engage in] those behaviors; for example, randomly killing people is a behavior that will never be forgiven. Ever, ever, ever. So I think that the inessential blows are the ones that your enemy can never, ever, ever, ever forgive you for.
On The Ideal State: Is there one group in the world that needs revolution more than any other?
White: No, we’re all part of the same. We all need revolution the same; we all need it the same. Are you asking, "Who’s the revolutionary class?" I think women. Women probably need revolution the most, but I think it’s more about from where will the revolution come. But humanity needs revolution; we’re dying over here with our climate change and our, you know, empty lives.
On The Ideal State: What would you say to critics who deny climate change and who would term Occupy protesters "lazy Communists?"
White: I just ignore those people; they’re just trolling, you know? You have to ignore the trolls. I don’t know.
On The Ideal State: Do you think there’s a way to bring them into the movement, and for revolutionaries to become more friendly with dissidents?
White: Again, this is a question of ideology. I think that a social movement has to cut across demographics and that you can’t have a successful revolution that only draws upon people from the left or only draws upon poor people, so I do think that in an ideal world, we would have some sort of Bernie Sanders plus Donald Trump synergy, you know? That would be something that the establishment would actually be scared of. But instead we have a situation where they just fight each other.
On The Ideal State: What do you think of the Panama Papers?
White: The Panama Papers? I wrote an article on the Guardian about the Panama Papers. But what I find interesting about them is this [notion] of leaking information as a kind of protest, as a kind of activism. And for me, the interesting question is "Does it work or not?" So we know that marching in the streets doesn’t work, or at least I believe that, and I think a lot of people are starting to believe that. But I think there are still questions about Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and leaking information, and I think the jury is still out. I’m tending to think that it doesn’t work. And with the Panama Papers, it was very exciting when they first came out, but now the anonymous leaker behind the Panama Papers [has come] out with another statement saying that not enough has happened, which to me is a tacit admission that it doesn’t work. You can dump as much information as you want, but it doesn’t work.
On The Ideal State: So at least in my mind, the purpose of the Panama Papers and to a certain extent the purpose of Occupy Wall Street was to encourage the global wealthy to contribute more through taxes towards public goods and to have a more "collective spirit" or "a mutual being," as our previous interview Marshall Sahlins termed it.
White: Hmmm. Hmmmmm.
On The Ideal State: I don’t know; is that not the right word?
White: No, I don’t want that. Why would that be so great? If you look at antiquity, they were people in ancient Rome who were wealthier than anyone today. Even though we think that Bill Gates and all these people are so wealthy--Elon Musk or whatever--[ancient Romans] would own entire countries; they had these plantations that would be the size of an entire country. And then they would contribute money to run the state and put on games, et cetera. What I’m saying is that that wasn’t any better, you know? I think [we should] let the rich have as much money as they want; that’s not the issue. The issue is of who runs our countries; that’s the core question. It’s about who has political power. So let the rich go to the club, but they shouldn’t also be running the government; that’s the issue. So for me, I don’t really care if they have as much money as they want.
On The Ideal State: Do you think removing money from politics would be a cure-all in that sense?
White: I don’t know. That’s what Occupy Wall Street kind of oriented around. I think that we do know that the candidate who spends the most money on the election tends to win 90% of the time. So I don’t think it would be a cure-all, because we also know that Donald Trump is spending less than any of the other candidates. But he’s a billionaire, so it’s kind of ridiculous. No, I think it’s more about figuring out how can we get away from this system of singular individuals who are always somehow corrupt in some way; even Bernie Sanders, I’m sure, is corrupt in some way that we just don’t know right now.
On The Ideal State: Is the answer a more decentralized world?
White: Yeah, we got to have a more decentralized world. We need to have both a more decentralized world in the sense that power is from the bottom up, but then we need to have a more centralized world in the sense that the people power owns multiple countries. Right now, we’re divided. We can’t even come up with climate agreements that actually work; the Paris climate agreement is already broken, because they say that we can never [limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius]. Basically, what they’ve agreed to is already impossible, and the only way to get to the next level is to have social movements that control governments in multiple countries. So we need global governance, which is more unification through decentralization at the local level.
On The Ideal State: Dr. White, thank you so much for you time.
White: Wow, thank you. Very good interview.
Dr. Micah White is the co-founder of Occupy Wall Street and the author of The End of Protest. To learn more about Dr. White, visit his website here.