Listen: Activist, Author Micah White '04 on Why Protests Fail
This spring, Micah White '04 gave a talk, "Why Do Protests Fail?" White argues that while protest is undeniably cool again, if recent protests are evaluated by their outcome, not their rhetoric, it is increasingly clear that contemporary forms of activism are resulting in diminishing effectiveness. Despite their size, sophistication, and speed, he says the last decade of social protests have largely failed to achieve their desired social change objectives. If protest as we know it is broken, he asks, how do we fix it?
White evaluates various theories for why contemporary protests are failing. Is it a lack of demands? Police repression? Absence of leadership? Or something deeper? His goal is to develop a general theory of protest failure grounded in the concrete experience of contemporary activism. Guiding his inquiry is the hope that understanding protest failure will better equip today’s democracy activists for creating positive social change in their lifetimes.
White is a lifelong activist who co-created Occupy Wall Street, a global social movement, while working as an editor of Adbusters magazine. While at Swarthmore, he sparked the nationwide Diebold Electronic Civil Disobedience. Widely recognized as a pioneer of social movement creation, White has been profiled by The New Yorker and The Guardian, as well as The Bulletin, and Esquire has named him one of the most influential young thinkers alive today. He is the author of The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution.
White graduated from Swarthmore with a B.A. in philosophy and earned a Ph.D. in media and communications at the European Graduate School.
Speaker 1: Thank you all for coming, and thank you Micah for coming back to Swarthmore to be with us. We had some really interesting conversations, we joined a class, and we just had an interesting meal so I think you'll enjoy what he's about to talk about. We're really excited to have Micah, Dr. White, speaking at Swarthmore. He is most famous for his role in Occupy Wall Street, but he was actually very involved in activism when he was a student at Swarthmore during the Iraq War. For example, when Diebold, an electronic voting machine producer had internal [inaudible 00:00:38] leaked that suggested involvement in Republican voter fraud, Micah played a role in pasting these documents to Swarthmore servers. They then spread to other colleges and universities (they're still up there, by the way, if you want to check those out).
In 2011, when Micah was an editor at Adbuster's Magazines, he helped come up with the idea and the original call for Occupy Wall Street. Nowadays, Micah runs Boutique Activist Consultancy, writes for various news publications for future protests and he recently published a book on the topic, "The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution." The men's magazine Esquire has named him thirty seven people under thirty five who are reshaping the world.
So, we have an interesting talk ahead of us. I want to thank everyone who helped make this event possible and I think the number of co-sponsors is a testament to the interdisciplinary and far-reaching applications of what he's going to talk about tonight. I would like to thank the Swarthmore [inaudible 00:01:39]: Film and Media Studies, the Lang Center for Civic and Social responsibility, the Intercultural Center, Swarthmore Libraries, Peace and Conflict Studies, Sociology and Anthropology, Political Science, Computer Science, Environmental Studies, the Forum for Free Speech, the More News Radio, Swarthmore Democrats, the Swarthmore and the Catalyst Collective, and Swarthmore College Commuter Society. So, could everyone give a warm welcome.
Dr. Micah White: Wow. It is a true honor and privilege to be back here at Swarthmore to speak to you. First, I want to say if your friends aren't here you should text them right now and tell them to get over here because we're going to have a very interesting discussion about revolution, okay? But first I want to just thank Athena. I can't even comprehend how she pulled this off so professionally. I got this e-mail from her and I was like, "Are you a 25-year-old who's done this many times?" Because it was just very professional. So thank you so much for organizing, for bringing me here, making it happen; I think you're going to go very far in life and I think that also people should feel empowered. If you want to someone to come to Swarthmore and speak, you should just reach out to them like Athena did and it will happen. So, thank you for bringing me here. It is a real honor and privilege.
Now, I want to a picture. I'm not going to show you many pictures because I personally hate PowerPoint. But, I want to show you a picture; just one picture here.
Here I am in 2002 as a student at Swarthmore running from police and I'm on the left here and behind me are two Swarthmore students. We had organized a kind of bus to go to an anti-globalization protest in New York City where some Swarthmore students were arrested; we ran from the police. This picture was taken by a New York Times reporter and was in the New York Times. So, I just want to you this is what I was doing when I was a student at Swarthmore as I was literally running from police officers in anti-globalization protests and organizing anti-war protests and stuff like that.
I was an activist before I came to Swarthmore, but Swarthmore played a fundamentally important role in my development as an activist. A lot of ideas that I'm going to be talking about were really forced on this campus. We can have a discussion later about the role of activism on campus and all that stuff.
Before I get started, one thing I'd like to say that I'm not the kind of person who wants you to agree with everything I am going to say. In fact, I believe that the best ideas are often the ideas that make us uncomfortable. Now, when I try to create activist campaigns, what I do is I look for ideas that make me slightly uncomfortable. I think Occupy Wall Street was a perfect example of that. The idea of people going down to Wall Street and actually sleeping in the street is actually something that makes us (and me) uncomfortable. Even a lot of the founders of Occupy Wall Street never slept in Wall Street. The idea of sleeping in the street to protest? So I think that we're going to touch territory now that's going to make us uncomfortable. What we should do though, instead of running from the uncomfortableness, make a note of it in your journal and research about it. Try to figure out why it made you uncomfortable, because often the truth is somehow behind that. There's something there you need to keep researching.
So, we're going to talk openly and candidly about a topic that is not openly and candidly often discussed in our country, which is: the possibility of revolution. What would it look like? Why are contemporary protests seemingly ineffective? And these kinds of things. And then I'm going say a lot of ideas, and then I'm going to open it up and we're going to have a conversation. I'm going to try to do what I had hoped speakers would have done when I was a student activist.
I remember once I went to a lecture (probably after that picture was taken after running from cops) and it was a famous film-maker or something. I raised my hand and said, "What do you think about the Iraq war?" He looked at me and said, "Hey. I make films. I don't talk about politics." I thought that was horrible. So, I'm not going to respond to any question you give me by, "Oh, I don't talk about that." We can talk about whatever you want to talk about, it's fine.
Okay. So: why protests fail? First, let's look at the question by examining each of the words.
Number one: "why?" When we ask the question why from an activist perspective, what we're trying to do is we're trying to look for a theory that would be testable by activists. We want to identify some new ways of thinking about social protests that will actually result in concrete victories. This isn't just purely an academic discussion. It's not like, "Well, why is the sky blue?" Or "why is there life on earth?" No, this is a concrete discussion about why the very real protests that we're organizing are not achieving the results that we want. What does that mean about how we should change our behaviors as activists?
Number two: what does "protest" mean? Seriously, this is something that we don't talk about enough. What does protest mean? I just want to say protests means, for me, a behavior that participants believe will achieve change- social change, and I would even go so far as to say revolutionary change. So, I kind of opened it up to that wider definition because I think part of my message to you is to broaden your horizon about what protests could be. When we see that it's just a behavior that we believe ourselves to be something that's going to result in change, then all of a sudden you realize it doesn't have to necessarily have to be marching, it doesn't have to necessarily be sit ins, it just has to be something that we believe.
And then: "fail." Fail. What does that mean? Well, that raises the question of what success is. And what is failure? For me, again, it's very important to speak concretely to say that failure and success from a perspective of protest is at the level of revolution. What I'm really saying to you when I say "Why do protests fail?" is I'm saying, "Why are these protests that we're doing failing to achieve revolutionary social change?" What is revolution? Revolution is a change in the regime. It's a change in how decisions are made.
So why are these things not resulting in ... a really good example, for example in 2003, I was a student and I went out and I said that I protested the war in Iraq. How come it is that millions of people joined me and others in the streets around the world to protest the war against Iraq that was coming up, and it still happened anyways in a month? Why is that? Why is it that the women's march can happen and nothing happens after? Or Black Lives Matter? Why is that?
So when we talk about success and failure, it really is in this much higher plane of a transformation in the way that our governments are run. Not in these lower things like getting the word out or changing how people think of things. This is what I'm talking about in success and failure.
Now I'm going to tell you a parable.
This is called the Parable of the Three Pigeons. This is based on reality but I'm going to layer a kind of metaphor on top of it.
Imagine that there's three pigeons, each of them placed into a box like this. Obviously, this is Skinner box; everyone knows this. OK, so there's three pigeons, and they're each placed into their own box. Inside the box is a lever, and when the pigeon ... let's put it away. So there's three different pigeons. The first pigeon, every time it hits the lever, it gets food. The second pigeon, every second time it hits the lever, it gets food. So it gets a letter twice, it gets food. The third pigeon, there's no connection between the number of times it hits the lever and getting food. It's completely random. It could be two times, three times, four times- it's just random. It gets the food at random. There's no connection.
OK, so the scientists put them in the box, and the pigeons learn this. After a while, the pigeons are feeding themselves. Now, what happens when you disconnect the connection between the lever and the food? What happens? Here's what's really interesting. The first pigeon pecks the lever once- no food comes out. Pecks the lever twice- no food comes out. And it just stops pecking the lever. It's like, "Well, lever's broken, I'm just stopping."
The second pigeon does it once, does it twice, no food comes out. Does it three, four times- no food comes out. Gives up. Stops pecking the lever.
But what about that third pigeon? That third pigeon just pecks the lever forever. It never stops pecking the lever!
Why am I telling you about these three pigeons? This is a metaphor for activism. The pigeon is an activist. The lever is a form of protest, and the food is social change.
Now, almost all activists- myself included, I'm not putting down activists, I'm saying- are like the third pigeon, which is: we do protest behaviors. There's no real connection between the protest behaviors that we're doing and the changes we desire. Sometimes it results in change, sometimes it doesn't, but we just keep hitting that lever endlessly. So, the third pigeon doesn't have an accurate theory of social change. It doesn't have an accurate theory about why this food is being released. The second and the first pigeon do have an accurate theory. They know when to protest and when not to protest. They know when the behavior that they've been doing previously that achieved social change stops achieving social change, and they stop that behavior.
The second pigeon is the highest we can hope for, which is that sometimes we protest and it works, sometimes it does, but we have this theory for when our failure is because of a broken theory of and when our failure is because we need to repeat it. It's fuzzy.
The first pigeon of course is some sort of perfect revolutionary, like Mao, who knew exactly the behaviors that he should be doing every time he pushed the lever and achieved success. You can count the number of people who have attained this first pigeonhood on two hands. It's very, very [inaudible 00:12:10]. But, one example with Mao is he achieved victory after doing the Long March. He marched for 3,000 miles, and that somehow led him to a revolutionary victory. How many people would actually think, "Yeah, we're going to march our army 3,000 miles throughout China and then somehow-" No. But he had some sort of theory of social change.
So, the reason why I'm telling you this is that as an activist, you don't want to be the third pigeon. You do not want to be the pigeon who endlessly hits the lever and then just thinks the change is happening because of the lever hitting. We want to become the second and the first pigeon.
OK. Now, let's let you digest that for a second and I'm going to throw some more ideas at you. What we're going to do is visit a lot of ideas here, and then we're going to talk candidly in a conversation.
So we don't want to be the third pigeon. The first step to not being the third pigeon is to develop a theory of social change.
Now, I developed this diagram as a way of thinking about social change, which I want to talk about before we get into this question of failure so we have a way of thinking about it that's a little more complex than we often think about it. If you think about revolution, then you realize that revolution is basically the interaction between humans and the natural world, just basically speaking. If you divide it up, you create our different theories of revolution. On the bottom half of the diagram, you'll see theories of revolution that say revolution is a material or natural process. In other words, revolution is a process involving our natural, our physical, our material world. Then on the top are theories of revolution that say that actually revolution is a spiritual process; it's not something that involves our material and our natural world.
On the left hand are theories that say revolution is a process that involves humans, and on the right side are theories that revolution is a process that does not involve humans.
I call this a unified theory because I think that all theories of revolution fall within one of these four paradigms.
Let me go through really quickly with you. We'll start with the most common theory of revolution. It's called volunteerism. This is almost all of activists' theory right here. It says that revolutions are created at the intersection of humans and the material world. Therefore, if we want a revolution, we need to get as many people as possible to do revolutionary behaviors like marching the streets or direct action. The action that we're told to do varies, but the basic idea is that human action is somehow crucial and important and the defining factor. Some activists would say today, "Well, the reason why there's not a revolution happening right now is not enough people are protesting in the streets." Or, "The reason why the coal factories are still pumping pollutants into our air is because not enough people are blocking the coal factories." It's a voluntarist understanding of revolution.
Now, there's an alternative vision, though. What about this idea that revolutions are a process that involve the material world, but don't involve humans? This is the idea of structuralism, and this would be the idea that, for example, revolutions are caused by economic forces outside of human actions. For example, there's been a study that I think is really interesting that says that revolutions tend to occur when there's record high food prices. This is true for the Arab Spain and Occupy Wall Street, is that there's actually a UN price index where you can track the price of food, and it turns out there's a threshold. And beyond that threshold, revolutions tend to occur. So the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street both coincided with record high food prices that were induced, by the way, by climate change related storms that knocked up the price of sugar. Under this argument, basically the Arab Spring was caused by something that wasn't really human action so much as forced outside our control. For those who are communist or into Marxism, they already understand this. This is historical materialism, this is the idea that revolution is economic factors and all this kinds of stuff. It makes a lot of sense.
The third option, though, is that revolution is a process involving humans but not involving our natural world. This would be the idea of subjectivism; it's the idea that a revolution is a change in our minds, in how we see the world. If you want to change how the world is, you have to change how you see the world. I think this is also becoming increasingly common. You know people who advocate meditation and yoga ... we get it. One example I can think of is, you break up with your girlfriend and all of a sudden the whole world is completely depressing and horrible, and the trees are actually crying and all this kind of stuff. You know how we feel inside ... colors, reality, and then all of a sudden we meet someone else and it's like, "Oh, look at the birds, they're happy!" So, under this theory, if you want to liberate humanity, we need to liberate our minds.
Now we're going to go into the most controversial ... and I have yet to meet very many people who will ... except for Unitarian Universalists love this one ... but, theurgysm. Now, theurgy is a Greek word and it means God-work. It means sorcery. You can actually go back, and the neo-Platonists were very into theurgy. This is the idea that revolution is not a process involving humans, and it's not a process involving our physical reality. Revolution is, instead, something else entirely- a kind of divine intervention into our lives. Well, that sounds ridiculous. I mean, you go back and you read Marx. Everyone knows that only secularism is only revolutionary, right? So the left has for a very long time denied the existence of this fourth option.
I'm going to give you three examples of theurgy.
Number one example is the conquest of Christianity. Christianity was [inaudible 00:18:26] 300 years. Then Constantine the great (he wasn't the Great back then, he was just Constantine- Constantine the great) went to battle against a rival emperor and the day before the battle, he looks in the sky with this entire army (this is in, like, 312) and he sees a cross in the sky with the words that say something like, "By this sign, you shall conquer." Oh my gosh, what does that mean? He goes to bed that night and he's visited by a mysterious individual in his dreams who reiterates to him, "If you draw this special symbol," it's called the Chi-Rho, "if you draw this special symbol on the shields and helmets of your soldiers, you will be victorious tomorrow." He wakes up in the morning (this is historical fact, by the way; this really did happen. This is why the world became Christian) and he tells his advisors, "I had this dream." They say to him, "That was Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ visited your dreams and you should do this." So he did it. He put the Chi-Rho ... I'm sorry I don't have the image; you can Google it ... he put the Chi-Rho (it's like a kind of cross) on his soldiers' shields, and they won the battle. He said, "It was because of God, it was because of Jesus!" And within a generation, paganism had been outlawed, and Christianity was the state religion of Rome.
My point here is, whether or not you think that that story is true, that someone had a dream about Jesus and decided to convert the Roman empire into Christianity, and that's why we are Christian [inaudible 00:20:11]. That's example number one.
Example number two. There's a Russian cosmologist in the 20th century who linked the existence of sunspot activity with revolutions. He's found that during periods of peak sunspot activity, revolution tend to occur. Also sounds impossible, except Occupy happened to coincide with peak sunspot activity.
Now, example number three. I collect these examples because people tell me, "you can't talk about God, no!" Third example: cosmic rays. Now, it turns out cosmic rays which are invisible, we can't feel them, impact our computers. I just read about this- fascinating. So sometimes when our computer crashes, it's because a cosmic ray has hit the computer in a way that impacts it. I'm not kidding; this is real. There's a documented example of a cosmic ray hitting an election machine and adding 4,096 votes to one of the candidates who then won the election and the problem is, there weren't 4,096 extra voters. So they went back and said, "Well, you got too many votes. How did this happen?" And they really did figure out it was a cosmic ray that flicks like a little byte on the computer and gave them the victory.
So, what I'm saying is that would be an example of a force outside our control that could influence the course of the political destiny. You can't create a cosmic ray, but, I don't know ... maybe God could send one down and all of a sudden that's why we won the election.
OK. So the goal there is to say ... what I want to kind of say is that all four of those are true. They're all true. They're all true. And you don't want to pick just one. This is the problem with a lot of contemporary activism if that we have just decided that volunteerism or maybe structuralism if the only path, so we're obsessed with getting humans to do these behaviors. But maybe there's something else going on. You want to have all four. You want to have all four.
That's actually the last slide I want to show you because, like I said, slides are distracting, what's the point. So, let's go through ... I want to talk about what are the most common theories of why protests fail. Let's see if they're satisfactory.
The number one theory: police repression. Police repression. They wonder why protests are failing. It's because the NSA, they attack all of our phones. And they have all these police officers and they just keep beating us up. They won't let us win. This is why protests are failing.
I find this one completely unsatisfactory. It doesn't work. Why doesn't it work?
First of all, it exaggerates the level of repression that we're under right now. This is what we like to do as activists is complain about how bad it is with the CIA and the NSA watching our phones. "Oh my gosh, I'm so scared of them." But look at the reality of past revolutions. Do you think it was any easier for the Lenins and Trotsky under Russian revolution to achieve victory? No. In fact, fascinatingly enough, because of the swiftness of the Russian revolution, they actually captured the secret police files of the czar. We have documented evidence about the extent of police repression immediately preceding the Russian revolution. It turns out that there was a lot of repression. It turns out that Lenin's secretary was a police spy. Oh my gosh. It turns out that Bolsheviks were police spies! It turns out that the czar had developed a network of police spies all over Europe who were tracking Bolsheviks. Luckily, the Russian revolution still happened. You can see what I'm getting at here: I'm not convinced it's because of police repression that we're losing today.
Number two theory: our protests simply are not big enough. We've gotta get them bigger. I'm sure you've heard people say that. "We've just gotta get more people into the streets." Again, I don't think this is very convincing. I think that we all just witnessed the Women's March, which had 4 million people. I don't think that it really would have been more effective had it had 5 million or 6 million or 7 million. I think that there's something else going on here.
Another theory: protests don't fail when they're not disrupted enough. We're not getting out- this is very voluntarist, you see; this is why I'm trying to get the unified theory. They're not disruptive enough. We need to get out there, we need to block more traffic. That will make our protests win! Again, this is not true. This is not true. This what I'm describing here is very much why Black Lives Matter fails, because Black Lives Matter came after Occupy Wall Street. It internalizes [inaudible 00:25:23] Occupy Wall Street. I think a lot of Black Lives Matter activists came out of Occupy Wall Street thinking, "Um, you know, it's because they weren't disrupted enough." I think I heard that a lot. So they embark on this ultra-disruptive thing. And you know what? Occupy Wall Street was plenty disruptive. It's not about disruption.
Here's another one: the lack of demands. This we hear all the time, oh my gosh. Protests fail because they fail to have demands. This is a critique that was really developed. This is an old critique but it really got revived after the anti-globalization movement of 1999. The anti-globalization movement called itself the movement of movements. Any who'd go to anti-globalization protests would be like, "Save the whales. Also, reform capitalism!" And it would be, like, every single leftist cause, and people would make fun of it. They'd say, "Well, obviously you're not winning; you don't have a clear message or a clear demand." But what happened immediately after the anti-globalization movement was the birth of the anti-war movement of 2003, which had extremely clear demand: no to war. It still failed. So what I'm getting at here again is the experience of activism in America in 1999-2003. It doesn't really help us to say that it's a lack of demands.
Now we're going to touch on the last common theory, and that's basically that it's the lack of leaders. If think we've all heard this one before as well. You need to have leadership in order to have a successful revolution or protest, and that's why they are failing. This was really developed ... again, all these arguments float around in our consciousness and then they get used to deploy against movements, so this was very effective to deploy in Occupy Wall Street which we explicitly called fearlessness. Fearless. They told us the very thing that you say makes you strong is why you failed. Now, again, I don't agree with this. I think that it's not satisfactory, but what it does point to which I think is true is this deeper challenge of decision making. The ability of social movements to make decisions for themselves, and complex decisions. Of these, i think this one does ... it's not true that we failed because we didn't have leaders at Occupy Wall Street, but it is true, I think, because we failed because we lacked a kind of decision making capacity. And I think, I would say, I imagine that that decision making capacity could be developed without leaders.
The way I kind of think about things is that all of this communicates elements of truth in everything. I'm saying we can have a discussion and there's elements of truth in all of these things. But I want to get into something more fundamental. More fundamental. There must be something deeper that's going on here about these protests.
I think that the much deeper thing that's going on with these protests is something that I'm kind of calling the death of sovereignty. And I mean this ... I was a philosophy major at Swarthmore, do we have any philosophy majors in here? All right, okay. So I mean this in the sense of Nietzsche's "god is dead." Basically, what I'm saying is that if you look at social protests, what are we doing? What are we doing when we go into the streets and protest. What are we doing? What we're doing is a collective behavior together that we think will manifest a kind of higher form of sovereignty over our governments. See, this is really what we're doing.
I think a really good example to think about is the anti-war protests of February 15, 2003. I was a student back then. What happened in 2003 is that this idea captivated the imagination of activists everywhere, and that idea was: if we can get the whole world to say no to the war, it won't happen. It won't happen because within a democracy and if people who are in a democracy don't want something, we won't have it. You see? It's a very beautiful idea. I love it, and I believed it. I definitely believed it. So we all got all of our friends. We ordered ... I think we probably had two buses of size back then. I mean, it was huge. We went to New York City, and we blocked traffic and marched and all this kind of stuff, and war happened anyways. This, I think, is the fundamental reason why protests fail today. It's the same reason that they failed thirteen years ago, which is: you can't actually manifest a higher form of sovereignty over your governments through street protests any more. You may have been able to in the past, but I think that sovereignty in that way has died. I think that it may have been in its death cycle before 2003, but I think it was definitively killed February 15, 2003.
But what happened that day is that, after we protested, George Bush (who was our Donald Trump. You think about Donald Trump today; we talk about George Bush back then) came home and said something so brilliant. He said, "I don't listen to focus groups. I don't make my decisions based on focus groups." Basically, the entire world protested (and you guys can Google images of this; you'll see thousands, a hundred thousand people in London with a sign that just says no to war; very clear message) ... and he got home and he's like, "Well, that's just a focus group." And you're like, "Wait a second. We just had the largest synchronized protest in human history, and he just called it a focus group." And we went to war a month later.
So what I'm saying is, he, for the first time, explicitly said western governments, democratic governments, do not have to listen to people in the streets. Activists, from that point forward, have failed to really listen to what he said. That was it. He said it, and it's true. It's true- they don't have to listen. There's no constitutional requirement for our government to listen to protests in the streets. In fact, protests in the streets are a vital and necessary part of the political illusion of democracy. It's probably what sustains American democracy, is to have ineffective and meaningless protests in the streets. That's why Obama and Donald Trump (to a certain degree) will actually celebrate protests, because they realize if the protests were to suddenly disappear, I think people would be a little bit more afraid. "Maybe we don't have a democracy?" So they actually function as a legitimizing factor.
But what is sovereignty? What is this thing called sovereignty? Where does it come from? How do you get it? What is it derived from? This, I think, is the direction of so much of my thinking right now because it's fascinating. It's absolutely fascinating. Here's what I want to think about ... and if you're interested in digging into this, the guy who does social contract's called Rousseau. I'm so sad that I didn't read Rousseau earlier in my life; I think that he is brilliant (and he's self-educated, by the way. Very interesting). But he talks about this.
One way to think about this is, I have an eighteen-month-old son. He was born at home, actually, in rural Oregon. Very interesting experience. He was born at home, and all of a sudden, the day after he's born within a minute, seconds, he is subject to all of the laws of the US government.
Isn't that interesting? He has no right to fight those laws. He has to submit to them. And Rousseau was very fascinated with this problem. If you were born in Nazi Germany, you would be subject to the laws of Nazi Germany. If you were born in America, you were ... But how can that be? We didn't get a choice.
So Rousseau develops this whole theory he calls a social contract. At the base of that theory is this notion of sovereignty. For Rousseau- and what I'm doing here is kind of tracing why did sovereignty die, okay? Intellectual history is all good- sovereignty derived from basically large numbers of people who live in a place getting together and deciding on general things. Basically, he talks about that they would have this general will and that that would manifest, kind of magically, this sovereignty, and that that decision that they made together would be biding on all the members. Why would it be binding? He said it would be binding because the participants in that decision-making process would be numerous. He talked about them as being numerous; he talks about assemblies of 20,000 people, so we're not talking about ... He would say, I don't know; there's 1,500 Swatties, so he would say 700 Swatties get into a room and have this discussion. He was fascinated with large scale assemblies. They were numerous, they were diverse, and they represented not from the sense of spoke for others, but in the sense of all of the different kinds of people in the society were participating in that decision.
For Rousseau, and what's interesting that Rousseau gets critiqued a lot of being a kind of authoritarian fascist in a way, because for Rousseau you had no right to resist the decisions of the sovereignty of your community because the people who made the decision is binding on all of us because people like us made the decision. So what I'm saying is, for example, Donald Trump wants to get rid of immigrants well for Rousseau, he would say you can't actually do that without having immigrants coming into a discussion and decide for themselves that they also want to get kicked out of the country. Rousseau thought this is the reason we can never oppress ourselves.
Over time, though, that vision of sovereignty has narrowed and gotten narrower and narrower. In the beginning of democracy, in Athens, all of the citizens (not all of the people, I understand that, the citizens didn't include the women and the slaves) got together in assemblies, large numbers of them, and they decided on everything. After that, we got to the situation march because of the American Revolution where we started to have representatives. After that, we started to just kind of have governments that were bought, somehow [inaudible 00:36:30]. Basically what I'm saying is, successfully throughout history, the idea that a large number of people should be making the decisions that are binding on all of us narrowed until finally we've got to the point where it's one single individual named Donald Trump who just signs a form.
If we want our protests to be effective again, and that's what we're trying to figure out, we need to figure out how to revive this form of sovereignty. How do we create a situation where the people, who are numerous and diverse people who live in the society, actually do have the power over their governments? Actually do have that power?
If protests was one of the ways in the past that that could've happened and is no longer one of the ways, then I think, as I see it, we're left with two options. Uh-oh. We're left with two options.
Option number one is that we can win wars.
Option number two is that we can win elections.
That's it. That's it. Those are the only two ways that sovereignty in our world is passed along. War, which I don't advocate ... we have an example of that right now with Isis, and Isis has sovereignty. Whether or not we like Isis, whether or not we agree with Isis's political philosophy, Islamist political philosophy, we do have to acknowledge that they govern territories and create the laws in their territories, and those territories cross international borders, which I think is fascinating, right? It's not like they own just one country. They own cross-borders and stuff like that.
And then the second option is elections, which is basically what Donald Trump did. He has seized control of our government through winning an election.
So, social activists at this point have two options. We can use social protest in order to win elections, or we can use social protest in order to win wars. And it's really up to you.
I'm going to tell you, I think we should win elections. I think it's easier. I think that once you start going down the war route ... the problem with the war route is this whole- and Professor Smithy brought this up- this whole question of legitimacy. Basically, if you win an election, you are a legitimate government; that's just how it works. Whereas, if you win a war, or if you fight a war, it's a little bit murky as to which point you become a legitimate government. I think it's a longer and more difficult road.
So what does that mean for social activists going forward?
I'm going to tell you my vision and where I think we should go.
I think that we need to imagine the birth of a social movement that can win elections in multiple countries in order to carry out a unified global agenda. The way this would look is a transformation in what it means to protest. If we ... and I'm not talking about Bernie Sanders and, like, electing progressive people to the office, because once we start getting into this discussion, people's minds get trapped in these old ways of thinking about these problems and then all of a sudden it's like, "Well, he thinks we should give up on protests and elect Bernie Sanders!" No, I'm not talking about that. I'm not talking about that at all.
I'm talking about something else fundamentally different which is, imagine a social movement that a rises just as surprisingly as Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter but where the way that we protest is literally winning elections. A concrete example of this (you guys can research) is we have Podemos in Spain, we have the Five Star Movement in Italy, and we have the Pirate Party in Iceland. These are three examples of social movements that are winning elections.
We need to kind of import that concept into America. Now, I want to give you just one more way of thinking about it and then we're just going to have to go into discussion. I'm going to give you one more way to think about it. I think a really, really beautiful example happened in the Five Star Movement which really captured what I'm talking about.
The Five Star Movement ... I had the honor and privilege of going to Italy. I met with the co-founders of the Five Star Movement. What's amazing about the Five Star Movement is they call themselves a movement and yet they are, like, also the third largest political party in Italy- major political force. They are neither left nor right, which is why people really hate when I talk about them because they're like, "No, you can only talk about firmly leftist political movements!" Like Podemos ... but Five Star Movement's actually doing better than Podemos.
So, so the Five Star Movement started as an anti-corruption movement and their basic argument ... in Italy, you have Parliamentary immunity, so once you get to Parliament you could be a total criminal and they can't kick you out. So the basic argument was, we need to kick these people out.
What happened, though, is that the Five Star Movement started to win a lot of elections and then last year, though, they had a candidate, a woman/female lawyer, very charismatic individual, who won the mayorship of Rome. Seriously big deal. But then, a month later, her chief of staff was embroiled in a corruption scandal. He was corrupt. Oh my god! What are we going to do? So the Five Star Movement did something brilliant that I think captures exactly what I'm trying to talk about. They didn't do what American political activists do which is make excuses, hem and haw, talk in points, lying, all those kinds of stuff. They just, within forty-eight hours, were like, "Oh my gosh. She's corrupt. She appointed someone who's corrupt. We will not tolerate that, and from this point forward, we will make the important decisions for her. Our movement will appoint people for her. She no longer has the power to make political appointees (meaning political appointments)."
This, if you understand the significance of this shift, I think it captures exactly what I'm talking about. You have a social movement that has elected people into power, but maintains their grip on the people that they've elected into power. They've transformed this mayor into a delegate, not a representative. And she accepted that. She didn't push back and say, "no, I have the power, I've been elected." She accepted: "OK, fine, from this point forward, you tell me what to do in terms of appointments." So I'm imagining what would be the same thing. What I imagine would be a social movement that wins elections but maintains power. And then the decision would be made, like Rousseau wanted, through this kind of diverse and numerous general assemblies of the people.
Now, look. There's a huge problem with this idea. There's a huge, huge problem with this idea- biggest problem ever. We actually don't know how to make complex decisions together. Oh my gosh. This gets back to the whole thing about Occupy Wall Street and leadership. See, it's not about leadership, it's about the inability of our social movements to make complex decisions together. Imagine literally, I mean this literally, that we had asocial movement that wanted to make a decision about what kind of health insurance we should have in this country. Yeah, right. I don't see that happening, right? It's a joke. It would never happen.
So that's the problem we need to solve. Activists act as if the problem we need to solve is how to get more people into the streets. No, we're plenty good at that. We're absolutely amazing at it. We are going to continue to see the increase in size and frequency in social protests; it's easy for us to do that. What's difficult for us to do, though, is to make decisions as a group together about how to govern our communities. Once we solve that problem, I think that we're going to start to see the effectiveness of protesting. That's kind of where my thinking is going and where I'm trying to push activists, is to solve that deeper problem.
So ... thank you so much for listening. I know that was a lot of ideas and what I want to do now is just kind of open it up, and we're just going to go into wherever you take it, wherever you want to take it. That's what we're going to do. So thank you for listening.