Adbusters’ Micah White On The Occupation (Full Interview)

As promised in our Occupy Wall Street/Regina coverage, here’s my complete interview with Adbusters senior editor, Micah White.

prairie dog: I hear you’re to blame for all this Occupy stuff.
Micah White: We catalyzed the idea but other people ran with it and that’s why it was a success.

pd: How did it come about?
MW: It came from a brainstorm between Kalle Lasn and myself. We kind of were watching the Egyptian and the Spanish revolutions and wondering what would it take to kick off something like that in America.

pd: What did you do to pull this off?
MW: The basic tactical approach is for a while we’ve been developing a critique of Clicktivism, which I think is the old model this way of market testing everything and putting an emphasis on clicking links and email petitions and all those Move-On Avaz type models and we’ve been advocating for a return to visceral art and passionate words and that’s basically what we did. We made an awesome poster and we created a listserv that got people excited and we threw it out there and it captured the public’s imagination and they ran away with it.

pd: I get the Adbusters newsletters by email and I have to say, when I read you were planning this my first thought was, you’d never pull this off. People are just too placid. Then when it took off I wondered if maybe the reason I didn’t see this working is because here is Saskatchewan we’re really insulated from the crash. Canada too. And maybe it’s just the people around me who are too placid. Do you think this is catching people’s imagination because of how bad things are in the States right now?

MW: You weren’t alone in thinking it wasn’t going to work. There were so many articles and just nasty things about how it was going to be a failure by the same people who are jumping on board, the same people who are now like ‘Oh my god, it’s working.’ It took everyone by surprise. I think that the people who believed in it could be limited to 200 people. It was Adbusters, Lupe Fiasco, Anonymous and 150 people in New York City who met weekly for six weeks to make it happen. And those 200 people basically started this whole thing.

As for the problem, is it working because things are so bad, I don’t think that’s why necessarily it worked. I think it worked because this is the new model for democracy. I think that once people experience it, it’s kind of like a virus. If you go to one these general assembly meetings — there’s one in Berkeley that I’ve been going to — it’s amazing. It’s people’s democracy. You go there, it’s consensus-based decision making and people smile at you and they’re happy to be there and there’s food. It is so much superior to so much in our lives that it can’t help but grow.

It works because it is the model for the society that we want to live in.

pd: What you’re talking about sounds to me like something very old. What about it is novel? What’s different?
MW: Like all revolutionary movements, nothing ever comes out of a vacuum. What’s going on right now with Occupation, it combines the Tahrir model, the Egyptian model of taking a place of symbolic importance and it combines that with the Spanish model of holding these peoples’ assemblies. It creates a protest encampment with daily or twice daily general assembly meetings open to everyone. That’s the model. And that’s what’s working. And if you go to these various encampments they all use this same model.

pd: This reminds me of the WTO protests in 1999. Were you old enough to be there?
MW: No. But I remember them.

pd: Do you think there is some connection between the two movements? Similar organizing model, maybe?
MW: Yeah, I think in our very first listserv that kicked this off, we had a quote that said, in the anti-globalizaton movement we were like a wolf pack and there was a this alpha male leader and we were this aggressive force. But now the model has changed and now we’re just a swarm of people. And I think that’s true. And I think that’s what’s captivated people’s imagination. I think the anti-globalization movement was amazing and it was awesome and it was definitely something that really inspired this movement. But I think we’ve learned the problems of having an authoritarian leadership model or an authoritarian aggressive masculinist model. And I think now there’s much more emphasis on people and sitting in circles and non-violence. All those elements were there in the anti-globalization movement but I think now greater emphasis is being placed on them. I think that’s the key. It’s super democratic, it’s super non-violent.

pd: Have you been able to make it down to Wall Street yet?
MW: No I haven’t. I’ve been going to the ones in San Francisco and Berkeley.

pd: Many pundits have written off the protesters as socialists who just want to tear down America.
MW: I would say, let’s be honest. Occupy Wall Street is a revolutionary people’s movement that does want to topple the corporate power structures in the world. They want to topple the corporations that have their heel on the throat of 99 per cent of the world’s population. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s precisely that’s why we’ve succeeded. On the one hand I refuse to pretend that this is not a revolutionary movement that has explicit intentions of overthrowing the corporate power structures. But I think that we’re moving into something that Adbusters calls soft regime change. It’s going to look like this. This is it. All of a sudden people start realizing that a true people’s democracy is possible, they start meeting in these squares and there’s this soft regime change where we shift from one way of doing things which is one per cent of the world’s population controlling everything to another model where 99 per cent of the world’s population controls things together. And I think that’s where we’re heading. But it is a revolutionary movement and I think that’s always been explicit and that’s why it’s working.

pd: I’m not sure I see the path this soft regime change would take. Would it be you guys capture the imagination of some people in power and they start legislating more in the way you want to seem them or do you think something more radical will come out of this?
MW: This is my prediction, I would say that we are doing a two step process. The long term goal is to do a soft regime change that topples the corporate power sturctures. In order to get there, the short term goal is for these general assemplies to start putting forward demands that then the people in power are forced to negotiate over. So we become equal bargaining players.

And even more explicitly than that, we’re going to see the general assemblies model put forward global demands so instead of negotiating with mayors, city council members, or the governors or even Obama, we’re negotiating with the G20 and we’re talking with the G20 on how we want a financial transaction tax and we want a Tobin Tax finally, something the anti-globalization movement wanted. So that’s how I think it’s going to happen. Slowly they’re forced to negotiate with us until we finally replace them.

pd: Making demands, negotiating, this sounds like a union model.
MW: I don’t know how exaclty it’s going to play. there’s a relucatance in putting forward demands and these genearal assemblies have to decide. I think that it’s going to be totally different.

pd: As put demands out and your memes take root in the public imagination, do you think this will become platform planks in future elections or…
MW: I don’t thnk we want to go down the parliamentary path. I don’ thtink we want to make the mistake the Tea party made of becoming a politcal party that gets subsumed within the larger political structrue.

I think the Occupations themselves are an inherent threat to the status quo.

As our allegiances shift, that pulls the rug out from underneath the corporate state. There’s a shifting of allegiance, a building of a parallel culture and these kinds of things. Who knows exactly how it’s going to play out. I think that because there are no leaders and people have been very anti even having representatives and spokespersons, that we’re not going to see it develop into a political party.

pd: Another way Occupy is being diminished is that these protesters are just idiots, they don’t know what they’re protesting.
MW: Everyone knows what we’re protesting. It’s built into our name: Occupy Wall Street. We’re protesting the fact that theres’ this financial fraudster elite who’s destroying the future.

What we don’t know necessarily is what do we as a consensus based decision making general assembly want to demand. As an individual, I think that everyone has an opinion. What we’re figuring out now is how do we decide together on what we want to do.  It’s a good thing because we’ve become, especially in America, so lazy about our politics that we’re used to having politicians who tell us what to think. They’ve market tested everything and they’ve message tested everything and they get up there and they say something that sounds really good. And now we’re seeing what real democracy looks like, which is that we don’t quite know how to articulate ourselves and we don’t know how to negotiate 100 people or 200 people or 500 people in these general assembly meetings and all the different people’s opinions. That’s what we’re figuring out together. And that’s just beautiful.

pd: If we’d listened to the protesters back in 1999, do you think America would be so fucked right now?
MW: I’m not sure how to answer that question.

What’s interesting about what’s happening now. Part of me feels like this could be the last great social movement, in the sense that if we mess this up there might not be another chance. Whereas in ‘99 there was still this sense that there was still a future. But I think that if this completely flops and it takes another 10 years to get this kind of movement going, well in 10 years, if we just listen to the scientists, everything is going to be screwed. We’ve got peak oil, climate change, there’s going to be no fish. It’s going to be horrible in 10 years. Either we act now or we lose. And I think that’s what makes this movement a little bit more intense, because it might be our last chance.

pd: Does this movement have the energy to keep going for the long haul?
MW: Yeah. I think there is. There’s so many people, you know. We have so many reserve troops I think that we’re going to be able to pull it out. But I agree with you. Winter’s coming. Things are going to get intense. There are a lot of powerful forces at work to blunt the revolutionary potential.

pd: Do you have a backup plan if things start to flag in the streets, a way to let it lay fallow and bring it back later?
MW: Uh. No.

No. This is it.

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. And it’s outside of any our control. Even if we had a grand scheme, how would we pull it off? It was easy to launch the idea, but no single organization or person can control this release of forces. It’s out of our hands. There’s a role for us still to play. We can send out our listserv and nudge the swarm. But it’s going to have to rely on the collective intelligence on all the people involved in this movement to figure out what happens.

pd: Can you estimate the number of people participating in all the Occupy movements?
MW: We don’t do any metrics and we’re not leaders. Based on my own personal opinion on what I”ve been watching, I think that what’s interesting is the media blackout functions in a different way now. Everyone hears what’s going on in New York but no one hears what’s going on anywhere else.

Our big push is going to be on October 29. The G20 is meeting November 3 and we want that Saturday before they meet to be the time when all the different encampments are strutting their stuff on a global level and hopefully rally behind the Tobin Tax. We’re hoping people will rally behind the Tobin Tax because it’s something we wanted in the anti-globalization movement and it would just do so much good and it would show people we have this new found power.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.

1 thought on “Adbusters’ Micah White On The Occupation (Full Interview)”

  1. Good article, it really says a lot. Locally, organizers didn’t think this was going to go for more than a few days with a handful of people, instead it keeps growing and the support keeps growing. Much of that is silent/anonymous, the derision in mainstream media is expected but it seems pointless to really try to change that because we’ve sort of become the media because we’re just there, eventually everyone has to come ask the question and if they talk to the right person, people who thought they were totally opposed to what we’re doing figure out that they’re actually on our side. People know more than they let on, because they don’t realize that everyone else knows what they know, once they figure out that everyone really does, and that they’re not the only ones who realize the mainstream media/politicians interpretation of events is totally false, they realize that there’s hope for change. This is happening. I’ve waited my whole life for this moment in history. I’m actually starting to believe that we might have a global free and democratic society in the not too distant future.

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