Truthdigger of the Week: Radical Political Strategist Micah White
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
“American activists must move from detached indignation to revolutionary engagement by using the techniques of social movement creation to dominate elections.”
—Micah White, Nov. 14, 2016
As the political ascent of Donald Trump just confirmed, change can spring from what seem to be the unlikeliest of places. The establishment of Trump in the White House represents an accelerating darkening in American society, and activists—including many whose activism began Nov. 9—are asking themselves what they can do.
The men, women and children demonstrating against Trump’s election in America’s streets are honoring one of the nation’s oldest traditions, but protests alone won’t stop Trump, says a creator of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“Despite the excitement of seeing militants marching in the cities, leftist activist networks are buzzing with the painful realization that contemporary protest is broken,” wrote Micah White at The Guardian, five days after Trump’s election. (An unabridged version of his essay and an accompanying piece are available at his site.) “The dominant tactic of getting people into the streets, rallying behind a single demand and raising awareness about an injustice simply does not result in the desired social change.”
It’s a striking statement. The Civil Rights Act, the 40-hour work week, women’s suffrage—didn’t protest give us these? No doubt it played a driving role, but what are we to make of the failure of massive, sustained demonstrations to prevent the invasion of Iraq, banish private money from politics or halt the state-sanctioned snuffing out of black lives?
A former editor of the Canadian anti-consumer magazine Adbusters and author of “The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution,” White traces the “astonishing triumph of Donald Trump” to the “bitter defeat of Occupy Wall Street.” Occupy was the left’s response to the misuse of government; the tea party was the right’s. But after being “mercilessly smashed by [President Obama’s] progressive administration,” the “horizontal left” moved “toward more disruptive street protests,” while the “populist right” staged “an electoral insurrection.” Given the respective results of each movement, White says, “it seems the populists took the correct path to power.”
He concludes that the left’s “tactic of getting people into the streets, rallying behind a single demand and raising awareness about an injustice simply does not result in the desired social change.”
“Activists who rush into the streets tomorrow and repeat yesterday’s tired tactics” will therefore “not bring an end to Trump nor will they transfer sovereign power to the people. There are only two ways to achieve sovereignty in this world. Activists can win elections or win wars. There is no third option.”
In other words, organize your community to take popular sovereignty peacefully now, or, while something that looks and sounds like fascism assembles at the door, risk — for yourself and your loved ones — a life of interminable, accelerating struggle that ends in claps of violence.
“Concretely speaking, activists must reorient all efforts around capturing sovereignty,” White says. “That means looking for places where sovereignty is lightly held and rarely contested, like rural communities.”
White is no mere theorist. After Occupy effectively ended in 2012, he moved to the rural seaside town of Nehalem, Ore., where he received roughly 20 percent of the vote on an “unabashedly revolutionary democracy platform” for mayor. His was the lone mayoral challenge in Tillamook County. And in Bay City, not far away, there were not enough candidates to fill open City Council seats. “If an activist had run, she’d have won outright.” This, he says, “signals a tremendous opportunity.”
As models to follow, White points to the successes of Podemos in Spain and the Pirate Party in Iceland. “Their assembles inspired the birth of Occupy. But when the refusal of [Spain’s] indignados to participate in the election resulted in a shocking victory for Spain’s rightwing, the movement’s activists and supporters quickly internalized an important lesson that American horizontalists must now embrace.” They “transformed themselves into Podemos, a hybrid movement-party that is now winning elections and taking power.” Whatever you think of these parties’ policies, “Focus on the form, not the content … for their organizing style is the future of global protest.”
White believes activists “should immediately start moving into rural cities—low population areas of America—and prepare to sweep local elections in two years. … This is an entryist strategy that requires a leap of faith. It takes courage to uproot your life in pursuit of an ideal.” And though the local political powers “spread terrible, malicious lies,” bullying and ostracizing those who supported his candidacy and rallying under the reactionary slogan, “Keep Nehalem, Nehalem!,” White notes that participation in the local political process has surged. The results of the vote show that “one out of five [locals] is convinced” by White’s appeal to greater democracy. “In January, only one person attended the Nehalem City Council meeting.” By mid-November, “so many citizens crammed into council chambers that they had to bring out more chairs.”
The reward for success via this unorthodox strategy “is sovereignty and the power to transform the movement’s positive dreams into concrete reality.” If White and his supporters were to control the City Council of Nehalem, for example, “we could eradicate hunger in our city; establish a citizen advisory council; and end the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of people who live within Nehalem but outside of Nehalem’s city limits and are therefore unable to vote or run for office.”
“This is a struggle for sovereignty,” he writes. “The endgame is a horizontalist and populist movement-party that wins elections in multiple countries in order to carry out a unified agenda worldwide.” Given the lock the establishment holds on American cities, “the spark for this planetary electoral movement is bound to emerge from an unexpected place.”
Would this movement proceed independently or through a major political party? White views the mobilization around Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign as unfortunate. His opinion rests in part on doubt that Sanders and his supporters can cast Wall Street out of the Democratic Party and rapidly transform it into the kind of organization they envision. They’ll certainly try, and whether they succeed depends on the size of the opportunity created by Trump’s victory and the force and magnitude of the support Americans give them.
Whatever path those who wish to create a democratic future take, White warns that “[p]rotests will remain ineffective as long as there is no movement-party capable of governing locally and nationally.” And with two difficult years until the next election, “there is no time to waste.”
For imagining and proposing a radical way out of a burgeoning national nightmare, Micah White is our Truthdigger of the Week.