The following letters are a response to Emmett Rensin’s Issue 36 essay,“Total Quality Revolution.”
I have been an activist my entire life—but I have never felt accepted by the activist scene. I organized my first protest at the age of thirteen, achieved national attention for activism when I was seventeen and co-created the original idea for Occupy Wall Street, a social movement that spread to eighty-two countries, when I was twenty-eight. I coined the critique of “clicktivism” in 2010 and invented the debt forgiveness tactic used by the Rolling Jubilee in 2012. Yet after twenty-three years of protesting, I’m still an outsider.
I’m not blaming or complaining. I understand why I don’t fit in. I am unable, and unwilling, to goosestep behind the movement ideology. I didn’t vote for Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump. I am not a supporter of the Democratic Socialists of America or the Green Party. I don’t believe Occupy, Black Lives Matter, or Standing Rock were successful. I wrote a book, The End of Protest, arguing that protest is broken. And I speak out forcefully for the need to shift the paradigms of activism by overthrowing the failed leaders, tactics, and strategies of our movements. I advocate using the techniques of activism against the activist cliques that keep us mired in failure.
At the same time, I am needed by the movement because I am a source of fresh thinking. As an outsider to the groupthink, I have seen my activist ideas adopted while I am personally attacked. That is why it came as little surprise, but with a great deal of disappointment, to read the misguided critique of one of my projects, Boutique Activist Consultancy, in the previous issue of The Baffler (“Total Quality Revolution”) by Emmett Rensin.
When I first read the scurrilous essay, I was confused as to why The Baffler, a magazine I have always respected, had published it. All I could see was a poorly researched hit-piece designed to score points with an insular leftist clique by pushing me further outside of their circle. But I already know I’m not invited to their basement parties. (Jacobin made that clear in 2013 with a narrow-minded article, entitled “Adbusted,” on another phase of my work.) What disappointed me, however, was that this rookie critic did not interview me nor did he read my book. His failure to do basic research resulted in profound conceptual errors. His strawman arguments were based on an intentional misunderstanding of my approach to social activism.
But as I saw his article fail to catch on with readers, an implicit acknowledgement that they saw the deficiencies I saw, I thought about it a bit more. And I came to a different conclusion. I realized that The Baffler’s publication of a 1,700-word critique, even if it was dishonest, is evidence of a real desire to understand why I went from co-creating Occupy Wall Street to co-creating Boutique Activist Consultancy. And so I will tell you the story of Boutique Activist Consultancy (BAC).
I was sitting on the steps of Parrish Hall, the administrative building at Swarthmore College. It was late at night in the final months of 2001, and I had recently co-launched Why War?, one of America’s first student-led anti-war groups to emerge after 9/11. Why War? ran an educational website that served twenty thousand visitors monthly at its peak. The site’s collaborators were on the streets of Philadelphia distributing anti-Afghanistan war pamphlets long before the wider anti-Iraq war movement was born. Back then, being anti-war was still controversial, and slightly dangerous, because the trauma of 9/11 was fresh. I remember that night, sitting there with a friend and dreaming about life after college. I told her that one day I wanted to apply my activist skills to helping other people win their daily struggles. It was the first time I had the idea to start an activist consultancy.
In the years that followed, I continued to develop as an activist. Via the efforts of Why War? I helped spark a nationwide electronic civil-disobedience action against Diebold Election Systems. I temporarily withdrew from Swarthmore College and went to the West Bank in Palestine to do nonviolent anti-occupation direct action with the International Solidarity Movement. I was nearly trampled by a police horse while sitting in the street during the February 15, 2003, global Anti-Iraq War March, the largest synchronized protest in human history. And upon graduation, I flew to Vancouver to intern with Adbusters, an international activist and anti-consumerist magazine. Back in America, I waged a community campaign against a noise-polluting dry cleaner. The activism did not stop.
Meanwhile, the idea of an activist consultancy continued to percolate in the back of my mind. I recall being on a bus a decade ago in Binghamton, NY, and confiding in my wife (and future co-founder of Boutique Activist Consultancy) that I wanted to create a new kind of business—an activist business—that functioned like a law firm except we helped people change the everyday situations that bothered them by applying the full repertoire of activism: from letter-writing to creative protest and aggressive direct action. I had this vision of people seeking the help of our activist firm in battles with their landlord, city council, and local businesses.
And then, six years ago, my life swerved.
One auspicious day, while the Arab Spring raged in Egypt, Kalle Lasn and I at Adbusters came up with the concept for a leaderless social protest. We called it Occupy Wall Street, designed a poster and released a tactical briefing. The meme caught on instantly. Ultimately, Occupy spread to eighty-two countries and nearly a thousand cities. The rest is history.
The sudden collapse of Occupy was traumatic. My wife and I moved to rural Oregon. Kalle Lasn and I had a tragic falling out. I left Adbusters. Kalle refused to give me a severance package and I was financially broke. In crisis—with no savings, no income and no job—I was finally presented with the opportunity to realize my longstanding dream. Boutique Activist Consultancy was born.
However, it did not take long for me to realize that I did not want to run an activist consultancy in the way I’d originally imagined it. At first, I pursued clients. I did consultations with all kinds of people working on a diversity of campaigns, from an IRS whistleblower to a Hollywood celebrity, from the leaders of an organization protesting H1B visas to the organizers of an activist summer camp. Most of these clients were pro bono; some paid very little, and only a few paid the bills. I wasn’t making much money, but that wasn’t the problem because it was not my primary goal. I always knew that if money became the objective of Boutique Activist Consultancy, revolutionary activism would be impossible for us. I was singularly motivated by the genuine desire to create social change—to use what I’d learned from a life of activism. And it soon became clear that the real problem was that I did not believe working this way was able to make an impact. I quickly understood that the underlying relationship between client and consultant inherent in my original conception of an activist consultancy was standing in the way of my larger revolutionary aims.
The creation of Boutique Activist Consultancy was an intentionally provocative gesture designed to shake-up the activist scene.
Put another way: the failure of an activist consultancy as I’d initially conceived it has nothing to do with commercialization, professionalization, or any of the standard critiques made by those who haven’t tried it. Instead, I learned through experience that Boutique Activist Consultancy was not working because we gave too much decision-making power to clients. Lawyers may work on any case with any client because there is no magic to what they do. But in my long experience as an activist, I’ve learned that intuition and chance play an overwhelmingly significant role.
Thanks to my battle-tested background, I have a strong inner sense of which campaigns have potential and which tactics are promising. I worked at Adbusters for little pay for many years because I somehow knew in my heart that we would create a great social protest together. And we did. But I remember explaining the idea for Occupy Wall Street to people in the days before the campaign launched, and getting told that it was a terrible proposal that would never grow. I have had the same experience with all of my campaigns—especially the ones that have taken off. I’m continually confronting the complaint that I am doing activism incorrectly—and by way of this long tour through the debilitating rigors of sectarian naysaying I’ve gained a crucial insight: the most effective forms of activism differ from what activism is supposed to look like.
And I proceeded to apply this lesson to my own work at BAC. I saw that by contracting myself out to work on clients’ campaigns I was making myself disregard my own activist intuition. I would create proposals for innovative tactics—for the H1B visa campaign, for example, I developed a LinkedIn bot that spread the campaign by visiting thousands of profiles—only to meet with rejection when the client opted to do something more traditional. But traditional approaches don’t inspire social movements.
And so I turned the paradigm of an activist consultancy upside down. BAC pivoted away from giving clients power over our work and toward a different model. We refocused as a consultancy that acts like an activist think tank. Our internal metric of success turned into influencing how activists do activism. Now, instead of working on other people’s initiatives, I devote myself to spotlighting campaigns, tactics, and strategies that I believe have revolutionary potential.
Our products offer new ways of thinking about social protest, and they are designed for consumption by the wider activist movement. This includes my book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook For Revolution; my essays; and interviews that are filtering into activist discussion groups and university classrooms. It also includes the talks I’ve given at cultural festivals in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Indonesia, and the United States. And although I still do the occasional private event for an international NGO, corporation or union, Boutique Activist Consultancy hopes to one day rely exclusively on a global network of patrons who fund what we want to work on rather than clients who will only pay for what they want us to do.
The creation of Boutique Activist Consultancy was an intentionally provocative gesture designed to shake-up the activist scene. It was an act of defiant protest aimed at shattering the “you can’t do that” mindset that keeps our movements mired in the compulsive repetition of failed tactics. In rejecting the traditional nonprofit model of activism, and eschewing the theatrical militancy of academic leftism, I wanted to send a message: activists must be free to embark on wild experimentation, test new approaches and adopt unlikely methods.
Moving forward, Boutique Activist Consultancy is increasingly focused on the meta-activist project of transforming how activists do activism. That begins with instigating a paradigm shift in activist circles by attacking the dominant theory of change behind contemporary protest.
Whether activists are resisting Trump or campaigning for civil rights, environmental justice, refugee rights, or LGBTQIA and women’s rights, the first prerequisite to success is an effective theory of social change to guide the methods we employ. The range of potential protest tactics is so plentiful—from direct action in the streets to silent prayerful vigils and self-organized worker cooperatives to electoral ballot initiatives—that every activist, whether consciously or not, relies on a theory of change to decide his or her actions. If the theory of change underlying our activism is false, then our protests are bound to fail. Hence Lenin’s famous dictum: “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” This is precisely the precarious situation activists find themselves in today: the theorist bullies of the activist clique have spread a false, self-serving theory of change that places themselves in the vanguard.
At Boutique Activist Consultancy, we advocate for a unified theory of revolution that understands social movement creation from four distinct angles: voluntarism covers the physical actions taken by protest participants; structuralism addresses the economic and social forces (such as food prices) that triggered the revolutionary moment; subjectivism engages with the shifting internal mood that precipitated the protest; and theurgism stresses the chance accidents or divine interventions, like freak weather at an opportune moment, that played a role in the outcome. (For those having trouble grasping theurgism, it is worth researching Alexander Chizhevsky’s sunspot theory of revolution.) From this unified perspective, the increasing ineffectiveness of protest is the fault of activists who neglect structuralism, subjectivism, and theurgism while overemphasizing voluntarism’s tired repertoire of street protest tactics.
Dethroning the voluntarists who dominate the activist scene opens a space for new revolutionary strategies to emerge. I have argued in favor of the creation of an electoral social movement that is capable of winning elections in multiple countries. I’m inspired by Spain’s Podemos, Italy’s 5 Star Movement, Europe’s DiEM25, and the historical example of Dr. Lenora Fulani’s New Alliance Party campaign for president of the United States in 1988. I want to build an internationalist social movement that governs dozens of countries simultaneously. But beyond advocating for a specific strategy, I am simply excited by what might happen if the movement ideologues are silenced and outsider activists are given a chance to perform.
I can feel this movement of outsiders building. As I sit here, I’ve received an email from an activist in Oakland:
“In one of your interviews you spoke of the cliquishness of the activist community and it rang so true to me,” Keri writes. “I’ve exhausted myself trying to find a place to fit in within this realm.”
Now my critics, before you write another dogmatic rant, please pause a moment. Consider that there are many who feel the same way as Keri and I do. Activists like us are the future. To attack us is to undermine the revolution you claim to support.
The Boutique Mystique
So far as I can tell—and it is difficult, quite a lot of the time, to tell where the “rebuttal” to my essay ends here and where the first draft of a TED talk about the “paradigm shift” potential of a revolution funded by a “global network of patrons” begins—Micah White has three principle objections to my critique of Boutique Activist Consultancy.
Micah White is an outsider (and the source of all necessary fresh thinking on the left), despite inventing Occupy Wall Street—a movement he claims to have predicted with magic intuition.
By focusing my critique on the way Boutique Activist Consultancy presents its services on its official website, I failed to notice that Boutique Activist Consultancy’s official website does not in any way reflect the group’s services or intentions.
Before writing an essay that “failed to catch on” with readers, I did not interview Micah, nor read his book.
As to White’s fresh, outsider status: I suppose I can’t dispute that the rest of the left largely ignores his ideas. Whether this is because his ideas are so radical that everybody else on this end of the political spectrum can’t handle them is a question that readers will have to answer for themselves. White says that he has seen his “ideas adopted” while he is personally attacked, but as he does not provide examples of any of those ideas or who adopted them, I’m unable to verify his claim.
Second, despite the helpful clarification White has provided in his rebuttal, it is worth noting that the Boutique Activist Consultancy website still presents itself as an entity you can pay five figures to manage your revolution for you. If BAC is a think tank now—one that engages in “meta activism,” as White calls it—it would be helpful to update the site. But as I wrote in my original essay, the trouble with BAC isn’t so much that the group charges money in order to tell people that protest is broken, it’s that the whole enterprise is so vague and so buried under Silicon Valley clichés that it’s nearly impossible to tell what BAC actually does.
Incredibly, White’s rebuttal attempts to pull off the same trick. We hear a good deal about overthrowing old modes of thinking, and an even greater deal about Occupy Wall Street. We hear several pre-BAC activism war stories and a little bit about BAC’s unnamed Hollywood clients and a reference to a clever sounding LinkedIn bot. And although we hear all of this wrapped up in ostentatious theory citations, we still never learn precisely what Boutique Activist Consultancy is up to these days. White tells us of his “unified theory of revolution,” which draws inspiration from a number of prominent movements. He tells us how he “turned the paradigm of an activist consultancy upside down,” and about the way that he is “spotlighting campaigns, tactics, and strategies” that he believes “have revolutionary potential.” He also tells us that all of this was an “intentionally provocative gesture.” But even setting aside the scant evidence that any of these grand gestures has created a measurable shift within the broader left (I suppose this has something to do with the parties and who gets invited to them), we’re left with a “think tank” that creates “products . . . designed for consumption by the wider activist movement”—mainly, a book and some essays and interviews and talks. White tells us that he wants to rely on a “global network of patrons who fund what we want to work on,” but so far as I can tell here, what White wants to work on is mainly the promotion of his personal brand and his opinions about what kinds of protest are working. This only appears different from what the Boutique Activist Consultancy website describes inasmuch as it relies on a different funding mechanism.
Third, I regret that I didn’t get a chance to interview White for my story. I had set up a time to interview him, and then had to postpone the call. I sought repeatedly to reschedule the interview—but never got a reply from several emails proposing a follow-up call over the next several weeks. If White had bothered to reply and make time for an interview, then I could have asked about BAC. At that point, presumably, I would have learned that the group is now a think tank I could have asked why that isn’t reflected on the BAC website, which still asks potential clients to submit a price range for the work projects BAC appears to be soliciting.
As for the book: guilty as charged. I didn’t read it. But then, if White’s website doesn’t tell you what BAC actually does, and his angry rebuttal to my piece here doesn’t tell you either, if you’ve got to shell out $15.99 for the Kindle edition of The End of Protest in order to learn the real paradigm-shifting revolutionary magic-intuition-inspired secrets that Micah White has to offer, then what, precisely, are we dealing with here? A dedicated activist, trying to change the world? Or just a guy with good PR instincts, telling you to book him as a speaker, hire his consultancy and buy his revolutionary book?