In my last post for RA, I made the case for movements to be more strategically adaptive; to evolve, pivot on issues, and tinker with new tactics. This may seem a bit obvious; duh! movements have to change with the times and try new tactics when old ones decay in efficacy over time. But it is apparently not so obvious for the thousands of people who have been marching in the streets in a rebuke of the recent presidential election of Lord Voldemort in the United States. I can assure you, the new president elect doesn’t miss a tweet over protests in Seattle and Portland, places he had long ago written off as The Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Cascadia.
The urban street protest is growing stale. As Micah White has written in his thoughtful new playbook for revolution,
All too often, protesters recycle tactics that have been overused for decades and are simply destined to fail today. Authorities encourage these nostalgic protest rituals because they follow a predictable script that is easy to control. These tactics may have worked in the past, but times have changed. Now we succumb to a vague theory of social change, as the activist Peter Gelderloos once put it, in which we “protest, protest, protest, and eventual the ‘people’ will rise up, the state will crumble, or something like that.” The first step toward creating positive social change is to take responsibility for the failure of the “protest, protest, protest” paradigm. This process begins from the acknowledgement that contemporary protest is broken and the willingness to fix it.
For White, who believes that “urban areas of America feel worn out and spiritually exhausted,” this means occupying rural areas and turning the fight against austerity, capitalism and inequality into a local one, rooted in small towns and rural tracts of the Pacific Northwest. It is in these places where White sees the best opportunities “to take control of local governance: rural areas are deeply impoverished and increased social prosperity programs are vitally necessary.”
White himself practices what he preaches, recently losing a mayoral election in coastal town in Oregon. In the campaign, White faced hostility from locals who viewed him as an outsider, an agitator instigating a communist takeover. Some officials tried to skirt around public meeting laws to deny him speaking privileges. He also dealt with crude forms of racism, as a mixed-race person of color, with one neighbor calling him the n-word.
In the bigger picture, his unsuccessful campaign, in which he garnered 20% of the vote, should not be read as the end of a movement, but rather, the beginning of a new conversation about where movements should focus their efforts and the merits of pursuing electoral politics amidst failing urban resistance. I admire White’s efforts to reframe activism and push the comfort levels of the left, to venture outside the cappuccino corridor. At the same time, I realize many activists on the left don’t have the fortitude to orchestrate a rural occupation. That’s why, in addition to endorsing White’s call for a new revolutionary playbook, I also want to focus our collective conversation on how we finance activism.
The resurgence of horizontalism in social movements has been much ballyhooed as a way to successfully re-energize collective action campaigns of the left. Leaderless (or leaderful as activists like to say) movements are like a hydra, you cut off one head and another grows back; decentralized movements can be adaptive and self-organizing in a way that makes movements more sustainable and impactful. I do not want to re-hash the merits of this debate here, though this tension between the proponents of decentralization and proponents of hierarchical leadership is an important one to have. I do however, want to make the case that changes in the organizational layer of collective action matter little without structural changes in the way we finance collective action. Further, the mechanisms we have to finance collective action campaigns have changed little in the last several decades; movements rely on individual donations, philanthropists, grants and loans. The effect of which, is to create a trickle down system of financing activism, where most non-profits, advocacy groups, and community organizers rely on the largesse of billionaires who pull the purse strings and determine the worthiness of a group’s aims; often this means attaching conditions to funding opportunities that weaken radical social change.
There has never been a more opportune time to rethink the way we finance collective action. There is a blind spot on the left concerning how campaign finance tools need to co-evolve with new financial and payment technologies. For example, Bitcoin, a digital crypto-currency that has emerged independently of fiat money, is one such example of the possibilities. While Bitcoin has noble aims: lowering remittance fees for people who work abroad and send money to their home countries, providing basic financial tools to the unbanked and becoming a global currency; Bitcoin is not likely to be a useful way to finance activism until activists recognize its value and it becomes practically useful as a payment tool.
Bitcoin is just the first iteration of a larger crypto-currency movement. New digital currencies have been circulated. Community organizers, political advocacy organizations and other stakeholders like governments and unions can also develop new currencies to finance public works, activist campaigns and social welfare reform. As one example, a group of researchers, techies and entrepreneurs have developed a crypto-currency to establish a universal basic income. The currency gives its members a basic income, voting rights over the establishment of a group fund, and uses a type of distributed ledger called a blockchain, to record the decisions of the group and make those decisions transparent and accessible to the whole group. There are a number of interesting test cases to experiment with this concept. Crypto-currencies, as the name implies encrypt information about transactions occurring within a network. This could be particularly useful for activists concerned with privacy. Activists could transfer funds to their transnational peers that live under authoritarian regimes anonymously, without the detection of authorities. Universities and municipalities can also tinker with local digital currencies for financing community projects.
To many readers, these experiments in finance might seem naïve; like using fake monopoly money to pay for activist causes. At this point, I concede these are half-baked ideas. However, I am not a techno-utopian and I know crypto-currencies cannot serve as an adequate replacement for robust public investment in education, environment and health. But that shouldn’t stop us from experimenting. Creating parallel financial institutions to protect public goods, establishing new financial instruments for those traditionally excluded from banking and thinking of crypto-currencies as operating in the background of traditional fiat money is a worthy endeavor for activists to consider in my humble opinion. So will monopoly money or some other made up currency finance the next revolution? Probably not. But if the US can print money to bailout banks and elect a president who has unlimited lines of credit, doesn’t pay taxes and declares bankruptcy six times, we’re already playing with monopoly money…anything is possible!
 Read: hipster havens.
 As of this writing, it is estimated there are about 100,000 merchants that accept Bitcoin as a method of payment. There are about 10 million Bitcoin users. People might be able to buy a drink at a pub with bitcoins, but they probably can’t pay rent with it.
Julian Gottlieb is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon. He teaches public policy and political communication. You can follow him on Twitter @JulianGottlieb