It’s not exactly a bold claim to state that most people aren’t happy with national politics in the United States, for one reason or another.
Some think that the government is too small; for others, it’s too big. Others are worried about intrusion into their private lives or how they can help fulfil their own basic needs.
For Google engineer Justine Tunney, the biggest problem in Washington isn’t that her favoured party is having trouble getting its policies enacted.
Rather, she’s more upset that the whole thing is a “sham.” In 2011, she helped build the tech and Internet presence that enabled the establishment of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Now, she’s pushing for the tech industry to replace the United States government.
In a recent interview, Tunney explained to Business Insider how she got involved in the Occupy movement and why she thinks the United States needs a technology-fuelled “regime change.”
Building Occupy Wall Street
Tunney doesn’t claim to have been the person who actually thought up the Occupy movement.
She gives that credit to this blog post from July 2011. Titled “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET,” the post ran on alt-media blog Adbusters and called for a peaceful protest in the heart of Wall Street come September. Shortly after it was passed around via email, Twitter, and RSS, Tunney registered the domain OccupyWallSt.org.
In the site’s early days, Tunney did two things: she created technology that those of involved with the movement could use in order to communicate and share rides to meet-ups in addition to shaping the language of the movement — or, as Tunney calls it, their propaganda. “I like to call things by their names,” she says.
Those who worked with Tunney on the site (who asked not to be named in this story) say that she didn’t hold all of the power when it came to deciding what language would go up. Instead, anyone on the team could put posts up and the group would decide on edits after the fact.
“Democracy never works.”
In the early days of Occupy, it tried to organise itself democratically. The New York City General Assembly brought together dozens of organisations whose beliefs were aligned with the ideals of Occupy and arranged weekly meetings where anyone could have a say in order to get the movement off the ground. As you’d expect from a movement built by a variety of interests and subcultures, the early Occupy meetings didn’t exactly follow Robert’s Rules of Order — arguments could arise from the slightest provocation.
Tunney recalls one meeting where a facilitator headbutted a person he disagreed with. When people intervened and tried to kick the man out, others in attendance yelled out, “he deserves due process!” During one of the General Assembly’s early meetings, Tunney says she had to face some of that weird intensity herself.
At the second General Assembly meeting on August 9, 2011, she says she was “kicked out of Occupy.” Others who were present at the meeting say that there was a disagreement over which Occupy site would become the “official” site of the General Assembly, and Tunney lost — though she was never kicked out of anything, because the movement’s structure wasn’t that formal.
From that meeting on though, Tunney says she worked “in the shadows.” As those who worked with her tell it, she mostly limited her direct interaction with Occupy from that point on to the team she organised to create content for the website. Looking back on her experiences with the New York General Assembly, Tunney simply states that “democracy never works.”
Whatever happened between Tunney and the General Assembly, her relationship with those involved still hasn’t recovered. As The Daily Beast’s Nina Strochlic pointed out in February, the New York General Assembly’s Charles Lenchner recently called Tunney’s recent enthusiasm on Twitter “the public meltdown of a dedicated OWS activist named Justine Tunney.”
“They thought I was a Fed or something.”
The Occupy movement began camping out in New York by mid-September of 2011. It was an exciting time for Tunney and those she worked with, but there were already forces wearing away at the solidarity of the movement.
As one of the team members running the Occupy site and the Twitter feed, Tunney had to interact with the media in order to bring attention to the cause. But she says the media didn’t like the message of the movement, which had anarchist and communist leanings. She says that the media “wanted the Occupy movement to be a left-wing Tea Party.”
Some people in Occupy wanted that kind of coverage, even if it meant changing the way Occupy presented itself. That group didn’t include Tunney.
“I hate the middle class,” Tunney told Business Insider. At the time, she had gone through being homeless, health issues without insurance, and had lost her job in both recessions since 2000. The system had failed her again and again, but she didn’t want Occupy to simply be about raising taxes on the rich. She wanted a revolution.
Tunney was actually disappointed by the relative calmness of the protests. “I’d rather have them throw a Molotov cocktail through the windows at Goldman Sachs,” she says.
“I’d rather have them throw a Molotov cocktail through the windows at Goldman Sachs,” she says.
But she didn’t do those things herself — she says that she didn’t want to get arrested. Tunney claims some saw this and thought that she was an undercover cop who was stirring up trouble without putting herself at risk: “They thought I was a Fed or something.”
Those who worked with her during this time say that there was concern that their organisation had been “infiltrated” by law enforcement, but that it wasn’t only directed at Tunney specifically.
They also say that they didn’t think Tunney wasn’t throwing Molotovs because she was afraid of getting arrested — they thought she was simply at home sleeping because of her particular work and sleep habits, which tended to make it difficult to actually accomplish the things she set out to do.
By Tunney’s own account, she works odd hours. Sometimes she’s completely unproductive during the day, and gets a boatload of work done in the middle of the night. That’s fine for coding up the tech that powered the Occupy site, her former colleagues say, but it occasionally got in the way of getting their message out.
There were occasions when the site would go down during a big morning media frenzy and Tunney wouldn’t be around to fix it because she was asleep. Others mention Tunney putting up her propaganda posts at 2:30 in the morning instead of during hours when followers were more likely to share. One day she even slept in and missed a radio interview with NPR.
Tunney says she was blamed for things that were beyond her purview. “When my group pivoted from organising an action, to being the mouthpiece of a movement — I knew I wasn’t a journalist, so I recruited people who were. We had three editors on staff as full-time volunteers. Their entire job was to put content on the website. Why didn’t my critic reach out to them? Why didn’t they call our 1-800 help line? Why didn’t they send a message to our mailing list. It was no secret how to get a hold of us.”
“The government is just a corporation that owns the country.”
Despite the conflict Tunney faced during the early days of the Occupy movement and the cushy software engineering job she landed at Google in 2012, she’s still actively pushing for “regime change” in the United States.
Back in September, she went to Twitter to ask if Occupiers would be interested in raising $US1 million to train a “nonviolent militia” for the movement.
Since then, it appears her focus has shifted away from Occupy and towards a vision that could best be described as techno-utopian: basically, she wants the tech industry to run everything in the country.
When questioned about the feasibility of having companies run a country, she says that the government already acts just like a corporation that owns a country, and that China and Saudi Arabia are like “shareholders” in the United States because of their ownership of Treasury bonds and oil, respectively.
That’s a vastly simplified view of the world that ignores the actual power dynamics involved between the players she mentions — after all, who is more beholden to China, the United States government or tech companies that make all of their goods in Chinese factories? — but it’s an interesting idea, so I asked what that would look like.
Tunney points to the the excess value tech companies generate from their workers and the resulting wages and perks they can offer their employees. She thinks that these same companies could apply those practices to the rest of the country, improving living standards for everyone.
As for the Chinese factory workers whose cheap labour enables so much of that excess value creation, Tunney says, “I tend to look at ends rather than means.”
That’s probably why her push for a techno-revolution doesn’t seem to be catching on like Occupy did: she wants to retire all government employees, from senators to bureaucrats, which would put more than 4.3 million people out of work in the short-term. It’s easy to hate bankers making billions of dollars each year by manipulating financial markets — that’s not the case when you’re trying to sell a revolution that would ruin the lives of regular people.