Insurgent Anarchism; An Idea Whose Time Has Come – Part I
In this series, Nozomi Hayase develops deep and incredibly up-to-date reflections on an entirely contemporary political phenomenon. Social movements – both on-line and off-line – are synthesized, compared and analyzed in a very elaborated fashion. Occupy, cypherpunks, peer-to-peer and whistle-blowing are elements of this the first part of Hayase’s masterpiece on Anarchism.
(Part I of III)
In fall of 2011, as the autumn leaves were turning color, America’s largest metropolitan city was about to grab the world’s attention. On September 17, the first occupiers descended onto lower Manhattan and marched on the Stock Exchange, eventually settling in Zuccotti Park. Wall Street, the center of capitalist wealth and power was now under siege. As the word ‘Occupy’ indicated, it was not a one day protest. They were there for the long haul.
“The Occupy movement just lit a spark.” Noam Chomsky spoke of its historical significance as creating something that never existed before and bringing marginalized discourse to the center. At Zuccotti Park, with a library and kitchen, a cooperative community arose with open spaces for sharing and mutual support.
In a time of rampant apathy and weakening civic power, the Occupy movement came as a surprise to the status quo. In the wake of the Arab Spring, some may have seen a rising tide on the horizon. From the Indignados movement, an iconic picture of Anonymous holding the sign “Nobody Expects the #Spanish Revolution” went viral around the globe. The spirit of uprising on Wall Street was also unexpected. Once the wave moved beyond the East Coast, Occupy inspired the nation and spread across the world.
Yet, after the winter’s slowdown and the brutal police crackdown of the encampment, the movement lost momentum and the waves of change seemed to be evaporating. Is it true that the Occupy movement is weakening? Are people not yet ready to truly challenge the corporate greed that is exploiting the majority of population for the benefit of 1%? The truth is, the tidal wave of world revolution is far from over and just because it is less visible doesn’t mean Occupy is dead.
Occupy’s Anarchistic Impulse
Despite police effort to dismantle it, Occupy has already changed the direction of society. It brought a new impulse that many felt was urgently needed. Mic check and consensus decision-making arose as a new style of communication that offered alternatives to traditional hierarchical modes of communication.
David Graeber, an anarchist and anthropologist was one of activists who initiated the original plan to occupy Zuccotti Park, which was the gestation of the Occupy movement. Graeber describedanarchism as a social form that embraced direct democracy and a kind of government without hierarchy. He said “Anarchism is a commitment to the idea that it would be possible [to build] a society based on principles of self-organization, voluntary association and mutual aid.”
Graeber spoke of how anarchistic principles are at the heart of the Occupy Movement, particularly in its commitment to the leaderless consensus model practiced in General Assembly (GA), rather than the traditional majority-rules approach. He pointed to the movement’s effort to stay autonomous and independent from the existing system. This is manifested in direct action, which he characterized as “the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”
Graeber (2004) offered a historical context by showing how anarchism inspired the early waves of global resistance against the WTO and IMF and also, prior to this the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) and their revolt in Chiapas. The Zapatista’s rejection of the idea of seizing power and their creation of an autonomous self government inspired the rest of Mexico. Graeber connected the dots, showing how Zapatista’s democratic practice led to the “This is what Democracy looks like” moment in the Battle of Seattle and it showed a glimpse of anarchist-inspired action:
All of this has happened completely below the radar screen of the corporate media, which also missed the point of the great mobilizations. The organization of these actions was meant to be a living illustration of what a truly democratic world might be like, from the festive puppets, to the careful organization of affinity groups and spokes councils, all operating without a leadership structure, always based on principles of consensus-based direct democracy. (p. 83, 2004)
A decade later, OWS was like a revival of the 1999 uprising in Seattle. The trend of horizontal mobilization occurred spontaneously instead of depending on a charismatic leader guiding the group’s actions. Occupy is a leaderless culture, a decentralized form of organizing. The leaderless nature of these movements are mistrusted and feared by those in power. “If there is no leader, then that’s chaos; that’s anarchy!” exclaimed Stephen Colbert of Colbert Report in challenging Carne Ross, the author of the book Leaderless Revolution. Colbert pontificated on how he wanted stability and certainty in the next day’s profit. His tongue-in-cheek comment summed up the conventional response to an imagination that moves beyond the current free-market winner-take-all social structure. In response, Ross noted how the current capitalistic system is itself unstable and that this system would bring more chaos in the end.
A similar sentiment arose within the movement creating some internal conflict. Mark Binelli of Rolling Stone magazine shed light on the tension in OWS around those holding firm to anarchist principles by refusing to allow top-down structures. He highlighted the story of Marisa Holmes, a 25-year-old anarchist who had been one of the core organizers of Occupy Wall Street. While facilitating a GA meeting, the well known figure of Russell Simmons came by Zuccotti Park to participate and wanted to bump up the speakers list. He was not allowed to because this went against the egalitarian form of assembly.
Historically, the word anarchism has often been portrayed in a negative light for political aims. It was associated with chaos and violence and depicted it as a mob rule with no coherent demands except a chaotic dismantling of the existing social order. With the general ignorance around the idea of anarchism, it has become susceptible to government and media manipulation.
Sean Sheehan, a writer of history (2003) elucidated how anarchism re-emerged in Seattle at the end of 1999 onto the world stage. The media focused on broken Starbucks and Nike windows. They sensationalized this vandalism committed by a tiny minority. The massive peaceful rallies in downtown Seattle were replaced with negative and false portrayal and this mainstream perversion of the word anarchism was widely disseminated.
Once again in the rise of Occupy, peaceful protesters were regularly painted with this negative image. Fear was generated in the general public toward the movement, though it’s true nature was really the opposite of violent or chaotic.
The FBI has been attempting to brand occupiers with this demonizing of anarchists, a term now treated by the US government as synonymous with terrorist. In Chicago, during the NATO summit in May, Chicago police entrapped activists by having FBI informantsprovide bomb-making materials. In Seattle and Portland, agents raided homes, seeking ‘anarchist’ literature and black clothes. Using eerily similar rhetoric to the manufactured ‘war on terror’ of the Bush-Cheney years, the crafted image of ‘violent anarchists’ has become a pretext for police to justify militarized abuse of power. Recently, new evidence has surfaced of police infiltration of Occupy. In Austin last December, an undercover police officer was involved in setting occupiers with felony charges by distributing devices that were later considered weapon.
A recently disclosed data sheet from a company called Ntepid outlined a secret spying software product called Tartan. It revealed a high level of surveillance on Occupy and other protesters and the cognitive framework for the establishment of a witch-hunt on activists in general. The case study document titled “Tartan Quantifying Influence” illustrated data mining software meant to enhance ‘national security’. This was enacted within a kind of political profiling that clearly lumped together all progressive activists with a new boogieman label of ‘anarchist’ that assumes violent and/or illegal actions. The data listed Occupy Oakland, journalists like Citizen Radio and even a PBS station as influential leaders in identified networks.
The concocted image of a ‘black bloc’ using the word anarchist to describe violent street gangs that vandalize store windows is repeatedly drummed into the public mind, as they are told they need to be afraid. But we must ask, what does the word actually mean? Is an anarchist someone who incites violence and wants to destroy governments?
Anarchist Susan Brown (1993) demystified some of misconceptions:
While the popular understanding of anarchism is of a violent, anti-State movement, anarchism is a much more subtle and nuanced tradition than a simple opposition to government power. Anarchists oppose the idea that power and domination are necessary for society, and instead advocate more co-operative, anti-hierarchical forms of social, political and economic organization. (p. 106)
Sheehan (2003) traced back the word anarchism to its Greek roots:
The etymology of the word -anarchism meaning the absence of leader, the absence of a government – signals what is distinctive about anarchism: a rejection of the need for the centralized authority of the unitary state, the only form of government most of us have ever experienced. (p. 25)
DJ Pangburn, editor of online magazine, cautioned the public regarding government promoting hysteria with predictions of violent anarchists in the lead up to the Republican and Democratic Conventions. Pangburn reminded people of who real anarchists have been historically:
People seemed to quickly forget that it was anarchists who were attempting to bring a modicum of sanity to America’s ethically and morally-bankrupt hyper-capitalism, in the form of weekend and eight-hour work day, as well as fair pay for the people who actually did a company’s manual labor.
When current misrepresentations of the word anarchism are dismantled, something more nuanced and vital emerges. Anarchy does not mean no government or rules. It indicates a society where authority is not defined by hierarchy and power over individual autonomy. It calls for individual’s direct participation in creating a social form and their ongoing engagement with it.
The Occupy movement opened up a space for public discourse that has been taken over by corporate interests. In these liberated spaces, a delicate tension arose between the familiar frame of reference for social change such as electoral systems and the more egalitarian and largely unknown or misunderstood idea of anarchism. This new movement has struggled to keep the horizontal space open and growing in the midst of a mental and physical battle that is orchestrated by those in power who are desperate to keep things as they are.
People ask how can a society be organized without centralized control and hierarchy? Once the initial negative image of anarchism is debunked and the nonviolent and decentralized nature of the model is understood, some might still feel the world imagined by these free thinkers to be impossible or unrealistic. Yet, this idea that is trying to incarnate into society already exists in our everyday life.
As we move deeper into the new millennium, many are sensing historical social change is imminent and are excitedly imagining a different world. The truth may be that inwardly, a revolution has already taken place and people’s perception of the world and each other has fundamentally changed. It is a revolution through the Internet. This inherently neutral communication platform has led to a revolt of inter-networking. This is a triumph of connection over isolation, free flow over control of information and sharing over ownership. Before the Occupy movement emerged on streets around the world, millions already occupied the global square of the Internet. The miniature culture based on an egalitarian way of working together that blossomed in the early stages of Occupy had already been thriving on the web.
This is the generation of the Internet, connecting a world that is now just a click away; one that saw their reality captured in the metaphors and images of the Wachowski brothers film, The Matrix. Morpheus explained to Neo:
You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison… For your mind… You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
Many might have seen in Neo their own struggles. The Matrix that he was born into is like the modern corporate state we all live in, where commercial interests have taken over so much of lives and torn the delicate interconnectedness of the fabric of life.Intellectual property regulations are used to protect and promote the hegemony of Western market values. Corporations like Monsanto genetically modify and attempt to control life itself. Trade agreements such as North American Free Trade Agreement(NAFTA) and Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) are all part of an artificially made world order that benefits a tiny minority.
Just like Neo, we already took the red pill and chose not to go back to ‘reality’. By plugging into an universal online network, each culture has collectively been going through a kind of virtual rite of passage without realizing what they were getting into, or how deep the rabbit hole might go.
From screen to screen across the Internet, the centralized structures of outer society are melting away. Here is a world free from traditional boundaries and rules. In the digital space, this path of new potential is paved by online connections and shared visions.
At first, this digital space appeared as a lawless Wild West with no borders. Nobody owned the Internet. It was a field of potential that could evolve in many directions.
A panel of speakers at the HOPE 9 conference in New York City on 13 July 2012 discussed WikiLeaks, Whistle-blowers, and the War on the First Amendment. ACLU lawyer Catherine Crump pointed out how the WikiLeaks case revealed a need to reexamine laws of nation-states, specifically how to apply the First Amendment in a digitized world.
This global stateless dimension of the Internet created loopholes in existing national laws and power structures. WikiLeaks was a good example of the flexible application of law in this new border-less cyberspace. They created a model based on a reverse tax haven, in order to apply the strongest human rights laws in the world and protect themselves from persecution by regimes that wish to control information or clamp down on fundamental rights to free speech.
Digital pioneers have created rules of coding and programming that stretched traditional boundaries and limitations of this new space. Computer programmers at this early stage were like the first settlers of an online border-less land. Richard Matthew Stallman, computer programmer and cyber-guru worked with other computer savvy fellows to develop their own rules through new forms of programming and coding designed to ensure that the digital culture stayed open. Stallman later instigated the Free Software Movement to maintain a stream of source code outside the realm of proprietary licenses.
Stallman described free software as that which users develop and operate without restrictions other than keeping it free of propriety. It was created to respect developers and users right to maintain control to individually and collectively invent and improve software that cannot be locked down by vested interests. It is to fight against features such as surveillance, digital restrictions management (DRM) and backdoors that serve private interests remotely making changes to a program, even to install intentionally malicious software.
What drove his endeavor was a part of the ‘Hacker Ethics’; the commitment to unlimited access to computers and internet, free flow of information and mistrust of authority. These hacker ethics are fundamentally anarchistic in their commitment to decentralization and deeply anti-authoritarian views.
Stallman’s work influenced individuals like Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, especially in his association with a group known as Cypherpunks, which originated from an electronic mailing list that was set up to meet challenges concerning individual Internet security and the development of cryptography.
Episode 8 and 9 of Assange’s syndicated interview show, The World Tomorrow focused on 3 of the seminal figures of the Cypherpunks: Andy Müller-Maguhn, member of the German hacker association Chaos Computer Club, Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of the Paris-based group La Quadrature du Net, and Jacob Appelbaum, American independent computer security researcher and activist working on the Tor project. Together they explored a wide range of cyber-activities such as threats online, Internet privacy, censorship bills, repressive anti-piracy laws and the future of the Internet.
Within the sophisticated discourse that ensued concerning this century’s information revolution, unique philosophical views arose on the individual’s relationship to society, governance and freedom. In Episode 8, Assange described how Cypherpunks worked to provide the cryptographic tools with which one can independently and effectively challenge government or institutional interference, to help people take control their own lives. In Episode 9, Jérémie Zimmermann spoke about the force of centralization on cyberspace and showed how censorship and privacy issues are really about exploitation of people’s power:
When you talk about Internet censorship, it is about centralizing power to determine what people may be able to access or not. And whether it’s government censorship, or also private-owned censorship, they are changing the architecture of the Internet from one universal network to an organization of small sub-networks.
The Cypherpunks were like pioneers of the open Internet model that works to preserve freedom online. It is interesting to find so many anarchistic principles at work in their actions. One thing that guided the Cypherpunks is an ethos of independent control of networks and a general distrust of governments, as well as value of individual privacy and freedom. The methods developed to secure it were inherently non-violent and by expanding the laws of mathematics, they developed encrypted code that no level of violence could break.
These frontier hacktivists inspired and empowered a whole generation. Jacob Applebaum talked about how the Cypherpunks radicalized and empowered people with the idea of open software:
… I mean, that’s what started a whole generation of people really becoming more radicalized, because people realized that they weren’t atomized anymore, and that they could literally take some time to write some software that if someone used it they could empower millions of people ….
This trend continues. In August from Twitter discussion the idea of CryptoParties was born. A Wiki page was set up recently that defines CryptoParties:
What is CryptoParty? Interested parties with computers and the desire to learn to use the most basic crypto programs. CryptoParties are free to attend and are commercially non-aligned.
Asher Wolf, an Australia-based privacy activist who played a key role in its conception, described how it came about: “A lot of us missed out on Cypherpunk (an electronic technical mailing list) in the nineties, and we hope to create a new entry pathway into cryptography” (as cited in SC magazine, Sept, 4, 2012). Two weeks after the term was coined, CryptoParties found their way all around the world. From one movement to the other, this anarchic spirit revealed its diversity, crossing generations and borders.
Anarchy in Action
Just as the Occupy movement was initiated by anarchists, the social habitat of networking in cyberspace appears to have been inspired by this same spirit. Creative actions of anarchy are found everywhere online. Without even knowing it, millions of people are already participating in this stream.
The Open Source Movement, an offshoot of the Free Software Movement emerged to promote collaborative production and free dissemination of information. Examples of important manifestations of Open Source Software that have benefited millions of people are projects like Linux, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and web browser Mozilla.
Wikipedia is unprecedented as a space where everyone can participate in developing the foundation of historical knowledge. Through voluntary collaborative processes, there emerge horizontal surges of creativity directed toward a common goal with no personal profit motive. This Wikipedia collaborative action evolved and inspired many different movements such as crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding used to fund other non-profit projects.
Similarly, social media links people together with the spirit of voluntary association and mutual aid. Instant information sharing and live-streams weave people in a network of citizen-led news media. This is quickly becoming a participatory process of understanding the world as it is happening. People tweet and retweet, post and share, modifying the original message, correcting errors before they are reported as fact. The advent of social media, with videos and photos is empowering people to bring out their creativity and collaborate for what they care about. Communication flows beyond borders and people access multiple views of events. Mathew Ingram, a senior writer with GigaOM opinedhow it “has already become a real-time newswire for many, a source of breaking news and commentary on live events”. The exploding popularity of online networks in this anarchic spirit is quickly replacing traditional print media and becoming the new global 4th Estate.
As noted earlier, Anarchism is often associated with chaos and lawlessness, but it does not mean lack of order, nor does it oppose all forms of governance. Those who cherish the idea of anarchy simply oppose the concept of domination; one particular person, political or religious view taking a centralized position of authority. Peer-to-peer networks are an expression of this anarchistic stance. They bypass centralized control of information and transform social relationships that in the past have typically been formed through hierarchy of class and professions. These peer-to-peer based connections are unprecedented in that they circumvent built-in filters in the flow of information.
The peer-to-peer communication model is developing as a primary mode of working with the Internet, where each person’s free choice to become a bridge is building communication avenues structurally so decentralized that they are virtually impossible to censor. They are meshed together, computer to computer, creating new pathways of freedom.
Peer-to-peer trends are implemented in many aspects of practical life. Working around the traditional centralized banking system, people at the grassroots level engage in peer-to-peer lending. Michael Bauwens, creator of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives revealed how a new form of innovation is emerging out of distributed peer-to-peer networks. He explained how P2P production is a byproduct of networked communities. Unlike the corporate model of internally funded R&D, this process engages individuals fully and often has better results as it gives them more access to the production process and more influence on the purpose and outcome. He noted how P2P production extends to direct action and participation, bringing the notion of democracy beyond a vague promise in the political realm to every aspect of our lives. With peer lending and production, why not create peer-to-peer currency? Bitcoin, digital money is one answer to this call.
The creation of this new digital currency is anarchistic, as it goes around centralized authority and the monopolized debt-based banking system. Morgen E. Peck summed upthe way Bitcoin works:
Bitcoin balances can flow between accounts without a bank, credit card company, or any other central authority knowing who is paying whom. Instead, Bitcoin relies on a peer-to-peer network, and it doesn’t care who you are or what you’re buying.
Recently, Bitcoin gained public attention by its usage in combating ongoing Wikileaks financial blockade. Forbes reported that following the massive release of US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union stopped processing transactions for them. In spite of this banking blockade, WikiLeaks gained substantial Bitcoin donations. This was a good example of effective use of open source digital currency in counteracting private centralized monetary control and economic censorship. Although it requires some improvement such as securing real anonymity, Bitcoin as a decentralized avenue of currency exchange is a successful and inherently anarchic concept aimed at reshaping economic society.
Below the surface of the Internet, a rapid transformation is under way. Peer-to-peer connections in cyberspace found their way onto the streets. With Mic Check and General Assembly, the people are coming together to create a circle. By looking each other in the eyes, they find one another anew as peers, equal partners and fellow citizens. It is not politicians and self proclaimed experts, but peers – ordinary fellow citizens that we have come to trust.
Wherever two or more gathered in the light of cooperation, there is the anarchistic spirit. This is the path of voluntary association and mutual aid where an unmediated partnership is born. Now, we are finding a new beginning in the resurgence of anarchism.
Continued on Part II
Brown, S. L. (1993). The politics of individualism: liberalism, liberal feminism and anarchism. New York: Black Rose.
Graeber, D. (2004). Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Sheehan, S. M. (2003). Anarchism. London: Reaktion Books.
Photo: A protestor with a US Dollar taped over his mouth to silence him and the words “#Ocupy” written across it. 2011. By Zoriah. Donate to independent photo-journalism.