From Occupy to Wikileaks, the anarchist spirit of leaderless resistance, decentralized decision-making and autonomous self-governance, is rising.
Photo: Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org
In the 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 a marginalized discourse to the center. At Zuccotti Park, with a library and kitchen, a cooperative community arose with open spaces for sharing and mutual aid.
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 the uprising on Wall Street was similarly 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. Just because it is less visible doesn’t mean Occupy is dead.
Occupy’s Anarchistic Impulse
Despite police efforts 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, anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years – was one of the activists involved in the creation of the General Assembly (GA) at Zuccotti Park, which was the gestation of the Occupy movement’s model of horizontal decision-making. Graeber has describedanarchism as a form of social organization that embraces direct democracy and a form of self-governance without hierarchy. In Graeber’s vision, “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 has shown how anarchist principles are at the very heart of the Occupy Movement, particularly its commitment to the leaderless, consensus-based decision-making model practiced in the GA. He has pointed in particular to the movement’s effort to stay autonomous and independent from the extant institutions of representative democracy. This autonomous spirit manifests itself through direct action, which Graeber characterizes as “the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”
In his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Graeber 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 (EZLN) and their revolt in Chiapas. The Zapatistas’ rejection of the idea of seizing power and their creation of an autonomous self-government inspired movements throughout Mexico and the rest of the world.
Graeber deliberately connects the dots, showing how the democratic practice of the Zapatistas led to the “This is what democracy looks like” moment in the Battle of Seattle, providing a glimpse of anarchist-inspired direct 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 (2004:83).
A decade later, OWS felt like a revival of the Global Justice Movement and the 1999 uprising in Seattle. Occupy’s spirit of horizontal decision-making and decentralized mobilization emerged spontaneously instead of being the result of centralized coordination or the guidance of a single charismatic leader. The culture of Occupy is a leaderless one, something which profoundly worries the authorities and their Conservative and Liberal intelligentsia in the press.
“If there is no leader, then that’s chaos — that’s anarchy!” exclaimed Stephen Colbert in a mock-debate with Carne Ross, author of The Leaderless Revolution. Colbert pontificated on how he wanted stability and certainty about the next day’s profits. His tongue-in-cheek comment summed up the mainstream response to an imagination that moves beyond the current free-market-winner-takes-all social structure. In response, Ross noted how the status quo is itself profoundly unstable and that it is capitalism which produces chaos.
A similar sentiment arose within the movement itself, creating some internal conflict. Mark Binelli of the Rolling Stone has shed light on the tensions within OWS between those holding firm to anarchist principles by refusing to allow top-down structures of coordination and decision-making. Binelli 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.
“Anarchy is the Mother of Order”
Historically, the word anarchism has often been portrayed in a negative light for political aims. The term anarchy has long been associated with chaos and violence, depicted as mob rule with no coherent demands except for a chaotic dismantling of the existing social order. With the general state of ignorance surrounding the idea of anarchism, the very word itself has become susceptible to extensive government and media manipulation.
Sean Sheehan, the non-anarchist author of the book Anarchism, has elucidated how anarchism’s re-emergence in Seattle at the end of 1999 helped propel it onto the world stage. With the media focusing on broken Starbucks and Nike windows, sensationalizing the vandalism of a tiny minority, the massive peaceful rallies in downtown Seattle were overshadowed by negative and false media portrayal. The mainstream perversion of the word anarchism was widely disseminated.
Once again, in the rise of Occupy, peaceful protesters were regularly portrayed in this negative light by the press. The media deliberately generated an ungrounded fear of the movement within the general public, despite the fact that its true nature and aims were precisely to peacefully resist the systemic violence and market chaos of contemporary financialized capitalism. After all, as Proudhon always emphasized, the “O” in the anarchist symbol stands for “Order”.
The FBI has also been attempting to brand occupiers with this demonizing image of violent anarchists, a term now treated by the US government as virtually synonymous with the term terrorist. In Chicago, during the NATO summit in May, Chicago police entrapped activists by having FBI informants provide bomb-making materials to them. 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 their militarized abuse of power. Recently, new evidence has surfaced of police infiltration inside the Occupy movement. In Austin last December, an undercover police officer was involved in setting up occupiers with felony charges by distributing devices that were later considered weapons.
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 clearly displayed the establishment’s cognitive framework of being involved in a witch-hunt on activists. The case study document entitled “Tartan Quantifying Influence” spoke of data mining software meant to enhance ‘national security’, enacted through a kind of political profiling that clearly lumped together all progressive activists with the new bogeyman label of ‘anarchist’ that assumes, a priori, a certainly predisposal towards violent and/or illegal actions. The Tartan data listed the activists of Occupy Oakland, citizen journalism networks like Citizen Radio, and even a PBS station as “influential leaders”.
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 bring about chaos through the overthrow of ‘democratic’ government? Anarchist Susan Brown (1993) demystified some of these 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) traces back the word anarchism back to its Greek roots:
The etymology of the word – anarchism meaning the “absence of leaders”, 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 the online magazine Death and Taxes, cautioned the public regarding the government’s active promotion of hysteria through the prediction that violent anarchists would disturb the Republican and Democratic Conventions. Pangburn reminded the people of who have historically been the real anarchists:
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 the weekend and the 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 refer to chaos or the absence of rules. It simply indicates a society in which authority is not defined by hierarchy and power over individual autonomy. It calls for the direct participation and the ongoing engagement of citizens with creating an inclusive form of decision-making and an egalitarian form of social organization.
The Occupy movement opened up a space for public discourse that, in the last 20-30 years, has gradually been taken over by corporate actors. 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, desperate to keep things as they are.
People often ask how a society could be organized without centralized control and hierarchy. But once the initial, highly stylized and negative image of anarchism is debunked and the nonviolent and decentralized nature of the model is understood, some might still feel that the world imagined by these free thinkers is simply impossible or unrealistic. And yet the core principles that anarchists try to bring about in society already exist all around us in our everyday lives.
As we move deeper into the new millennium, many sensse that 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 of consciousness brought about in great part by the internet, an inherently decentralized communication platform that has led to a networked revolt.
The very existence of the internet signifies a triumph of connectivity over isolation, free flow over the control of information, and sharing over ownership. Before the Occupy movement emerged in the streets, squares and parks of the world, millions already occupied the global square of the internet. The miniature culture based on egalitarian ways of collaboration that blossomed in the early stages of Occupy, had already been thriving on the web for many years.
This is the generation of the internet, connected to a world that is now just a click away; a generation that saw its reality captured in the metaphors and images of the Wachowski brothers’ film, The Matrix. As 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 much like the modern corporate state we all live in, where the biopower of commercial interests has taken over so much of our lives and torn the delicate interconnectedness out of the fabric of life itself. Intellectual property rights 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 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) are all part of an artificially-made world order in which a tiny minority quite literally feeds parasitically off the vast majority of humanity.
Just like Neo, we have already taken the red pill and chose not to go back to ‘reality’. By plugging into a universal online network, each and every culture has collectively gone through a kind of virtual rite of passage without realizing what they were getting into — or just how deep the rabbit hole might go.
From screen to screen across the vast internet, the centralized structures of outer society are rapidly melting away. Here is a world free from traditional boundaries and rules. In the digital space, this new field of pure potential is paved with online connections and shared visions among human beings from all corners of the globe.
At first, this digital space appeared as a lawless Wild Wild West without borders. Nobody owned the Internet. It was a field of potential that could evolve in countless unknown directions.
Over time, digital pioneers created their own rules of coding and programming that stretched traditional boundaries and limitations. In this early stage, computer programmers were like the first settlers of an online borderless land. Richard Stallman, the programmer and cyber-guru, worked with other computer-savvy fellows to develop a set of principles through which new forms of coding could be designed to ensure that the digital commons stayed open. Stallman later instigated the Free Software Movement to maintain a stream of source code outside of 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 the rights of developers and users to maintain control, both individually and collectively, over the invention and improvement of software that cannot be locked-down by vested interests. The goal is to fight against surveillance, digital restrictions management (DRM) and backdoors activities that serve private interests by making changes to a program or installing intentionally malicious software.
What drove Stallman’s endeavor was part of the so-called ‘Hacker Ethics’ – the commitment to unlimited access to computers and internet, free flow of information and a general sense of mistrust of authority. These hacker ethics are fundamentally anarchistic in their commitment to decentralization and in their deeply anti-authoritarian views.
Stallman’s work influenced individuals like Julian Assange of Wikileaks, especially through his association with a group known as the Cypherpunks, which originated with an electronic mailing list set up to tackle the challenges of internet security and the development of cryptography.
Episode 8 and Episode 9 of Assange’s syndicated interview show, The World Tomorrow, focused on three 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 online threats, internet privacy, censorship bills, repressive anti-piracy laws, and the future of the internet as such.
As a result of the sophisticated discourse that emerged from the information revolution, unique philosophical views arose on the meaning of freedom, forms of governance, and the individual’s relationship to society more generally. In Episode 8 of his show, Assange described how Cypherpunks worked to provide the cryptographic tools with which one can independently and effectively challenge government interference, to help people take control their own lives.
In Episode 9, Jérémie Zimmermann spoke about the recent tendency towards centralization in 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 a 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 the value of individual privacy and freedom. The methods developed to secure these values were inherently non-violent. By expanding the laws of mathematics, these cyber-activists developed encrypted code that no level of state violence could break.
In the process, these frontier hacktivists inspired and empowered an entire 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, the idea of CryptoParties was born from a Twitter discussion. A Wiki-page was set up recently that defines CryptoParties as “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 inception, described how CryptoParties 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 another, this anarchist spirit revealed its diversity, crossing generations and boundaries.
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 manifestations of anarchy-in-action are found everywhere online. Without even knowing it, millions of people are already participating in this flow.
The Open Source Movement, an offshoot of the Free Software Movement, emerged to promote the 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 a horizontal surge of creativity directed toward a common goal with no personal profit motive. This collaborative action of Wikipedia 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 unfolds. People tweet and re-tweet, 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.
As a result, communication flows beyond borders and people have access to multiple perspectives on unfolding events. Mathew Ingram, a senior writer with GigaOM opined how this development “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 “Fourth 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 a perfect expression of this anarchist 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 helps to build communication avenues that are so decentralized that they are virtually impossible to censor. They are meshed together, computer to computer, creating new pathways through which freedom and autonomy can flow.
Peer-to-peer trends are implemented in many aspects of daily life. Circumventing the traditional centralized banking system, people at the grassroots level are increasingly engaging in peer-to-peer lending. Michael Bauwens, creator of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives has revealed how a new form of innovation is emerging out of distributed peer-to-peer networks. He explained how P2P production is itself a byproduct of networked communities.
Unlike the corporate model of internally funded research and development (R&D), this P2P process fully engages individuals 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 daily lives. With peer lending and production, why not create a peer-to-peer currency? Bitcoin, digital money, is one answer to this call.
The creation of this new digital currency is at its very core an anarchistic initiative, as it circumvents the centralized authority of central banks and the monopolized debt-based banking system. Morgen E. Peck summed up the way Bitcoin works as follows:
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 through its usage in combating the ongoing financial blockade of Wikileaks. 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 to them. In spite of this banking blockade, Wikileaks has gained substantial Bitcoin donations. This is a good example of the effective use of open source digital currency in counteracting private centralized monetary control and economic censorship. Although it still requires some improvements, such as securing real anonymity, BitCoin is a successful and inherently anarchistic concept aimed at reshaping economic interactions and providing decentralized avenues of exchange and money-creation.
Below the surface of the internet, a rapid transformation is underway. Peer-to-peer connections in cyberspace found their way onto the streets. With Mic Checks and General Assemblies, 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 gather 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, at last, we find ourselves at the beginning of a resurgence of the anarchist spirit.
Continued in 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.
* Facebook: National-Anarchist Movement (N-AM)