Is Anonymous our Future?

Nathan Schneider Jan 31, 2012

The enigmatic Internet-driven collective Anonymous, thank goodness, has an anthropologist in its midst. For a few years now, Gabriella Coleman has been arduously participant-observing in IRC chat rooms, watching Anonymous turn from a prankster moniker to a herd of vigilantes for global justice. In an extraordinary new essay at Triple Canopy, “Our Weirdness Is Free,” she summarizes what Anonymous is all about this way:

Beyond a foundational commitment to anonymity and the free flow of information, Anonymous has no consistent philosophy or political program. Though Anonymous has increasingly devoted its energies to (and become known for) digital dissent and direct action around various “ops,” it has no definite trajectory. Sometimes coy and playful, sometimes macabre and sinister, often all at once, Anonymous is still animated by a collective will toward mischief—toward “lulz,” a plural bastardization of the portmanteau LOL (laugh out loud). Lulz represent an ethos as much as an objective.

The more I learn about Anonymous, especially in light of the offline, on-the-ground praxis of the Occupy movement, the more I’ve been wondering whether we’re seeing a glimpse of the future for all of us.

Here’s why. Over the past couple of years, as Anons became lulled—pun intended—into politics through their Scientology, Wikileaks, and Arab Spring operations, the lulz ethos has turned into a mode of movement-building. And it’s a movement that appears singularly scary to the powers that be, from globalized corporations to the governments of superpowers, despite (or perhaps because of) the Anons’ apparent disorganization and probably in excess of their actual capacity:

Political operations often come together haphazardly. Often lacking an overarching strategy, Anonymous operates tactically, along the lines proposed by the French Jesuit thinker Michel de Certeau. “Because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time—it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized ‘on the wing,’” he writes in The Practice of Everyday Life (1980). “Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into ‘opportunities.’ The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them.” This approach could easily devolve into unfocused operations that dissipate the group’s collective strength. But acting “on the wing” leverages Anonymous’s fluid structure, giving Anons an advantage, however temporary, over traditional institutions—corporations, states, political parties—that function according to unified plans.

This bears striking resemblance to the activist framework of “diversity of tactics” that has prevailed in the Occupy movement, which emphasizes fostering dexterity and decentralization (as well as, relevantly, permissiveness toward “black blocs” of masked crusaders). But Anonymous’ allergy to unified planning isn’t limited to tactics; it extends to overall strategy and even ultimate purpose. Continues Coleman:

While Anonymous has not put forward any programmatic plan to topple institutions or change unjust laws, it has made evading them seem easy and desirable. To those donning the Guy Fawkes mask associated with Anonymous, this—and not the commercialized, “transparent” social networking of Facebook—is the promise of the Internet, and it entails trading individualism for collectivism.

In fact, Anonymous bespeaks a collective recognition that’s fueling uprisings from Lagos to Bucharest: the kinds of governments we have in place actually have little capacity for addressing the longings we have for freedom and collectivity in a globalizing, digital age. The reason both Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street don’t put forward “any programmatic plan” that existing institutions could follow is that there isn’t one. Or, rather, the movements themselves are their own programmatic plan, parallel institutions unto themselves.

One of the things that amazed me during the first weeks of Occupy Wall Street was that, as the movement spread to occupations all around the country and the world, they were so similar to one another; all took direct democracy as the basic unit of political legitimacy, and prided themselves on a decentralized, horizontal structure, and discouraged credit-taking and self-aggrandizement. How did people all over the U.S. and the world know how to Occupy, and so quickly? Their preparedness can at least partly be attributed to the veterans of the global justice movement of a decade ago who flocked to the occupations. But perhaps even more significant an influence among the younger occupiers was the experience some of them had had with Anonymous and groups like it online.

Coleman explains the resemblances:

One of Occupy Wall Street’s most powerful gestures has been to position its radically democratic decision-making process, represented by the agora of the General Assembly, against the reining corporate kleptocracy. Though this brand of horizontalism has a rich history with many roots, there is a particularly strong resonance in the relationship between the formal structure and the political aspirations of Anonymous. And Anonymous is organized not only around a radical democratic (at times chaotic and anarchic) structure but also around the very concept of anonymity, here constituted as collectivity. The accumulation of too much power—especially in a single point in (virtual) space—and prestige is not only taboo but functionally very difficult. The lasting effect of Anonymous may have as much to do with facilitating alternative practices of sociality—upending the ideological divide between individualism and collectivism—as with attacks on monolithic banks and sleazy security firms.

As Mary King has so often pointed out in her columns on Waging Nonviolence, the form that a resistance movement takes has a big effect on the society that emerges after it, especially if the movement has some amount of success. The preoccupation with process and internal culture in both Anonymous and the Occupy movement, therefore, has justifiably high stakes. With that in mind, in a new essay on the Harper’s website, I try to extrapolate from texts approved by various Occupy assemblies what a post-revolutionary Planet Occupy might look like.

I see no quick-and-easy legislative, executive, or judicial patches for the problems which the movement means to confront. I’ve come to think, instead, that the movement’s lasting contribution could be something substantially more ambitious: a wholesale rethinking of political life, more akin to the promulgation of revolutionary France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen than, say, the introduction of a financial-transaction tax or the revocation of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

So, brace yourself. In the meantime, make haste to Coleman’s essay at Triple Canopy.

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.


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