Thursday, November 17, 2011

Identity Crisis

Well, I went off the grid for a few days, only to return to concerted attempts to shut down the #Occupy encampments across the world. These efforts range from the civilly legal (as in Vancouver) to the heavy-handed & legally gray (in New York City) to the unconscionably brutal (in Berkeley, California). Though these developments threaten the very existence of movement, I've sufficient faith - however slight - that the protesters will not go gentle in that good night. I began typing up the following spiel late last week, and have completed it on the assumption that the Occupations will survive well beyond this week...

The greatest threat to any movement that is not fascist in nature is itself. The greatest threat to the #Occupy movement is not the conceited scorn of Reichwing TV pundits, nor the rubber bullets & billy-clubs of the Oakland police, but the yawning void where its ideological & strategic nucleus should be. By its desire to be omnivorously inclusive & inoffensive, the movement has voluntarily sacrificed almost all political radicality: it refuses grand statements, hamstrings direct engagement, and declines to make transformative demands. This timidity has left the movement exposed to an influential, charismatic element that will - for better or worse - come to define the movement itself.

While I've a grudging respect for the hacktivist swarm Anonymous, I can't say I particularly trust them. I don't trust acephalic crowds in general. "People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can't trust people." Especially people who've chosen, as their anarchosyndicalist hood ornament, the corporate depiction of a mercenary Papist who attempted to establish an English theocracy. Well thought out, indeed.

At the same time, I think the power & influence of Anonymous as a sociopolitical actor is vastly overstated. That's not gloating on my part: I'm sympathetic to many of Anonymous' operations and wish them greater success against bigots, child predators, and oppressive regimes. But despite their best efforts, Scientology, Bank of America, Koch Industries, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Robert Mugabe, and Bashar al-Assad are all going strong. Also, last month's abortive dust-up with barbarous Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas proved that Anonymous balks (sensibly) at crossing the line where Situationist prankterism ends and shit gets really, really real.

Still, where ever someone flips the bird to the Powers That Be, Anonymous will appear post-haste. Their stylized Guy Fawkes masks are the most recognizable non-textual symbol of the Occupy movement, inspiring numerous think pieces on the polysterene disguise. The masks serve to unify an operation that is polyglot, decentralized, and manifold in its provincial complaints - which is both beneficial and detrimental to the movement. Symbolically, the mask creates a sense of international solidarity amongst the protesters. But in a practical context, the masks encourage & enable deindividuation.

For those of you who haven't the time to peruse works of Philip Zimbardo, I'd point you to Derren Brown's recent special, The Game Show, a succinct & dismaying experiment in mob mentality. As Brown explains:
[Deindividuation] is what happens when people become anonymous members of a crowd, which allows them to behave in a way that goes against their moral code. It's a large part of what turns normal people into internet bullies, rioters, football hooligans, and encourages reality TV audiences to victimize contestants.
This deconstruction of a subject's sense of personal responsibility begins as the individual becomes physically subsumed in a large group, and is aggravated by even the simplest disguising of their personal features - say, a black hoodie, bandana mask, or the plastic semblance of Guy Fawkes.

Obviously, this poses a very big problem for those within the Occupy movement who want to keep their disobedience civil. By having tacitly joined forces with Anonymous, and for having allowed the porcelain-toned moustachioed trickster to become the movement archetype, Occupy has made a bargain that Faust would find foolishly short-sighted: Occupy have embraced the very element most likely to engage in the "irresponsible", "reckless", "anti-social" behavior that would cost the movement the majority-approval it so desperately craves. I'm not talking about the errant asshole who can be purged or pacified by some new-age group-hug intervention; I'm not even saying the loudest mouth wins the argument. I'm saying that within the movement is a subsect that can - autonomously, collectively, and suddenly - react in a manner at odds with group consensus.

Lest anyone fear I'm exaggerating the hooliganish potential of Anonymous in the context of popular protest, I refer you to this trailer for the upcoming documentary on hacktivism's reigning cabal which deliberately and repeatedly mixes & matches images of "orthodox" Fawkes-masked Anonymous members and Black Bloc anarcho-delinquents. Evidently, even to their ostensible supporters & media boosters, the two are interchangeable.

Now, I'm not saying that Anonymous' volatility & potential for hard resistance are a bad thing. As Disaster Notes explained earlier, it's still very early days for Occupy yet it's already minimizing its more radical ententes in favour of some latté-hipster version of Satyagraha. In light of recent developments, the movement's apparent commitment to moderation could very well prove suicidal. Several weeks ago, the Oakland PD's attack on protesters was a one-off aberration after six peaceful & dignified weeks, allowing Occupiers to feel smug with the relative ease of their success thus far:
While the cops may have the guns I think they’re starting to realize they don’t have the power - they’re on the wrong side of history. When they start seeing their neighbors, children and parents standing in the front lines of the OWS movement, their loyalties will shift and shift swiftly.
But now the riot gear's out, court injunctions are flying, and the streets are foggy with tear gas and pepper spray. It would behoove the #Occupy movement to remember that it's up against the full authoritarian might of oligarchs who start wars to boost their GDP, cheered by a complicit media and a frighteningly large portion of the selfish, consumerist public. Unleashing Anonymous & the Black Bloc may be a PR nightmare - Occupy's "nuclear option" - but it's an option the movement needs available to them.

The perennial exemplar of successful civil disobedience is Mohandas Gandhi's struggle for Indian independence, but what's often forgotten is that along the way there were not only arrests & usual brutality directed at protesters, but whole campaigns of violent harassment and murder. Not to mention that Gandhi's nonviolent efforts were reinforced & underscored by many acts of violent revolt against state authority. Consequently, neither side can claim victory by their efforts alone, nor could either have succeeded without the effective support of the other. The de facto slogan of every popular uprising is that famous quote apocryphally attributed to Gandhi:
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
It would appear that Occupy has graduated to the stage wherein they are being fought. As unpalatable as Anonymous & the Black Bloc may be to the more genteel members of the movement, it may serve them well to have comrades who are more than willing to fight back.


JM said...

Have you read Louis Proyect's thoughts on Black Blocs?:

Jack Crow said...

Thank you. I loathe that stupid Fawkes mask.

JM said...

Here's some pretty good thoughts on Demands(especially look at the comments section for the discussion on inclusion):

Jeffrey said...

"At the same time, I think the power & influence of Anonymous as a sociopolitical actor is vastly overstated."

Power to affect positive change? Almost none. Power to do serious damage? Almost unlimited.