Law in the Internet Society

Anarchy & Occupy Wall Street

-- By JohnJeffcott - 26 Oct 2011

Why are there *footnote numbers* here instead of simple link texts, John? The Web's not foreign terrain for you, and the markup has to be artificially made broken for you to achieve this effect. Why should hypertext pretend to be something else?


Because it is a “leaderless movement,” coverage of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has inevitably taken note of its anarchist traits (1)(2). This paper attempts to explore how anarchist principles were incorporated in the organization and structure of OWS, as well as the intersection of some aspects of OWS and Eben’s propositions regarding anarchist production and distribution of goods, with full awareness that OWS is not, in the most traditional sense, in the business of producing and distributing “goods.”

Initial Organization

A precise narrative of OWS’ beginnings is difficult, if not impossible, to find. Those narratives that have surfaced, though, share features worth noting, most notable among them the general assembly and consensus decisionmaking. Prior even to September 17, organizers of what would become OWS chose to shift deliberately away from vertical, hierarchical decisionmaking processes toward something more horizontal, in which all participants were equally empowered (recall the initial construction of the Internet) (3)(4). This may or may not have been necessary to mobilize as many people as did show up on September 17, but it is undoubtedly behind the movement’s continued success. For one, it demonstrates by example the plausibility of direct democracy, and that without making use of many of the myriad possible facilitating technologies now extant (hand signals are still the choice du jour for audience participation in the General Assembly). Then there’s the feeling of empowerment that attends this horizontal structure and the capacity it has invigorate and convert the casual observer into a full-blown participant. The initial organizers are rewarded for their “faith that freedom is contagious.” Additionally, the spirit behind these anarchist organizing principles manifests itself elsewhere in the nature of the movement.

Police Confrontation

Police departments, as a general rule, are structured in an opposite manner. That is, they are hierarchical to their core. I am admittedly not on solid ground in asserting this, but it seems to follow plausibly that the officers on the street are acting according to orders and plans established by the top brass. If we accept that anarchist methods of production produce greater quality goods in greater quantity when the marginal cost of those goods is zero, we might expect the plans of OWS protesters to, in some sense, outdo those of the police (after all, MC = 0 for ideas, right?).

Maybe. Though that's really a shallow metaphor. But the reason why it would start out not being true is that the police are repeat players on their territory: they have substantial accumulated experience in the management of political demonstrations and other forms of street occupation, so their planning has the advantage, at least initially, of drawing on much deeper historical experience.

And they have (5). Unable to account for the breadth of possible courses of action a leaderless, often factional movement might undertake, police officers get caught in the precarious situation of having to respond to scenarios not envisioned by their relatively small group of superiors, and the result is generally a win for OWS. The September 24 arrests and the Brooklyn Bridge arrests both arose out of situations in which the police were made to respond to unforeseen (even to many within OWS) circumstances, and both resulted in increased media coverage and national support because the police response was plainly less-than-ideal. Preliminarily, it appears that notions about the superiority of anarchist methods of production apply in non-economic contexts just as well, so long as something is being produced and its marginal cost is zero.

No, it shows that the primary asset of disruptive technologies and social movements based on them is the disruption itself. Moving an organization or individual adversary used to scripted structures or deploying long experienced strategies in familiar situations onto unexpected terrain deprives the adversary of planning advantages, as well as deriving the tactical benefits of surprise. So disruptors should behave disruptively, maximizing unfamiliarity and novelty to equalize their adversary's advantages away.

The People's Library

One of the interesting features of OWS is the communal library that sprung up on-site, known as the People’s Library (6). Though this is not the most suitable context in which to bring up propositions expressly contemplating zero marginal cost goods, OWS participants have in a small way artificially changed the marginal cost of books to zero through a system of sharing and returning. The inability to make simultaneous use of the same text is clearly still a shortcoming of the system, but even this problem has been cleverly ameliorated through the creation of a public reading series using wireless headphones. In any case, imperfect as the setting might be for purposes of this paper, information distribution still appears to be greatly improved in this small sphere as attested to anecdotally by various participants, quotations from whom are too numerous to need inclusion. And indeed, the imperfect setting gives rise to the question, “How can I make OWS and its library a more perfect laboratory for anarchist distribution of (arguably) non-functional goods?” The answer should be clear to this class: digitize the books. What hurdles may be involved in such an endeavor are beyond the scope of this paper, but thoughtful input here or elsewhere would be appreciated.

This seems to me an over-analyzed response to a fairly simple system of sharing. Here it is books, which are necessary to these people as food is, or shelter components, which are also shared.

General Assembly Struggles

Reportedly, the effectiveness of the General Assembly to make decisions, especially regarding how to distribute its unexpected half million dollars in donations, is increasingly being questioned and criticized by OWS participants (7)(8). This criticism of direct democracy is not novel. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 63 that what distinguishes the American government from its Ancient Greek and Roman counterparts is “the total exclusion of the people, in their collective capacity” (9). Madison’s words ring less true today when many states allow for ballot initiatives, but debate about whether even such limited forms of direct democracy are wise persists (10). OWS’ General Assembly, however, differs from both ancient governments and present forms of direct democracy in one key regard: It is not a blend of representative and direct democracy. There is no disconnect between the people and their representatives that requires bridging, out of which arises many of the complications of direct democratic process. Whether the OWS General Assembly will survive its present challenges and resist pressure toward verticality is unclear, but it has the flexibility of pure direct democracy on its side. Like the Internet before it, the General Assembly may discover the need to make the leap from single, horizontal network to a “network of networks.” How is a question to be answered collectively, so perhaps using some of that budget to adopt technology allowing the inexpensive-to-free distribution and reproduction of the people’s ideas is a wise place to start.

If this is political science, surely it would want to acknowledge the existence of more data about direct decisionmaking in non-hierarchical groups? Hunter-gatherer societies and mixed societies of the sort represented by most American indigenous cultures make many kinds of decisions in consensus structures, creating hunting chiefs or war chiefs by temporary delegation, and deciding matters in open counsel after extended debate. Why it is convenient to suppose (falsely) that "Iroquois" democracy had an effect on the design of American legislatures, and yet fail to see that tribes operating on what we would now call "anarchist" premises governed this continent for thousands of years, I have no idea.


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r4 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:16 - IanSullivan
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