Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Revolutionary /b/astards (Part II)

In the first part of this article, I began a discussion of how 4chan has begun to shape our political discourse. That post was very much about the mainstream--sorry, no Hipster Kitty joke--both in terms of American politics and in terms of internet culture. Yes, it was about dissent, but it was about protests and demonstrations, subversion and satire, all of which fall well within the commonly accepted range of American political behavior. The rights to free speech and assembly are constitutionally protected and largely unquestioned, whether your placards quote Thomas Paine or Antoine Dodson.

But there are less universally accepted (read: illegal) forms of dissent. American history has produced a number of these radical dissenters, and they are particularly likely to appear during a pivotal moment of political upheaval. The Abolitionism had John Brown. The early progressive period had militant anarchists. The Civil Rights Movement had the Black Panthers. And we have Anonymous.

It may seem a stretch to compare the actions of a group of hackers and internet pranksters to the raid on Harper's Ferry. of course, there are some significant differences between Anonymous and past political radicals, not the least of which is their medium. But there are also some significant similarities.

Anonymous didn't pioneer the prankster-radical persona. In 1968, Abbie Hoffman and his Yippie cohorts presented a pig as a presidential candidate during their protest of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This was only shortly before these same protests devolved into riots that lead to the arrest and trial of Abbie and seven others. Like Hoffman and Co., Anonymous occupies the space between lawful, comedic subversion and acts of sudden mass trespass. Compare the trial of the Chicago Seven to the recent raids on the homes of Anonymous members* believed to be involved in denial of service attacks as a protest in solidarity with Wikileaks.

An even tighter parallel to Anonymous can be found in The Weather Underground. The Weather Underground, which emerged from the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, was responsible for a series of bombings during the 70s. Like Anonymous, they were a group of mostly young adult dissenters who were loosely organized and protective of their identities. Also like Anonymous, they followed their attacks with group-authored manifestos, and often acted as a show of solidarity with other groups or as a response to current events. And, once again like Anonymous, they managed to simultaneously pursue publicity and cherish secrecy. Both organizations focus their attacks on the infrastructure of their enemies--buildings, websites--rather than on human lives. Really, there could be an entire article devoted just to expanding on these similarities.

What might be most interesting though is how Anonymous has managed to evolved answers to some of the most difficult challenges faced by the Weathermen (and other earlier groups of dissenters).

One huge problem for the Weatherman was the possibility for human casualties. Lost lives would have been a public relations disaster for an anti-war group that had already been labeled as a terrorist organization. The Weathermen countered this by phoning in warnings in advance of their bombings. But this, obviously, was not a perfect solution. A building might not be evacuated in time, or some other accident might lead to someone being killed or injured in the explosion. (As it turned out, the only casualty of a Weather Underground bomb was a member of the group who was killed when a device exploded prematurely.) There is also the violence inherent in the use of explosives, which in and of itself undermined their peaceful message.

Anonymous' tactics, meanwhile, present no threat of death or injury, and damage only the infrastructure of their targets. While illegal, denial of service attacks and other acts of internet disruption, are totally nonviolent.

Another, more obvious, problem that Anonymous avoids is that of their namesake: anonymity. The threat of infiltration was always very real for the Weathermen and other similar groups. There was only so much they could do to hide their identities, and, ultimately, the physical nature of their actions demanded face-to-face contact, both in organizing and execution. Meanwhile, Anonymous members still have to worry about being traced and discovered--as the raids mentioned above prove--but they can act with no physical contact with other members, no names exchanged, and no voices heard.

With all of this in mind, I think we can see Anonymous for what they are: An evolution of old forms of political dissent and rebellion, a modern reinvention of old school radicalism. And I think their existence--and their ideology, with its heavy emphasis on free information--gives us some indication of the conflicts that may define our politics in the (perhaps near) future.

*I use the term "members" loosely here, since Anonymous has no formal membership.


  1. "*I use the term "members" loosely here, since Anonymous has no formal membership."

    And with this, much of the post contradicts itself. Although the persona of a tricker rebel might not be new, the idea that it can happen from a collective identity and provide absolution of personal responsibility, or at least a layer of safety and security, IS new, and IS revolutionary. Furthermore, the weatherman and yippes had to agree on a collective set of values - the physical nature of their rebellion required a personal relationship, and therefore required a deeper agreement and shared goal between members. Annon is also much more unique in that it is essentially a gun for hire for causes that catch it's member's attention. Not always for good for that matter.

  2. Those are valid points, but:

    1. I wasn't arguing that Anonymous was only an return to an old style of rebellion, just that significant parallels exist between Anonymous and old school radical groups. Indeed, there are some things about Anbonymous that are unique, and I mention some of that uniqueness later in the post.

    2. The "collective identity" you mention is expressed in a very new way by Anonymous, but it's not purely a new thing. It actually has its roots in groups like the Weather Underground that acted both collectively and anonymously. Whereas the informal, totally decentralized membership that you pick up on, while not true of the Yippies and the Weather Underground, actually does have some precedent in other radical organizations. Al Qaeda, for example, is really just a label that can be freely adopted by individual cells with no true formal structure, much like the Anonymous identity.

    4. Anonymous does have certain shared values. The big, overriding one is the belief that information is free and should be freely available. Most of their high profile targets--Scientology, the banks that wouldn't make transfers to Wikileaks, etc.--were chosen because of these beliefs.

    5. I'm not making any moral judgments in this post. I'm not saying that the actions of Anonymous or Abbie Hoffman or the Yippies or the Weathermen or even John Brown were right or justified or moral. I'm just pointing out similarities and drawing conclusions from those similarities.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Oh, you made one really good point that I totally failed to acknowledge:

    You pointed out that Anonymous, unlike the other groups mentioned, is sometimes totally personal in motivation. You called them a "hired gun."

    A group that uses the same collective identity for both highly political and highly personal causes is fairly unique, as far as I know. The fact that Anonymous can act in solidarity with Wikileaks one day and hack a facebook account in search of nude photographs the next is an interesting result of the dislocation of identity and responsibility that you mention.

    So, yes, there are certainly differences.

  4. Good, thought provoking post. I think we need to think about how the nature of protest has shifted in the postmodern world, too, from a "modern" to a "postmodern" one. After the 60s protest, the protest movement split into these rights, identity based protests. Women were concerned with women's rights, gays with gay rights, etc. This isn't necessarily bad, but it's a reality. Culturally, we more often then not think of ourselves as these more discrete interest groups. The rights of women and gays, for example, are rarely conflated, even though we could most likely make that argument that these groups have issues in common. It coincides with more "choice" in the market place for various identities and entertainment.

    Plus, as more of our lives is defined by our online activities, it is no surprise that the internet becomes an organizing feature of protest, as well as our social life. The question is what kind of group is Anonymous, regarding their political aims. Are they speaking for a larger cross section of American culture, or are they tied to, say, the open source movement, the free software movement, or what? Are they just taking advantage for attention, or do they have a coherent political identity of some kind? If so, what is it? If not, what can we say of them collectively as a political bloc?