Swarm Wall Street: why an anti-political movement is the most important force on the planet

Why are people occupying Wall Street? The US political elite and mainstream media don’t know what to make of it. ‘Anti-capitalist and unAmerican’, says Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, echoing the sentiments of the conservative left and political right. The mainstream commentariat, when it dares to peer closer, paints an unflattering picture of disaffected, disorganized youth, milling about Liberty Square without a shower or a set of policy demands to level at the administration.

Meanwhile the occupation grows day by day.

If camp in Manhattan makes the doyens of the status quo feel nervous, the explosion of Occupy Together events across the US last weekend will have sent anxiety levels through the roof. There were ‘Occupy’ camps in 70 cities across the nation last weekend. More events are planned for the coming days and weeks in the US and other countries.

Political leaders must be wondering what is going on. (‘Who are these kids? Would they vote for me?’) To be fair, it is difficult to say exactly what the the protesters want. They have no single message or identity. They represent, they claim, the 99% who are excluded by the standing political and economic system (the top 1% of the US population owns 40% of the wealth). The way the movement has accelerated seems to follow the pattern set in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world earlier this year: a hardened contingent of dissidents occupy public space; footage of their mistreatment by police is disseminated via Facebook and Twitter; this consolidates the sense of injustice and inequality that inspired their actions in the first place.

Last week, the movement crossed a threshold. A localized set of swarm events evolved into a distributed swarm network.

OccupyWallStreet is a new kind of political movement. The fact that the protesters have not leveled any political demands is significant. They are allowing the 99% to define the movement in their own way, creating a clamor of grievances that works surprisingly well to consolidate actions. In fact, the protesters are refusing to engage in traditional political action per se. They have no desire to follow the Tea Party’s lead, starting with mass rallies and using them to enlist representatives to sign petitions, spearhead door knocking campaigns, put pressure on elected officials, and so on. Matt Stoller rightly describes OccupyWallStreet as ‘anti-political’. To be precise: the movement is political, but this is a different kind of politics, which seeks to circumnavigate the tactics and fora of established political action.

This is a point that many commentators fail to appreciate. Lawrence Lessig, for example, wonders if OccupyWallStreet might be the movement to ‘call out’ and clean up the US Congress.

[The aim of] #OccupyWallSt should be to call out this corruption, and unite a movement across the nation to demand that we change the system that permits this corruption. This is the root in Thoreau’s “there are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one striking at the root.” This movement could be that one.

This is hoping for too much – and too little. It seems patronizing to assume that the fate of this ‘anti-political’ movement is to acquiesce to political reality and allow itself to be focused into a weapon for those fighting a well-known enemy on a familiar terrain. No doubt there are people in the Occupy movement who will heed Lessig’s call and apply themselves to the task of cleaning up Congress. But to see this as the destiny of the movement is to underestimate the power of the movement itself. To understand the true potential of the Occupy movement, we need to reflect on how the collective voice of the protesters is giving shape to a new vision of political culture, reigniting the hopes and dreams of those who are paying attention to it, in the US and elsewhere.

OccupyWallStreet is not a political movement in the traditional sense. It is a countercultural swarm. We need to see it as a swarm to understand why people are drawn to it, and what makes it the most important political force on the planet today.

The traditional job of social movements is to present a collective challenge to political institutions in the name of freedom, justice, or rights. The most powerful movements of the 20th century were identity-based movements, which created huge mobile blocks of power by gathering the oppressed and disenfranchised of the earth under the flag of united identities: workers, women, blacks, the colonized, and so on. ‘We, the oppressed X, gather together to challenge the forces amassed against us’. This is the logic of the ‘new’ social movements of the late 20th century. The new social movements profoundly reshaped Western societies. Notably, however, they didn’t achieve this by transforming the operating system of these societies: liberal capitalism. These movements ‘called out’ liberal capitalism and insisted that it operates in a manner consistent with its founding principles, ensuring rights and opportunities for all. In doing so, they improved life for a large proportion of society. But, at the same time, they consolidated liberal capitalism by demonstrating how inclusive and adaptable the operating system could be.

It is not my intention to demean or diminish the achievements of the new social movements. My point is that these movements have political limits, set by the system that they chose to work within. We see the limits of these movements when we compare and contrast the way that they shape the identities of their members with swarm movements. Simplifying a little, we can say that traditional movements shape and transform their member’s identities in the following way: first, by orienting thought in relation to a (mostly negative and critical) ‘cognitive map’ of how things work (referring to the capitalist system, patriarchy, the military-industrial complex, colonialism, or the coldest of cold monsters, the state); second, corralling identity in terms of a unitary social class or group (workers, women, ‘the youth’, gays, the oppressed, etc); and finally, by activating the movement by steering its energies towards contesting established political and legal structures.

Joe Brewer’s fourfold model of situated identity provides a useful tool for mapping this process of identity transformation. The process looks like this:

Swarm movements shape identity in a completely different way. First off, they are are issue- or cause-based, rather than identity-based, movements. Instead of seeking to reduce the movement to a single set of grievances representing the struggles of a single group identity, swarm movements affirm the diversity of participants as their fundamental strength. This diversity is irreducible to a single identity, but it is powerful when focused on a common cause. A recent post on the Occupy Together Facebook page underscores this idea:

‘We should remember that there are many voices in this movement and as much diversity among the protesters as there is in 99% of our population. These different backgrounds, philosophies, and affiliations can and should come together under a single cause: to end the corporate greed, corruption, and interference that has affected all of us’.

A second point of difference between traditional and swarm movements concerns what these movements seek to achieve. Traditional movements focus on challenging and changing institutions. The goals of these movements are thus extrinsic to the movements themselves: they are achieved as a result of movement activity. Swarms can (and usually do) set extrinsic goals. Their primary goal, however, is to sustain the critical mass that holds the network together. As a result, movement activity is focused more on the intrinsic goal of empowering the swarm than any extrinsic goal the movement might hope to achieve. This can make swarms look unfocused from an external point of view. But within the movement, conditions tend to be highly conducive for participation. Swarm movements are intrinsically empowering and thus intrinsically rewarding for participants. Ultimately, participants do not need to look beyond the act of participation for a reason to join the swarm. Swarming is its own reward; the payoff is the empowerment that comes from swarming.

The intrinsic nature of swarm movements makes them hard to understand from an external perspective. Commentators like Lessig, who are familiar with a more traditional style of movement, often feel compelled to fabricate or imagine extrinsic goals in order to overcome the cognitive dissonance they experience surveying a mass social activity that doesn’t play by traditional rules. But the more we look for extrinsic goals, the further get from understanding what really inspires swarm activity. Swarms are based in a common sense of potential. What catalyzes a swarm movement is the sense that here, today, a new way of working and living together is possible.

Swarms are transformative movements. Insofar as members acknowledge a common sense of  identity, it is a transformative identity, a sense of being part of a movement that is changing the world.

We can map the logic of the identity shift involved in swarm movements as follows. First, a mass of people acquire a new cognitive map, representing an original conception of what they can achieve together as a network. The cognitive maps that inspire OccupyWallStreet and Occupy Together resonate with innovations in the online world. OccupyWallStreet is an ‘open space’ movement. The camp structure is an open API that anyone is free to hack into and explore using MeetUp as a Directory. The second step in the process comes when the mass of people who apply these cognitive maps start reflecting on how working together expands their common potential. This insight gives rise to the swarm. A swarm movement comes into being as a swarm when a mass collective grasps what it is capable of achieving en masse.

Swarms transform our shared sense of the possible. This is what draws people to these movements. It is the key to their unique political power.

Victor Hugo claimed that no army in the world can stand in the way of an idea whose time has come. No government or political institution can hold its ground when confronted with a new collective sense of what human beings are capable of doing and achieving en masse. Every major social transformation, from the Age of Revolutions to the present day, has been driven by a catalytic swarm. Swarm movements do not expend their energies by contesting the status quo. They reinvent it. Norms slide in all directions and political institutions are forced to keep up.

We can diagram the collective identity shift involved in swarm movements as follows:

Swarms are vectors of mass transformation. They sweep across societies on the diagonal and reset political cultures in their wake. The protesters in Liberty Square and across the US are engaged in a more serious business than contesting dominant institutions. They are knitting together new cognitive maps based on peer-to-peer strategies and open source ethics and reworking politics from below. As Douglas Rushkoff claims, ‘we are witnessing America’s first true Internet-era movement’. And it is transforming our sense of the possible. The surges of energy coming off the movement are immense. All that remains is that the movement finds a way of articulating its power without reducing its intrinsic diversity. If OccupyWallStreet can achieve this, it could literally change the world.

Perhaps the new mode of collective enunciation has already been created. The human microphone system that OccupyWallStreet protesters use to facilitate their General assemblies is a remarkable expression of direct democratic culture. Electronic amplification is banned in the square. The speaker says half a sentence and the crowd repeats it, so that everyone can hear. The speaker then completes the sentence and the crowd repeats this too. Matt Stoller, who has participate in the assemblies, described the experience as follows:

At first it’s extremely… annoying. And time-consuming. But after a few hours, it’s oddly refreshing. I felt completely included as part of a community forum even though I had not been a speaker. But what I realized is that the act of listening, embedded in the active reflecting of what the speaker was saying, created a far richer conversational space. Actually reflecting back to one another what someone just said is a technique used by therapists, and by pandering politicians. There is nothing so euphoric in a community sense as truly feeling heard. That’s what the general assembly was about, not a democracy in the sense of voting, but a democracy in the sense of truly respecting the humanity of everyone in the forum. It took work. It took patience. But it created a communal sense of power.

The human microphone system is a physical expression of the appreciative process that happens on the internet all the time. When a blogger posts something that others think is significant, they share the message through their networks, so that that others who are not included with the author’s networks may enjoy it too. In doing so, they affirm the incredible power of open networks to create collective knowledge and wisdom. OccupyWallStreet applies the same modus operandi to transformative political action. I see it as a living expression of the intuition behind ‘Coalition of the Willing’:

Let’s take our lead from Web 2.0 and the strategies of open source culture. It’s time to recover the true spirit of the 60s counterculture, with an internet-based swarm offensive aimed at triggering a 21st century culture shift.

By coalitionblog.org