The grassroots movement that started with the Arab Spring has, for the first time in history, made global civil society fully aware of itself and its power.
By Pedro Noel and Santiago Carrion
Now that the grassroots movement that started inadvertently with the Arab Spring has gone global, it is necessary to cast a backwards glance to try and figure out, with some perspective, the dynamics of what has happened, physically and conceptually, over the last year. We propose a simple vision of the process of uprising in 2011, which was consolidated on the past 15th of October as a new culture of popular resistance and creativity. We also aim to point out the recent or enhanced concepts born in the collective consciousness of society during this period.
Wikileaks and the Unmasking of the Global System
Considered the most dangerous website in the world by the end of 2010, Wikileaks.org posed a serious challenge to the global political establishment. Even though the organization had been active in leaking content since 2006, the release of the Collateral Murder video in March of 2010 made ‘Wikileaks’ the most searched for term on search engines, and brought them to the forefront of mass media interest. The classified video, taken from the cockpit of a US Apache helicopter in Baghdad, depicts the slaying of around twelve people, including two Reuters journalists whose cameras were ‘mistaken’ for AK-47s. After the first round of fire, one of them starts crawling toward shelter when an unmarked van appears to rescue him. Then, even though there was no weapon visible, the soldiers opened fire, executing the journalist, wounding two children in the truck, and killing their father. Hence the title ‘Collateral Murder’.
In barely a few months, the organization followed up with the release of 100,000 classified U.S. files on the Afghanistan war, proving widespread war and the efforts made to hide them. As the organization grew in prestige, their new role as a prominent force of change culminated in November with another historical leak described by philosopher Slavoj Žižek with an excellent metaphor: the emperor had been standing naked for a long time — global society has been living a dramatic period of financial and ideological crisis since at least 2008 — and Wikileaks was the one to stand up and point it out, adding documents to prove their claim. This time nobody laughed, people rose up.
The constant connections made between Wikileaks and the Tunisian uprising are not just a coincidence. Barka, a prominent member of a Tunisian association for female equality, told us that “the Wikileaks revelations circulated very well in Tunisia in January .” She also confirmed that local newspapers were publishing Cablegate analysis at the beginning of the year, prior to the revolution. She considers that the airing of the material on the mainstream media, revealing just how rotten Ben Ali’s crony-capitalist system was, played a significant role in politically engaging the youth of the country.
We do not want to make it seem, as some have, that Wikileaks was the only cause for the uprising in Tunisia. Even though we acknowledge that their success had a moderate role in fueling the subsequent Arab Spring, we believe it played an incredibly important one in shaping the global audience’s understanding of what happened. People following the process worldwide made the connection easily. To a large extent, the media made it for them, as both stories were unfolding at the same time in a seemingly simple cause-and-effect format. This assimilation of the events was to prove critical in the following months, as more and more countries saw their leaders knee deep in corruption.
The Squares: Camping as a Form of Protest
In March, in the town of Ergueb, in the rural province of Sidi Boussid, birthplace of the Tunisian Revolution, a man camped out in front of the local government building. He said he would only leave once he got a job. He is an example of occupation in the very place where the global uprising took off. Afterwards, events of the same nature, albeit with different results and objectives, started popping up across North Africa and the Middle East. Egypt was the next to topple a dictator and soon enough Tahrir Square (Freedom Square in Arabic) became an emblem of popular struggles. The same model was later exported to Puerta del Sol in Madrid as it spread across Spain, then Europe, and finally to North America, where Occupy Wall Street took the protest to the physical heart of the issue. The bold move received widespread support in the US. As other cities followed their lead, and the media began paying attention, the movement went viral.
The will to re-appropriate the physical center of the polis — the ancient heart of politics — is deeply related to the impulse to engage with fellow humans, and is irrevocably linked with the concept of transparency. The new squares are the place to apprehend reality, a piece of land where there is no space for the administrative control of information. The square has once again returned to its role as a place of exchange for individual initiatives, art and politics.
In this sense, public squares have become the physical antagonists of government and corporate conspiracies. This is proven by the brutal repression of the state security forces that didn’t allow this kind of protest to continue in African or Middle Eastern countries. Syrians are still being massacred for demanding their rights. On October 15th, twelve Yemenis were killed, and early on in Zimbabwe a group of teachers was arrested and tortured for showing videos of the Egyptian uprising. Despite the strong repression, peaceful protesters have continued to demand their rights. The movement took root and set an example for the popular uprising in Spain that started on the 15th of May, 2011. In a very significant gesture, the only national flag hanging in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid during the month it was occupied was the Egyptian flag.
Hive Minds: Popular Assemblies and Direct Democracy
As a place to experience the re-creation of social content, the occupied squares of 2011 opened the way to experiment with new kinds of political interaction: the occupation works as a hive mind of resistance against the cybernetic system. In their search for public participation, the squares, which no longer tolerated intermediaries between people, established a more harmonic, tolerant and democratic relationship with each other. This, together with the pulse for political renewal, crystallized into the idea of ‘real democracy’.
A model of decentralized, horizontal, and not politically preconceived assemblies spread organically to around 300 squares in Spain in the weeks after the 15th of May. Their aim was to create a system of self-governance based on participative democracy, where everyone had an equal say on the issues that affected them. This was a radical shift from the representative democracy they deemed flawed to the core. As they saw it, elected leaders had betrayed the people’s recognized sovereignty by siding with the financial elites, instead of defending social interests. They also recognized that this severe legitimation crisis (various polls set the public support level for the movement at 70%) could not be translated into reform, as there is no democratic control of leaders or institutions after elections. The collective spirit that was awakened in the camps could not find a way to express itself in the outdated Spanish system, making the lateral process flourish as people poured their energy into creating politics, as opposed to political discourse based on hollow ideas, old character types and anachronisms. Slowly but surely the assemblies starting working to build a truly legitimate way for political interaction, based on horizontality and common decision-making. This also meant that the old dichotomy of left and right was finally transcended, as ideology was to be built inside the autonomous space created inside the assembly.
At the same time, many other small activist groups (who already used this method) tied in neatly, and the assemblies acted as an amplifier for these already organized voices. In Spain, direct action platforms such as the PAH (literally Plaftorm of Mortgate Victims, which was already working before May 15th) began forming local nodes within each assembly. The Platform organized flash mobs in front of the homes of families who were about to be evicted when the public inspector was scheduled to arrive. If successful, the inspector would be unable to enter the building, making it impossible for him to effect his orders, which would revert the process back to the judge who issued the order. With this technique, the indignados have managed to stop hundreds of evictions from taking place all across the country. Their actions have become so integrated into the movement that a recently occupied hotel is serving, after the due consensus, to reallocate people who have been evicted. Our prediction is that this process of amplification will repeat itself wherever the assembly-based method takes root, serving to change attitudes towards humanitarian projects and a variety of social organizations.
Soon this method spread to the rest of Europe and finally to the USA, where hundreds of camps and even more assemblies have taken root in recent months. It is safe to say that nowadays, periodical gatherings of the same type occur in perhaps thousands of squares in different countries across the globe. This has brought a generalized shift in civilian attitudes, marking a return to contentious politics. In this sense, squares and assemblies propose more than a transgression: they are a transcendence of political legitimacy. In these squares, creative commons, autonomy, sustainability and transparency are applied to urban reality and communitarian decisions. They are an experiment of direct democracy as a method for free political articulation among people, an afffirmation of existence, and a reaction to the political structures of contemporary society.
Cyber Occupation: The New Dynamics of Social Uprisings
This rethinking of public space that began in Tahrir Square can also be postulated in terms of social cybernetics. In The Self-Organizing Polity (1988), Peter Harries-Jones observed some of the key factors of what he called ‘new cybernetics’ and its relation to political science: “unlike its predecessor, the new cybernetics concerns itself with the interaction of autonomous political actors and subgroups, and the practical and reflexive consciousness of the subjects who produce and reproduce the structure of a political community.” One of the other main intellectuals behind new cybernetics in the 1990s, Kenneth D. Bailey, added that this concept “views information as constructed and reconstructed by an individual interacting with the environment,” which in turn reduces the gap between the individual and the social system as a whole. We believe that this process has come to a high point in history during the last year, serving to create a massive collective consciousness, now oriented towards systemic transformation.
In this specific context, we propose the term cyber occupying, which is inevitably linked with the new culture of resistance, as the appropriation of society’s virtual and physical systemics. At first, this concentration of resistance continued to be in the streets and public spaces, although much of its recent success is, according to Max Rousseau, due to the idea of “physical immobility”. In this sense, it means that “the simple but prolonged collective presence in a public place can be an action of resistance.” By occupying the traditional channels of information exchange (both physical and virtual), a resistance is built against the flow which normally serves to aid and perpetuate the established systems of society. Cyber occupation is based on the prolonged permanence and concentration on strategic spots of informative, political, behavioral or monetary flow (among others).
Rousseau also argues that this new form of protest is born from a resistance to the reduction of the social system’s space and time via the modernization of technology. Therefore, we can see it as a reaction to capitalist dynamics, which implies rapid transformation and movement. Not only do the new occupations work as blockades of the ‘healthy’ systemic flow of information of contemporary society, they also serve as an impulse towards autonomy from these rules in order to partially recreate reality. As a result, most occupied squares became temporary autonomous zones, experiments in collaborative administration that operated in a parallel plane to the system. They actually serve as forces of outward change from within: they are recursive. Thus their attitude is both resistant and creative, as well as adapted to 21st century urban life.
In this light, the term “Occupation” has a broader meaning than it did before. An #occupation can be carried out by one or two million people, as well as by one person, as long as they share the spirit of taking back society’s functional centers, which can be squares, parliaments, bridges, avenues, public transport, or even websites and online feeds. After the 15th of October, the #occupy spirit grew exponentially: people understood all these concepts intuitively, to the point where they started considering the #occupation not only of physical space but also of abstract ideas such as social media, private companies or even voting booths.
Anonymous and the Occupation of Online Space
All the events narrated above co-existed with an important process of change in Internet dynamics regarding political activism, which can be understood as the #occupation of online space. The politicized role that the Anonymous collective undertook to defend Wikileaks in 2010 marked the beginning of a parallel hacktivist movement on the Internet. Anonymous is the virtual culmination of the same organizing principles practiced in the squares: they are completely open (in a strange way, you don’t have to know you are a member to be one), decisions are taken horizontally and in a highly decentralized structure.
In late 2010, Anonymous began to coordinate the shutting down of websites that were boycotting Wikileaks using their trademark DDoS attack. In a few weeks, ‘Operation Payback’ managed to take down the virtual spaces of Amazon, Mastercard and Paypal, who had unilaterally broken agreements to handle donations made to Wikileaks, freezing their assets and making them lose estimated millions of dollars. When the uprisings in North Africa started, Anonymous and various other hacktivist groups defaced and shut down websites related to the Egyptian and Tunisian governments, who were censoring and repressing their citizens. This connection with the movement has proved to be long-lasting, as local hacktivist groups have immediately backed the occupations as they reached their countries. This tendency has continued to expand as the organization merged with others and diversified, until it became hard to keep track of everybody’s actions (a good source for information on this topic is http://thehackernews.com).
At the same time, the people’s freshly tuned moral compass, at its height of awareness during the Cablegate revelations, took over social networking sites, mainly Facebook (800 million users) and Twitter (200 millions users), which had already been acting as the largest centralized global forums on the Internet. These are the two most mainstream channels of communication that have been born on the web — over the last decade they have transformed the understanding and mechanisms of social interaction radically. Their technical capacity to host, debate and share information on a massive scale has united the global population to an unprecedented point.
This is because they are ‘transparent’ communication channels and their structure allows every citizen to become a potential journalist, a practice which has been increasingly common during the new wave of protests. The free flow of information, generated independently from political and corporate interest, has had a cleansing effect, allowing a clearer look into the dynamics of administrated media channels. In this sense, social networking tools effectively helped to facilitate the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, where state controlled media chose to manipulate information. “During the days of the Revolution, we watched Facebook and Youtube to find news of the martyrs,” a Tunisian living in Sfax told us.
The year 2011 has seen the biggest mass uprising of the history of the Internet so far. The global popularity of the movement has been translated into the appropriation of these public arenas, transforming them into crowd-sourced media outlets — the use of Twitter has certainly been revolutionary — and focal points of public debate on the issues explained above. The amount of blogs, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and groups, as well as free platforms and tools successfully created to challenge the mechanisms of manipulation and control of information, is unprecedented. Every unknown user who silently but strenuously played a role in taking the Net was part of the decentralized response to the uprising.
A New Starting Point: October 15, 2011
The 15th of October of 2011 was the first global culmination of these complex processes. In almost a thousand cities, in around 90 countries, millions of people began occupying their squares, parks and public areas. In countries where the movement was already established, the growth was spectacular. Madrid and Barcelona hosted the largest protests, with almost a million people between the both of them. The fact that they were the largest protests yet serves to prove that the process, already spread out into neighborhoods, is working.
It also means that there is a healthy flow of information on the web, which in turn also influences the mass media. In previous weeks, many important cities in the US had already followed the example set by Occupy Wall Street: for example, camps in Washington D.C., Oakland, Denver and Chicago grew, and many others were started. On the 15th, it spread around the world, as hundreds of new occupations sprung up in cities such as London, Melbourne, Sao Paolo, Berlin, Seoul and many others.
In all of these cities, assemblies were organized, as well as working groups and specific task forces, replicating and reassuring the flourishing of the new system. These camps are now facing the first weeks of occupation, which are incredibly chaotic due to the organic and unguided nature of the process. Soon enough, however, we believe that the same dynamics of replication and intercommunication will set similar structures in place everywhere. This new richness, in the form of plurality, will be visible in the global structure of activism that is forming a new culture of resistance, which is of critical importance for the future of society.
Therefore it must not be forgotten that this movement is a reaction to the overwhelming understanding that the future of civilization is under serious question: the economic system is collapsing on top of the social stratus that sustains it, crushing millions underneath it, and the uncontrolled misuse of resources is seriously destroying the very planet we live on. This structure is the only way we can articulate a deep process of transformation that might save society from the gloomiest predictions. In this sense, the 15th of October marks a new beginning in the articulation within global civil society: it is the date when it became fully aware of itself and its power. Whether or not a sufficient amount of energy can be channeled towards political reform, and especially towards a general shift of underlying morale, is yet to be seen.