Reproduction of movement(s) without organisation: #UKUncut, #OWS, #OccupyMovement

A global day of collective action in 82 countries shook the world on October 15, 2011. Yet the protests were not co-ordinated by political parties, unions or other institutional actors. They were driven by the rapid dissemination of memes, made possible by the internet.

This article is part of a series on the #Occupy movements.

October 15th 2011 saw a global mobilization of political protest. It took place using limited resources, in a short time-frame and with minimal involvement from institutional actors. Demonstrators staged rallies around the world on every major continent from Auckland to Tapei to Madrid and Seattle: in total there were some 951 actions in 82 countries.

In terms of global reach and the involvement of provincial cities (not just capitals) the scale of collective action was possibly without precedent, surpassing even the globally coordinated anti-war demonstrations of March 20th 2003. This staggering feat was achieved without institutional actors such as political parties and in some countries, including the UK, without the involvement of the organised labour movement.

Occupy London - St Paul's Cathedral October 15 2011 from Jon Cheetham on Vimeo.

In Rome there were around 200,000 protestors, thousands of whom were masked and hooded militants wearing makeshift body armor, in black bloc fashion. Elsewhere in Europe there were very large demonstrations – while Madrid’s was predictably impressive after the 'Spanish summer' of the 15M movement, Germany’s was particularly surprising for its scale, seeing thousands in the streets of Frankfurt, Berlin and Cologne. In New York some 30,000 protestors went to Times Square, resulting in around 70 arrests. A further 175 were arrested in Chicago and dozens elsewhere across the country.

The world witnessed a day of protest, but it is what followed at night that has attracted the attention of the media and which, more importantly, represents the broadening of a repertoire or tactic of protest - the occupation - which has been utterly re-imagined and critically adopted over the course of the last year. From the student occupations in the UK in 2010/2011 to Tahrir Square, the 15M movement in Spain to the 99% movement in the US and most recently the #occupy movement worldwide, online organising has resulted in the appropriation - temporary or otherwise - of offline space.

But how has this been coordinated? I believe a change in how we organise and communicate is occurring at the same time as the unfolding of an economic crisis as pronounced and sustained as the one we saw after 1929 and the Wall Street Crash. 

Movement and Memes 

Paul Mason wrote on Sunday of the #oct15 movement and the #occupy movements worldwide:

The protesters yesterday stuck a spoof street sign saying "Tahrir Square, London, EC4M". This was not Tahrir - but it obeyed the same impulse to occupy physical space...The impulse (for the #oct15 and #occupy movements) I believe, is being driven by two things: first it is - as I wrote in the 20 reasons - a meme. It is an effective action that is transmitting itself independent of any democratic structures and party political hierarchies.

This word, 'meme', has been increasingly deployed over the course of the last year - it was alluded to by Mason in his now seminal blog '20 reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere' in February 2011 and was later referenced by both this DSG blog and more recently still this Pierce Penniless blog published here on OurKingdom. Both pieces follow on from Mason's thoughts on the 'meme' playing an integral role in the rise of the new social movements. As he puts it:

...with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog...they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyranny...therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

Quoting Dawkins he adds,

"...a meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices....so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly "market tested" and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.”

So what is this glib, increasingly used concept - the meme?

A brief anecdote is offered by Richard Dawkins in the introduction to the 'Meme Machine' by way of an explanation:

As an undergraduate I was chatting to a friend in the Balliol College lunch queue. He regarded me with increasingly quizzical amusement, then asked: ‘Have you just been with Peter Brunet?’ I had indeed, though I couldn’t guess how he knew. Peter Brunet was our much-loved tutor, and I had come hotfoot from a tutorial hour with him. ‘I thought so’, my friend laughed. ‘You are talking just like him; your voice sounds exactly like his.’ I had, if only briefly, ‘inherited’ intonations and manners of speech from an admired, and now greatly missed, teacher.

Years later, when I became a tutor myself, I taught a young woman who affected an unusual habit. When asked a question which required deep thought, she would screw her eyes tight shut, jerk her head down to her chest and then freeze for up to half a minute before looking up, opening her eyes, and answering the question with fluency and intelligence. I was amused by this, and did an imitation of it to divert my colleagues after dinner. Among them was a distinguished Oxford philosopher. As soon as he saw my imitation, he immediately said: ‘That’s Wittgenstein! Is her surname ____ by any chance?’ Taken aback, I said that it was. ‘I thought so’, said my colleague.‘Both her parents are professional philosophers and devoted followers of Wittgenstein.’ The gesture had passed from the great philosopher, via one or both of her parents to my pupil. I suppose that, although my further imitation was done in jest, I must count myself a fourth-generation transmitter of the gesture. And who knows where Wittgenstein got it?

This brief anecdote explains what we all know through our everyday interactions with one another. That social behaviour, idea, practices and mannerisms are born of imitation - be it us 'imitating' our parents’ regional accents in childhood or internalising ideologies while in school or in later life, the workplace. This imitation, dissemination and reproduction of social symbols and practice, some argue, is culturally analogous to genes in terms of how certain 'successful' ones are reproduced and culturally 'inherited' more than others. Within this understanding religion, as a series of social practices and ideas about the world, human agency and the 'good life' can be understood as sets of memes.

Thus we can understand memes as units "for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena". Elsewhere they have been referred to as the principle of 'thought contagion'. As human beings can be defined as social animals with culture that is passed from one individual and one generation to the next, so memes can be found everywhere. As Richard Dawkins elsewhere writes, 

....examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

The Network Society; The Medium and the Meme

One can argue that in the network society - characterized as it is by the compression of time and space under the dynamics of contemporary globalisation - the nature of how these memes are disseminated is qualitatively different to before the mass adoption of the internet and IT-mediated devices in our everyday lives. Thus we see with internet-mediated forms of collective action a massive 'speeding up' of how social symbols and practices can be produced, reproduced, adopted and internalised. This is almost self-evident; as Paul Mason puts it in his '20 reasons': “Prior to the internet this theory (memetics) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.”

On this same point, the arts/politics collective DeTerritorial Support Group (DSG) later write:

With the development of sophisticated communicative technologies, not least the internet, the idea of memetics soon found a fertile breeding ground itself....we can think of the internet as a bank of ideas, and the really successful meme occurs when one of those ideas chimes massively with the population it encounters, summing up a shared or individual experience or viewpoint to the extent that users wish to perpetuate it as somehow representative of their position, often amending it slightly on it’s way....

the infectious symbolism of a “Tahrir Square” passed throughout North Africa in the spring, with the combination a central meeting point and a “day of rage” (organised with the help of Facebook) finding common popular support across the gulf states. So what was a useful tactic for the residents of Cairo has now become a symbolic action, a meme that has found resonance, from the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain in February to the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. 

Memetics have always existed as the means by which 'culture' was reproduced and disseminated. But of course the speed of such memetic reproduction of culture was dependent upon the medium, first the oral tradition, then typographic print - and now, most recently, the internet and digital communications technologies. The argument is that internet-mediated memetics represent a fundamental shift in how social movements, as new forms of social practice, rear themselves and how quickly they spread, are adopted and reach critical mass. The answer would seem to be much more quickly.

Understanding the Social Movement as Meme

One can understand the social movement as a distinct process through which actors engage in collective action of a socially and politically 'contentious' nature. They meet the following criteria:

 (a) an involvement in conflicting relations with clearly identified 'opponents'

 (b) a linking together by dense informal networks (these used to be offline and now are increasingly online as well)

 (c ) the sharing among participants, and those sympathetic to participants’ demands, of a distinct collective identity

If one accepts the premise that ideas, symbols and practices are culturally disseminated through memes, then memetics may prove to exercise an impact on how successful social movements turn out to be. If all that is required is a shared identity, a shared political antagonism, informal networks and a particular set of protest 'repertoires' (tactics) then it is possible to reduce social movements to an identity, an antagonism and a practice, all of which can be seen as memes.

With the #oct15 and #occupy movements, the tactics of square occupations have been memetically reproduced, as have a particular identity and antagonism. While all groups are heterogeneous, there are clear genealogies of practice and symbol that can be extricated from Tahrir to the 15m movement in Spain to Occupy Wall Street and finally the #oct15 movement. Likewise we have seen certain memes in student movements across the globe. This is the case in both demands over 'another education being possible' in Chile, France, Greece, Italy, the UK and the US (as well as elsewhere) and also in 'tactics', such as the paintbomb or book bloc, which has been reproduced rapidly on the streets of Rome, London, Santiago, Manchester, Bogota, San Francisco, Paris and Berlin. 'Methods of best practice' (for want of a better term) in protest and political contention are quickly disseminated in the distributed networks of the Network Society.

UKUncut as Meme

A primary example of how social movements as memes can operate within the network society for British audiences is UKUncut. As the 'about' blurb reads on their homepage: 

On October 27th 2010, just one week after George Osborne announced the deepest cuts to public services since the 1920s, around 70 people ran down Oxford Street entered Vodafone's flagship store and sat down. We had shut down tax-dodging Vodafone’s flagship store…

At that point, UK Uncut only existed as #ukuncut, a hashtag someone had dreamed up the night before the protest. As we sat in the doorway, chanting and handing leaflets to passers by, the hashtag began to trend around the UK and people began to talk about replicating our action. The idea was going 'viral'. The seething anger about the cuts had found an outlet. Just three days later and close to thirty Vodafone stores had been closed around the country.

The claim that UKUncut was 'just a hashtag' was, although humble, fundamentally incorrect. After the first action UKUncut already possessed the elements to become a social movement capable of imitation and reproduction. Firstly, it had a shared identity of participants - British taxpayers or those opposed to tax avoidance and who favoured progressive general taxation as the fairest way of funding collective forms of health and work insurance as well as education and elderly care. 

Secondly, it had isolated a point of political antagonism and an 'enemy' - multinational companies and high net worth individuals who sought to avoid tax or minimize costs of tax through clandestine (albeit legal) means. Thirdly, it had the ability through online platforms such as Twitter to disseminate through informal networks very quickly. Fourthly, its chosen tactic of protest - closing down high street outlets of tax-avoiding multinationals such as Vodafone and Boots - was easily replicable on any British high-street.

One can easily isolate the areas that render UKUncut a social movement capable of being easily replicated. The costs of entry are low and hence high participation resulted, just like with the #occupy movement. The ease with which to replicate such action, antagonism and shared identity meant that UKUncut was, without the initial participants perhaps recognising it, the perfect example of how a social movement as meme might go 'viral'.

It is of course arguable as to whether or not UKUncut remains 'memetically' reproduced. I would contend not and would instead hold it increasingly closer to a traditional social movement organisation with a permanent secretariat. Initially, however, it was generated and regenerated in a very similar manner to the #occupy movements in Acampa da Sol, Wall Street and now London. UKUncut was a paradigmatic example of the social movement as memetically reproduced by online communication and offline affinity groups and action. 

The Internet and the Transformation of Memetic Reproduction

How the #occupy movement disseminates could well be the first major bellweather of just how quickly radical critique, symbol and most importantly practice spreads via online networks and is translated into offline action. 

Among all the ambiguity and heterogeneous demands of the #occupy movement we should hold back from being overly critical and dogmatic in presumption and analysis. How it will unfold is anyone's guess and all I can say is that after the last year in global social movements nothing surprises me any more. The changes we will see with how the distributed network impacts the existing social and political apparatus through its impact on political, cultural and social memes could be as big as those it affected the last time the 'software' changed with the rise of typographic print and the printing press. Then, too, memetic reproduction of symbols and practice qualitatively sped up - the consequences were the Reformation, the nation-state, scientific rationalism and the formation of the Habermasian public sphere. This time we may again see truly epic social change accompany the adoption of a new medium that speeds up memetic reproduction of movements. We are only at the beginning, however - bear in mind that after the arrival of the printing press the first pornographic novels came about within a few years, while the first regularised scientific journals took a little over a century.

The next few days and weeks may offer the first manifestation of just how changed contentious collective action, on a global level, becomes when mediated by distributed networks and many-to-many forms of digital communication. My impression is that the last year, as well as subsequent years to come, will show that how the 'people' make demands on political power is changing beyond all recognition. Where it ends is possibly with a challenge to national, parliamentary democracy itself. Within the information abundance of the distributed network of the internet, institutions built in previous eras of information scarcity will increasingly no longer make sense. The software is obsolete; things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. 

We publish the video above with thanks to Jon Cheetham. Jon wants to make contact with other independent video-journalists and film-makers who are following this story in their home cities. You can contact him at joncheetham@bellerosefilms.com or find him on Twitter @jon_cheetham

About the author

Aaron Bastani is a Ph.D candidate at the  New Political Communications Unit (Royal Holloway University) and is also a participant with Novara Media. He is interested in technology, politics and social change and how these three areas intersect in the contemporary context, from political economy to social movements.