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Part Two: open source activism and memes

Part Two of our conclusion to the Networked Society debate: Goodbye, year of new movements: bring on 2012 and Occupy Everything.

Part Two of our conclusion to the Networked Society debate: Goodbye, year of new movements: bring on 2012 and Occupy Everything.

During the course of the Networked Society debate it felt increasingly possible to isolate two trends within the networked movements of 2011. These were 'Open-Source Activism' as briefly elucidated by Guy Aitchison and myself in Fightback! and the 'Memetic Reproduction of Movements'.

As Aitchison and I wrote in Fightback! (subsequently cross-posted on this debate),

...some of the most promising action in the anti-cuts movement so far has been a result of the challenge, by networks, to the monopoly traditional institutions have historically enjoyed over information and social co-ordination. The terrain of collective action is being transformed and this has opened up the exciting possibility of a powerful and rapidly growing mass movement beyond the capacity of regulation of any central leadership”. 

Along with the possibility to engage in open-source activism and the networking of points of micro-resistance into a macro-movement without the need for an organisation we also see the rise of the memetic reproduction of the form, if not always content, of social movements. Within such reproduction, tactics, protest repertoires and identities are produced, reproduced and internalised by participants, much more quickly then before. Perhaps the greatest example of this was for the global day of action on the 15th October 2011,

“... 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…this staggering feat was achieved without institutional actors.”

While #Oct15 can be seen as an example of open-source activism it is perhaps more instructive as an example of memetic reproduction of collective action. Indeed the 'Occupy' movement can itself be seen as a meme with the statement 'Occupy Everything' first emanating from the New School Occupation in New York in December 2008. Indeed some of those very same students from three years ago predicted as much in 2008, 

...the coming occupations will have no end in sight, and no means to resolve them. When that happens, we will finally be ready to abandon them.”

In light of such seemingly prophetic words the same students wrote some three years later within the changed context of the 2011 #Occupy movement,

..when we wrote that in December 2008 in New York City, after occupying a university building by Union Square, we were treated as youthful idealists, nihilist anarchists, even fascist thugs. What are your demands? They asked. But what are you for? They wondered. Occupy everything? They shrieked….(we as) students, who have both the time to act and think free from the imperative to work, naturally reacted first. With an insurrection in Greece brewing, and a legitimation crisis of the American economy at hand, occupations without demands spread from New York to California, with thousands involved.” 

As a meme which started at the New School occupation in December 2008, 'Occupy Everything' has now seemingly spread to the ‘reappropriation’ of public squares, social centres and repossessed homes. One cannot neglect the extent to which the meme - with its meaning(s), identities and ultimately antagonism (against the 1%) has been mediated by online, distributed networks – where the interlocutor of the 'mainstream orthodoxy' is frequently absent. 

The transnational meme/movement of 'Occupy' that is touched upon in the 'Movement that Needs No Name' is one centred around an occupation of offline space, temporary or otherwise, that is mediated by initially online coordination and then offline connection – where thin online connection become thick offline bonds of solidarity. This is true for UKUncut, the student movements of the US and the UK (and to a lesser extent France, Italy and Greece), several countries within the Arab Spring (primarily Tunisia and Egypt), the 15M movement in Spain, J14 in Israel and of course, the primarily US-based 'Occupy' movement.

Within the recent cycle of protest the tactic of occupation was first used to such a newly intensified extent by French students and schoolchildren in the anti-CPE campaign of 2005 and then again the following year. That same year, in 2006, we also witnessed the beginning of a very large Greek student movement that encompassed those in both Higher and Further Education. This came to percolate through to major movements that involved the tactic of occupation in both these countries again in 2008. Later we find the same tactic in the US student movement of 2008/9 (consciously looking to Greece as an inspiration - particularly in California, a state with similar if not worse debt problems), the British student movement of 2010, the occupation of the Capitol building in Madison in early 2011 and ( to a much greater extent) with the occupation of squares during the Arab Spring and the 15M movement in Spain which itself catalysed similar 'Real Democracy' movements that initiated a mobilizing identity of the 'indignado' in Italy, France, the Netherlands and most notably, Greece.

The form, if not content, of these movements based as they are around the occupation of offline space has to a large extent been mediated as an online meme. As I wrote back in October,

...the broadening of a repertoire or tactic of protest - the occupation - has been utterly re-imagined and critically adopted over the course of the last year. From the student occupations in the UK in 2010 to Tahrir Square, the 15M movement in Spain and the Occupy movement in the US and elsewhere, online organising has resulted in the appropriation - temporary or otherwise - of offline space…but how has this been coordinated….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...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.”

On this same point in another article cross-posted here on Our Kingdom, the arts/politics collective DeTerritorial Support Group (DSG) wrote,

“..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 waythe 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.”

It is these two phenomenon that inform the organisational nature of the new movements, born within an economic reality that should be seen as a continuation of the alter-globalisation movement as it existed within the global south, namely austerity and 'structural adjustment programs' which are now being imposed on EU member states and the US rather than Latin America.

Go to Part Three: reality management #fail

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About the author

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media and Silke Digital. He is an expert on digital media, protest and political communications and has published with, among others, the Guardian, Vice and the LRB. He is currently completing a Ph.D at the New Political Communications Unit at Royal Holloway, University of London. You can follow him on twitter @aaronbastani


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