My Association With Occupy (Such as it is)

I confess I’m not much of a joiner or activist, in the sense of attending demonstrations.  In my experience the fastest way to get anyone to do anything is for me to try persuading them to do the exact opposite.

What I do is analysis and writing, extrapolating from trends and correlating them, and tying ideas together in explanatory frameworks.  I put other people’s ideas together in new structures.

The main subject of my research is networked resistance movements, the use of network communications technology as a tool of asymmetric warfare, and the ways in which networked associations of free people are supplanting authoritarian state and corporate hierarchies and becoming the nucleus of a new society.

I keep track of what networked movements like the Arab Spring, the Indignados, Madison, Occupy,  etc., are doing, and the tactical innovations they develop, and try to draw as much attention as I can to the significance of it.

Ever since Wikileaks published its huge cache of U.S. State Department cables, I’ve watched with growing hope as it sparked first the uprising in Tunisia, then the Arab Spring, Occupy, and who knows what’s next.  This  is the most hopeful time I’ve ever lived in.

Most of my analysis of the Revolution 2.0 movements around the world can be found, in far more coherent form than I could reproduce here, in my news commentary columns for Center for a Stateless Society.  So I’ll try to summarize here, but provide links to a more readable analysis.

The Stigmergic Revolution

Occupy Doesn’t Have a Platform – It Is a Platform

The beauty of all these networked movements is that they’re stigmergically organized – that is, organized on a module/platform basis – so that individual cells can act independently on their own initiative without waiting for permission, or waiting for the administrative apparatus at some legacy institutionalized social movement to get everyone on the same page before anyone can do anything.

As with Wikipedia, there’s a long tail in contributions.  That is, there’s no minimum size to the contribution one can make, and no entry barrier or transaction cost in making any contribution one wants.  A networked organization can leverage large and small contributions, that previously wouldn’t have been worth aggregating.  This “long tail” also applies to the direction of activism, as local cells and spinoffs can attack any target or cause that suits their own grievances and inclinations, using the basic “Occupy” brand as a common platform to support their  own modular movement.

Also like Wikipedia, the transaction costs of propagating and adopting tactical innovations falls to zero.  Any innovation developed by any node in the network, based on its own expertise and interest, immediately becomes the property of the whole network, to be adopted by any node that (on its own initiative) finds it useful.  To take the example of an earlier (and not so nice) stigmergic movement, Al Qaeda Iraq, when any local cell developed a new form of Improvised Explosive Device, it was rapidly adopted by cells all over Iraq.  The record industry mistakenly thought it only had to make its DRM good enough to thwart the average user, and the geeks capable of cracking it would be too numerically insignificant to matter.  The problem was, as soon as the geeks cracked it it immediately became available for anyone in the world who understood how to  do a torrent download.

The same is true of the networked resistance movements that sprang up in 2011.  A hierarchical, administratively mediated system – like Homeland Security, the TSA, the MPAA/RIAA, local police forces confronting demonstrators, etc. – has enormous transaction costs involved in analyzing a situation and formulating a response to it, or in developing and approviing innovations.  A networked movement, in contrast – because of the stigmergic organization mentioned in the previous paragraph – adapts and changes with the speed of replicating yeast, and throws off new innovations like a plutonium atom throws off neutrons.

Because of networks’ lightning-fast reaction time and agility, they are (in the phrase of the late military strategist John Boyd) able to “get inside the OODA loop” of authoritarian institutions.  That is, they react faster than do hierarchies, and stay one step ahead, so that hierarchies are always off balance and trying to react to whatever’s already happened instead of taking the initiative.

For example, some local Occupy movemets, in response to camp shutdowns by riot police in heavy combat gear, realized that they themselves were like light infantry, whereas the riot cops were the equivalent of slow-moving heavy infantry with a cumbersome supply train.  So all they had to do was evacuate a park or square, lead the cops on a wild goose chase through town, then move quickly back to the park and wait for the cops to return hours later.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  A lot like Mao’s  rules for a guerilla army–retreat when the enemy advances, and attack the enemy where he is not.

Another example of rapid innovation that has caught “authorities” by surprise is the Occupy Our Homes movement to put homeless or foreclosed people in vacant bank-owned housing.

A  great quality of these networked movements is that they’re simply platforms empowering the nodes that participate in them, rather than an institutionalized “movement” with a set of demands.  Critics of Occupy on the traditional Left, who say it has no leaders and no demands, miss the point.  Occupy is a platform and a brand.  It is united only by its common hatred of neoliberal corporate capitalism, but has as many specific agendas as there are walks of life among its participants.  So they can pursue their own particular agendas and grievances against the corporate state, like a swarm of piranha, using the common platform of Occupy for their own purposes.

Occupy is also important as the seed for a new society.  Less important than what the big Occupy camps do in their protests is what they do among themselves, as associations of the people in a given community.  I hope they will evolve into something like the neighborhood assemblies of Argentina – schools for living, or fairs, that propagate toolkits for building new local economies and counter-institutions outside the framework  of the corporate state.  Far more important than the original Occupy camps is what the movement will do, like dandelion seeds dispersed in the wind, now that the sites are shut down.

Thank you Kevin for this great report, it is more than informative. So far I’ve read about Occupy as lacking in leadership per se, and being decentralized, horizontal etc. Not sure how this “stigmergically organized” term differs (obviously it’s a more sophisticated approach), but I’m eager to read more in the sources you mentioned.

Also, I’m currently doing some research for the next Edgeryders campaign on Commons, and Occupy our Homes you mention seems spot on: the idea of using private property and the legal limits attached to it vs the need to avoid it being an abandoned/ wasted space. Could you recommend some readings on this movement? I’ll also do a search.

Finally, what will definitely stick with me after reading your take on this is:

A great quality of these networked movements is that they’re simply platforms empowering the nodes that participate in them, rather than an institutionalized “movement” with a set of demands.

This is pretty much the idea behind Edgeryders :slight_smile: What participants write and the strategies they employ or goals they have in their lives outside the community are pooled in, available to others as well and with zero transaction costs. Maybe @Alberto and @Nadia can explain it better?

Re: Thank You

Thanks, Noemi.  I have to credit C4SS Director Brad Spangler for directing me to the concept of stigmergy, when he wrote an article calling the free market “stigmergic socialism.”  The main development of the concept I’ve seen by name is Matthew Elliot’s master’s thesis (you can find a bunch of stuff, including his blog, by just Googling his name along with “stigmergy”).  But it’s essentially the same as the “bazaar” model of open-source software development Eric Raymond described in “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.”  And if you search John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog for everything he’s written about “open-source insurgency,” his description of how it works is really a description of stigmergy.

The main articles on Occupy Our Homes I’ve used are: “The Future of the Occupy Movement”; “Occupy Wall Street Goes Home”; “‘Occupy’ protesters reclaiming foreclosed homes in 20 cities”; “Occupy Wall Street on Your Street.”

Great, I’ll check them out and get back to you soon.

Thanks for adding me on !

Seeds planted deep in collective consciousness

Sorry for not commenting your report earlier. I loved your metaphor about dandelions!

Occupy as “the seed for a new society”, this hypothesis pleases me a lot! This is how I perceive it as well.

The political class is endlessly sinking in bad behavior and cacophony without managing to hide his duplicity and incompetence. I sincerely believe that with this movement, some things have changed in the minds of many citizens — in our collective consciousness — This movement is still alive.

I decode indignation as the expression of “I’ve had enough” from many walks of life, regarding: 1) the steady deterioration of their economic situation; 2) and political leaders, unable to exercise control over the markets, especially financial markets.

John Maynard Keynes, an influential economist of the twentieth century, said about capitalism (in 1933): “Global capitalism and yet individualistic, is not a success. It is devoid of intelligence, beauty, justice, and virtue. In short, we dislike it and we begin to despise it. But when we wonder about what could replace it, we remain extremely perplexed.”

This declaration has transcended time without fading…

I have a certain malaise about the Occupy analysis we’re seen lately. Some leave me skeptical. I am especially against the media mania which tends to formats everything, and a propensity to gaze on people and events with a marked superficiality.

Personally, I consider that the reasons to be an indignant are so numerous that one can hardly list them without fear of omitting some. Rage, anger, resentment, revolt are now present in most societies. They are mostly suppressed by fear, cynicism and individualism, but these are just waiting for the right moment to burst into the open.

In the upper echelons of power and wealth, business men and government officials adopted a low profile about this movement. It is so simple: let us have time pass and things fade away by themselves. They think that sooner or later, the movement will lose its momentum, it will be dismantled and it will show up in year-end balance sheets without adversely affecting the business.

But is it really, “business as usual”?

Let us not lose sight of the reality of these young men and young women deprived of a future, in these nations stripped of an economy likely to offer no wages and dignity. Something important has taken shape in the minds of millions of individuals. Your image of “dandelion seeds dispersed in the wind” is so poetic… and optimistic too, promising empowerment perspectives, given the fact that dandelions reproduce at a frantic speed.

In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans” (Kahlil Gibran)

Re: Seeds

Lyne, what you have to say here about individual alienation and disaffection adds a lot of depth to my shorthand jotting on a “tipping point.”  There is a large number of people whose loyalties and engagement to the system have become increasingly tenuous over time, but many or most of whom had no clear focus for their resentment.  They amount to a super-saturated solution that might be triggered to crystalize by just about any random particle or vibration.

The Tea Party took advantage of this atmosphere to some extent in the U.S. but because of its self-limiting ideology was restricted to a demographic of senior citizens and the struggling middle class whose main concerns were reactionary:  the threat of losing middle class status and respectability, the idea that the America they’d grown up in was being stolen by sinister forces represented by a president who didn’t look like them, etc.  The basic orientation of this movement was suggested by the so-called “53%”:  authoritarian alliance with the powers that be against foreign enemies and domestic out-groups.

On the other hand, Occupy Wall Street appealed to new demographs of have-nots created by the Great Recession:  the long-term unemployed, homeless, and the American equivalent of Japan’s “grass-fed men” (twenty-somethings out of college with majority unemployment, many of whom had moved back in with their parents).  But in addition to this, it competed for the allegiance of senior citizens, many of whom saw the threats to their entitlements by Paul Ryan & Co. as being more of a challenge to “their” America than a Kenyan/Muslim/socialist/fascist" president.

To show up or not to show up

Kevin, you make many interesting points (no surprise, you have been thinking about this stuff quite a lot!) but not the one I am most curious about. This: how do Occupy/Indignados people perceive their recent experience? Tunisians, Egyptians and possibly Libyans are probably very proud of their outstanding achievements.  But if I were a Western activist of that movement, I think I would be quite frustrated right now. My only result would be having made the news (by no means in all places). This can be exciting, of course, but it comes at the price of long hours sleeping in tents and debating stuff to exhaustion.

We might argue that the role of the kids in their tents is to point to the systemic failure of [insert your least favorite category here]. You, Kevin, clearly think this role is important: yet, you don’t show up. The point is, are the people who did show up happy and proud of their experience? Would they do it again? Because if not, Occupy is history for lack of reward at the individual level. After all, this what stygmergy is all about: there is no entity called “the swarm” with top-down control over its members. The swarm is an emergent property of individual insect behavior. No pheromone, the bug is not happy, the swarm is going to break down.

The 3 components of participation

“Lack of reward at the individual level”, this applies everywhere in our societies, both in businesses and in government institutions (not just to the Occupy movement).

There is a glaring lack of recognition of employees and citizens in our societies, because the current leadership model, instead of being on the BRIGHT side, is based on the DARK side, with values that do not support recognition of individuals (like selfishness, greed, powerful need for control, arrogance, feeling of superiority, ignorance of failure, difficulty to delegate, agressivity, fear of change, betrayal, insensivity, emotional fireworks, perfectionism, etc.).

Organizational fit leaders tend to hire people with similar values, which means that good candidates with dissimilar values do not get hired. To fix the “fit” problem, businesses and governments must be willing to hire people with diverse values. They must then learn to act on those values. Providing leaders with insight about behaviors that may alienate their entourage is a possible way to reduce their counterproductive tendencies. It is possible, through coaching, to teach leaders how to cope with stress and therefore minimize the impact of their behavior.

Because dark side tendencies are deeply ingrained habits, it takes a concerted effort to minimize these tendencies. However, not all types of leaders can be “coached”. Some types will remain permanently locked in they habits. They say they will change when they have no real intention of doing so. With these types of personality, it is best to replace them.

Are Occupy participants happy and proud about their experience?

To be truly “happy”, the process of empowerment should have been completed. Alberto rightly points out that in the case of Occupy participants, there is a lack of recognition, lack of reward.

Self-power, or empowerment, develops in interaction with others. The process of developing the power to act allows the passage of a state of inability to act on what is important for an individual (or a community) to a state of “power to act”. This process can take place through participation and mobilization.

However, there are several components to participation.

The first two components of participation, self-esteem and critical awareness, were probably developed by Occupy participants. Whereas, the third component of participation, acquisition of practical skills (through among other recognition of their skills), was probably not met. Moreover, they did not see the results of their actions. Many participants may have developed resentment (ie not “happy”). A competent community was not put in place, efforts of participants did not contribute to alter the systems to meet the needs of individuals, and allow these individuals to use these systems effectively.

Re: 3 Components

Excellent points, Lyne.   I would assume the very process of mutual feedback and appreciating from peers is a source of gratification, given the realities of a society where most other human dealings are either “do what I say or get fired,” or “spend your money in the atomized marketplace to buy commodified happiness.”  And given the p2p dynamics of local nodes, the barriers are virtually non-existence for self-selected groupings within those nodes to fork for the purpose of undertaking specific projects that suit their own interests.  There’s a very long tail of potential projects in such a stigmergic, DIY movement.

Re: To Show Up…

You raise some great questions, Alberto.  I share your abhorrence at the idea of participants in the various networked movements being seen as means to an end, or cannon fodder.  I see the movement as much more stigmergic, and much more driven by the values and goals of local self-organized clusters, since it abandoned the comparatively monochrome emphasis on public campouts.  Since the umbrella movement is just a brand or a platform, the real choice of objectives lies with the initiative of local nodes.  And in general, I think it’s a lot more likely the self-selected parcipants will be satisfied with the concrete results.  For example people who liberate foreclosed housing and put homeless people in it have something very immediate to show for their actions.  Of course I would argue that the larger movement has had a very real positive effect – not just drawing public attention to the problems of wealth concentration, etc., in a general sense, but arguably the start of a tipping point in public consciousness.