by Kevin Carson
Let’s start with a recap. In Summer 2010 Wikileaks published a cache of tens of thousands of top-secret State Department cables, much to the outrage and chagrin of the American national security establishment and its Amen Corner. The documents included embarrassing details on the internal corruption of a number of Arab regimes, and helped to spark a “Facebook/Twitter Revolution” in Tunisia that ended in the overthrow of the government. From there the grass-roots revolutions, in which social networking technologies played an important role, spread to Egypt and Libya and brought down those regimes. And the fires are still burning in Bahrain and Syria.
The Arab Spring is just an intensification of the process that began in the ’90s, chronicled by Rand analysts John Arquill and David Ronfeldt: a fundamental shift, resulting from the rise of networked organization, in the balance of power between ordinary people and hierarchical institutions like states and corporations.
As global security analyst John Robb of Global Guerrillas blog, in a forthcoming interview for Interesting Times magazine, put it: “Open source movements just replaced a bunch of governments in the Arab world.” Prominent open-source coder and theorist Eric Raymond’s “Bazaar” model — the networked organizational model not only of the Linux developer community, but of the anti-globalization movement, the file-sharing movement, and Fourth Generation Warfare movements like Al-Qaeda — is also the basis of the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring model of networked resistance is now in process of going global, expanding into Europe, Israel and Wall Street. The Israeli security establishment warned last summer, with considerable dismay, that there was no effective action the Israeli state could take if the Palestinians began a new, nonviolent Intifada on the Arab Spring model. And that’s just what they’ve done, in alliance with Israeli human rights and economic justice activists, with tent cities springing up all over the country. And Occupy Wall Street? Well, that’s several columns in itself.
The movement is already arguably bigger than the last comparable phenomenon, the global wave of protests in the late 1960s that included the Summer of Love, the French general strike and the Prague Spring. It’s the work primarily of a generation of young people who are disillusioned with the conventional political process and the futility of achieving “reform” through a state dominated by corrupt institutional interests, and are instead turning toward self-organization and direct action. Marta Solanas, a 27-year-old Spanish woman, described the movement as the result of a crisis of legitimacy: “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.” Two slogans are relevant here: “Building the structure of the new society in the shell of the old,” and “Be the change you want to see.”
The Arab Spring (rapidly becoming the Global Spring — or perhaps, with apologies to Ken MacLeod, the Fall Revolution), like the post-Seattle movement before it, differs in one fundamental way from the protests of 1968. The 1968 youth movement took place within the limits of a system whose possibilities were defined by the very hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions it fought. It was limited by a centralized, unidirectional, hub-and-spoke broadcast architecture, where one’s ability to address large number of people was controlled by the gatekeepers at a tiny handful of mass-media corporations.
Today’s movements, on the other hand, have arisen in a world where the Web’s networked many-to-many architecture and the “individual super-empowerment” resulting from free global platforms enable individuals to take on giant institutions as equals. Networked movements, with virtually nothing in the way of a permanent administrative apparatus, can swarm giant institutions without warning far beyond their power to cope. As network scholar Yochai Benkler said:
“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing. They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”
Forty years ago, the hippies and the New Left were swimming upstream against the dominant technological and institutional trends of their day. Today, we have the technological tide on our side, and we’ll eat the giant bureaucratic institutions alive like a school of piranha. We’ll display their bleeding heads on our battlements.
It’s a new world in the making — I just hope I live long enough to see how it comes out.