Occupy The Internet!

The OWS movement keeps growing. More and more people keep celebrating resistance, protesting against corporate greed, getting arrested, speechifying, and making excellent media. Yesterday some Egyptians who had been involved in the Tahrir Square revolution put in an appearance and further stoked the flames of inspiration. Huzzah!

Yet I worry. For all their energy, the protesters in Tahrir Square seem to have been largely sold out. Emergency measures have been reinstated. Journalists are being arrested. Free and fair elections appear as elusive as ever. I don’t claim to be an expert, and I hope that I am wrong, but it seems to me there was an opportunity for more to be achieved, and that the brakes were put on by folks like Obama, who while giving muted support for the protesters nonetheless insisted on an ‘orderly transition’, which specifically meant that while Mubarak had to go, the new president was to be the CIA’s main man in Egypt and that country’s Torturer-in-Chief, Omar Suleiman, supported by the military, who are now very hesitant to give up control.

Is that what the future holds for OWS? Illusory gains with a few sacrificial lambs? A public catharsis that neither defeats nor seizes real power? At least in the Arab world demographics are on the side of the protesters, for a full 60% of the 300 million people living in Arab states are under the age of 25. That’s the kind of bulge that produced the radicalism of the 1960s in the USA. But in the USA itself, today, the demographic bulge is in power, resisting change.

I am an optimist by nature, not a pessimist. Yet again, I worry. We have seen again and again how grassroots coalitions that passionately desire change and justice are tricked and distracted and hijacked through various subversive tactics. Obama’s presidency is an appalling example of – well I’m not even sure what it is yet, it baffles me as it does so many others – but if nothing else it is an example of how a great tide of positive energy can be utterly wasted, disintegrating without having achieved anything substantial, and very quickly brought under the heel of authoritarian forces again.

Obviously, there is a real issue here and that is how far people are willing to go in the name of justice. Camping out in the street or going on a march is fine, but in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Bahrain, in Syria, even in Libya, people are putting their lives on the line. And again, a lot of those people (though by no means all) are young men – the most reckless form of human we have – of which there is a superabundance in those countries. And there are a lot fewer of them in the USA and Canada and Europe. Yet the question remains: how far will people go to effect change?

I believe that what is missing from this movement is leadership from the online world. Where are the virtual sit-ins and other actions that could actually disrupt the profiteering of the banks? If a few hundred people sitting in Zucotti Park can make that kind of an impact what about a few million in an online action against corporate greed? Where are anonymous when we need them?

To me there are only a few choices:

1) significant virtual civil disobedience supported by massive real-world protests that actually threaten the economic well-being of the 1% resulting in their willingness to yield some degree of wealth and power to save themselves further stress and risk.

2) new digitally-enabled p2p economic models are widely promoted and popularly embraced within a global OWS movement, resulting in a rapid shifting of the economic balance of power to new distributed institutions based on giving and sharing that can no longer be centrally ruled by literate regulators and authorities, i.e. imagine an open source eBay meets Adwords meets Monster meets Kickstarter meets LinkedIn meets PayPal as an entirely new economy. All of the latest and best work in this area – and there is quite a lot of it – is documented on Michel Bauwens’ excellent and provocative P2PDaily.

3) The revenge of the digital South. By this I mean that if today there were such a thing as a leftist guerilla cell determined to reshape global economics so as to disposess the global 1% in favor of the global 99%, there is no doubt whatsoever that the most effective way to do this would be to possess super-duper hacking skills. I could imagine a politically motivated group of third-world hackers getting into this Occupy Wall Street game and causing some far more severe disruption than what is currently on offer.

4) People keep occupying and marching and occupying and marching until everybody gets tired and goes home and cries.

5) The authorities wait until everyone is tired and cold and then shut it down with little resistance.

Are there other likely outcomes? Agent provocateurs causing mayhem so everybody can be locked up? Maybe. But that would be counterproductive for the authorities and surely a few smart people at the top must understand this. Obama standing with the demonstrators? Hardly. Mitt Romney standing with them? Even less likely. A leader emerging that can bring the movement together strategically to achieve real results? Maybe. Though the leaderlessness of the movement seems to preclude this possibility.

It’s a promising situation but also a worrisome one. Time will tell. The best options are 1) combined online and offline civil disobedience and  2) the adoption of new digitally-enabled p2p economic models. The latter are especially crucial in the absence of any clear strategic goals other than ‘tax the rich’ and ‘feed the poor’. Without the intervention of creative hacktivists and interactivists offering new solutions I just don’t see how this movement will achieve meaningful results. In the physical world the balance of power is shockingly one-sided. Online, the playing field is far more level. But yoked together in an interactivist feedback loop, online and offline occupations have the power to yield truly transformative results. We need, in other words, The Army of Love and Software.

Occupy The Internet!

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