In summer 2010, WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of classified U.S. 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 internal corruption in a number of Arab regimes and helped spark a “Facebook/Twitter Revolution” in Tunisia, ending in the overthrow of the government. From there these grassroots revolutions, in which social networking technologies played an important role, spread to Egypt and Libya, bringing down those regimes. The fires are still burning in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria.
The Arab Spring is just an intensification of a process that began in the ’90s, chronicled by RAND Corporation 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, puts 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.
This model of networked resistance is 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. 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.
This movement is already arguably bigger than the last comparable phenomenon, the global wave of protests in the late 1960s including the Summer of Love, the French general strike, and the Prague Spring. It’s the work primarily of a generation disillusioned with conventional politics and the futility of attempting “reform” through a state dominated by corrupt institutional interests. They’re instead turning toward self-organization and direct action. Marta Solanas, a 27-year-old Spanish woman, describes 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 operated within the limits of a system 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 numbers of people was controlled by gatekeepers at a handful of mass media corporations.
Today’s movements, on the other hand, arise 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 no permanent administrative apparatus, swarm giant institutions without warning and far beyond their power to cope. As network scholar Yochai Benkler says: “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 swam upstream against the dominant technological and institutional trends of their day. Today, we have that technological tide on our side, and we’ll eat the giant bureaucratic institutions alive like a school of piranhas. 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.
Originally published at the Center for a Stateless Society. Licensed for reprint under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.