Anonymous as an Antinomian Movement

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By Dan McQuillan:

"Anonymous has been a direct link between the Arab Spring and the global Occupy movement, with a visible presence in camps and protests as well as online. But they are only part of a plurality of currents that echo the English Dissenters of the Interregnum. It was the Diggers who most famously ‘occupied’ St. George’s Hill in 1649 the name of “making the Earth a Common Treasury for All”, and it was the Levellers call in the Putney debates for democratic accountability and financial transparency from government that finds common ground with the discourse of the Occupy movement. Even the tension between the different currents of digital culture finds parallels in the 1640′s – Digger spokesman Gerard Winstanley’s distaste for the Ranters (“Ranting principles”, according to Gerrard Winstanley, denoted a general lack of moral values or restrain in worldly pleasures) speaks to the differences between Creative Commons and hacktivism.

As with antinomianism, any social movement deploying the affordances of General Computation and the Internet will tend towards heresy in the eyes of the Establishment (see the transcript of Cory Doctorow’s talk ‘The Coming War on General Computation’ at 28c3). This modern heresy finds it’s practice in hacking, “the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations” and “a tactic for transforming pre-existing elements to evoke meanings not originally intended in the raw material”. As Otto von Busch says in Abstract Hacktivism: “Hacking and Heresy can be seen as two practices of distributed reinterpretation of systems and political protocols, especially in relation to organic networked systems where the hacker or heretic claims the right to be co-author and co-designer”

The small group who started the catalytic pre-Occupy camp in Madrid in May 2011 included hackers. It was a moment that blended technical and abstract hacktivism:

“In the early hours of 16 May something unexpected happened. A group of some forty protesters decided to set camp at Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, instead of returning to their homes. One of them, a member of the hacker group Isaac Hacksimov, explained later: ‘All we did was a gesture that broke the collective mental block’. Fearing that the authorities may evict them, they sent out calls for support via the internet. The first person to join them learned about their action on Twitter.”

Taken together, these developments become epochal when they raise the curtain on forgotten social forms outside the framework of capitalist globalisation. Commenting on the fluid dynamics of the new politics, the Virtual Policy Network makes an explicit link to the pre-industrial: “A new politics has emerged from the affordances of the internet, and agile movements are continually emerging from the underlying flow of micro-political acts…If we look inside these movements we see complexity, and we can detect a core of deeply rooted pre-industrial human behaviours mediated through a digitally interconnected global society.”

So what can we expect from an antiomian atmosphere of dissent that blows across the internet and condenses in the squares? If our English Dissenters are any guide, it will involve commons-based innovation; as Charlie Leadbeater points out in ‘Digging for the Future’ “the Levellers wanted to raise food production through mutual ownership of underused land that would allow new technologies like manuring to take hold” and they believed “ that knowledge, even of the word of God, came from within rather than being handed down by the clergy. A productive, cooperative community would share and create knowledge rather than be ruled by the dogma of a narrow elite.”

As Nicolas Mendoza concludes about 4chan & Wikileaks: “Rather than being the result of a violent class struggle, the end of capitalist hegemony might be the result of a slow Internet-enabled process of migration, a dripping (to abuse once more the WikiLeaks logo) towards societies that organize around commons”ii. It wouldn’t be the first time there’s been an exodus; as David Graeber highlights in ‘Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology’ there are historical examples of withdrawal, as there are of societies that have resisted hierarchy & accumulation altogether. Even micro-examples like Crop Mob show how the affordances of the net can support pre-industrial modes of agriculture and the Foundation for P2P Alternatives relentlessly catalogues the worldwide prototyping of peer-to-peer alternatives, “a relational dynamic in which people exchange not with each other as individuals, but with a commons…on a global scale, enabled by internet technologies”.

In these times, in the streets and squares blown by the digital winds, there occur liminal moments of the kind anthropologist John Postill experienced with Spain’s Indignados:

“Many participants later reported a range of psychosomatic reactions such as goose bumps (carne de gallina) or tears of joy. I felt as if a switch had been turned on, a gestalt switch, and I had now awakened to a new political reality. I was no longer merely a participant observer of the movement, I was the movement. From that moment onwards, virals such as #takethesquare or #Iam15M (#yosoy15M) acquired for me – and countless other ‘converts’ – a very different meaning; they became integral to the new paradigm that now organises my emic understanding of the movement”.

Gabriella Coleman has identified the resonance of Anonymous with the horizontal network forms and decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy, a pattern clearly parallelled in Occupy. But rather than focus on organisational form we can open ourselves to their circulations, their tempos and their transmutations. By tuning instead into their textures and densities we may see them both as accretions of what Kathleen Stewart describes as an atmosphere: “An atmosphere is not an inert context but a force field in which people find themselves. It is not an effect of other forces but a lived affect – a capacity to affect and to be affected that pushes a present into a composition, an expressivity, the sense of potentiality and event. It is an attunement of the senses, of labors, and imaginaries to potential ways of living in or living through things. A living through that shows up in the generative precarity of ordinary sensibilities of not knowing what compels, not being able to sit still, being exhausted, being left behind or being ahead of the curve, being in love with some form or life that comes along, being ready for something – anything – to happen”.

The restless antecedents of the Ranters were the Brethren of the Free Spirit, an antinomian and egalitarian heresy that ranged across Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, challenging earthly powers and refusing to be repressed. By drawing parallels between the Antinomians of 1649 and the spirit of Anonymous I am suggesting, perhaps, the emergence of a Brethren of the Free Internet." (