Sunday, 9 October 2011

Occupy all of the things!

I've been following the Occupy Wall Street protests pretty much since they started, and despite an early rocky start, with little media attention, they have finally started to penetrate the mainstream media and the public consciousness. The American press is still somewhat resistant to covering the protests (with cries of "but its too difficult to figure out what they want" in abundance), however the Guardian and Al Jazeera have done sterling work covering the issues.

Ultimately refusing to cover the protests because its hard to pin down what the protesters want is an incredible cop-out. Thematically they are pretty simple, people in the US (and increasingly abroad) have given up on their Governments, seeing them as a barrier to progress, and have instead decided to go to the institutions which they see as being responsible for the ongoing decline they see around them, banks.

What makes these protests interesting is how teched up they are, and how that technology is fuelling a growing protest movement which is steadily spreading to other cities. John Robb has done an excellent write up of the structure of the protests and how they've been organised:
Open source protest is an organizational technique. Probably the only organizational technique that can assemble a massive crowd in today's multiplexed environment. Essential rules of open source protest include:
  • A promise. A simple goal/idea that nearly everyone can get behind. Adbusters did pretty good with "occupy wall street." Why? Nearly everyone hates the pervasive corruption of banks and Wall Street. It's an easy target.
  • A plausible promise. Prove that the promise can work. They did. They actually occupied Wall Street and set up camp. They then got the message out.
  • A big tent and an open invitation. It doesn't matter what your reason for protesting is as long as you hate/dislike Wall Street. The big tent is already in place (notice the diversity of the signage). Saw something similar from the Tea Party before it was mainstreamed/diminished.
  • Let everyone innovate. Don't create a leadership group. The general assembly approach appears to work.
  • Support anyone in a leadership role that either a) grows the movement or b) advances the movement closer to its goal. Oppose (ignore) anybody that proposes a larger, more complex agenda or those that claim ownership over the movement.
  • If a new technique works, document it, use it again, and share it with everyone else. Copy everything that works.
  • Spread the word of the movement as widely as possible.
So far pretty much all of these points are covered, and the movement appears to be self sustaining. Interesting fringe support groups have emerged, particularly amongst people who can't participate directly. The 99 Percent blog for example is providing an outlet for people to describe the misery of living in a society where someone with a degree can't find work and has become convinced they never will. It also breaks down some of the ideas that the supporters of this movement are young disenfranchised people.

Increasingly the movement is growing to represent the original Tea Party, before it was hijacked by the Koch Brothers and their ilk to garner support for the Republican Party (a very smart and successful attempt to both disarm something annoying and re purpose it). This post on the FedUpUSA site (hat tip to Charles Cameron) sums it up nicely:
There are a few nuts in the OWS crowd, but from what I hear “Occupy Wall Street” is about bringing the fraudsters to justice. Its about changing the banker/government dynamic that runs this country. It’s about free markets. It’s about ending endless debt. It’s about stopping the wars. It’s about the rule of law. It’s about the libertarian soul of America.

Since the TP lost the focus of addressing the root problems of America, they remain unresolved.

It’s sad, really. The TP talks about sewer legislation, redistricting, and supporting House Speaker Boehner’s plan to add $2 trillion in debt, while the real issue is Congress has spent more than it takes in, and the costs of the promises outweigh the means to pay them. In the process, you and I are less free than we used to be.

There was no place left for folks to go.

This raises an interesting concern which I think is going to be increasingly important in our society as time goes by. Networks are growing increasingly tamper proof. Once upon a time it was tough but not impossible to take ahold of a protest organisation and redirect it, people are increasingly savvy to attempts to do so, and whilst they can't stop someone like the Koch brothers, they will simply leave and set up their own new mechanisms. As the recent Kickstarter fundraiser for Occupy shows, even money is growing to be less of an object. $73,000 and counting makes for a good chunk of cash to use to keep people sitting outside Wall Street and shouting.

Self sustaining and self reinforcing networks are a key component in any insurgency, and increasingly this movement appears to be a (peaceful) insurgency. As it continues to spread there are more opportunities to out manoeuvre the police and others who want to shut the protests down. The movement will also start to bleed police dry after a certain amount of time. How long can the police lock down Wall Street? Its a huge drain on resources, manpower and time, and the protesters have significantly more of all three.

And lets say that the one outside Wall Street gets shut down and moved on... well what's to stop them turning up at Times Square the next day, and outside the 9/11 memorial site the day after? The police can only move so fast, wheras the protesters can simply check online and see where they should be going for greatest effect. What happens when New York has 2 protests, or 3, or 5, all going on simultaneously. Its not like the city is lacking for unemployed people with time to burn and an axe to grind.

Two interesting things are likely to happen in the next few weeks and months, first, its going to get cold, second, the financial system is likely to undergo further shocks. Both these factors will have implications for the protesters. Can they keep people out as the weather grows brutually cold? And how many more people will turn out the next time the Government pours vast amounts into the financial sector to no appreciable effect?

The OWS movement increasingly resembles the protests in the Middle East and sub Saharan Africa, where the protesters never went home, because... well why would they? They have no jobs, they have no prospects under the current system, and a life living in a tent city isnt much worse than what they left behind.

I'm going to write some more on self sustaining networks soon, as my brain is still working out some of the things I want to say, but suffice it to say OWS is here to stay, and its here to spread. London kicks off next weekend and I fully intend to take a look. Anonymous masks to the ready and such.
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