Tim Rayner on the characteristics of #OccupyWallStreet as a swarm movement

OF COURSE Occupy Wall Street doesn’t have “demands.” Demonstrations and protests have demands. But although O.W.S. LOOKS like a protest and a demonstration (and occasionally turns into one), it is actually something more, something else: It is a passionate community of inquiry acting itself out as an archetypal improvisational street theater performance embodying, in one hand, people’s longings for the world as it could be and, in the other, their intense frustrations with the world as it is. These longings and frustrations reside in the whole society, not just in the occupiers. The occupiers are behaving and reaching out in ways that release and activate those suppressed transformational energies all over the country and world. – Tom Atlee

Excerpted from Tim Rayner:

Key question:

how do the new swarm movements differ from the traditional political movements of the 20th century?

OccupyWallStreet is not a political movement in the traditional sense. It is a countercultural swarm. We need to see it as a swarm to understand why people are drawn to it, and what makes it the most important political force on the planet today.

The traditional job of social movements is to present a collective challenge to political institutions in the name of freedom, justice, or rights. The most powerful movements of the 20th century were identity-based movements, which created huge mobile blocks of power by gathering the oppressed and disenfranchised of the earth under the flag of united identities: workers, women, blacks, the colonized, and so on. ‘We, the oppressed X, gather together to challenge the forces amassed against us’. This is the logic of the ‘new’ social movements of the late 20th century. The new social movements profoundly reshaped Western societies. Notably, however, they didn’t achieve this by transforming the operating system of these societies: liberal capitalism. These movements ‘called out’ liberal capitalism and insisted that it operates in a manner consistent with its founding principles, ensuring rights and opportunities for all. In doing so, they improved life for a large proportion of society. But, at the same time, they consolidated liberal capitalism by demonstrating how inclusive and adaptable the operating system could be.

It is not my intention to demean or diminish the achievements of the new social movements. My point is that these movements have political limits, set by the system that they chose to work within. We see the limits of these movements when we compare and contrast the way that they shape the identities of their members with swarm movements. Simplifying a little, we can say that traditional movements shape and transform their member’s identities in the following way: first, by orienting thought in relation to a (mostly negative and critical) ‘cognitive map’ of how things work (referring to the capitalist system, patriarchy, the military-industrial complex, colonialism, or the coldest of cold monsters, the state); second, corralling identity in terms of a unitary social class or group (workers, women, ‘the youth’, gays, the oppressed, etc); and finally, by activating the movement by steering its energies towards contesting established political and legal structures.”

“Swarm movements shape identity in a completely different way. First off, they are are issue- or cause-based, rather than identity-based, movements. Instead of seeking to reduce the movement to a single set of grievances representing the struggles of a single group identity, swarm movements affirm the diversity of participants as their fundamental strength. This diversity is irreducible to a single identity, but it is powerful when focused on a common cause.

A second point of difference between traditional and swarm movements concerns what these movements seek to achieve. Traditional movements focus on challenging and changing institutions. The goals of these movements are thus extrinsic to the movements themselves: they are achieved as a result of movement activity. Swarms can (and usually do) set extrinsic goals. Their primary goal, however, is to sustain the critical mass that holds the network together. As a result, movement activity is focused more on the intrinsic goal of empowering the swarm than any extrinsic goal the movement might hope to achieve. This can make swarms look unfocused from an external point of view. But within the movement, conditions tend to be highly conducive for participation. Swarm movements are intrinsically empowering and thus intrinsically rewarding for participants. Ultimately, participants do not need to look beyond the act of participation for a reason to join the swarm. Swarming is its own reward; the payoff is the empowerment that comes from swarming.

The intrinsic nature of swarm movements makes them hard to understand from an external perspective. Commentators like Lessig, who are familiar with a more traditional style of movement, often feel compelled to fabricate or imagine extrinsic goals in order to overcome the cognitive dissonance they experience surveying a mass social activity that doesn’t play by traditional rules. But the more we look for extrinsic goals, the further get from understanding what really inspires swarm activity. Swarms are based in a common sense of potential. What catalyzes a swarm movement is the sense that here, today, a new way of working and living together is possible.

Swarms are transformative movements. Insofar as members acknowledge a common sense of identity, it is a transformative identity, a sense of being part of a movement that is changing the world.

We can map the logic of the identity shift involved in swarm movements as follows. First, a mass of people acquire a new cognitive map, representing an original conception of what they can achieve together as a network. The cognitive maps that inspire OccupyWallStreet and Occupy Together resonate with innovations in the online world. OccupyWallStreet is an ‘open space’ movement. The camp structure is an open API that anyone is free to hack into and explore using MeetUp as a Directory. The second step in the process comes when the mass of people who apply these cognitive maps start reflecting on how working together expands their common potential. This insight gives rise to the swarm. A swarm movement comes into being as a swarm when a mass collective grasps what it is capable of achieving en masse.

Swarms transform our shared sense of the possible. This is what draws people to these movements. It is the key to their unique political power.

Victor Hugo claimed that no army in the world can stand in the way of an idea whose time has come. No government or political institution can hold its ground when confronted with a new collective sense of what human beings are capable of doing and achieving en masse. Every major social transformation, from the Age of Revolutions to the present day, has been driven by a catalytic swarm. Swarm movements do not expend their energies by contesting the status quo. They reinvent it. Norms slide in all directions and political institutions are forced to keep up.

Swarms are vectors of mass transformation. They sweep across societies on the diagonal and reset political cultures in their wake. The protesters in Liberty Square and across the US are engaged in a more serious business than contesting dominant institutions. They are knitting together new cognitive maps based on peer-to-peer strategies and open source ethics and reworking politics from below. As Douglas Rushkoff claims, ‘we are witnessing America’s first true Internet-era movement’. And it is transforming our sense of the possible. The surges of energy coming off the movement are immense. All that remains is that the movement finds a way of articulating its power without reducing its intrinsic diversity. If OccupyWallStreet can achieve this, it could literally change the world.

Perhaps the new mode of collective enunciation has already been created. The Human Microphone System that OccupyWallStreet protesters use to facilitate their General assemblies is a remarkable expression of direct democratic culture. Electronic amplification is banned in the square. The speaker says half a sentence and the crowd repeats it, so that everyone can hear. The speaker then completes the sentence and the crowd repeats this too.

The human microphone system is a physical expression of the appreciative process that happens on the internet all the time. When a blogger posts something that others think is significant, they share the message through their networks, so that that others who are not included with the author’s networks may enjoy it too. In doing so, they affirm the incredible power of open networks to create collective knowledge and wisdom. OccupyWallStreet applies the same modus operandi to transformative political action.”

1 Comment Tim Rayner on the characteristics of #OccupyWallStreet as a swarm movement

  1. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    Maybe this movement is something closer to permaculture? It doesn’t has any ideology either, it’s all about mimicking natural systems. After all, is this such a stupid idea? Do we really need ideologies? Why not just create interconnected, fractal structures out of our societies, like ALL sustainable systems found in nature? For this we don’t need ideology, but a new kind of technology:

    – The Radical Technology of Christopher Alexander: http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20110906/the-radical-technology-of-christopher-alexander

    – The Sustainable Technology of Christopher Alexander: http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20110919/the-sustainable-technology-of-christopher-alexander

    – The Pattern Technology of Christopher Alexander: http://www.metropolismag.com/pov/20111007/the-pattern-technology-of-christopher-alexander

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