The American Government is now seeking to arrest key players of Anonymous, the global hacktivist collective which has recently targetted the RIAA, Egyptian Government and credit card companies which cut donation access to Wikileaks. A recent report by private security analyst Aaron Barr, who claims to have infiltrated the group online, lays out the hierarchy and plans to shut it down by arresting the “ringleaders”. This is an absolutely typical strategy when it comes to police repression, and it tells us worlds about their mindset and intentions. It completely fails, though, as a means of understanding resistance movements, as well as in attempts to stop them. In my experience, the intricate conspiracy theories which authorities concoct about protesters are no less elaborate or fanciful than those of Alex Jones or Michael Rupert.

Don’t get me wrong – both Alex Jones and Michael Rupert are right about a great many things. But just as often, they miss the point entirely. And exactly the same thing generally happens with these investigations. Problems with the investigators biases and prejudices cloud their views and judgment, as do their own ambitions and deadlines. Resistance movements do not work like governments, militaries or police departments. There is no ‘central command’, no well-defined power structures or clearly laid organizational lines. Vanguardist political parties have played at best a minor role here and abroad for decades (since at least the end of the Cold War) – here and abroad, very few networks, from peace activists to “terrorist insurgents” use those models today.

Decentralized models of organization work. They allow large numbers of people to take part in their own way, without having to fit into precise molds laid out by centralized authorities. Since those leading the charge are often the first to go, decentralized models allow us to continue on without them.

Resistance movements take these structures because they have to. When many sides with conflicting ideas are thrown together with the common task of opposing a government or occupation they must find ways to work together in ways that don’t compromise each other’s autonomy. This is true of major groups (like religious sects in Egypt, or rival gangs in a prison uprising), and it is true of individuals. People do not join campaigns like those waged by Anonymous because of allegiance to founders or leaders – they join because they too have beef with the establishment, and see Anonymous as the best option for actually bringing change. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a coalition or group where the people involved weren’t fairly critical of it – however, we can’t all have our own coalition. Only when large amounts of the populace support these kinds of actions can they gain the kind of traction they need to be ‘successful’. And to do that, they must respect the people who choose to join.

From Egypt and Tunisia to the rubble-strewn streets of Europe, and right to the new online battlegrounds, authorities and pundits are struggling to understand how so many people could coordinate themselves without some powerful institution or individuals behind them. Some have concocted elaborate fantasies – such as Mubarak’s claims that the protests are the work of the Muslim Brotherhood. Others see only chaos, assuming that any resistance which lacks a coherent “leadership” must be made up of only mindless “thugs” and “sheep”.

When targeting leaders fails, many in power simply target civilians. It’s a classic terrorist response. By “making an example” of a few “ringleaders” – police and courts can ensure that others are scared off. The fact that these people aren’t actually “ringleaders” is usually common knowledge – but that, too, serves the purpose. If anyone can be targeted as a “ringleader”, then everyone who could in any way be associated has to live in fear.

Activists in Ontario are all too familiar with these tactics after last summer’s clusterfuck at the G20 protests in Toronto. At points, anybody wearing black was arrested, even those who clearly weren’t even protesters. At others, “key figures” were simply locked away, some before protest began, on elaborate charges of “conspiracy” (complete with a court-imposed press ban). For all their “vast knowledge” of anarchist organizers, though, compiled through years of undercover research and billion dollars in funding, they still stood idly by as the black bloc trashed Queen St West. Protection of Starbucks windows was never the point – terrorizing political opponents was. And they did.

Arrest of whichever active members of Anonymous they can find will not stop the movement. It may create martyrs, and it may ruin a few lives (these tactics often do). Such aggression, though, will only enrage those who are already very angry. The collective wrath of Anonymous has been marshaled for so many popular causes, from file sharing to Egyptian freedom, that it’s almost impossible to believe that a few heavy-handed prosecutions could stop it now. “Making an example” of a few people will send a message for sure – but what message will be received is a very different question.

Leaderless resistance is fast becoming a global reality in the brutal world of 21st century politics. People are now far too well-connected and informed to bow down before a few prophets or visionaries. And while the Egyptian experience proves that online resources can be invaluable for those seeking change –it also shows that these networks can still thrive almost entirely offline.

What those in power fear is not that popular revolt will thrust “bad people” like the ,a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_Brotherhood”>Muslim Brotherhood into power (cue the racist assumptions). What they fear is that leaderless resistance will lead to a greater decentralization of society. If people are exposed to working models of networked organizations which can hold them together through times of siege, occupation and revolt, they may begin to question whether we need centralized power structures at all. Revolutions don’t stop at single institutions and they no longer appear to stop at borders, either.

Advertisements