The Coming Swarm

Molly Sauter. The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet (New York, London, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014).

“The aim of this work,” Sauter writes, “is to place DDoS [distributed denial of service] actions… in a historical and theoretical context, covering the use of the tactic, its development over time, and its potential for ethical political practice.” And this is an excellent source on the history of the tactic; the historical context she provides goes back to the early use of DDoS attacks, like EDT’s campaign of “digital storms” in support of the Zapatistas in the 1990s, and also devotes considerable attention to Anonymous “Operation Payback” in 2010.

Sauter’s main line of argument is that DDoS actions to shut down government and corporate websites are not only permissible but perhaps necessary, given the growing hegemony of such institutions and their official perspectives over the Internet. A protester “might set up a dedicated blog — which may or may not ever be read — but it is much harder for her to stand collectively with others against a corporate giant in the online space.” Sauter didn’t make an explicit comparison to so-called “free speech zones” as a physical analog, but that’s the first thing I thought of. “Because of the densely intertwined nature of property and speech in the online space, unwelcome acts of collective protest become also acts of trespass.”

Direct action is an ideological mode of activism that encourages activists to disrupt harmful processes and systems at the same time as they attempt to provoke a dramatic, illustrative reaction from their target. It doesn’t force activists to channel their dissent through ombudsmen or PR departments, or to curtail their political behavior to that recognized by their targets as “valid.” Protesters aren’t required to tacitly supply their consent before being permitted to express their dissent.

The disruption of government and corporate websites, against a background of such hegemony, in itself carries a positive meaning. The disruption itself creates a “counterartifact” in opposition to the flow of communication controlled by corporation and state.

The blank browser screen, the long-delayed load time…. [W]e can see how the imposition of silence and delay into a signal rich environment can be… a powerful discursive contribution….

…By replacing continuity with disruption, activists attempt to create a rhetorical cavity in the digitized structure of capitalism wherein activism can take place. This break in “business as usual” makes room for the counteractions of activism. It is the creation of excavated, disrupted space that is valuable in these contexts, sometimes even more valuable than direct discursive engagement between activists and their target….

If we look at the moment of content-less interruption as a moment of impact to be absorbed rather than a conveyance of content to be understood, we can then look at it as a form of exchange between differently empowered groups or between different power structures….

[The disruption] opens bandwidth for speech from new actors and participants in a public discourse that otherwise only ever receives signals from those (always) already broadcasting….

As we look at the role of DDoS within online activism, the reader should bear in mind the power of disruption to draw attention to issues that no one wants to talk about, and to call different types of stakeholders to account. Though DDoS as a tactic is still relatively novel, it fits within a centuries-long tradition of breaking laws and disrupting business as usual to make a political point. These actions aren’t simply disruption for disruption’s sake. Rather they serve to help the activist or dissenter to direct the attention of the public through the interpolation of difference into routine.

Disruption protest like DDoS actions “serves to alert the wider public that the normal channels of participation have failed for a certain population. The lack of signal that is the external manifestation of an activist DDoS action should be interpreted as making space for unheard dissent.”

This “creation of an awkward silence in the constant whirl of communicative capitalism” challenges the position of the continuous one-way communicative barrage of dominant institutions as an unquestioned and pervasive ground, and instead creates a contrast against which the dominant narrative is forced to stand out in relief as one contending figure. The official narrative, rather than passing unexamined as a ubiquitous fact of nature, is forced to state itself — and defend itself — as a proposition, and become a topic of debate in which it is contingent rather than inevitable.

Regarding the ethical issues raised by suppressing speech by rendering websites of government and corporate entities — like the WTO, MPAA, RIAA, etc. — inaccessible, speaking only for myself I’m totally down with disrupting their ability to function at all. In my opinion it’s just a way of jamming the C3 of an invading enemy.

Sauter also demolishes Malcolm Gladwell’s and Evgeny Morozov’s critique of “slacktivism” — internet-based, “weak ties” activism — as being somehow “too easy” compared to traditional activist movements. According to such critics, it’s not simply that online activism appeals to the lazy, and offers an easy feel-good form of participation for those who lack the motivation for a “real sacrifice.” It’s that they lionize a model of civil disobedience — beloved of liberal memory — that centers on the drama of “willful violation of the law; deliberate arrest; and having one’s day in court.”

These critiques make a series of assumptions about the purpose and practice of activism and often ground themselves historically in the civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests. In this model, worthwhile activism is performed on the streets, where the activist puts himself in physical and legal peril to support his ideals. Activism is “hard,” not anyone can do it. Activism has a strong, discernible effect on its target. If the activist is not placing herself in physical danger to express her views, then it is not valid criticism.

…But [the “slacktivist” critique] fails to consider that activism can have many divergent goals beyond direct influence on power structures. It explicitly denies that impact on individuals and personal performative identification with communities of interest can be valid activist outcomes…. It casts as a failure the fact that the simpler modes of digitally based activism allow more people to engage. As the cost of entry-level engagement goes down, more people will engage. Some of those people will continue to stay involved with activist causes and scale the ladder of engagement to more advanced and involved forms of activism. Others won’t. But there must be a bottom rung to step on….

The whole point of stigmergic technologies, in this regard, is their granularity: They enable the leveraging of even very small contributions that previously would have been made uneconomical by the high transaction costs of coordination. Wikipedia, unlike Britannica, can leverage millions of contributions as small as an added paragraph or clause, or change in punctuation in an existing article, without first having to amass the capital to create an entire encyclopedia.

Sauter challenges a nostalgia for civil disobedience on the part of critics “that seem[s] to originate from an ahistorical view of the development and implementation of civil disobedience in the United States….” Such popular understandings “stem from a narrativized view of iconic moments in political activism, such as the Civil Rights Movement, which do not take into account the realities faced by political movements as they develop or the particular challenges faced by activists attempting to operate in a novel environment such as the internet….” The Civil Rights Movement, in the fifty years since its greatest achievements, “has taken a venerated place in activist history. Its history has been narrativized and packaged to the point where it has become virtually ahistorical, and no modern, developing movement could possibly stand up in comparison.”

Sauter continues: “One aspect of civil disobedience that this nostalgia glosses over is its potential for disruption. The marches, sit-ins, and boycotts of the civil rights era were intensively disruptive and were intended to be so.” This tendency to obscure the revolutionary and disruptive nature of the real Civil Rights Movement has made it easier to sanitize (as evidenced by the safe, packaged liberal and neoconservative version of Martin Luther King Jr., who apparently did nothing but give the “I Have a Dream Speech” and march hand-in-hand with current Republican leaders in their extreme youth).

DDoS attacks aren’t the only tactic excluded from upper-middle-class white NPR liberals’ received version of struggle.

…this ahistorical myopia that encourages the exile of tactics such as occupations, blockades, monkey wrenching, defacements, culture jamming, strikes, sabotage, and many more from the popularly recognized repertoire of civil disobedience discourages activism and dissent… It should not be surprising that these disruptive, and in some cases destructive, tactics, often interpreted to fall outside the realm of “acceptable” political acts, are used primarily by groups that are historically underprivileged in the area of public politics. Students, blue-collar workers, inner-city youth, the homeless, those living below the poverty line, and other minorities are routinely pushed out of public political life because they are not engaging in what is popularly accepted as proper political conduct. These biases toward what “counts” as politically valid conduct and speech contributes to disfranchisement and narrows the public political discourse. By ignoring the potential legitimacy of these out-of-the-mainstream disruptive tactics, critics are contributing to this systemic disenfranchisement by artificially and harmfully restricting what political speech and conduct is acceptable and, by extension, whose.

It bears mentioning that it’s increasingly only highly visible public figures — politicians and entertainers — who can safely engage in the idealized model of civil disobedience any more. In many cases it’s almost a ritual for some rich celebrity to chain herself to the White House fence or splash mock “crude oil” on some public monument, and then be perfunctorily arrested for the cameras by cooperative police, booked and released. For ordinary people, on the other hand, the traditional brutality of Bull Connor and Mayor Daly has been supplemented by a post-9/11 legal regime that brings peaceful civil disobedience under the shadow of felony prosecution for terroristic activity. Undercover filming of animal cruelty in the food industry has been criminalized, and — in what amounts to a revival of the old “criminal syndicalism” statutes — anyone engaged in 1930s-style industrial activism takes a serious risk of being charged with “economic terrorism.”

Criticisms based on an idealized liberal version of history “ultimately chill innovation in political movements.” There’s a close parallel, libertarians may note, with the way regulatory entry barriers lock in high-overhead, capital-intensive technologies used by privileged incumbent corporations, and lock out competition from smaller upstart firms using new democratic technologies that otherwise would permit them to enter the market without large capital outlays or a large revenue stream to service overhead. Similarly, the “approved” forms of activism promoted by legacy activist institutions, their professionalized leadership and celebrity allies tend to privilege the forms of protest that are most feasible for the middle class, thus creating entry barriers against the “weapons of the weak” and more asymmetric modes of opposition by ordinary people. “…[I]t encourages the expression of dissent only by those individuals willing to risk everything for the sake of a political point” — or by those who can afford to do so.

Sauter also points to another important function of the DDoS attack which doesn’t get much attention: its constitutive function. To the extent that the networked resistance movements of the past twenty years are prefigurative, their mode of organization is as important for the ways it creates a sense of subjective identity and habitual ways of doing things that prefigure the successor society — the ways it constitutes the successor society as a self-conscious force — as for the influence it has on the institutions of the existing society. Sauter, borrowing a James Scott quote on “hidden transcripts” from Domination and the Art of Resistance, writes that DDoS attacks create a common medium in which participants “recognize the full extent to which their claims, their dreams, their anger is shared by other subordinates with whom they have not been in direct touch.” Partcipating in DDoS actions may result in “biographical impact” and “conversion,” radicalizing the participant and making it more likely she will continue to be politically involved.

Distributed denials of service and other forms of online activism don’t occur in isolation, I would add. Historically they have existed as one subset of a much larger global revolutionary wave that began with the EZLN uprising in Chiapas, and has since taken such forms as the Seattle anti-globalization movement, the Arab Spring, M15, Occupy, and the current nationwide uprising against police racism in the U.S. And according to John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, the exposure and swarming carried out by the global online support network for the Zapatistas is probably the reason they weren’t quietly crushed like similar previous movements. Similarly, Sauter points out, the electrohippies’ combined DDOS/email swarming campaign against the WTO from November 30 to December 4 of 1999 — followed by two days of emailing large file attachments to WTO-affiliiated addresses — provided support to the sea turtles marching in the streets of Seattle.

So the traditional NPR liberal pearl-clutching over DDoS attacks dovetails with hostility on a much larger scale on the part of the old-line, verticalist Left establishment, against all forms of revolution on a prefigurative or horizontalist model. Witness mainstream Left critiques of Occupy for its lack of public spokespersons and bullet-pointed demands. Never mind that it came very close to being such a movement — which would probably have lasted a few days and then fizzled out — had not a group of horizontalists including David Graeber prevented it being hijacked by the conventional Left, and instead caused it to crystallize on a model like the Spanish M15 movement.

The emphasis on mass, hierarchy and central coordination to which the traditional establishment Left is so attached is very much an industrial age paradigm. And the model of activism it lionizes — centered on large-scale concentrations of bodies in space, with slogans and posters — amounts to a cargo cult.

Going back to Engels in Anti-Duhring or even to Marx in The Communist Manifesto, there was a tendency in much of the Left to equate size, capital accumulation and overhead with productivity, to view the gigantism fostered by capitalism as “progressive,” and to equate “Revolution” to putting capitalism’s hierarchical institutions under new management. Even Gramsci, for all his talk of a “war of position,” only put off the final conquest of the commanding heights institutions until the cultural sappers had done their job.

This mission of revolutionary conquest, or reformist capture, of the institutions of the old society presupposed countervailing institutions of equal mass. The Old Left model of revolution, and its survivals in the verticalist/establishment Left to the present day, are direct analogues of the mass production industrial model of Schumpeter, Galbraith and Chandler.

If there was ever any validity to this model — which I consider highly doubtful — it ended with the mass production age. We no longer need to storm the ramparts of those old state and industrial hierarchies because they no longer perform any socially necessary function. Ephemeral production technologies and distributed, stigmergic coordination mechanisms have made it possible to build a society entirely outside the old institutional framework, and leave the old institutions to crumble. As my friend Katherine Gallagher put it (writing as @zhinxy on Twitter):

We won’t be encircled by “them,” but woven through their antiquated structures, impossible to quarantine off and finish. I’m not a pacifist. I’m not at all against defensive violence. That’s a separate question to me of overthrow. But to oversimplify, when it comes to violence, I want it to be the last stand of a disintegrating order against an emerging order that has already done much of the hard work of building it’s ideals/structures. Not violent revolutionaries sure that their society will be viable, ready to build it, but a society defending itself against masters that no longer rule it. Build the society and defend it, don’t go forth with the guns and attempt to bring anarchy about in the rubble. I think technology is increasingly putting the possibility of meaningful resistance and worker independence within the realm of a meaningful future. So much of the means of our oppression is now more susceptible to being duplicated on a human scale….

And I think we should be working on how we plan to create a parallel industry that is not held only by those few. More and more the means to keep that industry held only by the few are held in the realm of patent law. It is no longer true that the few own the “lathe” so to speak, nearly as much as they own the patent to it. So we truly could achieve more by creating real alternative manufacture than seizing that built. Yes, there will be protective violence, but it’s not as true as it was in the past that there is real necessary means of production in the hands of the few. What they control more now is access to the methods of production and try to prevent those methods being used outside of their watch. Again, I’m not saying that the “last days” of the state won’t be marked by violence. But I am saying we now have real tactical options beyond confronting them directly until they come to us. (July 2012 — paragraph divisions mine.)

To the extent that it is useful to directly challenge the state in the arena of public opinion, the same technologies that have rendered mass, capital and overhead obsolete in production have also rendered it obsolete in activism. Getting back to Sauter’s comment on the fetish for an idealized 1960s model of civil disobedience impeding innovation in activism, the establishment Left’s attachment to mass, hierarchy and overhead amounts to an entry barrier against innovative forms of resistance that challenge the incumbent “business model.”

Even models of mass demonstration like Occupy, to the extent that they lionize the occupation of space by masses of bodies, and equate them to “activism” as such, can amount — as I said above — to a cargo cult. That is, they mistake the incidents of an older model of activism — marching, signs, slogans — to the thing itself, and hope to conjure results through the ritual use of those incidents.

This is not to deny that the Occupations of 2011 and other mass demonstrations since then have been valuable. Only to say that they are part of a larger movement whose primary focus is the creation of prefigurative counter-institutions, not protest as such. The most important stuff — democratic neighborhood assemblies, local currency systems, micromanufacture, Permaculture, squats, commons-based peer production — isn’t so visible.

There’s a tension in Sauter’s analysis between her evident desire to defend DDoS actions in terms of older traditions of civil disobedience, on the one hand, and the ambivalence of those engaged in the model themselves toward the goals of traditional civil disobedience. The classical model of civil disobedience as explained by Thoreau and King treated the protester as a citizen of the political community; the very requirement of accepting the state’s punishment, in order to spur the conscience of the political community and restore the laws to a just foundation, reflected a recognition of the state’s moral legitimacy and the need to be subject to its authority even in disobeying it. To the extent that the world revolutionary wave of the past twenty years is prefigurative, autonomist or secessionist — that is, that it seeks to build a new system outside the institutional framework of the old one — it is not interested primarily in capturing or influencing the policies of commanding-heights institutions within the existing society. And many subcurrents of that movement — particularly those with an avowedly anarchist or revolutionary ideology — explicitly reject the legitimacy of the state and its laws.

Early actors engaged in DDoS actions, like EDT and the electrohippies, saw such actions as a direct analog of traditional sit-ins, “which incorporate a give-and-take with the state and law enforcement into their operational logic.” They viewed public identification of themselves, and acceptance of the consequences, as part of the ethic of civil disobedience. However subsequent movements, like Anonymous, have taken a different view of “identification, responsibility, and state participation.” Anonymous,

which maintains anonymity as an aspect of their culture, refuses to buy the claim that the state is engaging with digital activism in good faith. Moreover, Anonymous for the most part refuses to acknowledge that national governments, particularly that of the United States, have any legitimate role in governing the internet at all.

Anonymous and its offshoots, rather than viewing the state as legitimate and attempting to influence its actions, act in the tradition of Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace: “You have no authority that we are bound to recognize.” Insofar as they engage in disruptive behavior, it’s not to reform the state or set it to rights, but to disrupt its ability — along with the corporate interests it serves — to function, so as to create breathing room for the emerging counter-institutions of the successor society.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory