The ongoing attacks on net neutrality constitute a new round of enclosures of the modern commons. If the original enclosure movements during 16th and 17th centuries in England signified the opening overture of capitalism, then the contemporary attacks on the electronic commons are certainly part of its fully formed fruition. Taking what was once common, accessible to all, and enclosing it, privatizing it—stealing it.
The original enclosures were resisted by peasants and farmers in often bloody and violent riots and insurrections. The “avenger” characters of popular folk songs and stories, like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, were a reflection of the deeply felt sense of resentment and injustice at the loss of the commons on the part of common people. Righteous indignation and vengeance have remained a part of our popular culture though, in many respects, though often lacking the overtly political commentary which marked their origins. All Robin, none of the Hood, as it were.
And yet, in the struggle over net neutrality and freedom of information there has emerged a new sort of folk hero or heroes, rather; ones with all the complexity and mystery of their historical predecessors. While the likes of Julian Assange have received a great deal of popular media attention, the case of Assange demonstrates clearly the dangers of relying on one man, or even a small group of people, for any sort of political emancipation. Assange himself appears to be a man of dubious moral character, for all the otherwise incredible accomplishments of the Wikileaks project.
No, the new Merry “Men” [sic] are, in fact, no one in particular.
The “organization” calling itself Anonymous, best known for their particularly theatrical brand of “hacktavism” which has targeted everyone from the Church of Scientology to the Government of Iran, is less of a formal association than it is a tactic. Anonymous is a sort of “black bloc”, a spectre. It is more of an idea than an actual entity. There are no formal members, formal chapters or widely agree upon stated policies.
And yet what began as a movement that engaged in little more than elaborate online pranks, who claimed merely that “we are doing it for the lulz”, has since significantly shifted its activities. While certain elements of the Anonymous movement have remain committed, indeed, to little more than these playful pranks (e.g. “YouTube Porn Day”, where participants uploaded thousands of pornography clips on to the popular video-sharing website) others have earnestly embraced the mantle of righteous avengers. From aiding the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt through website hosting and disseminating information and news, hacking government websites in Zimbabwe and Iran, aiding and facilitating further intelligence leaks through the Wikileaks project, to practically completely disabling the activities of security contractors like HBGary—Anonymous has organized with zeal to protect what it views as one of the last bastions of freedom and an incredible tool for liberation: the internet.
Anonymous are not the hackneyed political pundits who referred to the events in Tunisia and Egypt as “Twitter” revolutions. There has been no effort to diminish the actual bodily sacrifice of real human beings, risking their very real and very precious lives for a chance at a freedom. Instead, they were individuals who recognized the incredible hypocrisy of the West, which preached for decades the values of democracy and liberty while funding dictators around the globe. And at the moment at which the people of the Middle East decided to finally embrace these ideals, these same Western states, these supposed paragons of democracy, devoted their energy not to helping these movements, but to covering up and denying their history of association with and support for dictators far and wide, new and old. Anonymous emerged to give a hearing to our collective, frustrated social conscience.
Indeed, Anonymous are true Machiavellians; those who salvaged the most radical and emancipatory lessons of The Prince and the Discourses on Livy. Namely, as Machiavelli suggested, that liberty was the supreme political value of any just society. And, moreover, that the best guarantee of liberty was a mobilized, militant and armed population. Princes may ensure security, but that security is almost always oppressive and always fleeting—inevitably replaced by a vacuum of power. True stability is only to be found in freedom, in ensuring the full participation of the common people in their own administration, a stake in their own future. Anarchy, as Proudhon suggested, is order.
And how appropriate then to don the Guy Fawkes masks, as Anonymous do, so popularized in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta? V is the supreme avenger figure. While his (?) struggle against the neo-fascist state that has gripped Britain certainly appears heroic, it is equally sinister and dangerous. The true face of V is that of an individual consumed by his hatred of injustice and his love, perhaps even, obsession for freedom. He stretches our conception of morality to its near breaking point. V is a vigilante and he raises the same question that every vigilante raises when they confront an apparatus of injustice, enslavement and dispossession: how far would you go to be free?
V is an archetype of Eric Hobsbawm’s social bandit: those individuals and movements who avenge the poor and the weak, who target the rich and the powerful, and who do not hesitate in the use of violence and force to accomplish as much. They are proponents of a simple ideology: Resist. Fight back. Do not forgive. Do not forget. Take back your world from those who stole it from you.
These are the implications of the “Hood” in Robin Hood, of the bow and arrow, of the “out” in outlaw. These are the implications of being anonymous, of donning the mask of the black bloc; embodying righteous indignation, living to be free, living to avenge ourselves and all those who have been denied their right to live.
Moore puts it aptly in his work. For anarchy wears two faces “both Creator and Destroyer. Thus Destroyers topple empires; make a canvas of clean rubble where creators can then build a better world. Rubble, once achieved makes further ruins’ means irrelevant. Away with our explosives, then! Away with our Destroyers! They have no place within our better world. But let us raise a toast to all our bombers, all our bastards, most unlovely and most unforgivable, let’s drink to their health, then meet with them no more.”
Anonymous may seem a fringe phenomenon but they are perhaps the last of the true outlaws left in our society, at least. The rabble outside of the lord’s manor—here with a bone to pick. Our guarantee that everybody “is special. Everybody. Everybody is a hero, a lover, a fool, a villain, everybody. Everybody has their story to tell.” And that we will not be denied its free and open spreading.
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