The emerging swarm intelligence of #occupy
How I learned to stop worrying and love the hive mind
Attention on “horizontal” or leaderless political movements has focussed on the behaviour of crowds in confrontation with authority, on the spectre of mobs, looters and riots. There has been less attention on the occupations of cities as microcosms of their societies; on the wisdom of the crowd as a source of creativity, new political ideas and energy.
Pathways to channelling this creative energy can be discovered by the superimposition of ideas from, perhaps, unexpected sources: contemporary art practice, and the study of insect and swarm behaviour in Nature.
A year after Spain’s “Indignados” began occupations of the centres of major cities in protest at austerity measures, protestors returned to the streets. There were similar actions across Europe in solidarity with the Spanish Occupy movement. Spain’s new radicals are credited by their comrades with starting the wave of occupations across the world in opposition to spending cuts, following the 2008 global financial crisis.
The policing of these protests appears to becoming progressively more heavy-handed. In London, the Olympics are fast approaching and there is an atmosphere of increasing paranoia and state surveillance of dissent, amid the perceived danger of a repetiton of last Summer’s riots. Excessive policing and the arrest of journalists continues to be a feature of #occupy protests in North America.
In Spain – with a quarter of the potential workfore unemployed – the emergence of the Twitter hashtag #HolaDictadura, or HelloDictatorship, is another sign of the way deepening ‘anomie’ is combining with fears of rising political extremism, a Greek-style breakdown in law and order, and memories of Spain’s long exclusion from the mainstream of European culture under successive fascist and military governments.
The bullet of nationalised toxic debt is still ricocheting around the global financial system, and will for some time to come. Portugal’s economy is in a parlous state, as is Italy’s, still. If you want to really ruin your day, search on ‘Gladio‘ and ‘Italy’ for an idea of how grim things could get.
In addition to the Olympics acting as a vast shop window on Great Britian’s tawdry firesale of baubles and geegaws, inviting a metaphorical brick to be hurled through it, the UK is experiencing a rumbling crisis of confidence in the political Establishment. This makes our leaders jumpy and irritable. The Leveson inquiry is exposing deep interconnections between politicians, big business, corrupt and illegal journalistic practices.
As I type, I can hear Business Secretary Vince Cable on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The World This Weekend‘ prattling on confidently that we’re not exposed to the risk of soveriegn debt if there’s a Eurozone collapse this Summer, only by obstacles to “growth”. The permissive atttiude to global financial regulation that created the debt in the first place – especially the attitude of law makers to risk management in the City of London and on Wall Street – remains unaltered.
The “movement” to question the wisdom of all of this is leaderless and incohate. There’s no overarching political narrative, manifesto or set of demands common to the loosely affiliated national #occupy groups. It’s a self-propogating, global, memetic social and cultural phenomenon; criticised for being directionless, and hung up on its own decision making processes.
From the beginning of the occupation of St Paul’s Churchyard on 15th October last year, I have hovered around the London camps as a friendly supporter rather than active participant. There are many things about this new form of political action which I am excited about, and others things about which I’m profoundly wary.
Donning my trusty ‘V’ mask (more as a statement of my affinity with Anglo-Catholic anarchists than with Anonymous, in fairness) I obtained the permission of the General Assembly for the first act of Evensong to be held simultaneously inside and outside the Cathedral after the occupation began. 1
The huddled masses gathered on the steps of St Paul’s seemed nonplussed by my innocuous request. This led to two small but miraculous outcomes: a multifaith service on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, and eventually to the formation of Occupy Faith; and – before that – Flash Evensong, an spontaneous act of worship by people who had never met before, organised through social media.2
- Alan Moore on V at St Pauls: Channel 4 News, 11th January 2012 ‘V for Vendetta: the man behind the mask’.
- The Telegraph incorrectly stated: “The singalong has been orchestrated on Twitter by St Paul’s parishioners who are determined that the Occupy protesters do not stop their worship” contradicting their own point in the next paragraph:
“Kathryn Rose, who organised the St Paul’s-in-the-camp Flashmob Evensong, said in her blog: “A cathedral is more than architecture and establishment. Cathedrals exist to serve the local community, as well as to support parish churches in their work.
“Their primary task is of public worship, and it is difficult to see how Occupy LSX are a significant threat to that.”
The Daily Telegraph, 26th October 2011 ‘Musical flashmob at St Paul’s Occupy London Stock Exchange protest‘ London. [↩]