Chapter 5: Introduction – Organising Horizontally

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 5 of Proud to be Flesh – Organising Horizontally


The internet’s structure as a distributed network was seen by many as providing the tools with which to run mass experiments in direct democracy, perhaps for the first time. The appearance of the World Wide Web in the early-’90s was accompanied by new forms of political activity, coordinated across the internet, which took on analogously distributed and networked forms, and helped to grow the anti-globalisation movement which culminated at the end of the decade.

The aim of many of these emergent political organisations and platforms was to supersede the outdated vanguardism of the party form and to forge alliances across diverse groups, without the need for a controlling centre, a clearly defined ideology or a set of goals. While this revitalisation of political energies by the net was doubtless also felt on the right, Mute was concerned with its anti-capitalist manifestations. As the decade wore on, and open publishing sites like Indymedia and alliance-political experiments came of age, we found our pages increasingly filled with debates around the viability of so-called horizontality.

The first sustained analysis of the new political shoots of many-to-many media in Mute was Richard Barbrook’s article, ‘Holy Fools’. In it, he traced the left’s disillusionment with party politics post-May ’68, through the ‘schizo-politics’ of Deleuze and Guattari and its latter-day, and purportedly de-politicised, re-adoption by the digerati. For Barbrook, the professed rejection of vanguardism by the New Left – alongside the project of modernity tout court, in the name of psychologised ‘molecular revolution’ – nevertheless gave rise to a kind of covert elitism and snobbery within the political and artistic avant-gardes. According to Barbrook, writing in 1998, the digerati were adopting D&G and their ‘poetry of flows’ as a way of feigning progressiveness while abandoning revolutionary politics in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Unnoticed by these ‘techno-nomads’, however, capitalism was quietly withering away in the net, as the gift economy was normalised and mass participation in media gave rise to a far more experimental culture than that of the official avant-garde.

The year following Barbrook’s text saw an explosion of anti-capitalist activity and civil disobedience, with London’s financial district sustaining millions of pounds worth of damage during the Carnival Against Capitalism (J18), and, later, the mass boycotting of the WTO meeting in Seattle (N30). These events triggered a wave of protest that finally broke with the events of 9/11 – or so left mythology would have it. But, reading across the articles we published on the question of organising and alliance-based politics at the time, it seems that the seeds of dissolution were sown from the start in highly festishised, but broadly under-examined, forms – horizontality and openness. As Eileen Condon describes in her text on London’s May Day, 2000, the ‘confoundingly atomised’ protests of J18, in which a clear anti-capitalist message was given, had degenerated into a ‘locatable, better containable core’ whose message was easily hijacked. The Guerrilla Gardening escapades in Parliament Square and the Cenotaph’s defacement were interpreted as an attack on the nation, with Reclaim the Streets acting as spokesperson.

Writing in 2002, Horacio Tarcus touches on similar experiments with leaderless organising in the context of Argentina’s economic crisis. As the country’s economic meltdown led to the widespread rejection of parliamentary politics and the state’s loss of legitimacy, Assemblias, or neighbourhood assemblies, sprang up across the country. Here, people debated and decided upon local issues, often for the first time. Of course, despite the revolutionary hopes vested in these direct democratic structures, Tarcus describes the power struggles which took place within them between independents (in which ‘a good deal of libertarian mettle exists’) and party members. The complexity of this particular situation, and, indeed, the problematic in general, lies in the simultaneous attempts at ‘rejecting politics’ and ‘politicising society’.

It is this complexity which J.J. King picks up on in his careful study of the so-called ‘open organisations’ of the anti-globalisation movement. Using the tools of the web and adopting the collaborative working methods of Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS), many groups ran, and continue to run, experiments in dismantling the ‘formal hierarchical membrane of groups’. Despite making declarations of organisational openness and a general faith in the progressiveness of these structures, closer analysis revealed that ‘tacit control structures’ tended to emerge. The tearing away of hierarchical structures seemed to allow for the self-reinforcement of the inequities which structure society in general.

Hydrarchist – in his autopsy of the Italian extra-parliamentary group, the Disobbedienti (Disobedients) – homes in on the other problematic inherent in horizontality’s rejection of representative politics: how to ‘have an effect’. Despite the relative failure of these experiments, there has been no mass defection to older structures such as the party form. Even if only as a kind of negative critique of mainstream or failed revolutionary politics, openness and horizontality still maintain a progressive allure. And, while a religiose devotion to collaborative structures persists in many quarters (pace relational aesthetics, FLOSS and ‘consultative’ politics), the idea that they might, in themselves, provide a panacea to society’s ills appears to be on the wane. How we de-programme our capitalist selves, however, still seems as relevant a question today as it did in ’68.

Proud to be Flesh

May Day May Day

London’s May day was fertile, anti-capitalist fun for all the family. Until there was a fight and things turned nasty. And a leader was nowhere to be seen. Eileen Condon on 101 ways to Reclaim The Streets.


In what must seem like an unbelievable resurrection to those in the West who declared street protest defunct, it has resurfaced as a widespread and regular phenomenon. After a period of systematic marginalisation, new forms of protest are gaining serious currency in mainstream politics and media under the recurrent theme of a ‘carnival’ against global capitalism. Harnessing all niches of modern media and full wardrobe facilities for their symbolic resonance, the protest movement has rediscovered the power of performance.

Despite the ‘need for dialogue’ campaigns of multinationals (epitomised by recent statements from Monsanto, Shell and McDonald’s calling for constructive exchange with their critics), this political influence is not testament to a new sensitivity on the part of the establishment. The underlying success of recent protests is attributable mainly to the manner in which a roster of loose-knit but broadly sympathetic political groups have forged a new type of alliance. Under the aegis of a networked protest ‘against global capitalism’, they have targeted the institutions viewed as its most pernicious instruments — the IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc. The global remit of these organisations, and the reach of the corporations cast as their only real beneficiaries, has ensured the formation of a broad oppositional coalition that can link groups as diverse as US Teamsters and Earth First, students, anti-road protestors and anarchist groups. As the shareware manifesto of ‘J18’, last June’s large-scale networked protest, stated: ‘Resistance is as transnational as capital’.

As the frequency of these events increases, a rush to homogenise and historicise has occurred: J18 (occasion: G8 summit, Frankfurt, June 30,1999), ‘N30’ (occasion: WTO meeting, Seattle, November 30, 1999) and ‘A16’ (occasion: World Bank and IMF meetings, Washington DC, April 16, 2000) are now routinely placed in a sort of analytical string of pearls. As a closely connected series, they can be effectively employed — by both protest organisers and the police — as models with which to think through issues of organisation, mediation and security. The meaning of these ‘pearls’ is as pliant to the strategies deployed by the various police forces as it is to the historical abstractions and political posturing of the protestors (‘luddites — Reclaim The Streets’).

London’s recent May Day celebration is a case in point. To all intents and purposes the Reclaim The Streets performance held on Parliament Square conformed to the non-programme and non-ideology of J18, N30 and A16. However, ‘Guerrilla Gardening’ (an RTS slogan erroneously used by the media to name the ‘mass action’) lacked a singular contemporary catalyst symbolic of the ‘Washington Consensus’ (free market determinism). Instead of protesting against capitalism’s crude stand-ins, RTS, the self-styled front ‘(dis)organisation’, chose to celebrate holistic, non-alienated lifestyles of the urban realm under the new banner ‘Resistance is fertile’. In equal measure, this was to be a 21st century homage to a pre-modern mythos (May Day) and a modern collectivism (international Labour day), paid in the bright colours of a Situationist carnivalesque.

But the events in Parliament Square can also be seen within the broader counter coordinates of a resurgent and politically reductive form of nationalism. In the face of the socio-economic fall-out of globalisation, the British government and its ‘opposition’ are reaching for some tried and tested political formulas.

‘Guerrilla Gardening’ occurred at a watershed moment for New Labour. May 1 was the third anniversary of Labour’s landslide victory in 1997; the debacle of an unwanted mayoral candidate being elected in London loomed (May 4), as did disappointing results in the regional elections and Romsey by-election and a disastrous end to the BMW/Rover negotiations in Longbridge, which threatened thousands of jobs and Labour’s questionable reputation as a staunch supporter of industry. Adding insult to injury, in a show of Conservative opportunism, Anne Widdicombe and William Hague were making vociferous xenophobic attacks on Labour’s ‘soft touch’ asylum and immigration policies.

It is an understatement to say that New Labour is sensitive to public opinion: it is focus-group and opinion poll obsessed. This tsunami of negativity — itself not extraordinary for a government near the end of its first term — called for a firm stance and a reiteration of its core values. May Day provided the occasion: an event ideologically and structurally malleable enough to represent a win-win opportunity. Showcasing the tolerance in Jack Straw’s ‘zero tolerance’ (digging up Parliament Square was permitted and graffiti was allowed on Whitehall) as well as the subsequent police clampdown when the so-called single radical element violated its predictable target (McDonald’s), the government deftly choreographed pro free speech postures with those defending British national identity and security. Neither the liberal nor conservative ends of the political spectrum were to be left wanting. Tony’s catch-all outrage was widely quoted the next day: "The people responsible...are an absolute disgrace. Their actions have nothing to do with convictions or beliefs...To deface the simply beneath contempt. It is only because of the bravery and courage of our war dead that these idiots can live in a free country at all." The formula is clear: free market values = freedom = Britain.

Cultural War veteran Reclaim the Streets did little to avert this: organiser or disorganiser, by making the seat of government the main theatre of operations, it allowed Labour’s nervous nationalism, disguised as a defense of Western democracy, to eclipse its anti-capitalist cause. In anticipation of May Day, financial institutions had criticised the Metropolitan Police’s handling of J18, which led to 101 arrests and millions of pounds of damage in the Square Mile, and forewarned of further dangers to London’s reputation as a financial centre. By their own admission, the police had been wrongfooted by J18’s ‘starburst’ tactics (see Mute14). Determined not to allow a repeat performance on May Day, they staged their biggest security operation for thirty years.

In the aftermath of J18, large sections of the media managed to build RTS into a quasi-official front organisation. On this occasion it performed that role enthusiastically from the outset. It’s a curious stance for a self-declared Situationist entity. Naturally, the media and hordes of observers ignored the RTS call for a ‘no spectators’ event. As self-styled performance group and front organisation with easy access to the press, it missed a critical opportunity to juxtapose conflicting paradigms of freedom and ‘rights’.

In abiding by free market determinism — even the ‘soft’ type that Labour has — national governments protect the illusion of democracy but waive their power to regulate against the excesses of global capitalism. While they wag their fingers at Haider’s Freedom party’s xenophobia and racism, British ‘social democrats’ make full concessions to, and even use of it on their home turf. While they regulate for easier access for high-skilled tech workers, they rely on thousands of Eastern European labourers to toil on their farms illegally, and draft Draconian Immigration and Asylum Bills. RTS does not believe in speeches, leaders, representative politics. But on May Day its oddly centralised carnival triggered a paradoxical slide — away from a confounding atomised protest under one banner, towards a locatable, better containable core, under none.

Eileen Condon

Proud to be Flesh

Together Forever

When we told Tiziana Terranova about our sustainable publishing diagram (Mute19), she asked whether we’d heard of the the 1975 ‘onNLine System’. Here, she explains why today’s knowledge management systems are yesterday’s news. On the right, a visual parallel she sent us: O’Reilly’s Linux work model.

Douglas Engelbart’s NLS (oNLine System) appeared to have died in 1975, when federal funding into networked, intellectual team work dwindled and XEROX Parc’s computer scientists shifted the paradigm to a ‘one user one computer’ model. NLS was an advanced file-sharing, multimedia system which allowed users to communicate by means of shared, visual displays of information. Conceived as a working tool for intellectual collaborations, Engelbart’s NLS was based on a fundamental, cybernetic intuition: the nature of intelligence does not exclusively depend on or originate from the individual capacities of the human brain. Intelligence is a cybernetic system that Engelbart named the “H-LAM/T system” or “Human using Language, Artefacts and Methodology in which He is Trained.” Engelbart dreamed of a total system “of a human plus his augmentation devices and techniques... This field constitutes a very important system in our society: like most systems, its performance can be best improved by considering the whole as a set of interacting elements rather than a number of isolated elements.”<1>

Engelbart understood from very early on that the process of thinking could no longer be modelled on that of the isolated genius and that computers could be much more than simple number-crunchers or static memory banks. The increasing amount of information available and the increasingly complex nature of the problems faced by intellectual work demanded an internal reconfiguration of the H-LAM/T system. For Engelbart, any intervention at any level of the system would automatically engender, through a system of feedback loops, a resonance which would propagate and challenge the whole structure. Even the simple introduction of a low-level capability like text-editing and word-processing was bound to alter the overall structure of thinking, freeing up a surplus of labour which could be qualitatively reinvested in the process.

NLS was eventually funded by the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) which implicitly tied up research into augmentation with existing research on time sharing (Engelbart Augmentation Research Centre was one of the first original nodes of ARPANET, another key project funded by the IPTO). In 1964, the IPTO provided Engelbart with a million dollars a year to run a time-sharing system and half a million dollars a year for his augmentation research. With time-sharing, and following Engelbart’s encounter with Peter Drucker’s work, the emphasis shifted to intellectual team work, which the ARC team identified with the future of knowledge work. The ARC was an infinitely hot and dense ‘dot’ comprising all the components that would later disperse into the far, but connected galaxies of the digital economy: an ‘engine room’, where the new time-sharing computers were located; a hardware workshop, where the constantly upgraded computer system and experimental input-output devices were built and maintained; and, as Howard Rheingold states in his book Tools for Thought, a model “intellectual workshop that consisted of an amphitheater-like space in which a dozen people sat in front of large display terminals, creating the system’s software, communicating with each other, and navigating through dimensions of information...”

An intensive open source workshop, NLS conceived of its users as the ‘designer-subjects’ of the experiment. Using the system meant being involved in its evolution, a machinic enslavement which was also a new mode of subjectification based on higher-than-ever levels of positive, transformative feedback. Pioneers of open source and burn-out syndrome, the ARC team would be tested to the limits by the creative destruction of proliferating positive feedback loops. Tools for Thought describes how, at the end of the project, a psychologist had to be brought in to consult on “those parts of the system that weren’t to be found in the circuitry or software, but in the thoughts and relationships of the people who were building and using the system.”

Tiziana Terranova <tterra AT> lectures in media, culture and film at the University of Essex. She is the author of Network Culture: collective politics and digital media (Pluto Press, forthcoming).

<1> Engelbart, Douglas C. (1963) ‘A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man’s Intellect.’ in Paul W. Homerton and David C. Weeks eds. Vistas in Information Handling. Volume 1. The Augmentation of Man’s Intellect By Machine. Washington Dc: Spartan Books and London, England: Cleaver Hume Press, p. 5.

©2001 O’Reilly & Associates, Inc. Funnel illustration from ‘O’Reilly Anatomy of a Linux System Poster,’ illustrated by Jeff Reynolds Design. Used with permission of O’Reilly & Associates, Inc.

Proud to be Flesh

Get Rid of the Lot of Them! (Argentinian society stands against politics)

Since 19 December, 2001, the day when the citizen masses overthrew the ‘super-minister of Economy’ Domingo F. Cavallo, and forced the fall of the Radical government of President De la Rúa on the following day, a profound political crisis has engulfed Argentina. Nine months (at the time of writing) down the line, there are still no clear signs of a solution. Here, Horacio Tarcus explores the history and meaning of the crisis, the forces and personalities involved, and its possible outcome Translation by Adolfo Olaechea

The collapse of an economic model

The extraordinary social protests that erupted last December were a reaction to the ‘corralito’ (fencing) regulations. ‘Corralito’ means the restrictions imposed by the government on the withdrawal of bank deposits at the beginning of that month. This measure was the last impotent throw of the dice by a bankrupt economic model. This model, blessed by the IMF, was established by the neo-Liberal economist Domingo Cavallo in 1993, under the neo-Peronist regime of Carlos S. Menem. It remained in place during the two years of the Radical government of Fernando de la Rúa, when Cavallo was also the Minister of Economy.

One of the pillars of this model was the so-called ‘convertibility’ which pegged the Argentinian Peso to the US Dollar and established a parity rate of ‘one peso to one dollar’. Following the traumatic hyper-inflationary experiences of the 1989-1991 period, the monetary stability afforded by convertibility conferred long years of legitimacy to the Menem government and his super-minister Cavallo. For the salaried, retired workers and pensioners, it meant that their incomes (fixed and in pesos) would not continuously erode. For the middle classes it meant a chance of keeping their savings in dollars, buying imported products at artificially low prices, and travelling abroad. For the local bourgeoisie it signalled an opportunity to undertake spectacular business deals.

Some sectors, however, were driven to the wall. For example, local producers such as the textile manufacturers who were unable to compete against imported products while the dollar was artificially undervalued or the traditional farming industries who saw the value of their exports decline for the same reason. However, a new ‘export/finance’ bourgeoisie did grow at breakneck speed, under the wing of the political power. The apparent success of stability, the consumer boom and the emergence of the newly rich pushed issues such as the Menem government’s absurd levels of corruption and the scandalous submission of the judiciary and parliament to the executive into the background. Even though these were the main political themes for the opposition, they only confronted the government from a democratic-institutional and ethical stance and the Menemists were therefore able to respond with the legitimacy of efficiency. That was sufficient for Menem to get re-elected in 1994, following constitutional reform.

Nevertheless, another hidden iceberg was the asset stripping of the state used to pay for the costs of their economic model. The Menem/Cavallo regime began an extraordinary process of privatising the patrimony of the state. Thousands of millions of pesos received from the sale of oil and gas fields, railways, airlines, telephone networks and the metropolitan underground transport systems, etc., silently financed the model, supplying the dollars needed to keep up the ‘one to one’ convertibility. Within the framework of monetary stability and convertibility, Menem’s offer of the state’s industrial and service companies was more than tempting for international investors who did their billing in overvalued Pesos and then returned their profits abroad, having previously exchanged them into dollars. It was a fabulous business indeed. At the end of the day, the model was financed by the creation of chronic indebtedness.

Of course, the model had its winners and its losers, the latter consisting mainly of the lowpaid and the unemployed. However, it did work for the first 5 years with the support of the middle classes. Finally, after several years of recession, the system broke down in December 2001, causing the most serious social cost imaginable. Given that it was inevitable, the escape from convertibility to a clearer system could have been achieved in a negotiated, gradual and less traumatic fashion. Also, convertibility could have lasted many more years. This would have required the government to shift the economy from a deficit into a substantial surplus by collecting outstanding taxes, investing productively and promoting exports.

The collapse of convertibility occured because it became impossible for the State and private sector to obtain any more credit to paper over the ongoing monetary deficit. In permanent expansion, this deficit had three causes: firstly, the public deficit generated by gigantic tax evasion and the state retirement system covered by external loans; secondly, the private deficit generated by the incapacity of local industry to compete in the global market; lastly, the accumulation of interests on contracted loans feeding back into the public deficit. The prohibition on withdrawal of cash from the banks was a side effect of the wave of speculation which started when the masses of depositors realised (several months after the banks who had taught them to be incapable of thinking beyond the parameters of convertibility) that the rate of exchange was unsustainable and that dollar funds were at risk. Efforts to avoid the collapse of the banks led the government to embargo the savings of hundreds of thousands of depositors and caused the collapse of both internal savings and external credit. The collapse of economic activity resulted in a spiral of bankruptcies, wholesale lay-offs among the work force, as well as a new drop in salary levels.

Given all this, the collapse of convertibility is a by-product of a type of profit generation and a form of relationship between the state and the private sector based upon the most parasitic and primal tendencies of capitalism. Companies harvested monopolist rents from the internal market, totally unsupervised by any form of user or consumer organisation. These companies subsequently exchanged these profits into dollars sold to them by the state at bargain basement rates. This was an ultra-inefficient role for the state, incapable of planning or using resources within socially valuable criteria and subjected to the individual demands of companies and economic blocs. (Aronskind, Ricardo, 2002).

Crisis of the State

In parallel with the economic crisis, an unprecedented crisis of the state has developed. Without a doubt, this is also the result of 25 years of persistent neo-liberal policies aimed at reducing the state’s capacity to regulate so as to ‘liberate’ the market forces. Left to its own dynamics, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market led to something slightly different from the ‘productive revolution’ promised by Menem in 1989: it led to a truly unproductive revolution. If any doubt remained, today it is clear that there is no place in capitalist globalisation for Argentina. In the space of a few years, one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries had gone from role model to basket case.

The fragility of the State is such that it hardly seems to exist at all. It lacks all substantive attributes and does not perform any of its essential functions. For instance to guarantee compliance with the law? The government of De la Rúa fell when the population challenged the state of siege. To maintain public security and to issue and support its currency? Not only the public, but also certain state institutions keep their reserves in dollars abroad. To collect taxes? The Argentinian tax system is completely regressive. The Argentinian bourgeoisie does not pay and has never paid their taxes. To safeguard property? Consider the way the property of the bank depositors has been dealt with. To defend the unity of the country? The former Governor of San Luis Province, who was president of the country for a few brief days after the fall of De la Rúa last December, recently began to speak about ‘secession’...

A rebellion of the middle classes?

Having said all this, I would suggest that the system of classical analysis which holds that ‘an economic crisis gives rise to a sequel of political crisis’ does not address all the nuances of the current scene in Argentina. Moreover, the equation: Economic model in crisis + seizure of depositors’ savings = sudden mobilisation of the ‘middle class’, not only devalues analysis but in fact distorts it.

During the events of 19 – 20 December, a new social protest movement was born in Argentina. The direct trigger was the run on the banks of 30 November and the economic measures that followed the fencing of bank accounts and fixed-term deposits. This led many observers to point out that it was the middle class that propelled the social protest of December and hence it was dubbed a ‘French revolution’ in the mass media and other quarters.

There is no question that the fencing of bank accounts directly affected and maddened the small and medium sized depositors, and that the lack of ready funds did the same to shopkeepers and other traders. However, it also affected, directly or indirectly, all workers as well as the retired and other state or private pension recipients. A special characteristic of the social protest was that very diverse types were swept along with it: unemployed workers and youth who had never been employed, ordinary workers and retired workers, small depositors, shopkeepers and other traders.

Did the working class stay away? Obviously it was absent in its classical trade union marching columns. Nevertheless, one should rather say that it was the trade unions that were not present in December. This was particularly true of the two factions into which the Peronist CGT (Confederación General del Trabajo) is divided: the hard-liners and those in favour of the government. The more militant CTA (Central de Trabajadores de la Argentina) was slow to come on board.

For example, the massive demonstrations in the Plaza de Mayo or in the Plaza del Congreso (Parliament Square) lacked the characteristics of traditional mass actions accompanying general strikes, with each worker marching under the banner of his own union, political party or union tendency. There is no doubt that the workers took part in these events, but they did not come out into the streets and squares in organised columns. They came alone or at most in small groups and were then amassed by way of some sort of molecular dynamics.

The spontaneous character of the mobilisation, the deliberative role adopted by the groups that swarmed the street corners and squares in the various neighbourhoods were – in that sense – reminiscent of the mass mobilisations of Holy Week 1987. However, those were mass actions either to support or to put pressure on – according to the different tendencies – the democratic government in the face of a military rebellion. Today, after 15 years, the scene is different. In a country in ruins, a popular uprising has overthrown a government impotent in the face of national and global economic power. Cavallo was the symbol of that economic power, De la Rúa, the embodiment of an impotent government.

Social dynamics of a political crisis

Within the span of a few hours, the masses that on 19 December began by demanding the resignation of Cavallo, the minister, were demanding the resignation of De la Rúa, the president. And along with the ghostly round of presidential musical chairs that occurred between the end of December and the first days of January, the cry: ‘Get rid of the lot of them’ increasingly became the slogan of the different sections involved in the social protest.

According to a Buenos Aires newspaper, the government believes that by somehow relaxing the bank deposit fencing regulations and by granting a measure of ‘social welfare’, the protest will start to die down. (‘Talks between Duhaldeism and the UCR seek to avoid attacks on politicians’, Clarín, 3 December 2002). This suggests that the so-called political class believe that, even if a revival of social enthusiasm for politicians cannot be effected, at least society can return to its passive, sceptical state.

The problem is that while the present political crisis blew up days after the introduction of the bank fencing regulations, it results from a social process with much deeper roots. For example, the elections of 14 October, 2001, with their towering levels of absenteeism and invalid or spoiled ballot papers, had already given electoral expression to a very serious political crisis blowing across the whole of Argentina. These (non)voters were once believers. Aware, now, that they had been defrauded, they had lost faith in politics. Up until the events of Argentina’s ‘hot summer’ their protest was almost individualistic, an impotent expressions of political discontent.

Taken together with the secession of a younger generation raised in a world where politics was devalued, these elections could have given discontent a collective and political meaning, but the political class and the mass media had, for many years, ignored and glossed over these phenomena. However, on 14 October, its impact could no longer be disguised. Barely two months later, and ever since, the so-called protest vote has ceased to be something passive and has turned into mass action. It has gone beyond the electoral booth and into the streets.

The aspirations of different sectors within this movement converge and, in the process of unifying this diversity, those aspirations are partially modified and adopt new meanings. Horizontally, the crisis is cutting across diverse social and political strata. Men and women, old and young, employed and unemployed, pensioners and people in active service, wage earners and bank depositors, union members and non-union workers – all are converging into a movement in which the only common denominator appears to be the desire to ‘Get rid of the lot of them!’

What is the meaning of this? The demand has spread like wild fire and is chanted in all public demonstrations. There is no doubt that it is less naïve and more complex than it appears at first sight. It expresses the libertarian protest of society against the State and all its institutions, from Parliament to the police as well as the entire official mass media. It is the protest of the little people, the common men and women, against a political class they now perceive as a parasite preying on society.

Maybe this is the best symbol of the Argentinian political crisis. Antonio Gramsci defined a political crisis in terms that may be useful today: ‘At a certain moment in their historical development, social groupings divorce themselves from their traditional parties. This means that traditional parties, given the organisational form they embody, with those specific persons who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognised as the appropriate expression of their class or of a section of a class’. For the Italian thinker in ‘these situations of contrast between the represented and their representatives’, the political crisis ‘is transmitted to the entire organism of the state’. Gramsci held that such situations could arise ‘when the leading class had failed in some political enterprise for which it had demanded or compelled by force the consent of the wide masses.’ He pointed out that these situations could also arise ‘alternatively, because a broad mass of people... went suddenly from political passivity into a certain activity and proceeded to make demands that in their chaotic whole amounted to a revolution’ (Gramsci, 1962: 76-77).

Gramsci’s ideas seem to offer useful angles from which to consider the crisis in Argentina, where the emptying out of political content from the parties was extended to the entire organism of the state. From 1984 to the present, the ruling class of Argentina has repeatedly failed to create its hegemony – a social order that the masses would at least accept. The masses, in turn, moving beyond the protest vote, have extracted themselves from political passivity and gone on to win the streets and the public spaces.

However, we are far away from what Gramsci understood by the term ‘revolution’. We are a little bit closer than we were on 18 December 2001, but a protracted process of collective building lies ahead of us. If, as Rosa Luxembourg believed, the crisis is the expression of the fact that the old is dying but not yet dead and the new is being born but not yet out of the womb, we have crisis ahead for a long time to come.

Today the state is waiting for a certain erosion to occur from so much social mobilisation so that it can try punish all those who violate article 22 of the National Constitution which states that: ‘The people do not rule or deliberate except by means of their representative’. This is precisely how Senator Raúl Alfonsín (a Radical Party leader, former president of Argentina between 1983 and 1989) put it in his speech of 21 February last year in the Senate. It is a fact that Peronists and Radicals are holding consultations seeking a legal framework to curtail mobilisations and ‘escarches’ (impromptu mass protest meetings) so as to return the masses to their jobs and homes. They aim, by means of a de-politicising of society, to put politics back in the hands of the State. However, President Eduardo Duhalde warned them that ‘If this ever gets interpreted as a self-serving corporate law, or as a barrier to the democratic freedom to demonstrate, we will be throwing petrol on the flames’ (Clarín, 3/3/2001).

In other words, it will be impossible today to repress all of society by declaring it in rebellion just because people are holding public discussions and wish for self-government while patently repudiating their so-called representatives (“Get rid of the lot of them!”).

Nevertheless, a latent threat against the ‘movimientos piqueteros’ (the picket movement) and the neighbourhood assemblies exists. On 26 June this year, ferocious police repression of a picket in Avellaneda on the outskirts of Buenos Aires City, two unemployed youth, Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki, were gunned down.

Picket movements and neighbourhood assemblies

The ‘villas miseria’ present a postcard image from the Menem decade. These are the cardboard shacks of the homeless, hardly noticeable when one is driving fast along the highways. However, this changes when the unemployed climb onto the tarmac and form a ‘picket’, burn tyres and block traffic while bellowing out their battle cry of ‘Piqueteros, carajo!’ (The Pickets are here, damn it!)

While it is true that pickets interrupting traffic is something that goes back a long way in the history of Argentina’s workers’ strikes, the characteristic feature of the new pickets is that they are made up of the unemployed. The movement was born in 1996 in Neuquén province, when Menem was still president. There the sacked workers of YPF, the state oil company, erected a blockade on a key highway. Five years on, the movement has spread like wild fire all over the country at the tempo of the crisis. It was born of dire necessity, a desperate measure to force the government directly, bypassing the patronising structures of Church or political parties, to give the strikers access to ‘Planes Trabajar’ (the State’s monthly unemployment allowance of 150 pesos – around 40 dollars today). Once the ‘planes’ were granted, the picket was lifted. From then on ‘misery became socialised’. The picket movement is not limited to blockading highways; a remarkable solidarity network has grown up alongside it. It is a network that runs communal kitchens, allotments, school supplies, health centres, libraries, etc. Each ‘picket-man’ collecting his $150 pesos must survive the entire month on that money, less the $3 he pays to the movement. That money goes into a common fund for the organisation’s expenses. Moreover, they are obliged to help at the Picket Action Centres for 4 hours a day from Monday to Friday. The pickets run a horizontal organisation, but, nevertheless, some leading figures do arise. The leaders are members or former members of the leftist movements but the rank and file has no political formation of any kind. They come to the pickets driven by unemployment and hunger. The most militant and hard line sections are the least inclined to negotiations and the most anti-politics in outlook.

There are three tendencies in the Picket Movement: The first one is affiliated to the CTA, the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (Argentinian Workers Union) and one of its leaders, Luis D’Elía, comes from the militant wing of Peronism and currently leads the ‘Federación Tierra y Vivienda’ (Land and Housing Federation). Its other leader, Juan Carlos Alderete, is close to the CCC (Corriente Clasista y Combativa) which is linked to the Maoist party (PCR). A second tendency, the ‘Bloque Piquetero’, is an umbrella for the picket groups linked to the leftwing political parties, such as the ‘Polo Obrero’ run by the Workers Party (Trotskyist) and the ‘Movimiento Territorial de Liberación’ (run by the CP). However, the most important current in this bloc, the ‘Movimiento Teresa Rodríguez’, led by Roberto Martino, is independent. The third tendency, and perhaps the one most independent and remote from the world of political parties, is the ‘Coordinadora Aníbal Verón’. The two picket youths assassinated by the police on June 26 belonged to this organisation.

While this movement was born prior to the mobilisation of December 2001 and its aftermath, it is from that date on that it began to garner more popular support and to grow spectacularly. At that time two new movements were also born. Firstly, the movement of the bank depositors demanding the return of their funds, and, secondly, the movement of neighbourhood assemblies. The former, while basically limited to the middle classes, has not lowered its banners during nine months of mobilisations. But the latter, without any doubt, is the most novel because of its organisational form and its collective discussions on street corners and in public squares. In this movement citizens of all ages, walks of life, professions and social extractions, hitherto uninterested in public affairs and hardly ever bothering to vote, are now debating what is to be done. What concretely is to be done about the serious crisis in the neighbourhood hospital or school? They also discuss how to tackle the problems of security - without giving more power to the police. Each assembly in turn sends its delegates to an assembly of assemblies, the ‘Interbarrial’ (Inter-Neighbourhood Assembly).

Strong tensions between the independents — non-party members, who generally have no previous political experience and who are much more ‘horizontal’, more libertarian and more averse to political/institutional ways— and the old left wing movements seeking to seduce those social strata, also exist, just as they do within the picket movement. A program of ideas and action for a left that is open to criticism, for a left that is in tune with the era should, among other things, try to help strengthen pickets and neighbourhood assemblies. It should try to ensure their democratic operation and to enrich their political culture. The left wing currents that take part in these movements would benefit from this too, because this type of participation would rebound upon them, raising their own political culture and their internal democracy. There are left wing groups who dream of the neighbourhood assemblies playing the role of ‘soviets in embryo’. Many attempt to sneak in their slogans or boast about how much they exert control over these assemblies. Maybe there are sections of this militant left who are overlooking the libertarian mettle the social protest is demonstrating. The political crisis is affecting the left wing organisations too in good measure, along with their leaders, their apparatuses and their instrumental approach to politics.

It is not simply his own weakness in directing the transitional period that has dictated the President’s call for early elections in March 2003. Eduardo Duhalde, who was invested by Congress as President, is precariously supported by a makeshift federation of Peronist governors who, in turn, are involved in serious wrangling amongst themselves. The decision to bring forward the elections was also dictated by a need to defuse the mobilisations and social protests.

The electoral calendar and the tempo of the social movement are not in tune. The left vacillates between taking part in a process – where it sees the prospect of increasing its vote – and marching alongside the most militant sections of the social movement, those who are rejecting the government’s call for elections.

So what is to be done? ‘Get rid of the lot of them!’ — say some. Others respond: and then, what happens? Take part in official politics? Reject all politics? Create a different type of politics? These are the issues being debated today by the social movements and the left wing groups in Argentina. At the same time, there is talk of rejecting politics and politicising society. The State is rejected, but at the same time there are demands for education, health, security, social policies. There is rejection of paternalism and of the substitution of the self-led actions of the masses by a political leadership, all within a vacuum of political leadership in general. Argentinian society has transformed itself into a great Assembly. There is a willingness to talk and also to listen, learn and build. There is no better moment than the present for the birth of a new collective will. A New Left.

Horacio Tarcus <htarcus AT> is a historian. He is a lecturer and researcher at Buenos Aires University and the Universidad Nacional de La Plata. Author of The Marxism that Argentina Forgot (1996) and Mariátegui in Argentina (2002), co-editor of El Rodaballo, a cultural and political magazine. He is also director of CeDInCI (Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Cultura de Izquierdas en la Argentina) (Center for Documentation and Research of left wing Culture in Argentina)

Proud to be Flesh

The Packet Gang

Jamie King on the impasse of political organisation in the age of 'openness'


Openness – as an organising principle and political ideology – has become an article of faith across networked social movements. From its role as a central tenet of free and open source software production to its current popularity within activist circles, the concept of openness is attracting enthusiastic adherence. Here, as part of our series on the politics of alternative media structures, JJ King takes a less credulous view of what lies beneath the dream of organisational horizontality


Since the founding of the Free Software Foundation in 1985 by Richard Stallman and the Open Source Initiative in 1998 by Eric Raymond, the idea of openness has enjoyed some considerable celebrity. Simply understood, open source software is that which is published along with its source code, allowing developers to collaborate, improve upon each other’s work, and use the code in their own projects. The cachet of this open model of development has been greatly increased by the high-profile success of GNU-Linux, a piece of ‘free-as-in-libre and open source software’ (FLOSS). But, taken together with the distributed co-composition offered by, for example, the wiki architecture,[1] and the potential of peer-to-peer networks like Bittorrent and Gnutella,[2] a more nuanced and loose idea of openness has suggested itself as a possible model for other kinds of organisation. Felix Stalder of Openflows identifies its key elements as:

[…] communal management and open access to the informational resources for production, openness to contributions from a diverse range of users/producers, flat hierarchies, and a fluid organisational structure.[3]

This idea of openness is now frequently deployed not only with reference to composing software communities but also to political and cultural groupings. For many, this is easily explained: FLOSS’ ‘self-evident’ realisation of a ‘voluntary global community empowered and explicitly authorised to reverse-engineer, learn from, improve and use-validate its own tools and products’, indicates that ‘it has to be taken seriously as a potential source of organising for other realms of human endeavour.’[4] In these circles, openness is now seen as ‘paradigmatic’. Computer book publisher and guru Tim O’Reilly’s presentation at the Reboot conference in 2003, entitled ‘The Open Source Paradigm Shift’, placed FLOSS at the vanguard of a social phenomenon whose time, he said ‘had come’; its methods of ad hoc, distributed collaboration constituting a ‘new paradigm’ at a level consistent with, for example, the advent of the printing press and movable type.[5]

Such accounts of the social-political pertinence of the FLOSS model are increasingly common. A recent essay by activist Florian Schneider and writer Geert Lovink, for example, exhibits the premature desire to collapse FLOSS-style open organisation into a series of other political phenomena:

freedom of movement and freedom of communication [...] the everyday struggles of millions of people crossing borders as well as pirating brands, producing generics, writing open source code or using p2p-software.[6]

More soberly, Douglas Rushkoff has argued recently in a report for the Demos think-tank that ‘the emergence of the interactive mediaspace may offer a new model for cooperation’:

The values engendered by our fledgling networked culture may [...] prove quite applicable to the broader challenges of our time and help a world struggling with the impact of globalism, the lure of fundamentalism and the clash of conflicting value systems [...] One model for the open-ended and participatory process through which legislation might occur in a networked democracy can be found in the open source software movement.[7]

meeting places 2

Rushkoff does not try to draw direct parallels between FLOSS and other forms of activity in the manner of Schneider and Lovink, but argues equally problematically that the model used in open source software composing communities could be usefully applied to democratic political organisation. A growing willingness to engage with the underlying code of the democratic process,’ he contends, ‘could eventually manifest in a widespread call for revisions to our legal, economic and political structures.’[8] Clearly, then, the idea of openness has appeal across rather different constituencies – here we already have both the reformist-liberal and the radicals activists claiming openness as their ally. Indeed, as ICT theorist Biella Coleman suggests, the widespread adoption and use of the idea of openness and its ‘profound political impact’ may precisely be contingent on its peculiarly transpolitical appeal. ‘FLOSS,’ she writes, resists

political delineation into the traditional political categories of left, right or centre [...but] has been embraced by a wide range of people [...] This has enabled FLOSS to explode from a niche and academic endeavour into a creative sphere of socio-political and technical influence bolstered by the internet.[9]

But the broad-church appeal of the idea of openness suggested by FLOSS need not necessarily be a cause for celebration, especially since many of the constituencies making use of it conceive of themselves as fundamentally opposed. Can the idea of openness these divergent constituencies embrace really be the same? And how can it be that they consider it sufficient to their very different aims?

The chief purpose of this article is not to answer these questions by examining the ‘self-evident’ truths of open source production. Such studies are already being carried out in forums like Oekunux []; indeed, in this issue of Mute, Gilberto Camara, Director for Earth Observation at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, publishes research that challenges some key tenets of the FLOSS model. His research exposes the possibility that, in many cases, FLOSS does not innovate significantly original software, or sustain projects outside of corporate or large scale academic involvement. Instead this article seeks to address the intense political expectation around open organisation among diverse elements of the diffuse activist organisations which, post-Seattle, have been loosely referred to as ‘the social movement’ or ‘social movements’. In referring to the social movement, this article concerns itself primarily with groups such as People’s Global Action, Indymedia, Euraction Hub and other such non-hierarchised collectives; it does not have in mind more traditionally structured organisations like the Social Forums, Globalise Resistance or so-called ‘civil society’ NGOs.

In the social movement thus defined, openness is clearly becoming a constitutive organising principle, as it connects with the hopes and desires circulating around the idea of the ‘multitude’, a term whose post-Spinozan renaissance has been secured by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Empire. The multitude is a defiantly heterogeneous figure, a collective noun intended to counter the homogenising violence of terms such as ‘the people’ or ‘the mass’. For many thinkers in the post-Autonomist tradition, this multitude is a way of conceiving the revolutionary potential of a new ‘post-Fordist proletariat’ of networked immaterial labourers. In certain circuits within the social movement, pace Schneider and Lovink, FLOSS organisation is seen as the techno-social precondition of a radical democracy in becoming. However tenuous this assemblage may be, it goes some way to explaining the way in which FLOSS and openness have become quite central rhetorical terms in the struggle to produce an identity for the networked, anti-capitalist movement. But it is also true that certain characteristics of the idea of openness have genuine organisational influence within the movement. A study of openness in this context is useful in three degrees: first, to the social movement itself ‘internally’; second, to ‘outsiders’ wanting to gain a good understanding of ‘what it is’; third as a critique of those who would seek to represent the movement with, or attempt to manipulate it through, a particular deployment of the idea of openness.


It is too easy to make sweeping generalisations about the ways in which the social movement realises the idea of openness. Instead we need to look at the ways in which the kind of openness identified in FLOSS may practically correspond to specific moments of organisation in the social movement. Based on my direct involvement in the social movement in contexts such as the anti-G8, No Border Camps, PGA meetings and various actions, I think it is possible to see correspondences in five key areas:

Meetings and Discussions

The time and location of physical meetings are published in a variety of places, online and off. The meetings themselves are most often open to all comers, sometimes with the exception of ‘traditional’ media. Although often no recordings or pictures are allowed at meetings, there is rarely any other vetting of those who attend. Anyone is allowed to speak, although there is often a convenor or moderator whose role is to keep order and ensure progress. Summaries of discussion are often posted on the web (see 3., Documentation) where they can be read by those unable to attend a physical meeting or those otherwise interested parties.

The same is true of IRC meetings, which anyone may attend, and for which the ‘logs’ are usually published (see, again, Documentation).

Net-based mailing lists, through which much discussion is carried out, are usually open subscription and, as with physical meetings, those joining are not vetted.


Most often, anyone present at a meeting may take part in the decisions made there, although these conditions may occasionally be altered. Currently, the majority of decision making is done using the ‘consensus’ method, in which any person present not agreeing with a decision can either choose to abstain or veto (‘block’). A block causes an action or decision to be stopped.


In general, documents that form organisational materials within the movement are published online, usually using a content management system such as wiki. In most cases, it is possible for even casual visitors to edit and alter these documents, although it is possible to ‘roll back’ to earlier versions in, for example, the case of defacements.


The majority of demonstrations are organised using the above methods. Not only is their organisation ‘open’ but, within a certain range of political persuasions, anyone may attend. Self-policing is not ‘hard’ but ‘soft’.


Even some ‘actions’ – concentrated interventions usually involving smaller numbers – are ‘open’, using the above methods to organise themselves and, if the action is ongoing, even allowing new people to participate.

Thus some key moments within the social movement share certain characteristics with the FLOSS model of openness. Indeed, the movement deploys many of the same tools as FLOSS communities (i.e., wiki, IRC and mailing lists) to organise itself and carry out its projects. But its characteristic uses of openness are not enshrined in any formal document. Rather, they have developed as a way of organising that is tacitly understood by those involved in the social movement: an idea of openness that, to differing degrees, inflects its organisation throughout. Although the principles are not rigidly followed, there is often peer criticism of groups who do not declare their agendas or who act in a closed, partisan fashion, and, generally speaking, any group or project wanting to keep itself closed has an obligation to explain its rationale to other groups.

Some of these attitudes and principles derive from the People’s Global Action (PGA), an influential ‘instrument’ constituting a visible attempt to organise around networked openness. The organisational philosophy of PGA,[10] which was formed after a movement gathering in South America in August 1997, is based on ‘decentralisation’. With ‘minimal central structures’, the PGA ‘has no membership’ or ‘juridical personality’: ‘no organisation or person represents’ it, nor does it ‘represent any organisation or person’. It is a ‘tool’,

a fluid network for communication and co-ordination between diverse social movements who share a loose set of principles or ‘hallmarks’ [...] Since February 1998 [...] PGA has evolved as an interconnected and often chaotic web of very diverse groups, with a powerful common thread of struggle and solidarity at the grassroots level. These gatherings have played a vital role in face-to-face communication and exchange of experience, strategies and ideas [...] .[11]

The PGA has attempted to structure itself around a set of ‘hallmarks’ which have been updated at each key meeting. These are currently as follows:

1. A very clear rejection of capitalism, imperialism and feudalism; all trade agreements, institutions and governments that promote destructive globalisation.

2. [... A rejection of] all forms and systems of domination and discrimination including, but not limited to, patriarchy, racism and religious fundamentalism of all creeds. [...An embracing of] the full dignity of all human beings.

3. A confrontational attitude, since we do not think that lobbying can have a major impact in such biased and undemocratic organisations, in which transnational capital is the only real policy-maker.

4. A call to direct action and civil disobedience, support for social movements’ struggles, advocating forms of resistance which maximise respect for life and oppressed peoples’ rights, as well as the construction of local alternatives to global capitalism.

5. An organisational philosophy based on decentralisation and autonomy.[12]

These hallmarks function to structure participation in the PGA process. In theory, they allow the network to remain ‘open’ while designating the kinds of activities that don’t fall within its field. PGA meetings, for example, do not exclude those who don’t subscribe to ITS hallmarks, but neither would discussions explicitly contrary to them be given much attention. Certain kinds of discussion are openly privileged over others on pragmatic grounds.

Structures like PGA and those being experimented with more widely are part of the social movement’s general rejection of organisational models based on representation, verticality and hierarchy. In their stead comes ‘non-hierarchical decentralisation’ and ‘horizontal coordination’. ‘From this movement,’ writes Massimo De Angelis, ‘emerges [...] the concept and practice of network horizontality, democracy, of the exercise of power from below.’[13] For this ‘radical political economist’[,] this form of ‘social-cooperation’ is ‘ours’. It is ‘our’ horizontality and these are ‘our’ networks, part of a set of modes of coordination of human activity that

go beyond the capitalist market and beyond the state. [...] we are talking about another world. [...] the slogan on T-shirts in Genoa was entirely correct: another world is not only possible. Rather, we are already patiently and with effort building another world – with all its contradictions, limitations and ambiguities – through the form of our networks.[14]

In other words it is the open, networked, horizontal form of the movement that produces its radical potential for social change: the message, yet again, is the medium. In the case of the self-described ‘open publishing’ project Indymedia, for example, the open submission structure is said to collapse the distinction between media producer and consumer, allowing us to ‘become the media’. The Indymedia newswire, write the collective

works on the principle of OPEN PUBLISHING, an essential element of the Indymedia project that allows anyone to instantaneously self-publish their work on a globally accessible web site. The Indymedia newswire encourages people to become the media [...] While Indymedia reserves the right to develop sections of the site that provide edited articles, there is no designated Indymedia editorial collective that edits articles posted to the [] news wire.[15]

meeting places 3

Here, the idea of openness presents itself as absolutely inimical to the ‘dominant multinational global news system’, where ‘news is not free, news is not open’. With open publishing

the process of creating news is transparent to the readers. They can contribute a story and see it instantly appear in the pool of stories publicly available. Those stories are filtered as little as possible to help the readers find the stories they want. Readers can see editorial decisions being made by others. They can see how to get involved and help make editorial decisions. If they can think of a better way for the software to help shape editorial decisions, they can copy the software because it is free and change it and start their own site. If they want to redistribute the news, they can, preferably on an open publishing site.

The working parts of journalism are exposed. Open publishing assumes the reader is smart and creative and might want to be a writer and an editor and a distributor and even a software programmer [...] Open publishing is free software. It’s freedom of information, freedom for creativity.[16]

Accounts such as this and De Angelis’ bear out my argument that an extreme amount of expectation is being focused on openness as an agent for change. Not only is openness central to the organisation of the social movement, but in many cases it is taken as read that the organisational quality of openness is inherently radical and will be productive of positive change in whichever part of the social-political field it is deployed. This is seen, for example, in the work of the group Open Organisations, comprised of three individuals – Toni Prug, Richard Malter and Benjamin Geer – who were previously closely involved with UK Indymedia, and who have until relatively recently been united in their belief in the radically liberatory potentials of openness. For them, it is simply an as-yet insufficiently theorised and elaborated form and thus they have been working on what might be characterised as a ‘strong’ or ‘robust’ openness model which recommends a set of working processes or practices intended to foster it. ‘Open Organisations’ are entities that anyone can join, [that function with] complete transparency and flexible and fair decision making structures, ownership patterns, and exchange mechanisms, that are designed, defined, and refined, by members as part of a continual transformative and learning process.[17]


In effect, by creating ‘structured processes’, Open Organisations try to provide for a consistent openness. In doing so, they implicitly recognise that there are inconsistencies between the rhetoric and behaviour of contemporary political organisations. But what are these problems and who, indeed where, are openness’ discontents? In fact they may be found everywhere. In the case of Inydmedia’s ‘open publishing’ project, for example, openness has been failing under the pressures of scale. Initially small ‘cottage-industry’ IMCs were able to manage the open-publishing process very well. But, in many IMCs, when the number of site visitors has risen past a certain level, problems have started to occur. Popular IMC sites have become targets for interventions by political opponents, often from the fascist right, seeking opportunities to disrupt what they regard as an IMC’s ‘countercultural’ potential and a platform from which to spread their own rhetoric. Of course there is nothing to prevent this in the IMC manifesto; but it has impelled the understandable decision to edit out fascist viewpoints and other ‘noise’, using the ad hoc teams whose function was previously to develop and maintain the IMC’s open-publishing system. Some IMCs have ultimately been seen to take on a rather traditional, closed and censorial function that is all too often undeclared and in contradiction with the official IMC ‘become the media’ line. In other words, Indymedia channels are often politically censored by a small group of more-or-less anonymous individuals to quite a high degree.

This emergence of soft control within organisations emphatically declared open is becoming a common and tacitly acknowledged problem across the social movement. As with Indymedia, practical issues with open development and organisation too often give the lie to the enthusiastic promotion of openness as an effective alternative to representation. After one PGA meeting, the group Sans Titre had this to say:

Whenever we have been involved in PGA-inspired action, we have been unable to identify decision-making bodies. Moreover, there has been no collective assessment of the effectiveness of PGA-inspired actions [...] If the PGA-process includes decision-making and assessment bodies, where are they to be found? How can we take part?[18]

This problem runs through the temporary constitutions and dissolutions of ‘open’ organisations that make up the social movement. The avowed ‘absence’ of decision-making bodies and points of centralisation can too easily segue into a concealment of control per se. In fact, in both the FLOSS model and the social movement, the idea that no one group or person controls development and decision making is often quite far from the truth. In both cases it is formally true that anyone may alter or intervene in processes according to their needs, views or projects; but practically speaking, few people can assume the necessary social position from which to make effective ‘interventions’. Open source software is generally tightly controlled by a small group of people: the Apache Group, for example, very open-handedly controls the development of the Apache Web server, and Linus Torvalds has the final say on the Linux kernel’s development.[19] Likewise, in the social movement, decision making often devolves to a surprisingly small number of individuals and groups who make a lot of the running in deciding what happens, where and when. Though they never officially ‘speak for’ others, much unofficial doctrine nonetheless emanates from them. Within political networks, such groups and individuals can be seen as ‘supernodes’, not only routing more than their ‘fair share’ of traffic, but actively determining the ‘content’ that traverses them. Such supernodes do not (necessarily) constitute themselves out of a malicious will-to-power: rather, power defaults to them through personal qualities like energy, commitment and charisma, and the ability to synthesise politically important social moments into identifiable ideas and forms.

This soft control by crypto-hierarchies is tacit knowledge for many who have had first hand experience with ‘open’ organisations. Statements such as the following by a political activist introduced to what he calls ‘the chaos of open community’ at a Washington State forest blockade camp in 1994 and then later the Carters Road Community, are typical:

the core group, by virtue of being around longer as individuals, and also working together longest as a sub group, formed unintentional elites. These elite groups were covert structures in open consensus based communities which said loudly and clearly that everyone’s influence and power was equal [...] We all joined in with a vigorous explanation that [...] there were no leaders [...] The conspiracy to hide this fact among ourselves and from ourselves was remarkably successful. It was as though the situation where no leaders existed was known, deep down by everyone, to be impossible, outsiders were able to say so, but communards were hoping so much that it was not true that they were able to pretend...[20]

To examine how much this ‘pretence’ is the rule within the social movement is beyond the scope of this piece. But what is clear is that each of the five characteristics of ‘openness’ described above, when subjected to scrutiny, reveal themselves as extremely compromised. The details, for example, of meetings and discussions are published and circulated, but this information is primarily received by those who are able (and often privileged to be able) to connect to certain (technological/social) networks. Likewise, the language of a ‘call’ or equivalent can determine whether a party will feel comfortable or suitable to respond to it: like PGA’s ‘hallmarks’, language and phraseology is a point of ‘soft control’, but not one that is openly discussed and studied. Furthermore, meetings may be ‘open to all’, but they can quickly become hostile environments for parties who do not or cannot observe the ‘basic’ consensus that is often tacitly agreed between long-term actors in a particular scene. This peer consensus can indeed, on occasion, so determine the movement’s ‘open’ decision-making process as to turn it into a war of attrition on difference, with divergent points of view gradually giving themselves up to peer opinion as the ‘debate’ wears on and on. The ‘block’ or ‘veto’ is in fact rarely used because of the peer pressure placed on those who would use it (‘Aw, come on, you’re not going to block, are you?’ – a common enough plaint at movement meetings). In some cases the apparently neutral ‘moderator’ role can also become bizarrely instrumentalised, giving rise to the sensation that ‘something has already been decided’, and that the meeting is just for performative purposes.

Likewise, documentation of meetings and decisions usually only tells half the story. Points of serious contention are frequently left out on grounds that the parties involved in the disagreement might not want them to be published. This ‘smoothing over’ of serious difference is quite normal. In fact participants in IRC discussions habitually inflect what they say because of the future publication of the logs, using private channels to discuss key points and only holding ‘official’ discussions and ‘lines’ in the open. Too often the open channel only ‘hears’ what it is supposed to hear and important exchanges are not published.

All of this explains why some activist-theorists are beginning to interrogate the experiment with openness as it is taking shape in the social movement. History has put significant resources at their disposal. Jo Freeman’s ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ is a key document, originating from the experiences of the ‘60s feminist liberation movement, and provides a critique of the laissez faire ideal for group structures still absolutely relevant today. As Freeman argues, such structures can become

a smoke screen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. Thus, structurelessness becomes a way of masking power. As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few, and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules.[21]

Freeman’s insight is fundamental: the idea of openness does not in itself prevent the formation of the informal structures that I have described here as crypto-hierarchies; on the contrary, it is possible that it fosters them to a greater degree than structured organisations. Underneath its rhetoric of openness, the non-hierarchical organisation can thus take on the qualities of a ‘gang’. As Jacques Camatte and Gianna Collu realised in 1969, such organisations tend to hide the existence of their informal ruling cliques to appear more attractive to outsiders, feeding on the creative abilities of individual members whilst suppressing their individual contributions, and producing layers of authority contingent on individuals’ intellectual or social dominance. ‘Even in those groups that want to escape [it]’, writes Camatte, ‘the [...] gang mechanism nevertheless tends to prevail[...] The inability to question theoretical questions independently leads the individual to take refuge behind the authority of another member who becomes, objectively, a leader, or behind the group entity, which becomes a gang.’[22]


What this initial investigation has indicated is that the idea of openness, which is receiving such a promotion on the heels of the Free-Libre and Open Source software movement, is not in and of itself an immediately sufficient alternative to the bankrupt structures of representation. There seem to be good reasons for the discontent with open organisation felt by many activists, much of it based on evidence that must remain, by nature, anecdotal. But what is clear is that, if we are going to promote open organisation within the social movement, we must also take care to scrutinise the tacit flows of power that underlie and undercut it. The accounts here suggest that once the formal hierarchical membrane of group organisation is dismantled – in which, for example, software composition or political decision-making might have previously taken place – what remains are tacit control structures. In FLOSS, limitations to those who can access and alter source code are formally removed. But what then comes to define such access, and the software that is produced, are underlying determinants such as education, social opportunity, social connections and affiliations. The most open system theoretically imaginable, this is to say, reveals perfectly the predicating inequities of the wider environment in which it is situated; what the idea of openness must tackle first and most critically is that a really open organisation cannot be realised without a prior radicalisation of the social-political field in which it operates. And that, of course, is to beg the oldest of questions.

This essay is part of a year-long collaborative investigation into innovative media forms enabling cooperative discourse, which will also involve a series of public events. For updates and texts, see Metamute [] and the General Intelligence Group website []



[1] See: ‘What is Wiki?’ at []

[2] See: [] for a review of current peer to peer and fileshare services

[3] Felix Stalder, ‘One-size-doesn’t-fit-all. Particulars of the Volunteer Open Source Development Methodology’, available at []

[4] Adam Greenfield, ‘The Minimal Compact: Preliminary Notes on an “Open Source” Constitution for Post-National Entities’, []

[5] Tim O’ Reilly, ‘The Open Source Paradigm Shift,’ Keynote, Reboot 2003, available at []

[6] Florian Schneider, ‘Re: <nettime> Reverse Engineering Freedom’, Nettime, Tue, 14 Oct 2003, available at []. See also Florian Schneider and Geert Lovink, ‘Reverse Engineering Freedom,’ in Make Worlds, 2003. Available at []

[7] Douglas Rushkoff, ‘Open Source Democracy: How Online Communication Is Changing Offline Politics’, Demos, 2003 []

[8] Rushkoff, ibid [9] Biella Coleman, ‘Free and Open Source Software’, in Survival Kit, Part one, proceedings of RAM4

[10] See: []

[11] ‘Sophie’, ChiapasLink UK, ‘We are everywhere! People’s Global Action meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia’, posted to A-infos list, 8 Dec 2001. []

[12] PGA hallmarks, available at: []

[13] Massimo De Angelis, ‘From Movement to Society’, in The Commoner, August 2001, []

[14] De Angelis, ibid[15] Indymedia collective statement []

[16] Matthew Arnison, ‘Open Publishing is the Same as Free Software’, March 2001, available at []

[17] Statement taken from: []

[18] Sans Titre, ‘Open Letter to the People’s Global Action’, 05-09-02.[]

[19] See, for example, Paula Roone, ‘Is Linus Killing Linux?’, in TechWeb, January 28, 2001, []

[20] Chris Lee, ‘An Article Concerning the Issue of Covert Power Elites in Open Communities’, 4/12/2001, []

[21] Jo Freeman, ‘The Tyranny of Struturelessness’, first printed by the Women’s Liberation Movement, USA, 1970 []

[22] Jacques Camatte, ‘On Organisation’, in Invariance, Annee V, Serie II, No.2, reprinted in This World We Must Leave and Other Essays, Autonomedia: New York, 1995, p.30

JJ King <> is information politics editor of Mute and founder member of GIG []

Picture Information:The pioneering research of Paul Baran in the 1960s, who envisioned a communications network that would survive a major enemy attack.

The sketch shows three different network topologies described in his RAND Memorandum, ‘On Distributed Communications: 1. Introduction to Distributed Communications Network’ (August 1964). The distributed network structure offered the best survivability. (From

A:Abbasian Mansion, Kashan, IranView of the central courtyard 12059/big/IIR0339.jpg

B:Christ Church Old North, 1723 – 1724

C:A.B.U. Theatre Workshop, Zaria, NigeriaMain entrance to ABU Theatre Workshop 26074/big/IAA8169.JPG

D:Mosque Mali jamesmorris/DJENNECH1.jpg E:Chapel, Portsmouth Priory SchoolPortsmouth, RI Pietro Belluschi, 1961 F:Shaker VillagePittsfield, MA Anonymous, 1790 – 1864

G:Jonathan Corwin House (witch house) Salem, MA Anonymous, c. 1642

H:Meeting HouseSandown, NHAnonymous, 1773 – 1774 I:Friends Meeting HouseDover, NHAnonymous, c. 1768 J:Conference Hall, Bamako, MaliInterior, Conference hall 22453/big/IAA4547.JPG

K:Community Center and Cyclone Shelter, Cox’s Bazar, BangladeshFront faÁade of the shelter at Moheshkhali big/IAA3005.JPG

L:Meeting HouseDanville, NHAnonymous, c. 1760

M:Anup Tala-u Pavilion, Fatehpur Sikri, IndiaExterior close-up view toward north showing coloumns N:Kahere Poultry Farming School, Koliagbe, Guinea

O:Boston City HallBoston, MA Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles with Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty, 1961 – 1968 P:Baghdad Conference Palace, Baghdad, IraqInterior, conference hall big/IAA7152.JPG

Q:Ouagadougou, Burkina FasoPublic area in front of a government building

R:Jefferd’s Tavern and Historic DistrictYork, ME Anonymous, c. 1750

Disobbedienti, Ciao

Hydrarchist analyses the death of the Italian extra-parliamentary political network, Disobbedienti (Disobedients), and reports on the rise of social precarity as a focus of political action in Italy

No formal announcement certified the end of the Disobedients (Disobbedienti) in Italy but the once dominant extraparliamentary network’s demise seems scarcely in dispute. What originated as the ‘White Overalls’ (WO) alliance between groups in the Veneto, Rome and Milan in 1998, encompassing satellite groups in other cities, is now in full decomposition as its constitutent elements abandon the logo and reassume identities related to their everyday territorial reality. The consequences are manifested both in a reshuffling of the relationships between the movements and the political parties, and a plurality of campaigns as the focus of struggle. But first some background and explanation.

The Disobbedienti at the Florence Social Forum, 2002

The widespread riots and fierce police repression that accompanied the G8 in Genoa dealt a mortal blow to the model of controlled conflict and hybridisation with other political forces that had constituted the WO project since 1998. A language of heightened confrontation was adopted prior to the G8, but the scale of state reprisals found them unprepared. Afterwards there was a failure to assess what had really happened, as each group attempted to distance itself from responsibility. But repression can also produce unity and trans-regional ties were galvanised between some of the fractious inheritors of Autonomia Operaia (where a strong Rome – Padua axis can be traced to the late ’60s), the youth section of Rifondazione Communista (RC – an offshoot of the old Communist Party and still a major force on the reformist left) and the Greens around a platform of ‘social disobedience’. Thus occurred an apparently seamless transition from White Overalls to Disobedients, presented as a laboratory for experimentation with new political forms rather than a proposition for any type of unitary organisation. Nonetheless the new network suffered numerous defections due to exhaustion, unhappiness with the way in which Genoa had been managed, and from a sense that the open and experimental spirit which fuelled the WO had now disappeared. From this point onwards the Disobedients would be perceived as a force threatening to hegemonise and erode the autonomy of other groups. Their national nature, media-presence and involvement with political parties made them easy to cast as imperialist and overbearing.

Apart from a shared hostility to the suffocating and disciplinary pressures of the Communist Party there have always been radical differences in the autonomist left as to the attitude to assume towards elections. From 1976 some ‘extraparliamentary’ groups ran candidates on the list of Democrazia Proletaria (absorbed by RC in 1992). Participation was justified as a means to construct counter-power and extend the dynamic of conflictuality to these institutions. Others assumed an abstentionist position, rejected mediation and advocated social autonomy – the daily unfolding of material conflict in perpetual antagonism to politics, understood as an institutionalised management of social conflict.

Relations with the parties vary according to local factors, which in Italy can never be underestimated. In the Veneto (Padua, Venice) acute hostility towards the Communist Party tradition combined with the evisceration of concentrations of labour in the factories – the Veneto’s restructured economic form based on small-scale networked production has made it a textbook example of post-fordism – and the importance of environmentalism have made the Greens the post-autonomists’ political vehicle of choice. Being a ‘salon’ party with neither tradition or a consolidated grassroots, the Greens are less resistant to new ideas, more malleable to internal reconfiguration. The relationship has allowed the translation of the autonomists’ strong territorial presence into an increased political visibility and thus provided a greater margin for action. There are concrete benefits as well: the stability of occupied spaces; the ability to create structures with which its militants can survive materially; and legitimation through a role in local government.

Meanwhile in Rome the chaotic urgency of the metropolis produces self-organised reappropriation for the resolution of basic needs, especially housing. RC remains an important force in the city and contains significant pro-movement elements. Here the Disobedients have reformed around ACTION (Agency for Social Rights), driven by activists from the social centre Corto Circuito, which has won accomodation for more than a thousand people through occupations and earned considerable respect. Since 1997 they have also elected city and district councillors as independents on the list of RC, a relationship which extends their capacity to negotiate over housing and provides protection from otherwise certain police prosecution. In both Rome and the Veneto work with migrants for housing and papers has been central in recent years – and this extends to libertarians and activists of all stripes – and has been an area where intervention at an institutional level is both useful and inevitable.


Tensions over the relationship with the political parties came to a head in the Disobedients during the European elections in June. Whilst the Veneto section supported the candidacy of the Greens’ Bettin, the Romans ran a popular candidate on the list of RC, Nunzio D’Erme, famous for having dumped several bags of manure in front of Berlusconi’s Roman residence. Polling better than expected, he was their fifth highest vote-winner nationally. RC’s share of the vote gave them five seats to distribute but D’Erme was passed over in favour of Niki Vendola, from the South where the RC are currently enjoying considerable growth. Given that a candidate from the North-East was given a seat with a far smaller number of votes, this was understandably viewed as betrayal, and evidence of a cynicism towards the movements to which it had professed an openness since the mid-’90s. This crisis polarised existing divisions within the Disobedients and political bloodletting on a local level lead to a reversion to local identities and a retreat from hybridisation. RC are now openly in cahoots with the government-in-waiting of Romano Prodi, whose Grand Democratic Alliance will challenge and probably defeat Berlusconi at the next election. Consequently the radical left needs to reposition itself with respect to the future power structure, both to get what they need and retain a clear oppositional profile.

Nonetheless some type of relationship with the political system remains unavoidable, even if unformalised or unwitting. How one conceives the purpose of representation will fashion the terms on which it occurs. One vision explicitly legitimises local politics as a space to establish a counterweight to the deterritorialising tendency of globalised production, and a stage for practical demonstrations of counter-government. Here parallels are made with Zapatista autonomous communities, which, transposed to Italy, has meant involvement at a municipal level and the election of councillors. Elsewhere Antonio Negri recently set out criteria for the relationship with party politics in general, insisting on the absolute primacy of the social movement over political parties, whose legitimation resides solely in their capacity to serve, resource and open up political space for extra-political activity.[1] Accordingly, party alliances are justified provided that the relationship is not one of subalternity (whereby parties exploit social movements so as to rebuild their diminishing base) but ‘navigational’ authority, where party direction derives from demands expressed externally. Handily enough this both functions as a justification for the past as well as a programme for the future, and an argument for keeping RC at arms length.

Proletarian shopping, Panorama supermarket, Rome, 6 November

In the meantime the rapid rise to prominence of social precarity as a political flash-point has seen an influx of former Disobedients (now rebranded as ‘Invisibles’ and ‘Global’) into the organisation of the Mayday parade in Milan.[2] A derivative network named PreCog – precarious and cognitive workers – has taken shape in the last year, popularising the cult of San Precario, mythopoetical patron saint of dispossessed but combative subjects, with the intention of rejuvenating the popular imagination of a fight for new social rights. As a network PreCog contains many sensibilities external to the former Disobedients including a ‘Neurogreen’ tendency (environmentalist and libertarian with a focus on imposing pressure at local and European level) which sees in the Green Party a vehicle for more flexible political opposition and a global environmentalist sensibility proper to the problems of advanced capitalism. Meanwhile the social autonomy perspective within PreCog and the the ‘National Network for a Guaranteed Income’, which continues to prioritise the diffuse conflictuality of the ‘precariat’ and its ability to configure the social balance of forces, is also in a process of growth and recomposition.[3] In spite of these heterogeneous approaches the outline of a shared trajectory emerged around the question of income, encompassing the national demonstration for a guaranteed income on 6 November 2004 and next year’s Mayday Parades.


The simmering tension between parties and movements came to a head during the November demonstration. Under the playful acronym GAP – Grand Alliance of the Precarious, a parody of Prodi’s Grand Democratic Alliance – workplace committees from Alitalia to care-workers, grassroots trade unions, and social centres of every hue converged for direct actions of reappropriation to protest the increasing cost of living and demand access to wealth and a street parade through the city centre. ‘Autoreduction’ is an Italian term for imposing a discount ‘from below’ and it was planned to perform one in a suburban supermarket. Having neutralised police attention through cunning use of the subway system, the protestors arrived eventually in Pietralata, immortalised in Pasolini’s films Theorem and Accatone, where a shopping centre owned by Berlusconi is handily located by the train station. Once inside 700 participants filled their trolleys with goods, and blocked the cash registers chanting ‘everything costs too much!’ Negotiation began with management for a discount of 70 percent for everyone in the store, but in the meantime many people simply walked out with their trolleys and began distributing goods to families and pensioners, drinking wine and sharing sweets. This gesture was initially met with incredulity, but soon the party was in full swing. Meanwhile the electronics and clothing departments upstairs were by now in the grip of frenzy: computers, phones, DVD players and flat-screen monitors made their way out the door. At this point many ‘ordinary shoppers’ had succumbed to repressed desire and started to help themselves. Faced with a plainly uncontrollable situation the small number of police present were powerless. Later that day it had been planned to distribute copied DVDs inside the Feltrinelli book and entertainment chain as a symbolic rejection of copyright laws that limit access to culture and knowledge. Echoes of the morning however were too strong; as the demonstration passed by 200 people entered, filled their arms with books and charged back out into the street into the street parade of 25,000 people: workers committees, migrants, grassroots trade unions, house occupants and students, and a hundred other shades of precarity.

Predictably the media and political class have embarked on a hysterical condemnation of these actions, and have attempted to impute responsibility to the Disobedients, who as recounted above scarcely exist. Arrests and a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy have been promised. Notwithstanding the brouhaha, commentators have had to acknowledge both a widespread sympathy for what happened and the emergence of the precariat as a problem henceforth at the centre rather than the margins of society.[4] Individual MPs from both the Greens and RC have even expressed support, but the parties have officially distanced themselves from the acts, widening the schism between movement and orthodox forms of representation. RC’s current fixation with consensus and terror at any taint of illegality that could be depicted as being violent makes constructive cooperation nigh impossible. Here no violence was involved and the action was performed without any attempt to conceal participants’ identities, a fact for which participants will pay a heavy legal price.

Amidst all this however, GAP has maintained a tortured silence, torn between the need to respond whilst under the public eye and the distrust of collective utterance and representation which remain unresolved. Journalists have filled this void by nominating former Disobedients as the voice of the precarious. This unhelpful personalisation derives from their use of ‘spokespeople’ – in fact leaders – that monopolised media coverage of the ‘no-global’ period. Such distorted representations allow the action to be pigeonholed as belonging to pre-fabricated media constructions – ‘autonomists’, ‘Disobedients’, ‘inheritors of ‘77’ – cast as alien to people’s everyday experience of contradiction with their living conditions, and so inhibiting any broader social identification with the practice.[5]

A renewed realism as to the acute difficulties faced in everyday life underlies the emphasis on precarity. Spiralling rents, an increased cost of living, and poor social/labour mobility – not to mention the apocalyptic turmoil worldwide – are generating a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future. In the absence of a substantial social welfare buffer, this focus enables a narration of needs and desires in the first-person and facilitates a rupture with discourses of the ‘no-global’ period which often lapsed into a jaded third-worldism, where the ‘serious’ problems were often exoticised or abstracted as somebody else’s, somewhere else.

Social movements in Italy function best when external factors oblige cooperation and marginalise intra-movement rivalry, yet an inability to coldly appraise the efficiency of discarded strategies threatens to nullify the benefits of experience. The Gordian knots of representation, relations with the institutions, and internal and network democracy are not going away. With a centre-left government on the horizon, and the fertile ground for reactionary demagogy that promises, the challenge will be to maintain abrasive contestation, autonomous from the party system, without being relegated to the margins, where the only dividend is unceasing police attention.


[1] Antonio Negri, ‘Contro il pensiero molle dell'organizzazione’, Posse, Nuovoi Animali Politici, Manifesto Libri, April 2004
[2] and
[3] See
[4] For a good introduction to the politics and cartography of precarity, see Green Pepper’s issue devoted to the theme. and of course this issue of Mute, pp. 87-105
[5] Hierarchical political action remains prevalent in Italy, a fact often missed

Hydrarchist is a researcher and contrarian

Proud to be Flesh