The Open-Sourcing of Political Activism: How the internet and networks help build resistance

Strike! Occupy! Retweet!
Strike! Occupy! Retweet!

An article by Guy Aitchison and Aaron Peters which deals with some of the issues of networked activism, its limits and potential in the context of the emergent anti-cuts movement. Written at the end of 2010 as a contribution to Fight back!, it forms part of Our Kingdom’s debate on the “networked society”.

Submitted by Anonymous on April 24, 2011

It has been an exhilarating experience being part of the extraordinary outpouring of student energy and activism over the last few months. Although we may have lost the vote on tuition fees, we won the argument about the role of higher education and blew the political space wide open. In the process, two cherished myths within official debate, vital to the Coalition’s sense of self-confidence and purpose as it goes about dismantling the post-war social democratic settlement, have been demolished. The first was the notion, reinforced by an obliging media, that Britain has a largely passive and quiescent population who, unlike their continental counter-parts, can be relied upon to meekly accept the fate handed down to them, with the young especially dismissed as lazy, feckless and self-interested.

The second governing myth, lying in tatters, is that the government’s economic agenda is in any way “progressive” and concerned with “fairness”. David Cameron had attempted to distance himself from his bellicose predecessor Margaret Thatcher, dressing up the Coalition’s anti-state agenda in the fluffy rhetorical garb of the “Big Society” with its emphasis on devolving power, voluntarism and self-help. This lacked plausibility at the best of times, and can now be seen for the sham it is. Six months into the Coalition and groups of students and children have been repeatedly kettled, beaten and horse-charged outside Parliament with the BBC’s chief political correspondent, Nick Robinson, declaring that government has “lost control of the streets”. Civil society has rejected the role allotted to it by Tory spin doctors, instead meeting and organising in opposition to the government’s austerity programmes.

Taking part in the UCL occupation, and participating in other student meetings and occupations, it was striking the number of trade unionists who said they had been inspired and energised by the spirit and determination of the students. Encouragingly, this sentiment now finds echoes amongst the union leadership with Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, calling for trade unions to join forces with the “magnificent students’ movement” (see section 7 of Fight back!). This call, from the leader of the country’s biggest trade union, would have been unimaginable during earlier periods of union militancy in the 1970s and ‘80s and presents a historic opportunity for the left. If it is to defeat the rampant forces of market fundamentalism to achieve a society based on justice and equality then obsessing over the machinations of Westminster village, and the political stance of the Labour leader Ed Miliband, will not help. Parliamentary representation matters, but it is by orientating itself towards the public, rather than party leaders, that a movement gains influence.

For us, the key question now is how to turn rhetorical expressions of solidarity into concrete and lasting relationships of support and co-operation and how disparate campaigning groups – some local, some sectoral, each with their own battles, but united in opposition to the cuts – can link up to defeat the Tory-Lib Dem plans. One key consideration is how the movement can maintain its forwards momentum and militancy and not get sucked into a drawn out game of waiting for institutions hidebound by conservative leaderships.

This Reader on the winter protests brings together just a small sample of the many reports and accounts of what happened in November and December. They are followed by examples from the wider arguments – over the government’s policy on higher education; policing and the barbaric use of kettling; the contribution of trade unions; the question of generational change. Already, another ‘reader’ of similar length could be put together from just the blog posts debating the organisation of the movement as a wide-ranging argument developed between those who emphasise the power of networks to release the creativity and self-organising power of activists and those who stress the effectiveness of central organisation and democratically accountable leadership.

As our contribution to the overviews, we want to set out how we think the originality and energy of what has happened can be best maintained in the context of the epochal transformation now underway.

To simplify, those who back the power of networks are content for the movement to remain precisely that, a social movement, held together by on and offline networks, and formulating a shared identity and set of political goals in an organic process of bottom-up deliberation. Whereas those who want central organisation and leadership wish to see the establishment of a Social Movement Organisation, formalized in stance, procedure and practice that is subject to theoretical homogeneity and the diktat of a centralised leadership and bureaucracy. Drawing upon popular conceptions about what is the most “natural” way to organise human affairs, they argue for the effectiveness of hierarchy, a form of organisation which is any case inescapable, as de facto leaderships emerge in a process described by Robert Michels at the beginning of the 20th century as the “iron law of oligarchy”.

Of course, the choice is not as polarised as this and it would be foolish for anyone to argue for a single exclusive model in campaigning against the cuts. If we are to see the emergence of a broad-based popular movement, uniting everyone from young social media enthusiasts to OAPs, then there will need to be a patchwork of different campaign groups across different sectors of society, some with elected leaderships and others without, each with their own methods of organisation and communication. Activists concerned with galvanizing popular resistance to the cuts will need to engage in what will inevitably be a slow and painstaking process of working with established institutions, not least the trade unions, and convincing them to take action.

At the same time this should not blind us to the fact that some of the most promising action in the anti-cuts movement so far has been a result of the challenge, by networks, to the monopoly traditional institutions have historically enjoyed over information and social co-ordination. The terrain of collective action is being transformed and this has opened up the exciting possibility of a powerful and rapidly growing mass movement beyond the capacity of regulation of any central leadership. The ideas on which such a movement could be based certainly aren’t new. The long and complex history of the mutual aid tradition of anarchism has demonstrated the co-ordinating capacity of networks based on equality, participation, and self-organisation. Indeed, in practicing consensual democracy, the occupations and other sites of student resistance, are self-consciously working with an anarchist tradition based around autonomy and an ethos of co-operation and communality. What is distinctive about the current situation is that the amplification of the vital role networks can make in mobilising resistance by the “open sourcing” of political activism. For the first time in human history we have the possibility to organise on a dramatic scale without monolithic organisations. With the technological revolution in networks and the internet, collective action just got a whole lot easier.

The ‘open sourcing’ of political activism

Historically understood, social movement organisations have exhibited organisational characteristics similar to what Erik S Raymond describes, in the context of software programming, as ‘Cathedrals’, the closed-source cathedral model being one in which “source code is available with each software release, but code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers”.

The cathedral model was determined by the technologies available: the assembly line, a centralised management structure, a rigid and hierarchical division of labour, and forms of mass communication premised on the “one-to-many” model, such as newspapers, radio and television. These had a tendency to favour established elites and were prone to obsolete ways of thinking and problem-solving over risk taking and innovation.

The Cathedral model has informed the attributes of organisations in the political, commercial and cultural spheres throughout the 20th and early 21st century. From Microsoft to Manchester United, and many of our recently failed financial institutions, it has shaped public values, our shared spaces, and the nature of social interaction. Indeed, it is this Fordist model of industrial, and later social, production that has determined the sphere of what is collectively possible.

The case against the cathedral as the exclusive organising model for social movements is observable in the nascent anti-cuts movement, where cathedrals are being repeatedly out-done and bypassed by energetic clusters of activism and direct action. These, in Raymond’s terms, represent the model of the “bazaar”, in which “the code is developed over the internet in full view of the public”, rather than secretly at the behest and within the confines of the collective intelligence of a centralised bureaucracy. What we are seeing in these clusters is an ‘open sourcing’ of political activism. Just as the ‘bazaars’ of the Linux operating system and Wikipedia can be built upon by anyone with the capabilities, skills and requisite passion to do so, these movements are constituted in a similar fashion – themselves crowdsourcing the skill-sets and social networks of anybody who wishes to participate. The paradigm of the ‘closed source’ cathedral can be extended from the trade union leadership, to the NUS, and might be seen as an equivalent to the approach of Microsoft and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The exciting possibilities this holds for developing new strategies of social emancipation has been commented on by political theorists, such as Erik Olin Wright, who points out in Envisioning Real Utopias that Wikipedia shows the productive capacity of non-market, egalitarian participation on a huge scale.

In the new ‘crowdsourced’ model, the distinction between producers and consumers of dissent is dissolved – there is no hierarchy or membership structure in place, instead all individuals are potential participants within a movement. It is within this context that anyone can contribute, hence we have the rise of networked activists, with such individuals simultaneously performing the old roles of both producers and consumers of dissent – indeed they are much like those who participate in citizen journalism or use content on Flickr, what Alvin Toffler called ‘Prosumers’ – at once producing dissent, mobilising and facilitating it, while also participating in actions facilitated by others.

Raymond contends that the Bazaar model is superior to the Cathedral model as a result of Linus’ law, that asserts “the more widely available the source code is for public testing, scrutiny and experimentation, the more rapidly all forms of bugs will be discovered”. In contrast, Raymond claims that an inordinate amount of time and energy must be spent hunting for bugs in the cathedral model since the working code is available only to a few developers. Inevitably, social movement networks co-produced by large collectives of prosumers that utilize crowd-sourcing to solve problems will have certain advantages over social movement organisations administered by elites with passive memberships who are supplicant ‘consumers’ of dissent with little if any real input. Moreover, any tendency in this direction is just a delay or regression in the transformation of society that you want to see take place – people’s liberation into an active and creative democracy may as well start now – in the transition movement, “Be the change you want to see” is the most far-reaching of all the incentives for selecting the bazaar over the cathedral.

The necessity for the hierarchical ‘organisation’, the obsession of Marxists and industrialists alike at the turn of the 20th century, is at the beginning of our own, fast being rendered obsolete as a pre-requisite for facilitating large groups of people to act together in a common interest. This is true of Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr and Linux and will also hold true for protest and political contestation.

The potential for open source resistance in a globalized world

The consequences of such a shift are awesome in scope and scale. This situation of informational abundance and a world where individuals can organise without organisations means that ultimately many established political organisations, such as parties and perhaps national legislatures, judiciaries and executives may become obsolete, just like the old model of the ‘Cathedral’ par excellence – the Encyclopedia Britannica.

With power seeping away from the cathedral of the nation state one might imagine a networked ‘cosmopolis’ with globalized dynamics of communication and movement of persons, goods and capital. Alongside that, however, we might also see power seep downwards towards regions, cities and other networked localities where this logic of organising without organisations means that such actors are capable of pursuing certain goods, such as education policy or energy production, by themselves where this had not been previously possible.

The limits of recent protest movements in the UK

The traditional top-down model of mass mobilisation has been a central co-ordinating feature of recent protest movements in this country. The Stop the War coalition, for example, relied upon a monolithic organisation administered by a centralised machine which consumed the movement, rather than participating in its co-production. It relied on predominantly offline networks and an established cadre of actors who directed ideological self-understanding and more importantly, strategy. Alongside this top-down model of bureaucracy, in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, we find movements administered by established “gatekeeper” NGOs, who leverage their reputational and organisational capital at a particular political juncture to push their own particular brand and cause into the public domain. Make Poverty History and the Put People First campaign, aimed at the 2009 G20 summit, broadly fall under this category.

While these campaigns can justly claim important achievements, particularly in shifting public debate and agenda setting, they suffered from a lack of radicalism and flexibility which meant their transformative potential was never truly realised. Tragically, the Stop the War movement never vindicated the huge potential it showed in the historic protests on the eve of the Iraq invasion. The means it adopted were conventional and uninspiring, involving repeated marches from A to B to hear talks by the same old usual suspects. Its top-down method of organisation militated against an open and pluralist movement that could reach out to the wider public, and left it vulnerable to the sectarianism and in-fighting which eventually pulled it apart.

Central coalitions of mainstream NGOs usually fare no better. They are frequently cumbersome and unwieldy, bound by the stifling and de-mobilising logic of the lowest common denominator. These groups are nearly always condemned to interminable wrangling over vague and timid "policy" statements, fret about damage to their "brands" by doing anything too radical, and inevitably jostle for pre-eminent position within the movement once they see any glimpse of success. It was unfortunate, though not entirely unpredictable, for example, that both Make Poverty History and Put People First faded because of organisational rivalry and in-fighting.

Within these top-down organisational models the abundant collective knowledge, skills and social networks of ‘the membership’ was neglected often to the detriment of the causes they championed. Within the ‘bazaar’ paradigm, these resources constitute the essence of what the movement itself becomes and broadly determine its potential for success. Social movement networks are very much the sum of their parts, and when constituted by large numbers of creative, dynamic and passionate participants embedded within a number of offline and online networks this can be a very great deal.

The genesis of networked protest

Some of the most innovative and effective manifestations of discontent in the nascent anti-cuts movement have been facilitated by networks, while traditional organisations have been slow to respond. It started with a series of successful blockouts of a number of high-street retailers for the mobile phone giant Vodafone in protest at an alleged £6 billion of tax avoidance. Utilising a number of tools, all of which are of paramount importance to the new open source model, such as Twitter, Facebook, email and smartphones, a loosely connected group of activists mobilised for an initial block-out of the firm’s flagship store in Bond Street, London. The success of this first action generated a viral loop, the coverage it received amongst the conventional mass media, Indymedia and Twitter creating an ecology whereby disparate and previously disconnected actors, who shared similar concerns, were inspired and empowered to imitate the original protest drawing on the same tools and techniques.

The past few months have seen sit-ins, pickets, educational lectures, super-glue stick-ons and flash mobs on high streets across the UK targeting Vodafone and retail outlets owned by Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia group. On Saturday 18 December over fifty self-organised actions took place across the country, from Aberdeen to Truro. Even at this early date, the solidarity shown between those engaged in resistance to the cuts, especially the linking up of the student movement with UK Uncut, indicates the potential emergence of a unified identity and purpose.

The remarkable outburst of civil disobedience precipitated by UK Uncut, organised almost exclusively via Twitter and Facebook, belies Malcolm Gladwell’s influential critique of digital activism for the New Yorker, which assumes that only the “strong-form” offline ties can create the necessary relationships of trust and support that lead people to engage in direct action together. Through the UK Uncut networks, groups of strangers come together to carry out actions, often at personal risk to themselves. By taking part in these actions together, they strike up the “strong bonds” of friendship and trust on which they can build a more concerted campaigning effort. In this way, online and offline activism are interlaced and reinforce each other: the dichotomy which Gladwell and others wish to draw between low-risk online activity, such as signing a petition, tweeting a link, joining a Facebook group, and more high-risk offline activity, centred around direct action, simply doesn’t hold.

The UK Uncut protests have had a remarkable success in shifting public opinion, including a positive response from the Daily Mail, and opening up a public debate on the issue of tax avoidance. Going forward there is no reason why this outburst of civil disobedience, generated by UK Uncut, should not increase significantly as more people engage with the message of the anti-cuts movement, but more importantly as more people engage with the new mediums through which that message is distributed.

The birth of the student movement

The birth of a militant student movement beyond the control of its hapless official leadership, over the course of a few weeks, demonstrates how swiftly self-organising networks can adapt and respond. The NUS President Aaron Porter played an important role in mobilising 50,000 students for the first big march on 10 November, but he abdicated moral and political leadership of the student movement with his over-the-top denunciations of those who took part in the occupation of Tory HQ at Millbank and his refusal to support a further wave of mass protests and direct action. From that moment, the initiative passed to the more radical wing of the student movement organising through the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, the Educational Activist Network, the London Student Assembly and the nationwide network of occupations that sprang up in campuses across the country. Students operating through these channels were able to communicate directly with the media and the wider public through online networks, while also building strong and enduring friendship groups in offline spaces.

By making the arguments against cuts to higher education and EMA and organising protests, flashmobs and direct action, the occupations constituted themselves as alternative sites of legitimacy and authority. The response of the helpless Porter echoed that of the Frenchman Ledru Rollin and countless other politicians who have seen their authority slipping away, “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” After days of silence, Porter went to visit the UCL occupation where he apologised for his “spineless dithering”. He later went back on commitments he had made to occupying students, ensuring his ongoing irrelevance to the events that were unfolding. This was vividly symbolised on the day of the tuition fees vote, with the farcical spectacle of the NUS’ glowstick vigil (candles were deemed against health and safety) of 200 people at Victoria Embankment, whilst 30,000 students marched to Parliament Square to make their voices heard.

There are interesting parallels with the Tea Party movement in the US which, in bypassing traditional Republican hierarchies, has shifted the entire discourse within the party to the right. The Tea Party aspires to be leaderless, radically decentralised and "open source". It is customary amongst progressives to dismiss the uprising of US right-wingers as the product of corporate “astro-turfing” rather than a real movement which engages people with organisation and ideas. But whilst it is true that powerful interests are at work, such a response conveniently exculpates the left for its own failures whilst ignoring the innovative potential of the Tea Party’s organisation. Acting as a loose network, it makes full use of modern communications tools, such as free conference calling, and online social networks, such as Ning and Facebook. As Mark Meckler, a Tea Party coordinator and co-founder, said: "Essentially what we're doing is crowd-sourcing... I use the term open-source politics. This is an open-source movement." Every day, anyone and everyone is modifying the code. "The movement as a whole is smart." Aided by the organising power of the web, new movements are learning that they can set their own agenda, with or without the blessing of traditional hierarchies. Grassroots activists looking to shift the Labour party into mounting a much stronger opposition to the cuts would do well to keep this in mind.

One of the arguments made by those emphasising the need for a central co-ordinating hierarchy is that the ease of organising provided by ubiquitous social media reinforces the need for a credible central voice to prevent confusion and disintegration. What this view ignores is the way in which an open source movement, organising through networks on and offline, constitutes its own sites of legitimacy and authority. The student demonstrations called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and the London Student Assembly, for example, saw huge turnouts precisely because these groups already had credibility within the movement built up through informal networks of fellow activists and the success of previous actions. By contrast, a fake demonstration on 20 December organised by an unknown individual with far right links, had almost zero attendance thanks to people warning each other not to attend by posting on their Facebook walls, posting to Twitter, texting each other, and so on. Far from proving the need for central leadership, the incident demonstrated how communities of mutual trust and support even within a young movement help to guard against badly thought through or malicious actions.

Horizontal organisation in the student movement

Mirroring the wider movement, of which they were a part, the occupations enacted solidarity-based horizontal networks which were inherently more dynamic than the NUS. Operating along radically democratic and participatory lines, they were able to harness the latent energy, creativity and talents of participants. At the same time, they avoided the institutional paralysis characteristic of centralised forms of organisation and bureaucracies administered by leaders desperate to appear “responsible” and safeguard their future careers. Internal practices inherited from the alter-globalisation movement, which had in turn adapted them from the Zapatistas and other social justice movements from the global south, were disseminated by student activists who had learnt them from, among other places, the Climate Camp protests.

According to these practices, decisions are taken in a decentralized, non-hierarchical form of consensual democracy. Open meetings are chaired by a rotating facilitator, whose job it is to guide the discussion towards consensus ensuring that everyone has a chance to participate and all views are heard. Upwards facing wiggly hand gestures are used to signal agreement, and a downwards facing hand gesture disagreement. Proposals are worked through, with dissenting voices being heard and compromises being agreed to or rejected, until a consensus is reached. The emphasis is on finding common ground, rather than defeating opponents. The aim is not conformity, but a way forward that everyone could live with. Those who object could stand aside or, in exceptional cases fundamental to the existence of the occupation, “block” a proposal. Discussion at the UCL occupation group meetings tended to focus on practical ways forward, with any discussion of abstract theoretical issues seen as a complement – rather than a substitute for – action. In the context of the alter-globalisation movement, anthropologist and activist David Graeber described the process in terms of the ideology being “immanent in the anti-authoritarian principles that underlie the practice”, with its democratic egalitarian ethos a rough approximation of the free society participants want to see.

Through its twice daily consensus meetings, UCL occupation was able to deal with a number of complex political and organisational questions in a consensual democratic fashion, including an ongoing court case with management, the formulation of demands, its relationship with the media, the university authorities, the police and the wider student body, as well as practical questions of day-to-day organisation. Using consensus, Cambridge University occupation was able to face down a hostile management whilst organising a lively general assembly that brought together over 300 people from nearby civil society in a discussion of how to oppose the cuts. The practice of consensus at the occupations helped to maximise group solidarity and foster a sense of shared collective identity and purpose, whilst guarding against the kind of factionalism and competitiveness which frequently characterise systems of majority rule or elected representation.

In turn, consensus and the use of loose “working groups” dealing with particular areas of practical concern, such as media, kitchen, security, legal, tech and outreach, reinforced the principles of autonomy and decentralisation. Individuals were encouraged to co-ordinate and take on tasks voluntarily with no strict division of labour. As is often the case, participation in a shared political project based on egalitarian decision-making was an empowering and transformative experience for the people involved. A culture of participation took root, which allowed for the fullest expression of individual talents and creative capacities that might have remained hidden within more formal structures found within ‘closed source’ forms of political dissent. Within a few days, first and second year students, many of them new to political activism, found themselves organising press conferences, negotiating with management, preparing legal briefings or facilitating meetings of seventy or more people.

Critically, the occupied spaces acted as incubators for experimental forms of protest and direct action. A variety of different techniques, drawing on earlier social movements, were trialled and experimented. Culture jamming techniques, borrowed from the Yes men, were deployed to satirise the neoliberal ideology of UCL management. In a nod to the Situationist International, public spaces, such as Euston Station, were redefined as spaces for art and education. A group of Goldsmiths graduates formed the University of Strategic Optimism, a nomadic institution which pitches up and holds lectures in capitalist spaces such as Lloyds TSB and Tesco. Over the course of a few weeks, there were flashmobs organised against Topshop’s tax avoidance, solidarity protests outside the Greek embassy, public lectures in Euston Station, banner drops, street theatre, the singing of “Con-Dem” Christmas carols.

These actions weren’t organised by a central committee, but by individuals and groups who first deliberated amongst themselves over what the most powerful form of action would be, and then organised to carry it out. In cases where they were claiming to represent the collective, consensus was needed, but otherwise all forms of autonomous action were encouraged.

Of course, no decision-making process is perfect. On certain divisive issues, where an intransigent minority are blocking action, it may be necessary to take a vote rather than seeking consensus. Likewise, with the practice of consensus and uncodified organisational forms there is an ever-present possibility of the “tyranny of structurelessness” as informal hierarchies arise engendered by imbalances of time, knowledge and commitment. The automatic response, however, should not be the abandonment of participatory principles in favour of representative ones but an effort to improve the quality of participation and deliberation and empower people by disseminating knowledge and skills more widely. This is the best hope of releasing democratic energy without closure.


We do not mean to advocate an exclusive model of political activism or downgrade the contribution established institutions, with their accumulated wisdom and organising power, will inevitably play in the fight against Tory-Lib Dem austerity measures. Instead, we have aimed to elucidate the phenomenon of open source political activism in the anti-cuts movement and argue why its dynamic and creative potential should not be ignored or dismissed as a mere temporary phase before the inevitable discipline of central organisation and leadership. Over the coming months, establishment forces – the Metropolitan police, the media, university authorities, the political establishment, and even those established actors of dissent – with a vested interest in the neutralisation and pacification of dissent, will place enormous pressure on those engaged in resistance to the cuts to conform to familiar institutional models of organisation. They will insist on identifying leaders within the movement to represent it and negotiate on its behalf. These, their experience tells them, can be relied upon to manage the trouble-makers, policing the movement from within and diluting aims and ambitions. With the rise of networked activism, there is an alternative – and though its aims may sometimes seem more amorphous and less easy to codify than with organised activism, this may also be its strength.

Whilst it is true that identified objectives subsequent to networked, open-source resistance might take time to formulate, they might also prove very difficult to dilute and co-opt. Most importantly they will prove much harder to castigate as undemocratic.