Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hornets, bulls, technai, and 2012

One of the reasons I drifted into the life I live is that I am excessively fond of stories; stories tend to mean more for me and do more for me than just about any other genre of communication. So let me start with the story of how I became aware of what I wasn't aware of, and then wander off into what I think it all means, and then maybe spin you a story about the future. This might be a long one.

Just after Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008, a couple of people on Facebook got the idea that they wanted to protest that particular piece of ugly shit in the rest of the country, and not having put together a protest before, and being young with all the insane confidence of youth, they just kind of suggested that some people might want to get together with some signs and banners that weekend at their local city halls, wherever those might be. Others picked it up and in about five days, something above 100,000 people—possibly as many as a quarter million—nearly all without parade permits or any formal organization to speak of—converged on around a hundred city halls in the United States.

I became aware that this was going on about two days after it started, i.e. with four days to go till the demo. Now, back in my younger days, I had worked at a large number of demonstrations, mainly anti‑nuclear‑weapons as I have always been opposed to being blown up for other people's causes, but also civil liberties, various civil rights/racial issues, pro‑union, economic justice and a number of other usually left causes as well, plus a couple rallies for gun rights and one against turning productive forest into a playpen for rich kids, which I guess you could either regard as balancing my personal budget or just having really liked a parade when I was younger. I knew some things about what goes into a successful demonstration—or thought I did.

For many demonstrations, I'd been on security because I'm large, scowl and glower well, and generally look like I am not to be fucked with, and was therefore suitably intimidating to counter demonstrators, but can manage to say Don't be an asshole in a pleasantly indirect way to our own side.

So when I looked over the plans for the anti‑8 rally in Denver and saw that it looked utterly, totally, completely like the biggest mess of an amateur hour I'd ever seen, I went looking for the organizers to volunteer for security. The cause was certainly worthy, I was deeply pissed off about Prop 8 for a lot of reasons, but the whole thing looked so inept to my experienced eyes that I had visions of all kinds of crap breaking loose, and I thought they needed help.

I finally found a very pleasant guy who was putting together security, contacted him, and discovered, on the day of the rally, that we had nineteen people to keep some kind of order in a demonstration and march that had about 1100 people by my rough statistician's count‑noses‑and‑multiply methods. As a security detail, that's maybe a third of the number I'd think were optimal for a well‑organized regulated political parade and rally, and this wasn't meaningfully organized at all.

It was an interesting afternoon. The protest went well, making appropriate noises where and when it was supposed to. The counter demonstrators were sparse and not terribly noisy, but that was where I got my first inkling that today was going to be different from many similar days in my past. A self‑identified gay filmmaker was there to take advantage of the presence of the counter demonstrators—apparently she was working on some project about anti‑gay hatred—and simply pushed through the little group of us separating them from the demonstration, creating a platform and a speaking space for them (local TV followed her in and filmed some of that over her shoulder).

Naturally we asked her not do that. Her response was to shrug and tell us not to interfere with her work.

And there was absolutely nobody for either her or us to refer to about it. We'd have felt absurd trying to shut out a lesbian filmmaker at a gay rights rally, and anyway we had a lot of other crap to attend to. As far as she was concerned, she'd rarely have such a good collection of Christish cuckoo birds to collect interviews from again. Like it or not, it was do your own thing day.

In fact, a couple of blocks into the march it was becoming clear that with nobody in charge, nobody was going to pay much attention to the arm banded security people, not even for such things as our trying to keep street crossings safe and keep the group together. One guy who might have been off his meds, had brought a bullhorn and attempted to lead the crowd in incomprehensible cheers; another buttonholed everybody who looked like a reporter to explain that this event was just the beginning of a movement against oppression that began with his expulsion from a Madonna concert.

And yet it really didn't matter. I have seldom felt quite so irrelevant (and as a science fiction writer and a theatre historian, I can compare that afternoon with many other experiences of feeling irrelevant). The crowd was big enough that it just forced its way across streets, traffic or no, and would mill around in the street while stragglers ran to catch up, an invitation to get busted, but the police chose not to—maybe because there was no predicting how that crowd might react, and no one around who could effectively say "be cool". The lunatic chanter wandered away somewhere in the middle of the march, once everyone had seen him and decided to ignore him. The Martyr of Madonna eventually was trailing along with the stragglers, chatting pleasantly, having found an approximation to sympathetic friends.

We finished up at the same park which was more recently the site of an Occupy Denver encampment, and as we few pathetic security folks—nearly all of us veterans of demonstrations going back decades—gathered , our sort‑of leader shrugged. "It looks like it's turning into a big party; I don't think we could clear them out if we wanted to, and anyway since we never had a permit in the first place, there's no deadline to disperse by." We just took off the armbands and disbanded. As we were doing that an older cop came by and said, "Well, that was scary, but I guess it came out okay." Apparently he'd seen enough demonstrations to think he knew, like we thought we knew, what too many people , too few security, no authority anywhere, might mean.

We thought we knew, the cop and us, but the more I have thought back to this, we didn't know crap. We were there at the birth of something new, which is probably going to matter a great deal, and we missed it all because we were old hands and we were looking to see what we'd seen before.

That night, nationwide, the center‑right news media (what the righties call the liberal or mainstream media) reported that a bunch of overdramatic gay lovers of street theatre, excitable teenagers with a thing for the '60s, and some mildly photogenic regular people had acted up a bit but the show was now over. Fox News, as is their wont, insisted it was the work of a sinister cabal trying to push the homosexual agenda—the idea that there was any leadership with any agenda made me laugh. And in the couple weeks that followed some minor lefty papers printed stories claiming that this marked some kind of turning point in historical something or other. (Including a couple that said it wouldn't matter in the long run because it was all so badly organized, and urged us all to get back to the vital function of building a mass movement). Commentators on all sides both deplored the absence of a program, the to‑them random wish list comments of the randomly interviewed participants, and the failure to bring forth a leadership to "consolidate the gains" and "strategize to pursue the goals" that they had just finished saying we didn't have.

They missed it too, but unlike my companions and that cop, they missed it willfully and aggressively.

What we all missed was the new world that had already arrived: not only leaderless resistance that self‑organized (the world has seen that since, probably, the first food riots in the first Neolithic settlements) but resistance that resisted having a leader. And in the new interwebz world, that's not just a slogan or an ideal; it's a practical option for popular resistance.

A few months later the Tea Party erupted; more recently Occupy Wall Street and its many offspring have burst onto the scene. And as much as possible, the political class and the journalists who cover it have gone on missing the point.

This new way of non‑organizing popular resistance—whether it's a right or left leaning population that's doing the resisting—is a techne. (Tech knee, if you're a in‑your‑head pronouncer. The plural is technai, tech nigh).

Techne is the Greek word from which we get both technique and technology, a craft or way of doing or method. It was the center of a big argument between Platonists and Aristotelians, about whether rhetoric was an art (i.e. a path to the truth itself, like geometry or astronomy), or just a techne like weaving or military strategy—a way to achieve an effect that worked equally well for any purposes, good or bad, truthful or deceitful, cruel or kind.

There are many technai for conflict. T.E. Lawrence, a right winger if ever there was one, figured out that you could bleed a great power by forcing it to expend resources keeping basic services functioning, and invented the modern resistance movement; that techne was applied by everyone from Ho Chi Minh to the Nicaraguan contras, against every power big enough to bleed, ever after. In the 1930s, Charles De Gaulle published a book describing the techne we now call blitzkrieg, which was read assiduously in Russia and Germany; the war began and ended in a series of blitzkriegs from all sides, which worked equally well for any side that applied them, however good or bad its purpose. The technai of nonviolent civil disobedience were used to liberate India, interfere with Western development of nuclear weapons, desegregate the American South, and overthrow Communism in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and are being used today by the Occupy movement and the pro‑lifers. No techne belongs to one side or another, at least not permanently.

But technai have consequences and implications, regardless of who uses them.

Let's look at this self‑organizing anti‑organizational internet‑driven techne of resistance a little farther. Try this analogy: traditional power and traditional freedom have somewhat resembled living in the same meadow with a large, dangerous bull. If you come to his attention in an unfavorable way, the bull will fixate on you and try to trample or gore you, and it's very difficult to stay out of his way once he's decided you need trampling or goring. But most of the time you get your freedom from the fact that the bull mostly ignores you; he just wants to have the sunniest spot in the meadow to himself, receive gestures of respect, never be startled or inconvenienced, and of course leave piles of bullshit everywhere. (That being his freedom).

I presume the analogy to traditional leadership—known to the Tea Party as "the elites," the Occupiers as "the 1%" and to most of us as "they" (as in "they would never let people do that", "it would make sense but they won't ever do it," etc.) is reasonably clear. Power derives from the ability to rip any one thing apart and then squish it absolutely flat, but that power requires not having to deal with too many things at a time; freedom comes from not annoying the bull, or being the bull.

Now consider these new movements, which are more like hornet swarms. If a hornet walked up to a bull on the ground and said, "hey, bull, this is bullshit, get it out of my meadow"—squish. In a hooking, goring, trampling contest, I think we can fairly say the bull would win. Over any distance he runs faster than the hornets fly, too.

But if you have ever seen what happens when a bull accidentally knocks down a hornets' nest, you know who wins anywhere near the nest. Notice that there are no hornet generals, admirals, CEOs, facilitators, nest organizers, or hornet resource directors. (No hornets in armbands keeping order, either). Every hornet is just flying out to find her way to something that seems to be responsible for the unpleasantness to hornet‑kind, and do what harm she can to the nearest apparent culprit.

Frankly, bulls don't know what to do about hornets. They know what to do about rival bulls (usually ritual combat, but if necessary, a real fight to the death). They know what to do about disagreeable little creatures with whom they share the meadow (either ignore if they're not too annoying or gore, trample, etc. if they are). But these hornet things hurt and there are a lot of them and some of them are clever and go up your nose or sting you in the balls, and they keep coming even after you make an example out of one of them by squashing her into hornet goo.

So, getting even more anthropomorphic about this, the bulls do what any authority does when it can't do anything: they call names. These are not real hornets, these are astroturf hornets, who are being financed by a rival bull. The hornets have no program and if they ever want to run the meadow, they are going to have to learn how to charge, hook, and trample. The hornets are just irresponsibly saying that we can't do ordinary things that everyone needs for the good of the whole meadow, like rubbing our backs on trees and knocking down hornets' nests. Anyway the hornets are of no importance because it's just a temporary fad thing, you know how hornets are, they like getting upset for a short period of time. They'll disappear in the winter and never come back. Why is everyone so interested in hornets anyway when the bull has a job to do?

In fact let's just knock down another nest and squish a few hornets to teach those bastards a—ouch. Ouch. My nose. My balls. Now that's just irresponsible. I really, really hate hornets.

Now here's where it gets interesting. Yes, you read all this way before it got interesting. Might as well finish now ….

Hornet swarms form and fight near their nests, i.e. their vital interests. OWS was recently extremely active because it looked like the inside‑the‑Beltway bulls (the best meadow there is) were cutting a deal about the deficit, which is a classic insider issue that actually doesn't matter very much in the lives of ordinary people most of the time, mostly concerned with being nice to big banks, and that deal would almost certainly involve cutting the living hell out of programs that many people depend on; it would make life on the economic fringes and margins much worse in order to win the moral approval of the people who brought you the bailout. Their nest was kicked over, in other words. The Tea Party got its knickers in a knot almost entirely over the health care proposal, because one sharp and deep status division in the United States is the one between people who have health care coverage and people who don't , and it was going to spoil the club, both by somewhat reducing the absolute privileges of the people already in, and by allowing all sorts of riff‑raff in.

At the moment OWS is noisy and the Tea Party quiet because one nest is being disturbed and the other is not. But we're coming up on an election year. One of the traditional ways for the two bulls to fight it out is seeing who can spread the most bullshit on the meadow, and in our polarized team‑spirit polity of today, that means promising to take away the unjust privileges of the other bulls' followers.

In other words, both bulls are going to kick over a lot of nests next year, whether they want to or not. For the first time since the phenomenon appeared, the meadow is going to be full of swarming hornets.

Maybe that means nothing; bulls will just develop thicker hides, learn to wear facemasks and cups, and so on. Maybe it will just be a distraction: bulls will spend a lot of time chasing hornets instead of battering each other, the ground will get torn up more and there will be more motion, but nothing that really matters will change.

But maybe … hornet swarms in conflict might well devolve into millions of individual hornet‑versus‑hornet struggles. What might that look like? Arguments on the street and in bars (also known as democracy)?

Or Beirut or Belfast?

Once two bulls lock horns, it usually goes on till one realizes he can't win and gives up in some dignity‑saving (if possible) way. There's a way out of a bull‑to‑bull conflict.

When bulls fight hornets, the bull eventually gets out of it by moving far enough away from the nest and staying there.

And when hornets fight hornets …. does the newly developed techne even apply? What new ones might be about to be invented?  Will it look like some hapless old-style demonstrators trying to get cooperation from a filmmaker … or like the Johnson County War or the Hatfield-McCoy feud?

I guess we'll find out.