Saturday, May 14, 2011

Democracy Part XXIII: The Transfirguration of Anonymous--Mass Mobilization and its Organizational Conundrums

A recent report reminds us of the power of mass mobilization as the great phenomenon of the last century.  Mass movements have became the signature legitimate instrument of social and political change.  Yet it has also come to serve as a force, the institutionalization of which undoes its mass power and transforms it into something else.   Mass movements can both overturn old institutions and replicate the forms and functions of those vanquished institutions. 

 (From Nate Anderson,  The hackers hacked: main Anonymous IRC servers invaded Ars Technica, May 2011).

The specific object of this lesson is the collective Anonymous.  Nate Anderson,  The hackers hacked: main Anonymous IRC servers invaded Ars Technica, May 2011.  Mr. Andeerson reports:
War rages between competing factions within the hacker collective Anonymous after this weekend's drama-filled takeover of the main Anonymous IRC server network. That network, used by Anons to plan and conduct attacks, was taken over by one of its own, an IRC moderator known as "Ryan."

His attack has sparked a debate over the "leadership" of Anonymous.

Hacking the hackers

The main Internet chat servers used by Anonymous have been run by a group called "AnonOps," which provides communications platforms for the group. Pointing IRC clients at or would connect anyone to the servers, where they could then join channels like "#OpSony" and participate in various Anon activities.

Though Anonymous is often described as leaderless, factions like AnonOps by necessity have a loose structure; servers must be paid for, domain names must be registered, chat channels must have at least some moderation. Ryan was one of those IRC mods, and this weekend he proceeded with an attack that seized control of the AnonOps servers away from the small cabal of leaders who ran it.  (From Nate Anderson,  The hackers hacked: main Anonymous IRC servers invaded Ars Technica, May 2011.)

The collective has now divided into ideologically distinct camps--one looking toward the use of collective mobilization as a non-structured force and the other suggesting the need for institutionalization and bureaucratization within an identifiable territory (in this case an intangible territory) to preserve the collective and better direct it as a singularity--a unified collective of single minded parts willing to conform its behavior to the will of the leadership.    This is an ancient pattern.  One of its latest and most iconic manifestations occurred at the birth of the Soviet Union and pitted the state centered totalitarian bureaucratism ultimately perfected under the Soviet regime controlled by Josef Stalin with the more amorphous revolutionary mobilization of Leon Trotsky that rejected the notion of the political state as a limiting site for mass democratic society.  The factionalism within Anonymous reminds us, as well, of the ease with with mass movements can be transformed from a mass movement guided by principle to an organizational form managed by groups of leaders  who appropriate for themselves the power to divine mass will. 
In order to avoid it, the leading organs of the party must lend an ear to the voice of the mass, without regarding all criticism as a manifestation of the factional spirit and thereby driving conscientious and disciplined communists to maintain a systematic silence or to constitute themselves into factions. . . .  It is incontestable that factions are a scourge in the present situation and that groups, even if temporary, may be transformed into factions. But as experience shows it is far from enough to declare that groups and factions are an evil for their appearance to be prevented. They will be forestalled only by a correct policy, adapted to the actual situation.. . . .It would be “organizational fetishism” to believe that regardless of the development of the party, the mistakes of the leadership, the conservatism of the apparatus, the influences from without it, etc., a decision is enough to preserve us from groupings and from the disorder inherent in the formation of factions. To look at things in this way would be to give proof of bureaucratism. (From Leon Trotsky, Bureaucratism and Factional Groups, Marxists Internet Archive, Dec. 1923; First Published: 1935 [in English]; Source: New International, New York, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, pages 16-19; Transcribed/HTML Markup: David Walters, February 2005.

Trotsky, of course, thought there was a means of removing the cause of faction; and Stalin used these ideas to remove Trotsky as factious.  Earlier, the designers of the American Republic took a different view--one that also resopnates with the current  situation of Anonymous. In his famous essay on faction, part of the Federalist Papers, James Madison started with the same suspicion of faction as Trotsky: " By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." The Federalist No. 10 The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued) Daily AdvertiserThursday, November 22, 1787[James Madison].   
There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. . . .

The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot removed; and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects. (From The Federalist No. 10 The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued) Daily AdvertiserThursday, November 22, 1787[James Madison]

Ironically, both Madison and Trotsky were sensitive to the dangers of faction and the problems attendant on the removal of its causes. But they differed on both the inevitability of faction and the dangers chosen for the means to control its effects.   Trotsky believed that its causes could be removed by giving all citizens the same passions and opinions and that such a process was both scientific and inevitable.  Madison rejected the idea of the possibility fo perfectibility of thought and its resulting harmonization of opinion. This difference had a great effect on their approach to an understanding of the management of faction.  Because the causes of faction might be cured, Trotsky thought that management was the more dangerous alternative,leading inevitably to bureaucratism, stagnation, repression and the triumph of anti-democratic values in hierarchy and control.  Because Madison believed that the causes of faction could not be overcome, it could be managed by a system of representative democracy in which elected representatives would have to cobble factions together to win elections and by encouraging enough factions that no one would come to dominate.

These two visions suggest some of the conventional parameters of the behavior of collectives and their embrace of or resistance to systematic constitution into organizational forms.  Madison provides us with a view grounded in the idea of the self constitution of communities through an organic process in which coalitions can be contained through a system in which any such coalition is unstable. For that purpose Madison relies on a particular view of human nature.  Madison, then, would control its effects by institutionalizing and channeling its behavior in ways that might contain its tendencies to move form faction to tyranny.  Trotsky relies on a different view of human nature to suggest the inevitability of hierarchy in collective relations and the need to control  organization for the purpose of avoiding faction by curing its causes. "Is it possible that there is no intermediate line for the party between the regime of “calm” and that of crumbling into factions? No, there is one, and the task of the leadership consists, every time it is necessary and particularly at turning points, in finding the line that corresponds to the given real situation." (From Leon Trotsky, Bureaucratism and Factional Groups, Marxists Internet Archive, Dec. 1923; First Published: 1935 [in English]; Source: New International, New York, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, pages 16-19; Transcribed/HTML Markup: David Walters, February 2005). Trostsky would create a controlled environment in which a hierarchical discourse ultimately eliminates the causes of faction--everything within the revolution.  In either case, though, the possibilities of a politics grounded in mass mobilization that is not guided in some way is dismissed. 

These ancient conflict types recur now in a new context, and with different stakes.  The object is no longer control of political space, or the territory within which a state may impose a political government apparatus.  Instead, the contest is over the intangible space of substantive norms whose enforcement might be effectuated through the sort of mass mobilization that serves as its own legitimating force as democratically constituted. 
The "old" leaders released a statement this morning explaining what happened over the weekend and why IRC remained down:
We regret to inform you today that our network has been compromised by a former IRC-operator and fellow helper named "Ryan". He decided that he didn't like the leaderless command structure that AnonOps Network Admins use. So he organized a coup d'etat, with his "friends" at . Using the networks service bot "Zalgo" he scavenged the IP's and passwords of all the network servers (including the hub) and then systematically aimed denial of service attacks at them (which is why the network has been unstable for the past week). Unfortunately he has control of the domain names (and possibly, we don't know at this stage) so we are unable to continue using them.
Not everyone buys the explanation. One Anon pointed out that the Zalgo bot in question is controlled by a user named "E," not by Ryan.
Second, Zalgo can only see chan msgs and msgs to zalgo. The net staff is saying (pretty much) Ryan used Zalgo to steal server passwords (false, I know server protocol) which were tranfered in channels in plain text for the to see (true).

Third: Take everything AnonOps says with a grain of salt. They're putting out lies and not telling the whole story.
Others pointed out that E and Ryan are friends and that E was actually recommended as an op by Ryan. (From Nate Anderson,  The hackers hacked: main Anonymous IRC servers invaded Ars Technica, May 2011.)
Even this explanation, then, revealed the difficulty of operationalizing a leaderless structures without guidance--and therefore leaders.  And thus the old revolutionary conundrum in the modern context of political legitimacy through mass mobilization and popular expression of mass will, now caught between an instrumental vision of the masses and a "naturalist" sense of mass legitimacy in which the collective itself chooses its path by its aggregate activity.   ""

Clashing factions

Ryan is associated with 808chan, a 4chan splinter site and apparent home of the recent denial of service attacks on AnonOps. Ryan is "DDoSing everything that he doesn't own with his band of raiders from 808chan," says one Anon.

The 808 brigade apparently valued big botnets, and made users prove their abilities before letting them participate. AnonOps had a more democratic ethos; anyone could show up, configure the Low Orbit Ion Cannon attack tool, and start firing at Sony or others.

"It's an open network where everyone, mostly newfags can join and not have to prove they're able to wield a botnet and can just join a channel of their choosing, fire up LOIC and hit some organization for reasons they believe are right," said one Anon.

Ryan's control of AnonOps extends to some of the actual domain names, including This wasn't a hack; he was actually given administrative control over the domains some time ago by AnonOps leaders.

One Anon explained the reason for this, saying: "As for the domains, they were transferred to Ryan after some of us got vanned so he can keep the network up. What he did certainly wasn't the plan." (Getting "vanned" refers to getting picked up by the police.)

According to another Anon, the current fight was precipitated when Ryan's IRC credential were revoked. "You morons don't realize Ryan IS LEGALLY THE OWNER OF DOMAINS," he wrote. "Nerdo and Owen removed Ryan's oper, Ryan took domains."
Smoky back rooms?

Among Anons arguing over what happened this weekend, the key debate involves the issue of leaders. Anonymous also said it was leaderless and memberless, but is it? The AnonOps statement above claims that Ryan was angry at the "leaderless" structure of the group and wanted to set himself up as king; again, though, not everyone is so sure.

Owen, for instance, helps to shape the conversation and planning in IRC. One Anon complained privately to me that Owen has booted him from the IRC servers—and thus from the place where all the real work against Sony was taking place several weeks ago. "Owen has not only told me that he doesn't really give a shit about freedom of speech, he's also moderately against the action that's being taken on Sony," this Anon said.

Owen and others conduct some of their work in private, invite-only channels, which leads some Anons to suspect that the really important operations and hack attempts are only discussed in a virtual back room. As one Anon put it yesterday:

"Have you ever been in one of their invite-only chats? This is no bullshit. EVERYTHING is decided on them, the eventual course of the operation, the hivemind's target, the channel's topic, everything. Why all this secrecy? These invite-only chats have NO reason to exist. You want to keep out trolls? Turn on mute, and give voice to a few. At least we can see what is being written." (From Nate Anderson,  The hackers hacked: main Anonymous IRC servers invaded Ars Technica, May 2011.)
(From  Eric Stoner, Experiments with truth: 10/27/09, Waging Non-Violence, Oct. 27, 2009).
And thus the tender underbelly of mass mobilization becomes exposed--its leaderless quality inhibits its ability to assert positive power (it can exist only episodically and in reaction to the prodding of collectives which are used as instruments in the service of some form of political. social, economic, religious or cultural agenda) or leaderlessness actually serves to mask the hand of those who would guide the collective in directions. The organization of mass mobilization begins to serve not the substantive principles that served to constitute the mobilization but rather to serve the people who would substitute themselves for principle. Aristotle reminds us that democracy takes a variety of forms, each with its own consequences for the organization of power.  "Another sort is in which every citizen who is not infamous has a share in government, but where the government is in the laws . . . Another is like these in other particulars, but there the people govern, and not the law:  and this tales place when everything is determined by a majority of votes, and not by law; which happens when the people are influenced by demagogues . . .where the power is not vested in the laws, there demagogues abound:  for there the people rule with kingly power: the whole comprising one body."  Aristotle, Politics,  Book IV, ch. IV, 1292a (William Ellis, trans., London: J.M. Dent  1912).
As the old AnonOps team attempted to get a handle on what had happened—and after they switched to an Indian domain name—they expressed irritation with early media mentions ("fail reporting") of the attack.

"Some 'mainstream' media is calling this the 'insider threat,'" they wrote, "which isn't really a fair representation, AnonOps doesn't have any corporate secrets, its run by the people for the people on a basis of mutual trust. Drama happens almost 24/7, occasionally drama overspills the network.

"Also we must remind the press AnonOps DOES NOT EQUAL Anonymous, saying they are one and/or the same thing in a blog/article just makes you look stupid. AnonOps is just a IRC network and a few other services that ANYONE can use, its not the only place Anonymous gather, and unlikely to be the *last* (see Streisand effect)."

But will the AnonOps leaders ever gather on a forum they don't control? Ryan took great delight in posting the following alleged comment from Owen to another AnonOps leader: "yo odnt honestly think we're goign to some other irc where we have no control do you?"

Of course, Anonymous has always been about drama and "the lulz," so the current confusion may not even bother them that much; this is just par for the course. But it's certainly amusing to others. (From Nate Anderson,  The hackers hacked: main Anonymous IRC servers invaded Ars Technica, May 2011.)

I have suggested both the place of collectives, like Anonymous, and the possible consequences of their organizational form.  Larry Catá Backer, "Anonymous": Organizing Collective Action and Coercive Power Beyond the State, Law at the End of the Day, Jan. 4, 2011; Larry Catá Backer,  Taking Anonymous Seriously: The State Strikes Back, Law at the End of the Day, Jan. 28, 2011.

Anonymous appears to have come to the place in its evolution that the Soviet apparatus encountered, in the context of its own circumstances, in 1923.  
In meditating well on the situation created in the party and which has showed itself in a particularly clear light in the course of the discussion, one sees that the future presents itself in a double perspective. Either the organic ideological regrouping which is now taking place in the party along the line of the resolutions of the Central Committee will be a step forward along the road of the organic growth of the party, the beginning of a new great chapter – and that would be the most desirable way out for all of us and the most beneficial one for the party, which will then easily overcome excesses in the discussion and in the opposition and, with greater reason, vulgar democratic tendencies. Or else, passing over to the counter-offensive, the apparatus will fall more or less under the sway of its most conservative elements and, on the pretext of combating the factions, will throw the party back and reestablish “calm”. This second eventuality would be incomparably more grievous; it would not prevent, it goes without saying, the development of the party, but this development would take place only at the cost of considerable efforts and disturbances. For this method would only still further foster tendencies which are harmful, disintegrating, opposed to the party. These are the two eventualities to envisage. (From Leon Trotsky, Bureaucratism and Factional Groups, Marxists Internet Archive, Dec. 1923; First Published: 1935 [in English]; Source: New International, New York, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, pages 16-19; Transcribed/HTML Markup: David Walters, February 2005).
Like revolutionary mass mobilization parties of the past century, Anonymous will likewise have to consider the consequences of the organizational choices that will be made.  Where it will lead those who are engaged in the struggle for a space within the territory inhabited by Anonymous remains to be seen.Whatever course, the collective remains an important example of both the organization of mass power and the paradoxical pressures on that power to organize itself in ways that would undo its fundamental construct.

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