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The Center Cannot Hold: Era of a New Democracy: Part II

Waves of global uprising emerged in 2011. Through social media and other online communication, decentralized networks surfaced and began linking one movement to another. Faith in leading governments and institutions began to weaken. In the wake of this unrest, multiple attempts were made to pass laws that curtailed free association on the Internet. For many, the sentiment has grown that the Internet is the last avenue of real freedom. People came together to fight this trend toward digital censorship. An estimated 7,000 websites along with large companies like Google and Wikipedia organized online blackouts against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act). They did this to raise awareness and protest a bill that would have severely limited free speech. Across borders, people were united in a battle for freedom of the Internet.

Waves of global uprising emerged in 2011. Through social media and other online communication, decentralized networks surfaced and began linking one movement to another. Faith in leading governments and institutions began to weaken. In the wake of this unrest, multiple attempts were made to pass laws that curtailed free association on the Internet. For many, the sentiment has grown that the Internet is the last avenue of real freedom. People came together to fight this trend toward digital censorship. An estimated 7,000 websites along with large companies like Google and Wikipedia organized online blackouts against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act). They did this to raise awareness and protest a bill that would have severely limited free speech. Across borders, people were united in a battle for freedom of the Internet.
The success of the online protest against bills like SOPA revealed a new form of resistance and challenge to corporate power. Some say it is the network effect. The Internet never sleeps. Mobilization online moves across time and beyond borders as people take turns to rally and occupy the space.
What did the fight against SOPA reveal? The passion can overcome apathy. It was a great example of people showing how they can challenge the structures of power. The corporate media made an effort to downplay the role of grassroots activists in this success by giving credit to giant companies like Google. Yet, it was actually the result of ordinary people taking action. With this swift mobilization, politicians reluctantly had to listen to the demands of ordinary people.
Late Internet activist Aaron Swartz who played a vital role in the campaign to defeat this bill, spoke at the Freedom to Connect conference. He highlighted the irrational fear that prevails in Washington about the Internet. He recalled his interaction with one US Senator, who supported the original COICA (the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act) bill:
“I asked him why, despite being such a progressive, despite giving a speech in favor of civil liberties, he was supporting a bill that would censor the Internet. And, you know, that typical politician smile he had suddenly faded from his face, and his eyes started burning this fiery red. And he started shouting at me, said, ‘Those people on the Internet, they think they can get away with anything! They think they can just put anything up there, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them! They put up everything! They put up our nuclear missiles, and they just laugh at us! Well, we’re going to show them! There’s got to be laws on the Internet! It’s got to be under control!’ Now, as far as I know, nobody has ever put up the US’s nuclear missiles on the Internet. I mean, it’s not something I’ve heard about. But that’s sort of the point. He wasn’t having a rational concern, right? It was this irrational fear that things were out of control.”
The same thing happened with Occupy, the mass movement addressing socioeconomic inequality. The tent cities that spread rapidly across the US were met with brutal police attacks. Despite criticism of the movement and its eventual demise, it showed itself to be very effective. It frightened those in power. After the police crackdown on this movement, the NDAA was passed and FBI escalated infiltration of peaceful activists and prosecution of environmentalists under the pretext of terrorism.
These centralized power structures are dependent on controlling the flow of information regarding their actions. Whistleblowers have been breaking down the walls of the traditional hierarchy by releasing information that has been suppressed. WikiLeaks disseminates this kind of information as widely as possible with the intention “to get the maximum possible political impact.”
Julian Assange spoke of censorship as a signal of corruption. He said, “It reveals fear of reform. It means that the power position is so weak that you have got to care about what people think.” Wikileaks targets the Achilles heal of those who abuse power. It recently published a trove of 1.7 million US diplomatic and intelligence documents called the Kissinger Cables spanning from 1973 and 1976. WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson noted that hiding information behind the wall of complexity is a form of secrecy. By developing a highly searchable database, WikiLeaks made documents usable that were normally quite difficult to access. The loosely-tied online collective Anonymous also relentlessly fights for the free-flow of information. Recently, the group led a web blackout against CISPA, a bill that would destroy the last vestige of Internet privacy.
In the face of these newly emerging forms of digital dissent, corporate powers are reacting with draconian measures. The Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. A YouTube video put up by #OpLastResort recreated a scene from a film that depicts Hitler’s last days. Their parody of Obama reacting as Hitler to the invincibility of these digitally networked foes is perhaps offensive over reach, but does reveal the reality of the establishment’s paranoia over losing control. The efforts to criminalize dissent to contain this new civic power is escalating. Rolling Stone called leakers, hackers and activists the “new political prisoners.” Some see such government overreach as “Information warfare,” which is described as “the 21st Century equivalent of class warfare.”
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Prosecutorial overreach is now being used repeatedly and even drove young activist Aaron Swartz to his death. Barrett Brown’s case is just the tip of the iceberg for government targeting of journalists who challenge power. Brown, a journalist investigating the insidious secrecy of private intelligence and defense contractors is jailed and facing a 17 count indictment. Andrew “weev” Auernheimer was sentenced to 41 months imprisonment for finding and publishing a security flaw on AT&T’s website. He is now subject to three years of supervised release along with mental health examinations. Speaking the truth has become a criminal act. Those who call out wrongdoing of corporations and governments are treated as enemies of the state. Jeremy Hammond, who exposed aspects of the insidious surveillance state has been imprisoned without bail for more than a year. He has been treated as though he is more dangerous than a murderer or rapist.
The US government’s global assassination program that justifies the even killing of its own citizens with no due process is an example of the terminal expansion of centralized state control. Examples of such dangerous precedents include killing US citizen Anwar al-Awalaki and his teenage son by drones in Yemen and arresting José Padilla, a US citizen, on terrorism charges without allowing him rights to a lawyer. The recent manhunt that followed the bombing of the Boston Marathon is a harbinger of the coming national security state. In the name of terrorism, constitutional rights are stripped away with little outcry.
The growing impunity of the centralized state reveals the delicate relationship between the center and the periphery. The truth is that the center and the margins depend on each other. They are mutually defining. Without the periphery, the center cannot exist. In fact, the center is built on the periphery. Challenging the existing structure of power requires a new model. By building up a new hierarchy, society will only end up fighting on the terms set by those embedded in the power structure and continuing the very thing that we are fighting against. To borrow the words of philosopher John Holloway, we are finally realizing a way to ‘Change the World Without Taking Power‘. Decentralization is a necessary part of the answer.
In the face of this backlash of the silenced majority that has been pushed to the margins, those that cling to the old paradigm cannot understand the arising power of distributed networks. They cannot understand these waves emerging from the periphery. When faced with decentralized creative networking and civil disobedience, the center cannot hold. By disengaging with the existing power structures, the people are already winning.
We Are All Zapatistas
This decentralized network emerging first in the West has deeper roots. The devastation and negative consequences of neoliberal capitalism have always hit hardest in the Global South. Many regions in South America have already experienced what the North is now beginning to go through. A call for uprising came from Chiapas, one of the most poor and exploited communities in Southeast Mexico. Even before actions against the WTO and the IMF took place in the West, resistance was already rising in the Global South.
On January 1st 1994, the day NAFTA went into effect, the Zapatista declared a war against the Mexican government. Ever since then, their uprising has become a reference point for the anti-corporate globalization movement. For nearly two decades, the Zapatista attempted to build a system of autonomous governance. They called for building up another world, getting off the grid of national and supranational government and creating their own, bottom-up autonomous communities. Their fight against corporate capitalism through direct-democratic practice inspired people worldwide. It also awakened a deep sense of connection among inhabitants of the earth – connection that had been veiled or denied by the interlocking corporate-government apparatus of the nation-state system.
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In many ways, the conflict between Mexico and the indigenous people of Chiapas was a premonition for the West. Years ago, Subcomandante Marcos, spokesperson of the Zapatista said, “I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.” The Zapatista repeatedly warned the West of the infinite greed of corporate capitalism. Marcos declared that it was time to set up a network, an intercontinental network against neoliberalism, one of shared humanity that needs no hierarchy or central decision-making body. He proposed a network where differences and similarities meet and are interwoven by all who resist.
This radical empowerment of people came after long years of resistance to Mexico’s nationalization process. Indigenous cultures have always been an obstacle in the state’s construction of a unified national identity and subjected to destruction of their traditional ways of life. Those who could not be easily assimilated to the monolithic state economy were destined to disappear.
Activist and educator Jeff Conant (2010) situated the Zapatista’s battle in the colonial context:
“As in any colonial situation, the colonized population did not willingly accept the authority of the dominant state, but instead is the victim of coercion. Symptomatic of the violence of the state toward the colonized subject, is that the state wins the right to define the other’s culture on its own terms, and, likewise, to arbitrate the dialogue (if it can be called that) between two entities.” (p. 186)
To some degree, perhaps we are all Zapatistas caught between two worlds; on the one hand, a world of genuine and authentic human connection and on the other, this contrived world of the corporate state. In a way, we are all losing our native language; the intrinsically human language of imagination and creativity. We are being subjugated to a system that makes us passive and defined by that which is foreign to our true nature.
The corporate system deprives people of their autonomy. Large corporations build infrastructure that make people dependent on them through monopolizing and commodifying resources and destroying diversity. Walmart attempts to conquer the world’s grocery systems with its exploitative business model of cheap labor squashing local businesses. Coca-Cola monopolizes the avenue of thirst by turning it into addiction to unhealthy chemical substance simply for the sake of increasing profit margins.
If left to their own devices, corporations would control the whole continuum of life and pervert the natural human relationship to the environment. Farmers around the world are being sued for patent infringement by Monsanto which now owns more than half of the world’s seeds. There has been an epidemic of farmer suicides in India from this company’s control over the seed supply and the onerous debts piled on them. It has been reported that since 1995, nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. Contrary to their stated goal of sustainable agriculture, Monsanto’s seed monopoly has brought farmers starvation and misery.
The Zapatista’s autonomous act of defiant self-governance has shown a way to transform this interlocking system. Farmers, activists and ordinary people are fighting against the corporate takeover. Grassroots movements continue to grow. In the end, we come to realize we all share the same struggles. Ya Basta! We are all Zapatistas.
From Political Struggle to the Poetics of Resistance
As of the Spring of 2013, no one could deny the outward demise of Occupy. Brutal police attacks may have outwardly squashed the movement. It is true that the encampments and weekly protests were cleared away. Media widely reported the death of the movement, yet Occupy’s real success lies in profound changes it brought to public consciousness.
The spontaneously formed decentralized networks unleashed a collective imagination. It allowed people to move beyond the given controlled political systems. People began constructing a different approach to governance free of the framework of the state. They refused to take state power as a given and instead opened a space to transform relationships as was demonstrated by the Zapatista. Conant (2010) described how the Zapatista revolutionized everyday life. They showed that “the power of mass movements to shape history resides in culture and in the fonts of culture’s creation and proliferation – work, play, love, child-rearing, art-making, stewardship of the land, the cultivation of community” (p. 15). The Zapatista revolt was an attempt to establish a dialogue in their own language, on their own terms. Just as with the title of Conant’s book, A Poetics of Resistance, theirs was a creation of poetry – to be freely who they are.
Just as with the Zapatista, occupiers were beginning to find their own language of direct action, sharing and voluntary association. As the encampments spread to Cairo, Athens and Barcelona, organizing on the ground became contagious. A new type of organized cooperative group was born in Zuccotti Park. From Yoga sessions to on-site medics, people shared their skills, fed and helped each other. People were experiencing new relationships that are not locked in by the desires of unfettered free market capitalism.
With these new horizons opening up, the norms of dominant ideology have started to dissolve. Teacher and writer Charles Eisenstein characterized how the current financial crisis and impending collapse of the monetary system is opening up a space for something new that he called the gift economy. He deconstructed the myth surrounding the financial system by pointing out that money is nothing but an agreement and how current arrangements are constructed out of debts mediated by the Federal Reserve. Eisenstein showed that modern society needs to have scarcity and cancerous growth built into the system and how, as a result, it has devolved into a commodity culture with human relationships being converted into services and money.
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He explained how the true nature of our human existence is cooperative and pointed out how tribal cultures operated through a web of gift sharing and receiving. Eisenstein showed that the act of giving embodies what is truly important on a human level. He said “In my ideal world, work becomes a matter of the expression of our gifts, motivated by passion called forth by real needs, not coerced by money.”
When a society becomes too centralized, true community begins to disappear and it alienates the individual from nature and others. People are more and more conditioned to do something they don’t necessarily love for external rewards. A true gift economy is a complete transformation of the current competitive monetary economy. In the Occupy movement, a new vision of this gift culture suddenly becomes viable. Different from traditional transactions, the new currency of sharing strengthens the bonds between people and dissolves the illusion of separation.
People are disengaging from the charade of political deception and striving to reclaim their own power. Whereas power exercised in politics blatantly controls the outcome of elections and actual policies, this new power stems from the human will fueled by one’s own experience. It is not based on an abstract language of empty promises and rhetoric, but the deepest wishes and dreams infused by the collective imagination firmly rooted in everyday life.
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