Jeff Shantz – On cyber syndicalism
The Anarchist Library
Title: On cyber syndicalism
Subtitle: From Hacktivism to Workers’ Control
Source: Workers Control
Alternative globalization movements in the global North, from their high point in the Quebec City mobilizations against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2001 to the present, have been faced with the challenge of rebuilding and finding new ground on which to re-mobilize since the political reaction set in following the 9/11 attacks which derailed momentum and caused many mainstream elements (especially labor unions) to disengage and demobilize (where not playing to the forces of “law and order” reaction). One effect of the post-9/11 freeze (it has been more than a chill) has been the drift away from grounded community (it was never much involved in workplace organizing), outside of some important cases such as indigenous land struggles, as in Ontario and British Columbia, and some direct action anti-poverty movements (like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty). Instead much organizing has followed certain lines of flight — crucial in the formation of alternative globalization movements from the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999 — to online activism (in indymedia, hacking, social media, and so on).
In some ways radicalism has continued and developed more consistently, or even fully, online than it has offline in community organizing. Partly, this is an effect of the surveillance apparatus and protest policing that has aggressively targeted “on the ground” movements.
The cyber sphere has provided some spaces for maneuver not available in the streets or in the hood. On the one hand, movement commentators have noted the decline of movements in the period after 9/11 up to the moment of brief resurgence manifested in the Occupy encampments. On the other hand, the cyber disobedients have offered some inspiration and reason for hope. Indeed, the networks of the web have been perhaps uniquely important in allowing for some ongoing activity connecting social movement organizers during the period of decline and dissipation of struggles. Indeed, this is always an important task — maintaining movements through inevitable low periods of struggle and sustaining some capacity for collective re-emergence and revival as possibilities for an uptick of struggles open up. This was perhaps more difficult in periods prior to the development of the web when opportunities for communication, skill sharing, and resource circulation were more limited or localized and when demoralization within face-to-face circles could finish a movement.
The future potential of movements in struggle will rely in part on the growing convergence, even symbiosis, of the cyber disobedients and the direct actionists of the streets. Even more important will be the grounding of this action and organizing in specific workplaces and neighborhoods in ways that challenge fundamentally relations and structures of ownership, control, and exploitation.
Cyber anarchy represents a real form of counterpower as discussed by autonomist Marxist Antonio Negri. For Negri, a counterpower involves three distinguishable aspects. These are resistance (against the old power); insurrection; and what he calls potenza, or that which is constitutive of a new power (or constituent power).
Popular accounts of social struggle tend to focus on the insurrectionary aspects of cyber disobedience, or sometimes (rarely) give a sense that there is resistance being undertaken, but never on the potenza of this practice. Never, either, is it hinted at that there is, in fact, a counterpower in play. That is perhaps not too surprising given the hegemonic function of media and state discussions of online activism.
Where insurrection pushes resistance to innovation, potenza or constituent power expresses new projects of life. For Negri: “And, whereas the insurrection is a weapon that destroys the life-forms of the enemy, constituent power is the force that positively organizes new schemas of life and mass enjoyment of life” (2008, 140). This is not a replacement of existing power (in the sense of the Leninist workers’ state). It is not to take over the reins of the old power. Rather it is to develop new, alternative forms of organization and production — of the commons, of life.
Resistance to the dominant power must be built from the bottom if it is to contribute to the expression of a counterpower. As Negri suggests: “Resisting it from the bottom means extending and building into the resistance the ‘common’ networks of knowledge and action, against the privatization of command and wealth. It means breaking the hard of exploitation and exclusion. It means constructing common languages, in which the alternative of a free life and the struggle against death can emerge victorious.” (2008, 147)
The building of resistance from the ground up and the manifestation of potenza requires the development, maintenance, and extension of shared resources and organization. That is, it requires the construction of what Shantz (2010) has termed infrastructures of resistance. Infrastructures of resistance are those resources that sustain communities in struggle (through food, child care, education, shelter, and so on) while also allowing for the intensification of struggles. In previous periods, important infrastructures of resistance have included union halls, working class newspapers, mutual aid societies, anarchist free schools, and so on. In the present period many of the infrastructures of resistance in poor and working class communities have been destroyed or dissipated after decades of neoliberal assault and the professionalization and legalization of union structures and practices.