Swarm politics (or, the future of tea and coffee culture)

It was billed as the Most Important Election of Our Lifetimes. In November 2004, the election was over and Democratic Americans had plenty to feel blue about. George W. Bush, who’d stolen the Presidency four years before, waged oil war on Iraq at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, trashed international conventions and implemented draconian extensions to the powers of spy agencies at home, was back in the White House.

Conservative America was having a party. The other forty nine percent of the country, along with the rest of the world, was fighting a major depression.

James Zetlen decided to make a personal statement. He bought the domain name
www.sorryeverybody.com and posted a photo of himself holding a handwritten sign that said: “Sorry world (we tried) – Half of America.”

It was supposed to be a joke. Very quickly it became something else.

James’ message struck a chord. Hits for the site started going through the roof. Soon “I’m sorry” photo submissions were flooding in from all over the country. Twenty six thousand photo submissions poured into the site over the following weeks. The faces in the photos expressed the gamut of emotions being experienced by people on the ground: anger, horror, misery, disbelief… It was a mass outpouring of passion and grief, stunning in its scale and focus. Each submission framed the message in a different way. But to the rest of the world, the chorus spoke in a single voice: “Please don’t give up on us. We tried – we really did.”

Posting photo messages online didn’t change the outcome of the US election. But for the twenty six thousand people who contributed to sorryeverybody.com, and a good proportion of the seventy five million who visited the site in following weeks, it was an empowering experience. For many, just knowing the site was there made a difference. In the wake of political defeat, it was consoling to be reminded that progressive political culture still existed in the USA. When people feel powerless to change their circumstances, a creative endeavour can be a hugely valuable experience. Sometimes we need to be reminded that it is still possible to think, act and create – to do something – in order to keep going at all. James’ site gave people this opportunity. Posting a photo message online was a simple, perhaps trivial, act. But the act was part of a group initiative, and knowing that that initiative existed was a source of strength for many in this unhappy hour.

Sorryeverybody.com illustrates how an online initiative can focus and coordinate the action and desire of a multitude of people in geographical space. It shows how, under the right conditions, a site, or series of sites, can trigger a human swarm that centres about an issue of common concern and functions as a locus of empowerment. Swarms take shape when a mass of people see that a common, creative activity will be empowering for them as individuals and a group. Individuals gravitate towards the collaborative activity as a source of empowerment, and they participate for the hit or experience.

Sorryeverybody.com is not the only example of a swarm offensive or even the best. The anti-globalization protests that rocked world capitals between 1999 and 2002 were a firecracker-string of swarm offensives, extinguished by the Bush administration’s war on terror. The global protests against the invasion of Iraq, in February 2003, tens of millions strong, represented the final gasp of this activity before the politics of fear sucked the life from the movement. Not all swarm offensives are political in nature. In some cases the desire to do good is enough to trigger a movement. Take, for example, the cascade of online donations to the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, totalling hundreds of millions of dollars. Or (perversely) the Facebook campaign that sent Rage Against the Machine’s song “Killing in the Name Of” to the top of the UK pops in Christmas 2009 – an act of consumer swarming that should make future-thinking corporations sit up and take notice.

Political strategists are already experimenting with mustering and harnessing human swarms as part of their grab-bag of campaign tricks. The success of Barack Obama’s Facebook-styled web 2.0 platform (mybarackobama.com) in the 2008 US Presidential election portends a new approach to political campaigning that will change the way that supporters interact with their candidate. The netroots swarmed in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign and this played a major part in sweeping Obama to victory.

The tumultuous year since the election has produced two further examples of swarm offensives in the United States. The fact that the first of these offensives – the so-called “Tea Party” movement – is driven the discontent of the Republican right shows that swarm offensives are not limited to politically progressive causes – they can be driven by populist anger as well. Since 2009, the Tea Party, which has no defined leadership, no campaign organization, and no big donors, has proved itself a galvanizing force among disaffected US conservatives. The Tea Party’s message of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free market activity, subsumed under an ‘anti-Obama’ and ‘anti-tax’ ethos, has inspired thousands of citizens to join in rallies across the US, and is currently reshaping the face of conservative politics, pushing Republican candidates further to the right so as to capitalize on the sentiment of the political grassroots.

Now the US center left is swarming in response. Last month, filmmaker Annabel Park started a Facebook page promoting what she called the “Coffee Party” movement – a liberal response to the Tea Party. In a space of weeks, the Coffee Party has accumulated over 70,000 Facebook followers and rising. If this wave of support translates into popular action, the Tea Party will a fight on its hands! Park admits that she is stunned by the success of the initiative, which has catapulted her to the national stage. In a discussion hosted by the Washington Post last week, she was candid about the difficulties of setting-up a nationwide movement, while optimistic about its potential. The strength of the movement, Park suggests, lies in its appeal to the common good, rather than partisan politics:

Boston, Mass.: ‘What is one key point that you would like to stress to your early followers and participants in the Coffee Party?’

Annabel Park: ‘We want to shift the paradigm from thinking of politics as a zero-sum game with two opposing sides. If one side loses, the other side wins. This is not a democracy. This is a misunderstanding of the tenets of democracy. … Democracy is based on the notion of the common good. People should come together to go through a deliberation process to produce collective decisions that benefit the common good’.

Park’s intuition is not only morally laudable, it makes sense from a strategic perspective. Swarms are strongest when participants feel that they are part of a common movement with popular appeal. There are few things as empowering as feeling that you are part of a movement that is changing society for the better. And it’s hard to argue against the common good as a standard for social improvement.

[A shorter version of this essay appears on the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ website]


  1. HeyYa Tim –

    Saturday evening and my brain bucket is over-flowing. (Am I contrarian? Merely so? Maybe. I like to think I respond dialectically. Only 1/2 kidding!)

    What comes to mind when I encounter “swarm” as a concept is, well, not very positive. (In contradistinction to “affinity group”, which is more revealing and edifying, to say the least.)
    Peek this snaphot, “The end of another successful day playing djembe”. I could easily say, “Just another demo, and another arrest”. And that wouldn’t be totally false.
    But what had been a very effective protest (G7 Finance Minsters, Halifax NS) had turned into a melee … because when we broke through the police lines that were keeping us from getting back to our rally areas, after the demo, a small group re-directed the swarm back into the business area for a very sketchy and dangerous free for all. A rainbow coalition of affinity groups collapsed into a mob. “Swarm”? Sure, it was swarm behaviour, in its raw form. Exhilarating as all get out, in a mao-mao sorta way. And perhaps effective, as some sort of psycho-drama. But not a form of expression I’d recommend.

    You write, “Swarms are strongest when participants feel that they are part of a common movement with popular appeal.” … and I agree, that’s true. Anybody who’s ever gone to a gun show and hung out with the open-carry crew would experience that.

    So just this for now.


    p.s1 For context, this springs from a very nice comment on my FaceBook wall where I replied, in part, “”Swarming is its own reward!” … a basis for sympathy / empathy / solidarity with TeaBaggers, that is. Which should sound a cautionary note.”

    p.s2 I happened to be re-reading Mark Rupert‘s “Ideologies of Globalization; Contending visions of a New World Order (I just now found it on google books!). One of the things he stresses is how there’s little to be gained by pathologizing the right wing. “It should, rather, be understood as a distorted populism, framed in response to real social conditions but contradictory and deeply ambiguous in its political implications”. (Is that the effect of Gramsci? The Marxist friends I ran with would say that even talking to members of those movements is a misguided waste of time.) He goes on to comment on how their efforts miss the progressive potential implicit in the root complaints.
    I’m tired of writing people off because they’ve jumped to reactionary conclusions. Sick and tired of it.

  2. It’s not fair … 2010 and I have to try and write a complex piece without comment preview, without ability to edit. 2010 and wordpress is still primitive. It’s not fair and it’s not right.
    Please delete the first copy of this comment. –bdt


    Watching F5 video of you and Simon … for a moment you touched on something like chaos theory. Dynamical systems are by their nature chaotic and balanced, yaa? So, as you say, not “a top down, managed, organized process but, on the contrary, a bottom up, messy, chaotic series of collaborative engagements”. And then you go on to “if we design our internet infrastructure right.” Just so. Striving for a “co-ordinated, creative chaos”. Just so. “A swarm offensiving addressing the problems of global warming”. *blink* Why such a humble aim?! *grin*

    I started in 1975 when, working to facilitate a series of workshops on GATT (Yes, all this anticipated the anti-globalization movement) and issues of global justice, I came away deeply unsettled by the processes and dynamics. In short: subtle questions and nuanced objections were swamped by a sort of group-think. (Yet another down-side of “swarm”.) To be cruel, we were just generating another body of jingoistic sophistry.
    That was 35 yrs ago. I’m not claiming to be quick, or swift, or witty. *G*

    I had been online with the military in 1972 (ComRsch aka SigInt) and was at the time working with our national broadcaster, so I wasn’t technically ignorant. But, even when enlisting CS in the late 70s (anti-apartheid publication, mostly research on corporate involvement) I still couldn’t see any way out of that set of dynamics.
    But one thing stayed with me: we had been doing work using the notion of “myth-busting” … talks, slide-tape shows, brochures, cartoons, whatever format, all focused on ?what? de-constructing false “common sense” assumptions. What I realized was that this tactic worked just as well turned against the worst of “progressive” propaganda! A fine realization … and entirely sterile. The point wasn’t to set me up as pontif.

    How to generalize the de-bunking? How to raise the bar while staying connected to the vitality that we’re trying to nurture with all this?
    What I worked through was: how to mitigate entropic tendencies? How to filter out the noise, so that even slight signals could come through? (That’s core to dynamical balance, of course … complex systems as though digest entropy.)

    One of the buzz-phrases I came up with: “If it matters to you, then it matters” i.e. validating the subjective narrative without amplifying the crude justification that so often attends it. Another: “If it doesn’t matter then it’s just news” … nothing like addiction to mere novelty to dumb things down.

    What I ended up with as foundational was something like the grounding system for an antenna … static is drained off while signal passes through. Technically, it’s called a “ground plane”. I tried to set out some basics without abusing that metaphor: “GroundPlane 101.

    I call it “participatory deliberation” … talking brass-tacks … getting down to nuts & bolts. Somewhat more precious: a discourse-based decision support system.


    Now, back to your video.

  3. Sidebar: Web1.0 is pamphlet, brochure. Web2.0? *shrug* I’m jumping through to Doc3.0.

    By way of example (ignoring how WP in 2010 doesn’t have preview/edit comments as core … because I’m a WP geek): my 2 comments here effectively swamp the discussion. 2. What happens (as is so often the case with Obama WhiteHouse communications) when there are 2 or 3 thousand comments? What’s the sum of parts when comments run for 30, 40, 50 pages and more? “Swarm” … at best. I’m sorry, I want more. And I think the situation requires better. (But then I don’t think voluntary simplicity is a “bummer”, as you put it, so heh … mebbe just me being contrarian again. Or not. *G*)
    Communications as linear? Only in real-time. That they are so here, in this venue, with this method (It’s 2010!!) … that’s just yet.another manifestation of how the art has languished. “Iron law of capital” in the attention economy, n’est-ce pas?

  4. MiserereNobis says:

    Some movement that coffee party ended up turning into.


  1. […] that bind out together. Oh the warm fuzzies of it all! This post on the Philosophy for Change blog https://philosophyforchange.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/swarm-politics-or-the-future-of-tea-and-coffee-c…emulates further on this idea, where an initiative can “trigger a human swarm that centres […]

  2. […] is not a political movement in the traditional sense. It is a countercultural swarm. We need to view the movement as a swarm in order to understand its true potential, why people […]

  3. […] is not a political movement in the traditional sense. It is a countercultural swarm. We need to see it as a swarm to understand why people are drawn to it, and what makes it the most […]

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