Swarm Wall Street: why an anti-political movement is the most important political force on the planet

This was originally posted on the Coalition blog on 10 October, 2011.


Why are people occupying Wall Street? The US political elite and mainstream media don’t know what to make of it. ‘Anti-capitalist and unAmerican’, says Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, echoing the sentiments of the conservative left and political right. The mainstream commentariat, when it dares to peer closer, paints an unflattering picture of disaffected, disorganized youth, milling about Liberty Square without a shower or a set of policy demands to level at the administration.

Meanwhile the occupation grows day by day.

If camp in Manhattan makes the doyens of the status quo feel nervous, the explosion of Occupy Together events across the US last weekend will have sent anxiety levels through the roof. There were ‘Occupy’ camps in 70 cities across the nation last weekend. More events are planned for the coming days and weeks in the US and other countries.

Political leaders must be wondering what is going on. (‘Who are these kids? Would they vote for me?’) To be fair, it is difficult to say exactly what the the protesters want. They have no single message or identity. They represent, they say, the 99% who are excluded by the standing political and economic system. They say that the top 1% of the US population owns 40% of the wealth. The way the movement has accelerated seems to follow the pattern set in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world earlier this year: a contingent of dissidents occupy public space; footage of their mistreatment by police is spread via Facebook and Twitter; this consolidates the sense of injustice and inequality that inspired their actions in the first place.

Last week, the movement crossed a threshold. A localized set of swarm events evolved into a distributed swarm network.

#OccupyWallSt is a new kind of political movement. A critical angle one hears is that the movement hasn’t congealed into a coherent set of political demands. Isn’t this the point of a political movement: to work together to produce a set of demands to make to government? The fact that the protesters have not levelled any political demands is significant. They are allowing the 99% to define the movement in their own way, creating a clamor of grievances that works surprisingly well to consolidate actions.

OWS is refusing to engage in traditional political action per se. They have no desire to follow the Tea Party’s lead, starting with mass rallies and using them to enlist representatives to sign petitions, spearhead door knocking campaigns, put pressure on elected officials, and so on. Matt Stoller rightly describes #OccupyWallSt as an ‘anti-political’ movement. To be precise: the movement is political, but it is a different kind of politics, which seeks to circumnavigate the tactics and fora of established political action.

This is a point that many commentators fail to appreciate. Lawrence Lessig, for example, wonders if #OccupyWallSt might be the movement to ‘call out’ and clean up the US Congress.

[The aim of] #OccupyWallSt should be to call out this corruption, and unite a movement across the nation to demand that we change the system that permits this corruption. This is the root in Thoreau’s “there are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one striking at the root.” This movement could be that one.

This is hoping for too much and too little. Somehow, it seems patronizing to assume that the fate of this ‘anti-political’ movement is to acquiesce to political reality and allow itself to be focused into a weapon for those fighting a well-known enemy on a familiar terrain. No doubt there are people in the Occupy movement who will heed Lessig’s call and apply themselves to the task of cleaning up Congress. But to see this as the destiny of the movement is to underestimate the power of #OccupyWallSt. To understand the potential of the Occupy movement, we need to reflect on how the collective voice of the protesters is giving shape to a new vision of political culture, reigniting the hopes and dreams of those who are paying attention to it, in the US and elsewhere.

#OccupyWallSt 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, what they ‘get’ out of participating in it, and what makes it ‘the most important thing in the world right now’.

The job of traditional social movements was to present a collective challenge to political institutions in the name of freedom, justice, or rights. The most powerful movements of the 20th century were identity movements, which created huge mobile blocks of power by gathering the oppressed and disenfranchised of the earth under the flag of united identities: workers, women, blacks, the colonized, and so on. ‘We, the oppressed X, gather together to challenge the forces amassed against us’. This is the logic of the ‘new’ social movements of the late 20th century. The new social movements profoundly impacted and reshaped Western societies. Notably, they didn’t achieve this by transforming the operating system of these societies: liberal capitalism. These movements ‘called out’ liberal capitalism and insisted that it operates in a manner consistent with its founding principles, ensuring rights and opportunities for all. In doing so, they improved life for a large proportion of society, which is a good thing. At the same time, they consolidated liberal capitalism by demonstrating how inclusive and adaptable the operating system of this society could be.

I don’t want to diminish the achievements of the new social movements. But these movements had political limits, set by the system that they chose to work within. We see the limits of these movements when we contrast the way that they shape the identities of their members with the way swarm movements (like #OccupyWallSt) operate. Simplifying a bit, we can say that traditional movements shape and transform their member’s identities in the following way: first, by orienting thought in relation to a (mostly negative and critical) ‘cognitive map’ of how things work (referring to the capitalist system, patriarchy, the military-industrial complex, colonialism, or the coldest of cold monsters, the state); second, corralling identity in terms of a unitary social class or group (workers, women, ‘the youth’, gays, the oppressed, etc); and finally, by activating the movement by steering its energies towards contesting established political and legal structures.

Joe Brewer’s fourfold model of situated identity provides a useful tool for mapping this process of identity transformation. The process looks like this:

Swarm movements shape identity in a completely different way. First off, they are are issue- or cause-based, rather than identity-based, movements. Instead of seeking to reduce the movement to a single set of grievances representing the struggles of a single group identity, swarm movements affirm the diversity of participants as a fundamental strength. Diversity is irreducible to a single identity, but it is powerful when focused on a common cause. A recent post on the Occupy Together Facebook page underscores this idea:

‘We should remember that there are many voices in this movement and as much diversity among the protesters as there is in 99% of our population. These different backgrounds, philosophies, and affiliations can and should come together under a single cause: to end the corporate greed, corruption, and interference that has affected all of us’.

A second difference between traditional and swarm movements concerns the goals these movements seek to achieve. Traditional movements focus on challenging and changing institutions. The goals of these movements are extrinsic to the movements themselves: they are achieved as a result of movement activity. Swarms can (and usually do) set extrinsic goals. The primary goal, however, is to sustain the critical mass that holds the network together. As a result, swarm movement activity is focused on the intrinsic goal of empowering the swarm more than any extrinsic goal the movement hopes to achieve.

This can make swarms look unfocused from an external point of view. But within the movement, conditions tend to be highly conducive for participation. Swarm movements are intrinsically empowering and thus intrinsically rewarding for participants.

Participants do not need to look beyond the act of participation for reasons to join the swarm. Swarming is its own reward. The payoff is the empowerment that comes from swarming.

The empowering nature of swarm movements makes them difficult to understand from an external perspective. Commentators often feel compelled to fabricate or imagine extrinsic goals in order to overcome the cognitive dissonance they feel surveying a mass social activity that doesn’t play by traditional rules. But the more we look for extrinsic goals, the further get from understanding what really inspires swarm activity.

Swarms are based in a common sense of potential. What catalyzes a swarm movement is the sense that here, today, a new way of working, thinking, feeling, living, and being together is possible. Swarms are transformative movements. Insofar as members acknowledge a common identity, it is a transformative identity, a sense of being part of a movement that is changing the world.

What is the identity shift involved in swarm movements? Swarms emerge when a group of people acquires a new cognitive map, a new concept of what they can achieve together. The cognitive map that inspires #OccupyWallSt resonates with social innovations in the online world. OccupyWallStreet is an ‘open space’ movement. The camp structure is an open API that anyone can hack into and explore using MeetUp as a Directory. The easily replicable open space structure, branded and disseminated online, is a key enabler of the #OWS swarm. A swarm movement comes into being when a mass collective grasps what it is capable of achieving en masse.

Swarms transform our shared sense of the possible. This is what draws us to these movements. It is the key to their deep political power.

Victor Hugo said that no army in the world can stand in the way of an idea whose time has come. No government or political institution can hold its ground when confronted with a new collective sense of what human beings are capable of doing and achieving en masse. Every major social transformation, from the Age of Revolutions to the present day, has been driven by a catalytic swarm. Swarm movements do not expend their energies by contesting the status quo. They reinvent it. Norms slide in all directions and political institutions are forced to keep up.

How do swarms transform the identities of participants? The collective identity shift involved in swarm movements goes something like this:

Swarms are vectors of mass transformation. They sweep across societies on the diagonal and reset political cultures in their wake. The occupants of Liberty Square are engaged in a more serious business than contesting laws and institutions. They are knitting together new cognitive maps based on peer-to-peer strategies and open source ethics and reworking politics from below. As Douglas Rushkoff says, ‘we are witnessing America’s first true Internet-era movement’. It is transforming our sense of the possible. The surges of energy coming off the movement are immense. All that remains is that the movement finds a way of articulating its power without reducing its intrinsic diversity. If #OccupyWallSt can achieve this, it could change the world.

Perhaps the new mode of collective enunciation has already been created. The human microphone system that #OccupyWallSt protesters use to facilitate their General assemblies is a remarkable expression of direct democratic culture. Electronic amplification is banned in the square. The speaker says half a sentence and the crowd repeats it, so that everyone can hear. The speaker then completes the sentence and the crowd repeats this too. Matt Stoller, who has participate in the assemblies, described the experience as follows:

At first it’s extremely… annoying. And time-consuming. But after a few hours, it’s oddly refreshing. I felt completely included as part of a community forum even though I had not been a speaker. But what I realized is that the act of listening, embedded in the active reflecting of what the speaker was saying, created a far richer conversational space. Actually reflecting back to one another what someone just said is a technique used by therapists, and by pandering politicians. There is nothing so euphoric in a community sense as truly feeling heard. That’s what the general assembly was about, not a democracy in the sense of voting, but a democracy in the sense of truly respecting the humanity of everyone in the forum. It took work. It took patience. But it created a communal sense of power.

The human microphone system is a physical expression of the appreciative process that happens on the internet all the time. When a blogger posts something that others think is significant, they share the message through their networks, so that that others who are not included with the author’s networks may enjoy it too. In doing so, they affirm the incredible power of open networks to create collective knowledge and wisdom. #OccupyWallSt applies this modus operandi to political action. I see it as a living expression of the idea at play in Coalition of the Willing:

‘Let’s take our lead from Web 2.0 and the strategies of open source culture. It’s time to recover the true spirit of the 60s counterculture, with an internet-based swarm offensive aimed at triggering a 21st century culture shift’.


  1. Good article. The emergence of #OWS had great timing. It resonated and reflected the uptight collective psyche of the American people. What was first scene as negatives about #OWS turned out to be positives. Its lack of specific demands allowed it to be open ended. Its lack of Official Leaders was able to make others feel as if they could be leaders or local coordinators without any official position. #OWS has grown into a formless organization and leaderless movement on a global scale, though this is just the surface. Because it resonated with the anxiety of the collective psyche for creative change #OWS took on a life of its own. #OWS is what it is. It helped us target Wall Street and define the enemy as the -1% and the people as the +99%. It simplified matters.

  2. Hey Tim. Great piece. I really appreciate the effort you’re putting into this topic, which is my constant mental concern.

    I think your inights into the central role of diversity in the protest movement, and much else, are bang on.

    There is one important difference between our conclusions however.

    As you your self say “Every major social transformation, from the Age of Revolutions to the present day, has been driven by a catalytic swarm.”

    While there are new elements to the current generalized uprising, there is also much that is common to previous political movements. indeed it seems to me the sentence I have quoted shows that the term “anti-politics” is misguided. Were the american and french revolutions also “anti-politics”? does anti-politics therefore mean any groundswell of political force from below?

    These movements were multi-layered. By the time they achieved their goals there had fomed, atop the chaotic groundswells of popular discontent and hope, some kind of institutional/leadership structure, however flimsy and ad-hoc.

    You say that part of the strength of OWS is its refusal to conform to traditional political models. In a sense I agree. However I think the point is new political structures are needed. not none.

    (I explore the issue at length here: http://austingmackell.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/fumbling-for-change/).

    The decision to resist structure entirely is the decision to remain potentially anything – and actually nothing. There is a difficult trade off to be made.

    This feeds into the eternal “change peoples minds” or “change the system” argument. This argument, of course is silly in the end, as the intitutions which shape our lives inevitably shape our mindsets, just as our mindsets inevitably shape our institutions. The feedback loop is to tight to be untangled. -Indeed it is when a serious miss-match between our values and our institutions opens up that dramatic political change suddenly becomes possible. We change institutions to reflect changing values, and institutions in turn change and propagate our values.

    The new institutions that rise out of this movement must be informed by the radical democracy and decentralized nature that has characterized the protests. To refuse to look hard at this question, and put forward detailed, sophisticated, but above all *practical* models, will, I believe, in fact lead people to fall back on the most traditional of federalist political models.

    I was recently having a similar discussion with a friend who i involved in the Occupy LA movement. Here is an edited (for spelling etc) section of that exchange (I’m A, he’s J):

    A: dude… this delegates thing…. u know that’s how the United States was founded right?

    J: it might be understood differently though… in that a delegate, at least as I understand it in this system is someone that only communicates what the assembly has decided and if there are any additional questions or decisions, they have to go back to the assembly. They are empowered only [to execute] what the assembly empowers them to say/do.

    A: Bullshit. Those were the rules then too. New York didn’t vote on independence – [they said they were] awaiting orders from its constituent assembly. But that was bullshit, just used that as an excuse. But no…. you guys will be different. A new spirit will animate a new man. Give me a break.

    I look forward to hearing your response (and anyone else’s) to these thoughts.


    • Hi Austin,

      Thanks for the solidarity and support. I think we are actually in agreement about the politics of OWS. As I say: ‘the movement is political, but it is a different kind of politics, which seeks to circumnavigate the tactics and fora of established political action’. It falls into the tradition of non- or differently representative ‘extensive’ democracy, which I discuss here https://philosophyforchange.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/grassroots-democracy-a-political-and-philosophical-analysis/

      The ‘non-political’ nature of the movement is unique to OWS itself. I’m not suggesting that it applies to all swarm movements or expression of extensive democracy.

      I agree that we need new political institutions modelled on ‘the radical democracy and decentralized nature that has characterized the protests’. I think your own direct democratic proposals point in the right direction here. Ultimately, though, I think it will prove hard to cohere public support about these kinds of new institutions without a genuine grassroots social culture to embed them in. This is why the socio-economics of the sharing economy and collaborative consumption are valuable. Were these latter movements to achieve widespread popularity, it would transform the public perception regarding what distributed swarm formations can actually do. We need this critical mass to convince the broader public that ‘a different world is possible’. Without this, direct democracy will remain stuck on the margins of political culture.

      This is the general point I am trying to make in ‘Swarm Wall Street’ – though I’m not sure it’s made very clearly or explicitly.

      ‘Swarms transform our shared sense of the possible. This is what draws us to these movements. It is the key to their deep political power.

      Victor Hugo said that no army in the world can stand in the way of an idea whose time has come. No government or political institution can hold its ground when confronted with a new collective sense of what human beings are capable of doing and achieving en masse. Every major social transformation, from the Age of Revolutions to the present day, has been driven by a catalytic swarm. Swarm movements do not expend their energies by contesting the status quo. They reinvent it. Norms slide in all directions and political institutions are forced to keep up’.

      • Hi Tim,

        Regarding new social/economic practices being at least as necessary as new political forms, absolutely! I agree precisely that institutions largely play catch up to changes in underlying power realities. The two things develop hand in hand (like industrialism and unionism, only hopefully the symbiosis is defined by cooperation rather than conflict as in this case). Similarly the ‘real world ‘struggle of feminism, which changed the power realities outside formal politics, then led to female suffrage – the reflection in the political realm of this real world change. This in turn gave women more power to change the real world. The feedback loop continues.

        I was writing about something similar a few days ago:

        “In a sense these kinds of technological advances are a treadmill with which civilisation must keep pace. When it fails to do this is when barbarism triumphs.”

        So it’s largely a case of you work on the the bricks I’ll work on the mortar. Our projects are nicely complimentary.

        However, I still have no useful understanding of what the term “anti-political” means.

        Catch u soon I hope.


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