Anonymous: an anarchist analysis

Paul Raven @ 12-05-2011

Over at The Guardian, Jana Herwig gets all theoretical on Anonymous. It’s probably the most lucid attempt to tease out what Anonymous means in the context of the wider world that I’ve seen in any major publication. There’s also a glorious degree of cognitive dissonance to be had from reading about such an irreverent and vernacular entity in the high diction of academe:

This collective identity belongs to no one in particular, but is at the disposal of anyone who knows its rules and knows how to apply them. Anonymous, the collective identity, is older than Anonymous, the hacktvist group – more to the point, I propose that the hacktivist group can be understood as an application of Anonymous, the collective identity.

This identity originated on imageboard 4chan.org, as a byproduct of a user interface policy called forced anonymity, also known for short as “forced anon”.

Forced anon made it impossible for users to type in their name when they published a forum post. Instead, “Anonymous” would invariably appear as the default author name for any post. As a result, and in particular for the uninitiated, discussions on 4chan would seem like an absurd soliloquy, with “Anonymous” posting a message and “Anonymous” and “Anonymous” responding.

What this interface policy prevented was the creation of a hierarchy among users, which is known to quickly establish itself in online forums, with older forum members dominating and “newbies” having little weight in the discussion. Anonymous’s (the group’s) present dismissal of hierarchies and leadership has its roots in this practice. The uncertainty about who is talking (or probably just talking to him or herself, feigning conversation) is characteristic of the “forced anon” experience.

Herwig’s piece is in part a response to the recent schism within Anonymous; within any “normal” hierarchical group, such a schism would probably spell its imminent demise, but I suspect the very nature of Anonymous will ensure its survival, even if it mutates and undergoes a sort of metastasis. The choice of the V For Vendetta masks as part of their iconography is quite telling; the point Moore was making in the book about emergent resistance to hierarchy and fascistic control is echoed in the unpredictability of their target choices. Dissent cannot be bridled or steered; that is its power, and its self-limiting principle.

To unpack that last statement: self-identifying as a member of Anonymous is a lot like self-identifying as an anarchist, in that anyone can slip on the mask at any time, and the non-hierarchical nature of the collective means that there is no authority with the power to deny your validity. This has its downsides, in that it makes for easy pillorying and demonisation of the collective identity (such as the way that a few self-identifying anarchists bricking windows on protest marches are conveniently assumed to be representative of all anarchists), allowing a convenient way to obscure the genuine problems of hierarchy by focussing on the more foolhardy and socially unacceptable attacks made upon it.

But there are upsides, too, in that the more nihilistic wearers-of-the-badge tend to perform acts that are self-limiting in the long term; because the collective is headless, it cannot be destroyed, so the hierarchical world has to content itself with the sort of decapitations that symbolically represent the defeat of a system or group in their own narrative, while all they’re doing is trimming the wilder edge-growths of the rhizome and preventing it from becoming a hierarchy itself.

All of which is to say that I think Anonymous – and anarchism-as-philosophy – aren’t going anywhere soon; in fact, I’m beginning to think they’re an inevitable product of a global networked culture, a counterweight to the structure of society that increases in mass in proportion to the rigidity of the systems it opposes. Neither are an end-point or a goal; those that join in the hope that they are will soon leave, disappointed, because the individual reward they subconsciously seek for their actions are incompatible with the anonymity under which they are obliged to operate.

Of course, you may think I’m blowing pretentious smoke out of my own arse here; it wouldn’t be completely out of character, after all. So why not tell me why I’m wrong in the comments, eh? 🙂