The Durkheim Swarm in Zuccotti park

Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly’ -Thomas Kuhn

The media seems truly baffled by the group of people that forms the “Occupy” movement.   It is an anomaly to conventional investigative journalism whose normal tools cannot be used to fathom a movement without a leader, formal organization, demands, messaging, or spokespeople.  Interacting with Occupy Wall Street is much like interacting with a swarm, and this image provides a key to the mystery.  Movements such as the Indignados, Arab Spring and OccupyWallStreet are perhaps better thought of in terms of what biologists call superorganisms.  In social theory  the notion of a headless Leviathan is both perplexing and terrifying because social order is not supposed to work without an organizing head, and without the organizing principle of rational self interest in the arms and legs of the body politic.    Yet some of the most robust social orders in nature do not employ the hierarchical head-body metaphor.  Example organisms  that pool resources without the governance of a leader to accomplish a goal beyond the capabilities of  individual members include bees, ants, wasps, and termites (National Geographic: Swarm Theory).  In the late 19th century, Émile Durkheim advanced the concept that when human beings organize themselves in this way into a group, this is a collective “social organism”.  Durkeim’s idea was that the culture of such social organisms is a collective consciousness that has used communication to transcend the boundaries of individual minds.  Fast forward to the 21st century when social networks allow faster firing of synapses and message harmonization in the collective mind of the superorganism.  Decision making is the consensus born of the cognitive harmony not just between clusters of synapses in a single mind, but between clusters of individual minds in the collective consciousness of a swarm.

What are the Occupy movement’s goals?  Asking a superorganism what it wants is like asking what an ant colony wants. Of course the first answer is not too illuminating: the colony simply wants to survive and to prosper in a post Hobbesian Common-wealth without menace from other organisms or other threats in the environment.  Journalists can take a cue from biologists who observe the superorganism in specific problem solving contexts to understand the nature of the organism. Say we observe a rain swollen brook blocking the colony from access to a food source.

One narrative of OWS is that it is an expression of frustration.  Using this cognitive frame to understand the agitation of the colony casts it as infantile,  with our corresponding response to be one of empathy.  But empathy from detached observers is not relevant to the colony.   Continuing the narrative of infantilism, we observe the colony is not particularly coherent in its activities with ill stated, “naive” tactics.  The colony “wants” to get a stick to bridge the gap, but the stick is way too small. The colony also “wants” to form a mass raft of ant bodies latched together to bridge the gap- this also may be ill considered. The colony also “wants” to go up and downstream to find a spot where the brook is bridged. It does all of these schemes spontaneously and in a chaotic fashion until one pathway is successful and the colony consolidates its activity on the fruitful pathway.

So why did this superorganism suddenly appear? When does the hive know that it is time for part of it to divide itself from the rest and fly off to create a new hive? Entomologists tell us it happens when the conditions are sufficient- when a tipping point is reached. Maybe the tipping point was the debt crisis- maybe it was the growing threat from groups of  right wing reactionaries gaining formidable strength who threatened to reverse progress in social policies made during the last 70 years. Maybe it was the growing realization that the formidable challenges threatening our society are not being faced. The pathways to the food sources have become constrained and the swarm of ants must find another way.

Why does the human superorganism not normally revert to this instinctive problem solving mode? We normally have more efficient mechanisms employing language, concepts, and social conventions for governing and coordinating our collective activities. The social contract was that if we went to school, worked hard and followed the rules that we would prosper. The 99% have not gotten a share of the growth. The 1% has taken it all. The social contract is that we have differing views so we must compromise or we get nowhere. There is no compromise and we are getting nowhere. The old way of crossing the brook doesn’t work and the superorganism collectively understands this. It will solve the problem, maybe not with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, maybe not the social action two years from now, or 3 years.

But the 99% will be relentless in its collective desire to achieve the goals of prospering again free from the menace of threats from the world around us.

So in the drum circles down at the demonstrations you might hear suggestions of that wild beat intro of the ancient Song by Blondie: Attack of the Giant Ants (You Tube). This can be a happy joyous endeavor, or not.

Let’s be clear that the human SuperOrganism is not mindless.

  • The human superorganism created Wikipedia. That is not the product of a mindless rabble.
  • The 1% is not new, nor is refusal to compromise with the Superorganism representing the 99%. FDR called the 1% “economic royalists”, and in 1649, the Superorganism solved the problem by beheading the King.
  • In 2008, the Superorganism was energized- blogging and phone banking at Organizing for America, and we got a stick over the river. Van Jones put his finger on it when he said that after the election the DC elites told us “…You need to sit down and shut up and we will deal with this. And I think it turned out that that was wrong”. (video– skip to 15:50).  I am not the only Obama volunteer that was baffled by how this pearl of an organism was abandoned by the democratic political operatives in 2008.
  • Four years after the Great Abandonment, the superorganism is skeptical of the tired slogans of “grassroots organisers”, of being spammed with solicitations for our opinion.  Without exception these expressions of interest in our thoughts are accompanied by a none too subtle Donate button with suggested amounts calibrated by computer to whatever our last donation was plus 20%. Political operatives just don’t get it, and whatever downside there may be to strapping the milking machines onto the base, it is not the fundraising operative’s problem. Treating the superorganism in this way has a cost- they poison the well. Commentators then complain how the Superorganism descends into political nihilism, and cynicism about their leadership. (Related post: Shaking the Foundations of Progressive Leaders)
  • Can the Superoganism bypasses the political elites with some form of direct democracy? Before getting  too rapturous about how practical this might be with today’s high technology, we ought not overlook the often self contradictory nature of the Superorganism. California has been experimenting with the state initiative form of direct democracy and as Michael Lewis correctly observes in his Vanity Fair article– California is in crisis because its citizens have consistently voted for services and voted against the taxes needed to pay for them
  • The human superorganism has robust communication mechanisms. FOX news continues a long pattern stretching back long before the propaganda empire of William Randolf Hearst to the more humble if not less rabid rhetoric of  18th century pamphleteers seeking to sway the masses with disinformation. In the movie “Network”, a Ratigan like Journalist character parodies the Mass Media’s commercial interest in channeling the SuperOrganism’s frustration into rapt viewership generating enormous ratings in demographic groups that advertisers will pay good money for.
    There are grounds to be optimistic that New Media will change the nature of the one way communication. Paul Krugmann actually responds to those who comment on his New York Times Blog. Some shows solicit Twitter responses, and are deluged with tens of thousands of messages, a few of which are televised. The blogs for the Rachel Maddow Show and Up with Chris Hayes allow for lively extended discussion by the members of the human Superorganism. This takes the vertically directed content of the mass media and uses social media to become horizontal- to assimilate and mutate the collective narratives that excite and animate the neurology of the SuperOrganism. Eventually the narratives translate into action.
  • One of the early speakers at OWS was Naomi Klein (Shock Doctrine).  As a guest on Up with Chris Hayes (jump to 5:30), she  highlighting the situation in Argentina in 2002 after an economic meltdown and a succession of autocratic governments had fallen,  and the people felt that the steering wheel out of the hands of the politicians and were deciding what to do with the new found power. Just as in the months following the Arab Spring,  people were out on street corners discussing politics.  In the US, the OWS SuperOrganism is correctly pointing to major structural problems- looking for where the real power is, the effect of Citizen’s United, that maybe it is Wall Street not Washington pulling the strings.   She notes that it is a big mistake to treat the SuperOrganism as simply “the angry arm of the democratic party”.  This is a rejection of politics as usual where the emotions of protests and activist initiatives have been harnessed by political operatives to channel the anger and enthusiasm  into election year goals, free phone banking, and door knocking Get-Out-the -ote foot soldiers.  Independent organizations are asked to submerge their identity as their goals are  subordinated  into the overarching goal of getting the Democrat elected.    After such campaigns, volunteers are told to sit down and shut up while the professionals attend to their demands.    It is a pattern that will not replayed this time.
  • Stephen Colbert deep undercover at OWS NYC

    Stephen Colbert parodied how political elites attempt to exploit movements like Occupy Wall Street.  His character is the head of a super pac who is attempting to co-opt OWS by telling them that every cult needs a leader:

    Colbert:  We’re talking about changing the world
    Let’s hit the ground
    Let’s do this thing
    Let’s dance on the edge of a knife.
    Let’s live dangerously
    Let’s get into it
    Let’s Strap on and get on top..
    Top of our game
    Let’s get the message out there
    Let’s be a team
    Let’s be empowerred
    Let’s have our voices heard
    Let’s let the little man roar
    Okay?  And I’m a big man that’s going to help you do that.
    Justin:  We’re not trying to re-create the problems that already exist.  One of the problems is the undue influence of money in politics.
    (source video- 6:09)

  • What is different this time?  A movement that does not pander to the egos of the activists, that does not seduce with the illusion of dramatic spectacles- a movement that will not accept a leader or spokespeople .
  • Has technology played a role in how the SuperOrganism has become more engaged in a sustained process of what Klein calls “getting at the core problems”?  Perhaps we can repeat the superorganism’s success with Wiki collaboration and apply it to the sphere of politics. Wikipedia is a collaborative triumph, but contributors know that its content has an inherent advantage over that of issue politics.  Unlike political wikis, Wikipedia and other successful fact based wikis can support the content with citations to a large body of common, independently verifiable factual sources. While Wikipedia does have articles on issues, it is not a forum for political activity. I did some experiments with it. To get at concreteness, I tried making policy the spine of the Wiki. Issue articles are pretty much like those on Wikipedia, then those link to particular policy proposals by affinity groups. The policy proposal articles would then link to specific passages in specific proposed legislation explaining how the wording was intended to support the policy.The experiment was Policypedia. I entered a policy resolution I submitted in my state’s Democratic convention and worked on annotating speeches to see how a trail might be traced from political speech to proposed law, to administered program.  The problem I had with Policypedia was that the subject matter becomes wonkish rapidly.  I think the “devil in the details” treatments of practical measures loses people quickly.

    I am not gloomy about the prospects though.  There have been hundreds of other sites that are working on finding a way over this river, and I am confident we will come up with a way just as ant colonies succeed.  There will eventually be a wiki way of sustaining the activities of the SuperOrganism in politics.


About John JMesserly

Mostly harmless

Posted on 2011-11-02, in collective consciousness, consensus governance, direct democracy, evolution of consciousness, neuroscience, process, social media's impact, swarm and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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