In the last months, we have seen the emergence of ‘Anonymous’. In particular, in the days after the widespread attack on Wikileaks (following their publication of leaked US diplomatic memos) they emerged with a fairly credible threat to take down major global internet presences (belonging to both states and corporations). They have continued to post a variety of curious videos to YouTube that threaten corporations and regimes alike (see for general information here and here, on Operation Payback see here, on Algeria; here, and on Egypt; here). In general, these messages seem to coalesce around the demand to stop attacks on free speech particularly through the internet. This ‘movement’ is strange to the ears of those associated with human rights as it seems to mix postmodern cosmopolitan demands for human rights with a radical political philosophy of the multitude. This is an uncomfortable mix on the face of it because the radical politics of Hardt and Negri or Agamben (for instance) are inimical to traditional human rights. I want to argue that this is not such a fundamental contradiction. What Anonymous seem to see is the radical democratic potential of human rights – this would be a potential quite distinct from the conventional renderings.
The first point to note is that while Anonymous make statements and undertake actions they are not a unity. As Jean-Luc Nancy might say they are always in statu nascendi (always in the state of being born, always becoming, but never closed, finished or completed). They are a multitude in the sense that they lack a sovereign power that gathers them into a unified entity. They are certainly not an institution, or for that matter an organization in the sense of an IGO or NGO. They are not a ‘community’ in the traditional human rights language because they do not share the common bonds of place, ethnicity, or however we are defining community – if they are a community you can be sure that it is entirely inoperative. They appear much closer to the civil disobedients of civil rights movements than the Amnesty letter writing campaigns whose action is the raising of a pen and the licking of a stamp. However, they are also distinctive from traditional human rights characters. What is distinctive seems to be the lack of a leadership responsible for tactics or strategy and the lack of founding documents that would constitute an authoritative pre-constituted guide and identity. Some from within this multitude assert ‘founding values’ but none are authorized, precisely because such an authorisation would be a nonsense. The irony of this lies in many of their ‘communications’, not least the letter to Glenn Beck. There ‘they’ say;
You see, Mr. Beck, we are not an organization. We have no leaders. We have no official spokesperson. We have no age, race, ethnicity, color, nationality, or gender. Anyone who claims to speak for all of us is, quite frankly, a liar. To be clear, the gentleman known as Coldblood was not sanctioned by anyone but himself to speak on our behalf.
Of course the signature – Anonymous – that ends the letter is itself undercut, it is by its very signature demonstrating its own impossibility (think of Derrida’s ‘Declarations of Independence’). If no one is authorized to speak for the group – if they are legion and multitudinous – then there could be no hand entitled to sign. But this is all a little academic, let me get back to the human rights question.
A fairly traditional rendering of human rights posits a utopia where every state respects and protects its properly constituted juridical subjects (see the preambles of the UDHR or ICCPR/ICESCR). Those who subscribe to this idea of human rights imagine Anonymous’s (impossible) declarations along the lines of Thomas Clarkson, Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi, albeit on a less significant scale. Anonymous say ‘We will take sides. We will support people who strive for freedom of speech, assembly and communication,’ and in this the human rights lawyer hears a human rights defender. However, Anonymous does not simply fit such a characterisation precisely because of the simple multiplicity at their heart.
I suggest that to understand Anonymous we should look to the idea of singularity as discussed by Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben. I’m not saying that this is the only way of approaching the question, however, it does put their statements in a different light. Nancy and Agamben use singularity in various ways, but one of the most important ideas is as an attack on the concept of the individual. The problem with the individual is that it posits a possessive subject, distinct from each other individual. The properties of this possessive subject must be protected by the state (See Locke Second Treatise). To this enclosed subject it is then necessary to add context, history and relation. However, a singularity is always both common and unique – I share language, for instance, but at the same time craft it on my own tongue. Singularity is unique, but not absolutely unique (to be absolutely unique would be to be unique in being unique). Rather each singularity ‘cannot exist through consisting by itself and in itself alone’ (Nancy The Sense of the World p71). The uniqueness of singularity is constituted by its very being-with-others. It is a differential uniqueness. This interrupts any reduction to the individual. Singularity ‘is not a matter of adding to a postulation of individuality or autonomy a certain number of relations and interdependencies, no matter what importance one may attach to such an addenda’ (Ibid. p71). The singular is always a play of the unique and the common, but this ‘play’ is itself different each time. Each singularity is different from the next, while maintaining the sharing of the in-common.
Perhaps most importantly for my purposes here, singularity is not reducible to an identity, nor is capable of being represented (be that politically or juridically). A singularity is singular, it is not defined by a common property, by its ‘being red, being French, being Muslim… but only in its being such as it is’ (Agamben The Coming Community p1, see also p85-7). If a singularity cannot be represented then it resists the reduction to its functions (eating, talking, associating, living, drinking). However, this is precisely the reduction necessary in human rights, which claim an authority because they represent the essence, nature, dignity or function the human. The human speaks, eats, lives, sleeps, drinks, associates and so has right to these which must be protected by an overarching state. The politics of singularity resist traditional human rights methods of representing the victimhood of an individual to a ‘higher authority’ in order to seek redress.
This brings me back to Anonymous, because, most of the time, they do not seek to represent either themselves or others. They talk about human rights, but theirs is a much more radical action. As multitude they are not good juridical subjects dutifully applying (or helping others to apply) to a state’s tribunal to vindicate its rights. There is no half-hearted request to consider the case before a toothless international tribunal. Anonymous seem to see themselves as protector of ‘the people’ from the intensive state power of surveillance, censorship and discipline. They demand the right to speech and association of others, they seem to want to facilitate resistant democratic action rather than patriarcally protect the possessive individual. This is direct action for human rights, certainly, but it is also anti-statist and even anti-sovereign, in the sense that it a-legally strikes against any state or corporation that it sees infringing on free speech or association. What is more, it seems to me that the human rights they claim are not the end of the story, they are a strategy. If association and speech can be facilitated, Anonymous seem to hope that people will overturn the existing political relations. This is why they attacked so spectacularly those who targeted Wikileaks. This is why they have since supported the Algerians and Egyptians. It seems to me that Anonymous understand their role as facilitating political action by generating and defending spaces of contestation and organisation.
With this, they go beyond the traditional radical political critique of human rights. Many have argued that the danger of human rights is that they evacuate extensive demands for social justice and replace them with demands for minimal reform (see for instance Brown States of Injury or my interview with her here). Take for instance the rights to food, shelter or health. These were once the very stuff of socialist utopia. In human rights, at most, they become the possibility of irregular bread or flour, the prohibition of the demolition of a slum or the freedom from toxic sludge being dumped in your back garden. While these are indeed laudable goals, the critique continues that they cannot be substituted for extensive demands for social justice. When these demands are translated into rights they are pacified by being brought within the gift of the government and judiciary. However, this is precisely what Anonymous seem to avoid. It is in their multiplicity, their inability to be represented, their refusal to just become another neatly organised NGO, and their refusal to evacuate the political through rights that makes them interesting. The rights they claim are traditional, however, through their a-legal actions they seem to generate a different sense for human rights. Theirs seems to be an interest in rights for world-creation: ‘whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse… to rebellion…’.