We are Legion
The Story of the Hacktivists
Like its name, and unlike Wikileaks that is known mostly through its founder Julian Assange, the hactivist group Anonymous is not easily tied to any particular individual. Operating in semi-clandestine conditions, its members have only made public appearances behind the famous V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks. Opening last Friday night at the Quad Cinema, Brian Knappenberger’s very fine documentary We are Legion not only interviews key figures associated with Anonymous but presents a fairly scholarly but riveting account of its origins, much of which should be of avid interest to the left. When so many gray-haired veterans of the left fret over when “fresh blood” will arrive, We are Legion makes it clear that help is on the way even if it does not exactly conform to past expectations.
Among the expert witnesses interviewed is Steven Levy, the author of Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. I was particularly interested to hear what he had to say since my review of his book was the very first article I ever posted on the Internet, long before blogs existed—and for that matter, when the Worldwide Web was still in its infancy. Here’s an excerpt from my piece that will give you a flavor of how the earliest generation of geeks tilted left:
Some of the key pioneers in the personal computing revolution were not driven by entrepreneurial greed. For example, the Community Memory project in Berkeley, California was launched in 1973 by Lee Felsenstein. The project allowed remote public access to a time-shared XDS mainframe in order to provide “a communication system which allows people to make contact with each other on the basis of mutually expressed interests, without having to cede judgement to third parties.” The Community Memory project served as a kind of bulletin board where people could post notes, information, etc., sort of like an embryonic version of the Interenet.
Felsenstein, born in 1945, was the son of a CP district organizer and got involved in civil rights struggles in the 1950s. Eventually, he hooked up with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and became a committed radical. Lee’s other passion was electronics and he entered the UC as an electrical engineering major.
Felsenstein then hooked up with another left-of-center computer hacker by the name of Bob Halbrecht and the two went on to form a tabloid called PCC “People’s Computer Company.” Among the people drawn to the journal was Ted Nelson, a programmer who had bounced from one corporate job to another throughout the ’60s but who was always repelled by “the incredible bleakness of the place in these corridors.”
Nelson was the author of “Computer Lib” and announced in its pages that “I want to see computers useful to individuals, and the sooner the better, without necessary complication or human servility being required.” Community Memory flourished for a year and a half until the XDS started breaking down too often The group disbanded in 1975.
Defying the stereotype of adolescent boys sitting behind a keyboard in the parents’ basement, many Anonymous members are female. One of them is Mercedes Haefer who is facing a 15-year sentence for a “denial of service” type attack on Paypal after it stopped processing donations to Wikileaks. At the time Haefer was a 20-year-old student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the home of the “Running Rebels” basketball team, and a cashier at a Sony store. This is not exactly the typical profile of a Left Forum attendee but maybe it should be.
Haefer’s attorney Sidney Cohen, who works with the Center for Constitutional Rights, presented his legal strategy by comparing Haefer and her comrades to the civil rights activists who sat in at lunch counters in the South in the early 60s. While I wouldn’t dream of giving Cohen legal advice, I would remind him that the ruling class in the U.S. was divided over segregation back then. Today there are no such divisions, especially over the right of financial institutions to carry out their business unimpeded and especially the right to carry out their own “denial of service” to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Even when hackers are capable of paralyzing the website of a major financial institution or some government agency for only a day, the authorities consider such actions an act of espionage deserving the harshest punishment.
Anonymous’s history is really fascinating. They started out as totally disconnected and anonymous posters to a bulletin board called www.4chan.org, bent mostly on what amounted to trolling just for the hell of it. Somewhere along the line a creep by the name of Hal Turner showed up there and got under everybody’s skin, particularly the “anonymous” regulars. Turner was a neo-Nazi who ran a webcast radio show from his home in North Bergen, New Jersey. Spontaneously, the opposition to Turner made his life hell on and off the Internet, hacking his website and subscribing to all sorts of magazines in his name. This step up from trolling ultimately led to a victory over Turner and a sense of empowerment.
Once those involved developed the sense that they had common social and political goals, they began to work together on a fairly organized basis. The next big campaign was against Scientology that had filed copyright infringement injunctions against the posting of a totally embarrassing Tom Cruise interview on Youtube or elsewhere. This got their dander up and they launched a drive to get the video up all over the Internet (maybe I should contact them about my comic book memoir.)
This led to a pitched battle with Scientology and its lawyers employing the techniques that would make Anonymous famous (or infamous if you are against the left), taking their websites offline, jamming their phones, etc. If flooding a switchboard is a crime that carries a 15-year sentence, you can bet that Obama or some other big-time politician will have little to worry about when they invite you to do the same thing to his opponents.
The arrests of Haefer and company has undoubtedly had a dampening effect on hactivism or what the ruling class calls cyberterrorism. Given the nature of Anonymous, it is not surprising to see that their views on what Marxists call strategy are not to be found. This, of course, is the same issue with the black bloc. When you get into the business of challenging bourgeois legality, you have to expect the full might of the state to be used against you.
When I joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, I was told that I had to stop using illegal drugs. Since I had grown bored with pot, this was not that much of a sacrifice. Even if this kept our numbers smaller, it made a lot of sense especially in places like Houston, Texas where we had a branch. It was not unusual for an activist to face a stiff prison sentence when they were caught with a small amount of pot. Since we knew that there were informers in our movement, we had to be extra careful.
After the Scientology war ended, Anonymous turned to more and more political issues such as working with Wikileaks and giving technical support to fellow hactivists in the Middle East during the Arab Spring.
While most of what they do is commendable, there are some disturbing signs that the same kind of unaccountability that has characterized black bloc activism threatens to erode the good will that has been built up in the recent past.
While the ties between LulzSec and Anonymous were never clearly established, it can at least be said that most people regard them as part of the broader hactivist movement, including the people who made We are Legion. While engaging in political protest, LulzSec’s more overarching goal was to create mayhem. Their manifesto was an exercise in nihilism:
This is the lulz lizard era, where we do things just because we find it entertaining. Watching someone’s Facebook picture turn into a penis and seeing their sister’s shocked response is priceless. Receiving angry emails from the man you just sent 10 dildos to because he can’t secure his Amazon password is priceless. You find it funny to watch havoc unfold, and we find it funny to cause it. We release personal data so that equally evil people can entertain us with what they do with it.
Eventually the group’s leader was unveiled as an FBI informant who had entrapped a number of his comrades, who like Mercedes Haefer are facing stiff prison terms.
Recently Anonymous decided to break with Wikileaks after it began what Anonymous regarded as an intrusive fundraising:
Since yesterday visitors of the Wikileaks site are presented a red overlay page that demands they donate money. This page cannot be closed, and unless a donation is made — the content like GI Files are not displayed.
While they have promised not to attack the Wikileaks website, it is not good to see the two stalwarts of hactivism divided in this fashion.
Frankly, I have some trouble coming to grips with hactivism even though I spent nearly 5 years promoting left-wing computer programming efforts in the late ’80s to early ’90s through the auspices of Tecnica. Tecnica’s goal was just as radical as Anonymous’s but focussed on supporting a government rather than challenging it. We sent hundreds of computer programmers to Nicaragua in order to train its citizens how to use spreadsheets, electronic publishing, databases, etc. as part of an effort to modernize the country and make socialism feasible.
Denial of service attacks on the Pentagon, the CIA and shitty financial institutions is obviously something I sympathize with but I am not exactly sure how the broader goals of the left and those of Anonymous can properly mesh. The closer I look at the left today, the more convinced I become that accountability and transparency are urgently needed. At the risk of sounding hackneyed, I suppose that the premium must be on worker’s democracy both in how we are organized and in our ultimate goal of transforming society.
If you have wrestled with these questions yourself, I strongly urge you to take a look at We are Legion, a film that sheds light on one of the more important developments in the past half-decade or so.
- Louis Proyect blogs at The Unrepentant Marxist