Confusions of Young Anonymous

(The Global Crisis in Confidence, 25 Jul 2012)

David Dessin ·

We are no longer the post-ideological generation; we are now the generation at the heart of the fight-back.” Remember these words?  After young Barnaby Raine cried them out at the Coalition of Resistance Conference in 2010, they quickly started to lead their own life on YouTube and the Internet.  Columnists referred to them; journalists quoted them, they were mentioned in speeches and discussed in debates.  Politicians applauded this herald of a new generation, cheered at the very idea that youngsters would finally become critical thinkers, begin to question, and fight the challenges of this world.

After a few months, however, the hype was over, and the journalists started to look for new quotes, for new examples of a rising level of critical mass in the younger generations.  There have been some examples of similar youth protest, like the Indignados-movement and Occupy Wall Street.  But these groups don’t seem to be able to form a clear identity; they don’t have a shared  revolutionary program.  It might be interesting to ask why youths and teenagers aren’t really revolting; why there is no shared consciousness of injustice.

Many commentators, journalists, and politicians have made the link between European and American protest movements and the revolutionary forces in Libya and Egypt last spring and summer.  But there is an important difference.  While the Muslim brothers were shouting for justice in the name of Allah, their Western colleagues lacked any common denominator.  Looking back at the pictures and videos of European and American youth protest in the last year, there is only one image that was present at all of these occasions: the pale, characteristic Guy-Fawkes mask, so often used by an organisation called Anonymous.

What once was just a group of anarchist hackers has now slowly become perhaps the one symbol that youth protesters around the Atlantic share.  Under this ‘name’, the last few years kids and teenagers from the US and the EU have started to organise public and digital protests, most famously against the Church of Scientology, but also against the arrest of Julian Assange and anti-piracy laws.  Both at the Indignados and the Occupy Wall Street protests, it was an often-spotted ‘face’.  Where does it come from?  How is it possible that the only way this generation can mobilise itself is behind an anonymous mask?

Since 19th century secularisation, injustice has been the exclusive domain of ideologies, that is, modern sets of ideals that claimed to be less all encompassing then religion, but were still based upon a shared consciousness of injustice and a concrete program.  However, in the 20th century, we have observed the end of ideologies.  They have been transformed, ausgeheben - as Hegel would put it – into something new.  Today ideologies are no more then means in service of the end of that nameless consciousness that we all seem to be sharing.

Ideologies are something we need, for example, to vote responsibly, just like political parties need an ideology to be able to govern responsibly.  It doesn’t really matter which one it is, as both voters and politicians can switch sides without any problems.

In the Western countries liberalism, socialism, and communism all changed quietly into variations of the same nameless philosophy of a nameless individual. Some have tried to call this person a capitalist or a neoliberalist, or even a consumer, but the end of ideologies doesn’t mean that one ideology or philosophy replaced all the others. It means that people share a consciousness that eludes any effort to be named or shaped.

People today, especially youths don’t want to be categorised.  A name or a label pins them down to a certain identity that might hinder them in future choices.  Today, people no longer say they are liberals or socialists, Christians or atheists; they say that at that very moment in time, they may choose to be so.  But this does not mean that tomorrow they might choose something entirely different.  It is an anonymous consciousness that doesn’t have a real content on its own; it seems to exist mainly in the deconstruction of a shared identity, like ideologies and religions.  As performed by the Monty Pythons and the House M.D.’s of this world, all of these names are continuously being unmasked as evil constructions that hold back the freedom of Anonymous.

There is a price to be paid for this anonymity. The result of it is – to begin with – the complete lack of a clear and shared understanding of who and what we are, of what we can hold on to or reject, what we can measure our value (or lack thereof), what we can love and fight.  As anonymity is the only standard, one can only excel in anonymity.  Teachers for example, have to remain anonymous.  They have to offer all the knowledge their students require and then retreat as quickly as possible.  Politicians have only to make sure the individual has all he or she needs to flourish, and then, they have to disappear. Being an example with authority would mean to limit the freedom of the student or the voter, it would mean to enforce his own view of the world on other people.  Anonymous doesn’t allow that.

In the “crisis in education”, Hannah Arendt describes how kids need an authoritative adult to introduce them in the world.  The teachers and parents take responsibility for the world, but teachers, parents, political leaders, and even artists and writers have a different attitude today.  At best, they see themselves as coaches and facilitators, people who need to give their kids, students, voters, or fans just the basic information they need and then retreat as quickly as possible to let critical opinions emerge spontaneously.  According to Arendt (as early as in 1954), education is the moment where children are prepared for passage to an adult world with clearly defined boundaries, sets of rules, images, and ideas defined by the specific identity of a society.  But when a society lacks such an identity, in this post-ideology, post-identity age, how are children supposed to integrate into it?

“People learned a lot last Wednesday”, young Barnaby continued, describing how it was the police and the media who created the image of young vandals, not the protesters themselves.  Perhaps this was true in 2010, but what happened next summer?  What started with civil outrage ended as a series of full-fledged riots raging over the country between the 6th and 10th of August 2011.

During these riots, rampant looting, arson attacks of an unprecedented level, and hundreds of millions in property damage occurred.  The images of young teenagers in hooded sweatshirts smashing and looting shops, carrying the spoils to their home,s and returning to get more went around the globe.  The participants of the riots and the members of Anonymous are young, disaffected, without much sense of what the future will bring.

It is not just a future, economical or otherwise, they lack.  After decades of deconstructing the past, of tradition and every kind of identity, we have created a generation without a name.  This is the other face of Anonymous: young people who congregated on IRC (chat) networks and unruly discussion forums like 4chan, exposed to degrading and demeaning sexual images and ideas in the company of perverts and madman.  There is no adult to tell them the difference between wrong and right, between good and evil; there are no shared ideas and images that can appeal to them; there is no tradition or institution that could provide the least orientation.

It may be a generation without future, but it is first and foremost a generation without adults, parents, without an identity, a shared and defined consciousness; a generation without a past.