Cyber-resistance is often viewed as a hacker thing — but if embraced by mass movements it has great potential as a prefigurative liberation strategy.
By J. Armstrong and Ben Case. Photomontage by yumikrum, via Flickr.
“It was a time when the unthinkable became the thinkable and the impossible really happened…”
– Arundhati Roy
Digital technology is often seen as a curiosity in revolutionary politics, perhaps as a specialized skill set that is peripheral to the hard work of organizing. But the growing trend of “cyber-resistance” might hold more potential than we have given it credit for. Specifically, the popularized use of encryption gives us the ability to form a type of liberated space within the shifting maze of cables and servers that make up the Internet. The “web” is bound by the laws of math and physics before the laws of states, and in that cyberspace we may be able to birth a new revolutionary consciousness.
The use of open source encryption allows for the oppressed to take control of the means of communication, encoding a worldwide liberated zone within the fiber of the Internet. Cyber-resistancei has been viewed (or ignored, or derided) as a hacker thing, something undertaken by those with science fiction equipment in their basement. But if it is embraced by mass movements, it has great potential as a prefigurative strategy for liberation.
Prefiguration is vital for radical and progressive forces in the current moment. The building of prefigurative spaces — spaces that model revolutionary values and resist state violence — is crucial for successful movements from both the anarchist and Marxist traditions. As the old saying goes, revolutionary movements use prefiguration to plant the “seed of the future society in the shell of the old.”
Internet interactions are often juxtaposed with interpersonal interactions, so the idea that cyber-resistance could be prefigurative might seem counter-intuitive for a humanistic revolution. However, cyber-resistance might well hold the key to vibrant prefigurative struggle in the 21st century.
Popularized in the 1970s and 80s, prefigurative political struggle has experienced an upsurge in the 21st century. It has been experimented with in the “Arab Spring,” in the squares of Spain with the indignados, and in the Occupy movement, as activists seized public space and held it in common while building political consciousness and fighting for structural changes in the system at large (differences between and problems with these models notwithstanding).
Prefigurative methods are also deployed by many left-wing armed forces. From the Zapatistas in Mexico to the Naxalites in India and the Kurdish militias in Syria and Turkey, building prefiguration into armed struggle has been effective for many groups facing intense repression. In fact, an argument for building cyber-resistance as a form of prefiguration for socio-political struggle can be found in an unlikely source: Maoist guerrilla warfare strategy.
A Prefigurative Lesson from Guerrilla Warfare
Many militant leftists have criticized certain attempts at prefiguration, often forgood reasons. But the logic behind it — that in order to build a revolutionary future we must practice a revolutionary present — is essential for all liberation movements. And although it is less often emphasized, that logic has worked very well in modern guerrilla warfare.
Many rebel forces have developed strategies of protracted popular armed struggle, but since the early 20th century this method has been primarily linked to the military strategy of Mao Zedong. The strategy of a “protracted people’s war” was laid out in Mao’s famous guerrilla war manual, written in the context of Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation.
While Mao himself certainly has a dubious legacy, the protracted people’s war strategy has been embraced by millions of people in the past century and has been used effectively to build revolutionary movements all over the world.
When it is dissected into its strategic components, people’s war has a lot to teach us in our 21st-century moment. The strategy is composed of three overlapping phases. The first is “strategic defensive,” where rebels establish base areas in remote regions. The second is “strategic stalemate,” where the base areas are developed into a liberated zone. Finally, there is a “strategic counter-offensive,” where insurgents engage and defeat the state in conventional warfare.
For the first phase to begin at all, it is crucial that the base area be established in a secluded region with rugged terrain that is difficult for the state to access, since the rebel fighting force is not yet equipped to confront the enemy head on.
Building has to begin in the state’s blind spots. Once an area is identified, insurgents focus on political education and grassroots organizing, providing medical care and other services to grow consciousness and mutual trust in order to develop the proverbial “water” in which the revolutionary “fish” will swim.
In the second phase, as the insurgents become more entrenched, they gradually establish their own institutions and form a revolutionary government based on a combination of community traditions and communist ideology. As they gain legitimacy, rebel institutions such as schools, clinics and courts expand and interconnect to replace the state in rebel-controlled areas.
This creates a “counter-state” (or, arguably in more libertarian versions, an anti-state), called a liberated zone. The liberated zone is a contested, semi-sovereign area organized into associations that are characterized by radical values — for example equity, minority ethnic rights, and feminism — where people live the revolution and where the rebels can rest, organize, train and develop resources.
In this way, people’s war can be seen as the construction of dual power, where the institutions of the state and the liberated zone coexist and compete for legitimacy. Today, many dual power strategists advocate the building of alternative institutions in the global “center,” within the cracks and fissures of the existing state, as we simultaneously attack oppressive systems with social movement mobilization.
However, this has proven difficult in many cases, as alternatives are vulnerable to state repression. What makes the prefiguration of people’s war so powerful is that it creates an area that the state cannot reach and in which alternatives can be safely constructed.
Most Maoist insurgencies never succeeded in (or even entered) the third phase, but historically the people’s war strategy has been very successful in creating stalemates — that is, in creating vibrant, stable, liberated zones. Politically, this has resulted either in a negotiated settlement with the government, as in El Salvador and Nepal, or intractable conflicts, as in India and the Philippines.
The fact that Maoist guerrilla strategy thrives in the second phase is instructive. The brilliance of this strategy might be not in the war-making, but in the prefiguration-building. The strategy is effective in large part because it forcefully opens up social and psychological space to experiment with radical systems and to embody the revolution in practice. It opens up space not only to see a revolutionary world, but to touch it, to be it. It wins people with practice as much as with ideas. This element of Mao’s strategy demonstrated the power of prefiguration long before that term was coined or popularized.
The Strategic Importance of Shadow
The single most important environmental condition required for people’s war is the existence of remote areas where connections to the central state are weak. At early stages of struggle, these are the only areas that are eligible to build autonomous systems, since the presence of the state forecloses on many possibilities for alternative practices.
Areas of operation must be out of the state’s sight in order for the revolutionaries to make alternatives visible to themselves and to the people. In other words, the state must be blind in order for the people to see one another as revolutionaries.
There are few unseen regions left in the 21st century world, and fewer still in the Global North. In the US, there is hardly a nook or cranny that is not mapped by satellite or categorized by title law, instantly accessible by drone and wiretap.
Proponents of dual power increasingly focus on creating prefigurative spaces, but they also tend to draw inspiration from armed struggles such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the Kurdish rebels in Rojava, which are taking place in areas that conform more closely to the formal liberated zone model.
Of course, this is not to say we cannot learn a great deal from those fronts, nor is it to say allies should not support these crucial struggles in any way we can. But most organizing in the Global North takes place in cities, and the conditions in western Kurdistan and the mountains of southeast Mexico bear little resemblance to those in the urban United States or Europe.
Not only is there a lack of secluded physical space in which to build a liberated zone, there is decreasing psychological space in which to build liberated minds. In the industrialized countries, modern state control has gone far beyond mapping physical space to mapping our very individualities. Today, their visibility extends beyond the physical.
Mass Surveillance and Panoptical Control
In order to assert their control, less developed state-forms used to publicly execute dissidents via torture or lock them in a dungeon and throw away the key (some still do). These practices obviously have devastating effects on the target individuals and their families, but the possibility of constant surveillance with the threat of punishment has a greater effect on a society’s behavior at large. Michel Foucault famously recognized Bentham’s “perfect” prison, the panopticon, for its political implications in this regard.
In contrast to dark, linear dungeons, Bentham conceived of a bright, open, circular prison, with a watchtower in the center and inward-facing cells around the periphery. Each cell would have a window to the outside that would back-light it, making the prisoner’s body visible to the tower. The tower, shaded by design angles, would be dark to all prisoners.
The effect is simple: at all times a prisoner is aware they could be watched by the guards, but they will never be able to know for sure when. This hierarchical arrangement of bodies in space — a few in the tower watching, many in the cells being watched — carries with it a power dynamic that effectively modifies the behavior of everyone subject to it.
In this arrangement, Foucault says, the prisoners, who are isolated and unable to communicate or act without being seen, begin to police themselves. The more the prisoners internalize this dynamic, the less actual force needs to be used to maintain order. In its extreme, the theory goes, an entire population of docile prisoners can be self-policed with no coercion whatsoever. Prisons around the world have since adopted aspects of this principle into their architectures.
The unverifiable but assured possibility of surveillance represents the epitome of state control. In its most advanced form, those in power not only have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; they come to never need to use it to maintain their legitimacy. Foucault acknowledged that panopticism was directly applicable only to populations small enough to be arranged within the prison architecture, but he believed its logic could be applied to society at large.
Technology has evolved so that mass surveillance can psychologically take the place of the physical arrangement of bodies. Today the average American citizen spends over 11 hours a day engaging with electronic media. The public is increasingly reliant on the Internet, smartphones and social media for daily life, and we have become accustomed to omnipresent cameras, satellite photographs and wiretaps.
In 2013, the NSA completed a facility in Bluffsdale, Utah where the agency can store 1,000 times the data of the entire Internet, a “Yottabyte” of data. In order to fill this facility with information, the NSA is currently tapping most of the key fiber optic cables that make up the worldwide web and accessing the servers ofall major Internet companies. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know just how comprehensively state security forces collect this data.
This content and meta-data collection involves the capture and storage of all messages, with the goal being complete visibility of digital communications. Ultimately, the attempt is to tie all those communications to geo-location, physical data and relational meta-data; in other words, where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with.
Of course the NSA does not necessarily examine all of our digital conversations. But they could. And you have no idea if they are. You probably don’t really understand how they can, but you are vaguely aware that they can. It is a paralyzing feeling, and that is the essence of panoptical control.
In an era of increasing global control, pushing back against oppressive systems and liberating physical territory to prefigure our own alternative institutions is increasingly necessary, but it is difficult in full sight of the state’s forces. Knowing we are being watched, we aren’t even aware of the degree to which we police ourselves into docility. In the context of the surveillance state, creating the space to discuss and plan and grow the struggle is a prerequisite. When state control is a spotlight, revolutionaries need to create shadows.
Wikileaks, Encryption and Cypher-Shadows
To date, Wikileaks has been the most effective group in casting an electronic shadow. The NSA documents leaked by Snowden show that as early as 2010, Julian Assange and the human network that supports Wikileaks were on the NSA “manhunting” target list for extreme no-holds-barred surveillance. Even through this level of surveillance, Wikileaks has maintained their nine-year track record of never giving up a source.
In 2015 alone, Wikileaks have published NSA intercepts, drafts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, 600,000 cables from the Saudi embassy, and judicial gag orders — without ever having been implicated in outing a source. Wikileaks accomplishes this by effectively creating a shadow that even the most sophisticated government eyes cannot see into, and they do this through the use of open source encryption technology.
Most people already use encryption every day, and just not in their personal communications. Encryption is used in many common applications, from garage door openers to online money transfer sites, but the technology has been tightly controlled by the state, first through arms regulations and later through proprietary standards and funding restrictions.
Encryption sounds fancy, but it really just means writing in code. Current encryption programs apply advanced mathematics to the basic process that all people engage in when creating languages or dialects. Most importantly, the best programs are free and anyone can do it.
Current applications of this technology allow for any person with access to a computer to create encryption so advanced that it cannot be broken by all the computer power in the world. To quote Snowden: “Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto-systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.”
Due to its strategic importance, states have historically declared cryptographic skill and science to be theirs alone. But in 1991, as an act of resistance in support of anti-nuclear protesters, a coder named Phil Zimmerman released an open-source encryption program called PGP onto the Internet for free. When Snowden released the NSA’s own documents from 2012, they show that the agency isunable to break PGP (and other) open-source encryption even after more than 20 years.
Proprietary software like Microsoft and Apple operating systems impose legal and technical prohibitions on users and engineers that prevent them from viewing the codes that make the computer programs run. Open-source software like Linux or Debian allows for software engineers and users to fully control all aspects of a computer system.
Among other things, open-source programs mean transparent and verifiable software improvements. These improvements are not dependent on a closed group, which could be collaborating with, for example, the FBI or NSA. They are also free to use and distribute. Many countries, including the governments of Uruguay, Ecuador, and Brazil, are now running most of their information technology on open-source platforms.
Open-source encryption programs allow for free access to “end-to-end” encryption. These, as well as encrypted texting and talking phone apps like Signal and Redphone, are becoming more accessible and popular by the year. Free open-source programs — like PGP, OTR, Tor, and Tails OS — offer encrypted document creation, sharing and web research on any modern computer, and their use is increasing rapidly.
The journalists working with Snowden have reconfirmed the security of these tools through action, as open-source encryption has allowed them to effectively hide the documents Snowden leaked to them from governments that desperately wanted to destroy them.
Beyond the primary benefit of keeping organizing information hidden from authorities, using open-source encryption to “shadow” our connections, our work and our transactions from the state may enable us to create a digital liberated zone on the Internet, a form that transcends physical geography.
We can begin to create this by expanding our capacity and moving to make the use of these tools our default, first for radicals and progressive allies, then for communities and nations.
A Call to Cryptographic Arms
Discussion of encryption feels alienating to many folks. A lot of people think it is over their heads or they find the techno-babble obnoxious (the self-described hacktivist who once mansplained all this to you probably doesn’t help). Nevertheless, because the US and other governments are engaging in global mass surveillance, we find ourselves in a situation where encryption is necessary for the security of even basic organizing — it is usually unwise to invite the police to action planning meetings.
Beyond the security aspect, it holds massive potential.
Global South activists in Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and elsewhere are now facing the full repressive capacity of imperial violence — but some of those areas remain at least somewhat shrouded from mass surveillance technology. The US and other neo-imperialist governments are currently interested in popularizing use of the Internet and social media to areas of the Global South who have yet to “go digital” to enable corporate profit in those untapped markets.
In addition to the capitalist motive, the techno-colonial project would bring the entirety of the planet within view of imperial centers of control. This provides us with a window of opportunity where Global North governments are more engaged in expanding their digital empire and encouraging the Global South’s adoption of their technology than they are in unleashing the full arsenal of mass surveillance on their own populations.
It is critical that we exponentially increase the use of encryption in both the Global North and Global South during this period. Growing the use of open source encryption could be the most powerful instrument in securing revolutionary potential for generations to come, as they can enable us to safely communicate across blocks and borders. The tools are already there; all it takes is our foresight, will and passion for freedom to make their use into a reality for all.
Guerrilla liberated zones are highly effective in opening physical prefigurative space in an isolated area. At the same time, they are also limited by that isolation and by barriers to participation in guerrilla war.
Cyber-resistance does not offer the physical space that liberated zones do, but digital liberated zones are not constrained by geography or borders, and the barriers to use of encryption are surprisingly low. The combination of encryption basics with open-source hardware (and perhaps cryptographic currency, like Bitcoin-based Freicoin) has the potential to grow into a network of direct working-class control of the means of communication, production and exchange on a global scale.
This network can be used as a weapon to create a sort of liberated e-zone that is beyond state control despite being physically located within oppressive states. The more resistance is hidden from the state, the more imperialism must rely on its most base method of control: coercive force. Though it is the state’s foundational tool, the naked use of violence erodes the state’s legitimacy.
As the state must increasingly rely on its most violent capacity for control, online liberated zones could facilitate both the desire and capacity for resistance. Human surveillance and infiltration such as the use of informants and agent saboteurs can be highly destructive for individuals and movement groups, but nowadays even these rely heavily on digital information gathering.
As the state becomes blinder, it increasingly becomes more desperate. And when it gets desperate, its moves tend to backfire. Meanwhile, as our vision brightens, so does our spirit. Through cyber-resistance we can strengthen existing liberated zones and prefigure new ones, growing revolutionary values and practice even inside the cities of the attempted panopticon.
Our secure communications, leaks and skill-shares could eventually create a chain reaction of interconnected revolutionary upsurges on the scale of the “Arab Spring” of 2011. But instead of being based in popular control of public space alone, they will now also be prefigured in the collective control of a truly liberated space, from the means of communication to the totality of society.
i A note on terminology: While we say cyber-resistance here, more accurately we are talking about cypher-resistance. Cyber refers to anything digital, while cypher is a process that can encode any language, encryption is a general term for that process, and cryptography is the scientific study of the two. Sometimes the root crypto is used to modify other words as well, such as “crypto-currency.”
Ben Case is an organizer and activist from New Jersey and is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He is co-founder of the University of Pittsburgh’s Student Anarchist Graduate Association and is a member of the Organization for a Free Society.
J. Armstrong is a secure communication specialist and movement trainer. He has run encryption trainings for radical organizers and professionals from five continents, working with direct action movements, formerly incarcerated people, sex workers, veterans and revolutionary organizations. He is a member of the Organization for a Free Society.