Operation Payback, Wikileaks and Hannah Arendt’s Power: A Perfect Union?

Online collective Anonymous’ attacks on Wikileaks’ behalf roused the Internet this week, and demonstrated a small but telling shift in virtual power from long-standing institutions to an irate public. We’re seeing late political theorist Hannah Arendt’s concept of power in practice, with a 21st century twist.

Operation Payback, Wikileaks and Hannah Arendt's Power: A Perfect Union?

Organized by a loose-knit group calling itself Anonymous, Operation Payback this week targeted a number of high-profile sites, including Visa.com, Mastercard.com, PayPal and Amazon, for their respective roles in hindering Wikileaks’ online movements and transactions. And, as Operation Payback gained steam, Twitter and Facebook joined the fray by pulling Anonymous’ group pages, thus becoming targets themselves.

Even Sarah Palin, a vocal Wikileaks opponent, claims to be a victim of Operation Payback’s politically motivated distributed denial-of-service attacks that flood websites’ servers with phony requests, thus disrupting traffic.

Anonymous’ actions weren’t necessarily effective in bringing down their targets — none of the sites reported major damage or disturbance — but they did help spread the group’s message, as embodied in their manifesto.

“Anonymous is peacefully campaigning for Freedom of Speech everywhere in all forms. Freedom of Speech for: The Internet, for journalism and journalists, and citizens of the world at large. Regardless of what you think or have to say; Anonymous is campaigning for you,” they declare.

To them, any site that obstructs Wikileaks’ activities has violated democratic rights, and must be taught a lesson: “Pay attention citizens, governments, and the world. Anonymous’ peaceful campaign will focus on any organization, corporation, government, or entity until the Internet is truly free. Anonymous is doing what many successful campaigns have done in the past; a sit-in.”

This isn’t the first time Anonymous has struck out at large targets: they previously zeroed in on the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America for those entities’ attacks on the site Pirate Bay, which helps people distribute copyrighted content.

Anonymous insisted at the time, “We are tired of corporate interests controlling the internet and silencing the people‚Äôs rights to spread information, but more importantly, the right to SHARE with one another.” The collective are exercising new form of civil obedience, one that mirrors Hannah Arendt’s ideal concept of power.

A German political theorist known best known for her 1958 tome, ‘The Human Condition,’ Arendt believed that power, strength, force and violence were distinct elements of human society. Though related, they were independent and self-contained.

Power does not come from strength. It exists in what the Greeks called the polis, which Arendt also refers to as the “space of appearance.” The space, she contends, “comes into being where ever men are together in the manner of speech and action.”

“Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert,” reads one of Arendt’s most famous passages. “Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.”

Arendt, writing in the mid-20th century, never could have imagined a virtual space like the Internet, although one suspects the world wide web, which bridges geographical divides with ease, still fits her model.

“Only where men live so close together for potential of action is there power,” contends Arendt in ‘Condition.’ Though flung across the globe, Anonymous’ members still act within the same space, the Internet, creating a new type of polis, one in which Arendt’s rules of power still apply, only in different form.

While Anonymous’ attacks may not have done much damage this week, constantly improving technologies will no doubt help them hone their craft, and Arendt would warn against counting them out: “Popular revolt against materially strong rulers materially strong rulers… may engender an almost irresistible power even if it forgoes the use of violence,” she wrote in ‘Human Condition.’

She goes on to describe passive resistance, such as Anonymous’ disobedience, as “one of the most active and efficient ways of action ever devised because it cannot be countered by fighting.”

This begs the question: how long before Anonymous’ virtual sit-in turns “violent.” If the Internet’s a new type of civil society, what constitutes as “violence” online? Is it simply psychological, as in cyber-bullying, or can violence be economic in nature? And what would Arendt say about the use of such theoretical violence?

Though she deplored violence — the one thing, she contended, that can truly destroy, but never replace, power — Arendt did concede that there were times exertion of force proves necessary, like liberation struggles.

And, considering the fact that Arendt’s perception of power rests in large part on unhindered speech, it’s likely she would support Anonymous’ free speech ideology and actions.

“When we were told that by freedom we understood free enterprise, we did very little to dispel this monstrous falsehood. Wealth and economic well-being, we have asserted, are the fruits of freedom,” she wrote. “[But they are] a minor blessing compared with the truly political freedoms, such as freedom of speech and thought, of assembly and association, even under the best conditions.”

The U.S., she may say, depleted its power by neutering its democratic proclamations. Power, you see, can only be actualized “where word and deed have not parted ways, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions, but to disclose realities.” Realities like those exposed in diplomatic cables and war logs.