Sunday, September 16, 2007

The War of the Swarm

Over the past few weeks I've been reading Arquilla & Ronfeldt's Networks and Netwars with particular focus on the chapter on the Zapatista movement. There are a lot of lessons to be learned about waging a strategic citizen campaign from the role of transnational NGOs in that movement.

The Zapatista movement was one of the pioneers of "social netwar." The techniques developed by NGOs to wage a "war of the swarm" in Chiapas can be applied to a Muslim anti-irhabi movement, pro-democracy movements, movements in the West to counter the influence of radical Islam and the anti-West, anti-American left, movements to help developing countries build the institutions necessary to "shrink the gap," etc. Strategic citizens using the methods of social netwar can marshal resources with greater speed, efficiency, adaptability, and resilience than any government IO activity. The Zapatista movement demonstrates that national and transnational civil society organizations can have a strategic impact.

The insurrection did not begin as a social netwar. It began as a rather traditional, Maoist insurgency. But that changed within a matter of a few days as, first the EZLN's military strategy for waging a "war of the flea" ran into trouble. and second, an alarmed mass of Mexican and transnational NGO activists mobilized and descended on Chiapas and Mexico City in "swarm networks"...
Combat operations were thus dying out, and when the public, the media, and human-rights NGOs, both domestic and transnational, got involved, the EZLN was ready to shift gears to a very different sort of conflict in which the principle maneuvers would take place off the battlefield.
Demonstrations, marches, and peace caravans were organized, not only in Mexico but even in front of Mexican consulates in the United States. The NGOs made good use of computerized conferencing, email, fax and telephone systems, as well as face-to-face meetings, to communicate and coordinate with each other. They focused on improving their ability to work together...and begin to struggle ceaselessly through fax-writing campaigns, public assemblies, press conferences and interviews, and other measures to make Mexican officials aware of their presence and put them on notice to attend to selected issues...In addition, the activists worked to ensure that the insurrection became, and remained, an international media event--swollen by the "CNN effect"--so that the EZLN and its views were portrayed favorably. Indeed, all sides waged public-relations battles to legitimize, delegitimize, and otherwise affect perceptions of each other.

Meanwhile, Marcos and other EZLN leaders kept urging NGO representatives to come to Mexico. Likewise, the NGOs already there began calling for other NGOs to join the mobilization. A kind of "bandwagon effect" took hold. A dynamic swarm grew that aimed to put the Mexican government and army on the defensive. NGO coalitions arose that were characterized by "flexible, conjunctural..., and horizontal relations." held together by shared goals and demands.
Thus the Zapatista networking conformed to what we would expect from a netwar. The activists' networking assumed informal, often ad hoc, shapes. Participation shifted constantly, depending partly on the issues--although some NGOs did maintain a steady involvement and sought, or were accorded, leading roles. While NGOs generally seemed interested in the collective growth of the networks, to create what would later be termed a "network of struggles," each still aimed to preserve its autonomy and independence and had its own particular interests and strategies in mind. Clearly, the NGOs were--and are still--learning how to use this new approach to strategy, which requires that they develop and sustain a shared identity as a network and stress information operations.
This movement had no precise definition, no clear boundaries. To some extent, it had centers of activity for everything from the discussion of issues to the organization of protest demonstrations...It had organizational centers where issues got raised before being broadcast...And it drew on a core set of NGOs. Yet it had no formal organization, or headquarters, or leadership, or decisionmaking body. The movement's membership (assuming it can be called that) was generally ad hoc and in flux; it could shift from issue to issue and from situation to situation, partly depending on which NGOs had representatives physically visiting the scene at the time, which NGOs were mobilizable from afar and how (including electronically), and what issues were involved. Evidently, some NGOs took a constant interest in the Zapatista movement; others showed solidarity only episodically, especially if it was not high on their agenda of concerns. In short, the Zapatista movement writ large was a sprawling, swirling, amorphous collectivity--and in a sense, its indefinition was part of its strength.

As "information operations" came to the fore, the insurgents further decentralized organizationally and deemphasized combat operations in favor of gaining tighter links with the NGOs. Meanwhile the latter utilized, and advocated others to utilize, nonviolent strategies for using varied new and old media to pressure the Mexican government to rein in its military response and accede to negotiations.

The Zapatista article in Networks and Netwars is a condensed version of Ronfeldt and Arquilla's monograph The Zapatista "Social Netwar" in Mexico which can be read in PDF form online.

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