Manuel de Landa
A hurricane represents a form of non-organic life. It lasts long enough for us to give it a name. It assembles itself. It’s not living in the sense that it doesn’t breathe. To ask it to breathe would be to impose an organic constraint on it. Certain winds do breathe, say the monsoon, the wind that is most prevalent on the southern coast of Asia. It is a perfectly rhythmic creature: it blows in one direction for six months of the year, blows in the other direction for another six months, and every sea-faring people in Asia who made a living from the sea had to live with the rhythm of the monsoon. The monsoon is a self-organizing entity, there is no command component at all, it is a pulsing non-organic life. The planet, even before living creatures appeared, was a cauldron of creativity, a receptacle of spontaneously emerging order.
When the theorists of self-organization studied cardiac tissue, they discovered that you can take the cells of the heart, put them in a little flat plate and they’ll keep beating. In other words, what is making the heart beat is a similar process as to what is making the monsoon beat. It has very little to do with genes. The flesh itself can beat, as non-organic life, it has this breathing rhythm all to itself.
Compared to non-organic life, an organism, even though it is more complex and lasts much longer, has more command components than self-organizing components. The command components come from genes. Your genes tell your flesh "You are human, you are not a dog , you are not a monkey, you’re human and your shape is like this. You don’t have six fingers or seven fingers, you have five fingers. If you have six fingers, you’re a freak, you belong in a circus, you’re not a real human."
Genes are what keeps the flesh that is self-organizing and full of non-organic life in order. And the genes are completely hierarchical, the genes within the cell obey the cells within the tissue, obey the genes that make up the organs, obey the genes that make up the organism. As organisms, we are little hierarchical creatures ruled by command components. The flesh, which doesn't know any organs, continues pulsing to its own rhythms.
The concept of self-organization which has developed in the last thirty years has caused a great revolution in different disciplines of science like physics and chemistry; as the dust is settling, we are starting to glimpse what the consequences of this revelation will be for human societies. One of the areas that is already being influenced is economics - what is becoming manifest is an order that has come out not because someone planned it, because someone commanded it into existence, but an order that is self-organizing. The clearest example of that economic order is markets. Let’s understand markets to have a very concrete image: peasant or small-town markets, a place in town where everybody brings their stuff to sell or goes to buy something, and it meets every week in a certain part of a town and it comes apart and then meets again the following week. In those very specific places, everybody shows up with their intentions: I go there with the intention to buy, or I go there with the intention to sell. So a lot of what happens is planned, is intentional, but the overall effect, for instance the price that every particular commodity happens to go by, is unintended. There is no one buyer or seller who says, "I want this to be the price of this." In a real market, no one commands the price, prices set themselves.
All the way back to Venice in the fourteenth century, Florence in the fifteenth, Amsterdam in the eighteenth, London in the nineteenth, in other words, throughout European history, beside these spontaneously coordinated markets, there have been large wholesalers, large banks or foreign trade companies or stock markets that are not self-regulated but organized through commands. In The Perspective of the World, Fernand Braudel has shown that as far back as the thirteenth century, and in all the centuries in between, capitalism has always engaged in anti-competitive practices, manipulating demand and supply in a variety of ways. Whenever large fortunes were made in foreign trade, wholesale, finance or large scale industry and agriculture, market forces were not acting on their own, and in some cases not acting at all. What Braudel shows is that we must sharply differentiate between markets and anti-markets, between the dynamics generated by many interacting small producers and traders (where automatic coordination through prices does occur), and the dynamics of a few big businesses (or oligopolies), in which prices are increasingly replaced by commands as coordinating mechanisms, and spontaneous allocation by the market is replaced with rigid planning by a managerial hierarchy. What these new historical findings suggest is that all that has existed in the West since the fourteenth century, and even after the Industrial Revolution, is a heterogeneous collection of institutions, some governed by market dynamics and some others manipulating those dynamics, rather than a homogeneous, society-wide capitalist system. If markets and antimarkets have never been the same thing, then both Adam Smith and Marx were wrong, the former because spontaneous coordination by an invisible hand does not apply to big business, and the latter because commodity fetishism does not apply to the products created by small business but only to large hierarchical organizations capable of manipulating demand to create artificial needs.
The question in front of us now as intellectuals is whether we’ve inherited so much bullshit that our criticism is condemned to be ineffective, or whether we can find escape routes and create a new brand of criticism that recovers its teeth, its ability to bite, to intervene in reality in a more effective way. To criticize something simply by calling it a "capitalist tool" or a "bourgeois tool" has become a kind of propaganda. The problem with Marxist dogma is that it fails to distinguish between self-regulating economies where there is no economic power and the anti-market institutions where economic power is the center and the reason for the existence of those institutions. Failing to distinguish means that, for a Marxist, the very fact that an object acquires a price - that it goes into a market to be sold as a commodity - is a bad thing. The process by which an object acquires a price and enters a market is called "commodification." Today this has become a cliché, a thing repeated without thinking. We believe we are criticizing the system when we say something has become commodified but, in fact, we are not saying anything. We still don’t know if it entered the market as a free commodity, so to speak, which will be affected by supply and demand, or if it entered the market as a manipulated commodity. The burger war between McDonald’s and Burger King, or the famous cola wars between Pepsi and Coca Cola - these are commodities in the Marxist sense. Objects that have zero use value are nothing as technological innovations, they are pure cosmetics, pure simulacrum, pure consumerism. But if you trace those products to their source, you will find that in a majority of cases they come from anti-markets. And if you trace every technological innovation, from the steam roller to all the little machines and procedures that were necessary for the Industrial Revolution, they will almost always have come from small producers.
Today in the United States, there is a very strong political movement, mainly led by the right wing, who are trying to shrink the size of the government, claiming this is in the interest of the "free market." But, translated into the terms just introduced, what they really want to do is let anti-market forces run wild. They don’t want small producers and small manufacturers and bakers and printers and mom-and-pop shops to have more room to maneuver and make money. They want national and international corporations to have more room to maneuver and manipulate the market. They want to shrink government so that there are less regulations to prevent monopolies from doing what they want. But if you study these corporations, rather than looking like a market, they are like mini-Soviet Unions. Socialism is a society where commands have replaced prices completely. National and international corporations replace prices with commands on a smaller scale, they are small socialisms minus the ideology.
The movement supporting anti-market forces is spreading its influence into the economics of the Internet. The internet can be thought of as an international network of computers which organized itself, a very complex structure that emerged spontaneously out of the activities of many different people - with an overall effect that wasn’t intended or planned. The internet, precisely because it is a self-organizing structure, benefits in the first place small producers, in this case, small producers of content. However, as anti-market forces advance into the territory of the internet, it could be transformed from a self-organized entity into a planned economy. The question is whether all the grass-roots networks like the buletin board systems can thrive and will be robust enough to resist these anti-market forces. How can we guide the evolution of the internet so that it ends up benefiting small producers of content instead of those who already own the infrastructure: the telephone and cable companies which can eventually absorb and internalize the content-producers?
A central issue that will affect the internet economics is whether market or anti-market forces end up winning the main scarce commodity: bandwidth, the amount of information which can run through the channels. There are several means of guaranteeing cheap bandwidth. Right now, the telephone companies own one part, the cable companies own another part, and if we allow them to come together into a huge anti-market institution, they would give us cheap bandwidth. But at what price? The internet is still symmetric: you can consume bits but you can also produce bits and this two-way system is what makes it unique. If the telephone and the cable companies owned the infrastructure of the internet, they could change it into an asymmetric design in which there are bits coming in for you to consume and very few bits going out—thereby transforming it into just another consumer media. If big producers of content simply send you information to consume, the internet will become a tool of propaganda, a means of control. A much more efficient one than television because it is much more pointed: they know who you are, they know your tastes, they will be able to track and make consumer profiles out of your web surfing.
Of the writers who have analysed the effects on internet economics of a change from scarce to plentyful bandwidth, no one has received more attention than George Gilder. When bandwidth is expensive much of the infrastructure investment is on the switches that control the movement of analog or digital information through the conduits. A system of optical fiber liberated from switches, a "fibersphere" as Gilder calls it, together with the use of the atmosphere at high-frequencies, could result in a world where bandwidth is so plentyful as to be virtually free. Gilder's right wing biases assume that any interventions by the government should be attacked, even if they serve to break up monopolies thereby contributing to technological development - as was the case of the break-up of AT&T in 1984. Gilder agrees that there are such thing as monopolies, like those of the Robber Barons of the nineteenth century, but the enormous profits that these monopolists generate are seen as transitory, and therefore the menace they represent is dismissed as largely imaginary. Although Microsoft is today playing a similar role as the Robber Barons, according to Gilder its potential menace (and any government action against it) should be dismissed. So what if Bill Gates has acquired a virtual monopoly on operating systems, a position of power that allows him to control the evolution of much of the software that runs on those operating systems? No problem, says Gilder, in a world of bandwidth plenty, the paradigm of operating systems will change to one of distributed software in the internet, and this by itself will end Microsoft s domination. This assumes that Microsoft cannot simply buy and internalize any company it needs in order to ensure its powerful presence in a networked economy. The core of Gilder's ideological maneuver is to lump together small producers and oligopolies in one category, and to call that the market, and to focus exclusively on government regulation as the only real enemy, dismissing monopolies as chimerical. The fastest way to cheap bandwidth is to allow the optical fiber infrastructure of the telephone companies to be combined with the final connections to homes owned by cable companies, even if this creates huge monopoly profits. (After all, according to Gilder, this would be transitory.) So the government who opposes this merger between the telcos and the cable giants is the enemy of the people because its anti-trust regulations are preventing us from enjoying the benefits of a world with cheap bandwidth.
The best way to get cheap bandwidth is for the government to force telephone companies to rent fiber-optic space to independent small producers. This means that the government is going to have to be persuaded that a big monopoly made up of a fusion of telephone and cable giants would be more powerful than the government itself. The only way to dissipate this danger is precisely by letting the small producers of content rent their own fiber optic space. The telephone companies might own it, but they would not control its use. Cheap bandwidth would be available without the danger of one monolithic company owning the guts of the internet. If the cables and the connections are kept symmetric, so that criticism can leave the terminal as propaganda comes in, then we have a fighting chance. This is not a utopia, but it's what would make the game still interesting.
Current version is re-edited for subsol from an interview with Manuel de Landa by Konrad Becker and Miss M. made during VirtualFutures, Warwick 96. Also includes some excerpts from Markets, Antimarkets and Network Economics.
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