SOCIETY OF THE
The new millennium arrived early. The 1990s began with delirious predictions that the internet would overthrow matter, eliminate scarcity, decentralize hierarchical control and bring about a new networked democracy. The stories had different heroes and different plots, depending on the political inclinations of the protagonists, but they shared one idea – the newest technology of the internet was a cataclysmic rupture of history and nothing would ever be the same again. The stories on the right side of the political spectrum focused on the ability of cyberspace to overcome the drudgery of physical labor and to render industrial production, with its archaic bureaucracies of centralized command, completely obsolete. A new age of plenty, superabundance and unlimited freedom was predicted, as everyone would become their own cyberentrepreneur. Wealth, no longer stored in brute matter, could be digitally reproduced to infinity, and people, no longer limited by their physical bodies, could go anywhere and do anything. The stories of the liberals predicted political equality, democratic communication for all, and the possibility to build new virtual communities. In the networked agora, everyone could come together and talk with everyone else in an open and transparent fashion. All distinctions of class, race and gender, all social inequalities, and all forms of censorship and control over information would inevitably disappear. And the radical left hailed the internet as the technology that would give rise to a new mode of production and exchange by laying the necessary foundations for cyber-communism. A gift economy of sharing and free exchange of information would replace the profit-driven market and the general equivalent of money would eventually wither away. Alienated labor would disappear as everyone would produce information, code and sites according to their ability and consume whatever they desired on the net according to their needs.
A profound ambiguity inhabited some of these stories about the internet, making them linger on the threshold between myth and ideology. Although theorists as different as Sorel, Cassirer and Barthes have often collapsed the two, myth and ideology are not identical and serve different functions. Myth unifies a group and gives it faith in its collective power to disrupt the order of things. Myth is always personal, it relies on affective images and it needs an embodied character, not an abstract idea or an impersonal process. Even the earliest Greek mythologies were stories about the experiences of individual beings endowed with superhuman powers, not fragments of a theological abstraction. The hero of the anarcho-syndicalist myth of the turn of the twentieth century was not the general strike as a process but the multitude of strikers who would coordinate their refusal and act in unison to bring capitalist production to a halt. In the 1960s, one of the central characters of new revolutionary myths was the hijacker of information who jammed and subverted the dominant codes of the spectacle. At the beginning of the 1990s the heroes of the cyberfrontier were the cowboys seeking freedom away from the long arm of the law and the homesteaders who seized the possibility to create new virtual communities. At the dawn of the new millennium a new cast of characters emerged: net avant-gardes and tricksters, tactical media warriors and digital multitudes. In all its instances, myth valorizes subjective will and destabilizes existing power; it symbolically designates and sometimes provokes the moment of change. But ideology is essentially a conservative story that seeks to consolidate the present political and economic order and to ensure that any further transformations will be insignificant and not disrupt the balance of power. To achieve this aim, ideology needs a reversal that makes the value of collective subjects depend on an abstraction that stands above them: God, the State, the invisible hand of the market, the sublime power of technology. Through this ideological reversal individuals are reduced to nothing - they have power only insofar as they partake of an external sublimity that belongs essentially to an abstract, self-organizing machine.
The internet is essentially a social relation, a link or a network between individuals mediated through computers and cable. But it is often described as if it were a disembodied machine that arose out of nothingness and continues to produce, multiply and perpetuate itself out of its own vital energy and living force. These celebrations are a conspicuous example of what Leo Marx once called the “technological sublime.” Hymns praising the internet as the last incarnation of the technological sublime are not focused on the vitality of the actors who use the internet to transform their world, but on the sublimity of the technology. They project the will to action and the potential for social transformation onto an inanimate being made of silicone, circuit boards and copper wires that has suddenly come to life.
During the last decade one of the most striking examples of this kind of machine fetishism wasKevin Kelly’s book Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World. Kelly argues that nature is becoming man-made as technology intervenes in biological processes like genetic engineering and cloning, and technology is becoming a form of natural life as it spawns new synthetic ecosystems, like the internet, which are capable of self-organizing out of their own creativity, thriving on nonlinearity, decentralization, disequilibrium and flux. In Kelly’s vision the internet is a quasi-biological “ascii superorganism,” a mathematically large “mechanical selfhood” that inspires both awe and fear in those who come into contact with its invisible brain. And since new technologies are living ecosystems, the most pressing question is not what do people want from technology but what does the technology itself want. “As technology becomes more animated and autonomous, I think we should be asking ourselves where it wants to go, what its biases are and how far it can govern itself.” This was only one of the many determinist reversals of the early 1990s that portrayed the internet as an abstract machine possessing its own inherent power to solve social, political and economic contradictions. Regimes of exploitation and social injustices of the past were written off as defects stemming from the fact that we didn’t yet have the right technology. Now that we do, or so the argument goes, it’s sufficient to wait for the self-organizing, decentralized creativity of the internet to produce its own transformations.
The hymns to the internet are the latest stage in the history of the technological sublime; they have been sung many times in the past with each previous “new” technology. In the 1970s the hymns praised the sublimity of cable television, after which nothing would ever be the same again. Through cable, television would finally transcend itself and overcome its limitations, becoming something completely different – a two-way communication channel. Politicians, civil rights activists and hippies euphorically predicted how the communication superhighway of cable would improve education, break down social isolation, help people to communicate and enhance participatory democracy. Mark Surman has analyzed the many similarities between the language of the “wired nation” and the “information highway” that first surfaced in the 1970s with cable and the language used in the 1990s by the Wired digerati to talk about the internet - which reproduced, whether unconsciously or not, all the earlier metaphors. Before the cable revolution, in the 1960s Marshall McLuhan claimed that industrial society with its regime of alienating labor had begun to wither away due to the transformations produced by the invention of the electronic media and computer automation. Before McLuhan, in the 1940s David Sarnoff had declared that television was “destined to provide greater knowledge to larger numbers of people, truer perception of the meaning of current events, more accurate appraisal of men in public life, and a broader understanding of the needs and aspirations of our fellow human beings.” Before the electronic media, the hymns to the technological sublime had praised nuclear power, the railroad, the steam engine, and electricity. In each of these historical moments there was an active forgetting of the claims of the previous technology to completely transform the world as we knew it.
For many years critics on the left, radical artists and cultural jammers had anchored themselves to the Situationist critique of the society of the spectacle, either by simply recycling it as a catechism learned by heart, or by showing how the society of the spectacle had evolved into a more developed stage, or by devising new techniques of detournement and contestation on the net. The critique of the Spectacle was based on the idea that in the hypercommodified society of television and the advertising industry, images had reached such a level of saturation that all of daily life had become mediated through them. The effects of this opium war were the separation of people from each other, the alienation of subjects from their true desires through a chain of substitutions, and a culture of passivity and complacency in which people became mere spectators and consumers of a life that was already predetermined in all of its aspects. The Situationists called for an end to the hierarchical control that led to separation, and demanded active participation in the construction of life through the creation of situations – especially oppositional interventions that turned the false world of the spectacle upside down and revealed the authenticity and intensity of lived experience hidden beneath it.
Although it can be said that the spectacle has become even more pervasive today – in the age of mega media mergers, the telenovelizing of politics, and the exhibitionism of reality shows - there is something inescapably different about our own time. There is the idea that underneath it all, there is a hidden possibility, a revolutionary line of flight that has abolished representation and mediation through images, and has attained pure immediacy, direct expression and unrestrained participation. And all we need to do is to get off the television and get on the internet. The old world maintained separation through hierarchical power and bureaucratic command. This new world is rhizomatic, headless and decentralized; power has been dispersed and broken into a thousand pieces that can now be shared by everyone. According to the hype, the rhizomatic internet dissolves old hierarchies of command - information flows in all directions, connecting everything to everything else. The internet links together heterogeneous elements - personal home pages, government sites, library catalogues, anarchist mailing lists, transnational corporations, non-governmental organizations. It blurs boundaries between fixed points - the territorial borders of nations, the dividing line between work and leisure, the distinction between public and private - and it gives rise to countless technological becomings – the typewriter and cathode ray tube couple with transcontinental cable links and become a many-to-many channel for immediate communication. The internet is beginningless, endless and boundless, changing size and scope with every new connection. The lack of an underlying structure makes it impossible to form a mental representation or to trace preexisting lines. The maps we construct of the internet don’t represent anything; they are creative experiments that build possible worlds.
The deterittorialized logic of the internet and the new mode of organization of the “movement of movements” have often been invoked together as if there is some secret alchemy between them. The argument is that since the internet creates the condition of possibility for direct expression without intermediaries, peer-to-peer communication, and multi-directional flows, it will transform the way groups organize by preventing hierarchies and encouraging the formation of molecular nodes that are not tied to any unitary purpose. Naomi Klein claims “the communication technology that facilitates these campaigns is shaping the movement in its own image. What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the Internet - the Internet come to life.” But the problem is that this rhizomatic universe is not specific to the organizational logic of the alterglobalization movements - it is also an essential element of global capitalism. Old models of hierarchical, formal, rule-governed corporations are useless in a speculative economy based on the circulation of flows and the exchange of intangibles such as information and affects. The new management literature of the 1990s realized this and categorically rejected anything that smacked of hierarchy and top-down control. The rhizomatic corporation is nomadic and flexible, always on the move, networking with other corporations in decentralized joint ventures, mergers, and acquisitions; its boundaries have disappeared and it is impossible to distinguish between inside and outside, between employees, temporal workers and consultants. As Boltanski and Chiapello argued, this new spirit of capitalism appropriated the nomadic rebellions of the sixties and put them to use in the service of profit, simultaneously passing itself off as progressive because it had abolished totalitarian patterns of centralized command. But if central command has withered away, the new forms of mobile, deterritorialized control that have replaced it only mean that discipline is now dispersed through the entire social field, and is all the more effective since it has been freed from territorial and institutional constraints.
New antiauthoritarians now fetishize ideas of rhizomatic structures (vs. trees) and horizontality (vs. verticality), just as older anarchists during the nineteenth century sang the praises of decentralization and attempted to reduce questions of liberation to debates about decentralization vs. centralization. The opposition presupposed that centralization was a repressive form of organization from above that stifles capacities for individual and collective self-organization and that decentralization, through a mathematical operation of inversion, must be synonymous with freedom. Since Proudhon, anarchism has been associated with the establishment of freely federated associations that were not subordinate to centralized state authority. Yet the fact that Proudhon could hold up Switzerland and the United States as imitable models of decentralized government should immediately cast suspicion on the idea of “decentralization.” The political decentralization of power, the dispersal of its visible center, can often create an internalization of the values of the dominant power that is all the more total as subjects police their own desires. And insubordination to a central authority need not always be on the side of freedom. Proudhon’s dogmatic insistence on the libertarian character of decentralization led him to support the most absurd causes, like siding with the Confederate slave-South during the American civil war because it was carrying out a noble battle against the evils of centralization. Today neoliberals and neofascists are equally against the centralization and regulation imposed by the state – the first because it can interfere with the globalization of capital, the second because the state (as well as the globalization of capital) has corrupted the spiritual unity of the nation.
And participation is too vague and meaningless a concept to become a measure of democratic transformation unless it is elaborated according to another logic and a coherent set of principles. For instance, fascism is also about molecular participation. It is based on immediate involvement, direct expression, immanence, contagion, celebration and festival. In a sense, this is why it can easily coopt the desire for liberation. As Deleuze and Guattari recognized (and Bataille before them): “What makes fascism dangerous is its molecular or micropolitical power, for it is a mass movement: a cancerous body rather than a totalitarian organism.” Totalitarianism relies on fear and rule from above through central command, fascism works through exhuberance and rhizomatic proliferation from below. It skips from point to point out of its own momentum, multiplying into “rural fascism and city or neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war veteran’s fascism … every fascism is defined by a micro-black hole that stands on its own and communicates with the others, before resonating in a great … black hole.” Contemporary forms of fascism have become adept at using information technologies to improve rhizomatic coordination, proliferating along different nodes - neonazi chatrooms, newsgroups for aryan nations, sites for holocaust deniers, networks of dispersed patriot militias, and decentralized war machines of religious fundamentalism. While molecular fascism depends on a certain structure of authority, it is an authority that doesn’t function by command and repression but through affect. The Romanian Noua Dreapta may invoke C. Z. Codreanu (the “chief” of the interwar legionnaire movement) as their spiritual leader, but precisely because when he was alive he was a leader who was unelected and did not rule but lived in the hearts of his followers. The authority is an authority of contagion, not a hierarchical rule by directives. The neofascist media – like the Altermedia network of sites, which are modeled on Indymedia but without open publishing, decisions by consensus, transparency or public archives - is all about participation. Altermedia claims to be “the voice of the people” and its editors actively seek collaborations; they want newcomers to become involved in the movement and in the production of its discourse - but up to a certain limit. Without asking questions, without arguing, debating or deliberating, and without internal critique. Critique can jam a stick in the wheel of psychological identification, it can shatter the effect of contagion. These movements may be made up of horizontal nodes that proliferate rhizomatically and are not subject to central command, but they are bound together by doctrine - the word of spiritual leaders, the idea of the noble destiny of a people bound by blood and soil - and this doctrine cannot be questioned because it would dissolve the ideological pact that links the molecular groups together.
There have been many debates about whether the internet is really a rhizomatic technology or not. For all the arguments that attempted to show how perfectly the internet mirrors Deleuze and Guattari’s criteria for rhizomatic structures like connection, heterogeneity, multiplicity, asignifying rupture, cartography and decalcomania (Robin Hamman), there have been counter-arguments pointing out that the net is heavily striated with hierarchical file servers and centralized tree-trunks (nameservers, protocols, firewalls, passwords) that enable rhizomatic connections in the first place. More conservative pundits have taken a middle ground, arguing that the internet is rhizomorphic rather than rhizomatic because it exhibits many rhizomatic tendencies but it does not exclude arborescent attributes (Chuen-Ferng Koh). The more moderate conclusions is that the technology itself is not rhizomatic, but that rhizomatic smoothness has to be created and that it depends on whether an open architecture is deliberately constructed by the users. Whether the internet is a promise of something new or a theater for rehearsing old plays is a matter of the collectivities that inhabit it and what ideas, desires or neuroses they bring to it.
Focusing on the pragmatics of the technology rather than its ontology follows Deleuze and Guattari, but only part of the way. Guattari, when he was involved in the free radio movement, emphasized that technologies could either extend the “machinic enslavement” of capitalism or be used for liberation, depending on the group formations they were tied to. But deleuzo-guattarian discourses about the internet rarely follow the argument all the way since Deleuze and Guattari also claimed that rhizomatic smoothness and nomadism are not inherently liberatory and do not have an irresistible revolutionary calling. Rhizomes can change meaning depending on the context – they can support different types of politics, promoting autonomy and a more democratic inclusion or becoming a means of division and discrimination. If there is a positive connotation that can be extracted from rhizomatic structures, it must come through another articulation and another set of definitions. It’s useful to recall that a rhizome is a plant-life. When googling it, more than half the results will point to sites that offer gardening tips. And that might not be the most useful information to have for theorizing social relations. The question about whether the net is or is not rhizomatic should be replaced by other questions about whether and in what ways the internet can promote the autonomy and self-determination of those who use it. It is not a question of rhizomes but democratic structures. This means asking in what sense one of today’s most abused words - democracy - can still retain a liberatory sense.
> Redefining Democracy
Democracy in the Greek city-states meant the direct participation of citizens in public assemblies to debate, deliberate and decide collectively about laws and affairs in their common interest. The link between citizens was direct; they were connected to the other members of the city-community because of real social bonds. When the modern revolutions in America and France abolished monarchical sovereignty and resurrected the citizen, it was a different type of creature. Modernity’s liberal notions of citizenship leaned toward the legalistic, constitutional framework of the Roman Republic rather than the Athenian model of deliberative democracy. The authors of the American Constitution distinguished republicanism, understood as a government of majority rule through elected representatives, from “pure democracy,” understood as “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” They considered a pure democracy to be both impractical in a large society and politically dangerous. And so democracy came to be defined primarily in legal and administrative terms, as the equal rights of citizens before the law and as the freedom of individuals to choose their representatives.
The modern concept of citizenship was born as a counter-desire to the aristocratic order of things, with its hierarchies of hereditary power and extravagant prestige. The citizen was a sign of equality and a symbolic leveling of social distinctions. But this was an abstract, empty and formal equality. Each citizen was equal insofar as each was subordinate to the same law and to the same nation-state. The equality of citizenship is a serial relationship, somewhat like a group of people standing in line before a door at the top of a staircase. The group is linked indirectly in virtue of their identical position before the legal-administrative apparatus that stands above them; they are not directly connected to each other in terms of concrete relations, similar subjective desires or common interests. Citizenship is a relationship of substitutions and proxies, always mediated and indefinitely deferred. For a citizen to be recognized as such, it is necessary for the sovereignty of the state to pass judgment; the citizen has to have proper papers and documents of legitimation – that’s why there was such an obsession at the onset of the French Revolution for citizens to make public declarations, to exhibit papers on houses declaring the legal inhabitants, and show proper documents (called “certificates of good citizenship”) to cross from one city to another.
It is necessary for any definition of democracy to go beyond the abstract idea of citizenship, the formal equality of legal rights, and definitions that reduce freedom of choice to political representation and administration. Democracy is neither a serial relationship of good citizenship nor can it be synonymous with the gregariousness of conversation, voluntary social and cultural associations, or proper codes of bourgeois civility, as civil society advocates try to persuade us. In the simplest possible terms democracy means to affirm the right of the more numerous and less privileged for self-determination - in the economy, politics, culture and all other aspects of life - and to criticize the economic privilege and political power of an elite minority. A real democratization of the economy means that the people who produce and consume goods should set the rules of production and the terms of the exchange. This is impossible in a global capitalist market, which is not a “free” market but a cartel of transnational monopolies that manipulate the laws of supply and demand and use advertising to create false desires. Free markets would be good - unfortunately they exist in very few places, as anachronistic exceptions to the dominant rule. When the producers of free software go to meetings to show their products and exchange them with each other, without money as a general equivalent or advertising and manipulation, offering practical information about which software corresponds to which needs, this is a free market. And this is very different from buying a Microsoft operating system that forces us to use their browser and their media player and prevents us from choosing any alternative. There are many economic alternatives that promote non-coercive modes of production and free exchange, from non-profit cooperatives, to solidarity based economies, factories occupied and managed by workers, fair trade initiatives, and local area trading systems.
Understanding democracy to be based on principles has some important consequences: (1) It means that the content and goal of any project of democratization is indeterminate and must be decided in each local context by interpreting which course of action would best actualize the shared principles. This goes beyond a definition of decentralization or horizontality, it rejects the idea of a preordained theory or of a “coherent critique” that becomes the measure of action. A group like SI, which demanded “participation on the part of everyone” and deliberately refused “to reproduce within itself any of the hierarchical conditions of the dominant world” became infamous for excluding more than half its members. Inside the SI there was no hierarchy, everyone was equal, there were no ascending or descending lines, experiments were collective, texts were produced together, often unsigned. As Vaneigem himself claimed about the SI, “The only limit to participating in its total democracy is that each member must have recognized and appropriated the coherence of its critique.” Since the SI possessed the correct theory, all the imperfections that were grounds for exclusion from the group were projected as the failure of particular individuals to measure up to the coherence of the theory. It is too easy to condemn previous revolutionary politics for being centralist, hierarchical and based on bureaucratic substitutionism and to affirm that we have moved beyond the errors of the past since the politics of the day is decentralized, horizontal and participatory. The most horizontal groups can advocate total equality and participation among its members and become the most rabid examples of absolutism – convinced of the correctness of their theory and incapable of admitting any contradictory ideas or criticism. If a movement constructs a theory, it can only be secondary, something pieced together as a consequence, a way of asking questions while walking rather than providing definitive answers and precise directions.
It is true that information technologies have allowed the alterglobalization movements to disseminate information to wider publics and to form alliances with each other and organize campaigns to an extent that was not possible before. Without the proliferation of Zapatista communiqués from point to point through the internet, their struggle might have been a footnote of history rather than the poetry inspiring a global imagination. But it is also true that the proliferation of neofascist groups and their “alternative” media has been strengthened by the internet, multiplying along different nodes to an extent that was not possible before. The organization of these movements are not effects of the sublimity of the technology but of the ideas, values and desires of the users. Any discussion about how the internet can be used to promote democratic transformation - of production, political decision-making and the entire social field - has to start from a definition of democratic principles, not from simplistic slogans about rhizomes or networks. It is these principles that ultimately distinguish modes of decentralization and horizontality that are based on autonomy and social solidarity rather than on economic interests and profit; types of molecular participation that are based on a desire for openness and transparency rather than opaqueness and secrecy; and movements that proliferate rhizomatically but in a way that is self-critical and open to questions and debates rather than anchored on answers, readymade theories or self-evident doctrines. These principles are not specific to the Indymedia network but are common to many projects based on collective self-determination, open and equal participation, the promotion of debate and dissent, and transparency - including not only well known examples like the free software movement and Wikipedia but also countless other initiatives that rely on the free production and circulation of knowledge, the possibility for all participants to publish and contribute, transparent modes of organization and decision-making, and archives that are in the public domain.