Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, September 24, 2006

MundiMuster! Make It Plain

Print this postcard. Mail it to your Senators.

I found this among the comments to a post at MyDD, but don't know where it originated. I like it, though.

Washington Constrictus

[Edited a tad, but not for content, via the Pithy One, Atrios]
[T]he imagined national consensus is of course precisely aligned with the consensus-of-"Serious-Thinkers-in-Washington", the basic center-right "pro-business/low taxes/socially liberal but don't really care enough to fight for anything" position. Basically it's the editorial position of The Economist and the Washington Post. It's a consensus among elites, but I've never seen any actual or even anecdotal evidence that this a majority position in the country, let alone the supermajority its proponents dream of. Most people, you know, like Social Security no matter how many times Bob Kerrey is sent out it try to gut it.

It's the position of basically wealthy people who want abortion to be legal, but know that even if it's illegal it won't matter much because they'll be able to get them anyway. They speak the language of social liberalism, but it's more social libertarianism -- yes, gay people should be allowed to marry but who really gives a damn. It's the position of people for whom the system has worked quite nicely and can't imagine that they'd ever be screwed by it (and given that their money gives them adequate access to our civil justice system they might be right). It's the position of people born on third base who wax poetic about meritocracy. It's the position of people who might worry about the poor at times, but think "the problem with poor people is..." instead of "The problem for poor people is that they're poor." It's the position of people who are invested in the basic status quo, and for whom that investment has paid off quite nicely.

This is exactly right, and it is crucial for progressive people who are not really truly among the beneficiaries of this rigged system to stop their delusive and self-defeating identification via this consensus-discourse with the system, just as it is crucial for the progressive people who actually are its beneficiaries to grasp the necessity and inevitability that they will take a palpable hit in any workable redress of the callous, insipid, wasteful, unfair, crazy-making injustices of that system.

Aristocracy is the diametric opposite of democracy, it is not some "tension" or "tendency" within democracy with which it wrestles.

Difference, diversity, plurality, yes. Sustainable elites? No.

"We the Media" of the blogosphere, and YouTube, and Democracy Now! are squaring off with the self-congratulatory "punditocracy" who crave a skewed "balance" over truth-telling, who voice a fantasy "consensus" over reportage. "People Powered Politics" are squaring off against the corporate-militarist Machine politics of Rove and the DLC, bloody sausage factories peddling and even telling themselves weird somehow-consoling neoconservative and neoliberal fantasies about "free trade" and "freedom on the march" all the while just shoveling blood-money to their cronies in the midst of carnage, catastrophe, tragedy, and unrest.

Who but a wannabe aristrocrat would sniff in distaste at the too-exercised tone of those who point to the war-profiteering and war crimes of the Bush Administration? Honestly! Who but wannabe aristocrats would fail to muster the necessary nerve to condemn torture, for heaven's sake, for fear that the inscrutible distant masses might think them timid and disastrously "unmanly," whatever the hell that's supposed to mean?

Never lose sight of the reality and stakes and players in this conflict. Aristocracy against democracy. Say it again and again until you grasp it for true and grave it on your heart to compass by. There is no more abiding and clarifying distinction to be had when what is wanted is to sort out allies from foes, progressive ends from authoritarian ends, workable compromises from traps. "Follow the money," and "look where the guns (or cameras) are pointed" are principles that will yield similar results uncannily often.

Sure, there are ugly uncomfortable compromises to be made as first we democratic progressives must wrest control of our dull debased democracy from the mad theocrats and fascists of the current Republican party configuration, then boot the corporatists and Machine Politicos from the current Democratic party configuration, then re-work some of the institutional vulnerabilities in our system (the Electoral College, the Winner-Take-All outcomes, the various inticements to disenfranchisement and fraud). And all this must take place all the while we struggle to solve real problems through governance (since some problems can only be addressed by government, even when that government is as debauched and disaster-prone as our own), to shift from petrochemical to renewable energy and industry, to implement universal health care, to institute truly progressive taxation and property taxes, to publicly finance elections, and to consolidate and expand fledgling international institutions.

The wannabee aristocrats in the corporate press and in the surreal Millionaire's Club of "our" elective representatives (most of us are not, nor will we ever be, millionaires, you know) cannot be counted upon to do what needs to be done in this historical moment. Indeed, these aristocrats will actively resist much of the difficult democratizing work on the road ahead as directly opposed to their own sense of their best interests.

Never forget this. Never forget why this is. Never forget who you are. Never forget what you are fighting for.

Democracy is to be cherished, and democracy is struggle. Aristocracy is still the enemy, and no good will ever come of it for the likes of you and me.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Monday, September 18, 2006

Thinking Out Loud About Democratic World Federalism

The popular culture and official rhetoric of democracy in contemporary North Atlantic industrial societies is too rarely matched by democratic realities on the ground. Nevertheless, that culture and rhetoric of popular democracy is a marvelously fertile ground, endlessly prone to provoke the efforts of education, agitation, and organization for actual deepening democratization in these societies. On the other hand, the now-customary but eerily delusive expectations of continued prosperity among the inhabitants of these societies -- arising in fact from an unsustainable bubble of cheap oil, from the destabilizing gunboat diplomacy of literally mad, profligate "defense" expenditures and an imperial archipelago of global military bases, and from the ongoing technodevelopmental exploitation of especially the postcolonial nations of the "Third World" -- all likewise poise us at the knife-edge of catastrophic social discontent the moment their pampered beneficiaries are forced by inevitably changing circumstances to pay the real price (nonsubsidized costs, nonduressed costs, environmental costs, etc.) of these unearned or ill-gotten goods and privileges.

Global information and communication networks foreground the inequities of the North Atlantic postcolonial inter-national system of global governance to everyone within their reach, while disseminating the expectations of the beneficiaries of that system across the globe, exacerbating the vulnerability of that system beyond its capacity to accommodate. Where this system has not already failed, it is presently failing.

Now, violence is inevitable (as has always been the case whenever and wherever human plurality emerges), but since the tools of violence at the disposal of discontent are now capable of unprecedented destructive power it is crucial that we constrain its expression within the legitimacy of democratic governance, general welfare, and the provision of a legible space for the noncoercive adjudication of social disputes.

I have come to believe that some form of democratic world federalism is now indispensable to global social intercourse, as democratic government is indispensable at whatever scale social intercourse has taken up, hitherto. Conventional Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) cannot provide governmental legitimacy precisely because they are not democratically representative bodies, and neither can conventional states because the terrain on which the key problems are playing out (climate change, human rights violations, unfair trade, uneven development, weapons proliferation) is planetary and because too many of the crucial actors on the contemporary terrain are not national but networked.

It is crucial that global governance fund its activities through progressive taxation and then that it legitimize its taxation through legible representation and the substantiation of informed, nonduressed consent and human rights culture. If this development does not occur, then corporate-militarism will continue to define the global political terrain instead and it is difficult to imagine that humanity will survive this state of affairs for long.

Corporate-militarism, that is to say, neoliberal-neoconservative globalization (or "Free Trade") lacks the institutional intelligence to respond adequately to information that is not susceptible to proximate profitability (hence a tendency to short-term over long-term thinking, and hence a disastrous tendency underestimate wider social costs and risks), nor to respond to the needs of technodevelopmental stakeholders who are not familiar or node-proximate (hence a tendency disastrously to exacerbate social discontent). In the emerging political terrain these inadequacies fatally encourage environmental collapse, incubate and facilitate genocidal violences, and produce the conditions in which WMD are ever more likely to be deployed.

What passes for global “Free Trade,” then, is not just facile and flawed ideology, but has come to represent an Existential Risk to human survival.

Through our technology we have seen the earth from orbit and we can never again mistake a neighborhood or even a nation for the World. We know the problems of unsustainable consumption and extractive industry are problems we are all of us equally heir to, as we know that militarism is also always farcically parochial. Through our technology we have seen the faces and heard the voices of people across the earth and we can never again reasonably deny that they are our peers and collaborators in the making of the World, whatever nation or culture they hail from. We know they deserve a say in the public decisions that affect them, we know that we stand to benefit from the testimony of their experience and desire, we know that unless they have the standing of bearers of rights that our own standing is imperiled by its denial to them.

We know the World is not flat.

Only by tearing our technology from our hands, only by crushing the knowledge out of our bodies and brains could we "go back," whatever that would mean.

There is no choice but to embrace the planet that has become the World we live in.

There is violence coming, borne up on a deep and bloody tide of historical and ongoing violation and indifference that will demand its payment all too soon.

Constrain that violence in legitimate democratic governance, ameliorate it through the global administration of general welfare, compensate it with the magnificent bribe of secularization, a basic income guarantee, universal basic healthcare, lifetime education, therapy, and retraining, renewable energy, free software and subsidized peer-to-peer content and oversight provision, and maybe, maybe we'll make it through to the blessings of technoscientific emancipation technoprogressives more uniquely hope for, environmental remediation, superorganic foodstuffs, a longevity dividend, relative abundance from the nanoscale, and a nice space elevator and solar diaspora to give the restless a new frontier to pine for.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Why I Want to Democratize the State Rather than Smash It

I. Violence Is Ineradicable in Plurality

(a) There will always be an uneven historical development and unequal material distribution of resources, capacities, information, and luck.

(b) The relative beneficiaries of these unequal distributions will have strong reason to maintain and consolidate their hold on these benefits.

(c) It is always possible and usually easy for human actors to retrospectively rationalize misconduct that serves what they take to be their interests.

From all the above, there will be an irresistible tendency in any given social order to make recourse to violence and deception to maintain and consolidate its contingent terms, especially on the part of its imagined beneficiaries.

State apparatuses arise out of the violence inhering in plurality, sometimes expressing and facilitating it, sometimes resisting and ameliorating it.

II. The Necessity (and Impossibility) of Legitimate Violence

In his immensely influential essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber proposed a definition of the state that has assumed foundational force in especially North Atlantic political thought. For Weber, the state is the constellation of institutions and organizations definitively empowered by a monopoly on the legitimate recourse to coercion to maintain a given social order within a particular territory under specified conditions.

Needless to say, in almost every historical instance hitherto states have deployed their putatively “legitimate” coercion in the service of established interests and privileged elites.

In proper democracies, to the contrary,

(a) states deploy coercion legitimately always only to frustrate its illegitimate deployment in the commission of violent crimes, the infliction of duress, the commission of fraud, or in the violent adjudication of disputes

(aa) or maintain the adequate appearance of doing so;

(b) states deploy coercion in ways that comport always with the consent of majorities of the governed

(ba) or maintain the adequate appearance of doing so; and

(c) states maintain social order in ways which conspicuously facilitate the achievement of general health, welfare, and security through the administration of public interests, the regulation of commerce, and the fairest distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific development to all its stakeholders

(ca) or maintain the adequate appearance of doing so.

III. End-Point or Starting Point?

Anyone of an anti-authoritarian bent will note the conspicuous vulnerability to devastating abuse inherent in this institutional legitimization of coercion.

(a) This recognition is pretty much the starting point for mature democratic political thinking.

(b) Typically, this recognition is the end-point for conservative and facile libertarian political thinking, or, more to the point,

(ba) the insistent re-assertion of this recognition provides the characteristic and in fact indispensable gesture for the ongoing project of anti-democratic rationalization that passes for conservative and libertarian political thinking.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.

Pete Seeger, Technoprogressive Troubadour

I listened this morning to Amy Goodman's lovely conversation with the deeply inspiring singer, songwriter, activist Pete Seeger on Democracy Now (here is a link to the segment and a transcript of it).

The stories Seeger tells are spellbinding, full of the stuff of a life lived in playful improvisatory protest against stupid waste and stubborn injustice, and full of the kind of courage and commonsense that defies the obscenity of the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) on the First Amendment ground of freedom of association; that amends the closing cadence of Dorothy's "Over the Rainbow" with "why can't you and I?" thus transforming a wistful individualist pining for escape into a hymn for progressive utopian solidarity; that protests Vietnam on Prime Time television with the song of a soldier mired in the deep muddy (a gesture still all too painfully apt); that changes the "will" to the more resonant "shall overcome" in a song sung one day to Dr. King...

And it was quite striking after an hour of wonderful stories like these when in closing Seeger turned to the discussion of technology and announced that in the midst of the world's palpable distress he was more hopeful than ever. Here's the passage I have in mind:
PETE SEEGER: On the other hand, these are exciting times. There's never been such as exciting times. And win, lose or draw, it's going to be very, very exciting. And I applaud what you are doing. I think what Democracy Now! is doing is just fantastic. This couldn't have been done half a century ago, could not have been done.


PETE SEEGER: Well, they didn't have the technology for it, I guess. So as I say, technology will save us if it doesn't wipe us out first.

Now, it is very clear from the conversation that precedes it that Seeger doesn't mean by "technology" the slow accumulation of a technoscientific toypile like the one the corporate futurists promise us in ads for bland boxy indistinguishable cars and age-defying skin-creams slathered on seventeen year old cheekbones, the promise that the statisticians and bomb-builders will satisfy our wayward wants and some of our needs if only we patiently and passively accept our duties and their dole. No, he means by "technology" a creative collective appropriation of countless minute, modest, and sometimes monstrous knowledges and tools directed by education, agitation, and organization to democratic, sustainable, consensual, fair, expressive ends.

Seeger might seem a tricky technoprogressive icon, if it weren't for the appeal of tricksters for sensible technoprogressives. In his conversation with Goodman, he complicates somewhat the story I had heard that he protested Dylan's electrification of folk -- pointing out that others were doing the same already and that he was enthusiastic about the development, but that in Dylan's case, it seemed to him at any rate, the shift was made at the expense of lyrical intelligibility (which obviously would matter enormously to Seeger). Seeger famously likes to quote his father, saying, "Plagiarism is the basis of all culture," and together with his enthusiasm for the FLOSS (free-libre-open source) ethos of Democracy Now!, all this is a bracing embrace of the technoprogressive politics of copyfight, access to knowledge (a2k), and peer-to-peer (p2p) democratization. Nevertheless, he seems quite pleased to pay his taxes each year with proceeds from "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," despite the fact that he notes he is at best a collaborator in the creation of a piece with deep roots in the creative commons and its fullest flowering in versions other than his own.

It is intriguing that he catalogues the damage of long-lived body before turning to the subject of the hopefulness he finds in this technoscientific age. A long-time crusader against catastrophic technologies like nuclear power, Seeger is no facile dupe for technophiliac hype. But he seems to share my own sense that digital democracy and medical self-determination hold out real hopes (as well, of course, as literally unprecedented dangers and obscenities) for human emancipation in our own era. Although I am skeptical of the rosy scenarios spun by many advocates of rejuvination medicine as they scout about for public grants and private investors, and although I am suspicious of the authoritarian cultural work that gets stealthed under cover of the denial of death, it is also true that I find it deeply moving to contemplate from the perspective of my own secular and social democratic conviction the possibly proximate prospect of an incomparably healthier and longer-lived humanity no longer bedeviled in its hopefulness and generosity by the intimate insidious closeness of pain, infirmity, and death. What will it mean to the song of a planetary human freedom to sing, with hopefulness rather than rue,
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Promoted from the Comments

A reader has asked in comments two very good questions that I didn't want to get altogether lost: First, why do I use the charged and somewhat slippery term "technology" to do work that looks pretty much like straightforward "ethics"; and, second, why I am so hard on "bioconservatives," even when they sometimes have rather reasonable points to make. Here are truncated versions of my responses:

I have chosen to focus on what happens to get called "technology" in particular just because I believe that in this historical moment of ours "technology" is quite simply the preeminent arena in which our generation will struggle to do most of the real work of freedom and fairness that falls to us, such as it is.

As far as I see it, I don't have much choice about that sort of thing at all, and this is simply a matter of calling things as I see them.

I believe that there are stunning social and cultural energies afoot that would naturalize and stealth perniciously anti-democratic assumptions and efforts under the sign of "technology" and "development." And at the same time I believe that the crucial charge of democrats and freedom fighters in this moment is to demand that technodevelopment be as emancipatory a force as may be: consensual, sustainable, democratizing, expressive, and fair.

As far as the "bioconservatives" go, understand this: It is not their reasonable fear that we will be rash that concerns me. It is not their reasonable admonition that in the frenzy for the new there is much that is worthy that is lost to our cost that concerns me.

It is the stealthy apologia for unearned privilege, the complacent acceptance of intolerable cruelty, the self-congratulatory identification with authority at the heart of any invocation of the "natural" over the (multi)cultural that earns my enmity. And let me be clear about this: I think there is a deep and probably ineradicable complementarity between conservative and naturalist politics and, hence, I see anti-democratic, cruel, authoritarian values as essential rather than accidental features of any naturalist ideology.

Progressive, scientific, secular, democratic, consensual, properly planetary perspectives can easily accommodate the reasonable intuitions in which bioconservatives cloak themselves to peddle their poisonsous perspectives, but without taking up ourselves the package of anti-democratic "naturalist" nostalgia hidden at the heart of their pious politics.

Today's Random Wilde

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

Catching My Breath

It's been an intense few weeks. I finished off my Critical Theory summer intensive at SFAI (which was really rewarding, as it happens), with just a couple of weeks to prepare for Fall teaching.

Eric and I decided pretty much off the top of our heads to drop off the face of the earth for a little while to recuperate and shore up a bit, and we spent some time -- including, conveniently enough as a pretext, my birthday -- poolside among whale-scaled Midwestern businessmen types and a motley raucous wedding party. It was all room service and no internet connectivity all the time, and immensely helpful for sanity consolidation purposes.

Once we returned home, the frenetic pace resumed in a flash, and the first week of term is already behind me now. I can scarcely believe it.

I'm teaching four courses this time around, which seems a bit like madness now that it's underway, but the courses are all perfectly aligned with my theoretical preoccupations at the moment and the students seem bright and funny and ready to do their part.

I can't promise that this will be a high-frequency posting period for Amor Mundi, but I'm sure to doing quite a bit of online work through the four course blogs (links posted to the left), since I'm assigning students to publish blog-posts rather than papers this term and many of the course texts are available only online. In one of my courses literally every text is online, and the syllabus is emerging as an ongoing collaboration between my initial conditions and student decisions and discussions. It's shaping up to be an interesting experiment. I'll report back with results as they arise.