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

Sunday, April 17, 2005

PXIV. Revenge of the Crystal; Or, Who Are These People?

Well-meaning and reasonable persons wandering for the first time into electronic discursive spaces where technophiles vent their preoccupations and frustrations with, and especially their hopes for, technological development need to be prepared for unexpected and repeated encounters with belligerent young American males (mostly) who will berate them from a perspective they describe as "libertarianism.”

There has been a welcome diminishment of this sort of thing since the height of the “irrational exuberance” of the so-called “ era” of American technology enthusiasm in the 1990s, when stubbornly insistent delusions of an indefinitely prolonged “Long Boom” filled the pages of WIRED magazine and California “Extropians” declared war on both death and taxes -– the one via superlative digital and biomedical technologies, the other via the “spontaneous order” of market triumphalism.

But the dream remains alive more stubbornly and with altogether more self-assurance than one might otherwise expect, from eager online salons of “dynamists” who espouse via neologism the familiar combination of free-market politics and unregulated technological development championed by Virginia Postrel (the editor from 1989 to 2000 of the American market libertarian Reason magazine) in her book The Future and Its Enemies, to the popular online technology magazine Tech Central Station which publishes under the banner, “Where Free Markets Meet Technology.”

The “anarcho-capitalist” market libertarianism most of these enthusiasts will mean to denote by this term tends to have three primary characteristics: First, market libertarians take an appealing commonsense Millian (or, I suppose, even more broadly, “Golden-Rulian”) commitment to a general Non-Initiation of Force as if it represented a kind of axiom, and then treat that axiom as the foundation from which one might then exhaustively characterize a just, stable, and prosperous social order. Second, market libertarians will thereupon tend to reduce all conceivable political and public relations to contractual relations (as against acts of force or fraud which they will identify as criminal and anti-political, or acts of love, familial obligation, or generosity which they will tend to privatize and domesticate as intimate or charitable and “hence” pre-political, or simply not-political). Third, market libertarians will tend to identify the outcome of whatever they apprehend as a proper market exchange as always both the most optimally efficient and optimally fair or at least defensible outcome on offer.

Of course, what actually counts in the world as a “market” outcome is in fact profoundly contingent historically and territorially, and depends for its intelligibility and force on a context of agreements, protocols, implicit and explicit norms, and so on. But technophiliac market libertarians very widely seem to conceive of market orders as spontaneous and universal upwellings out of what is deeply and immutably calculating and acquisitive in human nature as they conceive of it, or as if emerging from the sloppily sloshing tidal forces of supply and demand treated as deeply and immutably analogous to physical principles like the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Because market libertarians will often identify the market conditions, customs, and protocols that prevail in their own parochial temporal and territorial necks of the woods as if they delineated natural or eternal principles, I will sometimes describe these techno-enthusiastic libertarians as “market naturalists.” It is among the many ironies of the apparently irresistible allure of market naturalism among so many technophiles, that many of these enthusiasts otherwise cultivate a profound suspicion of deployments of the idea of “nature” to justify customs, institutions, or norms –- especially whenever the deployment of such customary putatively “natural” intuitions would inhibit an embrace of or access to emerging technologies.

Now, against the purported spontaneity and inevitability of “market” relations, so-called, market libertarians typically array what they take to be the countervailing and always-only coercive machineries of national states. All governance, and all the conduct of government representatives, is reduced to its “essence” as an expression of Weberian state coercion and so the market libertarians tend to descry in governing nothing but monotonously reiterated acts of violence and repression. From there, they then declare, practically as a matter of fiat, that “market outcomes” (and typically market behavior will be treated as synechdochic with corporate conduct) are always-only non-coercive.

Once this classificatory schema is mobilized, I fear, things are apt to become curious indeed. Never mind that many real-world corporations and their functionaries have, of course, used physical threats and engaged in routine exploitation and have delivered all manner of harms in the effort to improve their bottom lines. And never mind that legitimate governments, of course, whatever their flaws, have just as routinely engaged in social administration that is the farthest imaginable thing from physical threat. For market libertarians there are powerful rhetorical energies afoot that will discern in every nice social worker and dedicated public servant a jack-booted thug, and will transform every corporate titan, even if he is little better than a mafia don, into an Ayn Randian Archetype of boundless dynamism and creative energy.

While the coterie of technology enthusiasts who espouse market fundamentalism in an undiluted form remains in fact a vanishingly small one (though unbelievably noisy for its scale), it is key to recognize the extent to which the more “mainstream” neo-liberal and neo-conservative practical and institutional universe, with its incessant drumbeat for deregulation without end, its hunger for “market discipline” for the poor together with military-industrial welfare entitlements for the rich remains importantly (and unfortunately) continuous in its assumptions, in its sense of the problems at hand, and in many of its aims with an extreme market libertarian world-view this mainstream would presumably and properly explicitly disdain in practice.

Of course, quite a few people will affirm the appeal of a non-aggression pact in some form or other, but I think few would go on to affirm its adequacy as a self-evident axiom on the basis of which one might erect an adequate social order. “Non-initiation of force” is a purely negative conception that will rely for its intelligibility and force on all sorts of implicit (some of them likely disavowed) positive conceptions of what constitutes initiation in the first place, what counts as force, what is and isn't violation, and a whole host of assumptions about what all of this is good for. Hence, for many people, defenses of individual autonomy and deep suspicions of authoritarian concentrations of power will be complemented by equally foundational defenses of a need for fairness, say.

Most people are likewise sensitive to the ways in which many so-called “market-exchange” outcomes in particular will often seem profoundly improper in fact, that they can occur under conditions of duress that the beneficiaries of an exchange can readily rationalize away while the losers have relatively little room to protest the outcome. And in any case, few would claim it is even possible to characterize actual contract-making and contract-adhering behavior exclusively in contractual terms, let alone adequately capture all of the complex, unpredictable, often unconscious political relations in which they are enmeshed through the figure of explicit contractual agreement.

If it really is true that the debate between markets and central planning was concluded in the twentieth century, it seems to me that something uninspiring like “regulated markets” were the verdict of that debate. And since there has never been, nor could there ever be a “pure” market against which one properly arrays an antithetical force of regulation, it seems the time has come to describe the principle of market regulation itself as the norm rather than always as a compromise of a market ideal that does not exist and hence cannot function as a norm.

The modern “liberal” state, whatever its deficiencies and whatever occasional pretensions to the contrary are voiced by those it most empowers, is simply not a straightforward sovereign state in that its powers are not exercised unilaterally. Regulation is always already multilateral in the modern state, contested through a rough-and-tumble separation of powers at the state level and further diffused through the competing demands of diverse civic, cultural, media, business, and consumer interests. To a significant extent broadly liberal, imperfectly democratic hegemony seems to recuperate and so tolerate resistances. Given these complexities, the market libertarians seem to me to be enraptured by models of power, authority, consent, autonomy, and exchange that were already hopelessly simplistic by the nineteenth century, let alone the twenty-first. No doubt this accounts for an important measure of their allure.

Go to Next Section of Pancryptics
Go to Pancryptics Table of Contents

No comments: