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

Saturday, March 15, 2008

We Already Cut Off the Head of the King

My friend n8o's blog has been on fire lately. Lots of really engaging and provocative ideas there, everybody should remember to check it out regularly.

The particular post I find myself wanting to comment on at the moment is the most recent one, in which he talks about the icon that attaches to any discussion of "government" on the enormously popular and influential techie blog Slashdot, and the curiously prejudicial rhetoric that freights the continual reappearance of that icon whenever "government" is under discussion there.

The icon is a big heavy stereotypically kingly Crown.

Nato concludes his intervention with the straightforward point that "it's an anachronism. Monarchies dominated in centuries past -- but we don't live there anymore." But it is quite clear he has a more forceful point to make.
My suspicion is that some form of classic tech geek libertarianism is at work here. Libertarians are always trying to demonize government by separating it from the people whom government is of, by, and for these days, in any even loosely representative form. Libertarians tell us that government is the problem, trying to avoid the rather sensitive issue that WE are the government, or at least, are trying to be.

Putting a crown on it does the trick of disconnecting it from accountability, de-personalizing it into something out of our control. It discourages participation. This is the effect libertarians of most stripes want it to have, insisting that democracy should be nothing more than a fad on the way to some individualistic libertopia that looks suspiciously less egalitarian, and thus more like the authoritarian feudalism we left for democracy to begin with. You won't find many libertarians admitting this, however; those who do tend not to be libertarians of any large degree of faith.

In his Will to Knowledge (better known as The History of Sexuality: An Introduction), Michel Foucault raises similar doubts about the conventional ways in which we tend to describe political power. "Do the workings of power, and in particular those mechanisms that are brought into play in societies such as ours, really belong primarily to the category of repression? Are prohibition, censorship, and denial truly the forms through which power is exercised in a general way, if not in every society, most certainly in our own?"

As we find among the libertechians who throng Slashdot, Foucault worries more generally that "the representation of power has remained under the spell of monarchy. In political thought and analysis, we have not cut off the head of the king." Our understanding of power, and consequently politics more generally, is overpopulated with figures of violence and sovereignty (sometimes, he writes, "personified in a collective being and no longer a sovereign individual"), but the problem, as for Nato, is that "[t]o conceive of power [this way] is to conceive of it in terms of an historical form… [which] has gradually been penetrated by quite new mechanisms of power that are probably irreducible to the representation of [sovereign] law."

Things become quite interesting at this point, as it happens, but take us too far away from the topic at hand, I'm afraid. Suffice it to say, that Foucault insists that power is not (or at any rate, no longer) essentially a matter of repression but of an elicitation and articulation of collective forces, it is dispersed and disseminated rather than always only monolithic and willfully imposed, it arises out of the ongoing and opportunistic calculations of individuals thinking and acting in collaborative and competitive ways, its every exercise resonating in tension with the anticipation and compensatory exercise of resistances to it. The point is not to deny the fact of violent, repressive, or exploitative exercises of power, but to disagree that those instances define the field of power as such, and instead to subsume those instances in an account of power as primarily productive. To put it in terms I remember from my first exposures to feminist theory, Foucault distinguishes power over from power to, and, more radically, seeks to comprehend even exercises of power over others within a general frame of power to accomplish collaborative ends, forever freighted with the possibility of failure, resistence, reversal of fortune.

The story Foucault tells is much more elaborate and provocative than I can capture in a few words here, and it should be one especially interesting to the transhumanists who read Amor Mundi, as it happens, because his account of power is bound up in what Foucault calls "biopower" and "biopolitics" (terms he delineated in enormously sophisticated and illuminating accounts decades before more facile formulations under these terms by certain "liberal eugenicist" bioethicists were trumpeted as novel interventions in recent years) what he describes in especially his books Discipline and Punish and The Will to Knowledge as the taking up of living bodies into the dynamic of public life, the play of mechanisms for fostering of "optimality" and "normality" in the social administration of human populations.

Anyway, I could go on about this stuff forever (and as my students will attest, I sometimes do), but it is very interesting to find these figures and formulations playing out in the concrete details of day to day political life, as Nato has documented in his Slashdot intervention. By way of conclusion, I'll mention that the great legal theorist James Boyle has an older essay available online called Foucault in Cyberspace which highlights some of these connections in a different context and shows how they played out in certain selective blindnesses and missed opportunities among the default libertarian politics of 1990s online enthusiasts and activists coping with issues of censorship in what I have come to call the First Wave of internet radicalism. (I distinguish the radically PRIVATE orientation of the anti-censorship - Cypherpunk - virtualizing, privatizing free market libertopianism in the First Wave from the radically PUBLIC orientation in the ongoing Second Wave of peer-to-peer democratization - Netroots education, agitation, and organizing.) Be that as it may, it's a rare thing for an essay about internet politics to remain relevant so long after its publication, and Boyle's piece deserves a reading for that reason alone, quite apart from the fact that, in the present context, he is making points that support Nato's own, and in a way that calls upon the theoretical resources of Foucault as I have done here a bit.


giulio said...

Re: "I distinguish the radically PRIVATE orientation of the anti-censorship - Cypherpunk - virtualizing, privatizing free market libertopianism in the First Wave from the radically PUBLIC orientation in the ongoing Second Wave of peer-to-peer democratization - Netroots education, agitation, and organizing"

I wonder whether is there any workable way to keep the best of both waves. I am not so critical of the first wave, or of libertarianism in general, because I have always interpreted it as stating that masturbating with the right or with the left hand is and must remain a personal choice of the individual concerned and is not anybody else's business. Or in other words that my personal choices are not your business, and become your business only if and when they begin to limit your choices.

By the way, most Europeans mean _only_ this by libertarianism, without associating it with guns, greed, sociopathic behaviour, and the economic interpretation of libertarianism used in the US. The term "Libertarian Left" seems to make little sense to most Americans, but makes perfect sense with our usage of the words.

I much prefer and support what you define Second Wave, also because I believe it still affirms the basic personal right of choosing the right or left hand, and is a Libertarian Left wave.

Dale Carrico said...

In the story I tell of the short -- but amazingly action-packed -- history of internet radicalism, the point isn't so much to describe a bad chapter followed by a good chapter, but just to organize two historical episodes and document the continuities and differences between them in a way that helps make sense of what is afoot. Clearly, there is a lot to dislike in the facile privatization fantasies of much of the First Wave, but much to approve of in its civil libertarianism. There are both strengths and weaknesses in the Second Wave, too. This formulation, by the way, is the frame organizing the book I am working on -- in between teaching what amounts to half a dozen lectures every week with nary a break -- adapting my dissertation Pancryptics into something more accessible and politically relevant (I hope!). More details to come as they slowly emerge.

Nato Welch said...

Thanks for pointing out the connection, and adding to my inexorably growing "to read" pile (I think. ;).

Anonymous said...

In relation to 'We have not yet cut off the head of the king,' and your stuff on morphological freedom, I thought of you when I saw this:
Sullivan, Nikki (2005) "Integrity, Mayhem and the Question of Self-demand Amputation", Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 19:3.