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

Monday, April 07, 2008

p2p Democratization

Friend of Blog Martin comments in the Moot:
[E]ve[n] if it is merely an ideal, the actual "capitalist" system that you critique on this blog certainly comes closer to that ideal than the socioeconomic system that you usually defend.

In other words, America leans toward laissez-faire capitalism / libertopianism more than you think his healthy.

Apart from not understanding how a system that one agrees with me doesn't exist actually does exist anyway as "an ideal," I still don't agree with what I think I hear Martin saying here, exactly.

Despite this, I suspect that Martin and I would pick out mostly similar social formations as attractive and unattractive ones on the ground, and so what he has said and what follows is best viewed as a shared effort to find the right words to describe and understand what we find similarly more and less appealing than a disagreement that equity in diversity is appealing in the first place. I mention this up front, because I'm going to disagree with Martin a lot in the specifics here, but it matters that this doesn't necessarily indicate disagreement where things count most on this topic.

Now, in my longer reply to Martin's last comment in the Moot I did actually talk about practices I affirm, Netroots blogging, organizing, donor-aggregation, and so on. Since all that is taking place non-criminally under the auspices of the actually-existing society I wonder does that mean I was defending "actual capitalism" on his terms in doing so?

To be honest, I really don't agree that the American system "comes close" to realizing market libertarian ideology. I think America is a warfare-as-welfare-for-incumbents welfare state organized to preferentially benefit incumbent interests, just open enough to release creative energies to be captured by incumbents but not enough (except occasionally and accidentally) to threaten incumbency itself.

I think "libertarian rhetoric" is a set of figures, frames, and formulations to peddle this unjust state of affairs both to the rationalizing minorities who unjustly benefit by it and to the distracted majorities who are exploited under it, but I do think it is, in essence, a lie. It is the unjust reality and the lie that sells it that I deem unhealthy, not American "proximity" in reality to the market fundamentalist ideal. I think there is no such proximity in evidence.
Martin continues: If money is exchanged more or less evenly between people, that represents a p2p, grassroots topology.

Surely that depends on just what is happening behind the scenes of that "more or less"? How much more evenly, how much less? Why is the state of affairs under which "exchange" takes place in contemporary corporate-militarist crony-capitalist America enough "more" like "even" that one would want to call it a "grassroots topology," rather than enough "less" like "even" that one would want to decry its inhibition of the emergence of such a "grassroots topology"?
If a disproportionate amount of money is taken by one seed or node (the government in this case) and redistributed, that represents a centralized, broadcast topology.

Of course I see why this initially seems attractive as a formulation, but I think the clarity it provides is falsifying. As I said in my last post I think the intuitive force of this framing derives from its incessant reiteration throughout the long neoliberal epoch which has found its consummation (and one hopes, the beginnings of its eclipse) in our current catastrophic moment of planetary distress.

It matters enormously to insist that what governments do isn't a matter of providing "services" like firms do, or at any rate, to realize that when one assumes the vantage from which it appears that this is what they are doing one inevitably loses sight of key ways in which governance differs from other organizations (to recur to the pluralist schema I've been deploying in arguments elsewhere on the blog lately, distinguishing science -- or the efficacious mode in my terms -- from aesthetics with the faithful, or distinguishing morals from ethics with the subcultural, here we have a formulation of mine that relies on a distinction of the efficacious from the political).

One has already found oneself disastrously lodged entirely within the prepolitical "marketeer mindset" if one thinks of governance this way, and this remains true even if one goes on to decide for "pragmatic reasons" that governments are still the best suited organizations to provide some such "services" and then defend them as such.

Legitimacy simply is not a service in this sense. Providing nonviolent alternatives for the resolution of disputes in the scene of nonduressed consent is not a service, it is the establishment of justice, it is the opening of the space of freedom as such.

Treating government as one "seed" or "node" among other organizational forms -- distinguishable from them always in the same ways as they are distinguishable among themselves, through observations of their relative size or influence or what have you -- may be right if one is just reductively charting organizational dynamics (and there are times when this is a valid and useful thing to do, don't get me wrong), but there will be many contexts in which that is a profoundly distortive lens through which to understand what is afoot here.

Once again, I find that this is a discussion that takes us deep into the heart of political theory. Democratized government is not strictly speaking "centralized" even though it still assumes the legitimate monopolistic recourse to force that marketeers identify with repressive "centralization."

The essence of p2p systems is their facilitation of equity in diversity -- which is also precisely the work and effect of democratization.

Most p2p projects are inaugurated by small groups or even single individuals and thereafter the bulk of their work is done by very few -- even if it is true that they "out-compete" non-p2p formations because in their openness they also cheaply solicit the participation of endlessly many other one-time and small-time contributors as well. This could quite superficially be treated as "centralized" in its effects however truly open it remains, if one squints as one looks at it.

Actually-existing democracy functions rather similarly in its solicitation to participation in the actual processes of representation and administration. It is open to the participation of all, but usually attracts only the participation of the interested where they are interested and to the extent that they are interested. What undergirds this participatory expressivity, administration, and oversight, of course, is the democratizing virtuous circle of taking up violence always only to repudiate it, organizing the ineradical capacity for force inhering in plurality always only in the service of the provision of alternatives to the violent resolution of disputes and for the maintenance of the scene of informed, nonduressed consent (the violation of which is always legible as violence: keeping the peace and protecting the scene of consent are essential correlates).

Law is code, code is law. What the architecture that facilitates p2p is to those who experience the emancipatory substance of the p2p ethos, the law that facilitates the scene of informed nonduressed consent is to those who experience the emancipatory substance of the democratic ethos.

The test and the sign of p2p is precisely the same as that of democracy -- whether it actually facilitates equity in diversity.

Martin continues:
Now, obviously, with "run away" capitalism, when money coalesces into the hands of the few and monopolies form, it also becomes a broadcast form of exchange (the difference, of course, for those who support this scenario, is that the market created this outcome. The government is force, but property and the market are not force because those are their Sacred Cows.)

The goal, as I've always said, is to avoid both extremes, both worst-case scenarios. Some combination of free exchange and regulations produces a global maximum of grassroots activity, average quality of life, justice, and all those social indicators that we strive to achieve.

I certainly have no quarrel with the practices of a consensual and nonduressed exchange of goods and services facilitated by money, any more than the practices of the free exchange of testimony and ideas facilitated by words and numbers.

Maybe the real dispute here is just that I assess what Martin would describe as the darker side of money coalescing into the hands of incumbents to recreate a more Broadcast model scenario as pretty straightforwardly the state of affairs with which we are presently living, while he might still think of our circumstances as better described as grassroots exchange? I have to wonder a little just how bad inequality has to get, just how corrupt and unaccountable incumbency has to get before things look less "grassroots" if this is the case!

But there is possibly a more interesting source of disagreement happening here, if I am understanding the stakes in this exchange properly.

You see, I simply don't agree that democracy is a compromise between free markets and totalitarian dictatorship, I don't agree that it represents a moderate middle ground between extremes.

Democracy is for me its own thing, understandable on its own terms, substantiated and struggled for as its own end.

But the dispute at hand may be even more stark than that. Since I think that there is no such thing as a "pure" market order in the sense mobilized by neoliberal and neoconservative market fundamentalist rhetoric and ideology, I actually don't think that constitutes in any intelligible sense an "extreme" that receives partial instantiation in a so-called "mixed economy" in the existing order. I think it is nothing more nor less than a delusive falsification of what is happening in the world -- just as the anti-political fantasy of total omnipotent repressive control over plurality is likewise finally unrealizable (however much damage can be done by the damaged people drawn to that impossible vision).

The task of legitimate democratic governance is to make and then preserve the peace and to produce and then protect the scene of consent (and yes it assumes legitimate recourse to violence in facilitating permanent alternatives to violence in so doing, with all the risks and costs and benefits inhering in this paradoxical gesture).

And as I have said many times, a substantiated as opposed to vacuous scene of consent will be informed and nonduressed.

In a nutshell, democratic government should ensure that consent is informed by providing free life-long education and free universal access to reliable knowledge, and protections against fraud and deception, and that consent is nonduressed by providing universal healthcare and a universal basic income.

This provision produces freedom, it produces peers (social stakeholders with actual equity in their actual diversity), it produces the substance of open collaboration and contestation.

For me, the poles that count are participatory democracy against elite incumbency, not Free Markets against Big Brother. I think these (democracy < -- > incumbency) represent the Left and Right, very straightforwardly.

I see neither pole as an ideal, but both as ongoing processes of interested and interminable struggle, one the struggle to ensure that ever more people have ever more of a say in the public decision that affect them, the other the struggle to ensure that the incumbent interests with whom one most identifies control as much as possible (sometimes, they rationalize, for the good of all).

p2p is democratizing in its effects, which would remain just as true even if these effects were facilitated through the administrative implementation of the scene of informed, nonduressed consent by way of a mandated basic income guarantee and access to reliable knowledge. Crony capitalism as it is practiced under neoliberalism (and its fraternal twin, neoconservatism) is clearly incumbent-supportive in its effects.

Metaphors about Big Brother and Spontaneous Order and all the rest just function to provide false clarity that obscures the obvious truths that actually matter here, in my opinion.


Anonymous said...

Legitimacy simply is not a service in this sense. Providing nonviolent alternatives for the resolution of disputes in the scene of nonduressed consent is not a service, it is the establishment of justice, it is the opening of the space of freedom as such.

Legitimacy is something the government has (like a credit score), not something it provides. A service is (from "work done for others as an occupation or business." "Providing nonviolent alternatives for the resolution of disputes" is obviously work done for others. It is also an occupation for most of the people doing it, so it is a service. It is also justice, but there's no reason why justice can't be a service.

Dale Carrico said...

there's no reason why justice can't be a service

You want fries with that, honey?

Nick Tarleton said...

Maybe the real dispute here is just that I assess what Martin would describe as the darker side of money coalescing into the hands of incumbents to recreate a more Broadcast model scenario as pretty straightforwardly the state of affairs with which we are presently living, while he might still think of our circumstances as better described as grassroots exchange?

Reminds me of David Brin:

We need to ponder whether it actually "defends market capitalism" when these wealth flows so severely alter our social structure that they threaten to entrench a quasi-feudal aristocracy. Don't forget who Adam Smith called the true and worst enemies of markets! In his day, socialism and bureaucratic regulation were FAR from the top enemies of market enterprise! Indeed, throughout human history, market enterprise had one major enemy. Conspiratorial oligarchy.

But, of course, to the dogmatic libertarian, government is always the only threat to freedom worth worrying about....

Anonymous said...

You want fries with that, honey?

I most want fries with justice if they can have the fries for free.

You pay taxes, and you get order/justice.

Vladimir De Thézier said...

I think that many of Dale Carrico's moderate/centrist and right-wing critics forget that although his anti-neoliberal rhetoric makes him sound like a "socialist firebrand" he is in fact a social democrat.

"Modern social democracy is unlike socialism in the traditional sense which aims to end the predominance of the capitalist system, or in the Marxist sense which aims to replace it entirely; instead, social democrats aim to reform capitalism democratically through state regulation and the creation of state sponsored programs and organizations which work to ameliorate or remove injustices purportedly inflicted by the capitalist market system. The term itself is also used to refer to the particular kind of society that social democrats advocate. While some consider social democracy a moderate type of socialism, others, defining socialism in the traditional or Marxist sense, reject that designation."

Dale Carrico said...

You pay taxes, and you get order/justice.

Sure, you can assume a perspective from which that is all you see. But you lose much more than you gain from such a reductive perspective. By yoking taxation to representation one ensures that the institution defined by its exclusive legitimate recourse to violence (with all the vulnerabilities to corruption and abuse inhering in that monopoly) is beholden to the people in whose name it exercises that recourse in order to gain the revenue it needs to exercise that function in the first place.

As I pointed out in this piece, already trying to explain the inter-implication of the democratic and p2p ethos in our own historical moment:

"Progressive taxation of property and income provides the means to meet the basic conditions on which the doubly foundational scene of consent depend, while at once providing a popular check (no taxation without representation) on the dangerous policing authority of government as well as a check on the tendency of individual stakeholders -- especially those who happen to be momentarily invested with conspicuous wealth, authority, reputation, or attention -- to forget or disavow their ineradicable social and historical inter-dependence in the always collaborative project of creative expressivity and problem solving peer-to-peer."

If you just assume a dumbed down reductive vantage on governance from which all you can see is people pushing a token into a dispenser and a service popping out, your grasp will be so impoverished as to constitute an essentially prepolitical take on the political. You may as well try to explain what is happening in a voting booth in terms of the average calories expended in filling out the ballot, and imagining the resulting insights
adequate to the phenomenon at hand.