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

Sunday, April 06, 2008

p2p Is Not Anarchy

In a post yesterday I described peer-to-peer democratization as one of my chief personal and scholarly interests. I wrote:
I think of as peer-to-peer democratization [as] encompassing the analysis of Netroots organizing, copyfight struggles, basic income advocacy (what I call "pay-to-peer"), and also connections between p2p formations and the history of nonviolent activism, what I think of as p2p peacework or peace in pieces.

Friend of Blog Martin responded in the Moot: "Ironically, the laissez-faire capitalist system of grassroots exchanges of money is 'p2p' while basic income guarantee represents a centralized, 'broadcast' form of economic exchange.

I strongly disagree with this characterization (if I am understanding it aright), but saying why takes us into right into the heart of democratic theory and rhetoric.

First of all, just to get this out of the way, when Martin refers to "the laissez-faire capitalist system of grassroots exchanges of money" as a kind of actually-existing p2p formation it is truly crucial to remind everybody that this "laissez-faire capitalist system of exchanges" does not, nor has it ever, nor could it ever exist.

The formations that we describe as "Market" orders, such as they are, depend on laws backed by force, depend on norms practiced in the context of relatively stable institutions providing for the resolution of disputes beholden to legitimate governance, depend on infrastructure maintained to provide equity for all citizens rather than profit for a minority of owners, and depend on prices articulated by treaties, protocols, agreements, regulations enacted by authorized representatives, and on and on and on and on and on. The actual historical forms that so-called free, so-called spontaneous, so-called natural markets take will actually definitively reflect the particular historical forms of these laws, norms, protocols, treaties, assumptions on which they also depend for their maintenance.

Laissez-faire capitalism and the fantasy of "spontaneous order" are entirely rhetorical constructions deployed by incumbent interests to bamboozle majorities into collaborating in the terms of their own exploitation by incumbent interests who benefit from the indispensable unpaid or ill-paid looting of their common heritage, earthly commons, and their common peers.

These things must be said, else conversations like this, however progressive and democratic their aspirations, will end up endorsing deep assumptions on which incumbent and anti-democratic politics quite to the contrary of our aspirations rely for their ongoing intelligibility and force.

Now, more to the point at hand, what Martin is deploying in his ironic observation is Yochai Benkler's distinction between a Broadcast Media Model and a Peer-to-Peer Model, which Benkler goes on very provocatively and (apparently for Martin as much as for me too) powerfully to subsume under the more general distinction between an Industrial Model and Peer Production Model that can be applied to organization more broadly. Martin and I both agree that this distinction has real salience if we would grasp the significance of emerging shifts in the practice of governance in networked societies.

But it seems to me if you want to apply Benkler's industrial versus p2p figure to governance, the proper place to apply it is to the shift from sovereign to ever more democratic governance, and not as yet another retelling of the right-wing fantasy of Big Brother against Free Markets.

The current Netroots challenge of the Democratic Party corporatist "Machine Politics" and the corporate media via blogs, small campaign donor aggregation, rapid media pushback, public fact-checking, incumbent challenges, and so on very palpably represents a shift from a hierarchical-broadcast-gatekeeper model of partisan politics to a mass amateurization of politics peer to peer. If one locates p2p instead in the place of "spontaneous order" from neoliberal and libertopian ideology, such shifts -- which are the only rival to human influenced ecosystemic change and resource descent as the most significant force afoot in the world at the moment -- become difficult to grasp in their significance or even become invisible altogether.

We all have to push beyond the libertopian figuration of government as always equaling Big Brother and markets as always equaling Spontaneous Order, and then locating violence always on the one side and then nonviolence always on the other, locating centralization always on the one side and decentralization always on the other.

I doubt that Martin is actually entrapped by these metaphors as much as, say, the silly online anarcho-capitalists and dynamists and Randians and the rest are (poor things), but come what may his opening gambit essentially reproduces that conventional market libertarian/neoliberal figure and relies for its force on the intuitive plausibility that comes from that figure's incessant repetition since WWII (as a forceful opposition discourse since Hayek's Mount Pelerin declaration, and as a forceful orthodox discourse since the appointment by Carter of Volcker as Fed Chair and by every Administration, very much including Clinton's, since then).

Grasping what is wrong with this figuration at its heart is key to grasping how specifically deranging it is to read p2p democratization through the lens of this figure, this framing.

Violence inheres in human plurality as a permanent possibility, and human beings are always capable of retroactively justifying any conduct, however violent or unjust, if they have the authority to get away with it. Governments claim and then exercise a monopoly on the legitimate recourse to coercion within particular geographical or jurisdictional bounds. That an authorized minority can and almost inevitably will exercise violence on the majority is another permanent and ineradicable possibility inhering again in the basic fact of human plurality in its actually-existing diversity.

The violent state is ineradicable, not to be wished away by New Age fantasies of a triumph of love over all, nor defined away as free marketeers do when they simply claim that all market exchanges, however duressed, are noncoercive by fiat, nor smashed in some revolutionary's or anarchist's daydream of violence.

The State cannot be wished away or smashed, but at best democratized, tasked to maintain institutions that provide for nonviolent alternatives for the resolution of disputes and to maintain the legible scene of informed nonduressed consent for their citizens, through the connection of a guarantee of representation and legal recourse to any who are taxed to support its ongoing functioning, through the multilateral antagonisms of a separation of powers, through the dedication to a Constitution and delineated Rights invested with a formal universality soliciting foundational investment rendered especially resistant to tampering, through the solicitation of ever wider ever more diverse participation, and so on.

Where governance is backed by the consent of the governed as well as by its ineradicable violence, it can legitimize and so transform the red thread of that violence into one tasked always only with preserving the peace and protecting the scene of consent on which it depends. The creation of this virtuous circle is the great triumph of democratization, to the extent that we have managed through centuries, bit by bit, to institute it, struggle for it, and in struggling through it to invigorate it.

What I worry that Martin is decrying in his response as the "centralization" or "industrialization" of a government regulation and subsidization of p2p formations is in fact the legitimacy that is ineradicably connected to the monopolization of the recourse to violence to preserve the peace and protect the scene of consent.

But the alternative to such centralization is not free love or a market provision of these "services," but inevitably the disintegration of freedom and the reappearance of the tyrannical sovereign "centralized" form of authority at the local level. p2p won't smash the state (nor should anybody in their right mind want to smash the state), but p2p can facilitate its ongoing democratization to the emancipation of us all.

As it happens governments (even the cranky minarchist Founding Era United States) have always subsidized the media infrastructure on which they depend for the administration of trade, intelligence, and defense, from roads, to postal services, to universities and presses, to telegraphy and telephony, to radio, to television, to the internet. Subsidizing peer production practices with a basic income guarantee (my "pay-to-peer" scheme) would be an extension of this practice, even further substantiating the democratic civilizational ethos that citizens are peers rather than clients of or footsoldiers for self-appointed elites.

That this development would not properly be described as "centralized" or "broadcast" or "industrial" in essence -- even if a neoliberal/libertopian mindset will assume otherwise since the development is to be brought into being in the first place only through the administration of a legitimate governance tasked to provide equity to all its diversity of stakeholders -- would surely be substantiated through a survey of its actual effects, which in my expectation would be a massive expansion and leveling of the actual practices of public agitation, organization, participation, criticism, collaboration, contestation, and so on.

p2p democratization so far has emerged out of some really small changes in transaction costs for certain kinds of organized activity, changes so small that almost nobody ever grasps their significance until they find themselves wallowing in the effects.

We must never underestimate the impact of losing Net Neutrality battles, losing media consolidation battles, losing copyfight battles, losing privacy battles on the ongoing p2p revolution. There is nothing inevitable in this marvelous thing that is happening around us (in the nick of time, given the bloodyminded lies and crimes of the Right and given the unprecedented crises arising from our long abuse of the environment). We have to fight for it. p2p democratization is technodevelopmental social struggle. Instituting Net Neutrality, breaking up media monopolies, providing free fast wifi everywhere, subsidizing p2p with basic income can make p2p practices harder to circumvent and strengthen democracy, but these measures require struggle.

It's far too early for triumphalism, especially any foolish triumphalism inspired by faith in the fantasy of inherently libertory technologies presumably at hand. Neoliberal forces and market libertarian ideology are nothing but obstacles to the actual political work at hand.

7 comments:

De Thezier said...

Dale Carrico said:

Laissez-faire capitalism and the fantasy of "spontaneous order" are entirely rhetorical constructions deployed by incumbent interests to bamboozle majorities into collaborating in the terms of their own exploitation by incumbent interests who benefit from the indispensable unpaid or ill-paid looting of their common heritage, earthly commons, and their common peers.

Self-described anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon proposed "spontaneous order", whereby organization emerges without central authority, a "positive anarchy" where order arises when everybody does “what he wishes and only what he wishes" and where "business transactions alone produce the social order.

What do you think Proudhon's proposal?

Dale Carrico said...

I would locate the beginnings of the metaphor of spontaneous order in Mandeville, I think -- I don't think I've ever even heard the Proudhon quote. Was it actually a "proposal," as you say? Like a plan of some kind? That's hard to square with my sense of Proudhon, but I'm no Proudhon scholar, so who knows? Of course "spontaneous order" is almost exclusive used in market libertarian rhetoric these days, and it is always facile and almost always anti-democratizing in its effects in that guise.

Martin said...

when Martin refers to "the laissez-faire capitalist system of grassroots exchanges of money" as a kind of actually-existing p2p formation it is truly crucial to remind everybody that this "laissez-faire capitalist system of exchanges" does not, nor has it ever, nor could it ever exist

That's true, of course, but eve 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.

But it seems to me if you want to apply Benkler's industrial versus p2p figure to governance, the proper place to apply it is to the shift from sovereign to ever more democratic governance, and not as yet another retelling of the right-wing fantasy of Big Brother against Free Markets.

We all have to push beyond the libertopian figuration of government as always equaling Big Brother and markets as always equaling Spontaneous Order, and then locating violence always on the one side and then nonviolence always on the other, locating centralization always on the one side and decentralization always on the other.

I understand these concerns entirely.

My analysis was based merely on network topology. Since you use the term p2p, why not look to a real file sharing network as an example? Some networks have a small number of "seeds" that distribute large amounts of material. The topology of these networks is more centralized, less distributed (and more "broadcast"). Other networks have people sharing responsibilities and distributing data more evenly. The topology of these networks is more decentralized, and more p2p.

If money is exchanged more or less evenly between people, that represents a p2p, 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.

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.

Martin said...

BTW, if you want to know what the optimal combination of free exchange and regulations is, ie, what the optimal combination of capitalism and socialism is, all you have to do is plot any number of social indicators over the Gini index. Below .20 (which is "excessively socialist") and they start to drop off precipitously. Above .50 (which is "excessively capitalist") and they start to drop off precipitously. The optimal number is somewhere around .30 - .35, which is where most Western European countries are.

We can wax philosophical about what we think constitutes an ideal socioeconomic system, but I'll go with the data.

Dale Carrico said...

Friend of Blog Martin comments: [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 you agree with me doesn't exist actually does anyway as "an ideal," I still don't agree with what I think I hear you saying here.

Despite this, I suspect that Martin and I would pick out very similar social formations as attractive and unattractive ones on the ground, and so what he has said and what follows is largely an 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 does that mean I'm defending "actual capitalism" on your terms?

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

I think "libertarian rhetoric" is a set of figures, frames, and formulations to peddle this unjust state of affairs to the majorities who are exploited under it, but I think it is a lie. It is the unjust reality and the lie that sells it that I deem unhealthy, not proximity in reality to the market fundamentalist ideal. I think there is no such proximity in evidence. I really do think this, it isn't me popping off with compensatory rhetoric.

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"?

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 seems attractive as a model, but I think the clarity it provides is falsifying. What governments do aren't providing "services" like everybody else does. One is already entirely within the prepolitical marketeer mindset if one thinks that way, even if you go on to decide for "pragmatic reasons" that governments are best suited to provide some "services" and defend them as such.

Legitimacy is not a service. Providing nonviolent alternatives for the resolution of disputes in the scene of nonduressed consent is not a service, it is the establishment of justice.

Treating government as one seed or node among all others may be right if one is just reductively charting organizational dynamics, but there will be many contexts in which that is a profoundly distortive lens through which to understand what is afoot here.

Democratized government is not strictly speaking "centralized" even though it still assumes in its legitimacy the legitimate 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 project are inaugurated by single individuals and thereafter the bulk of their work is done by very few others -- even if it is true that they "outcompete" 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.

Actually-existing democracy functions very similarly -- open to the participation of all, but usually attracting 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 is the virtuous circle of taking up violence to repudiate it, organizing the capacity for force in the service of the provision of an alternative to the violent resolution of disputes and the maintenance of the scene of informed, nonduressed consent (the violation of which is always legible as violence).

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 of p2p is the same as that of democracy -- whether it actually facilitates equity in diversity.

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 idea of the exchange of goods and services facilitated by money, any more than the idea of the exchange of ideas facilitated by words. Maybe the real dispute here is just that I assess what you would describe as the dark side of money coalescing into the hands of incumbents to recreate the Broadcast model scenario as pretty straightforwardly the state of affairs with which we are presently living, while you still think of our circumstances as better described as grassroots exchange. I wonder just how bad inequality has to get, how corrupt and unaccountable incumbency has to get before things look less "grassroots" if this is the case!

But there is possibly a deeper source of disagreement happening here, if I am understanding the stakes in our exchange properly.
You see, I 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 it's even more stark than that. I think that there is no such thing as a pure market order, I don't think that's an "extreme" that receives partial instantiation in a so-called "mixed economy" in the existing order, I think it is 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. Crony capitalism as it is practiced under neoliberalism 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.

Elias Altvall said...

It is kinda sad that your only interaction is with the assholes who piss on the anarchist name. All anarchist since the first one to self described him as that (Pierre Joseph Proudhon) have been socialist. "The two principles referred to are Authority and Liberty, and the names of the two schools of Socialistic thought which fully and unreservedly represent one or the other of them are, respectively, State Socialism and Anarchism." This is a quote from Benjamin Tucker a free market anarchist in the 19th century.

Dale Carrico said...

I converse with self-identified anarchists all the time, some of them friends and political allies. I think the best left anarchists would do better to describe as democratization what they think is anarchism, and I think they are more vulnerable to wasting their energy than they think they are (they probably think the same of me), but philosophical differences are rarely what matters most in an actual protest or in the midst of a well articulated activist campaign, or in appreciating the beauty of radical art.

I am well aware of the history of anarchism, and the Propaganda of the Deed isn't something you can wish away my friend. As for free market anarchists -- there is no such thing as "the free market," markets are constituted and maintained by laws, norms, and infrastructural affordances, and the denial of this serves the reactionary status quo. Neither are there "spontaneous orders," although I'm sure insulated and privileged people live a life conducive to such fancies. "Liberty" and "Authority" (As Such) are particularly slippery sites of institutional and conceptual contestation, and usually at a fairly abstract level for boys to bloviate about.

I believe in education, agitation, and organization -- both within actually-constituted legal and organizational frameworks and also pushing from their left with intellectual imagination and nonviolent resistance -- in the service of ever equity-in-diversity, a practical progressive usually reformist struggle that is almost certainly interminable. I don't want to smash states but to democratize them.