Posted by: Ian Bruk | July 16, 2008

Felix Stalder Explains Key Issue of Our Time

From the P2P Foundation:

My highlights on the first read:

From an organizational (not political!) point of view, these new forms of cooperation are best classified as anarchist, in that they are based on voluntary actions, self–motivation and mutual trust.

Yet, this expansion of civil society brought about by these new forms of collaboration not controlled by the state or captured fully by economic interests, has deep political repercussions. For the state, it possesses a set of new challenges. First, it accelerates the erosion of the classic public sphere, so critical to the legitimacy of liberal democracy. Second, the state is challenged, both through peaceful means and through violence, by new actors that is has structural difficulties interacting with.

Nevertheless it adds to the crisis of those institutions that require a traditional public sphere to function. Compared with the immediacy and authenticity these new forms of cooperation seem to offer, partly because these limited, focused associations do not need to make difficult compromises, the discourse of the public sphere, particularly around politics, seems increasingly artificial and insincere. This is partly because of the corrosive effects of television–driven media politics, partly it is also because politicians need to make difficult compromises to gain majorities and offer overall solutions that cannot accommodate the high degree of particularity of the “mix–and–match” lives of many individuals [30]. Politics, and the public sphere around it, appears as the domain of cynics. This only deepens the crisis of the public sphere, which has been analyzed for the last 40 years in terms of the commercial capture of the media and the manipulation of discourse through professional PR [31]. While the public sphere as the discursive, and normative, anchoring of liberal democracy has been eroding for a long time and created a crisis of democracy relatively unrelated to the developments discussed here [32], what is historically new is that people are capable of creating their own “publics” on a local or translocal level. In other words, the old mode of political (mass) communication is not just becoming weaker, but is actively challenged by a new one.

The state and its organizations have a highly developed capacity to deal with homologous organizations — structurally similar to itself — with a small number of representatives with a formal mandate to speak on behalf of many people — such as unions or professional associations. Yet, they it poses significant challenges to interface with organizations that are structurally very different as described above.

They filter their demands not in a way that bureaucracies can easily recognize and address them. The lack of representation — which is so characteristic for these networked organizations based on weak cooperation — makes it dangerous for the state to interact with them because the state draws its very legitimization from representation. Thus, in a formal way, incorporating non–representative organizations further undermines the legitimacy of the liberal state.

One of the ways in which the state can react to this development is by trying to withhold certain types of information, thus preventing the analysis and publication by networked actors most likely very critical of their actions [37]. The notion of “executive privilege” — that is the right of the government to act outside the realm of public scrutiny — is playing a key role in the governance of the current U.S. administration. But similar tendencies can be observed in Europe as well, which lead, as Saskia Sassen observes, to a general strengthening of the executive organs at the expense of the legislature tasked with overseeing them and interfacing with the public at large.

This contributes to a context where the dissolution of privacy for citizens (both voluntary through self–publishing and involuntary through aggregation and data retention) coincides with the growing secrecy of administrative institutions, be they private or public.

Today, “adversary intellectuals”, to use again Huntington’s term, are situated on the left and on the right, within and outside the Western discourse, and are armed with rapid publication tools, if not more physically dangerous weapons. Since they do not need to address large publics (as the mass media need to), they can focus in depth on the few issues that are of special interest to them and which have the power to mobilize their particular networks. For the managers of authority, this creates a lose–lose situation, which they address by retreating from the public as much as they can. Normatively, this is justified by stressing the demands of “security” against which the demands of civil liberties and democratic accountability are deemed to be secondary.

The relationship between the expansion of civil society and rise of authoritarian democracies is intricate and contradictory. From the point of view of the state, it’s not just that transparency can be a nuisance and new form of secrecy need to be installed.

The ability to meet strangers and start meaningful exchanges and cooperation is sharply expanding. We may be entering a golden age of voluntary associations, what I called bourgeois anarchism. Yet, at the same time, the ability of these new publics to function as counterweight to political power cannot (yet?) compensate, despite hopeful incidents [45], for the emptying out of the old public sphere. It is the very emergence of these new publics that contributes to the growing secrecy of some very important elements of the state. Thus, we can wittiness the flowering of free cooperation taking place within an renewed authoritarianism emerging at the core of Western, liberal democracies.


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