Sunday, April 17, 2011
Political movements start from ideologies, and ideologies are based on philosophies. The strength of a movement doesn't really correlate well with the solidity of the underlying philosophy; one of the strongest in the USA now is largely based on Ayn Rand's romance novels, and a certain Austrian corporal had a measure of temporary success with his Blut und Boden romanticism.
However, movements based on a silly philosophy tend to collapse once the philosophy collides head-on with reality. Hitler's nearly took a whole continent down with it, and Rand's is taking a declining superpower. Ideologies based on more respectable philosophies can survive a good bit longer. Two such mature ideologies have done more than any other to shape the world we live in. One is Adam Smith's, and the other, Karl Marx's.
Good political philosophies start from good questions. The good questions relate to current conditions. Adam Smith was marveling at the changes happening in the world as the old feudal order was crumbling and the industrial and mercantile bourgeoisie was rising. His philosophy was an intellectual giant's attempt at coming to grips with the why and the wherefore of it. Marx wrote during the noontide of industrial capitalism. He was concerned with the mystery of exploitation: how is it that as the productive capacity of mankind suddenly expands at a faster rate than ever, most of it remains in ignorance and misery?
Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and the intellectual currents they and their heirs represented eventually produced a pretty good working model of industrial society. They didn't have all the answers, but they gave us a framework for asking meaningful questions about it. As we attempted to answer those questions, we were running a society that was pretty successful by most standards.
I was born in that society, but it ended some time between my childhood and now. The framework of Marx and Smith, Keynes and Friedman, Bernstein and Rawls no longer works. The rules of the game have changed. Something gives. Things don't work as they're supposed to. Perhaps there's no individual thing you could point to; rather, it's a combination of factors. It's the gradual dissolution of national borders to the movement of people, goods, and especially capital; it's the relentless connectivity of the Internet; the globalization of culture; the reversal of the East-West polarity in the flow of cultural influences; the ever-larger role pure information plays as a factor of production. Things that shouldn't work, do, and thing's that should, collapse.
We need a new political theory: something that factors in those matters the ones we currently work with neglect. Environmental degradation; globalization; information; the erosion of the nation-state; the loss of comprehensive, shared ethical frameworks and the emergence of much looser but broader ones. Perhaps a Marx of our time is already out there, typing away on a blog somewhere.
I think such a philosophy is emerging, and I think I know from where it will emerge. It will emerge from the chaos of Wikileaks and Anonymous, 4chan and LOLcats, The Pirate Bay and TOR, Copyleft and Creative Commons. Say hello to Arrxism.
Arrxism is, as yet, inchoate. It hasn't begun to give answers, and even the questions are half-formed and poorly articulated. Yet the ingredients are there.
What if Wikileaks was unnecessary, because government had no secrets? Our current governmental processes have levels of secrecy deeply built in. Even in stable democracies with media freedom, much if not most of the dirty business of governance happens behind closed doors. What would government look like if every information artifact it produced was out in the open, available for anyone who wanted to look?
What if the notion of intellectual property was abolished or reinvented? We expend a huge amount of effort to prevent the spread of ideas, through copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and trademarks. Intellectual property protections have been getting stronger even as technology makes it ever easier to violate them. A great many currently dominant business models would simply not work without them, from pharmaceuticals to cell phones, computer games to recorded music, professional sports to industrial agriculture. We tend to think of these structures as permanent and immutable. People state in all seriousness that nobody would make music anymore if copyright-based royalties from recordings weren't available. Yet they're a relatively recent and constantly changing social artifact too.
What would flash mob politics look like? Electronic communications has the potential for mobilizing and coordinating people like nothing before. It has been instrumental in triggering and coordinating the revolutions and revolts in the Arab world this spring, and in marshaling international support for them—and I don't mean warplanes. What would it mean to expand this mode of political activity in developed democracies?
What would planetary politics look like? The politics of Anonymous are geographically unbounded. Activists work together between vastly different countries. Syrians cooperate with Americans, Burmese with Chinese, Pakistanis with Indians. The movement has planetary politics in its DNA. It is as such uniquely equipped to address the real doomsday issues affecting the entire planet. Climate change. Loss of biodiversity. Hate spiraling out of control.
The Pirates are now roughly where Communists were before Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto. That was in 1848, another great year of upheaval and revolution. The counterrevolution won that time, and again in 1871. In 1917, the revolution won in Russia, and promptly collapsed into something worse than what it overthrew. Democratic socialism and social democracy only emerged as functional political movements since then. Marxism had a profound effect on Western societies, from the New Deal and the Great Society in the US to the European welfare states, even if many of these societies did fly the red flag of revolution. It will be a while yet before Arrxism reaches the stage of doing more than galvanizing people into activity.
We have general elections today. I will not vote for a Pirate Party candidate, although there's at least one I could very well vote for as an individual. Our politics are party politics, and the Pirate Party is, as yet, not a party; it is just a collection of individuals who only agree—more or less—about intellectual property. On everything else, they're literally all over the map, from libertarian to communist, radical feminist to the guy who wants to put immigrant women in brothels, and I don't want my vote to support a lot of that stuff. For now, I'll be voting for one of the parties that has some kind of rough consensus about the big picture; choosing the lesser evil as is usual in this type of system.
We need a positive vision of how things should be. Now we're just sticking fingers into an ever leakier dam, which is both depressing and will fail in the long run. I hope I'll live long enough to see Arrxism come up with such a vision. I would like to be a part of that.