Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Social Networks, Resistance and the New Capitalism.

Genealogy of Systems.

Adam Curtis has churned out an article on the history of the 'ecosystem' in relation to the protests against cuts. The notion is linked closely with the idea of a universal equilibrium in all of nature. The central problem with the idea is that it can be manipulated by the powerful and utilised to serve other ends. It can be used to justify and enforce a particular view of the world, in order to maintain power structures of authority and domination. The idea of an 'ecosystem' was used by the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s as thousands of young Americans formed communes in order to leave behind the old forms of control - political, hierarchical, sexual and so on. A new order would be forged out of a network of communes throughout which information would flow freely in house meetings and a kind of stability would emerge as a result. In actuality, house meetings turned into sessions in which the strong would bully the weak and everyone else could only stand back and watch.

It was Arthur Tansley who came up with the concept of an 'ecosystem'. He had done so after he read Freud in search of answers for a disturbing nightmare he had in which he murdered his wife. Tansley actually underwent psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud. He took the Freudian idea of the brain as a kind of electrical machine - a network throughout which energy flowed - and applied it to nature. For Tansley the complexity of the natural world conceals an array of interconnected systems around which energy flowed and he coined a name for them - ecosystems. From here Tansley went on to claim that there is a universal equilibrium in nature, everything from the mind to nature and society tend towards a state of equilibrium. Essentially Tansley had projected mechanical qualities onto nature, in order to make sense of the complexities of it, without any real evidence to do so. Then Jan Smuts came along with an even grander theory of nature, Tansley hated it.

Jan Smuts was one of the most powerful men in the British Empire and he ruled over South Africa. When the Hottentots refused to pay their dog licenses Smuts sent in planes to bomb them. Smuts found time to get away from bombing black people to go up into the mountains, get naked and contemplate the natural order of things. Smuts came up with Holism, which held that the world is composed of wholes which are each a part of a giant system that would find its own stability if all the wholes were in their right places. Each of the small wholes are evolving and coming together to form larger wholes until all come together into one big whole. As critics pointed out, Smuts was merely providing a justification for imperialism as well as racial segregation. It was clear that the Empire could be seen as a giant self-organised and regulated system in which wholes are kept in the proper place: blacks should stay in their natural whole and not disturb the order of the system.

The Hippies used a hybrid of the ideas of Arthur Tansley and Jan Smuts in combination with cybernetic theories drawn from recent innovations in computer theory in the 1960s and 70s. The dream of a better world which could regulate and stabilise itself failed time and again, whether the ideas were applied for radical or conservative ends. It is incapable of dealing with power, as there could be no sides to take nor alliances to forge in a totally self-regulated and stabilised system. It leads to that same managerial style of political engagement, which has become prevalent since the end of the Cold War in this post-political era. Today the anti-cuts movement has adopted the same idea of how to reorder society through systems organised through autonomous networks, literally the social networks of the internet. Though it is a very effective way of organising demonstrations which are creative and expressive, it is not an effective method for changing the world. The concentration of power must be confronted.

The New Capitalism.

The article was controversial as it linked the libertarian approach of UK Uncut, and by extension the other anti-cuts demonstrations, with the dominant ideology. In an interview, before even the first episode was shown, Adam Curtis explained that he supports the protests but believes that the form of the protests is deeply flawed. The cuts cannot be defeated by self-organised and regulated networks of individuals rallied through social networks like Facebook. Without adequate leadership or even a central vision the schismatic tendencies within the movement can explode. For Curtis the retreat to the idea of a self-organised resistance is a cowardly one made by the Left from confronting the concentration of power in very few hands. There is a great need for an inspirational alternative to unite and rally the people in protest against the cuts. There is some truth in that given there are alternatives to the cuts, but these alternatives are not articulated very well in protest because of the self-organised nature of the demonstrations.

We ought to note that Curtis refers to the figures of the counter-cultural movement, like Stewart Brand, who converged with the libertarian Right in Silicon Valley. The libertarian Right are opposed to old hierarchies and power structures which obstruct the forces of the market and the freedom of the individual. The central thesis of the free-market libertarians is that the capitalist system will flourish if it is liberated from all old constraints and obstacles. Similarly the counter-cultural Left held that through the construction of systems, outside of political power and away from the Establishment, we can build a new society without hierarchy where we are all free and equal in a system. This is where computers come in as a means of self-regulation through which risks can be removed and stability ensured. Government is redundant and so is the Establishment. Today we find the notion of systems as self-regulating is carried over from the reactionaries to the revolutionaries.

For him we are not living in a post-ideological era, the age in which we live is still thoroughly ideological and Curtis aims to explore politically loaded concepts like ecosystems which are commonly taken as apolitical and objective. The idea of a system composed of interconnected nodes which maintain the stability of the system, through the feedback of information, is profoundly ideological for Curtis. It becomes even clearer when we look at the role of the idea that the innovations in computer technology can rid a system of risk. This is the kind of thought which abolished boom and bust under New Labour. The rise of computers has given birth to the idea of a new kind of capitalism in which perpetual growth is possible and the system is not only capable of self-regulation but also self-organisation. The inherent risks and instability of the system can be abolished forever whilst competition and productivity can be enhanced.

Adam Curtis is suspicious of the suggestions that the web has distributed power just as he is opposed to the suggestion that the market has distributed power and that even the class system has been broken down by the meritocratic forces of capitalism. We have abandoned the belief that there could be a better world, that is not based on market principles, and have settled for a managerial approach to capitalism. There has been a shift from the Enlightenment view, that the human being is separate from nature, to the idea that we are each one node in a chain which constitutes the entire system. The system is too complex for a single person to understand, but it can be analysed and predicted by computers. It can remain stable through the flow of information. All of this underlies the view that there can be an economic equilibrium to the radical idea of autonomous cells of resistance to global capitalism. The recent demonstrations in Britain parallel a tenet of the dominant ideology which the protesters are fighting against.

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