The centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is l … stop me if you’ve heard this. As a rule there’s nothing more lame-o than kicking off an article with Yeats’ little number — apart from ‘The Oxford dictionary defines ‘desperate lede’ as ..”‘ or, to be up-to-date, “a Google search of the phrase ‘desperate hacks out of ideas’ yields …”. Quite aside from anything else, there’s always been something contradictory about quoting a poem from 1911 to demonstrate that something unprecedented is happening.
Nevertheless, over the past few months, it’s become clear that, well, the centre cannot hold. Power — state power, corporate power, social power — and the way in which these separate poles relate to each other has been in flux for some time. Recently, that became visible in a myriad different ways, big and small. To put it in point form …
- The Boston bombings and the UK Woolwich killing announced the rise of a different type of terror. Small-scale, low-rent, undertaken by free agents connected to their cause only by internet and other abstract media. The form of such terror is not new — the 9/11, Aum sarin gas attack, that’s new. The lack of direction and organisation is something relatively unseen before, especially in the absence of larger organisations.
- The sudden and visible assertion of a new type of global corporation. This is the year that Google, Facebook and Amazon made clear their desire to be more than a bunch of hippies and geeks doing cool things and instead made clear their desire for real power. These are different types of global corporations from those — Standard Oil, the American Fruit Company — that hitherto wielded power and influence.
- The G.F.A. “big three” — Google especially — reach into daily life in an unprecedented fashion. They are now the marrow of the process. Transnationals were always able to transfer their profits and assets, but some degree of “plant” existed. The new megacorporations are closer to weightless. Hence the UK government’s approach to their flouting of the tax law — to whine and nag them, rather than regulate.
- A manufacturing/prototyping revolution has begun to massively distribute the capacity for production, both creative and destruction. Drones, science-fictive a decade ago, can now be acquired commercially and en masse. Three-dimensional printing, brought to public attention by the creation of a crude 3D printed gun, is more important for the rapid manner in which it is putting the capacity to create high-tech objects in everyday hands.
- In conjunction with this, there’s a massive distribution of high-tech knowledge, fast-moving beyond current powers of state control. In hackerspaces across the world, “biohacking” groups are teaching themselves to build bacterial life-forms, new compounds, etc. In all spheres, the fictive nature of intellectual “property” is being made visible in a way that makes it harder to defend the legitimacy of copyright, patenting, etc, in its current form.
- The new global intersection of internet and social media is producing processes that escape control, even when they may have been instigated by central powers. After the Boston bombing, the hunt for the culprits spread autonomously on Reddit. Whatever the degree of public mobilisation by the state, it quickly went beyond that in a way that couldn’t really be controlled, and which would not necessarily be in line with the state’s priorities in future.
- The process of privatisation has reached into old state functions to such a degree that it is now being invited into the core functions the state used to guard for itself — military power abroad, law and order at home. Up to 89% of military functions are now being outsourced, and in the UK, policing, including investigative powers, are being subcontracted.
- The crisis of legitimacy in Western states — e.g. Greece, Cyprus — has brought to centre-stage non-state currencies such as Bitcoin, hitherto seen as marginal, experimental, etc. The disconnection of currency from state, combined with the capacity for private, virtually uncrackable encrypted communications undermines the everyday processes on which the state was founded.
“The liberal ideal — reached only recently and partially — was to allow all speech save the most direct incitement to violence.”
In response to these processes, there’s been a mobilisation by the state that necessarily takes it far beyond the point of a liberal order:
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- The application of a normal-pathological model to speech. The liberal ideal — reached only recently and partially — was to allow all speech save the most direct incitement to violence. Illiberal states banned their enemies. Now “extreme” speech is treated as potentially infectious, so there’s an attempt to control the whole exercise of speech, with anti-radicalisation campaigns, control of speech on campuses, etc.
- The use of the “exceptional case” in application to border, extradition processes, etc, to the point where the pathological becomes the normal. Thus, in order to preserve the integrity of Australia’s borders, the country itself is removed from its own migration zone. The more that the applied law departs from any logical base, the more arbitrary and capricious its application can be.
- The failure of old forms of regulation as new technologies make them unenforcable, pushes the state to resort to two main modes of control:
- Draconian punishments for standard infractions both public and private. Thus the huge crackdown on people like Kim Dotcom and MegaUpLoad. There’s also US-style “process” justice, where — as in the recent Jeremy Hammond “Stratfor” case — multi-decade prison terms are threatened to coerce plea bargains (10 years in Hammond’s case).
- Total surveillance, cultural control, and an increasing interest in “pre-crime” — smart detection of all electronic communications, neurological and psychological analysis — rather than the notion of law as internalised order, punished when breached.
These processes obviously go in rounds, with each new transformation of the techno-social base prompting a response from the state and vice versa. Alternatively it can be seen as a state-led process, the increasing enforcement of controls, such as increased surveillance and ludicrous copyright and biotech intellectual property claims (most recently, of cell reproduction) prompting a response from groups located within the new technologies and networks. This creates new political forms:
- The old Left-Right division, in which the state would be the primary agent of public ownership, can no longer be sustained. Economic processes are now so transnational and multidimensional that the state’s ownership functions are severely curtailed. Though it’s not without importance, control of a state remains necessary, but is no longer sufficient, for a transformative, i.e. Left, politics.
- By one assessment, the Right has won. But it would be more accurate to say that the whole “spectrum” political framework has been transcended. This is especially so since many of the challenges to what could be called the Right’s institutions come from processes that are more open, universal and the abstract than the private market they defend.
- Thus in scientific research, free association and interconnection of scientific groups has been increasingly curtailed by barriers of copyright and IP — to the point where eventually scientists, as a class, will make a major and categorical stand against the whole system, and IP/patenting/copyright will decisively change. Such a movement could be seen as “Left” if the private-market is seen as “Right”. But on the other hand it is forcing a new process into old forms.
- This applies a fortiori, and over a longer period, to production, as distributed making/manufacturing spreads. If physical production becomes a massively distributed rendering of commonly available plans, prototypes, etc, for output (i.e. if you can print out the things you need from online plans using cheap materials), then specialisation and comparitive advantage on which capitalist exchange is based is thrown into crisis.
- This future is reaching backwards into the present, as it were. The failure of most of the West to make a genuine recovery from the 2008 slump — and the projection of sustained sluggishness and the absence of a full return of growth — may be the result of new levels of automation that create “recovery” without re-employment or re-expanded demand of a substantial nature. On the one hand, this potentially creates a capitalist crisis of a fairly traditional Marxian sort; on the other, there is a vacuum where the politics should be.
- The supersession of the Left-Right frame (this is only one way of looking at it) appears to be underlined by the collapse of traditional far-Left groupings (such as the SWP in the UK), but also by the fracturing of the Right — evidenced by corporatist groups such as Katter’s Australia Party, and the authoritarian/libertarian split in the conservative think-tanks. Of these, the absence of a party-based Left is the more serious sign, even if such Left parties are often smaller and less visible in their actions than mainstream parties.
- Where the politics hasn’t transformed to respond to a changed technological-economic-political form, political energy becomes repeatedly channeled into symbolic and proxy wars. Though some may not be unimportant in themselves, they acquire a political centrality because core processes have become a “black box” that can’t be opened using archaic reasoning tools.
- Thus, for example, as Australia bids farewell to its car industry — the core of a modern consumer industrial (and full employment) economy — the country becomes transfixed by a dumb remark by a manic football personality. That we are passing from one era into another can only be discussed within the arid framework of protection vs the “free” market, and the greater issue — of, in this case, the gradual elimination of mid-level ensembles of industrial production (i.e. independent nations) and what an economy actually is — goes largely undebated. For what the current fragmentation masks is a centralisation beyond anything previously known. But then, as the man said, the worst lack all conviction, and stop me if you’ve heard this.