Exodus

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In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argued that in the wake of so-called new economy’s emergence civic participation and person-to-person interactions had undergone a precipitous decline, contributing to a loss of ‘social capital’ that in turned frayed the fabric of American democracy. This transformation stretched from the heights of political organizing – such as the decline in voter participation, for instance – to various civil society organizations and platforms for civic associations. Declining memberships in various clubs and fraternal organizations, the evaporation of a volunteer-based ethic, the break-up of labor unions, and the fragmenting of the communitarian infrastructure all signaled a transition towards what Putnam deemed a process individualization – or what we would more commonly refer to as atomization (see here and here) – that derives from the increased integration of technology into our everyday lives.

Critics of Putnam’s work have noted that this decline isn’t so much as the elimination of interactive behavior and platforms for it outright; while indeed the phenomenon that is described in Bowling Alone is palpable, it signals a fundamental shift away from a particular social infrastructure that congealed in the wake of industrialization in the United States, reaching its height in the postwar regime of High (or Late) Fordism. Atomization is co-existent with the arrival of new forms of social life and ways of being – the ubiquity of the social network, for example, fills the void left by the closed doors of Elks Club. Yet the primary factor of Putnam’s argument remains: the decline of the community ideal, as something that is at once local and integral, while also being plugged into the gears of mass democracy. The social network can be local, but it is borderless, with tendrils reaching out across time and space. It can (as will be touched on momentarily) connection with political operations, but the manner in which it does so is by no means obvious.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri took up Putnam’s argument in their book Multitude, but discarded the sad nostalgia that suffused his work. “One should do away with this nostalgia…” Instead, we should celebrate the dissolution of the traditional body, and look towards the new synthetic Thing that has emerged: the monstrous New Flesh of the multitude, a strange fabric composed of the “social catastrophes of postmodernity, similar in their minds to the horrible results of genetic engineering gone wrong or the terrifying consequences of industrial, nuclear, or ecological disasters” (yes please!!).

Hardt and Negri’s words here recall the best passages of their previous book, Empire. There they take up Nietzsche’s prophetic vision of future “barbarians” who would arrive “only after tremendous socialist crises”, and re-route to a peculiar sort of cyberpunk transhumanism that emphasizes the already-occurring mutation of the body human and subjective formation through technical apparatuses that compose our fully cyberneticized world. The new barbarian is an emergent body “incapable of submitting to command”; its full instantiation will entail “a body that is incapable adapting to family life, to factory discipline, to the regulations of a traditional sex life, and so forth”. In order to realize this vision, “we must go much further”: the pervasive sense of nostalgia must be expunged, hybridity must be superseded some sort of hyperhybridity, and all previous modes of modes experimentation have to be propelled beyond themselves, to achieve higher heights. The New Flesh is ultimately a synthetic thing, unfolding beyond the boundaries of real and artificial.

While the future-oriented vision here still might be far off (but hopefully not too far!), nearly two decades have passed since Hardt and Negri have penned these words, and the conditions they depicted have accelerated into new, unpredictable formations. The impulse for those on the left is to measure such transformations in terms of their liberatory potential, a deeply problematic practice that leads far too many to miss the forest for the trees – that is, to lose scope of the “anthropological exodus” (Hardt and Negri’s term) that has occurred by subordinating it instantly to value judgments. Junk these value judgments, and the nature of the new barbarian comes into close-up: it is the swirling chaos of our time, hooked together through the information superhighway, strange and often horrifying lines of flight that cut across political, social, cultural and economic strata whilst going beyond them, all diverging from one another as much as connecting.

In A Conceptual Preliminary to Understanding Meme Warfare, Vince Garton approaches this composition of forces by arguing that, at present, the effects of the internet upon politics are woefully misunderstood. For example, take the narrative that the alt-right, a subculture and political force that emerged from the shadowzones of message boards and chans, were the primary culprits behind the election of Donald Trump. This myth became so widespread that even the alt-right themselves believed in it and sought to further their illusionary reach – an act of self-reinforcing myth-making that imploded tragically in the streets of Charlottesville. To believe in such a story is to find traditional political causality at work, where a smooth and linear feedback loop moves from the engaged body politic into the political arena proper. And yet reality has shown itself to be anything but. Linearity such as this can only now be viewed as the desperate act of searching for a recognizable pattern, a cognitive map, in an environment that has become extremely complex, alien, and hostile (this same lesson may, in fact, reflect upon the ongoing “Russiagate” investigation).

What is at work here, Garton suggests, is the emergence proper of something analogous to Hardt and Negri’s cybernetic barbarians: a machinic subjectivity that can only be regarded as foreign to the world that preceded it, and which puts into play an unpredictable and chaotic cyberpolitics (of which the recent news concerning Cambridge Analytica can only constitute a part, albeit a very important one). He continues:

If 2016 was the dawn of cyberpolitics, it is strictly because of Trump, whose victory represented perhaps the first self-conscious loss by the constellated forces of global liberalism to a memetic artefact… Trump himself is by no means conscious, let alone supportive, of this cyberian futurism in his policy objectives. His campaign drew on cyberpolitics only as much as it depended necessarily on numerous other more retrograde forms of political organisation. The quantitative units of his victory were not 4chan and Facebook and Reddit, but Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida… But neither focus of analysis is precisely wrong. The Trump campaign participated in and learned its tactics from the Internet with an attentiveness that allowed it to explode beyond the expectations of its opponents… Trump is both the culmination and a mockery of the politics of the liberal-securocratic world order, both subject and unwitting object, drawing on the ressentiment and revisionist aspirations of the very worldly malcontents of liberal globalisation while also representing the triumphant humiliation of the planetary order by an alien subjectivity far beyond conventional moral-political economy.

“Very worldly malcontents of liberal globalisation” could very easily apply to Hardt and Negri’s own anticipations of a monstrous revolutionary chaosmos: the Thing that occurs when atomization (that is, the dis-integration of the postwar world order) makes an arching collision with higher and higher rates of interconnectivity. Everybody is bowling alone, but the chattering between and beneath it all turns into a cyclonic roar. To step backwards and to attempt to orientate particulars swarm towards traditional political coordinates – rallies, petition, organization, office, etc – is to try and shoehorn it into frameworks that are being rapidly obsoleted.

This is the maneuver that Hardt and Negri ultimately make, confirming Tiqqun’s only slightly hyperbolic insistence that their work composed the ‘idealistic face’ of the Empire that they opposed. The multitude comes together and pushes the logic of neoliberal capitalism, replete with globalized liberal democracy, through itself to the other side where it implodes. What is left is the teeming constituent power of the world’s peoples, united in creativity and unbridled movement alongside a modular bureaucracy that will facilitate this utopic world. In some respects, Hardt and Negri’s vision looks somewhat like the ideal face of the European Union (it’s not surprising, then, to consider how many of the post-Autonomists became fervent Eurozone supporters).

Against Tiqqun’s assessment, however, is another side of their work which seems to veer in another direction, and it is precisely on the question of the barbarian where this finds its most intense expression. It is, after all, difficult to square the rejection of “normalized bodies and normalized lives” with anything approaching business-as-usual politics, or even the anticipated progressive managerialism of those politics. This is the logic of exodus at work. The traditional political world, which encompasses the range from Putnam’s American community-based civic associations to the metastate structures of the EU, unfolds through the collision of forces, each stamped with a unique-yet-unifying higher-order identity, in a way that they achieve power (or not) while being bent in a particular direction overall – or, to put it more simply, they begin as disparate elements that are arranged neatly into a grid-like system. Exodus, however, follows a different path: that of the diagonal that slips off the grid and evades capture by the lines. Hardt and Negri bring exodus together with the similar concepts of desertion and nomadism to express a vision of resistance that based not on the addition of political variables (stretching the liberal system into infinite representation of any and all interest and subject groups), but on subtraction.

While exodus for Hardt and Negri ultimately builds upwards into the liberation of collective labor (think less industrial labor, more the imperceptible labor that is immanent throughout advanced cybernetic capitalism), subtractive logic is also one that moves in the torrents of atomization, insofar as atomization is construed as the ‘dropping out’ from political and civic – or, ultimately, public – life. Contra those who might bemoan this as a regressive, unconstructive maneuver, exodus can be thought of playing a double role: not just subtraction from the dominant system, but elimination of middle men. Hardt and Negri honed-in on labor force mobility, the bodily ‘anthropological exodus’, and the sorts of escape paths forged by groups such as the Italian Autonomists to articulate what a politics of desertion would look like; today, this must be expanded to encompass the realm of cypherpolitics – political tactics and means of conducting business invisibly, without interference. Such an exodus-into-depth can be carried out without ever actually leaving one’s primary territory – all it requires is a bit of easily obtained know-how and access to cryptocurrenices.

Cypherpolitics is already quite close to the anthropological exodus, and while it is beyond the scope here a conceptual genealogy of each would likely plummet quickly backwards to identical source materials. It is also partially operationalized within the emergent machinic subjectivity that is tearing the political asunder: start following conversations about blockchain technology and see where you end up. We are propelled beyond politics, because the core of exodus is anti-political. For this reason, many on the left seem to inherently view the emergent machinic subjectivity with an absolute sense of suspicion, if not outright revile. If this fundamental process is about scaling down, routing-around, and escaping from, mass left movements have characterized themselves as advocating a scaling-up to the order of grand, centralized politics. It, in other words, operates antithetically to the concept of exodus itself. The implication is that in time the left will, along with the mainstream right, become irrelevant.

Consider the following: beginning in 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (ELZN) staged an insurgency in Chiapas, Mexico. Lasting two years, the struggle evolved into what the RAND Corporation described as a “social netwar”, an information age-mode of conflict that tendstowards network organization, spills over national borders, and produces hybridized alliances between elements whose conjunction would have been unlikely or impossible in an earlier era. Both the ELZN and their transnational allies – which ranged from NGOs to hackers and other sorts of cyberspace actors (for an excellent account of  the role of the Electronic Disturbance Theater, see this interview with Ricardo Dominguez; pdf warning) – undoubtedly composed an early iteration of what Garton called “worldly malcontents of liberal globalisation” (the Zapatistas did, after all, help popularize the term ‘neoliberalism’ as a term for the new, abstract enemy of the post-Cold War era of globalization). Like Hardt and Negri’s cyborgian barbarians, the overall movement scrambled strict binaries and produced an idiosyncratic decoding of time: an indigenous movement, opposing neoliberal integration while borrowing freely from the infrastructure of that world, weaving together an exodus with the aid of cutting-edge cyberculture.

The forces that accelerated the ELZN insurgency haunt the world again today, but in many spaces the left seems recalcitrant to engage with it. The hyperskepticism towards cypherpolitical tools, leads to an indifference to them that will, in time, reinforce patterns of obsolescence – and it can also lead to a call for regulatory behavior, which will only amplify the demands for these tools. Likewise, the more ‘traditionally’ political, though marginal, rejection of metastate structures and embrace of secessionist ethos is shunned, be it attempts to escape the dictates of the EU, or the moves by states in the US to extricate themselves from federal government. In each case the left positions itself as the pragmatic actor, the reinforcer of the status quo to which it is ostensibly opposed. Why it should carry that burden is unclear.

Perhaps instead of reading Hardt and Negri as Tiqqun do, in which the age after Empire – their concept for the postwar order of liberal capitalist democracy attached to the project of globalization – is characterized by the culmination of the imperial drive, read it as exodus pursued to its most extreme lengths. This would mark the deeper and deeper penetration of connectivity, but the exact opposite movement in terms of political integration and conditional lock-in. Instead of a higher order entity, the scaling-down of power, in direct alignment with the inescapable drift of techno-economic developing. The collective labor of the multitude: cascading divergence.

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In immediately related extended blogosphere happenings: Axxon Horror gives a rundown on “connective disintegration” – the exit diagonal of high connectivitylow integration; Chris Shaw critiques nationalist populism and looks towards an emergent “networked tribalism” that rejects universalism for a “particularism… beyond spatiality”; and Xenogoth talks about the ELZN in relation to his ongoing exploration of patchwork. Also: Justin Murphy gets stoned and explores capitalist value criteria, relativism & ethics, while J Crane continues to draw out the revolutionary war machine burning in the interstices of Deleuze, Spinoza and George Jackson.

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Phyles and Networked Tribalism (notes and link roundup)

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The despatialized patch: or, as it has been called by its actually-existing practitioners, a phyle. The question of despatialized patches becomes foregrounded by multiple factors, the most obvious of which is that in the 21st century there is not necessarily any correlations between community and territorial clustering. Not even that ephemeral force that organized itself through reiterating engagements in a shared environment – tradition – is locked in place by the ground from which it emerged. Solid into air, value into information. On the far side of this trend is subscription governance that, unlike fixed neocam models, can be plugged into anywhere in the world. One only needs to look in the direction of  Estonia’s ongoing experiments with e-governance to reach this stage (or, from another direction, the recognition that there’s nary a government service that isn’t also provided for on the open market, and it is only a matter of time before the package deal rears its head. Government, by Amazon).

The term phyle has its roots in Neal Stephenson’s (post)cyberpunk novel The Diamond Age, and describes national, ethnic, and ‘synthetic’ networks of governance and commerce that operate globally. Coexistence with city-states, the phyles maintain certain territorial ‘enclaves’ where business enterprises internal to the network set up shop, which in turn supports the functioning of the phyle itself. In many respects Stephenson’s vision comes close to Rizome, the transnationally-networked corporation in Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net, which also exhibited a kind of decentralist organizational dynamic that has been described by Kevin Carson, in The Desktop Regulatory State, as ‘platform support structures’. Sterling suggested that the Rizome organizational system be likened to the structures of Japanese feudalism, while Stephenson’s phyles akin to the Venetian merchant guilds. Time-tangling, it seems, is utterly ubiquitous, and when we consider that the fictional depiction of the phyle directly informs the real-life experimentation, it’s clear that something very weird is happening. A hyperstitional thread, however, is probably best left for another time…

Las Indias is a ‘neo-Venetian’ phyle organized by a collective that came together in the Spanish cyberpunk scene of the 1990s. Contra the voiceless structure of Moldbuggian neocameralism, Las Indias articulates itself as an ‘economic democracy’ boasting a heavy focus on community, fraternity, and shared experience: a social “common metabolism’ that is conjoined to a “single economic metabolism”. According to David de Ugarte, one of the chief brains behind the project, these intertwined metabolisms produce an architecture that synthesizes an understanding of the phyle as both a “micro-country without territory” and a “kind of local economy”: the transnational network and the localized, spatial support structures. Out from these conduits flows product and services, and in flows capital and goods.

de Ugarte notes that while the neo-Venetian ethic of Las Indias bends towards the democratic, this isn’t the only path for the phyle:

The Murides, the old pacifist Sufis from Senegal, went from having a nationalist dis- course and growing peanuts to constituting a community trade network with two million members that spreads from South Africa to Italy. Its transformation isn’t over yet, but the young Murides have turned the daïras, the old Koranic schools, into urban communes that are also business cells.

At first blush, nothing could be farther apart than cyberpunks and the Murides. But the parallelism is significant: they are not companies linked to a community, but transnational communities that have acquired enterprises in order to gain continuity in time and robustness. They are phyles.

Phyles may function democratically and be cooperative-based, as in the case of the Indianos, or else they may have a small-business structure and even a religiously inspired ideology, as in the case of the Murides. But they share two key elements: they possess a transnational identity, and they subordinate their companies to personal and community needs.

Phyles are “order attractors” in a domain which states cannot reach conceptually and in areas that states increasingly leave in the dark: phyles invest in social cohesion, sometimes even creating infrastructures, providing grants and training, and having their own NGOs. Transnational thinking allows them to access the new globalised business before anyone else. A phyle’s investment portfolio may range from renewable energies to PMCs, from free software initiatives to credit cooperatives. Their bet is based on two ideas. First: transnational is more powerful than international. Second: in a global market the community is more resilient than the “classic” capitalist company.

Commentary from others in the P2P ‘movement’ had pushed back a little on certain aspects of Las Indias’s presentation of the phyle: drawing on some the same historical precedents cited by de Ugarte (namely: merchant guilds), Poor Richard challenges the formula that “community precedes enterprise”:

A guild can function just as envisioned for a phyle (from Greek phulē — tribe, clan) but does not carry the same connotation as a tribe, clan, or phyle of having a primary basis in familial kinship, nor the historical reputation (in certain cases) of rebellion against central authority. The subtle but important difference is that a guild is all about practical know-how and about taking care of business– not about ideology or revolution (eh, at least on the surface…).

Typically a guild (German: Gilde) is an association of craftsmen in a particular trade. In the most general sense a guild is simply an organization of persons (peers) with related interests, goals, etc., especially one formed for mutual aid or protection. Historically guilds were any of various medieval associations, as of merchants or artisans, organized to maintain standards and to protect the interests of their members.

[…]

One point on which I think guilds differ from Las Indias’ conception of phyles (“In Phyles, Community precedes Enterprise” -David Uguarte) is that for guilds, community and enterprise are two sides of one coin. I think this fits well with p2p culture while also being relatively non-confrontational with mainstream corporate/capitalist norms. The ability of guilds and leagues (such as the League of Women Voters) to present a relatively “normal” outward face, may have occasional tactical advantages.

Leaping off from this conversation, we might say that the phyle is a diagonalization between two different forms of organization: the guild and the networked tribe. There has been quite murmurs and active experimentation with neo-guild models over the last two decades, but the figure of the tribe itself – as perhaps a more abstract organizational system than either the guild or the phyle – permeate the emergent world. Extrapolate from trends in cultural fragmentation and miniaturization of production technology, and McLuhan’s dictum that electronic communicaton exerts a “tribalizing effect” nestles itself up against everything from the (arguably templex) tribalist dreams emanating from certain anarchist quarters as well as DIY networks, to insurgent hacker tribes, among other examples.

Speaking of tribes and time loops, here’s John Robb, circa 2005. While written only a year into the US’s disastrous adventure in Iraq, this seems like it may very well be more relevant today:

The tribalism we face today is a combination of these ancient mindsets and modern systems thinking (economics, networks, communication, etc.). It’s a very dangerous combination made stronger by the forces of globalization — which has levelled the playing field in the competition between tribes and states. Today, networked tribes thrive economically (particularly as participants in the multi-trillion dollar black economy) and project power globally:

  • In Iraq, we don’t face a single tribe (either traditional or manufactured). We face dozens. Wholesale systems disruption and violence has forced great many people (particularly young men) into tribal organizations for economic support and defense — a pattern we see repeated in other failed states.
  • In Afghanistan, we see tribes in control of most of the country as well as a multi-billion dollar opium industry.
  • Globally we see rapidly growing manufactured tribes like the Mara Salvatrucha (already over 700,000 strong) and al Qaeda in open war with states. The appeal of these tribes — the sense of belonging they represent — transcends borders. It is able to motivate young men in the UK and Honduras to undertake acts of extreme violence in the hope of gaining membership.

Until we understand the moral bonds of networked tribalism, there is little hope that we will morally defeat it.

From the U/Acc point of view of this blog, the idea of the moral defeat of such things seem like a woefully antiquated concept, as is the issue is not, at the ultimate unground, a question of moral determination or a sense of operational agency.

More mill-grist:

  • The Cyborg Nomad on Bit-Nations and Sovereign Services, charting out the intersection of extreme deterritorialization and the spatial boundaries of the Neocam model. Such things have relevance to the aforementioned organizational dynamics of the Neo-Venetian model.
  • Cockydooody on the Tankie Patchwork in Dontesk. Networked tribalism in pursuit of breakaway republics fosters what appears to be the opening chasm to unending war defined by the alchemical mixture of red and brown political ideologies. The “harsh exit”: “Neo-Soviet-Eastern-Orthodox-Eurasianist-Fascism-Communism”
  • Xenogoth on Bifo and the ‘Global Civil War’. A very poignant moment is the reflection on the possibility that resistance to geopolitical fragmentation may very well be “exacerbating mental disintegration”. The specter of antipraxis lurks in Bifo’s reflections, to boot.