Anarchistic aspirations

23 February 2006
Read in:
Karl Marx himself saw capitalism in a positive light; in its very progress he saw its demise. A demise precipitated by the anarchistic heart of the network society?

There is something anarchic about computer viruses. They are chaotic and unruly. In the battle against the chaos, a new strategy has been unveiled: Eran Shir and his colleagues at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel believe that protection against the virus can be achieved by employing the very same tactic the computer virus uses to reproduce itself: “immunizing” the entire world’s computers through the immediate dispersal of “vaccines” to combat newly-discovered viruses. These so-called “benign viruses” proliferate more rapidly than the malignant ones.1 Immunization against the I love you virus, which hit the entire Western world some time ago, could have been achieved in a similar way. The Internet Anarchists, who today are the curse of the “status quo”, especially the Microsoft-dominated, commercial world, will get a taste of their own medicine. Fighting chaos with chaos.
For many, the word “anarchy” is synonymous with “chaos” or “terrorism”. Anarchy is typically tied to acts of violence. While this is by and large accurate, anarchistic violence accounts for a drop in the ocean compared to the massacres, state-sponsored terrorism, and systematic violence of fascist, communist, and capitalist regimes down through the ages.

So let’s take a closer look at what anarchy is. For while social democracies are consumed by clientelism and administrational fervour, anarchy actually represents a more principled attempt to unite socialism and freedom2 – in a kind of liberal socialism. Anarchy has taken many forms. The most well-known are communist anarchy, individual anarchy, and anarcho-syndicalism. Common to each of these is the notion of deconstructing vertical hierarchies such as authoritarian state power, capitalist oppression, and other pyramidal forms. The Anarchist believes in a socialist society that assures the freedom and dignity of the individual. For this reason then, authoritarian economic and political constellations of power must be dismantled. Anarchism did not die with the Spanish Civil War, as some believe. It exploded again in May 1968, and has today been given a new lease of life through the spread of the Internet and the network society. Many of us don’t like to be governed from on high. Many of us thrive within horizontal networks and grassroots organizations. Allow me then to present the 150-year-old words of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, one of the founding fathers of anarchism:

To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated, docketed, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, weighed, censored, ordered about…

A lesson still applicable today perhaps? Proudhon wrote this in “Neither God nor Man”.3 Let’s hear some more: “To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected.” Violence is exercised where one is “under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed.”

Proudhon wrote this in the middle of the eighteenth century, but such complex forms of oppression have not exactly abated over the years. The advance of technology brought with it the kind of technological applications – weapons, information, surveillance – which made possible such forms of governance and administration, this kind of governmentality – in the sense of both control (government) and mentality. Not least since the 11th of September 2001. One either governs indirectly, through control, or more directly through disciplinarian and violent means. Direct oppression is typical of the so-called under-developed societies. Just look through this month’s newspaper articles – on Israel, Guantanamo, Chile, Bolivia, the Caucasus, or Saudi Arabia. Every month we describe precisely what Proudhon is talking about: one is “at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonoured”. No, those in power do not relinquish that power willingly – not oil barons (Norwegian or Arab), property heirs, not politicians, nepotists, or capitalists.

At the same time, there is something in power’s inner dynamic that works to the good. Karl Marx himself saw capitalism in a positive light; in its very progress he saw its demise. For is there not something about the media society and all the new, virtual electronic “products” that also loosens capitalism’s grip on production? As we know, the Internet has spawned a vast and anarchic culture of file-sharing – of music, text, software, film, and video – cultural events and knowledge. Is it so important to own it, when you can have it in your possession? The copy itself costs next to nothing to produce. If only the same applied to food – the disparity here still stands, the 800 million people starving in this world can testify to that.

Nevertheless, allow me to ponder the meaning of this new anarchic mentality. A network of enthusiastic individuals stands behind the production of program code, text, pictures, and video. For example, the open source movement (the creation of open software allowing free access and development) shifted anarchically from compulsory labour to free collaboration. 2006 will be the year open source makes its mark through well-developed, free alternatives to the products of the monopolistic Microsoft. Many of today’s public sector organizations choose open source. So download Firefox as your browser instead of Microsoft Explorer, the email program Thunderbird instead of Microsoft Outlook, word processing and spreadsheet programs with Open Office (available in Norwegian!) in preference to Microsoft Office, and Wikipedia as your free encyclopaedia. (It’s been a long time since encyclopaedia salesmen stopped us on the street!). And with iTunes and its descendents, who really needs to physically own videotapes or music CDs? A nominal rental fee should be sufficient. Free, public-access broadband is already being rolled out. Databases will replace libraries once search engines like Google have scanned copious quantities of old books. Bookshelves, CD shelves, and DVD collections will become relics of the past – fixation that will baffle our children. For many people, the mentality promoted by anarchistic transience affects several aspects of their lives: decides jobs, partners, homes, holiday destinations, trips to the sun, rental cars, toy cars, and new furniture. Amongst the more “virtual” phenomena is the hunt for the latest influences from TV, new music, films, online newspapers, magazines, books, and art. Or, in the words of Luc Ferry, the French philosopher who on a recent trip to Oslo said: “One must first disengage from the home environment; unfold, in order to be open to complete contemplation.”

Language, ideas, media, information – the virtual worlds in which we surround ourselves – are of course not the sum of our environment. But this untamed, weed-like, and therefore anarchic dissemination driven by values, symbols, and cultural artefacts is almost the inverse of Marx’s philosophical construction. The significance of economic and cultural capital changes place. Right now, the emancipation of anarchistic culture is in its infancy. But remember, Marx reflected on capitalist industrialism while living within the confines of English agrarian society. Who would have thought that the country’s hundred or so factories would precipitate global industrialism?

Individual anarchism is the most vital impulse of all time. Furthermore – let me dare to be positive here – is it not precisely here that the seeds of demise for the old hierarchies are to be found? Traditionally the governing powers have always sought to preserve their authority. In a similar way, the capitalists of the market economy attempt to block the production of “pirate” copies of AIDS medicines, Chinese Rolex watches, and Hollywood films on DVD.

However, today the customer is always right, the consumer sits firmly in the driver’s seat, and the welfare society hastens to the side of its rights-hungry citizens. There is a democratizing effect when demand takes power. Consumers can penalize the exploitative capitalist and shareholders can pull out of unethical ventures. Similarly, more and more often today, the PC and the mobile phone are the so-called modes of production, favouring small, dynamic enterprises over traditional industry leaders. The latter become too unwieldy, tripping over themselves in an effort to keep pace with rapidly unfolding diversity, innovation, relocation, and the dynamic of global communication.

Moreover, anarchism modifies the traditional power of capital and hierarchy. Likewise, as mentioned at the outset, the virus fighters have to mimic the virus’ own modus operandi. Here we are facing what Marx was referring to when he said that capitalism’s extraordinary advance would bring about its downfall. When the authorities are influenced by the transitory, shifting, anarchistic fabric, the powers that be will crumble from the inside. When the oppressor becomes reliant on the anarchist, he will – just like the computer virus – become infected.

If they are not put out of action, they will re-form in order to adopt the flat, anarchistic, organisational structure. And right there is where the concepts of equality and freedom are reinforced.

  1. See The Economist, 8/12/05.
  2. See also Jens Bj�rneboe, "Anarchism as Future" from Anarkistisk lesebok, Pax 1970.
  3. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, "Neither God nor Man" from Id�e g�n�rale de la R�volution au XIX si�cle, reprinted in Anarkistisk lesebok along with "Property is Theft!".

Published 23 February 2006

Original in Norwegian
Translation by Nicole M. Fishlock
First published in Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 2/2006

Contributed by Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo)
© Truls Lie/Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) Eurozine

PDF / PRINT

recommended articles