AN « EXCESS » OF DEMOCRACY (2/3)
Networked forms of the 1960s/70s were distinctive because essential to their origin, character and sustainability were values of solidarity, equality and democracy. Consciousness of these origins could help us now, when networked organizations are everywhere, to distinguish between the instrumental use of the concept of network in essentially undemocratic organizations (i.e. within states and corporations) and, on the other hand, as a way of connecting distributed activities based on shared values of social justice and democratically agreed norms.
The latter possibility is radically enhanced through the new information and communications technology in its non-proprietorial forms. The new possibilities of systems coordinating a multiplicity of autonomous organizations with shared values, through democratically agreed norms or protocol, can help upscale economic organizations based on non-capitalist – collaborative, P2P (peer to peer organizations such as The Pirate Bay) co-operative or other social and democratic – forms of ownership, production, distribution and finance.
What enables us to make this apparently surprising dive from the forms of organization shaped by the consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement (or indeed other civil society initiatives of the same period, such as the factory shop stewards’ committees combining against multi-plant, multinational corporations and developing alternative plans for socially useful production is the importance they give to practical, experiential knowledge and the need to share and socialize it.
The political economy of knowledge
The reason why this is important for the development of a political economy beyond capitalism is that behind the imposed choice between capitalist market and the state is the polarization between scientific, social and economic knowledge on the one hand and practical knowledge on the other. While the former was regarded as the heart of economic planning and centralized through the state, defenders of the free market sustained the latter as being held individually by the entrepreneur, capable of coordination only through the arbitrary workings of the market, based on private ownership. The relevant step forward of the women’s and other movements of the 1960s/70s was to make the sharing and socializing of experiential knowledge – in combination with scientific forms – fundamental to their focused, but always experimental, organizations. And to do so through consciously coordinated (networked) and self-reflexive relations between autonomous (distributed) initiatives.
Translating this into economics in the age of information and communications technology – a project requiring much further work – points to the possibility of forms of co-ordination that can include and help to regulate a non-capitalist market. A regulated, socialized market, that is, in which the drive to accumulate and make money out of money is effectively inhibited. It also provides a base for democratizing and, where appropriate, decentralizing the state, within the context of democratically agreed social goals (such as concerning equality and ecology).
It is over these issues concerning the sharing of knowledge and information and the implications for the relationship between autonomy and social co-ordination that the ideas coming from the Occupy movement can creatively converge with those of earlier movements. It is interesting in this context to read the economics working group of Occupy London describing in the Financial Times how Frederick von Hayek, the Austrian economist and theorist of free-market capitalism, with his ideas on the significance of distributed knowledge, is the talk of Occupy London. No doubt this was partly a rhetorical device for the FT audience. But the challenge of answering Hayek and his justification of the free market on the basis of a theory of distributed practical and/or experiential knowledge does provide a useful way of clarifying for ourselves the importance of the networked social justice initiatives of today and the anti-authoritarian social movements of the past for an alternative political economy. (http://www.tni.org/archives/books_arguments)
There is a point at which Hayek’s critique of the ‘all knowing state’ at first glance converges with the critique of the social democratic state made by the libertarian-social movement left in the 1960s/70s. Both challenge the notion of scientific knowledge as the only basis for economic organization and both emphasize the importance of practical and experiential knowledge and its ‘distributed’ character. But when it comes to understanding the nature of this practical knowledge and hence its relation to forms of economic organization, these perspectives diverge radically.
Whereas Hayek theorizes this practical knowledge as inherently individual and hence points to the arbitrary, unplanned and unplannable workings of the market and the price mechanism, the radicals of the 1960s/70s took, as we have just explained, a very different view. For them, the sharing of knowledge embedded in experience and collaboration to create a common understanding and self-consciousness of their subordination and of how to resist, was fundamental to the process of becoming a movement. In contrast to the individualism of Hayek, their ways of organizing assumed that practical knowledge could be socialized and shared. This led to ways of organizing that emphasized communication and shared values as a basis for co-ordination and a common direction. It provided the basis for purposeful and therefore more or less plannable action – action that was always experimental, never all-knowing; the product of distributed intelligence that could be consciously shared.
At the risk of being somewhat schematic, it could be argued that the movements of the 1960s/70s applied these ideas especially to develop an unfinished vision of democratizing the state. This took place both through attempts to create democratic, participatory ways of administering public institutions (universities and schools, for example) and through the development of non-state sources of democratic power (women’s centers, police monitoring projects and so on). It involved working ‘with/in and against’ the state, such as in the early 1980s when Madrid was handled by Enrique Tierno Galvan and the Greater London Council was led by Ken Livingstone.
Today’s movements are effectively focusing their energies especially on challenging the oligarchic market, and the injustice of corporate, financial power. Here the development of networked forms are increasingly linked to distributed economic initiatives – co-ops, credit unions, open software networks, collaborative cultural projects and so on. In this way, today’s movements are beginning to develop in practice a vision of socializing production and finance and creating an alternative kind of market, complementary to the earlier unfinished vision of democratic public power.
What they have in common, more in practice than in theory, is an assertion of organized democratic civil society as an economic actor, both in the provision of public goods and in the sphere of market exchange.