What is politics? Is it the influence of the public on governing policies or the influence of state on public affairs? It could be argued that in a democracy it is the former, and in a dictatorship it is the latter. In essence though, they are two sides of the same coin. Both infer a separation between the people and the government.
It seems that the hierarchy which separates the majority from a governing elite has always existed in human society, in some form or another. From tribal leaders to superpower governments, stratification of power seems to be an inevitability in human social structure.
How did this come about? Is it that humans are easily led, happy to outsource authority? Perhaps there is some element of this. Psychology of control no doubt plays a part in the rise to power. However, it’s evident that the roots of authority stem significantly from resource acquisition.
From Jeff Vail’s “A Theory of Power” which can be downloaded at his site:
“When one farmer was able to grow more than his neighbours, he would have surplus to distribute, and these gifts created social obligations. Farmers would compete to grow the greatest surplus, because this surplus equated to social standing, wives, and power. The result of larger surpluses was that there was more food to support a greater population, and the labors of this greater population would, in turn, produce more surplus. The fact that surplus production equates to power, across all scales, is the single greatest driver of growth in hierarchy.” http://www.jeffvail.net/2005/03/theory-of-power-online.html
Growth, by definition, is continuous. Acquisition leads to accumulation and with this comes more power to accumulate even more. Today, we see how resource acquisition and accumulation have reached their conclusion with an unrivaled superpower with the United States.
And we see, as their accumulation reaches global limits (assisted by peak oil and a destruction of the global economy), as does their power.
At its essence, the goal of governance is, and always has been, the allocation of resources. Ideologies and philosophies may masquerade as politics, but they are just distractions from this true purpose. These philosophies serve as a convenient illusion to the public who believe they are influencing public policies, when really it’s all just about the resources.
However, in recent years, this is becoming more obvious. The masses are realizing that the influence of powerful lobbying groups on governance is no small coincidence. They are seeing wealth drain from society into the hands of minorities - the rich elite - and they are seeing how accumulation is self-perpetuating. Resource allocation is at the core of this and it is forcing people to question the validity and sustainability of the political system we call capitalism.
Politics in the Connected Age
The internet has been hailed as a “technological liberator” for its role in raising the profile of these oppressive forces. We saw this take on significance first with Twitter’s influence in the Arab spring, where it assisted in informing and mobilizing those directly involved as well as raising awareness to the wider world.
The effectiveness of awareness is gaining prominence as the internet speeds up the process and gives us more opportunities to study its effects. A recent scientific finding found that there is a “tipping point” of ideas which is lower than we might have expected. These revolutions, although short lived, may owe their success to the reaching of this threshold.
“Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals.”
This concept of “minority rules” is consequential for all those who want to further their agenda. Of course, this becomes useful not only to the oppressed – but to the oppressors themselves.
Evgeny Morozov has written and talked extensively about this. His TED talk, “How the Net aids dictatorships”, explains how authoritarian administrations use the openness of the internet for their own advantage.
As well as simply spying on citizens with what is essentially “open source intelligence”, dictatorships can also manipulate the interaction for their own ends. Rebellions can be quashed by simply planting seeds of distrust within the participants. Also, involving the population can serve other, more subtle purposes, such as allowing them to “share the blame for failed policies” or diverting focus towards less significant issues.
A Harvard study echoed these sentiments albeit not so strongly, remarking that the management of information was secondary to the role of the internet in organizing political movements.
From Political Change in the Digital Age: The Fragility and Promise of Online Organizing:
“…policymakers and scholars that have been most optimistic about the impact of digital tools have over-emphasized the role of information, specifically access to alternative and independent sources of information and unfiltered access to the Internet. We argue, in contrast, that more attention should be paid to the means of overcoming the difficulties of online organisation in the face of authoritarian governments in an increasingly digital geopolitical environment.
"The Internet has an important role in increasing information sharing, access to alternative platforms, and allowing new voices to join political debates. The Internet will continue to serve these functions, even with state pushback, as activists devise ways around state online restrictions. Conditions that contribute to success are likely determined not by the given technological tool, but by human skill and facility in using the networks that are being mobilized. … It is less clear how far online organizing and digital communities will be allowed to push states toward drastic political change and greater democratization, especially in states where offline restrictions to civic and political organisation are severe. As scholars, we ought to focus our attention on the people involved and their competencies in using digitally-mediated tools to organize themselves and their fellow citizens, whether as flash mobs or through sustained social movements or organisations, rather than the flow of information as such." http://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/4609956
So then came the Occupy movement. From the frustration and passion, both new, and updated modes of politics were born – many of these which could not have existed in the pre-internet age. These modes, or “micro-political modules”, are, in true peer to peer fashion – reproducible and open. They can be integrated piece by piece into current political systems without requiring disruptive overhauls to the political process. Yet overall, their potential to shift political landscapes is substantial.
- The permanent occupation provided a physical anchor for virtual supporters.
- Acting as a “leaderless” movement increased interest in peer-run organisations and open initiatives.
- The General Assemblies became examples of open democracy out in public.
- The movement’s open source ideology allowed observers to become participants by not restricting control of the methodology – allowing anyone to get involved and connect to the movement with their own particular angle – ie Occupy Energy.
- Of course the whole endeavor has been run from the beginning with a huge emphasis on social media. An ever growing network was was used for raising awareness, sharing resources, documenting experiences, and sharing stories – and not just by the movement themselves but outsiders as well.
- Add to these mainly philosophical modules a whole host of physical modules, such as street medics, legal teams, free kitchens, campsites, and street infrastructure, reignited a previously forgotten confidence in community, and helped push the realization that if we come together and help each other, we can be extremely sufficient.
Read more about this module based political “API” here: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/11/a-guide-to-the-occupy-wall-street-api-or-why-the-nerdiest-way-to-think-about-ows-is-so-useful/248562/
Activism is one thing, but actually influencing policies and progressing democratic systems is quite another. How can the interconnection afforded by the internet allow people to really achieve any degree of control over the systems of politics? How can the people hope to have a chance of out-competing hierarchy in an environment where resource accumulation rewards itself? Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation believes that this interconnection can give rise to significant global coordination which will, in time, totally out-compete traditional politics.
"If you observe an occupation, you see a community that is producing its politics autonomously, not following hierarchical or authoritarian political movements with a pre-ordained program; you see for-benefit institutions in charge of the provisioning of the occupiers (food, healthcare), and the creation of an ethical economy around it (such as Occupy’s Street Vendor Project). This is prefigurative of a new form of society in which the commons is at the core of value creation; these commons’ are maintained by non-profit institutions, and the livelihoods are guaranteed through an ethical economy. Of course there are historical precedents, but what is new is the extraordinary organisational, mobilization and co-learning potential of their networks. Occupy works as an open API with modules, such as ‘protest camping’, ‘general assemblies’, which can be used as templates and modified by all, without the need for central leadership. We can now have global coordination and mutual alignment of a multitude of small-group dynamics, and this requires a new type of leadership. The realization of historical moment of Peak Hierarchy, the moment in which distributed networks asymmetrically challenge vertical institutions in a way they could not do before, forces social movements to look for new ways of governance…
“We have reached a point in history, a true turning point, where a new form of social organisation, starts to outcompete hierarchy.”
As technology moves forward, the internet is becoming much more than just the sharing of information. It is now facilitating increasingly complex applications – functional systems of connectivity which empower and transform people.
Where such applications take on political significance is when they empower people to re-take control of resources. We are seeing this gather momentum most notably in the field of “collaborative consumption” – which is: “a social and economic system driven by network technologies that enable the sharing and exchange of all kinds of assets from spaces to skills to cars in ways and on a scale never possible before.” We are also seeing a growing number of non-profits, coordinated through the internet, which aim to outcompete traditional enterprises with their for-benefit - rather than for-profit - models.
Politics = Resources
And so it comes back to resources. He who controls the resources, may control the masses. But the internet is turning this around. Our connectedness lends itself to speed and efficiency, awareness, and most importantly, to community.
In the end, the shift away from hierarchy is inevitable. Benefit driven people will use the tools of connectivity to build more resilient communities, coming together to build alternative models of resource management. They will find ways around state sponsored restrictions, grass roots knowledge increasingly trumping media manipulation. Globally and locally connected communities, will, eventually, out-compete traditional hierarchy.
Ideas, many based around fairness, will reach their tipping points with accelerating frequency, forcing the elite to concede their power little by little. As the public grows educated and informed, the traditional tricks of authority will lose their potency.
It may seem that there is a long way to go. But the connected public has ingenuity and adaptability on their side.
“Government is slow. Change is fast, government is slow, and the gap between the two fills with lost opportunity. Soon this gap is going to be larger than the positive functions of government, as things like spectrum regulation and inane copyright and patent law strangle progress in increasingly vital areas. Vested interests co-opt the collective power of the people and use it to line their own pockets at the expense of all, and as the network documents what is wrong, but the polling booths offer no remedy, cracks will begin to show.
In America you can see it around medical marijuana. In Sweden, it’s around copyright. In China, it’s about free speech and free access to information. In all cases, the problem is that governments are failing to adapt to the current conditions. People flow like water, but the governments stand like stones.” Vinay Gupta
This post was originally published in Spirit of the Times Magazine.