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<nettime> markets, states, associations (was: reverse engineered freedom
Brian Holmes on Mon, 29 Sep 2003 05:46:07 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> markets, states, associations (was: reverse engineered freedom...)


Ryan Griffis wrote:

>i'm just wondering what it means to break politics
>down into 3 categories that distinguish between
>"markets, governments and voluntary associations," and
>saying they are representative of all modern social
>activity.

The theoretical point of looking at human organization in terms of 
those three poles (not categories) is to conceive a field of tension 
which is structured by all three, but where you can still distinguish 
the differences. Thus, the state conditions the market (pretty 
obviously: that's why people talk about state capitalism), but can't 
be reduced to it; the reverse it also true (neoliberalism really has 
brought about a reduction of certain aspects of the state in favor of 
market transactions where corporations play the leading role); and 
volontary associations are squeezed and provoked in all kinds of ways 
by the state bureaucracies and the commercially provided services 
(not to mention all the work you're supposed to do to get them).

This appears quite evident but there are always people saying that 
the market is the only true force, or that it's actually the state 
pulling all the strings, or that tomorrow we will find ourselves in a 
libertarian world without either of these nuisances. I think that the 
state, everywhere that it's instituted (i.e. throughout the modern, 
technologically advanced societies) is here to stay in a big way and 
that it's absurd (and to some extent dangerous, as David points out) 
to imagine you're going to escape it. Capitalism is always a little 
more fragile because crisis-prone (but people like their markets). 
However I also think it's extremely interesting to create autonomous 
formations which can carve out more space at a distance from the 
state and the market.

In the end though, the kind of "autonomous" formations that actually 
exist, and specifically, the kinds of social movements that exist, 
have everything to do with the changing balance between the state and 
the market - as over the last twenty years, when there's largely been 
a shift from a Keynesian welfare state, focusing on universal 
provision of services in an at least partially planned economy (a 
situation in which unions and collective bargaining could still 
channel most of the social movement activity) to a more stripped-down 
form of the state, giving up most of the universal entitlements, 
focusing on coercive forces like justice, police, prisons, etc., and 
using "workfare" type programs to push people toward jobs which 
themselves are much more individualized, flexible, less amenable to 
collective bargaining, etc. So in this period you have seen the rise, 
or really, the black hole, of "excluded people" with their really 
desperate social movements (homeless, jobless, paperless, etc.) and 
also the rise of a more individualized kind of activism that draws on 
the new skills and possibilities opened up by the flexible 
professions (tactical media, anyone?). In both cases, the changing 
form of the autonomous movements parallels the changes in the other 
two poles.

This way of looking at things (which is derived from the work of Karl 
Polanyi and his many followers) gets interesting when you start 
considering the way that the market or capitalist end, with the "myth 
of the free market" that you mention, has tried in recent years to 
more fully commodify the fundamentals of land (or the natural 
environment, the ecology), labor (the human capacity to directly 
transform the world), knowledge (the accumulated transformative 
potential of symbolic insciption, ranging from hard science to art 
and literature) and money (the means for keeping track of exchanges). 
Under the central planning state, public institutions had a larger 
role in caretaking all of these fundamentals, whose reproduction can 
never be assured only by the logic of market transactions, which tend 
just to prey on them, resulting in increased pollution and 
exploitation, more hierarchized and commodified access to knowledge, 
and periodically intensifying economic crises (untenable spirals of 
shaky private debts backed up by other shaky private debts, which 
threaten the very value of public money). In these situations, which 
I actually think are quite dangerous, you do have the interesting 
phenomenon of people forming voluntary associations to try and 
restore the balances, but without forming permanent institutions to 
do so. This is the tremendously innovative side of the recent 
movements, which for me are the most interesting game to play right 
now. I was just saying in my earlier post that it's always a kind of 
limited game, where you might get more achieved by thinking 
strategically about what kind of changes you'd like to wring out of 
the state and the market, rather than just kind of getting 
enthusiastic about the idea that they might disappear.

I really think that the current state form has come extremely close 
to the market, and at the same time, it has oriented the market 
formations (corporations, that is) toward coercive and military 
activities, giving us a nasty looking world of what you can also call 
"transnational state capitalism." That all of this has been possible 
proves how little the state has really responded to any so-called 
"democratic" pressures. Let's also say the union, co-management model 
in particular has proven to have all kinds of disadvantages in terms 
of successfully controlling the corporations. So the interesting 
thing would be to try to establish some new balance of power (what 
they call a "rapport de forces" in French) where you'd have more 
input coming from the civil society or voluntary asociation side - 
which in its turn presupposes access to knowledge and tools and 
education and free time for the people wanting to do the freely 
associating politics. There is a real possibility for gains in this 
respect, in Europe anyway, and I think a lot of the struggles around 
intellectual property right now are oriented by that perspective (in 
addition to good old solidarity with all the people who are getting 
burned very badly by the current transnational state capitalism). If 
we lose the freedoms, but also the service provisions of the 
Internet, for instance - well, we're fucked, to use a little more 
street-level kind of language. It'd be nice to have libraries in the 
future too, don't you think? Good reason to go to Geneva for the WSIS 
meetings with Florian and Geert and Steve Cisler (a librarian) and 
probably a quarter of the people on this list!

I hope that all this has the slighest grain of usefulness. If not, a 
little ASCII is cheap at this point and the delete button is always 
handy.

best, Brian

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