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Re: <nettime> Re: rejoinder: is a radical project identity achievable?
Brian Holmes on Sun, 6 Aug 2006 00:50:06 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Re: rejoinder: is a radical project identity achievable?

[Post from Benjamin Geer, benjamin.geer {AT} gmail.com, addressed 
2 days ago to me and nettime, never made it on nettime. -BH]

On 01/08/06, Brian Holmes <brian.holmes {AT} wanadoo.fr> wrote:

> What kind of culture, what kind of shared horizon can
> help us get there? [...]
> A political culture that can resolve serious differences
> between dissenting groups, and can draw plans for using and
> governing the productive forces that make and shake the
> earthscape [...]
> The exact science of our unbound
> dreams is what governments should be afraid of.

Brian, I sympathise immensely with your motivation for 
asking these questions, but I think this quest for a 
universal progressive political culture is Quixotic and 
perhaps dangerous, despite the best of intentions.

In 2002 I fell under the spell of a hypothesis: that some of 
the principles of what I saw as the political culture of 
free software -- open participation, public ownership of 
knowledge, strong reliance on consensus -- could be applied 
to other kinds of production -- to industry, to agriculture 
-- and could be used to build political systems capable of 
organising human life on a large scale.  I was encouraged to 
find similar principles at work in some European activist 
groups and workers' collectives.  I was disappointed to find 
that many activist groups, however, were organised along the 
opaque, authoritarian lines of traditional political 
parties, and speculated that if European social movements 
could be persuaded instead to put these principles 
(described at http://www.open-organizations.org) into 
practice, they would not only do their work as activists 
better, they would also embody a real alternative to the 
failed models of parliamentary democracy and of the 
political party, an alternative that might thus appeal to 
the broader disillusioned European public.

Indeed, I wondered, could these principles become part of a 
political culture capable of working on a global level, a 
new universalist dream to replace the failed dream of 
communism, in short the Holy Grail evoked by your questions 

I knew enough about ethnocentrism to have strong 
reservations about anything resembling yet another 
Enlightenment project intended to bring a universal 
political culture to the world's benighted masses. I 
wondered: What are the necessary links between one's 
political culture and the rest of the culture that one lives 
in?  How can one choose between the competing claims of any 
proposed new political culture and those of any existing 
culture?  Who can legitimately make such choices?

The Left has tended to settle such questions impatiently, 
without much reflection, by reference to supposedly 
universal principles of Marxism (once thought by many, and 
still by some, to be an "exact science") or of the French 
Enlightenment, or more often, by instinct ("I personally 
can't accept..."), which amounts to the same thing.  Any 
political culture that doesn't correspond to those 
principles therefore appears backward and, it is thought, 
should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

I decided not to look any further for any sort of "shared 
horizon" until I had carefully studied a non-Western 
culture, in its political and other aspects, in some depth. 
 I studied Arabic, and a year ago I began an extended 
period of study in the Middle East.  I have learnt a great 
deal here and hope to learn a great deal more.  I don't have 
answers to the questions I asked above, but I'm more 
convinced than ever that these are hard and important 
questions, not to be brushed aside in any premature rush 
towards an imagined universalism.

I don't think politics can be separated from culture.  The 
British House of Commons, European anarchist working groups, 
and the deliberations among the heads of clans in Upper 
Egypt all have their distinctive cultures.  Perhaps you are 
right, Brian, that tomorrow's social movements need a new 
shared horizon as the basis for international cooperation. 
But even if that's true, let it not be a totalitarian 
horizon, one that attempts to cast all political life in the 
same mould.  Let it be one that allows individuals and 
groups to move freely among political cultures and to 
mediate between them.


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