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Re: <nettime> Re: rejoinder: is a radical project identity achievable?
Benjamin Geer on Sun, 6 Aug 2006 05:35:10 +0200 (CEST)

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

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 above?

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

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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