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<nettime> Protocols and Crises
Felix Stalder on Mon, 30 Jan 2017 15:17:32 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Protocols and Crises


[This text is an abstract for a larger argument I hope to develop on how
to frame the political character of the crisis, by understanding the
appeal of trump and other stongmen, while trying to avoid the trap of
leftwing nationalism (which I think is largely an illusion). I know it's
very abstract and I'm not even sure if the argument really works, but
it's perhaps a start.... Felix]


*Protocols and Crises*

During the 1990s much has been made of the role of soft power, that is,
the power to shape experience, desires and goals through attraction,
persuasion and co-optation. Culture, international cooperation and civil
society were viewed as increasingly important fields and actors, whereas
the military was viewed as less effective means of the last resort. What
unites soft and hard power is that its actors and actions, if not part
of representative political institutions, were at least visible and thus
addressable through public debate (as ineffective as this might have
been in many cases).

Neo-liberal power, however, works differently and over the last 30
years, its mode of operation has become dominant. Central to its
practice is the notion of the protocol, that is, the rules of engagement
of independent actors who do not bound in a hierarchical relationship of
command and obedience to one another. Rather, a protocol generates a
space of possible encounters by creating a set of highly-structured
conditions under which interaction becomes possible in the first place.
The rules of the protocols, which can be technical, legal or normative,
are binding in as much as acceptance of the rules is a precondition for
entering into the space of agency and potentiality created by them. And,
since they form the very basis of interaction, they are constantly
reinforced by those who ACT according to them, rather than by those who
created them.

Protocols, like rules and laws in general, are performative, rather than
representative. They don't describe the world, they create it. However,
contrary to laws, acceptance of protocols is voluntary and they are
legitimized by their use. In practice, however the price of
non-acceptance – the exclusion from the space of interaction – can often
be so high, that voluntariness exists only only the most formal level.

Over the last 30 years, neo-liberal elites created dense sets of
protocols, opening complex arenas of global interaction, most of them
structured to promote neo-liberal goals of competition through market
exchange. A faceless, actorless power-structures emerged, where rules
are enforced but never justified. Under the experience of a general
crisis, this creates an experience of ubiquitous, unaccountable power
that works by creating highly unequal worlds and then abandoning people
to fend for themselves. Against this background, a new desire for
embodied power has emerged, power that can be located and that can break
the detested rules, “the bad deal”. This, at least partially, is the
appeal of the current wave of right-wing strongmen.

A progressive answer to this crisis, however, cannot lie primarily in
the return to the nation state and hierarchy, hoping to revive the
welfare state of the 1960s. Rather, practice of protocolarian power
needs to be retooled, in terms of enlarging the range of actors
involved, making their agency visible and accountable, and, perhaps most
importantly, changing the character of the rules themselves, so that
they engender new modes of cooperation and material sustainability,
rather competition and financialization.


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