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nettime: the liberty tree
McKenzie Wark on Sat, 18 Jan 97 12:25 MET


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nettime: the liberty tree



Some of our American friends like to think they
invented this 'libertarian' idea -- be it cyber
libertarian or the regular kind. Perhaps its a myth
we ought to leave alone. Or perhaps there might be
a bit more perspective to be had if we put it into
some sort of context.

American libertarian thought seems to me to have two 
characteristics that recurr in it pretty frequently. 
Firstly, it thinks of power as something negative.
Power is just a limit, a fetter, an artifice. Left to
their true nature, people will be free. 

The second characteristic is its optimism. Its the 
belief that liberty really can be acheived, if the
negative restraint of power is removed.

Following on from this double assumption, libertarians
are obliged to make choices. Its a question of deciding
where lies the evidence of our true, free nature, and of
deciding what are the fetters placed upon it that it matters
most to remove.

American libertarians seem to me to divide on this, but
nevertheless to share these common assumptions. 

For example, cyberlibertarians assume that the state and the
broadcast model of media are the things that are fetters,
and the market and the network model of media are the existing
beginnings of our true, free selves. 

This suspicion of the state certainly has genuinely American
roots. The American constitution must still be the only one
written by people who were in the main fundamentally suspicious
of the state, and who set about dividing and limiting its
power as best they could. Jefferson's views aren't necessarily
typical, but they were certainly influential. Limit the state
to the role of policeman. It just performs the negative function
of protecting life and property. The rest is to be left to
citizens themselves.

The paradox is that the American state is and remains, to my way
of thinking, designed to function *badly*. And function badly
it does. This can then be taken as evidence of why the state
necessarily functions badly. So get it out of the way, and
let the market take over. The optimism of the libertarian view
sees this as simply clearing the way for an automatic, perhaps
even 'natural' process of self organisation that can't go
wrong, provided it is left to itself.

Other libertarians may not have so much faith in the market
as the natural expression of liberty -- but its likely they have
an equally naturalistic understanding of liberty and an
equally limited idea of power as a fetter on liberty. Libertarians
may just as likely see big business as the no. 1 enemy of 
liberty (as indeed do most ordinary Americans, according to
the polls). Libertarians may just as likely have a rural and
collectivist model of the ture free nature of man as a market plus
gadget one. But it seems to me that the argument still works
according to the same terms.

Now, there are at least two other kinds of libertarian thinking.
Liberty is more a weed that grows out of lots of cracks in
lots of cultures than a tree dreamed up by english gentlemen and
planted by American small farmer-revolutionaries and somehow
inherited by the farmers of patents in California.

Sydney Libertarianism (or Freethought) was more pessismistic that
optimistic. I grew up in the shadow of this particular tradition, 
and its one of the vantage points from which i look on to the
American debates. A vantage point from which they appear a little
odd. That Sydney had its own Libertarian tradition is probably of 
no interest to an international readership (although it gave the
world Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes). I use it as my example
of the idea that there are probably lots of mutant libertarian
weeds out there. 

What its important for in this context is its pessimism. It was
deeply suspicious of all save-the-world schemes, and all claims
to leadership towards the promised land. It saw these as hold
overs of religious thinking. The struggle to create zones of
liberty was always something that would be conducted in the 
margin, by those few who chose to take the responsibility for
their own liberty (an anticpation, among other tings, of Sartre).
The idea of a libertarian popular movement of any kind looks
deeply suspicious. In particular, the coercive side of cyber
libertarianism comes into view from this pessimistic perspective.
The way it announces itself first as an option and the reveals
that it is compulsory. As in: wouldn't be great if we all just
got on the net and sent out positive vibes and made the state
go away. And by the way, if you don't get with program, your
business will be ruined, your country will be impoverished, and
your kids will be picking over garbage in some new addition to
the third world.

We can also question cyberlibertarianism from another angle.
The assumption that power equals state power equals a negative
restraint on liberty. While liberty equals nature -- as in Kevin
Kelly's fabulously funny *unintentional* parody of Mandeville's
Fable of the Bees: kick out the artificial structures and let
the hive mind rule, OK? 

There was always another way of thinking in the English language
tradition. David Hume overturned the assumptions of Hobbes and
Locke that the role of the state is as negative limit. He saw
the state as a collection of institutional forms of artifice that
take our private and particular passions as their raw material,
and reshape our nature in ways that make those passions productive
and that maximise our free movement and creation. So rather than
the state as just the policeman preventing the "war of all 
against all", its a collection of institutions that do not
limit 'human nature', but rather reshape it into something else --
into our 'second nature'. Three institutions were particularly
important to Hume: justice, property and conversation. These
were the tools that provide the abstract landscape on which 
productive, collaborative forms of action can take place.

Adam Smith, Hume's friend, was substantially in agreement with
this. While Smith has become a posterboy for the market libertrians,
its worth remembering that in the Wealth of Nations he was just as
concerned with the artifice of instititions of both market and
state. He saw both as equally creations of second nature, rather
than as just naturally 'there'. He saw both as necessary for
liberty and prosperity.

Here we start to undermine the assumption in cyberliberarian
thinking that it shares with a lot of its American sparring
partners -- the idea of power as artificial limit and liberty as
nature. Perhaps its no accident that when Gilles Deleuze started
looking for intellectual bases for a 'new' concept of liberty,
the first place he looked was David Hume. His first book, on
Hume, is where I first found hispositive valuation of Hume's
concept of the artifice of institutions and their contribution
to creating spaces of liberty out of the particulars of desire.
I've since discovered that the Oxford philosopher J. L. Mackie,
one of the most distingusihed products of Sydney Libertarianism,
has thought along the same lines. But back to Deleuze. His work,
together with that of Michel Foucault, represent an attempt to
think liberty on quite other grounds than the removal of 
repressive limits on 'nature'. Suspicious, like Hume, of all
appeals to 'human nature', they argue that, regardless of what
human nature may once have been, it is also something radically
refashioned by institutions of desire, in Deleuze's terms, or
of power (Foucault). 

Deleuze was interested in the way people come to desire their
own oppression. The way desire forms a symbiotic and self-
limiting relation with institutions that make it reproduce
that instituition as just more of the same. State and market
institutions both do this in their own ways. Even the supposedly
liberatory market calls on desire to free itself from its
investments in simply reproducing the old, calls on desire to
differentiate itself only to the extent that the result can be
captured again by the market itself. The market encourages
liberated desire only to the extent that it expands the market.
Its just another case of desire producing more of the same.
One can take this though and look at cyberlibertarianism: the
great freedom of the market plus the network seems to produce
the liberation of the most banal desires. You get to shoot
things, fuck things, feel like a million bucks. Or be what
Lovink and others called a datadandy, holed up in some
perverse and geekish corner of the information landscape. 

At this point, cue the old Peggy Lee song:
"Is that all there is?
Is *that* all there is? 
If that's all there is my friend,
then lets keep dancing.
Lets break out the beer, and have, a ball."
-- and no doubt i owe someone for permission to quote it.

Rather than see power as a negative limit, Foucault saw it as
positive, productive. As actually producing the things that
in the old framework it was help to repress. His example
was the sexuality of Victorian England. Far from being
repressed, this was a time, he found, when sex was *everywhere*.
Discussed as taste, morality, science -- everywhere. Most
of his work was on disciplinary apparatuses -- those enclosed
spaces on the fringes of the market that are the other side of
the modern experience of the social world. He was interested in
the extent to which we are produced by the apparatuses through
which we pass -- schools, hospitals, clinics, workplaces. Its
a view in which the 'natural' self just disappears. We are
entirely shaped by the institutions of second nature, working
on the raw material of the body and forming it in its productive
shapes. 

This is a perverse way of looking at David Hume. Its no accident
that Foucault's main example was Jeremy Bentham, Hume's English
disciple. But while Foucault's early work is a bleak catalogue
of institutions that are anything but liberty enhancing, his late 
work looked at the positive idea of liberty as self-formation.

Here we come to the main break Deleuze, Foucault and their mad pal
Felix Guattari made with the libertarian thinking they inherited.
Like their American counterparts, they came across people like
Wilhelm Reich who were firmly of the view that if one stripped away
a couple of layers of 'false' character structure, our true, free
nature would be revealed, underneath. But where in America the
trend was mostly to keep this structure of though and simply change
the poles of its opposition and its optimism, Deleuze and co. 
rehtought the whole business along new lines. 

In particular, they rejected the oppositional nature of libertarian
thought. When libertarians oppose themselves to the state, they
all too often are just an undeclared alternative state-in-waiting.
One that offers no less open and productive an institutional guarrantee
for liberty than the one already in effect. When Wired moved from
purely negative critiques of the state to 'Netizen', this became all
too obvious. Its not that I find Netizen all that bad an idea. A lot
of the proposals are pretty sound, reformist, dare i say oddly
social democratic stuff. Its the bad faith that I object to. On the
one hand, the unexamined principles of the old libertarian ideology.
On the other, the shrug of the shoulders: well, you just have to
make compromises to get anyuthing done, etc. We've heard it all
before. Wouldn't it be better to rethink the whole thing, not as
opposition to the state,  but as a philosophy of fashioning 
institutions that produce productive, self organising outcomes? 

If we let go of the oppositional thinking: state-bad / market-good
(which of course opposes itself to imaginary opposite doctrines...),
then we can think about practices of forming heterogeneous institutional
forms that have elements of these forms of organisation -- and many
others as well. 

None of which is terribly startling. A Humean libertarian philosophy
would be practical, sceptical. Its not the only kind of libertaarian
thought one might want to see flourishing. Its not about opposing
cyberlibertarian thought with a single alternative. There's a whole
other understnading of power, of desire to be found, for example, in
Spinoza. Liberty is a weed that grows in lots of places -- perhaps
everywhere. As I write, Korean workers are fighting in the streets
with cops. Its a scene that makes the old May 68 in Paris look like
a tea party. The axes of struggle have shifted in the world. Marx
said that in his day, the Germans thought about it and the French
did it. Now one could say the Europeans think about it while Asia
does it. Fight for liberty, that is -- under whatever name. 

McKenzie Wark
netletter #9
18th January 1997


__________________________________________
"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
http://www.mcs.mq.edu.au/~mwark
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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