The Internet

Is there any better proof that anarchy is a viable structure if we melt away our preconceived notions of self and other?  In any case it is good to focus on what we can do…use ideas as models for improvement…I love the anarchists because they ask the most out of humanity, they are deeply attached to the beauty of human potential.

Am I allowed to just copy and paste some scholars article?  I get the impression he wouldn’t care…

Anarchy and the Internet

By Gordon Graham, University of Aberdeen

The word ‘anarchy’ in understood in two ways, one positive and one negative. In the positive use, the way in which celebrated anarchists such as Proudhon and Kropotkin used it, anarchy is absence of government, and for that reason freedom from the coercive power of the state. The negative and more commonplace use of anarchy also denotes the absense of government, but precisely for that reason, it is thought of as a condition of lawlessness and chaos. In short, anarchy – society without the state – can be regarded as an ideal or as a danger.

The arguments in favour of anarchy as an ideal have never really been taken seriously in political theory, perhaps because as an ideal it is widely thought to be self-evidently unrealistic. Yet there is at least this to be said in its favour: the most powerful instrument of human misery, both in times past and in modern times, has been the state. No criminal fraternity has ever come close to creating the degree of terror and suffering which was possible through the agency of the state under Stalin, Hitler, Mao, or Pol Pot. Is it really true that societies without states would be worse than these?

The opponents of anarchy, those who use the word in the negative sense, might reply that we should not judge the merits of the state by its worst exemplars. They might also allow that the coercive state is indeed undesirable, but contend that it is a necessary evil, in much that same way that radical surgery for instance, is a necessary evil. This is a familiar line of argument, one to be found, famously, in Thomas Hobbes. The idea is that the state, defined as the monopolist of legitimate coercion, is needed to prevent the war of all against all, to prosecute justice and to protect the innocent and vulnerable.

The positive anarchist might in turn retort that this contention begs the question. It is a fact that the apparatus of the state, whatever its theoretical purpose, can itself be used to perpetrate injustice and to exploit the innocent and vulnerable. When this happens its effective monopoly on coercion makes matters worse. The anarchist’s question then is whether it is wise to call into existence or to maintain a social institution whose corruption is so devastating.

My purpose here is not to try to resolve the argument between anarchists and the defenders of the state but to show that the prospect of anarchy can be viewed in two different ways, and that those who regard it positively are not without some foundation for their view. This observation is necessary here if we are to make headway with a different question, namely, does the emergence of the Internet constitute a step in the direction of anarchy?, because if so, we must ask in which sense we are thinking of anarchy before we know whether to welcome or fear it.

I

The internet has two striking features, its internationalism and its populism. The internationalism of the internet is not merely the fact that it connects people across nations, for many human devices and activities do this. The point is rather that exploration of the internet is wholly indifferent to international boundaries. People who are otherwise strangers are linked by common interests which have nothing to do with nationality. In this respect the internet is to be contrasted sharply with what philosophers call ‘civil society’, whose characteristic is that it connects strangers by uniting them within one political rule or realm.

For this reason if no other the internet has the potential to be politically subversive. The form of this subversion is deep, however. It is not simply that spies and the like now have a near undetectable form of communication with their political masters, which may be true and important, or that terrorists can swap information in relative security, but that all the interactions on the Net take place without regard to national boundaries. Since the world of international relations hitherto has largely been a matter of relations between states, what this means is that there is a burgeoning sphere of contact and collaboration over which states, even in concert, exercise little or no control. Since the authority of the state, though not identical with its power, indirectly rests upon that power, the potential for the internet to diminish the power of the state by creating spheres of activity indifferent to it, is at the same time a potential to diminish the authority of government. It is for this reason that an anarchist might welcome it.

The second feature of the internet is its populism. Again, it is important to see that it is populist at a deep rather than a superficial level. As things stand there are no credentials required for exploring it or, more importantly, for contributing to it, and no real system of censorship which would screen contributions in the absence of such credentials. The only sort of censorship that has been proposed, by the government of Singapore and the companies which provide access to individuals for instance, has quite another purpose. Moreover, with the widespread availability of computers in schools and colleges, and the institution of the internet cafe, the costs of using and adding are so minimal that they too do little to dent the populism of the system as a whole.

It is this populist character that brings most cheer to the anarchist, for it seems to present the possibility of a new international social order in which the most humble can have unrestricted access to a world of information, and no less importantly contribute directly to the formation of that world. People on the internet are acting and allying in accordance with their own individual interests and choices and their freedom to do so is unchecked by national boundaries or coercive powers. The realization of positive anarchy is complete once we add to this picture the image of frustrated governments looking on, helpless despite all their coercive powers.

This analysis, and the scenario it envisages, though not entirely fanciful, makes a number of assumptions which need to be examined. The first is that knowledge is power. It is only if this is true that widespread unrestricted access to knowledge constitutes popular empowerment, and correspondingly that the inability to restrict it counts as a diminution in the power of the state. The second assumption is that the ability to contribute to the world of the internet also constitutes a power, an influence on outcomes in that world. This assumption is closely connected with some issues in democratic theory. These cannot be examined properly here, but it is to be noted that there is an important question whether widespread participation actually produces power for the people in any real sense.

A provisional conclusion must be this. The case for thinking that the internet has strongly positive features for those who regard anarchy as an ideal is not without substance. But it can only be adequately substantiated if investigation bears out some crucial assumptions.

II

To the mind that regards anarchy as a condition to be feared, the very same features of the internet which the anarchist praises might be thought to be its defects – the internet is the perfect fomenting ground for criminal conspiracies accessible to and calling upon the lowest common denominator of human motivation. Such a point of view, however, makes precisely the same assumptions, and is thus subject to the same reservations. If there is nothing else to be said on this issue, we can at least say that the pessimist’s case is no weaker but then again no stronger than the optimist’s.

There is however a further line of thought worth exploring. This rests upon the idea that what the internet encourages is not so much political as moral anarchy, and that moral anarchy is inherently destructive. To see this we need to look a little more closely at the idea of a moral education. Here I can only offer a brief sketch of a line of thought which rests upon some rather dogmatic assertions in moral psychology.

I shall use the word ‘preferences’ as a generic term for the human motivations which have some sort of positive evaluative component – desire, interest, curiosity and so on – as opposed to those that are more brute – fear, anger, embarrassment and so on. ‘Preferences’ in this sense are at least in part natural. That is to say, before socializing has taken much hold, even before it has begun perhaps, some such preferences are present in human beings and help to explain their behaviour. The process of socializing may be construed as the refinement of these preferences through a process of submission to external influences.

Thus, for instance, the preference for expressing oneself is in this sense natural; without it human beings would not acquire language. But this preference is, in itself, literally incoherent; it is only with the acquisition of an inherited and uninvented language that it can properly be realized. The acquisition of such a language is the submission of this natural preference for self-expression to the disciplines of the community of language speakers.

Something of the same sort, it seems to me, should be said about morality. Whatever the natural impulses that lie at its heart and, as it were, constitute the active basis of moral consciousness, they gain definition as they are submitted to the refining process of an inherited and uninvented set of values and practices. It is a mistake in my view to think that things are valued because they are desired; rather, our desires are fashioned as we tailor them to what we learn, through inherited collective experience, about what is worth desiring, that is, what is valuable. Thus, for example, a taste for music may, in my sense, be a natural preference, but it is a taste which achieves maturity through being fashioned by learning about the musical forms and compositions which collective experience shows to be adequate objects for its realization.

Conceived in this way, moral education is most obvious in the early years of a life, but it continues indefinitely, and at every stage its form is the same – the submission and tempering of natural preferences to socializing influences. This has the happy outcome of co-ordinating the preferences of otherwise disparate human beings, and hence making civilized society possible. In short, it is a process of socialization, and it is no accident in my view that serious social deviants, notably serial killers, have usually been radically alienated in some respect by their psychological histories.

Now what is striking about the internet is that it allows, even encourages, the formation of what I shall call pure confluences of interest. That is to say, the ability simply to surf a vast unstructured web of preferences give scope to mere congruence rather than co-ordination. Surfers have the the opportunity to seek out kindred spirits and to pass over the sort of reforming and refining influences that operate in normal processes of learning. This is evidenced most strikingly perhaps in such things as child pornography networks where, I shall assert, evil preferences are unchecked because those things which would check them can be ignored by the surfer, and are then strengthened by meeting with confirming responses.

The logical outcome of this is moral fragmentation rather than moral community. Such fragmentation is anarchic in the bad sense, since it is a means for the release and conjunction of untutored preferences of any and every kind. Of course, it can never be complete, because a basic level communication is always required, communication requires a language of some sort, and in turn this requires the submission of personal preferences to socializing influences in the way previously described. Moreover, for the conjunction of untutored preferences to result in combined activity itself requires a measure of social order and discipline. But what is permitted by this new method of contact between human beings is a far more widespread release of free spirits, without the civilizing influences which normally harness and constrain them.

III

This way of thinking is not meant to be alarmist. It means only to indicate that the internet is indeed something new with possibilities which need to be fathomed. In sketching a certain line of thought which advances certain conclusion, I mean to raise issues, not to preclude other conclusions. More importantly, if the suggestion I have made can be sustained, it carries no clear implication about what, if anything, can be done about it.

Let’s Get Free!

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2 Responses to The Internet

  1. Pingback: Pages tagged "crucial"

  2. Pingback: Consider the Analogy… « Active Philosophy

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