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Carl Schmitt updated for the age of the Party of We

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
21st February 2011


This really is a moment when centralized top-down legacy systems are coming into conflict with distributed, decentralized, bottom-up systems

Below, two very interesting excerpts that analyses the nature of contemporary p2p politics. In the first, we see the filesharing support community described as ‘partisans’, i.e. temporary mobilizations defending an already required style of life. The second focuses on the nature of the Wikileaks support movement.

Part One: Pirates as Partisans

Activism cannot rid itself of these entanglements. The aim and scope of activism in the digital realm cannot be purity, but rather the tying together of otherwise atomised subjects. Activism in the digital realm is about creating and sustaining associations; by default, such connections between actors and phenomena flow over, create more consequences than initially planned. These days, the primary role of an activist might be as a facilitator of people and things, a social connector – but suddenly, the perspective is shifted, and in the eyes of a different observer the same action is all of a sudden seen as rebellious, as a threat to the status quo, even as akin to terrorism! Then, give it another twist, the picture suddenly flickers, and the same mode of action is seen as entrepreneurial. The profusion continues: the establishment embraces it and the venture begins to take on a partisan hue, and so on.

What are people defending, when they suddenly mobilize to defend filesharing, Wikileaks, or Anonymous?

The following meditation is excerpted from a fascinating piece by Jonas Andersson:

“In my own research I have found that file-sharers themselves make a central distinction between ‘pirate copying’ and ‘private copying’. That is, they differentiated between different modes of action, with somewhat different intentions. The former, ‘pirate’ mode of action is associated with the exchange/commodity value of a file (rather than its use value), while the latter mode has more to do with convenience and self-gratification.

Further, in the Efter The Pirate Bay reader (eds. Andersson & Snickars, 2010), Leif Dahlberg distinguishes between ‘pirates’ and ‘partisans,’ as the former do not “take sides” in the same way as the latter. Partisans are non-regular troops, bordering between the civilian and the military, occasionally embodying a political stance as they shift between roles in a tellurian manner.

But exactly what do they side with? According to German modernist philosopher Carl Schmitt, the partisan’s goal is not to further the warfront, but to establish a new world order. And when that order is established, the partisan recedes and becomes an ordinary part of it. The partisan appears on an irregular, non-anticipated basis, acting to defend a particular political object. The matter of concern of many of today’s activists is somewhat conventional in that ‘net politics’ primarily seems to be a liberty movement of the net, maintaining those open infrastructures that we have become used to.

In this sense, the pirate is far more dreadful, as it shuns all such distinctions of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’. The pirate is much more radical in the face of the possible consequences of his/her actions. True pirates are defined by a consequence-neutral stance bordering on the nihilist.

As I have noted previously (Andersson 2009), we can observe a movement here – from the tactical to the strategic. The ‘private’ consumer is acting within la perruque, while the occasional ‘pirate’ positions that are taken in this action point towards more lasting, strategic interventions (especially given the enormous potential reach the individual is given by our shared digital infrastructures). Ultimately, in a fully ‘partisan’ stance, a strategic locus is established.

The minute a nebulous movement gets clearly identifiable spokespersons, it also allows for personal flaws and smear campaigns to taint the activity, as we have seen recently with the Wikileaks drama. This also explains the odd turns in the Pirate Bay case.”

But what are filesharers partisans for??

Jonas Andersson:

“This raises a point of view that is reminiscent of the writings of French historian Fernand Braudel, which focuses both on the principal mentalities of certain eras but, likewise, also on the material foundations to such mentalities. Of particular interest in Braudel’s own work, we can see the distinction of ‘markets’ and ‘anti-markets,’ and the dependence on what perspective we take when we assess the benefit of various actors to society.

In brief, we can define society along notions of competitive markets – populated by small-scale actors, each fairly equal in size and influence – and oligopolistic markets, where certain actors rise to dominance and thus stifling competition. We can also define society from various guild-based views (the French sociologists Luc Boltanski & Laurent Thévenot use the term differing modes of justification), where the benefit of a given phenomenon depends on whether we take the view of monopolists, artists, unionists, retailers, consumers, citizens etc. In a sense, activists also comprise one such form of “special interest”, or rather: activism necessarily has to align itself to one or several such “special interests”. Ultimately, the idea of the general benefit for society is dependent on such modes as well. I would argue that in a democratic society, the primary viewpoint would have to be the view of citizens – not consumers, not “target groups,” and even less so, corporations and/or dominant industrialists.

Further, it is of vital importance to see the role of us human beings in the digital eco-system as that of temporarily inhabiting various different such vantage points, or roles. This is one of the lessons we can learn from an actor-network analysis of digital infrastructure: The large majority of file-sharers appear to fall in and out of different roles, such as ‘seeders’ and ‘leechers,’ on a rather spontaneous basis. The ‘ripper’, ‘seeder’, ‘moderator’ or indeed ‘file-sharer’ is not a human being (an “actor” in the traditional sense) but a functional operator, a systemic property, a role that human beings occasionally embody, and only thanks to technically augmented agency. The idea of internet activism can be read in the same way. While “taking on” this role requires active choice, it is not necessarily a conscious effort – and as a computer user regularly occupies several different roles while using a networked computer, it is arguable whether all such ‘actant’ modes are even optional. We are invited to be occasional activists (organized in ‘smart mobs’ or ‘adhocracies’) but we could equally be seen to embody an activist role assigned to us by our very participation in the infrastructure – when the infrastructure itself is seen as a “threat to society”. Not rebels without a cause, but rather rebels by proxy. The Pirate Bay founders are only sentenced for aiding a crime, where the actual crime was committed by the hundreds of thousands of users, an act that could itself only happen thanks to a blind, standardized technical protocol named BitTorrent. It is never only one particular actor’s “fault”. In fact, the actor him- or herself only comes into being through the shared protocol and the vast assemblage of machines and humans at hand. It takes two to tango.

In the case of The Pirate Bay, this opens a toolbox of various further interpretations. Firstly, we can take up the critique that Peter Sunde himself rightly expressed in 2008, that the site had, in a sense, grown too large for its own shoes. The file-sharing ecology would benefit more from small, more equal, less dominant hubs – a more decentralised archipelago, rather than a monolithic one. As with Assange and Wikileaks, this is one explanation for the flak that the site lends itself to; accusations of greed, dominance and false principles. Could even file-sharing spiral into an anti-market? We should be wary of such developments, and the best antidote would be to start your own torrent tracker, your own music-, film-, art- or gamesblog, or your own distributed archive.

Further, we can ask ourselves the thorny question of ‘benefit to society,’ and do that with an open mind, as file-sharing in my view has led to some unfortunate developments among those particular actors who have suffered from the sea change. Yes – songwriters, music producers, and recording artists have a harder time now to find economic support for marketing and the “lost art” of A&R, that record labels previously were more able to provide. On the other hand, cultural producers small and large are given a range of new possibilities as well, to produce and distribute their own stuff with digital tools. Marketing still is costly, however, and that is a problem.

But the key insight from all this is not to let the views of particular interest groups cloud the view, and obscure the notion of what is, indeed, best for the large majority of citizens.

Let us once and for all make clear that torrent-based distribution is synchronous with the internet as we know it, and that it as a phenomenon won’t go away – although local hubs, sites and servers might come and go. Let us also make clear that the audio CD market is really the only industry that has clearly been “suffering” due to file-sharing. The movie industry and the video game market are still highly profitable markets. In fact, file-sharing is a magnificent distribution apparatus, which allows citizens to sample material and widen their knowledge about the range on offer. Let us thereby make it clear: Sites like The Pirate Bay could be seen as equitable ventures in terms of offering alternative forms of distribution – ventures that could in fact be seen to be of benefit to society, as complements to already thriving markets.”

Part Two: Lessons from the Wikileaks ‘party’: The Party of We Has Already Won

If you look at what’s been happening lately, when the public doesn’t agree with something — official secrecy, draconian copyright laws, censorship, privacy violations, etc. — rather than just protesting, they’re simply routing around those things. It’s an incredibly important point. They’re not protesting by saying “this will not stand.” They’re protesting by saying “your laws don’t matter, because we can simply route around them.” That’s a hell of a lot more powerful than most people realize. – Michael Masnick.

Excerpted from an analysis by Douglas J. Wood:

“While he’s been heralded by some and vilified by others, no one can deny the impact of (Assange’s) small band of comrades. But it is not the politics of what Assange set loose or the danger it may or may not have caused that is the critical point.

What’s most important is the tipping point, spawned not by Assange but by a new body politic — a new party of individuals bonded by commonality of interest not defined by national or geographic boundaries. The Party of We.

In response to the attacks on Wikileaks, this virtual We Party, comprised of citizens of the world, unleashed an unprecedented — and united — attack on parts of the infrastructure that transact payments and sustain eCommerce and for a brief moment shut critical parts of it down.

This was unprecedented not because it hasn’t been tried before (even with some success), but because its success, however brief the moment may have been, was only reversed by those who started it and who had a change of heart. Furthermore, it was novel in its motivation not to hack a system or engage in fraud or greed, but rather in support of a cause — a belief in the idea and purity of unencumbered speech.

A small group of Assange’s disciples, dedicated to transparency and open source regardless of its implication, struck with today’s most potent version of a WMD — the concerted flooding of the broadband, the circulatory system of the Internet, to a point where it went into cardiac arrest. And this was done by a relatively small group of dissidents. A group smaller than the ones that started the tea parties in 1773 and 2010.

But this group has far more power than either of their predecessors and, if united in sufficient number, are unstoppable!

We — the people of the Internet — are united in a principle of freedom that challenges core philosophies of virtually every terrestrial nation on earth. Indeed, forget the debate over whether the FCC’s recent ruling on net neutrality is good or bad. The real point is that whatever its purpose may be, it’s too little too late. The Party of We is in control.

You (e.g., the FCC) are not in control. Extend your sovereignty in conflict with the right of We to know what We wants to know, and You risk disruption of Your economies, Your communications, Your infrastructure. Disruption that not only challenges authority but that will cost You millions, perhaps billions.

We knows no sovereign authority. The power of We is virtual and without limit when exercised in a united front. MasterCard, PayPal, and other global financial institutions felt the wrath of We in December 2010 — the tipping point. The world witnessed the rise of the Party of We.

We can communicate instantaneously to its community of over 500 million citizens on Facebook — a community that may well reach a billion in a few years. We can access all the information We needs to know from the free global library on Google, global encyclopedia on Wikipedia, and global photographic and image repository on Flickr. And whatever We needs to globally communicate, We need only send an e-mail, tweet a tweet, post a comment or video, or get LinkedIn. And it doesn’t cost We a dime to do so.

But the most profound lesson in this tipping point is that while We responded responsibly and backed off the financial shutdown once the citizens of We decided they’d made a mistake and attacked innocent parties, there is no guarantee that We will always act responsibly. Or worse, We might cause unprecedented damage before We corrects its course.

Because unlike the tea parties of 1773 and 2010, the Party of We has only one plank in its platform — transparency. That is far more powerful than anything colonists in 1773 or Tea Party revelers in 2010 could conceive. And there is no defense short of shutting down the Internet and sending the world’s economy back to the Dark Ages of the 20th Century.

The rise of the Party of We is the most profound tipping point in global discourse since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that first established the concept of sovereign nations, something we can now count as the latest entry on the list of endangered species.”

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