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Hacking the State

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
6th April 2011


Adoption of hacking is a political possibility that is here and now, in front of us. Its spirit, its ethics and organization gave us the Web, the Internet and the means to produce new collective entities and open plethora of decentralized, yet synchronized and resilient battling fronts. Local councils, courts, parliaments, political parties, unions, childcare, health, education, elderly and social care institutions, etc … The State-forms of all kinds await our hacks.*

On the Hack the State site, Toni Prug writes:

Armed revolutionaries and anarchists hate the state. Social democrats want to be the state. I say we better hack it.

His three main arguments are:

o 1.1 anti-State is a political/philosophical suicide
o 1.2 We need to think about/through Objects
o 1.3 Centralization has to go out. Volunteer based open-process organization and cooperation in

Toni Prug:

“The concept of an imperative call, and now the theoretico-practical project, to hack the state:

anti-State is a political/philosophical suicide

1) anti-State is a political/philosophical suicide. Instead, we need to Hack the State (hack as reuse by clever re-purposing of what’s already here), to make it do what we want it to do.

Badiou and Negri insisted to have nothing to do with the State, but do our politics in distance from it (Badiou), and to passionately hate it (Negri). I claim that this is a politically suicidal position. And i wasn’t alone in my disagreement. Žižek spoke on the need to engage with the State (he even said at one stage during comments that “we need a State that doesn’t behave like the State” – that’s a good way to describe what hacking does to an object), while Bostells reacted on this question 15min before the end of the 3 day conference, insisting that we must not disengage from the State . My initial reaction was that both Badiou and Negri need to be retired as left philosophers, because i thought their anti-Statism is a mistake we can’t afford to commit. Perhaps he thought this for a different reasons, but i I wasn’t at all surprised when K-punk recently wrote for Badiou that it is “Time for the last of the 68 fathers to be ushered offstage.”. I think i over reacted with retiring Negri though,although that will be cleared out when his new book with Hardt, Commonwealth, comes out. Update: after reading his Sarkozy book, and re-reading Polemics and Century books, i was wrong with Badiou too. His political ideas are still brave, and most important highly relevant. What remains to be done is to show why are both of them mistaken in their anti-State stance, and why we can, and must, hack the State instead (as soon the text i’m working on is ready, i’ll post it here).

We need to think about/through Objects

2) Thinking through the concept of Ideas is not enough. We need to think about/through Objects. Objects that will enable us to transform the State and advance our political goals.

In which sense, i can’t tell with precision now, but i’m working on answers in various forms (phd, journal papers, a book, this blog). There’s a limit to what we can do with ideas only. Especially with ideas that do not touch on the key structural elements of the practice through which society develops: the State and private property organizational forms. Yet, if one immerses in practice alone, practice doesn’t develop in very useful ways – not at least from the perspectives of egalitarian political goals. A version of object-oriented philosophy, mixed with elements of Žižek, Ranciere, Negri and Badiou is a promising candidate. I’ll develop rough drafts here, on the blog.

Centralization has to go out. Volunteer based open-process organization and cooperation in

3) Fundamental principles of communist political practice need to change, according to what’s available today. Centralization has to go out. Volunteer based open-process organization and cooperation in.

The ten demands from the manifesto still seem to be strongly on the minds of left political activists and many social theorists too. The times have changed in few important aspect, and demands need updating to reflect that. While “Abolition of all rights of inheritance.” is a beautiful demand that i fully support, like with the most of the rest of them, it is demands in the central part of the list, 5 and 6, calling for centralization of banks, means of communication and transport in the hands of the State that are not in the spirit of our times. Even though this will sound counter-intuitive in the times of failing private financial institutions and the State bail out (to be clear, banks need heavy regulation mechanisms, no doubt on that, but we will get closest to getting the kind of regulation we would want from communist standpoints through a volunteer based, open-process, cooperative State, and not through its current, nor any other, centralized form), what we need today is a modified thinking, in the spirit of our times, perhaps expressed in modified ten demands from the Communist Manifesto and with a modified name. My proposal is that volunteer based de-centralized open-process organizational structure takes the central role. In short: centralization has to go out – we can not advance our political goals long term through it. Volunteer based open-process cooperation has to come in. Quite a few presentations at the Communism conference have underlines some of these different organizational aspects – i’ll will clarify exact points in a paper soon. But why do we need this? Because in political and knowledge production spheres, that is what will give us far greater chances of reaching the rest of the egalitarian demands.

The Death of the Hierarchical Party Form

Many will say here, correctly, that the egalitarian aspects we have today were all won through a rather different political organization, through a disciplined, hierarchical, strictly representational union and party structures. This is a valid question. But what is our performance today through this form? My answer to it is:

ONE: look around you – those forms are dead and dysfunctional and we have been failing to achieve through them for several decades: left political parties carry hardly any weight and have been, along with unions, achieving little since 1970?s. Instead, they achieved almost total discrediting of egalitarian ideas. They can’t win any votes in most cases either. The biggest resurgence of left political activism came from where in the last ten year? From anti-capitalist/alter-globalist movement. And although the whole Porto Alegre / Social Forums branch of it was clever, and in many way productive, turn, it was engineered by Bernard Cassen (Le Monde diplomatique and ATTAC) and Porto Alegre Workers’ Party. And as such, it was my impression, it did not embody, although the organizers did try, the volunteer driven open processes model. Which was the key model for the June 18th 1999 protests, and equally important for the Seattle, Prague and Genova protests. The difference is subtle on the surface, but an important one: both Cassen and Worker’s Party people were professionals with the traditional left organizational structures. They had some experience of the power of the Internet collaboration, and of volunteer driven deliberation, but Social Forums did not carry enough of the spirit of volunteer driven open process collaboration known to me from intense participation in some of the anti-capitalist protests, and from years of participation in software and networking communities. It’s possible that the only way we can move towards using those models is in stages, and that Social Forums were an early stage. Which now needs improving and pushing further. If there are groups that deserve most praise for taking the spirit of these new forms to the political activism and to a large extend to academia and public sphere too, those are small techno-anarchist groups, whose commitment and visionary leadership in this has never been properly recognized by the traditional left organizations nor theorists. Quite the contrary, traditional left has been, since Seattle protests to this day, eager to claim the credit for the anti-capitalist protests, and following resurgence of egalitarian political ideas, but has done little to learn from from those events and adopt, improve own organizational structures. Wannabe leaders of the old left have failed to lead and failed to recognize and give due credit to the true leaders of the past ten years, anarchists. And it is here that i’m in full agreement with Hardt and Negri’s thesis that the political multitude, and a new communism, has to come from below. Social Forums came too much from above. One of the key principles of the Free Software (FS), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and of almost all of the key leading organizing anti-capitalist groups has been that they have to be volunteer driven, or volunteer core as IETF calls it. When we do construct organizational frameworks and practices for the multitude to express itself in political forms, these FS and IETF core principles (ethics of sharing and reusing, open participation and processes, competence, volunteering core, rough consensus and running code decision making, defined responsibilities ) should be the main candidates to take the central position in this reconstruction.

TWO: these new forms have to be demonstrated in the political practice, in the ways which will carry the political weight in concrete political situations – which currently means within the representational sphere, the only political sphere that has the decision making power today. And if you can’t see that this is possible, if no scenario of this sort seems visible, plausible to you, i understand that you will see no political value in my points. And no wonder Badiou and Negri are against any involvement with the State as it is. They can’t seem to see these new ways either. Or, in Negri’s case, perhaps he can only see a political multitude being formed in an opposition with the State – which again raises the question of how does such multitude, even with its hypothetical newly forged political forms, intervenes, participates in the political decision making processes and spaces, which are all within the representational State forms? And can such political multitude, at a distance from the State, in Badiou’s case, be at all called political, given its impotence to act politically? My argument is that through these new forms, we can make the State an entirely different mechanism than it is now. And there’s no need — nor would that lead to desired results (more egalitarian social mechanisms) — to smash it to do that. We can have our cake (political multitude), and eat it (our new forms can hack the State) . We can tweak the State forms, step by step, bit by bit. We need to re-purpose it. Hack it.

Summary

In other words, as a summary: dismissing the dysfunctionalism of the parliamentary capitalist-democratic framework is easy, what do we replace it with? From Free Software, Internet Engineering Task Force, Linux, Google, blogs, email lists, wikis and Facebook, to volunteerism, rough consensus, electronic books and financial and organizational openness – it is our task to rethink and re-purpose whatever possible. We need to become generic hackers, turning anything to our advantage, learning from capitalist strategies, who for centuries used whatever we opposed them with as a source of their own strength, whenever it would benefit us . Ideological mind-debilitating fears still abound — that of communism and of the strong State — can be dispelled with, and a new political platform of radical egalitarianism can be forged, if we embrace new technologies and practices (the above core principles) as parts of a new cooperative, economico-legal egalitarian future.

Hacking of the jurisdiction, the way law is created and enforced will most likely need to be in some form a necessary part of this new strategy. Put differently, i doubt that hacking parliaments and councils will succeed unless we hack the courts too. Hacks need to be institutional and wide spread (here’s an example of hacking academic publishing proposal). I see one of their primary long term goals being to break the ideological imposition of centuries old form of parliaments, courts and representational political model as the only, and the best democratic model to rule a society. A rough comparison could be: we made a huge step from monarchs to political parties and corporations, this is about the next large step forward.

And if we need a modified concept, to give this new thinking a more precise name, a name which would, through the removal of centralization and insertion of the those core principles, enable other political actors — those more willing to work on large scale from-below political projects (since anarchists lack such aspirations) — to emerge, we should at minimum consider such option.

Organizational principles that lead and inspired the last wave of egalitarian dissent (anti-capitalists/alter-globalization protests) have in turn been inspired by, and are a partial implementation of, the above core principles. In the current situation, this new type of organizing of dissent can not find a political expression within what is marked with the term communism, especially not with its centralized political practice. Yet, the history of communist political action and communist knowledge is by far the biggest and best expression of the desire for a global egalitarian society. We can not afford to loose it, nor would it make any sense to do so. At the same time, its power has been declining for decades, and it is difficult to see the desire for egalitarian societies and new forms and waves of dissent being expressed through the meaning of communism, in its current form. Hence, why not risk modifying something we can not afford to loose, but which doesn’t serve us in its current form?

Why not take the risk that would give us a chance of merging of new egalitarian social movements and the political history developed under the traditional left political organizational forms. Both have lots to learn from each other. Both posses keys to a more plausible egalitarian future, in different capacities.

Stated in a short and bold form: experience of the traditional left in political organizing could be unlocked and re-used for the political multitude, and the decline of their political power and influence could be reversed, if they only had the courage and open mindedness to see how mistaken, and worst, how counter-productive, they are – in staying faithful to some of their ideas (centralization, opaque organization, strict hierarchy, top-down patronization) . Perhaps they need to be lead out of their historical decline. Or, perhaps an entirely new concept, a new name (like Commonism?), to mark a major updating of the communist ideas and practices for a global egalitarian society, needs to be created. In the meantime, let’s hack.”

More details about the conception of state-form hacks are here.

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2 Responses to “Hacking the State”

  1. Poor Richard Says:

    Toni, I think the term “hack the state” works beautifully for the digital activist and the internet-savvy white collar worker. Maybe not so beautifully for “mom and pop” or the blue-collar workers here in the US.

    But I like it and I would add “hack capitalism, hack the corporation, hack the bank, hack property”, etc.

    Curiously, many such “hacks” already exist in the history of progressive movements in the US. But neither the old-school progressive terminology nor the hacking terminology work well for much of “Middle America”.

    My own tentative umbrella term for interdisciplinary hacking of capitalism, corporations, banking, property, and democracy is “Green Free Enterprise”.

  2. Poor Richard Says:

    I think the term “hack the state” works beautifully for the digital activist and the internet-savvy white collar worker. Maybe not so beautifully for “mom and pop” or the blue-collar workers here in the US.

    But I like it and I would add “hack capitalism, hack the corporation, hack the bank, hack property”, etc.

    Curiously, many such “hacks” already exist in the history of progressive movements in the US. But neither the old-school progressive terminology nor the hacking terminology work well for much of “Middle America”.

    My own tentative umbrella term for interdisciplinary hacking of capitalism, corporations, banking, property, and democracy is “Green Free Enterprise”.

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