Are self-organized networks a dangerous and mistaken idea?

Famous documentary-maker Adam Curtis has an intriguing editorial in the Guardian, which I recommend you read in full here.

It’s hard to summarize but the essential thesis that the idea that ecosystems, and possibly human peer to peer systems, are self-organizing systems that tend towards equilibrium are a dangerous “right-wing” idea. This connection is even more clearly visible in part one of his new documentary.

In other words, the whole critique seems based on a one-sided reading of peer to peer ideologies as an exclusive or primarily right-wing phenomena. Of course, it is true that much of open source ideology can be traced back to some of the ideas of Ayn Rand, for example, it is well-known that Jimmy Wales was, or is, an Objectivist; but the linkages of p2p with emancipatory thought are just as strong, if not stronger, as those with elitist thought. How to spot the difference? It’s not so difficult: elitist conceptions, such as those of Ayn Rand and her ‘hero innovators’, never care about the inclusion of the excluded, but emancipatory conceptions do.

The examples used highlight Adam Curtis’ confusion. The article starts with a critique of UK Uncut, because they refuse representationality, i.e. refuse to acknowledge that there is a leader that can speak for them; ironically, at the end of the article, he gives the examples of the ants as ‘collective action’. This is quite paradoxical, since UK Uncut is effectively collective action, while ants do not have leaders, so it’s particulary badly chosen to show the absolute need for hierarchy.

This is why Andy Robinson, below, is right, in concluding that Adam Curtis has penned, ‘yet another Hobbesian refutation of autonomy’.

I also recommend the cogent analysis available here, written by Sy Taffer, after watching part two of the documentary.

Andy Robinson:

Another Hobbesian critique of autonomy… just what the world needs 🙁

The theoretical error here is confusing the idea of self-organising networks with the much more widespread, older, and more insidious idea of a natural order. The ideas are similar in that they both posit a certain form of organisation which, if realised and then left to its own devices, will be stable. Where they differ, is that the old idea of natural order implies some kind of equilibrium model. In fact if we want to trace this idea we have to go at least as far back as Aristotle, who also believed that everything in the world has a ‘natural’ function and if everything fulfilled its function, the world would be a harmonious order.

Of course this view is very helpful for the process known as ‘naturalisation’ in discourse analysis: taking a contingent social fact and insulating it from critique by declaring it to be ‘natural’ (gender relations, heteronormativity, racial hierarchies, poverty, class differences and so on). The trick is that the ‘natural’ situation still has to be actively socially constructed, and relies on hierarchy and violence to keep it in place. This is what’s going on in the South African case discussed.

Hence the criticism is conflating self-organising networks with the equilibrium model of natural order, and the use of naturalisation in discourse. A self-organising network is neither of these things for two reasons: 1) by definition it does not require a hierarchy to keep it in place, 2) it is a complex system and not a fixed order, ranking or equilibrium. (That’s not to say that complexity theory doesn’t have its own skeletons in the closet – TBH I was expecting at least some reference to the sins of cybernetics here – Curtis isn’t doing his research as well as he might).

The ‘Green movement = Romanticism’ or ‘Green movement = conservative views of natural order’ trick has been pulled many times before. There was a certain love of the countryside and concern for conservation in pro-peasant Romanticism and rural aristocratic conservatism, but it’s not much like Green thought, because the vision of nature is radically different, so too is the politics, and anyway, the main concern is with the virtues of peasants or aristocrats – conservation is almost an afterthought, keeping the rural folk in their ‘natural environment’. It’s possible to write a history of ecological concern in that direction, but it’s also possible to write one which goes through Morris, Kropotkin and other figures of the left (even Marx talks about alienation from nature).

Note also that if we’re playing reductio ad hitlerum (South Africa count as Nazi?), this author’s stance can just as easily be debunked the same way, i.e. people who believe nature is a Hobbesian chaos quite often end up as control-freak eugenicists and ecocidal maniacs (Herbert Spencer comes to mind); people who believe social movements need strong organisation and leadership are repeating what the Stalinists did in Russia, and are going to shoot us like partridges or betray us like in Spain; the view of power as definitive in social life is shared with Carl Schmitt, who of course is a Nazi, etc etc. Seriously, an authoritarian Hobbesian does not want to start that particular game, particularly when arguing with anarchists (who are measurably the furthest possible one can be from Nazis on political compass – guaranteeing that whoever is using the argument is closer).

The part of the article on Biosphere is a grotesque misreading… all that it shows is that scientists don’t (yet) know enough about how the elements in an ecosystem interrelate to be able to build an ecosystem at this level of complexity. Maybe this is a case for further scientific research, maybe it’s a case for trusting local knowledge over modern science when dealing with complex local systems. I’d add that scientists *have* created homeostatic ecosystems in jars involving only a handful of species (I’ve seen one on display in a science centre). Here we are: Hence very bad attempt to discredit a concept.

Old leftists are very twitchy about the newest wave of social movements – if not downright hostile, and it’s always attached to this same kind of suspicion that 1) they don’t realise the need for discipline/authority/strong organisations and 2) they’re really Thatcherites in disguise, too caught-up in self-expression to do ‘serious’ politics’. It’s really the same as the objections of old rightists, which far more explicitly whine about lost authority and the breakdown of values and how ‘selfish’ people are and ‘in my day they’d all have been hung from the railings by their gonads’. The leftist version is an echo of the same discourse, with the same objections to contemporary society and its social movements. I think it’s partly a psychological problem and partly a generational problem.

In fact there was a characteristic of the old pre-60s ‘consensus’

which has broken down, a kind of unquestioning acceptance of authority and discipline, and to someone who still believes in this lost world of proto-fascism which was shattered by the 60s rebellions, the New Left and New Right look strangely similar. Hence the tropes we see here: new social movements = irresponsible individualism and refusal of normativity, autonomy = managerialism, social movements need discipline to be effective (instrumentalism vs expressionism), and a world without a strong boss to tell everyone what to do isn’t going to work because the world just doesn’t work that way goddamnit it’d be anarchy.

It’s a product of a desire for a strong ‘trunk’ and arborescent structures which is either a psychological disposition (think either ‘Authoritarian Personality’ and ‘Fear of Freedom’, or else maybe certain Myers-Briggs types), or a learnt cultural disposition which these people are having trouble unlearning (this is what they were socialised into, they were ‘good subjects’ then, and they hate the fact that they’re not ‘good subjects’ any more, even though they’ve always just about played by the rules they were socialised into, that for them are ‘just the way it is’). I’ve seen it a thousand times, it comes up whenever networked protest groups or direct action or the Black Bloc or subcultural deviance or any freedom vs collectivism dispute comes up, and it’s almost identical in structure every single time. It’s not a good idea to take it too seriously, because these types seem pre-programmed to be unreflexive about the origins of their own assumptions, and therefore are unable to justify their selection of this particular set of assumptions – it isn’t a conscious choice, it’s a reflex.

The real struggle now is not within the old industrial economy (old right vs old left) but within the new creative/informational/precarious economy (new right / new Third Way vs new left / newest social movements), and the way these kinds who want to go back to the old industrial economy relate to this struggle is invariably reactionary: their ‘need’ for greater order is met by the right-wing side of the current struggle, and they’re therefore drawn into it on the ‘wrong’ side, even if precariously so. “

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