Cooperation is always political

Collaborations are never outside the political. There is no post-political collaboration. Indeed, when collaborations are working well it is not because everyone is free and there are no rules, norms or pressures, but precisely the opposite. It occurs when these devices are strongest; when there are strong regulatory mechanisms for making decisions between competing alternatives.

Excerpted from a critique by Nathaniel Tkacz of discourses which deny the political aspects of cooperation.

* Paper: Wikipedia and the Politics of Mass Collaboration. Nathaniel Tkacz, The University of Melbourne, Australia


Nathaniel Tkacz:

“Despite the various differences and contradictions within the new discourse of collaboration, by pitting collaboration in opposition to undesirable, hierarchical, forced and conflict-ridden realities, the above authors offer little critical reflection upon such collaborations themselves. Instead, collaboration becomes the dominant, if not sole term to legitimately describe subject positions and relations in the processes of peer production. The most significant function of this discourse, however, is that it works to erase the political conditions of open projects – conditions glimpsed above -and hinders attempts to develop more politicised readings. In Chantal Mouffe’s terms, the discourse of collaboration is post-political. It presents collaboration as an alternative to antagonistic relations, rather than an embodiment of them.

Over a series of books Mouffe (1993, 1999, 2000, 2005) has argued that contemporary democratic thought has failed to think the political. This category applies not to institutional politics, but to the irreducible, radical difference that constitutes the social at the level of ontology. This is a difference that cannot be overcome by consensus-based rule or rational deliberation. Drawing on the thought of Carl Schmitt, Mouffe argues that thinking the political necessarily begins with a “we/they” distinction. She writes: ‘Properly political questions always involve decisions which require us to make a choice between conflicting alternatives’ (2005, p. 10). The task is to develop a political model that modulates the political, preventing the emergence of antagonistic friend/enemy relations and encouraging agonistic processes based on the figure of the adversary – a worthy and respected opponent. Whereas antagonisms can quickly spiral into violent conflict, agonistic relations involve a mutual respect for “the other”, the recognition of and tolerance toward difference, and a perceived legitimacy in processes of mediation. Through highlighting the ontological status of radical difference, Mouffe hopes to transform democratic thought and reinvigorate institutional politics at the level of the everyday.

Mouffe’s political framework provides a good starting point for thinking about the kinds of relations visible on Wikipedia. What is so relevant about Mouffe’s political philosophy, though, is that both her agonistic ontology and her critique of contemporary democratic thought can be fruitfully applied: The discourse of collaboration resembles the dominant strain of democratic thought and its attempt to theorise a world beyond politics, where conflict is a thing of the past – the so called “Third Way”. In the language of Mouffe’s ontology, consider once more the Wikipedia Muhammad discussion page mentioned above: The two discussants embody conflicting views about knowledge, each defined by its opposition to the other. To the extent that conflict is limited to the discussion page and is debated in the rhetoric of Enlightenment civility imposed by various policies, the “we/they” relation remains agonistic. However, in this particular scenario it is obvious that Basem3wad does not consider Wikipedia’s political processes to be legitimate.

Mouffe’s work successfully highlights the political dimension of open projects and provides insight as to the poverty of collaboration discourse. However, her concerns lie with institutional politics and are thus far removed from the network ecologies of peer production. Institutional politics is a highly formalised operation, with political parties, voting, rules of governance and specific delineation of powers. It is the stuff practised by career politicians and their PR entourage, brought to the citizen masses through the lens of the spectacle. It has its own history and its own conditions of possibility.[8] Such translations must therefore be approached critically and thought of as an opportunity to develop new concepts in light of new empirical events. Stigmergy and Free Cooperation: Toward an Agonistic Peer Production

So far I have described a generalised failure to think the political dimension of projects described as mass collaborations. The work of Mouffe goes some way in correcting this failure. In what follows I attempt to combine her agonistic ontology with two atypical thinkers who have tackled collaboration directly, Mark Elliott and Christoph Spehr.

Christopher Spehr’s Free Cooperation

Spehr is a German political theorist with a penchant for using sci-fi metaphors to develop his ideas. Most of his work remains untranslated into English apart from his important essay ‘Free Cooperation’, in Geert Lovink and Trebor Scholz’s edited collection The Art of Free Cooperation (2007). While Spehr’s work is not solely intended for critical internet scholars, I read it here partly through Lovink’s work, who has been instrumental in its uptake and has shaped its reception.

Spehr’s thought begins with a distinction between “abstract”, “forced” and “free” cooperation (and I should note from the start that he mostly uses the term “cooperation”, but collaboration appears interchangeably in his work). Spehr notes that we are all constantly entrenched in cooperative environments and thus to speak of collaboration as exceptional – say, by describing Wikipedia as collaborative but not Encyclopedia Britannica – is already misleading. The very fact that we can think of cooperation as something peculiar derives from the mass “individualization” of neo-liberal society.

Spehr writes:

Individualistic strategies, ways of living, ideas, projects become possible because society has developed in such a way that life is not precarious, that a basic security is established, that we have a certain access to public wealth, strategic commons, to capital, information, communication and so on, and that direct social control weakens because the market allows us to change cooperations, to move, to leave, etc., because we are held together by the bounds of abstract cooperation. You can do enormous things in the net because someone has built it. Because someone is keeping it up. It’s this stage of “abstract cooperation” that makes individualisation possible – and not only for very few individuals but as a mass phenomenon. Not only in the cultural sphere but as a productive force itself. From this point on, cooperation looks as if it is something special, voluntarily engaged, as if we were monads that come together to collaborate. While the truth is that we can only act in this monad-like way because we are embedded in very elaborated abstract cooperation, because we have so many resources and structures ready at hand (cited in Lovink, 2008, p. 212).

For Spehr, because we are all necessarily involved in (abstract) cooperation, it is the type of collaboration that becomes important, not the mere fact of it. “Free cooperation” emerges as his concept for desirable collaborative relations. Free cooperation has several basic tenets. First, every rule in the collaboration is changeable and negotiable. Absolutely nothing is off limits or beyond question. There is no “higher authority” (Spehr, 2007, p. 92) and every person has “the same power to influence the rules” (Spehr and Windszus, 2004, n.p.). Second, essential to this distribution of power is an a priori right to refuse and withdraw from the project or give limits to participation. Echoing Italian Autonomist thought, Spehr’s point is that cooperation cannot be “free” unless it can be left; unless the resources and inputs of members can be withdrawn.

This threat of withdrawal must also be significant enough that it can be used as a bargaining chip, to “influence the rules” (2007, p. 92). Third, withdrawal by members must be bearable, though undesirable. In other words, if a member cannot walk away because the loss is too great, the collaboration is no longer free. Bearable withdrawal provides the necessary conditions for genuine negotiation to take place. Finally, ‘free cooperation’ involves what Spehr and Windszus call “taking off the mask” (2004). This process begins with the courage and honesty to embrace conflict, but it also seems to extend beyond this to the constant questioning of members’ ‘expected roles’. It involves taking off “the mask that was designed for you”, questioning “what others think is appropriate for you … what they want you to do” (2004).

Spehr goes into great detail elaborating these principles as well as mapping the existing “dimensions of domination” or characteristics of Forced Cooperation, that is, the type of cooperation we participate in everyday, to which Free Cooperation intervenes. This taxonomy of domination includes most of the typical dimensions that critical thought has identified throughout history: physical (e.g. war), structural (e.g. economic), social (e.g race and gender), institutional (e.g. meaning and knowledge) and existential (e.g. the removal of alternatives). These of course need to be understood as overlapping and mutually reinforcing. What Spehr offers is less a meditation on real life collaborative projects than a program for new forms of collaborative action; a list of mechanisms of domination to avoid; a set of principles for which collaborations should strive; and a set of ideal conditions for living together in the world. “Free cooperation” emerges both as a guiding light and a benchmark for making ethical and political claims about real collaborations.

My own concerns are with the distribution and mediation of power and subjectivity within net projects that get called collaborative. In this sense I am not as concerned as Spehr with principles or ideals, or ways out of “forced cooperations”, or debating whether or not a project really is a collaboration, but rather in new ways of envisioning the political as it relates to the open projects of peer production. Indeed, I am not convinced that Free Cooperation is possible, especially in large projects. The above example from Wikipedia lends itself to this reading. For starters, it can be argued that not all of Wikipedia’s rules can be changed and power over who can change rules is not evenly distributed (regardless of the justification of this asymmetry). While people are free to leave Wikipedia, this is generally of little consequence. Furthermore, there are some people – like Basem3wad – who are clearly compelled to contribute because the price of not contributing (having the images displayed) is too high. Finally, rather than “taking off the mask”, it seems that with Wikipedia it is more important to “put a mask on”: that of the encyclopaedist. It is only through donning this mask that a project like Wikipedia becomes feasible. What all this shows is that real world collaborations cannot be easily separated from their various entanglements and they cannot easily be divorced from their histories (instead, they are constituted by them). The most valuable aspect to take from Spehr’s work might be his taxonomy of dominance, but re-read as an always-present aspect of real collaborations.

Mark Elliot’s Stigmergic Collaboration

The last work to consider is Mark Elliott’s notion of stigmergic collaboration (2006). Elliott is not a critical thinker in the Frankfurt School sense and in many ways his works aligns perfectly with Bruns, Benkler and so on.However, Elliott’s work is distinguished by the way it attempts to think the how of mass collaboration, its structural elements, rather than merely wondering at its existence. Elliott notes how collaborations have traditionally been thought to implode at around 25 members. This number was thought to be the upper limit of meaningful communication between participants for which goals, rules, roles and so on can reasonably be negotiated. With mass collaboration, negotiation falls by the wayside and instead becomes “stigmergic” in nature.

Elliott borrows the term stigmergy from myrmecology (the study of ants), which refers to how termites are able to build complex nests and mounds without any overarching blueprint or master engineer, or even without any individual ant able to conceive of the whole (2006). In its anthropomorphic manifestation, stigmergy describes a process whereby environmental conditions (such as poorly written Wikipedia articles) trigger a response in individuals to modify such conditions. This in turn triggers responses in other individuals, and a continuous process of modification and project development is set in motion. Central to stigmergy, and echoing thought on complexity in general, is that complex modes of organisation emerge from (in this case thousands of) individual members simply modifying their immediate environment. Whatever “whole” emerges is not conceived by any individual member.

Elliott’s thoughts go some way in describing the structural conditions of mass collaboration and although he remains highly enthusiastic and even utopian about such processes, perhaps unwittingly he also lays the ground for a politicised counter-reading of mass collaboration. Consider what we might call the dark side of stigmergy as a mode of organising production: participants have little control over the structures that surround them; their action is reduced to simple responses to environmental triggers of which they may have little understanding; and the negotiation considered so central to small, traditional collaborations is simply swept aside. Elliott writes:

In freeing up energy that participants would otherwise use in negotiation, more is available for contribution to a workspace’s domain level creative objectives. This has the effect of exploiting the potential inherent in stigmergic systems for globally coordinating localised input, thereby providing the capacity for the integration of a great number of individualistic contributions into that of a collective whole (2007, p. 138).

There are two important aspects of Elliott’s ontology, the first of which relates to negotiation. If the true moment of the political is the decision of one over the other, the “freeing up of energy” used to negotiate can be reread as a technical handing-over of the political as there are almost no opportunities to contest decisions. The second aspect involves a rereading of the basic process of stigmergy in relation to the human condition. Ants cannot perceive a whole mound or nest. However, a minimal amount of information passes from ant to ant in order for one to recognise what the other is doing and respond to it. Everything that emerges is determined by this relational protocol. With Wikipedia it is also the case that no individual can see the whole project and imagine every article. However, the minimal information passed between contributors (through both technical and discursive mediation) contains a high level of information and includes ideas about what knowledge is; what it looks like; how it is organised; how it should be expressed and so on. These “knowledge triggers” are so powerful that they can give shape to a complex process of human stigmergy. And when stigmergic collaboration appears to be working harmoniously, it is not because the mechanisms of control are removed, but rather that they are working particularly well. As Basem3wad makes clear, however, such mechanisms do not necessarily determine every individual contribution. Elliott’s work makes it clear that the distribution of policies and protocols and the drastic reduction of negotiation are central to mass collaboration.

Towards an alternative political understanding of collaboration

“So what kind of understanding and action would this alternative approach to collaboration suggest? It begins with the acknowledgement that collaborations are never outside the political. There is no post-political collaboration. Indeed, when collaborations are working well it is not because everyone is free and there are no rules, norms or pressures, but precisely the opposite. It occurs when these devices are strongest; when there are strong regulatory mechanisms for making decisions between competing alternatives. The fact that the entry on Muhammad is coherent, despite all the challenges and vitriol, is testament to this fact. This doesn’t mean that rules are necessarily formalised (though they often are, or become so over time), merely that a majority of collaborators share a common discursive field or worldview, which allows them to function smoothly with each other. The entry on Muhammad is a clear instance of when the type of knowledge privileged on Wikipedia becomes visible and (unsuccessfully) contested. An agonistic collaboration places contest and conflict at the forefront. While it cannot accommodate all positions within its framework – which may lead to antagonistic relations and overflows – it does at least recognise its own political conditions.

A consideration of stigmergic collaboration revealed that mass collaboration minimises the processes of negotiation. As I have shown, Wikipedia does have a space for discussion. However, these spaces are not akin to ”negotiation” as typically understood in (small) collaborations where negotiation includes working out the formal rules of the entire project as well as the roles of each member. The discussion pages can more usefully be read as disciplinary spaces which facilitate the stygmergic process of “improving” articles, that is, of aligning them with the type of knowledge formally desired by the project. On top of aligning the entries themselves though, the discussion pages also work to discursively discipline new or dissenting contributors. It is in these spaces that undesirables are “sorted out”. Once it is realised that mass collaborations work through stigmergy and not through negotiation, and therefore actually permit less individual agency than smaller collaborations, agonistic collaborations pay close attention to the asymmetries that constitute their different manifestations. For Wikipedia, this includes recognising the type of Enlightenment-derived knowledge it produces (in opposition to some religious, local, non-discursive and perhaps even postmodern forms of knowledge), but also the kind of language and writing style preferred, the desired level of specialisation, the appropriate article length, the rules and guidelines that emerge, and so on.

Finally, a consideration of existing asymmetries needs to proceed in relation to Spehr’s dimensions of domination. This would help to connect the way that identifiable asymmetries, in turn, reorganise the bodies and knowledges that produce them and to which they refer, in asymmetrical ways.

In response to the vacuous discourse of collaboration, building a notion of collaboration able to account for the often ugly, conflicted entanglements that constitute their realities has become urgent. In this paper, I have mapped the proliferation of collaboration, a term increasingly (mis)used to describe the relation between people in peer production and related projects. This notion of collaboration is rather devoid of substance and, crucially, works to position the projects it seeks to describe as post political. In order to problematise the proliferation of vacuous collaboration, I considered a specific conflict that emerged in the discussion pages of the Wikipedia entry on Muhammad. Mass collaboration is a zone of conflict; it is constituted by asymmetry; it produces winners and losers, sometimes in new and novel ways and other times in ways entirely predictable. If we are to invent concepts better equipped to describe the kinds of political relations that emerge in projects like Wikipedia, it is these realities that must be articulated and faced.”

1 Comment Cooperation is always political

  1. AvatarPoor Richard

    I agree that “drastic reduction of negotiation [is] central to mass collaboration”. However, it bears repeating that “such mechanisms do not necessarily determine every individual contribution”. In the case of Wikipedia it is clear they do not. In addition, a non-stigmergic framework with greater negotiation overhead is provided for higher-order collaboration, conflict resolution, and exception-handling. The stigmergy process casts considerable light on the success of Wikipedia, but only describes the “bottom tier” or “outermost ring” of that system. There is much more to learn about Wikipedia and other examples of “mixed” or hybrid systems for mass collaboration by pragmatically applying “Ostrom’s Law: An arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.” (Ostrom’s law:

    An example of negotiation-free behavior, long known to children, office workers, and other subordinates: “I’d rather ask forgiveness than ask for permission.”

    Poor Richard

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