Stephen Downes: for a renewed left in the age of distribution (2): for autonomy in diversity

Part two of the thought piece by Stephen Downes. Based on the prior critique of atomism, what would be a positive formulation for a renewed tradition of the left?

We refer to the source here, as well as the full debate.

Stephen Downes:

“From this perspective, we can now begin to articulate a political position, based on the premises describing what makes for an effective network – or, say, what makes for a healthy forest. These are principles that govern the effectiveness of networks in /general/, of which a society is only one example, and hence can be described, and studied, empirically, Hence, what I offer here is only my first estimation, based on an understanding of mathematical, computational and physical structures of networks. These are properties of the /individuals/ in a network – and I think, we can see, that the combination of these four properties, adds up not only to a formula for successful networks, but also as a formula describing the basic dignity of each member in society.

First, diversity. A successful network fosters difference, not sameness. There is no presumption of a ‘pure’ prototype, a creed or a faith, a doctrine or fundamental sent of principles to which all members of a society must adhere. One of the fundamental principles of Marxism is indeed a principle of /diversity/, not equality: “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs.” Intuitively, we understand this. We know that a forest needs to be composed of a variety of trees and animals; when it is composed of a single type of tree, and few animals, it cannot survive, and must be tended, and even then is more likely to be wiped out by a virus or disease. Diversity is what Richard Florida writes about when he talks about the ‘Creative Class’, the most productive element of society.

Diversity is what propels some of the major planks of leftist thought: the idea that we live in a multicultural society, the idea that we ought to encourage and endorse people of minority faiths, values and statuses. The encourage of diversity is part of what propels a leftists’ celebration of gay-lesbian causes, aboriginal rights, minority rights, and more, while at the same time encouraging people in the expression of their religious beliefs, not to mention expressions of culture and identity in art, music and drama.

Second, and related, autonomy. Where the individual knowers contributing of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and decisions, rather than at the behest of some external agency seeking to magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and reflection. Without autonomy, diversity is impossible and sameness becomes the predominate value of society. Autonomy is fundamental to human dignity, for without it, a person is unable to contribute in any meaningful way to the social fabric.

Autonomy underlies the left’s interest in social justice and equality. People who live in conditions of poverty and dependence cannot express their will. The right wing often depicts the free market merely as the (best possible) means to distribute resources, howver, the market, as it now exists, has become the means through which we employ scarcity in order to create relationships of power, where one person, the one with the resources, is able to deprive the second person of his or her autonomy. Wage-labour isn’t simply about the inequality of resources, it is about the capacity of one party to impose its will on the other. Leftists believe that market exchanges are and ought to be exchanges of multual value, not conditions of servitude imposed by one against the other, and hence seek the redistribution of resources in order to maximize autonomy.

Third, interactivity. Knowledge is the product of an interaction between the members, not a mere aggregation of the members’ perspectives. A /different/ type of knowledge is produced one way as opposed to the other. Just as the human mind does not determine what is seen in front of it by merely counting pixels, nor either does a process intended to create public knowledge. Without getting too far from the topic of this discussion, knowledge is not merely the accumulation of facts and data, nor even the derivation of laws and principles, but rather, is the /recognition/ of states of affairs. Recognition is not possible without interactivity, because recognition entails an understanding of the relations between points, which requires several perspectives on those points.

Interactivity lies behind the leftists insistence on matters of process. It is not simply the case that ‘the results matter’, because without process, getting the right results is a matter of luck, not policy. An interactive process values and respects the rights of each of its members to speak and be heard. It is therefore a statement of the fundamental freedoms of society – of expression, of the press, of assembly. It is also the value that fosters respect for the principles and structures of society, the laws and institutions. It’s why we have trials – where the matter can be discussed and brought out into the open – rather than mere rulings, and why things like arbitrary detentions and sentencing are contrary to the principles of a just society.

Fourth, and again related, openness. The is, in effect, the statement that all members of society constitute the governance of society. From a network perspective, the principle of openness entails a mechanism that allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard and interacted with by others. It is not simply a principle of connectivity between the members – though it is in part that – but also the principle that there is no single channel or proprietary mechanism through which that connection is established. It is, at its base level, at once the principle that there ought to be a language in which to communicate, but also, that no person should own that language, and that there ought not be any particular language.

In computer science openness means open standards and open source software; in political discourse it means open processes and accessible rule of law. It means that the mechanisms of governance ought to be accessible to each person in society, which results in policy running the gamut from electoral spending limits to voting reform to citizen consultancy and open government, and ultimately, direct governance by the people of their own affairs, self-governance, in the truest sense.

These may not be the only principles, and they may not be the most fundamental, but I offer them as a statement of what it means, and the most elemental level, to be left. These principles offers us some sort of hope in society, a hope that we as a whole can be better than the best of us, but also with the understanding that this is made possible, not through repression and control, but only through raising each and every one of us to the highest level possible, to participate most fully and most wholeheartedly, in society.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.