Posts Tagged ‘anarchism’

Fans, Hackers, and Invisibles

on January 1, 2014 in Emerging Visions | Comments Off on Fans, Hackers, and Invisibles

After posting the previous entry, I kept thinking about the association between horizontalism and creative imagination, and it struck me that the roots of this association can be found in the subculture that grew up around science fiction in the 1930s and early 40s.

When the horizontalism vision was taking shape in the 1930s, science fiction fandom was one of its earliest manifestations. In an era dominated by top-down mass media, fandom was bottom-up, peer-to-peer, and free of any kind of centralized leadership. It was a functioning anarchy in everything but name, being carried on by amateurs who were held together solely by a commonality of interests.

As summarized by Wikipedia, “Science fiction fandom started through the letter column of Hugo Gernsback’s fiction magazines. Not only did fans write comments about the stories — they sent their addresses, and Gernsback published them. Soon, fans were writing letters directly to each other, and meeting in person when they lived close together, or when one of them could manage a trip. In New York City. David Lasser, Gernsback’s managing editor, nurtured the birth of a small local club called the Scienceers, which held its first meeting in a Harlem apartment on December 11, 1929.”

These early relationships flowered over the next decade into an extensive network of clubs, fanzines, and conventions, climaxing with the grandly-named First World Science Fiction Convention in 1939.

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Pagan Anarchism

on December 21, 2013 in Emerging Visions | Comments Off on Pagan Anarchism

In between my forays into the remoter reaches of prehistory, I like to keep an eye on current events for signs of significant transitions. It seems that one such transition is upon us now, as indicated by the fact that “economic populism” — or “economic justice” or “social justice” — has become the hot new buzzword of the moment.

Four years ago, the issue of inequality was not even on the table. Two years ago, it was being pushed only by those noisy folk down at Occupy Wall Street. But now it is something that even the elites and makers of opinion are having to recognize.

That’s not just a switch in the zeitgeist. It’s a sign that we’re at a crucial turning point in the cycle of visions where the horizontalism vision starts to attract mainstream attention.

If the pattern that I worked out last spring holds true, we’re about to see horizontalism — like holism in the late 60s and early 70s — become the focus of a tug of war between established interests looking for practical solutions and the wild romantics and radicals who have been nurturing the vision for the last several decades.

The ultimate outcome of that struggle will be a split between a “safe” version of the vision on one hand and a more dangerous and mystical version on the other. However, that split will remain latent for the next dozen years or so. In the meantime, I see nothing wrong with getting as many tangible benefits as we can out of this window of opportunity when the elite are running scared and willing to make concessions.

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Now that I’ve started trying to look at the system of visions as an interactive whole, rather than dealing with each vision in isolation, I keep finding new ways in which the development of the latest visions is driven by interactions among the older ones.

Most recently, I’ve been struck by the degree to which the association between chaos and holism emerged in precise resonance with the rise and fall of the reason-and-scientific-materialism partnership. The new association came into being at the same time as the partnership in the 1860’s, was closely associated with it during its peak in the 1870’s, and became increasingly independent after the partnership faltered in the 1880’s.

The key to this resonance, I believe, is that both the partnership and the new association combined an inner experience-based vision with a scientifically-based vision. As a result, they were addressing the same philosophical problems and responding to the same emotional needs — and were thus bound to be either collaborators or rivals.

Up to now, I’ve been emphasizing the intellectual basis of these associations between visions and how they grow out of our desire to construct a coherent picture of existence. But on the emotional level, something even more powerful and dynamic is going on — which might be described as the need for a sense of belonging.

When we have that sense on a personal level, it appears to us that everything in the world is in harmony and that we are in harmony with it. But if ever we lose it, we are beset by feelings of alienation, meaninglessness, or just plain wrongness.

Much the same is true in terms of the visions. As long as our various areas of experience can be reconciled within a context of higher knowledge, the culture as a whole remains in balance. But once they fall out of attunement, the entire society is overwhelmed by a pervasive sense of alienation.

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At the end of the previous entry, I promised that this one would carry the story along by discussing the flowering of holism in the early 20th century. I soon realized, however, that I’d missed an important step in the development of the association between horizontalism and creative imagination — so I need to backtrack and deal with that before I move on.

When creative imagination started hanging out with horizontalism in the 1970’s, the relationship initially took shape within the terms of multiculturalism, and its chief exponents were neo-pagans and chaos magicians. But in recent years, the same association has been most apparent in the context of direct democracy, and its leading devotees are now computer hackers and self-professed pirates.

That may seem like a natural progression when viewed from the perspective of creative imagination — especially since there has always been a significant overlap between magicians and hackers — but from the viewpoint of horizontalism, the underlying dynamic is far more complex.

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I found the previous entry hard to pull together but I couldn’t put my finger on why, so I went ahead and posted it, even though it felt somehow incomplete. But over the new few days, I realized the problem was that I’d been laying out two separate dichotomies — higher knowledge vs. institutionalized knowledge and liberal vs. conservative values — without quite realizing they weren’t the same thing.

At that point, I decided to clarify my own understanding by listing current political factions and the relationships among them. To my surprise, the rough framework that resulted looked like nothing so much as a simplified version of the alignments system of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

In its classic form, the AD&D system is based on two intersecting polarities — good vs. evil and lawful vs. chaotic — with various shades of neutral in between. Liberals, for example, might be defined as lawful good. They’re “good” because they care deeply about altruism and justice and “lawful” because they see government as the most effective means of implementing those values.

Anarchists, on the other hand, could appropriately be described as chaotic good. They’re dedicated to much the same values as liberals, but they regard the institutions of government as an impediment to achieving them. As a result, even though liberals and anarchists have many issues in common, they differ substantially in methods, ultimate goals, and personal style.

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After I posted the previous entry, Alexei remarked that he’d been impressed by the linked article about people responding to disasters with spontaneous self-organization. That told me I needed to go further into the subject — so here for consideration are the relevant paragraphs from “The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim” by Johann Hari:

The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. …

On April 18th 1906, San Francisco was leveled by an earthquake. Much of the city collapsed, and the rest began to burn. … In San Francisco that week, all the city’s plumbers began — unpaid — to fix the broken pipes, one by one. People organized into committees to put out the fires with buckets and anything they could find. … It had been an incredibly divided city, prone to race riots against Chinese immigrants. But not after the disaster struck. San Franciscans handed out food and clothes to astonished Chinese people. A young girl called Dorothy Day watched her mother give away all her clothes to survivors, and wrote: “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.”

These descriptions are mesmerizing — but they also raise a host of questions about the complex intersection of politics, human nature, and higher knowledge.

To start with, the response in San Francisco resonates strongly with the anarchist dream of a society run on the basis of everyone pitching in and doing their part. It’s somehow not at all surprising that when Dorothy Day grew up, she became a member of the IWW.

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 ”If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
   – attributed to Emma Goldman

Since finishing the previous post, I’ve kept puzzling over Tom Joad and why I don’t really warm to him. The last time I wrote about Joad, for example, was in an entry titled “The Democratization of Higher Knowledge,” where I described him as “hapless” and compared him unfavorably to that other mythic figure born of late 30’s populism, Bugs Bunny.

The difference between Tom and Bugs, of course, is that Bugs is an authentic trickster figure — the descendant of Rabbit and Coyote and Raven and all the others of that venerable lineage — and is totally in it for the Lulz. Tom Joad, on the other hand, is more like a Neolithic corn-god who achieves divinity through self-sacrifice without actually having to do anything.

It’s partly a matter of taste, I suppose — or perhaps not, because standing behind the persona of Tom Joad is the similar but far more dynamic figure of Joe Hill.

Joe Hill was a real person, a labor organizer and songwriter who was a member of the International Workers of the World (familiarly known as the Wobblies) — the group whose call for “one big union” is echoed in Joad’s “one big soul.” Hill was executed by the state of Utah in 1915 on what were apparently trumped-up murder charges and was mythologized after his death in the poem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” written in 1930 and set to music in 1936.

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I learned a new word this week — “horizontalism.”

I’ve actually run into it twice now, both times in the context of the Egyptian protests. The first use I spotted was from a poster in the anarchism forum at reddit, who wrote:

I finally heard on the Al Jazeera stream an answer from a real protester, instead of a talking head, to the question they keep flound[er]ing over, “Don’t the protesters need a leader?” — the answer finally came from a blogger who has been in the square, “the people are self organized, there’s no need for a leader to tell them what to do…people are feeding each other, cleaning the square, we all have the same demands, there’s no need for any leaders to tell us what to do”. …

People of reddit, and the anarchism subreddit specifically, I call on you to spread the anti-authoritarian / horizontalist analysis of what’s happening, the reality on the ground is different than how the media, yes even Al Jazeera, is playing it. The ‘international community’ is waiting to figure out who the new authoritarians they can interface with will be… but what is happening on the ground is a rejection of that failed model.

That post really jumped out at me because it sounded so much like what I’ve been saying here about the difference between the failing democracy vision, with its continuing reliance on hierarchical authority, and the completely self-organizing multiculturalism vision.

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When I began working on the previous entry, I intended to discuss a number of ways in which the holism vision is overturning the old concept of the autonomous individual. But I wound up focusing entirely on recent developments in biology — and that tells only half the story. The other half has to do with the emerging concept of a global community of mind in which every one of us participates — what is coming to be known as the hivemind.

The idea of the hivemind is not new. It has been associated with the holism vision since the 1920’s, when the South African writer Eugene Marais theorized that every termite nest functions essentially as a single organism. Marais’ ideas were plagiarized by the prominent Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck in his enormously influential The Life of the White Ant (1926), and from there they quickly passed into science fiction.

Initially, any speculation that human beings might have hiveminds of their own was treated as a grounds for almost Lovecraftian horror. David H. Keller’s trail-blazing The Human Termites (1929), for example, begins by hypothesizing that wars occur because nation-states are “really collections of human beings organized as the termites are, each under the control of a Supreme Intelligence” — but it soon veers off into nightmarish fantasies about human-termite crossbreeds and giant insects destroying New York City.

Even 25 years later, J.R.R. Tolkien could use a grotesque image drawn directly from Maeterlinck to describe the effect on the armies of Mordor of the destruction of Sauron’s Ring: “As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless.”

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“Some dishonest Booksellers, called Land-Pirats, who make it their practice to steal Impressions of other mens Copies.”
— J. Hancock, Brooks’ String of Pearls, 1668 (quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary)

“The last man in the world sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”
— Fredric Brown

In 1984, Steven Levy concluded his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution with a melancholy epilogue titled “The Last of the True Hackers.”

“A man who called himself the last true hacker sat in a room on the ninth floor of Tech Square,” it begins. “His name was Richard Stallman, and he spoke in a tense, high-pitched voice that did not attempt to veil the emotion with which he described, in his words, the ‘rape of the artificial intelligence lab.’ He was thirty years old. His pale complexion and scraggly dark hair contrasted vividly with the intense luminescence of his deep green eyes. The eyes moistened as he described the decay of the Hacker Ethic at Tech Square.”

As explained by Levy, Stallman saw the ethic which had emerged among the original computer hackers of the late 50’s and 60’s as a form of communal anarchism based upon “a concern for constructive cooperation.” But in the 70’s, that first generation grew up, entered the corporate world, and accepted its restrictions — most notably the enforcement of software copyrights.

Around the same time, the Pentagon bureaucrats who controlled access to ARPAnet — the earliest form of the Internet — became obsessed with security measures. And though Stallman fought “to delay the fascist advances with every method I could,” he found himself without allies.

“I don’t believe that software should be owned,” he told Levy. “Because [the practice] sabotages humanity as a whole. It prevents people getting the maximum benefit out of the program’s existence.”

That interview in the fall of 1983 marked a moment of great frustration for Stallman. But in his very despair can be seen the signs of a romantic break about to explode.

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