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P2P: the new information war?  P2P: the new information war?
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Part 4: The nation-state vs. networks
Siva Vaidhyanathan
28 - 8 - 2003
Part 4 of The new information ecosystem: the nation-state vs. networks

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of the forthcoming The Anarchist in the Library and a true scholar of the internet age, presents a compelling, five-part panorama of the implications of electronic peer-to-peer networks for culture, science, security, and globalisation. His provocative argument registers peer-to-peer as a key site of contest over freedom and control of information.

Part 1: It’s a peer-to-peer world
In the first of his five-part series, Siva Vaidhyanathan maps the fluid new territory of electronic peer-to-peer networks that are transforming the information ecosystem. Is this a landscape of enlarging freedoms where citizens shape the forms and meanings of social communication, or does it offer an invitation to entrenching state surveillance and closure?

Part 2: ‘Pro-gumbo’: culture as anarchy
Peer-to-peer technologies have precedents in the anarchistic and hybrid processes by which cultures have always been formed. Decoding anxious cultural preservationists from Matthew Arnold to Samuel Huntington, the second instalment of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s five-part series reframes p2p in the light of other technologies and practices – cassettes, creolisation, world music – which likewise reveal the energetic promiscuity of culture. Any attempt to censor or limit this flow would leave cultures stagnant.

Part 3: The anarchy and oligarchy of science
Science is knowledge in pursuit of truth that can expand human betterment. But part three of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s powerful series sees the free information flows at the heart of science being pressured by the copyright economy, the post-9/11 security environment, proprietary capture of genetic databases, and science policies of governments and universities. If commerce and control defeat openness and accumulation, what happens to science impacts on democracy itself.

Part 4: The nation-state vs. networks
In the last decade, the nation-state has survived three challenges to its hegemony – from the Washington Consensus, the California Ideology, and Anarchy. The promise of a borderless globalisation unified by markets and new technology has been buried. The fourth part of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s compelling series asks: what then remains of the utopian vision of global peer-to-peer networks that would bypass traditional structures of power?

Part 5: Networks of power and freedom
The use by non-state networks of new communication technologies is challenging ideas about citizenship, security, and the nation-state. In response, the impulse to restrict or suppress is shared by states as different as the United States and the People’s Republic of China. In concluding his five-part openDemocracy series, Siva Vaidhyanathan maps an issue that will define the landscape of 21st century politics.

Part 4: The nation-state vs. networks

Just yesterday, it seems, influential thinkers were imagining a world in which the nation-state would wither, and many decisions that affect everyday life would be shifted up to multilateral institutions or down to market actors. Technologies were to play a leading part in that change – linking cosmopolitan citizens and transnational markets in a way that would enable more direct forms of governance, cultural creolisation, and efficient commercial transactions. Human beings were on the verge of finding new and exciting ways of relating to each other. Arbitrary barriers of ethnicity and geography would shrivel. Through technology, we were in the process of mastering the dynamics of, and therefore controlling, our “cultural evolution.”

This vision was informed by a sort of soft anarchism and techno-fundamentalism. It assumed that the state would slough away eventually. But in the mean time, we would have to push and prod it to relinquish centralised control over daily matters.

The tautology worked as follows. This sort of radical globalisation is going to happen anyway. The technology would determine it, so we might as well make personal and policy choices that would guarantee it. In the meantime, if those outside the global, technocratic, educated elite suffered a bit, that would be the price of cultural evolution. We could wire their villages and gently inform them of the impending changes.

Of course, in practice, the instruments of this particular form of globalisation did not actually serve the softly anarchistic vision of a decentralised species acting in concert. Like a Soviet-era ideologue’s permanent deferral of rule by the working class until it was ‘ready’, this approach required a centralisation of authority within corporate boardrooms and multilateral confederacies until all the villages were wired.

Of course, now we see that the nation-state is not going anywhere. And ethnicity and geography still matter quite a bit within and among states. We might even be experiencing some sort of “cultural devolution.” If anything, the nation-state has capitalised on the mania of “globalisation” and “information” to reinforce its powers and jurisdictions. We might have had a moment of techno-globo-utopian idealism in the 1990s. But it should be clear by now that the nation-state is back with thunderous fury. And the dominant form of globalisation is oligarchic, not anarchistic. So the most pronounced forms of opposition to that dominant model are understandably informed by anarchism.

That’s not to say that the nation-state is what it was, or that it will behave the same ways in the future. The pressures on state sovereignty, identity, and security are significant. People, currencies, culture, and information are more portable and malleable than ever, and this has increased the anxieties that nation-states endure concerning identity and security.

These pressures come from inside and outside: reactions to and from immigrant groups that retain interest in the politics and culture of their homeland, and expatriate communities dispersed around the globe, willingly funding and enabling new challenges to state security and integrity.

Different pressures on sovereignty also come from above and below: from multilateral governing institutions and from teeming mobs of techno-libertarians and disgruntled rebels. The triple forces at work here are the “Washington Consensus” and a strange synergy between the “California Ideology” and the “Zapatista Swarm.”

Soft oligarchy: the Washington Consensus

The Washington Consensus is a form of market fundamentalism complicated by some serious bad faith. Although its advocates claim to champion “free trade” and “open markets”, there is nothing free or open about the Washington Consensus. It’s more Washingtonian than consensual. It’s a consensus among major institutions located in Washington, D.C., and represents the vested interests of developed nations. While it intends to empower market forces, it depends on coercion by institutions that resemble super-states, yet have no direct democratic accountability.

In practice, increasingly powerful multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank determine policies for many nation-states. And clearly the multilateral institutions that enforce the Washington Consensus are only serving the interests of a handful of already rich and powerful states, chiefly in North America and western Europe.

Techno-libertarianism: the California Ideology

From roughly 1981 to 2000, the Washington Consensus represented the potential of a new political order: a weakened, less relevant nation-state in the 21st century. Meanwhile, on the left coast of the United States, a revolution was brewing that encouraged the passive erosion of state influence on markets and people’s lives. At least, everyone involved thought it was a revolution, declared it a revolution, and acted as if it were a revolution.

It turned out to be less revolutionary in real terms than many hoped. Yet its ideological influence was undeniable. Political economist Christopher May has called it the “California Ideology”, but it might more properly be called the “Northern California Ideology”.

The California Ideology predicted that the new communicative technologies that linked consumers directly to producers (without middlemen) and allowed consumers more and faster information with which they might make decisions that would radically alter global capitalism. Transaction costs would fall. Consumers would demand better quality and service at lower prices. The smartest firms would offer them just that. Workers would no longer be tied to offices and plants. Managers would slough away as corporate hierarchies collapsed. Employees would find greater satisfaction working contract-to-contract for a variety of firms on individual projects rather than latching their fortunes and reputations on one firm. Firms would “outsource” much of their work, from printing to data storage, to shipping, to research, to accounting.

At every level – consumers, labour, management, and the firm itself – everyone would be a “free agent.” Firms that worked better with their minds than their muscles would win. Work would be flexible and workers would be free. Social needs would be better served through private ventures that capitalise on quick applications of knowledge and networks of experts. The nation-state would not only wither in importance because private firms would serve consumers, (what used to be called citizens) better, it would be actively dismantled because its interventions in many areas of life perverted the flows of information that would fuel this revolution in the first place. Every transaction would be a lot like shopping on eBay.

The rise of caffeinated anarchy

Anarchy – in some ways growing directly out of the new communicative technologies fostered by the California ideology, in other ways brewing up from the disgruntled subalterns in developing nations – burst into relevance and importance in 1999.

It filled the streets of Seattle and shut down a round of negotiations at a meeting of the WTO. Taking inspiration from the 1994-1995 Zapatista uprising in the southern state of Chiapas in Mexico, activists from all corners of the earth had been communicating about ways to challenge the Washington Consensus.

Using the slogan, “The Revolution will be Digitised,” activists all over the globe took direct inspiration from the issues and success that the Zapatistas generated. Anti-Washington Consensus parties in Venezuela and Brazil won elections in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile Mexican voters, many of whom have benefited from increased trade with the United States, elected a conservative president who had once worked for Coca-Cola and lived in the United States.

European anarchists and activists helped Zapatistas organise the First Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism in Chiapas in 1996. Through that and subsequent meetings in 1997 and 1998, the movement spread to include several important trade unions in Europe and Canada.

These activists sought true and complete globalisation. Partial, rigged globalisation, as promulgated by the Washington Consensus, served only to bind workers to one place. The Washington Consensus encouraged the movement of money, resources, and goods. Yet it did not allow for the free flow of people and ideas (unless these ideas were encased in Hollywood films and music, and then only under strict market, legal, and technological controls).

If there were such a free flow of people and ideas, then authoritarian states would sense deep threats grumbling up from their subjects and multinational corporations could not exploit wage differences effectively enough to undermine unions. These diverse groups forged a movement with a coherent message: that the appearance of incoherence was in fact coherent because it reflected the diversity of concerns and methods.

“We declare”, the founding document of the movement read, “that we will make a collective network of all our particular struggles and resistances, an intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberalism, an intercontinental network of resistance for humanity.” The sociologist David Graeber, an anarchist activist working against the Washington Consensus, wrote that this new global anarchism is not only pro-globalisation – in the sense that it hopes to erode borders and allow people to seek fulfilment wherever and however they might imagine it; it is the first major social and ideological movement to spread from the south to the north, from the developing to developed nation-states, in many decades. And, in this effort to define in their first principles a bond with humanity over nation, these activists were echoing a sense of Diogenic cynicism.

The Zapatista swarm hits Seattle

Diogenes found an ideal playground in Seattle, whose economic success in the 1990s made it the ideal showcase for the Washington Consensus.

The home of Microsoft, Boeing, and Starbucks was also a node of global communication and the flow of tourists and workers. But its proximity to Native American communities and old-growth forests made it a symbol of all that the Washington Consensus threatened. Moreover, the very technologies that the WTO celebrated in Seattle – intercontinental air travel, large quantities of cheaply grown caffeine, and unmediated global digital communication – undermined the institutions that supplied them.

When anarchists, environmentalists, labour union members, farm workers, and general critics of the Washington Consensus shut down a meeting of the WTO in Seattle in the fall of 1999, the ruling institutions of the world were shocked and found themselves completely unprepared. They had read anti-Washington Consensus activists as fragmented, unsophisticated, and unable to tap into widespread public support. Most immediate accounts of the protests falsely labeled the protest movements as “anti-globalisation” instead of pro-globalisation. And they were falsely labeled “violent” uprisings when they were most definitely anti-violent.

As in Chiapas, the government actually perpetrated the violence once the activists’ tactics overwhelmed their abilities to make sense of the situation. For the most part, the Seattle activists practiced “direct democracy”. The loosely-affiliated groups were themselves composed of loosely-affiliated members. They ruled themselves through protocols.

When a member proposed an “action”, she or he invited participation and criticism. After deliberation and debate, members who still opposed the revised proposal could still opt out of the action. In response to extreme proposals that violate the core principles of the group, members could propose a veto. And the group would then consider the validity of the concerns and decide whether to act.

Such loose consensus could degenerate into organisational paralysis. But the more urgent the issue and more reasonable the action, the more effective these organisations would be. Once these movements shifted from the conference and seminar rooms – and chat rooms and web pages – to the streets of Seattle, they were much more diverse, flexible, impressive, and effective than anyone in power (or in universities) could have predicted.

The Seattle activists were mostly, in Graeber’s term, “small ‘a’ anarchists”, as opposed to the more overtly ideologically-inspired “Anarchists”. Like the Zapatistas, they dabbled in anarchistic tactics and methods without overtly endorsing a stateless world vision.

A bend in the river

Efforts since 1999 to replicate the triumphs of Seattle have been frustrated by events outside the activists’ control. The protests in Quebec in the summer of 2001, intended to stop progress on a western hemispheric trade treaty on the model of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), were impressive. But those in New York who met up to protest the World Economic Forum meeting in early 2002 – when New Yorkers were in no mood for more chaos – were largely unimpressive and ineffective. Between these two events, of course, the World Trade Center fell and citizens and states around the world shifted their immediate concerns from freedom to security.

In Genoa in July 2001, an Italian policeman shot and killed a young man named Carlo Giuliani who was protesting the meeting of the G8, the leaders of the eight most powerful nation-states in the world. Amid 80,000 protesters who were calling for cancellation of third world debt, a police vehicle ran through crowds of mostly peaceful protesters, chasing and beating many, to strike back against a handful of violent protesters. In Genoa, the idealised vision of “anarchists with a small ‘a’” evaporated as more extreme and uncompromising anarchists reverted to violence against Italian security forces and world leaders, lobbing Molotov cocktails over barricades.

These violent anarchists did not seem to be part of the global movement inspired by the Zapatistas. Yet their actions – and the blowback by the conservative Italian government – have become part of the governing mythology of the battle over globalisation. The protesters basked in glory after Seattle. And Italian authorities had no interest in seeming as overwhelmed, surprised, or incompetent as Seattle police had.

This combination of hubris and militant defensiveness had fatal consequences for progressive forces in general, and Carlo Giuliani particularly. As global activist Nathan Newman explains, “There was, I think, a somewhat un-strategic overconfidence that developed among protesters post-Seattle. The Seattle cops were unprepared and played into the propaganda goals of the protesters. As Philadelphia and now Genoa showed, the cops are no longer unprepared and are developing both the repressive technology and propaganda to crush the Black Bloc-style protesters and the rest of the movement if we don’t develop some new strategies to control the escalation of violence.”

No future beyond the nation-state?

By 2003, these three ideological challenges to the power of the nation-state seemed stalled if not dead. Under the leadership of two very different powerful nation-states, the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, the 21st century would open with a clear call to think nationally first, and globally only if such strategies offered a clear and direct payoff to the nation-state. The ideologies and networks that seemed to threaten the nation-state all through the 1980s and 1990s faced challenges far greater than the nation-state ever did.


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