How to get from Here to There: A Modern 'Archimedes Hypothesis'
Sunday, June 21, 2009
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
As an old anarcho-Marxist utopian, I am overjoyed to receive the invitation to join in Parecon's Reimagining Society project. Indeed, I had just begun a parallel initiative: the creation of an interactive web site which invites participants to join together collectively in constructing realistic models of post-capitalist societies - and the roads leading thereto. I urge my fellow activists and theoreticians to give free reign to your imaginations and join us at www.wikitopia.wikidot.com The following paper outlines the theoretical basis for such possible future societies.
By all appearances, capitalism, decadent since the First World War is rapidly descending into economic depression, social barbarism and ecological suicide. In 2009, slowly reforming the system - always a dubious proposition - seems less and less practical in the face of actual and impending social, economic and environmental catastrophes. Assuming that there is a future ‘life after capitalism' and that ‘another world' is really possible, it follows that this future society will of necessity be radically Utopian (or rather Ecotopian). It also follows that such a society will emerge from the grass roots and spread globally, rather than percolating slowly through existing national institutions. Consequently, the most serious problem for our time is realistically imagining how we can get from here (capitalist ecocide) to there (Ecotopia) without invoking supernatural or extraterrestrial intervention.
In my view, such a social transformation would have to be global in scope, although obviously it would emerge sooner or later in different areas as it developed and gained experience. Ultimately, such a world-wide social transformation would require the emergence of a network of planetary social movements powerful enough to strip the billionaires of their power and build sustainable post-capitalist societies. Impossible? In May of 1968 millions of us, workers and students, took over the schools, factories and offices of France. Our slogan: ‘Be practical! Demand the impossible!' Today, after forty years of neoliberal capitalist reaction, it has become obvious that only ‘the impossible' (under the profit system) is possible (for the survival of intelligent life on this planet). That is our working assumption. I begin my (basically Marxist) analysis by asking: What are the human (social), material (technological) and ideological (spiritual) elements latent in today's globalized capitalist society that could combine to enable the emergenceof a Better World?
I will raise the Earth!
They say that in ancient times, that bold philosopher and inventor Archimedes boasted: Give me a lever long enough, a fulcrum, a place to stand, and I will raise the Earth! Of course, we know Archimedes' amazing feat was only a hypothesis - a ‘thought experiment' that could take place only in the mind. But Archimedes's discovery was no less powerful for being a ‘mere' idea dreamed up by a philosopher. In the centuries after Archimedes, inventions based on his hypothesis vastly multiplied the puny strength of human beings so that they were able to circumnavigate the globe and eventually to dominate it - for better or for worse. Can anyone then doubt the ability of an idea - a thought experiment - to multiply human power?
Our problem, if we want to successfully imagine a plausible science fiction scenario with a happy ending, is to think up a similar hypothetical formula for multiplying human power so that our passengers and crew of Starship Earth can lift the Earth before it is shipwrecked. Our mutineers will need a lot of leverage to overpower the officers who are fighting among themselves, looting the ship, and steering it toward disaster. How to imagine such a lever, platform, and fulcrum? History seems to indicate that whenever people are ready to pose new questions, the means of resolving them are already present - if only as possibilities for science fiction.
The Modern Archimedes Hypothesis
In our scenario for ‘Mutiny on Spaceship Earth' the three elements are already on board, ready to be configured into a new power strong enough to halt the onrush of global self-destruction and release the human energy to build a new society. I call them: The Social Lever, The Electronic Platform, and The Philosophical Fulcrum.
- The Social Lever is the vast untapped power of planetary solidarity. Once the billions of passengers and crewmembers aboard Spaceship Earth unite and act together, no force can stop them. Divided, they are pitiful and weak. United, their power is irresistible.
- The Electronic Platformis the World Wide Web. Its emergent technology is tentacular, infinite in its connections, interactive, and indestructible because its center is everywhere and nowhere. As accessible tomorrow as the telephone is today, the Internet provides a place to stand large enough for billions to interact. The Web is a planetary platform where each can speak for her/himself on equal footing, where billions of passengers and crew-members can connect, unite, empower themselves and take initiatives on a planetary scale - the only scale on which it makes sense to confront the power-mad officers of predatory global capitalism.
- The Philosophical Fulcrum is planetary consciousness: the awareness that planets are mortal. It is a vision which places the survival of Spaceship Earth and its inhabitants at the center of all things. It is the affirmation of Life on Earth as a new universal, as the common spiritual and practical basis around which billions can unite.
The Lever of Planetary Solidarity
Solidarity is the most familiar of the three powers. We all know that there is strength in numbers, and it's six billion of us against about six thousand billionaires. It follows that ‘united we stand, divided we fall,' for in the words of the old song ‘union makes us strong.' Solidarity is not merely a realistic tactical, practical necessity; it is a positive social ethic and a fundamental human value as well. The old labor slogan sums up the lesson of all the great religious teachers of the past two thousand years: An injury to one - to the humblest child among us - is an injury to all.
If we base our successful Mutiny on Starship Earth scenario on real human history, it reveals that the potential power of mass solidarity has shown itself successful at revolutionary moments from ancient times. Ever since the revolt of Spartacus and the Roman slaves, the poor, the downtrodden, the exploited have shown their ability to unite and use their numbers to win concessions from their powerful oppressors - even to overthrow them. Down through the ages - from the vast peasant uprisings in Feudal times to the mass revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries - numbers, united, have overcome armed entrenched power structures... At least momentarily.
Make no mistake. In no time or place have the wealthy ever shared any of their power or privileges without a struggle. It was only by uniting in mass movements, unions, and political parties that ordinary working people won such democratic rights as universal suffrage, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, the eight-hour day, and legislation mandating universal education, healthcare, job safety and social security. Moreover, such reforms - today under attack - were achieved only after generations of struggle and only in Europe, the Americas, and a few Asian and ex-colonial countries.
Today, neo-liberal capitalism is attacking these basic rights on a global scale, even in the wealthy advanced countries. Moreover, in vast portions of the world, the common people still have not won personal freedom, civil liberties ora say in government - in spite ofgenerations of mass sacrifice in the name of revolution and national independence. As a result, their labor is cheap. Globalization allows transnational businesses to exploit that cheap labor, and capital has been flowing from the democracies - where employees can still protect themselves to some extent - to the dictatorships, where they can't. Moreover, authoritarian rule - the business-friendly, security-driven police state - is on the rise even among the traditionally liberal democracies: a contaminated export blowing back to the capitalist homelands along with third world poverty in first world cities.
Solidarity must be international to be effective, as the workers of Europe concluded after the defeat of the Europe-wide 1848 national-democratic revolutions. In 1864 they formed the first International Workers' Association. Nearly a century and a half later, under globalized corporate capitalism, it is all the more obvious that unless the lever of solidarity is extended across borders, it is no longer an effective tool against the profit-driven ‘race to the bottom.' Without it, the billionaires - who can move their money electronically and ship their factories cheaply from country to country - will always dominate the billions, who are rooted at home and barred from crossing national borders seeking work in the so-called free labor market. Thus the same ruthless U.S. corporations who moved their operations to impoverished Mexico after imposing NAFTA are now relocating to Asia, where the wages are even more pitiful.
Why did the advantages won by people-power in the past remain partial and temporary? Largely because they remained isolated. By uniting, the slaves of Ancient Rome were able to win military victories under the leadership of the gladiator Spartacus. But they were eventually hunted down by fresh Roman Legions brought in from other provinces of the Roman Empire. In modern times, the same isolation seems to have condemned every revolution to the same sorry fate. At various times, the common people in France (1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1968), Russia (1905, 1917), Spain (1936), China (1911, 1949), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), the Warsaw Pact nations (1989) have united to successfully wrest power from the hands of feudal, capitalist or Communist overlords.
But as long as their revolutions were confined to one country, they were doomed to ultimate defeat - just like Spartacus and the slaves of Rome. These revolutionary moments flash out like solitary beacons across history, illuminating at once the liberatory potential for mass self-organization latent among oppressed people - as well as the seemingly inevitable doom of their struggles when left isolated. Today, more than ever, the motto ‘United we stand, divided we fall' must be understood globally. ‘An injury to one is an injury to all,' anywhere on the planet. Movements for justice and equality can never succeed if they are confined to a single country. This lesson becomes more and more urgent as capitalist globalization imposes a ‘race to the bottom' of pay and conditions on wage earners in every land. The Lever of Solidarity must be planetary before it can ‘lift the world.'
Thus, if we want our scenario for a successful Mutiny on Starship Earth to be historically realistic, we must visualize something quite amazing: global movements directed against multi-national capital - including, for example, planetary demonstrations for peace; women's rights; environmental and social justice as well as world-wide general strikes supported by consumer boycotts targeting multi-national corporations; all leading to an international wave of uprisings and takeovers broad enough to surround and isolate the billionaires and their reactionary allies.
Is there any real-world evidence for such a visualization? The recent wave of international popular movements sweeping across Latin America, into the Hispanic US (May First General Strike) and even reaching out to Asia holds the beginnings of a real promise. Even traditional labor unions (often spurred by informal ethnic/community international solidarity groups) are finally moving into cross-border organizing. It is becoming increasingly obvious to all that in a globalized economy, human rights, social benefits and popular reforms must be enjoyed by working people in all countries before they are secure in any, and that movements for human and environmental rights must be planetary to succeed. The question remains, how, practically, will the passengers and crew of Spaceship Earth be able to unite internationally instead of being isolated and repressed like so many revolts of the past? Here we must move on to the technological basis for our modern Archimedes hypothesis, the new material element that makes a successful Mutiny on Spaceship earth practically possible, a realistic one chance in a hundred.
The Internet as a Planetary Platform
Historically, advances in communication and transportation technology have gone hand in hand with advances in popular self-organization. During the democratic revolutions of the 18th Century, cheap printing and the post office (both recent developments) enabled revolutionary committees of correspondence in the American colonies and the French provinces to share local grievances, discuss ideas, organize congresses, inform each other of plots, publish and circulate the revolutionary broadsheets and pamphlets that made the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 possible. In the 19th Century, railroads, steamships, the telegraph and the daily newspaper spread the democratic revolutions of 1848 all across Europe within months. Unfortunately in 20th Century, radio and later television - organized as one-way, top-down broadcast media - became the favorite tool of totalitarian dictators like Hitler and Stalin, manipulative politicians like Churchill and Roosevelt, and wealthy advertisers whose right-wing commercial media monopolies dominate the airwaves in the so-called free countries...
On the other hand, in the 21st Century, the Internet promises to give the advantage back to people-power. It also may give a new meaning to informational democracy. For the first time in history, this new technology has placed at the disposal of the billions an uncensored source of information as well as a planetary platform large enough and accessible enough for all to participate, decide and act together. With its infinite interconnections, the World Wide Web enables groups in struggle to communicate, exchange information, discuss ideas, work out common programs and coordinate actions on a planetary scale in real time. The technology of the Internet has the potential of creating vast, worldwide assemblies where true international democracy can take form; forums where consensus can be reached onan ongoing basis; platforms where massive planetary actions can be coordinated from hour to hour around the globe. With ever more powerful computers joined together, even problems like translation are being solved. Precisely what the passengers and crew of Spaceship Earth will need to break out from below decks and take over the bridge from the squabbling, pilfering officers.
The Web is also a vast 24-hours/day 7 days/week public library where the passengers and crew can find and propagate (among other things) the uncensored information and revolutionary ideas they will need to unite. The collective creation of today's Wikipedia, the ever-expanding, multi-lingual self-correcting information resource, is a model of this kind of Internet emergence. For the first time in history, the storehouse of revolutionary internationalist thinking and the recorded experiences of centuries of struggle is accessible to all. Thus the Web potentially weaves together ideas and planetary communication, connecting the Lever of solidarity with the Fulcrum of planetary consciousness.
Democracy, Internet, Emergence
Before going further, I want to make it clear that I do not believe that technology can substitute for active human solidarity and collective organization on the ground. ‘Revolutionary' chat rooms can never replace face-to-face workplace and neighborhood organizing; radical Websites are no substitute for popular movements, unions, parties, newspapers, alternative broadcasting, international meetings and other forms of human interaction. Nor do I maintain that the Web is immune to police-state censorship and spying by authoritarian regimes, for example in China, where the authorities are often able to block discussion of subjects like democracy (with the complicity of do no evil Google) and like the Bush administration, mine emails and postings (with the help of Yahoo) in order to arrest and punish dissidents.
On the other hand, hackers in China and around the world often find ways to get around police-state censors and their U.S. corporate accomplices. Indeed, the hacker mentality and the ‘freeware' movements incarnate a Utopian spirit in themselves and should be considered as the allies of social movements around the world. Freeware challenges the commodified basis of human creativity and corporate monopolization of collectively developed ‘intellectual property' from computer software to South American healing plants. In any case, networked technology is a Pandora's book for the world's would-be censor. Thus, when the Burmese dictatorship shut down the Internet during the monks' rebellion, the demonstrators used their cell-phones - another new form of electronic networking in the hands of the people - both to coordinate their movements and to get photos of the repression to the world press.
Granting these limitations, what I am suggesting is this:
- The Internet is a powerful and increasingly accessible new tool for struggle whose revolutionary potential is beginning to be understood by popular movements around the globe.
- The Internet's web-like global network, whose ‘center' is everywhere and nowhere, may turn out to be a more effective model for the emergence of planetary, democratic and working-class movements than the traditional hub-and-spokes, center/periphery, top down model of centralized parties and ‘internationals.'
- The Internet makes technically possible the internationalist dream of a global movement of working people uniting to overthrow the bosses and establish a sustainable, self-governing post-capitalist world.
This is not just theoretical. Despite it origins as a Defense Department program, the Internet has been eagerly appropriated by global justice movements and proven itself an invaluable tool on the ground. Some examples: the Zapatistas opened the anti-globalization era with their anti-NAFTA rebellion in 1994 and used the Internet to gather global support against the invading Mexican Army; the locked-out Liverpool dockers and their supporters organized a successful international dockers' boycott of scab shipping in 1997; the anti-corporate globalization protesters in Seattle, Genoa, Cancun who eventually crippled the IMF and WTO, coordinated their movements via Internet as did the global social movements that connected at the World Social Forums; the demonstrators who freed President Chávez from the coup plotters in 2002; the millions of demonstrators in 57 different countries who protested invading Iraq in April 2003; the workers and students of the Korean General Strike of 1997; the rebels in China, who reportedly pulled off 83,000 strikes and uprisings against overwork and pollution in 2006; not to mention the many blogs and alternative news sites around the glob that get behind the ‘official' story put out by governments and the billionaires' corporate media.
The Web has also enabled and perhaps influenced new types of organization, based on the network model rather than the traditional hub-and-spokes model. In Latin America, the symbolism of the web, powerful yet delicate, had already been proposed by activist women as an alternative to male-dominated, top-down power. In recent decades, new forms of horizontal organizations are emerging there, rooted in urban neighborhoods and rural communities, in factories and on the land, yet networked nationally and even internationally. Self-organized, autonomous groups of peasants and indigenous peoples have been networked all over the Americas since 1992, when the Internet helped bring them together to celebrate 500 years of survival and resistance to colonialism.
Today, these movements network online and on the ground at World Social Forums, at which workers, peasants, indigenous, ecologists, and social activists, compare conditions, discuss strategy, and organize global solidarity with similar movements as far off as Asia. In the context of national politics, these autonomous horizontal networks are at the base of the vertical power of progressive presidents like Lula, Kirchner, Correa, Chavez, and Morales - pushing these governments to challenge the power of local landowners and the global corporations. Far from being ‘historically backward,' these rural communities have successfully appropriated 21st Century capitalist communications technology at its highest level and used it as a weapon for their own emancipation. They are in today's planetary vanguard: challenging capitalism, protecting the land and saving nature from the ravenous corporations.
If the Web model of a network of networks continues to prove effective as a structure for an expansive, flexible, practical transnational organizing, might it not also foreshadow the structure of a future self-organized planetary society? The Achilles' heel of democracy has always been the necessity of delegating authority to representatives, who all too often end up forming a separate political class with its own interests. But what if direct ‘town-meeting' type participatory democracy could be organized not only locally, but also regionally, and globally via Internet hookup? What if every citizen of the planet could make her/his voice heard equally with every other, get access to experts' advice and unite with others of the same persuasion? And then vote - whether in their own mass assemblies or internationallyvia a secure Internet hookup? What if the great issues facing humanity could be debated everywhere and then decided in global referendums via the Internet? What if the necessary economic planning on a global scale could be combined with worker self-management and maximum local autonomy? What if every individual could participate in decision-making in each of her capacities as resident, producer, consumer and citizen? What if, after centuries of successful revolutions being hijacked and perverted by new bureaucratic elites, the common people were able to control the destiny of a new society as it emerges from below?
Back in 1958, when computers were in their infancy, my ‘teacher' in the movement, the (then) Marxist philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis was the first to imagine such a computer-connected self-managed society in his essay ‘The Content of Socialism. [i]A critic of bureaucratic top-down management exemplified by Russian Communism and American capitalism, Castoriadis saw socialism emerging out of workers' self-activity. A professional economist, he was able to elaborate in concrete detail a complete national economy, free of the waste and coercion of corporate Communist central planning. In Castoriadis' utopia, ‘Planning Factories' produced alternative plans - to be debated and eventually voted by the producers via wired hookups - explaining in simple terms the relative costs and consequences of each proposal in terms of labor time, resources, growth and consumption levels - giving society the choice between enjoying more leisure or working harder for future goals. The concrete images in Castoriadis' Utopian model made such an impression on me a half-century ago that I have never since doubted democratic socialism's practical ‘do-ability.'
Castoriadis' vision derives from the traditional Marxist notions of revolution as evolution in the fullness of time. It recalls Engels' image of the new world emerging out of the shell of the old - adopted by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). What was original in 1958, was Castoriadis' appropriation of the theories of the socialist-minded mathematician Norbert Weiner, the pioneer of computer science of who explored the feed-back principle and recognized the emergent quality of cybernetics.[ii]Today, physicists, biologists, mathematicians, cyberneticists and scientists in other fields are studying and analyzing the emergent phenomena of spontaneous self-organization from below in the context of Chaos/Complexity/Emergence Theory to which we will return.
The Fulcrum of Planetary Consciousness
The Internet is a large enough platform for all humanity to stand on, but in order to unite, to join their collective strength, the Billions will need to focus their energy on a single idea. Planetary Consciousness is the philosophical fulcrum on which the Archimedes Hypothesis stands. As such it isless easy to describe than the Lever of Planetary Solidarity (whose basis is historical) and the Web (whose basis is technological). Moreover, like the Internet, Planetary Consciousness is still in its infancy.
For hundreds of thousands of years, humans' horizons were limited to their immediate environment, to their band or tribe or settlement. If the ancient Greek philosophers were the first to speculate that the Earth is a planet and plot its orbit, only in the last five hundred years have people actually learned to measure it, map it and sail around it. Only very recently - thanks to radio and TV - have the vast majority the earth's human inhabitants become aware of lands and continents beyond their own village or province. In the 1960s the transistor radio transformed the world-view of millions of Africans and South Americans living on the land. And only in our own times have humans actually seen, via photos taken from space and viewed by millions, the amazing, cloud-swirling blue-green globe we live on. Today, most of the planet's six billion humans are aware of living on a globe inhabited by many other peoples. I consider this a revolution in human consciousness whose power and depth have as yet not been realized.
Tragically, this revolution in planetary consciousness coincides with humanity's growing awareness that life on our planet is menaced with extinction. For the past half-century - since Hiroshima and Nagasaki - it has become evident that our survival as a species is threatened by our own ingenuity in inventing machines of unprecedented power and destructiveness. Since the annihilation of the two Japanese cities - followed by sixty years of nuclear proliferation and stockpiling - awareness of humanity's mortality has slowly been imposing itself on all but the simple, the selfish and the self-deluded. Likewise, awareness of the slower, yet deadly destruction of the natural world, ruthlessly ravaged for corporate profit, is becoming universal. As more and more people experience the palpable effects of pollution and global climate change, they are more likely to attribute these dramatic droughts, storms, floods and epidemics to global causes - indeed to global corporations - than to local gods or spirits. Another revolution in human consciousness as yet unevaluated.
Meanwhile, humans have already learned to split the atom and manipulate the genome. Like great children, we are playing with the very building blocks of matter and of life. We are also breaking them. Regrettably, our technical abilities have developed far beyond our level of social and political organization. As a result, atomic power and genetic engineering have been used exclusively for power and profit: monstrous weapons of war, Chernobyls and Three-Mile Islands built on the cheap; and genetically modified seeds imposed by force and fraud to contaminate traditional crops, turn farmers into corporate serfs and destroy self-sustaining peasant agriculture. Our species, which Victor Serge once depicted as intelligent monkeys toiling on a green globe has become too smart for its own good. Human monkeys have monkeyed around with genome and the atomic structure of matter-energy and unleashed powers they are unablewithin capitalist society, to control. Thus the planet that emerged out the first Big Bang it is now heading for another Big Bang if we don't take control of our technology, that is to say if we fail to connect up our collective brain before engaging gears! Such awareness is the second stage of planetary consciousness: stepping out of denial and acknowledging the possibility - increasingly likely - of annihilation in the foreseeable future. Like the proverbial elephant in your living room, there is no getting around the looming specter of extinction, whether it takes the form of Nuclear Winter or of the gradual death of the polluted biosphere. At this level, planetary consciousness is awareness of the unavoidable existential choice between irreconcilable absolutes: People and Profits, Nature and Money, Life and Death.
Planetary Consciousness means understanding that the same human ingenuity which threatens the planet with destruction also holds the promise of a life of abundance, once it is liberated by freely associated human subjects. For if creative humanity manages to unite on a planetary scale; if our species, instead of destroying the planet, comes together to save it; if we are able to build a new society based intelligence and love, balancing community and individual freedom, competition and cooperation, ingenuity and harmony with nature, then we may discover a new, truly ‘human' nature and begin true human history - a post-history, truly ‘common era' whose infinite development we can barely imagine. A new society in which humans, liberated from the bonds of fear, greed, competition for survival, solitude, self-alienation, class antagonism, war, hatred, and servitude, will be reintegrated into the biosphere and free to develop the full human potential for creativity, discovery and spirituality.
This final stage of Planetary Consciousness consists in realizing the necessity of a positive revolution in human relations, the emergence of a new society based on solidarity and cooperation rather than on greed and oppression. This planetary consciousness speaks in the new voices now being heard around the planet. Thousands, perhaps millions of people have begun proclaiming in chorus: ‘Another world is possible!' By organizing and resisting corporate globalization, by educating themselves and others, these global justice movements are helping to save the planet on a practical level by fighting pollution, forest-destruction, privatization of social and natural resources. They are also creating their own producer and consumer cooperatives, mutual credit societies, faire-trade networks and self-organised communities - the embryos of future societies. Like all of us, they are searching for alternatives, for a planetary vision of a possible better world, for an idea capable of drawing together billions and focusing their power. In other words...for Utopia. For without a credible future vision to unite us, we inevitably fall back on defensive struggles, siding with the enemies of our enemies, settling for the lesser of two evils.
Connectivity, Complexity, Quantum and Emergence
This new Planetary Consciousness has great historical potential, but time is short and Spaceship Earth seems to be accelerating its course toward disaster. Admitting for the sake of argument that my New Archimedes' Hypothesis provides a theoretical basis for a successful Mutiny among the passengers and crew, it is hard to imagine it taking place within the next few years without Divine or Extraterrestrial intervention. How will all these billions get together? How will the vast, untapped force of humanity become conscious of itself and emerge before it is too late? To answer these questions, let us return to the Internet, specifically to the underlying scientific principles of Connectivity and Emergence that account for its stupendous growth.
The new factor that makes the age-old dream of humanity rising actual in the 21st Century is connectivity. It has recently been demonstrated that there are on the average only six degrees of separation between each of the six billion humans on the planet. That means that you probably know someone, who knows someone else, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone who knows me -or even more unlikely, who knows a certain peasant in Setchuan, China named Mrs. Wu. These are weak connections, of course, but another of the paradoxes of Emergence is that weak connections are the fabric that makes up the strength of complex network structures like the Internet and the human brain.
Connecting up the cells of the collective brain of humanity is precisely what is needed to save the world from the pseudo-rationality of the corporate profit system that is consuming it like a cancer. The Internet provides the connectivity for the emergence of what can be called ‘Planetary Consciousness' - the fulcrum of the modern Archimedes Hypothesis. And although the phrase ‘the collective brain of humanity' sounds mystical, recent experiments and research have confirmed what Wall Street Journal and New Yorker business columnist James Suroweicki's recent book calls The Wisdom of Crowds. (Subtitle: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations.) It turns out experimentally that the judgment of large numbers of randomly chosen people is often strikingly superior to that of the experts. What is the explanation? The diversity and impartiality of opinions in a freely associated group or random mass apparently combine in positive ways to create this collective intelligence. But it only works when people are free of the kind of hierarchical constraints that produce ‘group-think' in committees, hence the pitiful failure of the ‘experts' in authoritarian, bureaucratic organizations like the CIA to deliver accurate ‘intelligence' (for example about Saddam's WMDs).
This ‘wisdom of crowds' can be seen as awired version of the ‘wisdom in the heads of many' we old socialists used to talk about. The creation, by thousands of individual contributors in a dozen languages, of Wikipedia the free online encyclopedia,is a splendid example of collective wisdom, far surpassing the long-revered Encyclopedia Britannica in scope. As for accuracy, Wikipedia is always correcting itself, whereas the elitist Britannica, which cost hundreds and rarely revised itself,was full of British upper-class prejudice and long neglected the achievements of native peoples.
In any case, there is nothing impractical or unscientific in the romantic image of the collective brain of humanity connecting up its myriad nodes through cyberspace. Or of humanity acting with collective wisdom and strength of billions to take charge of our poor world. ‘Only connect!' could be the motto of a modern revolutionary network. Indeed, the concept of Emergence is common to much 21st scientific thought in fields as diverse as Quantum mechanics, cybernetics, and brain physiology. Emergence - the spontaneous creation of order and complexity out of chaos - has now been observed in various natural phenomena which were previously inexplicable in terms of the standard top-down scientific models of cause/effect, leader/follower.[iii]Emergence has long been observed in the complex organization of ant and bee ‘societies;' it is also visible in the development of the infant human brain, where billions of brain-circuits spontaneously grow out of a few cells and connect into complex networks; we see Emergence as well in the history of the world's cities where people of many trades came spontaneously together, each pursuing his/her own interests, and ‘accidentally' produced what we call civilization. Social movements are also a form of spontaneous self-organization from below, as Rosa Luxemburg observed in 1905, the year of the revolutionary mass strikes she analyzedin Poland-Russia. Order and complexity are thus observed emerging out of chaos, based on connectivity between large numbers of free agents following their own paths.[iv]
However, for this complexity to emerge, there must be a critical mass of individuals. ‘Many is different' is the rule in Chaos-Complexity-Emergence theory. The other critical condition is freedom to communicate and interact ‘horizontally' free of distortions imposed by a ‘vertical' one-way organizing power, for example by corporate or government bureaucracies which generate group-think. A corollary of complexity theory is that free of such interference, tiny events may trigger huge changes, like the proverbial beat of a butterfly in China provoking a hurricane in Bermuda. Such is the nature of epidemics, fads, and religions, which grow exponentially once they reach the ‘tipping point.' Utopia may turn out to be such an ‘idea virus,' spreading through the Web and provoking the emergence of planetary consciousness. In any case, the recognition of emergence as a powerful natural phenomenon makes it scientifically plausible to visualize the emergence of a world-wide movement of multitudes of ordinary working people connecting and joining forces to save the planet.
Such a visualization requires a major revolution in our way of thinking. The ‘vertical' model of top-down organization, whether in society or in nature, has such a hold on our minds that it is difficult for us to think ‘horizontally' much less in three or four dimensions. We have all inherited the 17th Century ‘scientific' mindset of Descartes and Newton with its discrete atoms and billiard-ball physics. Our social thinking is still based on Adam Smith's 18th Century theories of humans as unconnected individual economic atoms. Our political notions - whether establishment or ‘revolutionary' - rely on simplistic top-down models of expert leaders and hierarchical organizations. Our logic is confined to mechanical notions of Cause and Effect and the crude duality of Either/Or, A or Not-A. Yet Quantum mechanics has been telling us for nearly a century that the universe is unstable, elusive, multiple, contradictory, holistic, and that it doesn't work mechanically the way scientists used to think. According to Zohar and Marshall, understanding Quantum physics requires us to ‘believe six impossible things before breakfast' like the Queen in Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass Quantum logic is based on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, where the very act of observing phenomena itself alters them. For example light can be understood either as a particle or a wave, depending on how we measure it, but it can never be observed as both. It also turns out that electrons don't spin in orbit around atoms like the stable planets revolving around the sun in Newton's model. Not only do they leap from orbit to orbit for no apparent reason, ghostlike they appear to occupy several potential orbits simultaneously. This potentiality is like the mental ‘trial balloons' in our minds as we imagine various possible futures. Moreover, not only is the position of electrons indeterminate, apparently everything in the universe is interconnected in a holistic system so that particles are observed in ‘ghostly' action and reaction over distance and over time. Quantum systems interact and interpenetrate, retaining their integrity (their ‘particle function') while at the same time merging (their ‘wave function'). Indeed, Quantum reality has been described as ‘a vast sea of potential.'
An Ecotopian Manifestival
Physicists have often compared these Quantic interactions to people dancing. As the dancers move together rhythmically (the wave function) they retain their individuality (the particle function) while at the same time creating a new emergent holistic system (the dance itself). When we dance, we enjoy the feeling of getting ‘swept up' or ‘lost' in the dance, yet somewhere we are always aware of our own individuality. There is no ‘contradiction' between our individual and social selves. The dance itself emerges as we interact with other dancers, mirroring their movements and being mirrored in turn. Like all emergent holistic systems, the dance is a ‘whole greater than the sum of its parts' (another ‘impossible thing' we were taught not to believe in).
Humans apparently crave this kind of creative interaction. Barbara Ehrenreich in her brilliant Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy shows that ecstatic danced religion - still practiced in indigenous societies - was humanity's earliest expression of spirituality. Yet down the ages organized religious and political authorities have uniformly tried to repress this tradition because of its revolutionary potential. Collective joy has been the enemy of power from the time of mythical Greek King Pentheus' tragic attempt to suppress the worship of Dionysius to capitalist Puritanism's suppression of the participatory tradition of Carnival and its replacement by spectacle and individual consumption. Ehrenreich, a leading U.S. Socialist writer, ends her History of Collective Joy with a hopeful ‘Possibility of Revival,' and I think she's on the right track. What better metaphor for the potential of humanity's radical Emergence than the image of billions of people dancing in the streets? Instead of a monolithic, militaristic, top-down revolutionary vanguard liberating the Masses, why not imagine multitudes of people everywhere descending non-violently into the streets and dancing up such a storm that even the hired mercenaries of the capitalists put down their guns and join the joyful throng!
It wouldn't be the first time that dance epidemics have swept across the world. According to Ehrenreich (quoting ancient Greek historians Paucities and Plutarch), female worshippers of Dionysius called maenads used to abandon their spinning and children and run out into the woods in a frenzy of dance. In the Middle Ages, an infectious ‘dance plague' called the Tarantella swept from village to village across Italy, irresistibly drawing people into the streets to dance until they dropped. Even in the most repressive societies, women still retain their traditional female circle dances, and I suspect that women - including women of faith - will come together as women in the Lifedance and take the first steps to dancing our way out of self-destruction.
Within weeks of the Lifedance epidemic's first outbreaks (some said in India, others Algeria) the irresistible, hypnotic rhythm and unforgettable theme had spread all over Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Musicians everywhere quickly translated it into their local musical idiom, and the epidemic went global before the people in power - eager to profit from a fad -- realized its subversive implications. The international Lifedance craze quickly metamorphosed into a global womens' strike, with planeloads of dancers jetting from country to country to weave a web of Life-dancing around the planet, demanding gender equality and the destruction of all weapons. Many men found themselves irresistibly drawn into the Lifedance, but before joining they had to turn in their weapons -- like the quarreling Greek warriors whose wives organized a successful anti-war sex-strike in Aristophanies' ancient comedy Lysastrata .
Soon, the Establishment began to go bonkers. Frenzied media campaigns ridiculed the Lifedancers, pundits labeled them femiNazis, Satanists, Lesbians, terrorists, hysterical, man-hating Commie bitches, but far too late. By then, everybody was out in the street dancing, and those who happened to look at a TV only laughed. The indignant potentates, corporate Billionnaires and hired guns were feeling more and more ridiculous and isolated, as even their wives and daughters stopped taking them seriously and joined in the dance. In many places, society was paralysed, and the old order felt seriously threatened. Inevitably, the Chiefs of Capital and Clan ordered their Killers - police, soldiers, mercenaries, militias, holy warriors -- to violently suppress the womens' Lifedancing. But how? What to do when women in a crowded market place spontaneously begin humming and shuffling their feet in unison. Shoot them all? Disperse them with bayonettes? Arrest the leaders? What leaders? How to stop them from singing and dancing during their collective work in the home and the field? What if they danced away and left the children, the cooking, the shopping, the housework to the men? What choices for their sons, husbands, brothers, uncles and fathers ? Follow orders and murder your own mother for a lousy $100 a day or throw your weapon into the bonfire and join mother, sisters, aunts and cousins joyfully Lifedancing around it? Thus a new society might emerge, dancing, out of the shell of the old.
‘The Dance Craze that Saved the World?' Why not? in this age of planetary connectivity where fads, fashions and financial disasters are propagated at half the speed of light? Instead of organizing a Centralized World Party, revolutionaries should be inviting the masses to a ‘Party for the Planet.' This is the slogan of Dr. Earth, the creator of the new ecological disco-club Surya in London.[v]‘We are now at the 11th hour of a global Armageddon caused by climate change,' says Dr. Earth. To conserve energy, Dr. Earth has wired his dance-floor to absorb the dancers' energy and convert it to electricity to run the club's sound and air-conditioning systems. The hotter they dance, the cooler it blows. ‘Clubbing should not be about escapism, alcohol and drugs. It should be about bringing people together in the name of hope, planet Earth and a positive future for mankind.' Right on, Doc!
Party for the Planet!is only one - albeit the most pleasant -- of any number of scientifically possible Mutiny on Starship Earth scenarios consistent with the materialist premises of the New Archimedes Hypothesis. The Lever of Solidarity, the Internet Platform and the Fulcrum of Planetary Consciousness propose a theoretical model for visualizing the material-historical possibility of a planetary revolution in our age of globalized corporate capitalism and planetary connectivity. The power of solidarity has proven itself capable of overcoming tyranny again and again, wherever people have united. The consciousness that a new society is necessary if the planet is not to be destroyed is more and more widespread. Today's Internet technology at last provides a space for people around the planet to connect and take positive action on a global scale. Scarcity is no longer an issue. Modern technology produces such an abundance of food and material goods that overproduction undermines market stability. Inequality, not scarcity, is the cause of want. Utopia may thus be a realistic possibility - however remote it may seem at the moment. At the very least, the Archimedes Hypothesis permits us to imagine realistic science fiction scenarios about successful Mutinies on Starship Earth. It gives us the theoretical right to dream. And if one or more of these scenarios is compelling enough to fire the imagination of people around the world, who knows what may result from these small beginnings when the idea-virus of Utopia reaches the tipping-point and becomes an epidemic?
That, at least, is our Utopian bet. On the one hand, nothing to lose but the dismal spectacle of a dying world; on the other, a realistic chance to save ourselves and the beautiful blue-green planet we live on. In any case, it's a bet we can't refuse. We're all in the same boat, heading rapidly for the rocks, and the brawling, pillaging officers have all the guns. Not to worry. ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.' This was the bold claim of radical 18th Century writers like Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Diderot, and the Encyclopedists. Moreover, as the radical poet Shelly observed: ‘We are many, they are few.' History proved them right. Feudalism was overthrown. Today in the 21st Century - the age of globalized connectivity and planetary emergence - the Archimedes Hypothesis entitles us to state a claim of our own: ‘The electronic keyboard connected to the Internet is mightier than the nuclear missile!' Capitalism can be overthrown.
All Power to the Imagination!
P.S. Please join me and my friends at www.wikitopia.wikidot.com and help dream up realistic scenarios for Mutiny on Starship Earth. Contact: www.invisible-international.org
RICHARD GREEMAN, whose Beware of Vegetarian Sharks! Radical Rants and Internationalist Essays (Illustrated) was published in 2009, is a veteran socialist, scholar and activist. Since 1957, Richard has been active with the US civil rights, labor, anti-war, Central America solidarity, and environmental movements as well as in American and international socialist groups including YPSL, IWW, Socialisme ou Barbarie and News & Letters (Marxist-Humanists). In the 90's he helped create the Praxis Center defending democracy, human rights and anti-totalitarian socialism in the ex-Soviet space. Richard is internationally recognized as a specialist on the Franco-Russian writer and anti-Stalinist revolutionary Victor Serge and has translated five of Serge's novels into English. He has written for Yale French Studies, The Massachusetts Review, TriQuarterly, The Village Voice, New Politics, and Z Magazine in the US as well as for Vuelta, la Jornada, and la Revista de la Universidad in Mexico and Temps critique, L'oiseau tempête and other publications in France. Richard holds degrees from Yale College (BA), the University of Paris (Sorbonne), and Columbia University (MA, PhD) where he was active in the 1968 strike as a member of SDS and the Ad-Hoc Faculty Committee. He went on to teach at Wesleyan University and the University of Hartford, before moving to Montpellier, France where he now resides.
[i]‘Sur le contenu du socialisme' by P. Chaulieu (pseudonym for Cornelius Castoriadis) was first published in Socialisme et barbarie (Nos 22 and 23, 1957-58) -- the year before I joined the group in Paris. Castoriadis' inspiring text was quickly translated and published in England as a Solidarity pamphlet by ‘Paul Cardan' and eventually in French in 1979 under Castoriadis' real name - which I only learned years later.
[ii] See Norbert Weiner, The Human Use of Human Beings (Anchor, NY, 1954).
[iii]See The Quantum Society: Mind, Physics and a New Social Vision by Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall, 1993. Also ‘Quantum political economy' by Marxist physicist David Hookes (Univ. Liverpool).
[iv] The grandfather of Chaos/Complexity/Emergence theory was probably Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century French mathematician, scientist and religious philosopher - from whose Pensées (Thoughts) I borrowed the ‘Bet' argument -- and who contributed to probability theory, infinitesimal calculus and invented the first mechanical computing machine. In the early 20th Century the Soviet geologist Vladimir Vernadsky developed his theories of the interconnected geosphere, the biosphere and the noosphere (human thought) which seem to be confirmed by modern science. My own highly superficial knowledge of these theories comes from reading the books of Edgar Morin (who was part of Socialisme ou Barbarie in the early ‘50s) and scientific popularizations, often written by practicing scientists. For example Steven Strogatz (Cornell Applied Math), one of world's leading researchers into chaos, complexity and synchronization, author of SYNC: the emerging science of spontaneous order (Penguin Science 2003); Mark Buchanan, former physicist and Nature editor, author of Small World: Uncovering nature's hidden networks (Phoenix London 2002); Albert-Lásló Barabási, (Physics, Notre Dame) Linked (Penguin 2003). The best of the science writers is Steven Johnson, whose Emergence (2001) is a classic for beginners. See also Roger Lewin, Complexity, Life at the Edge of Chaos (Phoenix London 1993); John Gribbin, Deep Simplicity, Chaos, Complexity and the Emergence of Life (Penguin 2004); and James Gleick Chaos, Making a New Science (Penguin 1987). The same research bolsters Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference (Little, Brown & Company 2000) which focuses on exploiting the PR potential of complexity theory.
[v]www.club4-climate.com The club's tables are made out of recycled magazines and the walls crafted from old mobile phones.