by: David Jennings

Here are some chapter headings from a book I read on holiday:

The Theory of Spontaneous Order
The Dissolution of Leadership
Harmony Through Complexity
Topless Federations

So was it Charles Leadbeater's latest book or Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything? Nope, it was the book on the left: a 01982 reprint of Colin Ward's Anarchy in Action, originally published in 01973.

Anarchy in Action is no call to guerilla direct action to undermine the state apparatus. But it was both radical for its time, and prescient. "Anarchists are people who make a social and political philosophy out of the natural and spontaneous tendency of humans to associate together for their mutual benefit," writes Ward near the start of the book. He goes on: "we have to build networks instead of pyramids." So are we all anarchists now, and what does it mean to be an anarchist in the era of Web 2.0? I read this book because I had a hunch that there was a common thread running through old theories and current practice, and I wanted to see how strong this thread might be.

What do we mean by anarchism?

I'm surprised not to have seen more comment on the parallels. To be fair, Charles Leadbeater has recently argued for the relevance of Ivan Illich's work to today's world, though in relation to changes in public services rather than the web. (He was later criticised for stripping the anger and radical intent of Illich's work, but then that seems to be the essence of what Leadbeater and other Web 2.0 spokespeople — including me? — do.)

I hope it's clear from the above chapter headings and quotes that the anarchy that Colin Ward wants to put into action is not a synonym for chaos; neither is it a call for insurrection. He writes that "we win our fellow citizens over to anarchist ideas, precisely through drawing upon the common experience of the informal, transient, self-organising networks of relationships that in fact make human community possible, rather than through the rejection of existing society as a whole…" In other words, there have always been parts of our lives where government and regulations do not interfere and where we behave anarchically. Ward wrote about the allotment movement in the UK as one example. Web 2.0, blogs and wikis, and the communities of interest that emerge through them, offer more examples.

Is anarchism a good description of the current state of the net?

So perhaps the anarchists have already won. A large number of the anarchists of previous centuries owned printing presses, so that they had the means to spread the word about their ideas. Now everyone can get a free blogging account (or, if they don't trust Typepad's Terms of Services, they can get their own server.)

However, history suggests that anarchists never 'win' for long. They may establish an anarchist governance (which is not a contradiction in terms) for a period. But this either gets overthrown by an authoritarian regime that is, by definition, better able to exercise military strength (as in the example of the Paris Commune), or power starts to institutionalise itself over time and calcify into the machinery of government.

Arguable anarchists are condemned only to be happy when things are in a state of flux before the New Order establishes itself. Ward writes ruefully of "brief honeymoons" of anarchy.

Could Web 2.0 likewise be a transitory period of flux, or does it offer a means of relating to each other, and to power, that could enable a 'permanent revolution'? None of us has a crystal ball, but it's hard to resist the cheeky old Mitch Kapor quote: "Inside every working anarchy, there's an Old Boy Network," which was coined specifically with the early days of the internet in mind.

Now that the net has expanded many thousandfold and net neutrality is being called into question, there's no scope for the Old Boy Network governance to deal with everything that arises. As Wikipedia goes mainstream, and has to respond both to its critics and its would-be wreckers, it is gradually becoming more institutional in its way of working. At what point will it, or did it, cease to deserve to be called anarchist in spirit? (Which, of course, begs the question: who is qualified to answer this question, and who accredited those qualifications?)

Is anarchism out of date?

I could go on at some length quoting passages from Anarchy in Action that appear ahead of their time. Here's one more example: "Perhaps the greatest crime of the industrial system is the way in which it systematically thwarts the inventive genius of the majority of its workers… If ideas are your business, you cannot afford to condemn most of the people in the organisation to being merely machines programmed by somebody else."

But times have moved on. Ward complains that there is an immense amount of research into methods of administration, but hardly any into self-regulation or autonomous groups of workers. If that was true in 01973, it had changed by the time I did my MSc in Occupational Psychology in 01986, where we studied the experience of autonomous work groups in Scandinavia. It's even less true now, when work on communities of practice often directly echoes the guilds and associations that were praised by anarchists like Kropotkin.

One of the challenges for anarchism is how to deal with anti-social behaviour. Institutionalised policing and regulation is to be avoided at all costs. Not all anarchists take the same kind of individualist libertarian position as John Perry Barlow did in the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. Barlow wants an internet where "anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity." That includes spammers, surely. By contrast, Colin Ward quotes with approval William Godwin from his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice:

every individual would then live in the public eye; and the disapprobation of his neighbours, a species of coercion, not derived from the caprice of men but from the system of the universe, would inevitably oblige him either to reform or to emigrate (my emphasis)

"Living in the public eye" is one of the components of the success of enterprises like Wikipedia: misdemeanours are quickly spotted and corrected. Ward writes of "the populous street has an unconscious do-it-yourself surveillance system of eyes in the street" (his emphasis). The issue that arises now is that the "system of the Web 2.0 universe" has yet to derive the kind of coercion sufficiently powerful to oblige spammers to reform or emigrate.

The anonymity of the net, which liberates in ways that Barlow may celebrate, also creates an asymmetry in online behaviour because an anonymous person cannot be called to account for their actions. In a recent exchange on the pros and cons of Web 2.0 for the health of our culture on of the few points of agreement between Andrew Keen (the sceptic) and Kevin Kelly (cast as the evangelist) was that the anonymity conferred by the net is potentially dangerous.

Global communications inevitably confer a greater degree of anonymity than has existed through most of history. We're no longer living in the city state of Greek antiquity or the bucolic villages of medieval England. This seems to me to be the area where most anarchist remedies, from Godwin to Murray Bookchin, are hard to apply to today's circumstances.

I was selective when I quoted Godwin. The text above is preceded by a condition:

If communities, instead of aspiring, as they have hitherto done, to embrace a vast territory, and glut their vanity with ideas of empire, were contented with a small district, with a proviso of confederation in cases of necessity, every individual would then live under the public eye;…

The net does embrace a vast territory; its users will not be contented with a small district. We have to deal with that, and anarchism alone is unlikely to provide a solution.

If the net was anarchist, would that be a good or a bad thing?

But if anarchism is neither the essence of Web 2.0 nor a complete solution to its growing pains, does that mean that it is irrelevant or worse still a pointer in the wrong direction? Andrew Keen uses anarchy as a dirty word, and would surely answer Yes to this question. He misses the authority and expertise that came with mass media of a generation ago, when everything we watched, heard or read was pre-filtered by an institutional gatekeeper. He resist labels but it's hard not to see his critique of the "narcissism" of blog culture as a patrician distaste for "the masses" who don't know what is good for them.

But what's to hate about maximising personal freedom and the use of social or self-regulation instead of legislative regulation? What's to hate about more people effectively owning their own printing press? Few will use them to create great literature. But if they use them to produce pamphlets and personal gossip columns that are written down and stored where previously they would have been spoken and lost, is that so bad that it could threaten how society works?

The net has certain ideological underpinnings — the ones that the Old Boy Network surrounding DARPA gave it in the 1960s — but that doesn't mean it should be driven by ideology from here on, whether that's old-school anarchism or Keen's paternalism. (We should assert our freedom not to have to choose between such oppositions.)

What we need now is more fine-grained analysis of when autonomous self-regulating media work and when they don't. Paul Duguid's critique of the limits of peer production in Wikipedia, Gracenote and Project Gutenberg [thanks, Seb Schmoller] is the kind of thing I have in mind.

These are early "thinking aloud" notes. I've just started reading Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture, which promises a narrative of the shift from authoritarian to utopian perspectives on the potential of computing and networks. So I may come back to these themes.

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