Our planet – call it Starship Earth – is on a collision course with catastrophe. Today’s rulers – the officers of the ship – are too busy enriching themselves and fighting for domination to pay attention to the ecological, economic and social crises that are degrading life on the planet. If we don’t stop them soon, they will steer our ship onto the rocks of catastrophic climate change, social disintegration, endless warfare and nuclear holocaust. If there is even one chance in a hundred to save our beautiful green planet, we must take that chance.
But is another world really possible?
Ecotopia – the dream of a planetary cooperative commonwealth – shines forth as an attractive, sustainable alternative, putting quality of life ahead of the tyranny of money. Imagining a better world is the easy part. The hard part is imagining how we get there from here: inventing a plausible scenario in which predatory capitalism is overcome and a new cooperative planetary society begins to emerge. In other words, how to create a plausible scenario for “Mutiny on Starship Earth?” How to imagine the passengers and crew – closely guarded, locked below decks, divided into rival groups – getting organized and taking over the bridge before it is too late? For if we cannot even imagine it, it is unlikely that such an eventuality could ever materialize.
Let us begin by excluding supernatural or extraterrestrial help (although we can always hope!). That leaves us with the need to identify the elements – actual or latent in globalized capitalist society – that can potentially combine to enable the emergence of planetary movements: movements capable of stripping the Billionaires of their power and creating sustainable post-capitalist societies. In other words, how to unleash the enormous power of human creativity on a planetary scale? What are the emergent human, technological, ideological (spiritual) elements that will enable us to raise the Earth out of its misery?
They say that in ancient times, that bold philosopher and inventor Archimedes of Syracuse 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. Obviously, a lever that long could not exist. But Archimedes’ 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 imagine a plausible science fiction scenario with a happy ending, is to think up a similar hypothetical formula for multiplying human power – a configuration of lever, fulcrum and platform that enables our passengers and crew to lift the Earth out of its destructive orbit before it is shipwrecked. Our mutineers will need a lot of leverage to overpower the heavily armed 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 at hand. In our scenario for “Mutiny on Starship 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, flexible enough to release the human energy to build a new society. I call them: The Social Lever, The Electronic Platform, and The Philosophical Fulcrum.
Solidarity is the most familiar of our three powers. “United we stand, divided we fall.” We all know that there is strength in numbers. In the words of the poet Shelley: “Ye are many, they are few.” The 99% versus the 1%. Six Billion toiling humans versus two thousand Billionaires. In the words of the old labor song Solidarity Forever: “Union makes us strong”. Solidarity is not merely a tactical advantage, a practical necessity. It is a positive social ethic and a fundamental human value as well. To quote the Wobbly slogan: “An injury to one” really is “an injury to all”. Be that “one” the humblest child among us. This maxim sums up the lesson of all the great religious teachers of the past two thousand years.
Returning to our Starship Earth scenario, it is obvious that if the passengers and crew imprisoned below decks in sealed compartments don’t find a way to unite, they won’t be able to take over the bridge before the money-crazed officers wreck the ship. But how?
History records that the potential power of mass solidarity has shown itself at revolutionary moments going back to 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, 20th centuries, down to the Arab Spring of 2011 – numbers, united, have been able to overcome armed entrenched power structures… At least momentarily… At least locally… The problem has always been isolation. To remain effective solidarity must spread. In today’s globalized world it must be international, indeed planetary.
Make no mistake. At no time or place have the wealthy ever shared any of their power or privileges without a struggle. It was only recently that ordinary working people – by uniting in mass movements, unions, and political parties – won such democratic rights as freedom of the press, universal suffrage, freedom of assembly, the right to organize, the eight-hour day, and legislation mandating universal education, healthcare, job safety and social security. Moreover, such hard-won reforms – today under attack – were achieved only after generations of struggle and so far only in Europe, the Americas, and a very 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 have still not won personal freedom, civil liberties or a say in government – in spite of generations of mass sacrifice in the name of democracy 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 their incomes and their rights 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.
“But what about human nature?” some people object. Aren’t people naturally selfish? To be sure, aggression, competitiveness and greed – as exemplified by the brawling, pilfering officers of Starship Earth and by most of us average folks on petty, personal levels – are based on natural human instincts: traits which capitalist society magnifies both by cultivating them and rewarding them. But cooperation and solidarity are also instinctive human survival traits – arguably more essential, if less obvious, because we take them for granted. Without the nurturance and attention of parents, extended families and local societies, no human infant could survive our prolonged early helplessness or ever learn to speak. In humanity’s long past, solidarity and collaboration have been more effective than competition and aggression for our survival as a species. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, early humans – naked, hairless, clawless bands of women, children and men armed with sharpened sticks and stones – were easy prey for mega-mammals like the saber-toothed tiger. How then did these early human bands protect themselves and their young when faced with huge ravening predators? Apparently, our ancestors drove them off by donning costumes, forming a chorus line, waving branches, making horrible noises with voice and instruments and putting on a rhythmic group dance! This is not a joke. Put yourself in the place of a saber-toothed tiger looking to pick off a slow-moving human child for an easy snack and suddenly faced with an organized band of fifty men, women and children all wearing branches on their heads to look ten feet tall, waving more branches like claws on long, outstretched arms, jumping up and down, pounding their feet, agitating their branches and beating on drums all together in the same rhythm while advancing in a body – a 100-foot Chinese dragon screaming like a banshee. “Well, I wasn’t really in the mood for human child today, anyway.” According to Ehrenreich, it would be hundreds of thousands of years before a class of aggressive, male predators armed with hi-tech bows and spears emerged to drive off other predators, call themselves chiefs, and dominate society – like the officers of Starship Earth.
In any case, faced with globalized capitalism solidarity must be international to be effective. Already in the 19th century, following the defeat of the Europe-wide 1848 national-democratic revolutions, the workers of Europe saw the need to organize internationally, and in 1864 they formed the first International Workers’ Association. A generation later, a Second Workers’ International enrolled millions in unions and parties in dozens of countries under the banner of Social Democracy. The American Federation of Labor, later so conservative, not only joined the Second International but proposed a worldwide strike for the 8-hour day to begin on May 1st 1890. May 1st has remained the international workers holiday.
Today, with capitalism globalized, the need for international solidarity is all the more obvious. Unless the lever of solidarity is extended across oceans and borders, it is no longer an effective tool against global capital’s profit-driven “race to the bottom.” Without global solidarity, the global Billionaires – who can move their money electronically and ship their factories cheaply from country to country – will always dominate the global Billions, who are rooted at home and barred from crossing national borders seeking work in the so-called “free labor market.” Thus, ruthless U.S. corporations first moved their operations south to segregated anti-union Dixie, then (after fast-tracking NAFTA) to impoverished Mexico, then to Asia, where the wages were even more pitiful. One can only imagine the effect of today’s proposed neo-liberal “free trade” treaties (TTIP and TPP ) aimed at stripping the rights of workers and the environment in America, Europe and Asia.
Today, despite generations of struggle, inequality and unemployment are increasing on a global scale. Why did the advantages won by people-power in the past remain partial and temporary? Largely because these movements remained isolated. By uniting, the slaves of Ancient Rome under the leadership of the gladiator Spartacus were able to win military victories, defeating the fabled Roman Legions in battle. But they were eventually hunted down by fresh Roman Legions brought in from other provinces of the Roman Empire, thanks to the sophisticated Imperial communications network of paved roads extending from North Africa across Spain to Italy.
In more recent times, geographical isolation seems to have condemned every new revolution to the same sorry fate. At various times, the common people have united to successfully wrest power from the hands of feudal, capitalist or Communist overlords – whether in France (the revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, and 1968), Russia (1905, 1917), Spain (1936), China (1911, 1949), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). 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.
Let us recall the historical record of these heroic revolts and tragic defeats:
1871. Following the defeat of French Emperor Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War, the people of besieged Paris took up arms (casting their own cannon), held out against the invaders, and eventually rose up, declaring themselves a self-governing Commune. They organized elections and took charge of defense, administration and education on an egalitarian basis. But after two glorious months of self-rule, the besieged Paris Commune, geographically isolated from the rest of France, was crushed by the reactionary French Army with the help of the Prussian occupiers – happy to collaborate with their national enemy when it came to putting down the people.
1917. In the fourth year of absurd mass slaughter during the First World War, mutinies broke out in the Russian, French and German armies, imposing an end to hostilities on the contending imperialist coalitions. Imperial Russia dropped out of the War first. In February 1917, the Czar was overthrown, and in October a Communist (Bolshevik) government took over the leadership of backward, impoverished Russia, a vast peasant land where there was no basis for building a modern socialist society. The Bolsheviks took power in Russia on the assumption that the revolution would soon spread to Germany and beyond, relieving Russia’s isolation. Unfortunately, the Russian people were cut off from the workers of Europe for nearly a year as the war dragged on. At the same time, France, Britain, Japan, Poland, the U.S. and sixteen capitalist nations, fearing the Red Russian revolution would spread, gave their support to counterrevolutionary “White” armies and later sent their own expeditionary forces to “drown the babe of Bolshevism in its cradle” (Churchill). The War ended in November 1918, and a wave of revolts followed the Armistice, but none of these revolutions succeeded. Geographically isolated, besieged, the Russian Revolution degenerated into a totalitarian dictatorship – thus discrediting the dream of socialism or communism in the eyes of many workers for a century.
1936. Under the Spanish Republic, a fascist junta led by General Franco staged a coup d’état against the elected government of the Left-leaning Popular Front. As the government tried to compromise, the workers and small farmers rose up in arms, organized militias, and held out for three years, despite betrayal by the liberals and Communist leaders. As Franco brought in troops and weapons from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the elected government of the Spanish Republic appealed for support from Spain’s sister democracies – France, Britain and the U.S. However the leaders of the democracies, worried about the fate of their investments in revolutionary Spain, turned their back on the Republic and – professing neutrality – turned a blind eye to open aggression by German and Italian troops. Boycotted by the democracies, geographically isolated, Spain turned for arms to the Russian Communist dictator Stalin, whose agents first took over the Spanish Republic and later sold it out. Ironically, the democracies’ abandonment of the Spanish people made Hitler’s conquest of Europe inevitable.
1944-45. At the end of World War Two, anti-Nazi Resistance movements were threatening to take power in post-war France, Italy and Greece under the popular slogan: “From resistance to revolution!” Meanwhile, Stalin’s Red Army, which had borne the brunt of the fight against Germany, had occupied most of Eastern Europe. At Yalta and later Allied conferences, the leaders of the democratic West, Churchill and Roosevelt (later Truman), turned Eastern Europe over to the tender mercies of their ally Stalin in return for Stalin’s promise to call off the revolutions brewing in Western Europe. In France and Italy the Communist parties helped disarm the Resistance and, instead of confiscating the property of the capitalists who had collaborated with the Nazis, formed alliances with conservative parties to rebuild capitalist France. In Greece, many red partisans refused to submit to Stalin’s order to disarm and rose up against the British-imposed puppet government. Geographically isolated, surrounded, they were brutally repressed by both the far-right government and Stalin’s agents.
Meanwhile, in the newly liberated countries of Eastern Europe, Stalin bypassed the (Communist-led) local anti-Nazi resistance fighters and put in power loyal (to him) Communist puppets who had spent the war in Moscow. Within a few years, Eastern European workers and intellectuals began rising up against the brutal, exploitative “Communist” police states: uniting in general strikes (Berlin 1953); creating Workers’ Councils (Hungary 1956); establishing “socialism with a human face” (Czechoslovakia 1968); and setting up independent Solidarity trade unions (Poland 1981). Up to 1989 Russia was able to crush these revolts because they remained geographically isolated within individual Communist satellites and took place at different times. And although the Western powers preached anti-Communist revolution via Radio Free Europe, they turned their backs on these actual workers’ revolts and allowed the Russian tanks to roll over them without so much as lifting a finger.
In the 1950s and 1960s, colonized peoples all over Asia and Africa fought their way to independence. But new bureaucratic-military elites – espousing “nationalist,” “democratic,” “religious,” or “Marxist” ideologies – took over the reins of power. Instead of realizing the dreams of Pan-African or international socialist unity, these leaders squabbled among themselves, exploited tribal politics, and got rich on sweetheart deals with former colonial powers and multinational corporations who, in their greed for petroleum and precious metals, continue today to lay waste to the lands and the peoples, especially in Africa.
1968. During that revolutionary year, waves of popular rebellion broke out simultaneously in Vietnam (Têt), Czechoslovakia (the Prague Spring), France (the student-worker uprising), the U.S. (black power, student power, the anti-war movement), Mexico (the Olympic athletes protest) and many other places, challenging both Russian and Western imperialisms. Yet despite similar goals and mutual sympathies, these revolts remained geographically isolated and were eventually repressed by the police and armed forces of the various governments. These movements certainly inspired each other – from Vietnam to Paris to Prague to the U.S. – and they shared common goals. However, the rebels of 1968 were not connected globally and had no means to coordinate their movements in real time on an international scale – divided as they were by the Iron Curtain and lacking the kind of interactive information and communications systems activists take for granted today.
1989. By the time the Berlin Wall actually fell and the Moscow-imposed dictatorships of Eastern Europe were overthrown, the internationalist Utopian spirit of 1968 lay buried under twenty years of neoliberal counter-revolution, epitomized by the slogan of Conservative British Premier “Iron-Lady” Thatcher: “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). In this context, the newly liberated Russians and Eastern Europeans, instead of being greeted by the solidarity of rebel students and workers, were instead overwhelmed by capitalist speculators, neoliberal “Chicago boys” prescribing “shock therapy,” and American trade-union representatives preaching the gospel of private pension plans. Under Yeltsin and Putin former Communist bosses metamorphosed into Mafia-capitalist oligarchs and proceeded to privatize the collective factories and housing that generations of Soviet workers had labored to create – and which they still officially owned under Soviet law. Truly the robbery of the century!
Although defeated in the end, these revolutionary moments flash out like solitary beacons across history, illuminating the liberatory potential for mass self-organization latent among oppressed people. They are the crests of historical waves from which the horizon of possible futures is visible. Left isolated, these crested waves are doomed to fall back into history’s troughs. There, after mass bloodlettings, “order” is restored. The hopeful vision from the crests reminds us that another world is possible. The despairing vision down in the depths of the troughs seems to suggest that such tragic defeats are inevitable. But are they? In today’s Internet-connected world, perhaps the geographical (and temporal) isolation that doomed each of these freedom struggles may in the future be overcome – in real time.
So maybe the revolts and freedom struggles of the common people are not forever condemned to remain geographically isolated and thus easily co-opted or crushed. “Working people of all lands, unite!” was the lesson learned in 1848 after the collapse of the first international revolutionary wave. 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, everywhere on the planet. Movements for justice and equality can never succeed if they are confined to a single country. No boss will pay $30 an hour to a U.S. worker when he can outsource her job to some (U.S.-supported) low-wage dictatorship for 30 cents an hour! This internationalist lesson becomes more and more urgent as capitalist globalization imposes a “race to the bottom,” pitting U.S. and European workers against impoverished wage slaves in the underdeveloped world. Wages and working conditions are declining in every land. It follows as night follows day that in today’s globalized economy, movements for human and environmental rights must be global to succeed. Until human rights, social benefits, and popular reforms are enjoyed by working people in all countries, they can never be secure in any.
Conclusion: to “lift the world” the Lever of Solidarity must be a planetary lever. Thus, if we want our Sci-Fi scenario for a Mutiny on Starship Earth to be realistic, we must visualize it breaking out on a planetary scale. In the 21st Century, thanks to the possibilities for mass self-organization opened by new global information technologies like social media, geographical and temporal isolation are no longer obstacles to the spread of revolutionary movements. Mutiny on Starship Earth has become a practical possibility – a realistic “one chance in a hundred” to save the planet.
Historically speaking, advances in communication technology have usually gone hand in hand with advances in popular self-organization. During the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, cheap printing and the postal service (both recent developments) enabled the revolutionary Committees of Correspondence in the American colonies and the French provinces to communicate. The ability to share local grievances, discuss ideas, organize congresses, inform each other of plots, publish and circulate revolutionary broadsheets and pamphlets m.ade 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. On the other hand, in the 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 continue to dominate the airwaves in the so-called free countries…
Today, 21st century Internet technology and social media promise to give the advantage back to people-power. They may also give a new meaning to informational democracy. For the first time in history, this new technology has placed at the disposal of the Billions uncensored sources of information like WikiLeaks. The Internet also provides a planetary platform large enough and accessible enough for all to participate, decide, and act together. With its infinite interconnections, the World Wide Web potentially 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 World Wide Web has the potential of supporting vast, international assemblies where true global democracy can take form: forums where consensus can be reached on an ongoing basis, platforms where massive planetary actions can be coordinated from hour to hour around the globe. Encryption and new systems like Blockchain, can potentially provide secure communication and transparency in this process. Even problems like the language barrier – the curse of Babel – are being solved with ever more powerful computers joined together. At last the passengers and crew of Starship Earth have the tools they need to talk to each other, so they can break out from below decks, swarm the bridge and take over from the squabbling, pilfering officers.
The Web is also a vast public library open 24/7 where the passengers and crew can find and propagate not only uncensored information but also the critical, revolutionary ideas they will need to unite. The collective creation of Wikipedia, the cooperative, multi-lingual, ever expanding, self-correcting information resource, is a model of this kind of Internet emergence. So is the non-sectarian Marxist Internet Archive (marxists.org) and the huge anarchist anthology Libcom. For the first time in history, the storehouse of revolutionary internationalist thinking and the recorded experiences of centuries of struggle are accessible to all, in many languages. Thus the Web potentially weaves together ideas and planetary communication, connecting the Lever of Solidarity with the Fulcrum of Planetary Consciousness.
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. As Clay Shirky points out, “social tools don’t create collective action, they merely remove the obstacles to it.” In the past, movements have been hampered by material obstacles like geographical isolation, the pervasive bias of monopoly mass media, obstruction by conservative institutional hierarchies, and the prohibitive cost in time and money for dissident minorities to publish and distribute printed material. Today the Internet, with its many-to-many email communications, its capacity to publish pictures, text, online videos, and its ability to bring people together on the ground through Twitter, texting, and applications like Meetup, overcomes the barriers of cost, time, geography and bureaucratic obstruction, making it relatively cheap and easy for a critical mass to become informed and join together in struggle.
No one believes that “revolutionary” chat rooms can ever replace face-to-face workplace and neighborhood organizing. Radical websites are no substitute for popular movements, or for unions, parties, newspapers, alternative broadcasting, international meetings, and other forms of human interaction. Indeed, it was the “one-two combination” of spontaneous self-organization via Internet networking and mass occupation of public space on the ground that have produced the most revolutionary results over the past two decades.
Of course like everything else in capitalist society, the Internet remains a contested space. We will examine the “dark side” of the Internet later on. However, in 1997, when I first elaborated this “Modern Archimedes Hypothesis,” three points were already becoming clear:
Beginning in 1999 anti-corporate globalization protesters from around the world, coordinating their movements via Internet, organized mass blockades of meetings of global financial leaders in Seattle (and later at Genoa, and Cancun). They succeeded in crippling the IMF and WTO.
The post-2011 reactionary turn toward authoritarian government, state surveillance and bloody repression testify to the fear this Internet-connected multi-national wave of revolts inspired among the rulers – whether in Egypt, Wisconsin, Moscow, Wall St. or Syria. The repression continues, but nor have the injustices that sparked these revolts have not gone away.
In all these examples, we see how Internet tools enable social movements to overcome obstacles like geography, repression, isolation and institutional firewalls, The Hong Kong “Umbrella Revolution” was in fact a cell phone revolution. By networking their cell phones, the demonstrators performed the tactical feat of coordinating occupations in several locations over several weeks. Occupiers would go home to recuperate while a few held the terrain, but they would show up en masse when needed. Their tactical movements outfoxed the police at every turn. Their peaceful demonstrations paralyzed the financial capital of Asia, while the mighty Communist Party of mainland China held its breath, hesitating to intervene, perhaps for fear that the agitation would spread to the mainland.
Networked communication provides movements with two tactical advantages over powerful entrenched authorities: speed and flexibility. In terms of conventional warfare, the classic historical example of these tactical advantages is that of France’s military collapse under the Germans’ 1940 blitzkrieg (lightning-war) attack. The French Army had more and heavier tanks, but it was constrained by a rigid defensive plan and a conservative hierarchy. The hidebound French General Staff long refused to equip their tanks and planes with radios, and all tactical moves on the ground had to be approved up and down the chain of command. The Germans put radios in their panzers and gave their panzer group commanders leeway to take initiative in the field and follow up advantages while the French field commanders were wait for orders to move. Thus the Wehrmacht was able to over-run France in a mere 27 days. Likewise, in the class struggles of the 21st century, Internet coordination in real time has made it possible for a weak dispersed force (strikers) to overcome a strong centralized force (a multinational corporation) by moving concentrated strength to the opponent’s weak points (production bottlenecks) – classic military strategy.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the power of social media to overcome the entrenched power of bureaucratic hierarchies is the self-organization of victims of pedophile Catholic priests. For generations, this widespread abuse had been kept secret by the hierarchy, aggravating the pain and outrage of the victims. These scandals occasionally broke into the mass media, but only as isolated incidents, and the Church hierarchy was able to hush it up and protect the perpetrators. For example, in the 1990s Boston’s powerful Cardinal Law (himself guilty of protecting pedophile priests by rotating them through new, unsuspecting parishes) was able to squash the victims’ movement, which he denounced via press and pulpit and banned from Church facilities, forbidding lay groups to organize outside of their local parish. However, ten years later, Cardinal Law was forced to resign in disgrace after Internet tools had enabled victims to aggregate their testimony, post it online, spread information and organize nationally and internationally.
Today, Catholic lay people are no longer isolated, voiceless and passive before the immense wealth and influence of the Church’s centuries-old hierarchy. Just as Gutenberg's movable type helped catalyze the Reformation in the 16th century by making the Bible accessible to the laity, so the Internet in the 21st century may have catalyzed the unprecedented resignation of archconservative Pope Benedict XVI. During the 1960s, Liberation Theology, with its “preferential option for the poor,” nearly put the Catholic Church on a social revolutionary road. A succession of reactionary Popes used their hierarchical power to nip that option in the bud, but today, with a wired global laity, the Genii of social Christianity is out of the bottle for good. Benedict’s successor, Francis, the first non-European Pope, immediately surprised the world by calling a World Meeting of Popular Movements (Oct. 2014). Francis invited organizations of the marginalized and excluded of all ethnic and religious origins to the Vatican, attacked corruption in Vatican finances, dismissed bishops for protecting pedophile priests, confirmed the human causes of global warming, and overtly blamed predatory capitalism for climate catastrophe! And who would have ever imagined His Holiness selecting a self described “secular Jewish, feminist” and anti-capitalist firebrand to co-chair the Vatican’s climate conference? (Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate) Yet four years later, this once popular Pope was shunned by crowds in Latin America for stubbornly defending the record of bishops known to have cuddled pedophile priests. The Catholic hierarchy is paying a heavy price for ignoring its base now that social media has having informed and empowered it. Roman Catholicism, historically the faith of 90% of Spanish Americans, has shrunk to 59%.
Later move changes made on google doc for next part.
So far we have dealt only with the positive sides of Internet technology – the qualities that enable the passengers and crew of Starship Earth to use the World Wide Web as a Place to Stand (Platform) and wield the Lever of Planetary Solidarity. These are:
However, the Internet also has its dark side, and much of what we find there is genuinely frightening. There is no denying the evidence. Governments and corporations are both heavily invested in the massive collection, storage, and analysis of mega-data about our personal lives (a practice the U.S. government long denied). Corporations like Amazon employ sophisticated algorithms (profiling potential customers) for the purpose of manipulating people to spend. Governments use the same techniques (profiling potential opponents) for the purposes of repressing people. To preserve its franchise in the Middle East, the U.S. launches drones (“flown” by pilots in Idaho) to assassinate profiled opponents in Pakistan and photograph protesters in the U.S. Amazon may soon speed-deliver purchases by drone. Dystopian Sci-fi come to life.
This invasion of individual privacy through massive collection of personal data by both government and private agencies evokes Orwell’s dystopian 1984: “Big Brother Is Watching You.” Moreover, cultural critics see the Internet as warping our brains, dumbing down our minds, promoting addictions (porn, games), destroying our communities, and reducing human relations to Facebook “Likes.” And with Cyberspace growing exponentially, in ten years the size of today’s Internet will be like a golf ball compared to the Sun.
Cyberspace, like every other sphere of capitalist society, is contested space. Neither good nor evil in itself, cyber technology is a tool, at times a weapon. All new technologies will of necessity be appropriated by competing states and contending social groups for their own pursuits – some for self-expression or human liberation, others for financial gain or world domination. And since money talks, it is no surprise that billionaire corporations and the militarized states that defend their interests have devoted vast resources to surveillance technology.
Mass surveillance has fed hysteria and conspiracy theories both among leftists and reactionaries like Turkey’s strongman Erdogan. Yet however bleak the prospect of Internet tyranny, the contest over cyberspace remains as yet undecided. So rather than succumbing to paranoia, let us examine objectively the dark sides of the Internet in the context of its liberating potential, weighing the pros and the cons. Compared to the massive array of cyber weaponry in the hands of corporations and governments, the power of a few thousands cell phones in the hands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong seems puny. But is it? Thanks to an improvised networking App called FireChat, the cell phones enabled the “Umbrella Revolution” protesters to occupy the financial capital of Asia and hold the power Communist China at bay for more than two months. David vs. Goliath?
Government surveillance Let us begin with the issue of mass surveillance. Whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelation of the CIA’s mass collection of telephone records and emails, including those of world leaders like Angela Merkel, has finally opened the debate over Civil Liberties and the right of privacy. As Obama and the Congress go through the motions of restricting mass surveillance (as if having the phone company store the mega data makes any difference!), new revelations based on Snowden’s vast trove of government files show that this surveillance, including dirty tricks, is only increasing. Moreover, the US is far from the only country waging cyber war against its citizens and perceived enemies abroad. China in particular has a highly developed surveillance and penetration apparatus. Furthermore, criminal elements use the same techniques to steal identities and empty people’s bank accounts.
To quote WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange: “While the Internet has in some ways an ability to let us know to an unprecedented level what government is doing, and to let us co-operate with each other to hold repressive governments and repressive corporations to account, it is also the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen.” Not a pretty picture.
On the other hand, there is nothing new about either government spying or criminal fraud. For example, Glenn Greenwald has recently revealed that the FBI and other U.S. secret police agencies are now using the Internet to play the same “dirty tricks” to discredit, subvert and incriminate targeted individuals and radical organizations as they did in the Sixties through the secret program known as COINTELPRO. This comes as no surprise to me. As an activist from the Fifties whose phone was tapped and mail opened during the reign of the J. Edgar Hoover, I am not particularly surprised that the NSA is collecting billions of random emails and phone conversations every day from just about everyone on the planet. The difference today is that back then they would send a human investigator to talk to your boss and get you fired, whereas now they can ruin you on Facebook.
The breaking scandal of massive electronic surveillance has given the Internet a bad name and encouraged digital paranoia on the Left. Does cyber surveillance then discredit the Internet? No more than the steaming-open of people's mail or the wiretapping of people’s phones discredited the postal system and the telephone! Moreover, it well may be that this mass vacuuming and storage of mega data turns out to be useless, if not counter-productive. For example, one wonders how, in real time, government investigators can ever find the subversive needle in the humongous digital haystack of Mega-Mega-Megabytes stored in that giant new complex out in Utah. The replacement of human spies by technology may actually have weakened the government's intelligence capacity. Truly useful intelligence about security threats is likely to be in a foreign language, like Arabic or Chinese, but staffing of professional translators has been severely cut back, and native interpreters are likely to be working for the other side. Meanwhile, indiscriminate intrusions have universally discredited the U.S. so-called “intelligence community,” eliciting protests from Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff to Jimmy Carter. Proving that “military intelligence is to intelligence as military music is to music.”
Like the use of torture, the massive surveillance programs have failed to foil any terrorist plots, although it has sharply curtailed favorable opinion of the U.S. among people around the world. Obama’s inhuman policy of assassination-by-drone on the basis of profiling, with its inevitable civilian casualties, has certainly done more to recruit new fighters to Al Qaeda than hundreds of fanatical Islamic preachers. U.S. imperialism is visibly losing both the “war for the hearts and minds of men (sic)” and the “war on terror.” Its “victories” in Iraq and Afghanistan have left nothing but ruin and resentment in their wake, paving the way for ISIS.
Secrecy, censorship, etc. There is more happening on the Internet’s dark side than just government snooping. All of Cyberspace is contested space, and the terrains being contested include secrecy, censorship, encryption, whistleblowing and hacking. Again, governments and corporations have invested major resources in controlling these terrains, yet they remain another sphere of Cyberspace where David may have the advantage over Goliath.
Let’s start with censorship. To be sure, dictatorships threatened by Facebook and Twitter-coordinated uprisings can simply shut down the Internet, like Egypt in 2011 and recently Turkey. But for how long? When authorities clamp down on the Internet, they deprive themselves of the creativity and technological ferment necessary for economic development and end up stagnating. China’s recent security crackdown on the Internet “will hurt the Chinese economy and create a major rift between China and the rest of the world.” Similar fears were arguably among the causes of the collapse of totalitarian Communism in Russia, which by the end of the 20th century lagged way behind the West in computer technology.
Chinese authorities have installed so-called “Internet firewalls” to block open discussion of subjects like democracy. Nonetheless, bloggers and commentators often get their subversive messages across using Aesopian language. The Chinese (with the complicity of Yahoo, Facebook, and “do-no-evil” Google) also mine emails in order to spy on and punish dissidents, while in the U.S. President Obama who preaches “free speech” to the Chinese is cracking down hard on dissidents journalists like WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and patriotic whistleblowers like Private Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Suffice it to say, today’s networked technologies, capable of many-to-many communication, are a major headache for repressive states. Would-be censors can no longer just smash your printing press or seize your newspaper because your content can be infinitely reproduced and stored on hard drives around the world. In any case, hackers usually find ways to get around the Chinese censors and their U.S. corporate accomplices. Even when authorities shut down the Internet, open source “Internet in a suitcase” technology allows networked cell phones to communicate in a peer-to-peer manner, without going through a central authority.
Encryption (coding) is another contested terrain in Cyberspace. It is useful to governments and corporations for securing and transferring secret data, but it also allows dissidents to get around government censorship by hiding their identities (user anonymity). The cooperatively-developed encryption program TOR (free downloads at www.torproject.org) uses linked computers around the world to repeatedly resend messages in order to obscure their origin. For example, it preserves the anonymity of Chinese labor and democracy activists who transmit information and subversive views. The NSA characterized TOR, with its approximately 2.5 million users daily, as “the King of high-secure, low-latency Internet anonymity.” Naturally, governments hate these anonymity protecting programs and attempt to limit them, but the people’s right to use encryption has found a powerful ally in big business, pitting “technology companies including Apple, Microsoft and Google” against “the National Security and its counterparts” who accuse the spooks of invading their priceless data banks.
It goes without saying that all governments have secrets, and secret government is the hallmark of authoritarian states. The paradox of the vast US “national security state,” is that it has too many secrets to preserve and that too many bureaucrats have access to them. The self-defeating mania for secrecy that begun during the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War has grown to such proportions today that every government document except the Senate Dining Room Menu (“Freedom Fries”) is routinely stamped “classified.” One would think the government would embrace encryption to hide its embarrassing secrets, but apparently it can’t. Too many secrets, too much access by government employees and, increasingly, outside contractors (like Edward Snowden). And thanks to encryption (anonymity) and to Internet dissemination, whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and sites like WikiLeaks are able to expose the government’s past and present dirty secrets to a vast public.
This unwanted transparency has engendered panic in the establishment. As a result, Barack Obama (former Constitutional Law Professor and Civil Libertarian) has arrested more whistleblowers than all his predecessors combined, while reviving the WWI Espionage Act of 1917 in order to try them for Treason (a capital offence). This aggressive repression comes from fear and weakness, not from strength. And for cause. If a lowly Private First Class like Manning can access and copy thousands of pages of government secrets, the Ship of the National Security State is a leaky vessel indeed! How many more idealistic government employees like Manning and Snowden are waiting in the wings, ready to blow more whistles?
Hackers are the natural enemies of censors and owners of “intellectual property.” Since the earliest days of Internet technology, “hacking” – a term presumably derived from “hacking around” (having fun) – is an essential expression of the playful, rebellious, innovative spirit of early amateur computer programmers. Hackers, working independently and in informal networks, have been responsible for much of the innovation which corporations subsequently took over, patented, and made millions off of. Patents are basically locked doors, keeping out the very people who imagined the technical treasures behind them. The hackers’ ideal is open source technology, like the Linux operating system: resulting from the merger of the ‘freeware’ movement and the model of decentralized collaboration via Internet. Constantly upgraded by unpaid hackers, it rivals billionaire Microsoft’s Windows. The “hacker ethic” is thus cooperative, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, if not outright socialistic. Scorning intellectual property laws, hackers delight in breaking through security firewalls – if only for the fun of showing how much smarter they are than their government and corporate rivals. The revenge of the nerds!
The political cutting edge of the hacker subculture is the nebulous known as Anonymous. In late 2010, thousands of Anonymous hacktivists joined a mass digital assault on the websites of VISA, MasterCard, and PayPal to protest their blocking of cardholders contributions to WikiLeaks. Other targets, including the websites of corporations from Sony Entertainment and Fox to the Vatican and the Church of Scientology, were hacked, defaced, and embarrassed. The message was that no one was safe. Thousands of user accounts from pornography websites were released, exposing government employees and military personnel.
To be sure, not all hackers are lovable Robin Hoods. On the dark side, the FBI has recruited black-hat hackers as double agents, like the “friend” who snitched on Pfc. Manning. Moreover, online fraud and identity theft by hackers are thriving multi-million-dollar industries, and the very corporations and governments formerly raided by ludic white-hat hacktivists have recruited teams of highly-skilled well-paid hackers to carry Cyber war to higher levels. For example, in June 2015 it transpired that at least 21 million U.S. government personnel records had been obtained by hackers – probably from China. US intelligence hasn’t a clue about who did it, when it happened, or what else has been stolen.
As for Cyber war between governments, the 2010 U.S.-Israeli cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities has given us a foretaste of the kind of mass destruction of communication and energy grids planned for future wars between nations. On the other hand, Cyber war is a real life computer game in which David and Goliath compete on an even playing field: the Internet. All that counts in this game is brains and initiative, and the subculture of programmers, imbued with the libertarian, cooperative, anarchic hacker mentality, has brains and initiative to spare.
Commercialization The Internet, originally a conduit for grad students to share research and jokes, has burgeoned into a platform for giant corporations. Within a generation, firms like eBay, Facebook, YouTube, Groupon, and Amazon – some starting literally in somebody’s garage – have mushroomed into multi-billion-dollar businesses. Internet commerce, Internet entertainment, Internet communication and Internet social networks are the hottest items in the otherwise sluggish post-2008 economy. With its user base growing exponentially, the Internet connects corporations directly with the credit cards of an endless supply of consumers. It’s free. It selects. It penetrates. It appeals to instant gratification and promotes addictions like gambling and pornography. Potential customers are targeted using algorithms that analyze the vast amount of your personal information available online. This can be as innocent as Amazon telling you that “readers who enjoyed the book you just bought also liked…” On the other hand:
Your cell phone provider tracks your location and knows who’s with you. Your online and in-store purchasing patterns are recorded, and reveal if you're unemployed, sick, or pregnant. Your e-mails and texts expose your intimate and casual friends. Google knows what you’re thinking because it saves your private searches. Facebook can determine your sexual orientation without you ever mentioning it. (Bruce Schneier, Data and Goliath, 2015)
Every day, corporations are connecting the dots about our personal behavior – silently scrutinizing clues left behind by our work habits and Internet use. The data compiled and portraits created are incredibly detailed, to the point of being invasive… Hidden algorithms can make (or ruin) reputations, decide the destiny of entrepreneurs, or even devastate an entire economy. (Frank Pasquale The Black Box Society, 2015)
Culture Another serious danger is the way the algorithms used by Facebook and other sites end up feeding users only information which the machine “thinks” they want, thus reinforcing their prejudices and insulating them from unpleasant information (for example about global warming). To be sure, close-mindedness is nothing new: long before the Internet, liberals, conservatives and extremists of the Right and Left generally read only publications they agreed with. The Internet has a multiplier effect.
Worse still is the stultification (dumbing down) of the public through the Internet. The titles of recent books by media critics tell the whole sad story. For example: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (2011); The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlein (2009); Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) and Amusing Ourselves to Death (2005) the latter a reprint of the classic by longtime media critic Neil Postman. Here again the Internet serves as a multiplier effect to the evils of the commercialized mass culture purveyed in earlier generations via broadcast media like radio and TV (described in 1961 by FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow as “A Vast Wasteland”).
Indeed, during the broadcast era, the public could only choose among various brands of pap (with rare exceptions) beamed down at them by the big networks, NBC, CBS and ABC. The difference with the Internet is that the public now has a vast number of choices, and that users are proactive (for better or for worse) in seeking out information and entertainment on demand. Thus although pornography occupies more sites than any other subject, with violence running a close second, today’s Internauts also have instant access to Shakespeare, online university classes, Ted talks, Noam Chomsky, Wikipedia, Marxists.org etc., and all the links they lead to.
Isolation Another danger posed by the pervasiveness of Internet social media is a decline in sociability with people isolated alone in front of their screens. Increasingly, even when friends gather, their attention is maddeningly focused on their online devices, prioritizing their virtual lives over their actual lives. According to MIT technology and society specialist Sherry Turkle, “technology has become the architect of our intimacies.” In Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2013) she argues that “this relentless connection leads to a new solitude.” To be sure, the Internet can isolate people, but it also allows them to get to know each other, to feel less alone, to access information, and eventually to mobilize massively for action.
Facebook “friends” may not be the real friends whom we can depend on to nurse us when we’re sick, but they are an expression of the universal need of human beings for empathy, attention, sympathy, and admiration, however commercialized and crass Facebook may be. Indeed, according to economist and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, empathic relations are more fundamental to what constitutes human nature than aggression and competition – as was previously believed. In The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (2010), Rifkin argues that Internet technology represents a “third industrial revolution” that will bring people together on an empathic basis and thus save the world from ecological catastrophe.
Capitalist takeover of the Internet? Nonetheless, massive data collection, invasion of privacy, mindless content, isolation, stultification of the public, attempts to privatize the Internet and above all its commercialization by mega-corporations are real threats to personal freedom and the democratic ideal. We may legitimately ask the question: Aren’t big business and government taking over the Internet? The answer is no, for the simple reason that the Internet is literally infinite. No one can occupy all that space. As long as everyone has equal access to post a blog or start a Twitter account, Cyberspace remains a level playing field. Low-cost sites like WikiLeaks (and Islamic State recruiting chat rooms!) have proven more influential than the US government’s costly propaganda apparatus and the mainstream media that follow the government “line.” It does not matter how many millions of glittering, seductive commercial sites are out there fishing for our wallets and for our hearts and minds. Open access – the possibility of many-to-many communication – is the key to Internet democracy.
This fundamental right to equal access to the Internet, known by the confusing name of “Network Neutrality,” has long been under attack by big business and the communications lobby in the U.S. Corporations want to establish a two-tier Internet with the big advertisers in the fast lane squeezing out the public. These efforts were frustrated by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 after vast outpourings of objections from users, but one can be sure that the monopolists’ high-priced lawyers and lobbyists will be back. More contested terrain. The would-be privatizers and monopolizers will have a hard time fencing in Cyberspace, because the Internet and the World Wide Web were born free. The Internet from the start was common space, and the Web was created under an Open Source Copyright. The WWW was the brainchild of MIT Professor Tim (now Sir Tim) Berners-Lee, who made his idea available freely, with no patent and no royalties due. In 1994, he brought together various companies to create the self-governing World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) to oversee the Web, based on common standards and royalty-free technology easily adopted by anyone.
Behind these technical protocols is a socialistic vision of Cyberspace as a Commons – similar to the land, the sea and the air – considered as humanity’s collective heritage. Today, at a time when native people are struggling to preserve the last remains of the physical Commons from being monopolized, privatized and polluted by predatory capitalism, the Internet, although contested, remains accessible, free and open to all. From the WWW to Wikipedia and the open source operating system Linux, freeware challenges the commodified basis of human creativity. Like the “hacker mentality,” it rejects the privatization for profit of collectively developed use-values – from computer software to healing plants cultivated by indigenous peoples – under the monopoly capitalist “intellectual property” laws. Small wonder that its originators, from Norbert Weiner, the father of Cybernetics, to Sir Tim, considered themselves socialists.
When I first put forward my Modern Archimedes Hypothesis in 1997, people took me for a naïve visionary or a techno-elitist. Today, no one can deny the potential of online networking for revolutionary self-organization. Less obvious, however, is the potential of the Web to enable new types of organization, based on the horizontal network model rather than the centralized hub-and-spokes model. In recent decades, new forms of horizontal organizations began emerging in Latin America, 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 networking since 1992, when the Internet helped bring them together to celebrate 500 years of survival and resistance to colonialism. Meanwhile, the symbolism of the woven web, powerful yet delicate, had already been proposed by activist women as an alternative to male-dominated, top-down power.
Today, activists from these movements network online as well as at World Social Forums, connect with other networks, for example between peasant movements in South America and Asia, scompare conditions, discuss strategy, and organize global solidarity with similar movements as far off as Africa and Asia. These autonomous networks have been the power base of populist leaders like Lula, Kirchner, Correa, Chavez, and Morales, pushing these politicians to challenge the power of local landowners and global corporations and attacking them when they failed. Wired indigenous are in today’s planetary vanguard: challenging capitalism, protecting the land, and saving nature from the ravenous corporations. Far from being “historically backward,” rural communities have successfully appropriated 21st century capitalist communications technology at its highest level and used it as a weapon for their own emancipation. In 2011, the allegedly “backward” Arab masses, connected by social media successfully overthrew the longstanding dictatorships of Tunisia and Egypt. (Sorry to say, the groups with the most backward ideology has been the most advanced in exploiting the Internet for recruitment and propaganda: Al Qaida and Isis.)
What about the future? 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 internationally via 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 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, parent, child, 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, the autonomist philosopher (then a Marxist) Cornelius Castoriadis was the first to imagine such a computer-connected self-managed society in his essay “The Content of Socialism.” A critic of bureaucratic top-down management as exemplified by Russian Communism and the American corporation, 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 or Communist central planning. In Castoriadis’ scheme, “Planning Factories” produced alternative economic plans – to be debated in assemblies and eventually voted by the producers via wired hookups. These alternative plans set out 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’ 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 of informed economic planning from below provides a concrete refutation of Nobel economist Friedrich Hayek’s anti-socialist argument in favor of the market. Hayek wrote that central planning is bound to fail because it cannot possibly assemble the information that is ultimately incorporated in the “marvel” of the price system which “registers the knowledge, the preferences, and values of countless people.” This failure of centralized planning does not apply to enterprises self-managed from below. Castoriadis’ self-managed society also recalled Engels’ vision of the new world emerging out of the shell of the old – the image adopted in 1905 as the logo of 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 who explored the feedback principle and recognized the emergent quality of cybernetics – a word he coined. Today, not only cyberneticists but physicists, biologists, mathematicians, economists 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.
Connectivity is the new 21st century factor that makes actual the age-old dream of humanity rising together. We are all connected. It has recently been demonstrated that there are 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 Mrs. Wu, a peasant in Sichuan Province, China. To be sure, these are weak connections, but it turns out that weak connections are the fabric that makes up the strength of complex network structures like the Internet, the physical universe (according to Quantum theory), and the human brain, with its billions of synapses (whose number is greater than the number of stars in the known universe!).
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. 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 hierarchical constraints that produce “group-think” in committees. For example, the pitiful failure of the “experts” in authoritarian, bureaucratic organizations like the CIA to deliver accurate “intelligence” and the failure of mainstream economists to foresee the Crash of 2008. Although the phrase “the collective brain of humanity” sounds mystical, experiments have confirmed what economist James Suroweicki of the Wall St. Journal and the New Yorker calls The Wisdom of Crowds (Subtitle: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations). The Internet provides the connectivity for the emergence of what I call “Planetary Consciousness” – the indispensable philosophical fulcrum of the Modern Archimedes Hypothesis.
This “wisdom of crowds” can be seen as a wired version of the old socialist dictum: there is “wisdom in the heads of many.” A splendid example of collective wisdom is the creation of Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia – by thousands of individual contributors in a dozen languages, covering a hundred times as many cross-indexed topics as the long-revered Encyclopedia Britannica. I grew up with the 1947 Britannica, which was written by experts, cost my parents a small fortune, was full of upper-class British bias, short on the achievements of non-Western civilizations, and was soon out of date. As for the accuracy of Wikipedia, it maintains strict scholarly standards for referencing facts, strives for maximum objectivity, and is constantly being updated and corrected by thousands of anonymous contributors. Some consider the development of Wikipedia as significant as Guttenberg’s printing press. Be that as it may, both inventions were revolutionary contributions to the spread of knowledge.
In any case, there is nothing mystical or unrealistic in the “science-fiction” image of the “collective brain of humanity” connecting up its myriad nodes through Cyberspace. Or in the image of humanity uniting the collective wisdom and collective strength of Billions to change the world. Connectivity is the basis of Emergence – the spontaneous creation of order and complexity out of chaos. Far from being unscientific, the concept of Emergence is common to much 21st century thinking in fields as diverse as Cybernetics, Quantum mechanics, and brain physiology. Emergent properties are more and more frequently observed in various natural phenomena which were previously inexplicable in terms of the inherited top-down scientific models of cause/effect, leader/follower.
Biology provides the most accessible examples of emergent behavior for those of us without access to higher mathematics. For instance, flocks of birds and schools of fish are formed of autonomous individuals yet behave as intelligent collective organisms capable of navigation over vast distances. My favorite example of Emergence is the slime mold, that goopy vomit-like blob sometimes observed on fallen logs in the woods. And sometimes not. Slime molds are made up of thousands of individual spores, usually dormant. They emerge spontaneously when food is present and disappear when conditions change. When joined together, they behave like a single organism capable of moving purposefully and changing its shape. Not only that, they “think,” sort of. When placed by experimenters between two bits of food, they send out pseudopods in both directions. They can also move around obstacles and “remember” where they have been so as to avoid backtracking. However, when conditions change, the organism disaggregates into individual cells and seems to vanish. Scientists spent years searching for the “leader” cell. Only after advanced computer techniques allowed researchers to model this behavior mathematically, was its bottom-up nature revealed. According to Professor John Tyler Bonner, who has spent a lifetime studying slime molds, “they manage to have various behaviors that are equal to those of animals who possess muscles and nerves with ganglia – that is, simple brains.”
Scientists also long rejected well-documented reports from Asia of thousands of crickets or fireflies suddenly chirping or flashing in unison without any leader intervening (like human concert audiences starting to clap in unison). 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 various 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 1905-06, the year of the revolutionary mass strikes she analyzed in 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. The geographer and anarchist philosopher Elisée Reclus surely understood emergence when he wrote “man is nature becoming conscious of itself.”
The grandfather of Chaos/Complexity/Emergence theory was Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century French mathematician, scientist and religious philosopher, credited with the invention of infinitesimal calculus, the first mechanical computing machine and probability theory. My “Utopian Bet” argument (if there is one chance in a hundred to save the world we must take it) is borrowed from Pascal’s argument for believing in God (Pensées). In the early 20th Century the Soviet Russian geologist Vladimir Vernadsky further developed the Complexity/Emergence theory with his concepts of the Geosphere and the Biosphere (confirmed by modern science) and the more controversial Noosphere (the realm of human thought) which may be taking a material form with today’s Internet. The best-known living proponent of Complexity theory is the French sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin: Homeland Earth (1999), On Complexity: Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity and the Human Sciences (2008). Readers may also be interested in some the recent works of scientific popularization, often written by practicing scientists. For example SYNC: the emerging science of spontaneous order (2003) by Steven Strogatz, one of world’s leading researchers into chaos, complexity and synchronization (Cornell Applied Math); Small World: Uncovering nature’s hidden networks (2002) by Mark Buchanan, former physicist and Nature editor; Linked (2003) by Albert-Lásló Barabási (Physics, Notre Dame); The Quantum Society: Mind, Physics and a New Social Vision by Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall (1993); “Quantum political economy” by Marxist physicist David Hookes (Univ. Liverpool). 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 (1993); John Gribbin, Deep Simplicity, Chaos, Complexity and the Emergence of Life (2004); and James Gleick Chaos, Making a New Science (1987). The same research bolsters Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference (2000), which focuses on exploiting the PR potential of complexity theory.
For 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’s wings in China provoking a hurricane in Bermuda. Such is the nature of epidemics, fads, and religions, which grow exponentially once they reach a “tipping point.” Ecotopia 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 worldwide movement of multitudes of ordinary working people connecting and joining forces to save the planet from capitalism. And to run it cooperatively afterward.
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 the three or four dimensions required by modern physics. 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 dualities of “Either/Or” and “A or Not-A.”
Science no longer supports these out of date concepts. Well over a century ago, Einstein’s relativity did away with distinct notions of “matter’ and “energy” as separate entities, and Quantum mechanics has been telling us for nearly as long that the universe is unstable, elusive, multiple, contradictory, holistic, and that it doesn’t work the way Newtonian mechanists used to think. Quantum logic includes Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, where the very act of observing phenomena 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. Quantum systems interact and interpenetrate, retaining their integrity (their “particle function”) while at the same time merging (their “wave function”). 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, they appear, ghostlike, to occupy several potential orbits simultaneously. This potentiality is like the mental “trial balloons” that spin through 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.
One may well wonder why the self-proclaimed “social sciences,” particularly politics and economics, remain largely immune to the new methodologies like Quantam and chaos/complexity/emergence theory that have revolutionized the very natural sciences whose scientific methodology social scientists claim to model. Although the post-Einsteinian revolution was resisted a century ago by conservative physicists, empirical verification soon brought all but a few “flat-earthers” into the relativity fold. Nor did zoologists and brain physiologists feel threatened by the recent discovery of bottom-up self-organization on the part of slime-mold spores or infant brain-cells. On the other hand, these emergent concepts pose a real challenge to the hierarchical social, political and economic order social scientists are called upon to explain and ultimately to justify. Today’s political and economic leaders may be perceived as arrogant, corrupt, ignorant, wasteful, irresponsible, greedy and self-centered, but the elitist leadership principle itself is rarely questioned by pundits and professors. As for the idea of a new order emerging spontaneously from below to replace the catastrophic world disorder created by these leaders, the notion is not even on their radar. Alas, we find a similar attachment to the obsolete leader-principle among would-be revolutionaries tied to the model of the centralized vanguard party. Quantum reality was described by one of its discoverers as “a vast sea of potential.” Yet, despite Rosa Luxemburg’s pioneering analysis of the spontaneous general strikes of 1906, the vast potential of spontaneous self-organization in the age of Internet remains largely untheorized.
So forget “impossible.” Like the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass, Quantum physics asks us to “believe six impossible things before breakfast,” . It is high time that we begin to take literally the imaginative slogan of the 1968 Paris uprising: “Be reasonable! Demand the impossible!”
Physicists have compared these Quantic interactions to people dancing. As 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). Dancers love the feeling of getting “swept up” or “lost” in the dance, yet somewhere they are always aware of their own individuality. There is no contradiction between their individual and social selves. Collective dance emerges as dancers 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, according to Barbara Ehrenreich in her brilliant Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Ehrenreich shows that ecstatic danced religion – still practiced in indigenous societies – was humanity’s earliest expression of spirituality. On the other hand, down the ages organized religious and political authorities have uniformly tried to repress this tradition because of its revolutionary potential. Ehrenreich, a leading U.S. Socialist, ends her History of Collective Joy with a hopeful “Possibility of Revival,” and I think she’s on the right track. Meanwhile, in 2012, Eve Ensler author of “The Vagina Monologues,” created One Billion Rising, a global protest campaign to end violence against women, and promote justice and gender equality. (The word “billion” refers the statistic that one in three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime, or about one billion). Every year on my favorite holiday, on Valentine’s Day (February 14), women (and their male supporters) from 160 countries on every continent take to the streets and dance to demand an end to violence against women and girls.
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 no work gets done and even the hired mercenaries of the capitalists have to 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 ancient Greek historians Pausanias and Plutarch, female worshippers of Dionysus called maenads would periodically abandon their spinning-wheels and children to 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 take the lead in dancing our way out of self-destruction. And if men are irresistibly drawn into the dance, they will have to lay down their weapons before they are allowed to join. “The Dance Craze that Saved the World?” Why not? In this age of planetary connectivity, fads, fashions and financial disasters are propagated literally at the speed of light. Instead of organizing a centralized “World Revolutionary Party,” we should be organizing a “Party for the Planet.”
Party for the Planet! is only one of a number of possible Mutiny on Starship Earth scenarios – perhaps the most pleasant imaginable – that the Archimedes Hypothesis permits us to imagine. One chance in a hundred seems like long odds. But what if love and joy turn out to be more powerful than hate and shame? The world’s great Teachers all seemed to think so. To hold fast to such an idealistic planetary vision – I frankly admit it – demands an existential “leap of faith.” Or at the very least the degree of “temporary suspension of disbelief” we bring to a good realistic film or novel. With each new day, grimmer headlines seem to undermine our hopes, while the voices of despair invite us to yield to cynicism and expediency, or to embark on dangerous, self-defeating shortcuts like violence and dictatorship. But however much we are tempted to doubt the power of these assumptions, our existential commitment directs us to behave as if the assumptions on which survival depends were a priori valid. That is our “leap of faith,” the Utopian Bet. And the only way to verify the validity of its assumptions is to play them out to the end. To win, we must bet we really do have at least one chance of winning back our peaceful green world. In any case, what do we have left to lose that we aren’t already losing now? So let’s dance the dance! Hic rhodus, hic salta (Here is the rose, here we must dance).
“Be reasonable! Demand the impossible!” chanted my generation of rebels, who took over Paris in May 1968. We were ahead of our time. Today, with the Internet’s emergent properties, the impossible is within our grasp. Thanks to the web, today’s rebels can leap over the obstacles that kept us rebels isolated in the Sixties – for example the Iron Curtain. The rolling rebellions of 2011 have given us a foretaste of what a truly planetary emergence might look like. “Unite!” was the slogan of the 19th century internationalists. “Only connect!” may be the slogan of the 21st century revolutionary network.
Planetary Consciousness is the philosophical Fulcrum on which the Modern Archimedes Hypothesis stands. As a concept, it is much less familiar than the Lever of Planetary Solidarity (whose existence is historical) and the electronic Platform (the Internet). Moreover, like the Internet itself, Planetary Consciousness is still in its infancy. This Consciousness is nothing mystical but quite concrete. Have you ever seen the famous 1972 photo of our swirling blue planet taken by the crew of Apollo 17? Congratulations! You have reached the first level of Planetary Consciousness. Are you aware that the planet is getting hotter? Welcome to Level Two!
The year I was born (1939) only a tiny educated elite of the world’s population was aware that the earth is a planet. World War II changed all that. For many long centuries, human horizons were generally limited to the immediate range of the band or tribe or agricultural settlement. Trade and navigation changed that. About two thousand years ago, Greek philosophers first speculated that the Earth is a planet revolving around the sun and then plotted its orbit, but only in the last five hundred years did people actually learn to map the globe and sail around it. And only in the past century – “thanks” to two world wars – have the vast majority of the Earth’s human inhabitants been made aware of lands and continents beyond their own village or province. For example, even in the heart of Europe, many French country folk didn’t speak French and had never ventured beyond the next village prior to WWI (1914). And it was WWII that finally brought the impact of the outside world to much of Asia and the South Pacific. By the 1960s, the proliferation of battery powered transistor radios to exposed millions of Africans, Asians and South Americans living on the land to news of the outside world, but only in our own times have humans actually seen, via the 1972 Blue Marble Shot, the amazing, cloud-swirling blue-green globe we live on.
Seeing is believing: One planet. One world. One humanity. A revolution in perception, a revolution in thought. Today, for the first time in history, most of the world’s six billion human inhabitants are aware that they are living on a vast globe populated by many other peoples (and species). I consider this awareness a revolution in human consciousness whose power and depth have as yet not been realized.
Tragically, this revolution in Planetary Consciousness coincides with growing awareness that life on our planet is menaced with extinction. Since 1945 – since the A-bomb destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. – it has become more and more evident that our survival as a species is threatened by our own ingenuity in inventing machines of unprecedented power and destructiveness. During the seventy years of nuclear stockpiling and proliferation that followed the obliteration of two Japanese cities, intimations of humanity’s mortality have slowly been imposing themselves 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 near universal. More and more humans are experiencing the palpable effects of pollution and global climate change, with spiraling numbers of new climate refugees fleeing floods and droughts. And as the massive food riots of 2010-11 indicate, 21st century peasants and villagers are increasingly likely to attribute these dramatic droughts, storms, floods and epidemics to global causes – indeed to global corporations – rather than to gods or local spirits. Another revolution in human consciousness with serious political implications.
Like overgrown children, scientists are playing with the very building blocks of matter and of life. They are also breaking them. Thanks to 20th century revolutions in scientific knowledge, humans learned to split the atom and manipulate the genome. Unfortunately, our technical abilities have developed far beyond our level of social and political organization, and as a result, nuclear physics and genetic engineering have been used nearly exclusively for military domination and private profit. What an irony that the ideas of Albert Einstein, who was a socialist and one-world internationalist, have been hijacked by business and government for the production of unsafe, cheaply-built nuclear reactors and of stockpiles of mega bombs sufficient to destroy life on earth hundreds of times over. Likewise, the genetic revolution has been hijacked so that the building blocks of the human body have been turned into the private “intellectual property” of gen-tech corporations. Similarly, genetically modified seeds as well as the seeds of edible and medicinal plants, bred and selected over centuries by native peoples, are now the patented monopoly of companies like Monsanto. Peasant farmers are no longer free to plant their own seeds without violating these patents. In order to survive they are obliged to pay royalties, thus incurring unsustainable debts, which have reduced them to corporate serfs or driven them to suicide.
If the common people don’t take control of this technology soon, the planet that emerged out of the first Big Bang will go out in another big (nuclear) “bang” or perhaps a “whimper” (when the fresh air runs out) . Marx once wrote that “one basis for science and another basis for life is a priori a lie.” Our species, which Victor Serge 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 unable to control within the limits of our profit-oriented capitalist society. So the goal of Planetary Consciousness is learning to connect up our collective brain before engaging gears!
What irony that Humanity’s discovery that we all live on a single planet coincided with Humanity’s discovery (Hiroshima) of our ability to destroy life on that planet. Like the proverbial elephant in the 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. Stepping out of denial and acknowledging the probability of annihilation in the foreseeable future is the second level of Planetary Consciousness.
At this level, Planetary Consciousness confronts us with the unavoidable existential choice between absolute and irreconcilable opposites: Profits versus People, Money versus Nature, Death versus Life. On the one hand we face the increasing likelihood of destroying developed life on earth. On the other, a possible chance (“one in a hundred”) for Ecotopian Emergence: a positive revolution in human relations leading to a new society based on solidarity and cooperation, rather than greed and competition.
And so a Second Negation grows out of the negation of Life under predatory capitalism. It arises from within that alienated society dominated by Mammon-worshipping businessmen who bow down to the graven images they have stamped on the money that is their true idol. From within the contradiction between Life and Money, from within that alienated society where Billions toil, suffer, and starve to earn profits for corporations, Humanity cries out ¡Ya basta!
In the words of the 1999 Alter-Globalization demonstrators:
“The earth is not a commodity to be bought and sold!”
“Life is not a commodity to be bought and sold!”
“I personally am not a commodity to be bought and sold!”
“Another world is possible!”
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 on 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. This post-History will be truly a “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 level of Planetary Consciousness consists in realizing the necessity of a positive revolution in human relations. 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. In the meantime, these alter-mundialistas – like all of us – 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.
Humanity’s recently acquired Planetary Consciousness has great historical potential, but time is short and Starship Earth seems to be accelerating its course toward disaster. Our Modern Archimedes’ Hypothesis provides a theoretical basis for a successful Mutiny among the passengers and crew – a theoretical model for visualizing the material-historical possibility of a planetary revolution in the age of globalized corporate capitalism and mass planetary connectivity. The three necessary elements – the Lever, the Fulcrum, and the Platform – are already in place. 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 it is overproduction, the glut of unsold commodities, that leads to mass unemployment and periodic economic crises like the crash of 2008. Inequality (between nations and between classes), not scarcity, is the cause of want. With such abundance of goods, Utopia becomes a realistic, practical possibility – sharing our toys rather than fighting over them.
At the very least, the Modern 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 what if one of these scenarios is compelling enough to fire the imagination of people around the world? What if networks connecting millions of people around the world emerge to take charge of our wayward planet before it is too late? What if the idea-virus of Ecotopia goes viral, reaches the tipping-point, and becomes a revolutionary pandemic?
That is our Utopian bet. On the one hand, nothing to lose but the dismal spectacle of a dying world; on the other, a chance in a hundred to save ourselves and the beautiful blue-green planet we live on. In any case, it’s a bet we can’t refuse. In the 18th century – the age of scientific and political revolutions – radical writers like Voltaire, Diderot, Thomas Paine and the Encyclopedists boldly proclaimed: “the pen is mightier than the sword.” History proved them right. Feudal absolutism was overthrown. Today in the 21st century – the age of connectivity and emergence – the Modern Archimedes Hypothesis entitles us to state a claim of our own: The electronic keyboard hooked up to the World Wide Web is mightier than the nuclear missile!
All Power to the Imagination!