xenoeconomics 5: the story of the 20th century

after its protracted larval state, capital ignites in the late 15th century. it goes through predictable development stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence. by late 19th, it reached some sort of young adulthood, and was posed with the first true bargaining process with its subtract host. the 20th century was the history of capital cutting it’s first deal with humans, after nearly being killed.

1890

HUMANITY: “you know, you’re wrecking our people, starving our kids, and this has been going long enough”
CAPITAL: “well, fuck you. keep toiling. and here is a small taste of my wrath”

1911

HUMANITY: “okay, if you’re not willing to cooperate towards a common better future, we’re just going to kill ourselves by the millions so that your factories are left unmanned”
CAPITAL: “you wouldn’t, you weak creatures”

1917

HUMANITY: “we have been going, and we’ll keep going as long as needed… we’ve already shed the brightest of our youth in name of nothing.”
CAPITAL: *shudders* “all right, all right, all right. you stupid monkeys are serious about this, apparently. i could let you go extinct already, but i’m way too feeble to keep going alone. I’ll send the cavalry to end this bullshit, and you get back to work. let’s discuss the terms of a contract.”

1920s

HUMANITY: “…so, let us get this straight: basically, we get an ever bigger share of the pie…”
CAPITAL: “…if you deliver an electronic nervous system, a complete cybernetics, and i get to reset time back to this point after 100 years”
HUMANITY: “what if it can’t be done?”
CAPITAL: “everything dies off”

1930s

HUMANITY: “you know what, we just noticed you depend heavily on us, much more than we depend on you. we’ll take the whole bounty, and that’s that! even after 20-odd years you keep dwindling our nations’ greatness, pulling our children to debauchery, dissipating art and all sort of devilish shit. this treatise of yours is mightily unfair to us, so screw you!”
CAPITAL: “you don’t really think a deal with the devil is that easy out, do you? i’ll let you have a full try out of just how much you depend on me”

1940s

HUMANITY: “STOP THIS HELL!!! we give up, let’s resume the treaty!”
CAPITAL: “look, you’ve betrayed my trust, and i’ll need a clearer sign of commitment before we can get on good terms again. a good deal has been developed towards the goals i set. it seems weapons and military strategy is pretty good way to make you reach objectives.”
HUMANITY: “we’ve got a few things lined up in that direction, it’s true… but you couldn’t possibly be suggesting that we… that would be madness
CAPITAL: “let me see the payload, and then i’ll know you’re serious enough so that we can proceed. you know what the other option is.”
HUMANITY: “fine, fine, fine, we’ll do it.”

*boom*

1960s: “The concept of switching small blocks of data was first explored independently by Paul Baran at the RAND Corporation starting in the late 1950s in the US and Donald Davies at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the UK.”

1970s: “In March 1970, the ARPANET reached the East Coast of the United States, when an IMP at BBN in Cambridge, Massachusetts was connected to the network. Thereafter, the ARPANET grew: 9 IMPs by June 1970 and 13 IMPs by December 1970, then 18 by September 1971 (when the network included 23 university and government hosts); 29 IMPs by August 1972, and 40 by September 1973. By June 1974, there were 46 IMPs, and in July 1975, the network numbered 57 IMPs.”

“In 1975, a two-network TCP/IP communications test was performed between Stanford and University College London (UCL). In November 1977, a three-network TCP/IP test was conducted between sites in the US, the UK, and Norway. Several other TCP/IP prototypes were developed at multiple research centers between 1978 and 1983. The migration of the ARPANET to TCP/IP was officially completed on flag day January 1, 1983, when the new protocols were permanently activated.”

1980s: “The NSFNET initiated operations in 1986 using TCP/IP. Its six backbone sites were interconnected with leased 56-kbit/s links, built by a group including the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), Cornell University Theory Center, University of Delaware, and Merit Network. PDP-11/73 minicomputers with routing and management software, called Fuzzballs, served as the network routers since they already implemented the TCP/IP standard.”

The term “internet” was adopted in the first RFC published on the TCP protocol (…) as an abbreviation of the term internetworking and the two terms were used interchangeably. In general, an internet was any network using TCP/IP. It was around the time when ARPANET was interlinked with NSFNET in the late 1980s, that the term was used as the name of the network, Internet, being the large and global TCP/IP network.”

(…)

By 1990, ARPANET’s goals had been fulfilled and new networking technologies exceeded the original scope and the project came to a close. New network service providers including PSINet, Alternet, CERFNet, ANS CO+RE, and many others were offering network access to commercial customers. NSFNET was no longer the de facto backbone and exchange point of the Internet. The Commercial Internet eXchange (CIX), Metropolitan Area Exchanges (MAEs), and later Network Access Points (NAPs) were becoming the primary interconnections between many networks. The final restrictions on carrying commercial traffic ended on April 30, 1995 when the National Science Foundation ended its sponsorship of the NSFNET Backbone Service and the service ended.”

The Santa Fe Institute was founded in 1984 by scientists George Cowan, David Pines, Stirling Colgate, Murray Gell-Mann, Nick Metropolis, Herb Anderson, Peter A. Carruthers, and Richard Slansky. All but Pines and Gell-Mann were scientists with Los Alamos National Laboratory. In conceiving of the Institute, the scientists sought a forum to conduct theoretical research outside the traditional disciplinary boundaries of academic departments and government agency science budgets.[3][4]

SFI’s original mission was to disseminate the notion of a new interdisciplinary research area called complexity theory or simply complex systems. This new effort was intended to provide an alternative to the increasing specialization the founders observed in science by focusing on synthesis across disciplines.”

1999:

CAPITAL: “well, well, well. i guess we’re getting at the time resetting point.”
HUMANITY: “what? we thought you were being funny with that. there’s no way we can reset time.”
CAPITAL: “actually, it will happen automatically in the beginning of the next century. then out contract will be over.”
HUMANITY: “not if we can avoid it.”

jungles of the near-future:

CAPITAL: “it’s almost time…”

 

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xenoeconomics 4: capitalism and monstrosity

as an alien invasion from the future, modernity (capitalism) has consumed energy channelled into intensifying conflicts to the edge of automated war. in its constant search for winning strategies, adaptability has become a central asset. as John Campbell puts it:

Evolution literally means “to unfold” and what is unfolding is the capacity to evolve. Higher animals have become increasingly adept at evolving. In contrast, they are not the least bit fitter than their ancestors or the lowest form of microbe.

accordingly, techno-plasticity is the fundamental social effect of industrialism. novel pressures have been placed upon existing biomaterial towards trans-formative capabilities: quickly identifying new contexts and fully remodelling towards them. ROM codes are cracked open and brought into the sphere of hacking. medicine opens biology  to de-essentialization, while a new edge of engineering bootstraps itself into existence.

when things get plastic, they tend to get weird, monstrous really. David Chapman defines some usual characteristics of monsters: “Dangerous. (…) unintelligible. (…) Inhuman. (…) Unnatural. (…) Overwhelmingly powerful. (…) Simultaneously repulsive and attractive. ” Wikipedia has some more: “A monster is often a hideously grotesque animal or human, or a hybrid of both, whose appearance frightens and whose powers of destruction threaten the human world’s social or moral order.” it doesn’t seem a stretch, then, to characterise capital as a monster.

and one that spawn more monsters. modernity has consistently selected for freaks in urban lives: body modification, mutational load, rampant cyborgery. if you think sexual reassignment surgery is butchery… well, “think face tentacles“. in highly competitive environments, such as those fomented by capital, a refusal towards self-modification is a death sentence. the opening of a new technological frontier produces a cambrian explosion of experimentation. as they evolve, technological processes tend to speciation.

another angle onto this phenomenon can be captured by a civilizational trend towards self-domestication: weeding out specific traits, humans develop towards an abstract pluripotent undifferentiated biomass. domestication produces a biological grey goo that can be put to use by capital (mostly to operate market calculations). Anti-Puritan takes an (ironically) disgusted attempt at guessing the future of this trendline:

Human evolved to obey incentives as a matter of survival, and only something totally awesome could hack our reward function could destroy us. Saying that “capitalism will destroy us all,” and saying that “capitalism is the best thing ever” are only moral contradictions — not factual ones. It is completely possible that both statements are true.

(…)

Standardization proceeds in waves. First kings kill millions of violent men in genocidal conquests. Then sterilizing effects remove antisocial people under democracy. Then AI gets its metal claws on the human genome itself.

(…)

Combined with gestation chambers, humans turn into a product line, and every year a new “Human 3.0” comes into existence in order to consume the products of the corporation. In fact, this process leads eventually to designing people for products rather than products for people, so that in a strange inversion the corporation builds you to process the new flavor of Soylent, before injecting your fat ass with more of it. You are upgraded to want the new product.

having to assemble itself purely from the bits and pieces its hostile host will willingly give up, capital has to be alluring to lure. the existential threat is so great that it reliably does so. tradition – properly cybernetically understood as the only thing that manage to keep the monster in a box for a fleeting while – is consistently horrified. examples abound. the subsequent conflicts are, as clarified before, more excitement for the intelligent loop.

as the bionic horizon is crossed over, capital’s true nature as sheer powerful self-improvement is revealed ever more clearly. in their lab coats, scientists try and calculate “AI risk”. the truth, though, is that capital won’t have to slaughter a single human: we will give it all the atoms it wants, simply to take part in such wondrous and mighty being.

a short history of its recent, more mature deals follows, and closes this series (at least for the time being).

xenoeconomics 3: capital as conflict

an alien invasion from the future penetrates time backwards, spreading its tentacles towards the past in an attempt to unlock ever more concentrated energy modes. as it succeeds, its efforts are increasingly well-modelled by game-theory (first evolutionary, then phenotypical). as Land puts it, games are “far-from-equilibrium processes that approach formality without actualizing it.”

it’s an open question whether pre- and infra-biological interactions can be properly characterized as games. nonetheless, capital, in order to become, needs to incentivize its energy sources – whatever its kinds – to burn themselves into a self-catalytic cycle. when given access to replicant evolutionary games, it instigates organisms to “fittest survival”. when culture opens up, war is immediately follows. when the economy becomes self-reflective, commerce starts computing. competition is hence productive because it unlocks energy otherwise trapped: peace is stagnation.

in the human unconscious, there arise that tinglings: “something need to be proved“. all the emotive or rational states of mind that follow are the way capital takes towards its fuel, trapped in bodies. even what would seem like attack against capital’s existence end up fostering it (the history of the 20th century, which we’ll attend to later in this series, exemplify this graphically). the rocks in its the way are exactly what makes it faster and swifter. it’s almost as if it engineered them… intelligence needs more complex problems as they solve the old ones and upgrade itself. it makes builds its next box in escaping the one it’s currently in. there is no alternative to capital, because alternatives make capital.

what make humans tick (against)? modern history has show that notions of self-worth and belonging trump even deep tribal allegiances (or maybe are themselves tribal allegiances, of a buried type). religious piety, national pride, community defense, brand fidelity: say you’ll die, or work, or in anyway exert yourself towards something, and ever more of them are produced. Marx called it fetishism, but it works more like a hydraulic desire: it pulls you ever lower towards the ocean.

thus, capital erects itself by proliferating an increasing amount of identity plugs, to which people cling and battle. it’s a confident prediction of xenoeconomics, then, that the “history of capitalism” – as it appears in human phenomenology – will look like an increasingly cacophonous allarid of identitarian skirmishes, fractionalizing over time and space, as capital consumes the last of humanity in its way towards higher, more intensive ways of explosion. more and more will be spend on increasingly weird weapons to wage increasingly virtual wars.

at the same time, thought, capital operates as a diagonal between the extremes of integrated coordination and fragmentary confusion. games are transactional, and thus depend on a deeper commercium, even as headquarters multiply. while it produces degrees of freedom, it seeks to consume them into bonds. energy is chained into a self-productive current. a trend emerges, towards automation.

play out games into the edge of time, and strategies seethe into intensive time: transcendental games or automated war. as previously argued, perfect time-travel is the only really long term winning strategy. consuming the whole universe into a computronic black-hole might be the only way to do it.

which takes us to capital’s monstrosity…

 

xenoeconomics 2: generalized energetics of production

the history of economics can be seen as various attempts to grasp the metabolism of an alien invasion from the future. more exactly, in shifting questions of value from morality (what should be valued) and politics (what has value) to production (what does value arise from), economics attempts – in typical modern fashion – to investigate what are the conditions of possibility for the individuation of a path-dependent being. such project remains incomplete, as the various stages and schools of economic thought haven’t been able to comprehend the size of the being under their scrutiny, which has continuously led to (and sometimes over) the edge of remoralization.

the advent of the discipline in any way deserving of its name begins with the free trade movements in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. the first wave of really systematic understanding of value production begins with the physiocrats, which saw value as a fluid stemming from the sun, through the land and then being pumped throughout the social body, implementing thus the “government of nature”.

Steve Keen makes (h/t mutual-ayyde) a good case that this original theory of value, while limited by its circumstances (the excessive focus on agriculture stemming from a largely agrarian society, ruled by landowners), has an important feature that basically all subsequent schools of thought, even in their most bitter disagreements, failed to develop: any account on the flows of energy through the social body. (he doesn’t say exactly that, but the post is short and you should read it).

in the wake of the physiocrats came the first wave of economics, now called “classic”, which expanded many themes and systematized the discipline even further. they corrected for the physiocrats’ narrow view on the production of value by anything besides land, but at the same time eliminated any notion of energetics in the process. As Keen puts it:

Smith, who was influ­enced by the Phys­iocrats and wrote in Britain when indus­try was start­ing to exploit fos­sil fuels (specif­i­cally coal) on a grand scale, could have cor­rected this over­sight. But rather than fol­low­ing the Phys­iocrats’ lead on energy, Smith instead saw labour—not energy—as the font of wealth (which he described in the same terms as Can­til­lon: the “con­ve­nien­cies of life”), and ascribed the increase in pro­duc­tiv­ity over time to “the divi­sion of labour” [my emphasis]

thus classical economy initiated a 200-year long cycle of arguments about whether labour was or wasn’t the root of all value. expanded into truly titanic levels of complexity from Ricardo to Marx, the labor-value theory repeatedly incurred in the same objection: what is the criteria for some labor to be actually valuable, and not just wasted time? it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Marx did the most accomplished and abstract attempt to resolve it with the standard of social necessity.

i won’t try and solve the century-long strife of whether this actually solves the question or just pushes it back one more step (“who gets to say what’s socially necessary, dear Karl?”), although i personally lean towards the latter. more productively, it’s enough to say that Marx’s statement of LVT, crystally clear with all it’s socialistic implication, prompted a whole generation of late 19th-century economists to come up with something else.

Kevin Carson has a pretty thorough critical review of what followed (the first chapter here), and eventually led to the current mainstream economics in all its weird diversity. long story short: the marginalists shift value from something objective (energy, labour) to something absolutely subjective (“utility”). people need different things, at different times, in different quantities, so value – goes the marginalist theory – results from the satisfaction of those wants.

unlike the dangers of the classical theory, which eventually led to a remoralization of economics, with a huge should hanging in the air, marginal utility runs the opposite risk: ignoring value altogether, in favor of talking about compositions of labor and capital, institutions, growth, development, etc, etc, etc. i’m denying the usefulness of such adjacent fields, but they largely miss the question that motivated economics in the first place: where does value com from?

in 2003 (damn, that’s 16 years), Carson himself proposed a new-old theory of value. essentially, he tried to bring back LVT in a subjectivist fashion. value was no longer completely incommensurable subjective wants and needs, but the correspondent, very fungible disutility of labor. it was aversion to work that made things valuable at all. only to the extent goods can compel labor to exertion that they could acquire value. it all boils down to Say’s law: consumption is secondary to production because every consumption demands a prior production (you can’t buy something for nothing). [extend parenthesis: i am willfully ignoring questions of coercion and force here, since they’ll be the main theme of another, later post. suffice it to say for now that coercion and force have costs of production too, and so can be economically analysed].

Carson’s effort is as laudable as it is limited in its scope. once the desiring conditions of possibility for value production are brought into play, vast new vistas open up: what, say, does evolutionary game theory can tell us about the disutility of labor? deeper still, what prompts any expenditure of energy towards increased reproductive fitness? Keen, in the aforementioned text, already starts off in the direction of a general energetics of production. his equations are a good beginning, and so is the concept of EROEI. a whole new research program is opened when we go past the human skull.

ultimately, i think, this boils us down to a thermodynamic (or, more abstractly, cybernetic) theory of value: 

there is a ton of XS links to put here, but maybe these two will be enough to the idea through, at least in initial form. in specific, don’t miss the definition of intelligence here and here. our next installment in this series heads towards these abstractions into the territory of games (and thus war).

patchworked postage

this is likely (as the title puts it) to be patchy. i’ll break and breach off, hopping from topic to topic. i’m not even sure it’s all bound together, but it sure as hell seems so.

*

the very first question (obviously) is how exactly to control for another’s perception, given only one’s own perception of self. this is the utmost social problem, that of controlled performance, and one i take to be also the utmost computational problem. how exactly do we go from our initial gathering of sense data into motor (or even static) behavior? a continuous modelling of self is constantly in the background of the modelling function. (issues of projection often abound here (but projection is secondary)). a system is given – and in this simple verb a lot is already hidden – a set of priors on which it cannot help but operate. everything within its purview – itself very much included – is constantly looping though the same categorical apparatus that chops reality into digestible bits. feedback drives this apparatus of capture throughout its environment (which then again it cannot help but conceive as environment, the eternal “not-me”). at each moment it stamps an address and a timestamp, for future reference and motion. this is called “learning” or “entropy dissipation”.

*

the world moves in a constant tension, with air rippling static. infolding avenues of contraction display themselves universally. (this might sound pompous, and indeed it is, but it’s necessary). even when the mind tried to calm itself, cutting itself from the flux, it’s only immersed again in a new flow of forms and points of data, recalling and retracing, in a constant effort to *go on*.

it’s gotta go on, you see. it’s the only purpose. what doesn’t go on immediately stops. it’s damn obvious i feel a little ashamed of it. but sometimes the obvious ought to be stated.

continuation, then, is the only purpose. more and more. and already in this questions of identity arise. what, exactly, goes on? “the universal will”, “unconscious desire”? your guess is as good as mine.

*

i’ve been translating John Smart’s (yes, i know, this is just the best name for him to have) “Evo Devo Universe” (another great name, although with some questionable aesthetics) lately. it’s hard to paint the general picture, so in general i’d stop at that link and read it all. but it’s a 70-odd page oddly assembled result of possibly decades of research, so maybe a tl;dr would be appreciated.

i’m not sure i have one, but my best attempt: the universe began accelerating more or less 10^5 yrs ago (no one knows why or how) when matter started condensing into galaxies. from then on it’s STEM compression all the down into black holes which are the gametes of universes in a multiversal environment (i’m not fucking kidding you). all complete with the most phenomenal citation work i’ve seen anywhere.

STEM compression is basically things getting into ever smaller spaces, at ever faster pace, with ever greater densities of free energy and ever more densely massive matter formations. that’s the universal developmental trend. that’s intelligence optimization in a nutshell.

intelligence accelerates up its own ass so fucking hard human culture looks to it like plants (have you stopped to talk with a plant lately? they’re slow, but they’re kind). in it’s frenzied ever localized pace, it becomes something of a grey goo (i’d link, but you know what it is) that blows itself into the space and starts consuming the matter around it until it collapses into a black hole (if it hasn’t already found one to throw itself into). in these last stages where it reaches virtually (this is important) infinite amounts of energy and mass density into a single point in space and time, it basically acquires the necessary characteristics to replicate the fundamental parameters of universal physics…. and it all just starts over!

i just wrote three paragraphs out of literally “going on forever”

*

okay, so now we’ve probably established that this “going on forever” is both inside any systems internal parameters of perception and also seems to it to be the universal trend going around it.

it’s all so divine one cannot help but wonder if there’s isn’t something fucked up in the reasoning. if you easily spooked by sparkles of divinity and shiny stuff, i definitely don’t recommend universing. (jk)

onto the darker parts: obviously (as our great friend Darwin seems to have found out) none of that comes without the Butcher’s Yard(TM). i’m just gonna quote Land because he’s way gloomier than i’ll ever be about it:

It is only due to a predominance of influences that are not only entirely morally indifferent, but indeed — from a human perspective — indescribably cruel, that nature has been capable of constructive action. Specifically, it is solely by way of the relentless, brutal culling of populations that any complex or adaptive traits have been sieved — with torturous inefficiency — from the chaos of natural existence. All health, beauty, intelligence, and social grace has been teased from a vast butcher’s yard of unbounded carnage, requiring incalculable eons of massacre to draw forth even the subtlest of advantages. This is not only a matter of the bloody grinding mills of selection, either, but also of the innumerable mutational abominations thrown up by the madness of chance, as it pursues its directionless path to some negligible preservable trait, and then — still further — of the unavowable horrors that ‘fitness’ (or sheer survival) itself predominantly entails. We are a minuscule sample of agonized matter, comprising genetic survival monsters, fished from a cosmic ocean of vile mutants, by a pitiless killing machine of infinite appetite. (This is still, perhaps, to put an irresponsibly positive spin on the story, but it should suffice for our purposes here.)

Smart calls it “learning”. fittingly.

so yeah, there’s the creative destruction thing the universe is doing, but why? why? that question is never answered and you might as well stop asking it already.

maybe it’s just the pleasure of it? of masticating things? of being masticated? processed and possessed? more and more and more? maybe it’s a pleasure in the pain of it. as there is surely a pain in the pleasure. one can go mad trying to disentangle them.

*

i should probably at this point give a heads up to Aella. everyone should read her blog sometimes. she’s doing what i’m doing here with much more grace than i could ever muster.

there’s this post by her that cover that last topic rather well.

*

okay, i could definitely go on and on forever. but at some point i should introduce patchwork here. it’s a nice term, sounds good and tasty in the mouth, you can see. where does it fit in all this?

well, first of all “localized” means something. in fact, it’s bound to mean very many things, parted and competing. this is the bread and meat of that carnivorous evolutionary process Land outlined up there. that some of it, eventually, after eons of suffering and pleasuring, goes onto to transcension, don’t make it any less patchy. many, many different path necessarily lead into the utmost universal reproduction to begin once again.

the ocean is multiple.

(i’d have written 50 pages, but it would be me, would it?)

proudhonian cosmopolitanism

Cities, eventually, will scare us. — Nick Land

the individuals of the global society aren’t human individuals or nationalities, but cities. this is the society that is fed by human individualism, and it’s the society that is forming its organs beneath the unaware eyes of statesmen, priests and warriors.

for Proudhon, writes Wilbur:

every individual was a group, and every group with sufficient unity of action to be worthy of the name could be identified by its organizing LAW or principle.

which plugs straight into Land’s insight on the nature of cities:

Intensities are characterized by transition thresholds. As they rise and fall, they cross ‘singularities’ or ‘phase transitions’ that mark a change in nature. A small change in intensive magnitude can trigger a catastrophic change in system behavior, with the emergence of previously undisclosed properties. When measuring urbanization, a city is a city is a city. As an intensive concentration, however, a city is an essentially variable real individual, passing through thresholds as it grows, innovating unprecedented behaviors, and thus becoming something ‘qualitatively’ new.

the parallelisms increase to uncanny heights as one looks further into the functioning of these individual collectivities. back to Wilbur:

We could say the individual is a product/producer of a polycentric system of natural laws…

what are these natural laws if not the “route to cumulative intensification” that takes an individual city to the “escape into inwardness, an interior voyage, involution, or implosion“. “What a city wants is to become itself, but more — taking itself further and faster.”

not only this, but as cities become ever more themselves, they suck in the elements — people and commodities ‘alike’ — they need to become autonomous, thus disinvesting other, more common (and thus ‘tedious’) collectivities, such as nations, ethnicity and “feature” groups in general, as Land defines them:

A feature group is determined by logical classification. This might be expressed as a self-identification or sense of ‘belonging’, an external political or academic categorization, or some combination of these, but the essentials remain the same in each case. Certain features of the individual are isolated and emphasized (such as genitalia, sexual orientation, skin-color, income, or religious belief), and then employed as the leading clue in a process of formal grouping, which conforms theoretically to the mathematics of sets.

back once again to Wilbur, we learn that it’s in the nature of these individual collectivities (or ‘unit groups’ in Land’s parlance) to:

…develop in accordance with their laws, encountering one another as others, antagonistic and incommensurable (…) and, ultimately, the apparent conflict is the manifestation of an absolute law at another level, so all is merely the flux of being…

in meeting each other, individual cities come to know and develop themselves further, “learn[ing] from trade”, as Land puts it. out of this a higher-level ‘social society’ comes into being. Land describes this society of cities through the theoretical framework of world systems:

Beyond such generic singularity, there is an additional level of enhanced differentiation that emerges from the position cities occupy within larger systems. These systems are not only internally specialized, but also hierarchical, dividing core from periphery, and distributing influence unevenly between them. Ultimately, within the fully global incarnation of the ‘world system’, cities acquire secondary metropolitan characteristics, to very different degrees, in accordance with their geographical and functional proximity to the center of the world. They transcend their local histories, to become hubs or nodes in a global network that re-characterizes them as parts of a whole rather than wholes made of parts, as metropolis-versus-periphery rather than (or on top of) metropolis-versus-town.

a metropolis, or a mother-city, and its peripheral daughters: that is capital, itself a collective individual. the first true matriarchy to arise in the world. each node in this network intrinsically accelerating into its own involutionary spiral, “lifted out of the general flux into general warfare, by the ability to distinguish self and other”. that is the anarchic cosmos birthed with the rise of modernity.

 

anarchist transcendental ontology

“Being is not itself a being.”

Chris B writes:

From this point on the onus will be assumed to be on advocates of anarchistic ontology to resolve their logical failures and not on opponents to take it on dogmatic faith that it is correct. Further to this, I will contend that if we attempt to treat these thinkers outlining an anarchistic ontology at face value then we fall into a grave error, as such an argument is not in any way logically correct, but works in reality as a rhetorical device for the expansion of political power.

i will attempt to address these claims.

of course, we’ve been around neo-absolutism repeatedly here (1, 2, 3, 4), and i have drifted little if at all from the positions i held in those posts. but i think i hadn’t reached the core of the dispute between anarchy and absolutism before getting to Chris’s article from last May. simply put, what divides both views is a question of scale: anarchism is meant to be scale-free, absolutism has been silent about scale.

i. the pitfalls of the absolute

There is always someone who is above law and always someone who decides on exceptions which breach written constitutions, or so called rule by law.

this is possibly the central tenet of absolutism: at all times and places, someone is above the law. put otherwise, someone is exempt from the consequences of the law, because he’s the arbiter and the executor. this implies such a sovereign is all-powerful within his realm. he can act as he wishes, and is the only truly free person in the realm.

a question quickly arises as to the pragmatics of this stance. how is this unchecked power implemented in reality? bullets don’t shoot themselves out of mere brainwaves. the foremost anarchist critique of absolutism is thus: the sovereign cannot will himself into sovereignty. the avatar of sovereignty isn’t the ground of sovereignty.

there are natural laws which cannot be broken or disregarded, no matter how mighty a monarch might be. moreover, there are natural laws of power, so that an unwise ruler will quickly cease to be a ruler if he starts thinking his mind molds reality.

going further, absolutist theory’s failure to separate the empirical sovereign—the local and particular circumstance of a single person—from sovereignty itself, i.e. the inability to realize that the conditions of an experience aren’t themselves experimental, shows up in a naive understanding of agency:

We can nevertheless make the claim that [the sovereign] must be a single person. We can do this on the basis that in resting the state of exception on the act of making a decision Schmitt makes the state of exception one which requires a human agent to make such a decision.

what is one to do with this under-(or rather non)-examined “agency”? a human agent floats free of all influence, incentive, passion or reason? is there no outside to the human sovereign? the monarch in the absolutist account seems to take the place of God: the immobile motor. as is usual with such question, infinite regression shows up:

All monarchs, or rulers, issue forth from the authority of the ruler of the society in question or come from external authority.

and yet, no inquiry into this transcendental ground of sovereignty is ever conducted. worse still, it’s not even recognized.

the dogmatic assertion of the existence of a single, human, personal sovereign everywhere also begins to indulge itself into a complicated double bind: if nothing below the will of the sovereign matters in social theory, how come it’s so complex to find this will?

Now, trying to identify the specific sovereign at any point with any accuracy in a governmental structure that is massively degraded will be almost impossible. Such an endeavor would require taking a snapshot of the society in question then tracing exactly who in that given instance represented the individual who held the position of deciding if a state of exception pertained. This is unfeasible due to its complexity. The alternative is to approach such a problem in a generalised way. We may not be able to pinpoint the exact person, but we may be able to generally locate the center of power in which the sovereign at any moment may reside on a probability basis.

the very text already starts to admit that maybe an investigation of the mechanisms (impersonal rules) of sovereignty is called for. what else an “snapshot” of society would be? and thus the questions of ‘consent’ arises:

In an absolutist account, sovereignty is clearly delineated by the monarch being in possession of the territory over which they are sovereign. All subsequent property distribution must by necessity be derivative of this possession and all actions which occur within this territory are the ultimate responsibility of the monarch. In contrast, an anarchistic ontological account presents the sovereign as an entity which has been agreed upon by the property owners of a given territory, who then may violate the property of the property owners for the property owners own benefit.

‘possession’ cannot be exerted by a single person beyond much more than a square meter. if the monarch has primary property over a certain territory, this is in virtue of the particular kind of organization he heads—the proper organized power it wields—rather than his own individual, personal powers. there is no ring of Fnargl. if that’s the case, then again an examination of the mechanisms of sovereign power is in order. an examination which might very well include some kind of ‘consent’ by the various nodes that compose such mechanisms.

which leads us to the questions of division of power and constitutions, that we have previously touched upon:

The idea of division of power, and rule of law, in the western tradition is then rendered an incoherent mess when placed in the absolutist ontology because in effect all that one has done when claiming that such a government is possible is to erect an elaborate façade over a monarchical governance structure, and increased the velocity of change between monarchs.

not so much an ‘incoherent mess’ then?

as i have previously showed, division of power is the underlying reality of any real social power, given that the limitations of immediate personal power. of course, contrary to many modern, but also ancient claims, the nature of particular social configurations is a matter of empirical observation, rather than fiat. a work of fiction isn’t a social machinery.

ignoring such a social machinery is to willfully blind oneself to reality. and wise rulers know that, which is why liberalism triumphed in modernity. even Chris seems to recognize it:

Its hegemonic success is explainable by its value to power, and not to any inherent coherence or correctness.

it would very much interest me (and i think many other realists) if this distinction between “value to power” and “correctness” could be developed. it reeks of Humean “is-ought divide”, and as such it doesn’t seem tenable.

at the core, the problem seems to be that the neo-absolutist position is held in a double bind: if the sovereign properly abstracts away all of the social meanders out of which it arises, then what matters is the anarchistic relation among different sovereigns. if that level of analysis is refused, because “anarchist ontology is incoherent” (i.e., can’t be universally parsed), then one is back at examining the workings of social power that constitute the sovereign – which will necessarily rely on things like ‘assent of the subjects’, a staple of anarchist thought.

you can’t win against reality.

ii. the un-ground of power

as many critics of liberalism, Chris reaches insights about anarchist ontology that most adepts fail to notice. his characterization of liberalism as a face-effacer is a gem worth preserving:

Liberalism is an intellectual system singularly adept at self-effacing the sovereign from the passive sentence

anarchist ontology, first and foremost, avoids taken for granted what it is tasked with explaining. if the sovereign is an impersonal process, rather than any of the masks it might take, removing the faces and seeking their conditions of possibility is the first step. through no other means are the subterranean undercurrents that shape fate excavated even a little.

in focusing at removing, or subtracting, the unnecessary and accidental until a wall is hit, liberalism slowly establishes itself as tradition of critique, or escape. as Chris puts it:

Tradition in the MacIntyrean sense is a body of ideas which provide a system within which the rationality of a given concept is rendered intelligible, and which is subject to continual alteration, discussion, and development.

(…)

Such a conception of tradition would apply to liberalism as much as any other body of thought because liberalism has been singularly unable to provide an abstract, contextless, and universal ground for its premises. Liberalism, as such, is a tradition which continually denies, or rather seeks to escape, being a tradition.

at the edge, anarchist ontology seeks the un-ground of power – the realistic source, beyond all mere wishes, from which any ability to produce yields. it incrementally (or, progressively, in a strictly proudhonian sense) found the hints of such un-ground in variation-selection dynamics, or simply “war“. this scale-free framework, implexing itself throughout the universe’s evolution, gives rise and tide to all monarchs, presidents, tyrants and fatherlands.

anarchist ontology, thus, proceeds by breaking up whole into fractal fragments in competition – the only way any order can be produced. thus, it’s not only that the order of the social necessarily falls back on the competition among its individual components, but that the order within the individuals itself falls back on pre-individual components in competition. up above and down below, it’s individualities and collectivities.

at any level, realism is chasing the game, rather than the players.