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Arts of the Political is the new release penned by cultural geographers Nigel Thrift and Ash Amin, and which explores various manifestations of left wing politics and political movements in order to consider why movements based around equity and community have seemingly achieved so little over the past thirty odd years in the face of neoliberalism. Indeed, this question is particularly pertinent given the financial crisis of 2008, and the inability of the left in places such as the UK (where both Thrift and Amin teach at Warwick and Cambridge respectively) to form a movement seemingly capable of enacting widespread positive changes, or even mounting a serious campaign to challenge the Conservative narrative of enforced austerity as a means for enacting further cuts to public services – a policy David Cameron has recently felt sufficiently emboldened to openly state is a reflection of ideology rather than a situation enforced by economic circumstances.

One might argue that the sweeping cuts made by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition are a prime exemplar of what Naomi Klein has termed the shock doctrine – the neoconservative leveraging of moments of critical instability to enact sweeping changes which increase inequality and benefit elites through privatisations which would likely be too unpopular to pass outside of these specific moments. The question then, is why has the right been so successful at exploiting these opportunities whilst the left has not.

For Thrift and Amin, the answer is primarily that the left has historically been successful when it has been able to articulate new visions, new desires and new organisations which expand the terrain of what is understood to be politics itself, and by doing so energises mass movements through articulating the possibility for a better collective future.

 Movements campaigning for the rights ofwomen, the working class, and other neglected and downtrodden subjects managed to turn engrained orthodoxies on their head in the quarter-century before the First World War by building mass support and accompanying socio-political reform. Although these movements applied particular principles and practices, the record shows that their acts of redefinition went far beyond what was originally intended. These movements freed up new imaginations, invented new political tools, pointed to elements of existence that had been neglected or concealed, and created a constituency that, once constructed, longed for another world. In other words, these movements produced a new sense of the political and of political potential. 1he emerging Left both opened the doors of perception and provided the tools with which to do something about these new perceptions. This is what was common, in our view, in the disparate examples we consider, from the American Progressive Movement and British feminism to German Marxism and Swedish social democracy. In their own way, each of these movements disclosed new desires.

The thesis that drives this book is that progressive movements should pay more attention to such world-making capacity, understood as the ability not just to produce a program in the future but also to open up new notions of what the future might consist of. The most important political movements, in our estimation, are those that are able to invent a world of possibility and hope that then results in multiple intertventions in the economic, social, and cultural, as well as the political sphere. They free thought and practice and make it clear what values are being adhered to, often in quite unexpected ways. p9

Thrift and Amin contend that three areas (or arts) of the political which it is crucial for the left to pay close attention towards are invention, the process of bringing forth tangible futures which hold the promise of a better life; organisation, the practices which are used to bind and articulate these movements; and the mobilisation of affect, considering the ways that political decision making goes beyond rational information processing:

In particular, we consider the whole phenomenon of what Walter Lippmann (1961) called the manufacture of consent: how it is being bent to the needs of the Right and how it could be mobilized more effectively by the Left. At the same time, we attend to how the consideration of affect brings space into the frame. A whole array of spatial technologies has become available that operate on, and with, feeling to produce new forms of activism, which literally map out politics and give actors the resources to kick up more and across more places.3 In other words, the practical mechanics of space must be part of the politics of the Left. p15

Thrift and Amin begin by exploring a range of historical examples whereby left wing politics was able to achieve the kind of redefinition of the political they seek, considering the German Socialism of the SPD before world war 1, Swedish Social Democracy, the British Suffragette movement, and progressive capitalists in the US circa 1900. Thrift and Amin contend that:

In all cases, progress depended on prizing open newpolitical ground and filling it with real hope and desire. Appeal and effectiveness-at a time heavily laden with the weight of tradition, vested power, restricted social force, and new capitalist imperative-had to come from an ability to imagine and build community around the yet to come or the yet to be revealed. This meant inventing new historical subjects, new technologies oforganization and resistance, newvisions of the good life and social possibility, new definitions ofhuman subjectivity and fulfillment, and new spaces of the political (such as “direct action,” “voting,” “public involvement,” “class struggle,” “welfare reform,” “government for the people,” “women’s rights”). A possible world had to be fashioned to render the old unacceptable and the new more desirable and possible. The Left today seems to have less desire or ability to stand outside the given to disclose and make way for a new world.

In seeking to formulate areas where there is the potential for opening up analogous new political spaces, Thrift and Amin incorporate theoretical material from Bruno Latour regarding the status of democracy and agency with regards to nonhumans, arguing that the traditional binaries between sovereign human subjects and inert and passive nonhuman objects is an area which can productively challenged by a revitalised left wing politics.

bow. We want to take up Bruno Latour’s (1999) call for a new parliament and constitution that can accommodate the myriad beings that populate the world, a call that entails acts of definition and redefinition of “actor” so that many humans and nonhumans can jostle for position, gradually expanding the scope and meaning of”collective”
politics. p41

This leads T&A to consider the human as a distributed being, whose processes of cognition stretch far beyond the boundaries of the skin, coming close to Deleuze and Guattari’s positions around ecological machinic flows of matter. Arguing from a position which begins to sound fairly close to some of Bernard Stiegler’s work, they contend that:

Human being is fundamentally prosthetic, what is often called “tool-being.” We are surrounded by a cloud ofall manner of objects that provide us with the wherewithal to think. Much ofwhat we regard as cognition is actually the result ofthe tools we have evolved that allow us to describe, record, and store experience. Take just the example of the craft of memory. 1his has extended its domain mightily since the time paintings were made on the walls of caves, and as a result, a whole new means of thought has come into being…

Memory is a compositional art depending on the cultivation of images for the mind to work with. This state of affairs has continued but has been boosted by modern media technology and its ability to produce communal rhetorics that would have been impossible before and that are inevitably heavily political, especially in their ability to keep inventing new variants of themselves that can be adapted to new situations. p50/51

This sense of distributed being and agency is used to reinforce the Latourian argument surrounding the agency of objects, and thus their importance in a new an enlarged sense of politics and democracy. Using Gilbert Simondon’s notion of transduction T&A explore:

The way in which tools and other symbiotes can produce environments that are lively in their own right, that prompt new actants to come into existence. To illustrate this point, we need to look no further than the types of digital technology that have become a perpetual overlay to so many practices and the way in which they are changing political practices. Here we find a domain that has gained a grip only over the past ten years but is now being used as part of an attempt to mass-produce “ontological strangeness” (Rodowick 2007) based on semiautomatic responses designed into everyday life through a combination of information technology based tools and the practices associated with them (from implants and molecular interventions to software-based perception and action). In particular, these automatisms are concerned with the design and prototyping of new kinds of space that can produce different affective vibrations. p64

T&A bring this discussion back in to realm of the more conventionally political by using distributed agency and co-evolutionary strategies as a way of opening up though surrounding ecological crises and how a coherent left political response to climate change requires precisely the type of expanded politics which they characterise as world making:

What is needed instead is a leftist politics that stresses interconnection as opposed to the “local,” however that is understood. What is needed is “not so much a sense of place as a sense ofplanet” (Heise 2008, ss) that is often (and sometimes rather suspectly) called “eco-cosmopolitanism.” Thus, to begin with, the experience of place needs to be re-engineered so that its interlocking ecological dimensions again become clear. This work of reconnection is already being done on many levels and forms a vital element in the contemporary repertoire of leftist politics: slow food, fair trade, consumer boycotts, and so on. Each of these activities connects different places, and it is this work of connection that is probably their most important outcome. Environmental justice then needs to be brought into the equation. The privileges of encounters with certain ecologies, as well as the risks associated with some branches of industry and agribusiness, are clearly unevenly distributed, and it may well be that certain environmentally unsound practices have been perpetuated because their effects go unnoticed by the middle class. Again, environmental justice movements have to refigure spaces, both practically and symbolically, so that interconnection becomes translucent. Finally, we need new ways to sense and envisage global crowds that are dynamic. The attempts to produce people’s mapping and geographic information systems, to engage in various forms of mash-up, and to initiate new forms of search are all part and parcel of a growing tendency to produce new lands of concerned and concernful “Where are we?” Politics starts from this question. p75

This is followed by a a chapter which claims to look at contemporary leftist politics, surveying the landscape through the apertures of anti-capitalism, reformist capitalism, post-capitalism and human recognition. What is striking about the majority of these contemporary left wing political movements is that they aren’t actually political movements.  Anti-Capitalism is not approached through Occupy or Climate Camp, it is Zizek, and Badiou alongside Hardt and Negri – which conflates two very different theoretical perspectives on anti-capitalism – and is summarily dismissed as hopelessly over-optimistic and unable to visualise a future. Reformism is not Syriza/The Five Star Movment/Bolvarian Socialism, it is Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens’s reflexive modernity and third way. By post-capitalism T&A mean ‘A third leftist stance on the contemporary world can be described as “poststructuralist,” in that it draws on feminist, postcolonial, antiracist,and ecological thinking, much of which heavily influenced by poststructuralist ideas’ p91. Conceptually that would seem to fit Hardt and Negri quite well, but here T&A refer instead to GIbson-Graham’s work on small scale, local, co-operative ethical and sustainable, which could have been productively mapped onto the actions of groups and initiatives such as transition towns, permaculture groups, feminist networks, Greenpeace and other NGOs and the broad range of groups and movements who actually practice some of these ideas, but instead is again explored as a mere theoretical argument rather than political praxis. Human recognition is used to refer to a liberal left based around ethics derived from Wendy Brown’s writings – again rather than exploring groups who actually employ this mode of left politics, probably best embodied by online liberal campaign groups such as Avaaz or 38 Degrees. Finally T&A return to Latour and the notion of Dingpolitik and the role of bringing objects into democracy, a position which has been criticised within academia for being politically conservative as Latour’s works tend to entirely ignore issues surrounding inequalities and exploitation, content instead to simply map actor networks, in contrast with more politically engaged posthuman scholarship from the likes of Felix Guattari or Manuel DeLanda. Perhaps there could have been an interesting dialogue here between T&A’s Latourian positions and the actions and ideologies of animal rights groups or deep ecologists, but again for T&A the left today does not consist of movements of people actually campaigning, occupying, protesting and organising, it simply appears to be a disparate collection of academics.

Put simply, this was what was most frustrating about Arts of the Political, rather than engaging with the broad and varied range of social and ecological activisms which currently exist, the left is reduced to academic thought, whilst the authours proclaim themselves to be engaged in materialist analysis. Perhaps it is simply indicative of the fact that the book’s authors are ageing men living and working in universities who are so totally detached from the actual practices of the left wing groups they claim to represent that they are barely able to acknowledge their existence. Indeed, Thrift has seen protests and occupations from students at Warwick surrounding his astronomical pay increases as Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick over the past couple of years (from 2011 to 2013 Thrift’s salary has increased from £238,000 to £316,000 at a time when tuition fees have tripled for his institution’s students). That as a background perhaps helps explain why the actually existing left is almost entirely absent from T&A’s exploration of left wing politics.

In the following chapters where T&A discuss organisation, there is a mixture of some interesting thoughts surrounding ecology, using Stengers, Deleuze and Guattari, to consider the notion of ‘addressing the political as an ecology of spatial practices’ p133 alongside a consideration of the organisation of the EU as a potentially fruitful model for the left, as it involves multiple parties across different scales having to cooperate. Such a politics of pragmatic cooperation could of course be understood as a mainstay of anticapitalist politics since the 1990s – the alter-globalisation movement and its manifestations within the world social forum, the peoples global assembly and Indymedia all sought to embody a politics of the multiple, as theorised by Hardt and Negri, and similar claims could be made regarding the anti-war movement, climate change activism and Occupy. But in keeping with their refusal to actually engage with left wing movements, we instead get a lionisation of the EU at a time where elements of the actually existing left are campaigning against the EU’s proposed free trade deal with the US which would effectively allow corporations to sue governments using secret panels to bypass parliaments.

This is a shame, as some of theoretical material around affect, space and that relating to the need to build positive visions of a left wing future articulated by T&A are in places very strong. The central argument that the left needs to find a way to escape what Mark Fisher has called Capitalist Realism, the notion that neoliberalism is the only possible game in town (with the alternative being an eco-apocalypse), is undoubtedly correct, and the politicisation of affect and the reorientation of politics towards an ecology of ethical practices are both concepts worth pursuing. However, they require consideration in relation to the actual practices of political movements, rather than simply as abstract theoretical constructs.

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This is a brief write-up of a talk I gave at the Cube Microplex last night as part of a night co-organised by Permanent Culture Now, Bristol Indymedia and Bristol Radical Film Festival. The night itself was an interesting mix, with the film This Land is Our Land kicking things off, followed by my inchoate ramblings, and Mike from PCN reading a text about commons, sustainability and land.

Whilst This Land is Our Land presents a really useful introduction to the notion of the commons, demarcating a range of types of commons ranging from communally managed land, through to ‘natural resources’ such as air and water, to public services and the Internet – I think that it’s worth taking a step back and considering whether or not classifying these phenomena as the same thing is really all that useful. Whilst they all are not forms of private property, they do exhibit some differing characteristics that are worth further explication.

The first mode of commons I’d like to discuss is the model of common land – what we could think of as a pre-industrial mode of commons, albeit one which still exists today through our shared ownership and access to things like air. Land which was accessible for commoners to graze cattle or sheep, or to collect firewood or cut turf for fuel. Anyone had access to this communal resource and there was no formal hierarchical management of the common land – no manager or boss who ensured that no one took too much wood or had too many sheep grazing on the land (although there did exist arable commons where lots were allocated on an annual basis). So access and ownership of this communal resource was distributed, management was horizontal rather than hierarchical, but access effectively depended upon geographical proximity to the site in question.

A second mode of commons is that of the public service, which we could conceptualise as an industrial model of commonwealth. For example consider the example of the National Health Service in the UK: unlike common land, this was a public service designed to operate on a national scale, for the common good of the approximately 50 million inhabitants of the UK. In order to manage such a large scale, industrial operation, logic dictated that a strict chain of managerial hierarchy be established to run and maintain the health service – simply leaving the British population to self-organise the health service would undoubtedly have been disastrous.

This appear to be a case which supports the logic later espoused by Garret Hardin in his famed 1968 essay the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby Hardin, an American ecologist forcefully argued that the model of the commons could only be successful in relatively small-scale endeavours, and that within industrial society this would inevitably lead to ruin, as individuals sought to maximise their own benefit, whilst overburdening the communal resource. Interestingly, Hardin’s central concern was actually overpopulation, and he argued in the essay that ‘The only way we can preserver and nurture other, more precious freedoms, is by relinquishing the freedom to breed.’ Years later he would suggest that it morally wrong to give aid to famine victims in Ethopia as this simply encouraged overpopulation.

More recent developments, however, have shown quite conclusively that Hardin was wrong: the model of the commons is not doomed to failure in large-scale projects. In part this is due to the fact that Hardin’s model of the commons was predicated on a complete absence of rules – it was not a communally managed asset, but a free-for-all, and partially this can be understood as a result of the evolution of information processing technologies which have revolutionised the ways in which distributed access, project management and self-organisation can occur. This contemporary mode of the commons, described by Yochai Benler and others as commons-led peer production, or by other proponents simply as peer-to-peer(P2P) resembles aspects of the distributed and horizontal access characteristic of pre-modern commons, but allows access to these projects on a nonlocal scale.

Emblematic of P2P process has been the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons movement. FOSS projects often include thousands of workers who cooperate on making a piece of software which is then made readily available as a form of digital commons, unlike proprietary software which seeks to reduce access to a good whose cost of reproduction is effectively zero. In addition to the software itself, the source code of the program is made available, crucially meaning that other can examine, explore, alter and improve upon existing versions of FOSS. Popular examples of FOSS include WordPress – which is now used to create most new websites as it allows users with little technical coding ability to create complex and stylish participatory websites – the web browsers Firefox and Chrome, and the combination of Apache (web server software) and Linux (operating system) which together form the back end for most of the servers which host World Wide Web content.

What is really interesting, is that in each of these cases, a commons-led approach has been able to economically outcompete proprietary alternatives – which in each case have had huge sums of money invested into them. The prevailing economic logic throughout industrial culture – that hierarchically organised private companies were most effective and efficient at generating reliable and functional goods was shown to be wrong. A further example which highlights this is Wikipedia, the online open-access encyclopaedia which according to research is not only the largest repository of encyclopaedic knowledge, but for scientific and mathematical subjects is the most detailed and accurate. Had you said 15 years ago that a disparate group of individuals who freely cooperated in their free time over the Internet and evolved community guidelines for moderating content which anyone could alter, would be able to create a more accurate and detailed informational resource than a well-funded established professional company (say Encyclopaedia Brittanica) most economists would have laughed. But again, the ability of people to self-organise over the Internet based on their own understanding of their interests and competencies has been shown to be a tremendously powerful way of organising.

Of course there are various attempts to integrate this type of crowd-sourced P2P model into new forms of capitalism – it would be foolish to think that powerful economic actors would simply ignore the hyper-productive aspects of P2P. But for people interested in commons and alternative ways of organising, a lot can be taken from the successes of FOSS and creative commons.

Now where some this gets really interesting, is in the current moves towards Open Source Hardware (OSH), what is sometimes referred to as maker culture, where we move from simply talking about software, or digital content which can be entirely shared over telecommunications networks. OSH is where the design information for various kinds of device are shared. Key amongst these are 3D printers, things like RepRap, an OSH project to design a machine allowing individuals to print their own 3D objects. Users simply download 3D Computer-Assisted-Design (CAD) files, which they can then customise if they wish, before hitting a print button – just as would print a word document, but the information is sent to a 3D rather than 2D printer. Rather than relying on a complex globalised network whereby manufacturing largely occurs in China, this empowers people to start making a great deal of things themselves. It reduces reliance on big companies to provide the products that people require in day-to-day life and so presents a glimpse of a nascent future in which most things are made locally, using a freely available design commons. Rather than relying on economies of scale, this postulates a system of self-production which could offer a functional alternative which would have notable positive social and ecological ramifications.

Under the current economic situation though, people who contribute to these communities alongside other forms of commons are often not rewarded for the work they put into things, and so have to sell their labour power elsewhere in order to make ends meet financially. Indeed, this isn’t new, capitalism has always been especially bad at remunerating people who do various kinds of work which is absolutely crucial the the functioning of a society – with domestic work and raising children being the prime example. So the question is, how could this be changed so as to reward people for contributing to cultural, digital and other forms of commons?

One possible answer which has attracted a lot of commentary is the notion of a universal basic income. Here the idea is that as all citizens are understood to actively contribute to society via their participation in the commons, everyone should receive sufficient income to subsist – to pay rent, bills, feed themselves and their dependants, alongside having access to education, health care and some form of information technology. This basic income could be supplemented through additional work – and it is likely that most people would choose to do this (not many people enjoy scraping by with the bare minimum) – however, if individuals wanted to focus on assisting sick relatives, contributing to FOSS projects or helping out at a local food growing cooperative they would be empowered to do so without the fear of financial ruin. As an idea it’s something that has attracted interest and support from a spectrum including post-Marxists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri through to liberals such as British Green Party. It certainly seems an idea worth considering, albeit one which is miles away from the Tory rhetoric of Strivers and Skivers.

For more details on P2P check out the Peer to Peer Foundation which hosts a broad array of excellent articles on the subject.

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Cities have long been the pivotal sites of political revolutions, where deeper currents of social and political change are fleshed out. Consequently, they have been the subject of much utopian thinking about alternatives. But at the same time, they are also the centres of capital accumulation, and therefore the frontline for struggles over who has the right to the city, and who dictates the quality and organization of daily life. Is it the developers and financiers, or the people? David Harvey’s Rebel Cities places the city at the heart of both capital and class struggles, looking at locations ranging from Johannesburg to Mumbai, and from New York City to Sao Paulo. By exploring how cities might be reorganized in more socially just and ecologically sane ways, Harvey argues that cities can become the focus for anti-capitalist resistance.

Here’s the audio from Harvey’s Festival of Ideas talk in Bristol this evening. It covers issues around cities, capital accumulation, sub-prime mortgages and the financial crash, Occupy, and how a coalition of the urban dispossessed can form a meaningful alternative to neoliberal hegemony.

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http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/portal/publications/network-notebooks/the-telekommunist/

The telekommunist manifesto is an interesting and inventive re-imagining of the communist manifesto for the network society penned by Dmitri Kleiner. In the age of international telecommunications, global migration and the emergence of the information economy, how can class conflict and property be understood? Drawing from political economy and concepts related to intellectual property, The Telekommunist Manifestois a key contribution to commons-based, collaborative and shared forms of cultural production and economic distribution.

Proposing ‘venture communism’ as a new model for workers’ self-organization, Kleiner spins Marx and Engels’ seminal Manifesto of the Communist Party into the age of the internet. As a peer-to-peer model, venture communism allocates capital that is critically needed to accomplish what capitalism cannot: the ongoing proliferation of free culture and free networks.

In developing the concept of venture communism, Kleiner provides a critique of copyright regimes, and current liberal views of free software and free culture which seek to trap culture within capitalism. Kleiner proposes copyfarleft, and provides a usable model of a Peer Production License alongside a useful critique of Web 2.0 as a capitalist reterritorialisation of the space of possibility for commons based peer production.

Encouraging hackers and artists to embrace the revolutionary potential of the internet for a truly free society, The Telekommunist Manifesto is a political-conceptual call to arms in the fight against capitalism.

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Over the weekend of the 11th and 12th of June I was at BarnCamp, a fun filled weekend of tech activist related tomfoolery organised by the Hacktionlab network. On the Sunday I gave a talk about the Social and Ecological costs of Technology, which was recorded by the Catalyst radio collective, who launched a 24 hours a day seven days a week at BarnCamp. The talks are available for streaming here.

The first talk on the audio stream is on the Luddite movement and the contemporary relevance of their actions ahead of the bicentenary of the Luddite rebellion in 2012, the second is some thoughts on technology, the self and upgrade culture, and my talk is on third, about 35 minutes in.

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There’s a lot of really interesting discussion going on at the moment about the role that social media and online/offline networks have played and are continuing to play in the revolutions which have swept across Tunisia and Egypt and are emerging in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Iran.

Manuel Castells, the Catalan sociologist most famous for his writings on the Network Society, the Information Age and Communication Power is interviewed on the subject by Jordi Rovira for the Open University of Catalonia

The spontaneous social movements in Tunisia and Egypt have caught political analysts on the hop. As a sociologist and communication expert, were you surprised by the ability of the network society in these two countries to mobilise itself?

No, not really. In my book Communication Power, I devote a large part to explaining, on an empirical basis, how changes to communication technologies create new possibilities for the self-organisation and self-mobilisation of society, by-passing the barriers of censorship and repression imposed by the state. The issue clearly isn’t dependent on technology. Internet is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The roots of rebellion lie in exploitation, oppression and humiliation. However, the possibility of rebelling without being quashed immediately depends on the density and speed of mobilisation and that depends on the ability created by the technologies which I have classified as mass self-communication.

Could we consider these popular uprisings as a new turning point in the history and evolution of the internet or should we analyse them as a logical, albeit extremely important, consequence of the implementation of the Net in the world?

These popular insurrections in the Arab world constitute a turning point in the social and political history of humanity. And perhaps the most important of the internet-led and facilitated changes in all aspects of life, society, the economy and culture. And this is just the start. The movement is picking up speed, despite Internet being an old technology, and deployed for the first time in 1969.

Young Egyptians have played a key role in the popular uprisings, thanks to the use of new technology. However, according to the calculations of Issandr El Amrani, an independent political analyst in Cairo, only a quarter of Egyptians have internet access. Do you feel that this situation may – in his words, create a divide in these countries between those with access and those without access – one that is even greater than that in developed countries?

This figure is already out-of-date. Around 40% of Egyptians over 16 have internet access, if we consider not just private homes but also cybercafés and places of study, according to a recent 2010 study by the information company Ovum. And this figure rises to around 70% among young urban dwellers. Also, according to recent figures, 80% of the urban adult population has internet access via their mobile. And, in any case, in a country of some 80 million, even a quarter, which is double among young city dwellers, according to the oldest sources, this means millions of people on the streets. Not all of Egypt has demonstrated, but enough have to create a sense of unity and bring down the dictator. The story of the digital divide regarding access is old, untrue today and boring because it’s based on an ideological predisposition, among intellectuals, of minimising the importance of the internet. There are 2,000 million internet users on the planet and 4,800 million mobile subscribers. Poor people also have mobiles and, although fewer, they have forms of internet access. The real difference lies in broadband and connection quality, and not in access which is spreading faster than any other technology in history.

It would be naive to think that, given the events of recent weeks, those unlawfully holding the reins of power will just stand by with their arms crossed. Nicholas Thompson, social media expert, wrote in The New Yorker that “in Iran, the government was clearly successful to a certain point in using the internet to slow the passage of the green revolution. In Tunisia, the government hacked into the password of almost all the country’s Facebook users. If Ben Ali had not fallen so quickly, that information would have been very useful”. To what extent does power have the necessary tools to quash uprisings started on the Net?

It doesn’t. In Egypt, they even tried to disconnect the whole net but they couldn’t manage it. There were thousands of ways, including telephone land line connections to numbers abroad which automatically converted the messages into twitters and fax messages in Egypt. And the financial cost and functional effort involved in disconnecting the internet is so much that the connection had to be restored extremely quickly. A power cut on the net is like an electricity power cut today. Ben Ali didn’t go that quickly, there was a month of demonstrations and massacres. And in Iran, the internet couldn’t be shut down, with information about the demonstrations and videos of them on You Tube. The difference is that over there, politically speaking, the regime had the power to brutally repress things without causing divisions in the army. However, the seeds of rebellion are there and young Iranians (70% of the population) are now massively against the regime. It’s a question of time.

In Egypt, popular mobilisation via the digital media has created cyber heroes such as Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive. Leaders of uprisings historically led political and social movements from the grass roots, which would then play a key role in the political future, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France or Lech Walesa in Poland, just to give a couple of examples. However, we now have people with important technological knowledge, but often little political baggage. What role do you think these new leaders will play in the future of these countries?

The important thing to remember about wiki-revolutions (self-generating and self-organising ones), is that leadership doesn’t count, they are just symbols. However, these symbols don’t have any power, nobody obeys them and neither would they try. Perhaps later on, when the revolution has become institutionalised, some of these people may be co-opted to be a symbol for change, although I very much doubt that Ghonim wants to be a politician. Cohn-Bendit was just the same, a symbol, not a leader. He was a student and friend of mine in ’68 and was a true anarchist, rejecting leaders’ decisions and using his charisma (the first to be repressed) to help spontaneous mobilisation. Walesa was different, a union Vaticanist, which is why he became a politician so quickly. Cohn-Bendit took a lot longer and even so is still a green at heart who although now elderly, maintains values of respect towards the origins of social movements.

For some years now, Islamic fundamentalist movements have used new technology to promote their causes. The Muslim Brotherhood, which launched its own Wikipedia (Ikhwan Wiki) last year, reasserted that Islamists of all kinds “have exploited the internet to the full, despite the efforts of their adversaries.” This organisation, which could become the main beneficiary of a future election and which links together a great number of people committed to the total application of Islamic law, arouses suspicion among many trained young people who have led this uprising via new technology. How does this paradox make you feel?

Anyone who doesn’t use the internet now for their projects is backwards, with the exception of respectable eco-fundamentalists who write by the light of a candle (generally on a solar-powered computer). Consequently, both Islamists and even terrorists, also use it. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll win elections. To start with, they have been on the margins of recent social movements. And their election predictions in free elections do not get over 20% in any survey. Their organisation and tradition may lend them certain weight, but they do not represent the vast majority of an essentially young movement favouring freedom. They have been used by the regime to shock the world and the United States. It reminds me a little of when Franco used the fear of communism when everyone thought that the communists would secure a high return and then the PCE didn’t get over 10%, although in Catalonia the PSUC enjoyed significantly more support for a short time. Be that as it may, if the military does not keep its promises, if there are no free elections, if the demands of the fundamental working-class struggles unfolding in Egypt are not met, if there is violence against the population, then in that radicalised situation there may be Islamic armed resistance, but not by the middle-class Muslim Brotherhood.

The international media ? which the Egyptian regime tried to censor and even physically attacked ? together with Egyptian citizens who used the digital media, have enabled the shackles of information censorship to be shaken off. Months ago, Wikileaks achieved maximum return on its leaks in uniting the leading presses which published the vast amount of information that it held on its website. Is this alliance between conventional media and new technology the path we should be following in the future if we wish to successfully fight these huge challenges?

Large media corporations have no choice. They either ally with the internet and people’s journalism or they will become marginalised and financially unsustainable. However, that alliance plays a decisive role for social change. Without Al Jazeera there would have been no revolution in Tunisia.

In your article in La Vanguardia entitled Comunicación y revolución from 5 February, you ended by reminding readers that China had prohibited the word Egypt on the internet. Do you think the conditions are right for a popular movement similar to the one sweeping the Arab world to happen in the Asian giant?

No, because 72% of the Chinese support their government, because the urban middle class and mainly young people are extremely busy getting rich and the problems of the peasants and working class, China’s real social problems, are not on their radar. The government is taking excessive precautions, because censoring by system antagonises a lot of people who are not really against it. Democracy in China is not a problem for most people right now, unlike Tunisia and Egypt.

Events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt are yet another example of the inclusion into our daily lives of new forms of communication, such as SMS, blogs, podcasts, RSS, wikis, Twitter and Facebook, which have led to what you term “mass self-communication”, the upshot of developing the web. Can this new type of globalised and atomised communication, fed by the contributions of millions of users, change our way of understanding interpersonal communication or is it just another powerful tool available to us?

It has already changed it. Nobody who is on social networks everyday (and this is true for some 700 million of the 1,200 million social network users) is still the same person. It’s an online/offline interaction, not an esoteric virtual world. How it has changed, how this new type of communication changes it each day is a question to be answered through academic research, not by sitting around gossiping. And that’s where we are now and that’s why we have conducted the Project Internet Catalonia at the UOC.

In December, the German Ministry of the Interior announced the creation of a cybernetic war defence centre to repel spying attacks, while in Tallin (Estonia), in an ultra secret NATO laboratory, leading IT specialists are working to prevent the evolution of conflicts in a world increasingly dependent on the internet. Bearing this in mind and having seen what is happening in the Arab world at the moment, could it be said that cyber attacks will be the war of the future?

They are in fact the war of the present. The United States considers cyber war a priority and has allocated it a budget ten times larger than that of all other countries put together. And in Spain, the armed forces are preparing themselves quickly for the same thing. The internet is the space of power and happiness, of peace and war. It’s the social space of our world, a hybrid space built on the interface between direct experience and experience mediated by communication and, above all, by internet communication.

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Annie Leonard, the creator of the story of stuff has a new short animation out called the story of electronics. It’s well worth watching for a brief overview of some of the ethical imperatives surrounding the material impacts of the electronic equipment whose materiality is often erased by the discourse of virtuality.

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I’ve just been reading a piece by John Vidal on the Guardian Website about the new draft text prepared by the UN Secretariat at the end of their discussions in Bonn over the past couple of weeks

In the piece Vidal states

The new draft text is also guaranteed to infuriate the US, which has so far only pledged to cut its emissions 17% by 2020 on 2005 emission levels – far less than European Union countries who have committed themselves to 20% cuts by 2020 and a 30% cut if other countries show similar ambition. “If this text were to be adopted, then the US would find it particularly difficult. It means they would have to do very much more,” said one European diplomat.

Are pledged cuts of 17% of emissions really ‘far less’ than pledged cuts of 20%? Well if you were getting your information solely from this article you might think perhaps not. What Vidal fails to explain however, is that whereas the US has pledged cuts of 17% of 2005 emissions, the EU figure relates to 1990 levels. As the unlike the EU the US didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, its emissions grew by about 15% between 1990 and 2005, meaning that if they were measured from the same baseline as everyone else in the world – that is their 1990 levels – the cuts the US has pledged amount to a rather pathetic 4% And this will of course include emissions savings from carbon trading and other schemes which are designed to allow developed countries to avoid actually cutting emissions.

Vidal is comparing apples (cuts based on 1990 levels) to oranges (cuts based on 2005 levels) to paint an entirely confusing picture of what is going on and who has pledged what.

Rather ridiculously though, the actual UN text they are referring to is not much clearer on what exactly it proposes

Developed country Parties shall undertake, individually or jointly, legally binding nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions, [including][expressed as] quantified economy-wide emission reduction objectives [while ensuring comparability of efforts and on the basis of cumulative historical responsibility, as part of their emission debt] with a view to reducing the collective greenhouse gas emissions of developed country Parties by [at least] [25–40] [in the order of 30] [40] [45] [49] [X*] per cent from [1990] [or 2005] levels by [2017][2020] [and by [at least] [YY] per cent by 2050 from the[1990] [ZZ] level].

Developed country Parties’ quantified economy-wide emission reduction objectives shall be formulated as a percentage reduction in greenhouse gas emissions [for the period] [from 2013 to 2020]
compared to 1990 or another base year [adopted under the Convention] [, and shall be inscribed in a legally binding agreement].

So the actual UN text seems to suggest that the UN thinks it’s okay for the US to invent a new baseline date for any emission cuts which means that its cuts will be minute compared to those of other developed nations, despite the US per capita emissions figure being far higher than that in Europe and elsewhere. Quite why Vidal and others think that this will infuriate the US is fairly odd, the provision for dates other than 1990 to act as a baseline appears to have been inserted purely to appease the US.

No wonder developing nations are calling this another stitch up along the lines of the Copenhagen Accord. Expecting details such as this to be picked up by the mainstream media when they can’t even give their readers figures based on the same start date seems like wishful thinking though.

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Commonwealth is the third in the series of socio-political analyses from Hardt and Negri which began with Empire (2000) and continued with Multitude (2004). To briefly summarise the series so far; Empire provided an overview of the changes to the structures of power and economic forces from the 1980′s onwards which Hardt and Negri characterise as moving from a nation state dominated imperial system to a globalised networked imperialist power and Multitude subsequently elucidated the emerging forms of networked resistance to the newfound global hegemonic forces of Empire.

Commonwealth seeks to further build upon the work laid out in the first two books through a deeper and more sustained engagement with some of the key concepts originally presented in the first two books, while dealing with some of the most pertinent criticisms leveled at the theoretical frameworks of Empire and the Multitude by other leading left-wing academics and theorists (a point which I will return to later).

Consequently while the book can be read as a stand-alone piece, it certainly helps to have read the prequels which give a thorough contextualisation of where Hardt and Negri are coming from, and also provide far more detailed analyses of the economic background from which they draw the conclusion that since the early 1980′s there has been the beginning of a paradigm shift away from industrial production and towards a form of information-led production which Hardt and Negri argue requires a revised understanding of both power and contemporary forms of resistance.

While throughout the series Hardt and Negri have referred to this newfound mode of production (amongst other things) as biopolitical production – using a term first developed by Foucault – both the Foucaultian orgins of the term and the differences between Foucault and Hardt & Negri’s usages are proscribed in far greater detail in Commonwealth.

Our reading not only identifies biopolitics with the localised productive powers of life – that is, the production of affects and languages through social cooperation and the interaction of bodies and desires, the invention of new forms of the relation to the self and others, and so forth – but also affirms biopolitics as the creation of new sunjectivities that are presented at once as resistance and de-subjectification. If we remain too closely tied to a philological analysis of Foucault’s texts, we might miss this central point: his analysis of biopower are aimed not merely at an empirical description of how power works for and through subjects but also at the potential for the production of alternative subjectivities, thus designating a distinction between qualitatively different forms of power. p59

Crucial to this reading and Hardt and Negri’s reading of biopolitics then is that as a emerging hegemonic form of power in the globalised world, biopolitical production is constantly producing new subjectivities and affects which escape and exceed the capitalist form of value extraction and thus produces newfound alternatives to global capitalism. While they are at pains to stress that this in itself does nothing to guarantee any kind of crisis for capitalism, or that capitalist contradictions and crises necessarily lead to revolution, they do argue forcefully that this opens up new spaces of conflict and resistance and produces alternative possibilities to the current status quo.

As the book’s title suggest, one of the primary focuses of the book is on common wealth, or the commons, again a concept which Hardt and Negri use in Empire and Multitude, but which is explored in far more depth in Commonwealth. Hardt and Negri employ a Deleuzian ontology which combines two traditionally distinct usages of the common, firstly the demarcation of a non-human commons in terms of the ‘natural world’ which is posited as an outside set of resources ripe for expropriation, and also the socially constructed commons, such as language, social bonds, affects, thoughts, and ideas

Wheras the tradition notion poses the common as a natural world outside of society, the biopolitical conception of the common permeates equally all spheres of life referring not only to the earth, the air, the elements, or even plane and animal life but also to the constitutive elements of human society, such as common languages, habits, gestures, affects, codes, and so forth. Whereas for traditional thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau, the formation of society and progress of history inevitably destroy the common, fencing it off as private property, the biopolitical conception emphasises not only preserving the common but also struggling over the conditions of producing it, as well as selecting among its qualities, promoting its beneficial forms, and fleeing its detrimental corrupt forms. We might call this an ecology of the common – an ecology focused equally on nature and society, on humans and the nonhuman world in a dynamic of interdependence, care and mutual transformation. p171

One important way in which Hardt and Negri extend their conception of commonwealth is the caveat that not all common forms of wealth are liberatory and positive. Indeed they contend that many of the ways in which the commons is currently experienced is through what they deem corrupted forms in which commonwealth is partially constrained and thus creates not a resource for all, but a means of exclusion and expropriation which striates the social field and creates hierarchies. Chief among these corrupted forms of the common identified by Hardt and Negri are the nation state, the corporation and the family.

H&N go on to contend that whereas the common is produced through love, which they trace conceptually back to Spinoza’s writings on love and joy arguing that love is what produces cultural forms of commonwealth ‘Every act of love is an ontological event in that it marks a rupture with existing being and creates new being…To say that love is ontologically constitutive then, simply means that it produces the common.’ (p181) However Hardt and Negri go on to warn that

Just like the common itself, love is deeply ambivalent and susceptible to corruption. In fact what passes for love in ordinary discourse and popular culture is predominantly is corrupt forms. The primary locus of this corruption is the shift in love from the common to the same, that is, from the production of the common to the same or a process of unification. p182

As such the identitarian forms of love such as patriotism, racism and certain religious fundamentalisms which are grounded on a love of the same and seek to impose that sameness or unity upon heterogeneous elements they classify as ‘outside’ of their identity. Thus Hardt and Negri characterise these belief systems and structures not as grounded in hatred, but in a form of love, albeit a corrupted form which seeks to reproduce unity and homogeneity rather than the diverse and heterogeneous positive forms of the common. This they define as evil; not evil as in the traditionally transcendent binary which stands diametrically opposed to the category of good, but as instantiations of particular forms of love and the common gone bad. This theortisation of evil,

Gives us a Spinozan explanation for why at times people fight for their servitude as though it were their salvation, why the poor sometimes support dictators, the working classes vote for right wing parties, and abused spouses and children protect their abusers. Such situations are obviously the result of ignorance, fear and superstition, but calling it false consciousness provides meager tools for transformation. Providing the oppressed with the truth and instructing them in their interests does little to change things. People fighting for their servitude is understood better as the result of love and community gone bad, failed and distorted. The first question when confronting evil then, is, what specific love went bad here? What instance of the common has been corrupted? p194

Whilst this does provide a novel approach for understanding why people fight for their servitude as though it were their salvation, one criticism to be made here is that Hardt and Negri are vague as to what kind of social forms they envision replacing ‘corrupted’ forms such as the family and the state, contending instead that these forms are currently unimaginable and must arise out out of the practical experimentation and experience of the multitude. While there is a logic which reflects their political position in refusing to project a teleology of the multitude, the failure to provide alternatives to contemporary corrupt forms of the common is somewhat unnerving, the lack of propositions for constructive alternatives to current systems makes the focus of Hardt and Negri’s theorising primarily negative, seemingly aimed at combating corrupt forms of the common without really suggesting the kind of positive alternatives they wish to see created. Where I found Commonwelath far stronger, was where Hardt and Neri reiterated some of the concrete proposals they first outlined in Empire with the addition of far more nuanced details in arguing for a living wage for all, the removal of the restriction on human movements imposed by state borders and universal open access to the commons in order to

Develop fully and put into practice the multitude’s abilities to think and cooperate with others. Such an infrastructure must include an open physical layer (including access to wires and wireless communications networks), an open logical layer (for instance, code and protocols) and an open content layer (such as cultural, intellectual and scientific works). p308

The criticism of the lack of concrete progressive forms for the multitude with respects to the family and the state feed into the second major current of criticism of their earlier works which Hardt and Negri seek to contest in Commonwealth. The first strand of critique, as advanced by the likes of Pierre Machery and Ernesto Laclau, is the argument that a plural and polyphonic choir such as Hardt and Negri’s conception of the multitude cannot function as a coherent political actor due to its heterogeneous composition. Whereas in the past the figure of the party, the people, or even the state and the nation have functioned in a way to unify differences and mobilise populations to create social transformation, and certain critics have argues that without a similar point of unification the multitude can act only as a cacophony of contradictory voices which cannot act commonly. Hardt and Negri’s retort to this is that

It is true that the organisation of singularities and decision making is not immediate and spontaneous, but that does not mean that hegemony and unification, the formation of a sovereign and unified power – whether it be a state a party or a people – is the necessary precondition for politics. Spontaneity and hegemony are not the only alternatives. The multitude can develop the power to organise itself through the conflictual and cooperative interactions of singularities in the common. p175

The second main line of critique which Hardt and Negri respond to are the arguments brought forth by Paolo Virno, Etienne Balibar, Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, that whilst the multitude may be capable of acting as a political actor – albeit one which substantially differs from traditional forms based around unity – there is no guarantee that the consequences of such a political form would be liberatory and progressive. The actual contents of these critiques of the multitude vary widely, from Virno’s realist position which acknowledges that the formal structure of the muiltitude in now way guarantees the contents of its politics, to Zizek and Badiou’s positions which effectively argue that the multitude is merely an oppositional figure to contemporary character, and that this oppositional resistance can never be more than a mere component of that power from whence it derives, and I find myself giving more credence to Virno’s line of thought than Zizek/Badiou’s.This line of critique is dealt with far less effectively, and while Hardt and Negri do outline some very useful protocols for a liberatory or progressive politics of the multitude, and trace a genealogy of progressive political groups and movements, Virno’s critique in particular seems valid when assessing forms of contemporary networked radical Islamist groups, which exhibit many  structural properties similar to the composition of the multitude, however their ideology exhibits extreme forms of what Hardt and Negri descibe as corrupt forms of love and the common.

On the whole then, Commonwealth provides a useful exploration and expansion of a number of key concepts previously presented by Hardt and Negri, while partially addressing some of the most pertinent criticisms directed at their earlier works. As such it certainly provides interesting points for discussion and reflection for people involved in the various social and ecological movements which have grown out of the alternative globalisation movement, and provides some concrete proposals for an alternative to the current global system alongside some detailed analysis of geo-political and economic developments over the last few years. Personally though, I would recommend most readers new to Hardt and Negri’s work to start with their earlier writings, in particular Multitude, which provides a more accessible point of entry to the writings of two of the contemporary left’s most exciting political theorists.

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So it seems that after a flurry of activity for the climate swoop last week where climate activists met at six strategic locations before converging on Blackheath to set up this year’s Climate Camp the mainstream media have largely lost interest in events.

On the Guardian website today we have bibi van der Zee claiming that ‘Five days in and the campers admit things are a little boring – there are no more toilets to put up and the police have vanished. But a plan for direct action should put the zip back into things’

If you took reports like that seriously you would believe that essentially nothing has been going on at camp since the set up on Wedsnesday and Thursday last week. In fact the site has been awash with activity as the camp has hosted roughly 30-35 workshops a day in addition to the daily neighbourhood meetings.

These workshops have covered everything from creating bicycle powered sound systems to the science of climate change and the current state of geoengineering, from creating your own media to understanding the subtleties of carbon trading schemes, from communicating climate science to lay audiences to building your own wind turbines, from direct action and legal observer training to understanding the links between the arms trade and climate change, from consensus based decision making and direct democracy to creating biochar as a green energy source.

In fact there have been so many disparate workshops, seminars and debates that it would be impossible to to attend more than a fraction of them. Meanwhile, the small amount of mainstream media coverage still focusing on the camp (largely in the Guardian) sees the likes of Van der Zee moaning that the camp has come boring because there aren’t campers being beaten up by the police like at the G20. It truly indicates the sad state of corporate media when even the allegedly left wing papers are interested in issues only so long as they are presented with dramatic images of police attacking protesters.

Somewhat bizarrely in yesterday’s Observer Peter Beaumont claimed that ‘the protesters should spend more time convincing others that their actions are sound,’ it’s hard to understand what he believes the workshops on the science of climate change and the careful efforts of campers to provide factually accurate workshops which clearly delineate why they are involved in protesting around these issues, but somewhat unsurprisingly he fails to mention that any workshops are taking place, instead focusing on what he claims are Climate Camp’s ‘often hazy messages and complex inner negotiations.’ Quite how specifically targetting institutions such as the European Climate Exchange, Barclays Bank and Shell, while holding discussions and workshops which communicate precisely why these targets have been chosen can be understood as ‘hazy’ is somewhat beyond me. In fairness it merely appears to be another case of a lazy journalist writing poorly researched rubbish having been disappointed at the lack of sensationalist images of police fighting with protesters.

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