Just a random thought before making dinner. I often find myself reflecting on Book IV of Plato’s Republic and how he cautions against the city becoming too large. What is the problem, I wonder, with a large city? In the context in which Plato was writing, I suspect the problem was one of the materiality of media. To form a collective, the elements that make up your collective must be able to relate to one another. In Plato’s context, these relations can be forged by sound-waves/speech or writing. Sound-waves dissipate quickly in the air or medium through which they travel, and as we all know from the game of “telephone”, messages transmitted by speech quickly undergo random variation becoming something quite different than what they first were. As a consequence, it becomes difficult to form a collective out of a large and geographically separated population based on speech alone. Your collective can only grow to a certain size when it’s based on the medium of speech/sound-waves.
Things fare better with writing. It is durable so the message is preserved allowing for collective identify formation (cf. Anderson). The problem in this historical context is that only a small portion of the population is literate and writing is both expensive and a rare skill. Following Derrida and ethnologists such as Vernant, I accept the thesis that writing– in its sheer materiality (not content) –fundamentally transformed social relations, making things like formal law, the idea of universal justice (i.e., the indelibility of temple inscriptions and marks), mathematics, philosophy, science, and so on possible; but the problem was that given the institutional infrastructure pertaining to matters like education, writing just couldn’t travel far. It was restricted to an elite few that learned how to read and who could afford writings. If, then, Plato is led to defend the thesis that cities (collectives) shouldn’t grow beyond a certain size, then this is based on a claim about the materiality of media that dominate in his historical context: speech. The material features of that medium prevent certain forms of social relation from emerging.
This is the major argument against anarchism. Anarchism, the argument runs, works well in small tribal communities where everyone speaks to everyone else and knows everyone else, but when collectives reach a particular size this sort of communist form of relation can no longer function because there’s too much separation among the elements (people) that compose the collective. We require a party or a state to manage social relations because of limitations communicative possibilities. In other words, the argument is that the Party and the State are mediums. The Party, for example, is a centralized agency that observes what is going on throughout the world and transmits it to people that are communicatively disconnected from one another and who are unable to see all that is going on throughout the world. Parties are necessary in the same way that we once required telephone operators to connect people with one another. The argument is the same with the defense of the State. The State and the Party see and relate, the thesis runs, where we cannot. Due to limitations on connectability, we need a central eye that will both gather information and distribute it, coordinating action among those that cannot see. While the Party and the State might be problematic because often they come to function in such a way as to only promote their continued existence and not the interests of those they claim to represent, this is nonetheless an evil we must accept– the argument runs –because we need this medium, this angel or daimon, this intermediary, to relate and coordinate that which is unrelated. In other words, the necessity of the State and the Party are utilitarian and pragmatic, based implicitly on considerations of connectability. A Party is not the “position of the analyst”– how could something occupy the position of the analyst outside the clinic? –but is a medium of relation or connection.
The question is whether or not this medium or telephonic switchboard is still necessary in our current historical moment. The dominance of Party and State politics takes place in material conditions where some medium of relation is required to connect that which is geographically separated. It could be that historical conditions have changed due to the material possibilities opened by various technologies. There were already glimmers of this decades ago during the revolutions of the 60’s, where Party apparatus failed to side with the transformations taking place, actively fighting against them, because they didn’t accord with the ideology of the Party and spoke to issues that both pertained to class politics, economics, and a whole range of issues that simply couldn’t be understood within a traditional Marxist (not Marx) framework. Yet in the activism of OWS, the events in Greece, and the Arab Spring, we’ve also seen the emergence of an acephalous (non-party, non-vanguard, politics) that doesn’t pass through the medium of a party. This is also the first form of politics that has made significant change in the social field in decades… Without the mediation of a medium like the vanguard. Have these movements gone as far as we’d like? No. Have they introduced entirely new possibilities in social assemblages? Absolutely.
The tenor of these politics has been anarchist through and through insofar as they haven’t relied on either the Party or the State. They’ve eschewed the microfascists that would subordinate liberty to the mission of a Party that aims only to perpetuate its own continued existence. They’ve challenged the State in all contexts. They’ve instead set about creating alternatives or engaging in what I call “terraformation”. What is it that’s made this possible? I suspect that part of the answer is that the conditions of information exchange– at the material level alone –have become such that it’s now possible to coordinate action and form collectives among those that are geographically separated. In other words, with the new technologies the Party and the State are no longer needed as a medium of communication and coordination. The objects– transatlantic cables, satellites, smart phones, the internets, and so on –have made a difference in what is materially possible and what we’re increasingly witnessing is the possibility of anarchism or a truly communistic society. Indeed, with the rise of “big data” technologies (thanks Nick Srnicek), we’re now even in the position to respond to the capitalist arguments regarding distribution and production, because we’ve developed a technological framework capable of solving the problems of “planned economy” without the mediation of the invisible hand of the market. We now learn that we no longer need a vangard to educate and discipline the rest of us dopes– we wish the folks who defend such things would attend to Lacan and D&G on the desire for authority and charismatic leaders; but they’re too busy dismissing these worries as “neoliberal” conspiracies –but can now begin to engage in truly communistic (common/democratic) formations of social relations. The city, under these conditions, can become much larger but it also requires us to recognize that infrastructure is a political issue.