Kevin Carson on alternative avenues to the failed statist means of checking and balancing.

5 Mar 2010 | P2P Foundation

I believe that the growing fiscal crisis of the state, and the growing tendency toward high unemployment and underemployment becoming a norm, will have two long-term results:  first, the production of a growing share of value in the informal economy in place of its purchase with wages; and second, the decoupling of the social safety net from both the welfare state and wage employment.

Getting from here to there will involve a fundamental paradigm shift in how most people think, and the overcoming of centuries worth of ingrained habits of thought.  This involves a paradigm shift from what James Scott, in Seeing Like a State, calls social organizations that are primarily “legible” to the state, to social organizations that are primary legible or transparent to the people of local communities organized horizontally and opaque to the state.

The latter kind of architecture, as described by Kropotkin, was what prevailed in the networked free towns and villages of late medieval Europe.  The primary pattern of social organization was horizontal (guilds, etc.), with quality certification and reputational functions aimed mainly at making individuals’ reliability transparent to one another.  To the state, such local formations were opaque.

With the rise of the absolute state, the primary focus became making society transparent from above, and horizontal transparency was at best tolerated.  Things like the systematic mapping of urban addresses for postal service, the systematic adoption of family surnames that were stable across generations (and the 20th century followup of citizen ID numbers), etc., were all for the purpose of making society transparent to the state.

Before this transformation, for example, surnames existed mainly for the convenience of people in local communities, so they could tell each other apart.  Surnames were adopted on an ad hoc basis for clarification, when there was some danger of confusion, and rarely continued from one generation to the next.  If there were multiple Johns in a village, they might be distinguished by trade (”John the Miller”), location (”John of the Hill”), patronymic (”John Richard’s Son”), etc.  By contrast, everywhere there have been family surnames with cross-generational continuity, they have been imposed by centralized states as a way of cataloging and tracking the population—making it legible to the state, in Scott’s terminology.2

To accomplish a shift back to horizontal transparency, it will be necessary to overcome a powerful residual cultural habit, among the general public, of thinking of such things through the mind’s eye of the state.  E.g., if “we” didn’t have some way of verifying compliance with this regulation or that, some business somewhere might be able to get away with something or other.

We need a shift in focus toward creating reputational and quality assessment mechanisms on a networked basis, to make us as transparent as possible to each other as providers of goods and services—and not legible to an all-seeing state.  In fact, the creation of such mechanisms may well require active measures to render us opaque to the state (e.g. encryption, darknets, etc.) for protection against attempts to suppress such local economic self-organization against the interests of corporate actors.

To do this requires overcoming six hundred years or so of almost inbred habits of thought, by which the state is the all-seeing guardian of society protecting us from the possibility that someone, somewhere might do something wrong if “the authorities” don’t prevent it.  We need to replace it with a habit of thinking in terms of ourselves creating mechanisms to prevent each other from selling defective merchandise, protecting ourselves from fraud, etc.  In other words, we need to lose the centuries-long habit of thinking of “society” as a hub-and-spoke mechanism and viewing the world from the perspective of the hub, and instead think of it as a horizontal network in which we visualize things from the perspective of individual nodes.  We need to lose the habit of thought by which transparency from above ever even became perceived as an issue in the first place.

This will require, more specifically, overcoming the hostility of conventional liberals who are in the habit of reacting viscerally and negatively, and on principle, to anything not being done by “qualified professionals” or “the proper authorities.”

Arguably conventional liberals, with their thought system originating as it did as the ideology of the managers and engineers who ran the corporations, government agencies, and other giant organizations of the late 19th and early 20th century, have played the same role for the corporate-state nexus that the politiques did for the absolute states of the early modern period.

This is reflected in a common thread running through writers like Andrew Keene, Joran Lanier, and Chris Hedges, through the occasional offering by Thomas Frank at The Baffler, and through documentary producers like Michael Moore.  They share a nostalgia for the “consensus capitalism” of the early postwar period, in which the gatekeepers of the Big Three controlled what we were allowed to see and it was just fine for GM to own the whole damned economy—just so long as everyone had a lifetime employment guarantee and a U.A.W. contract.

Paul Fussell, in Bad, ridicules the whole Do-it-Yourself ethos as an endless Sahara of the Squalid, with blue collar shmoes busily uglifying their homes by taking upon themselves projects that should be left to—all together now—the Properly Qualified  Professionals.

Keith Olbermann routinely mocks exhortations to charity and self-help, reaching for shitkicking imagery of the nineteenth century barnraiser for want of any other comparison to sufficiently get across just how backward and ridiculous that kind of thing really is.  Helping your neighbor  out directly, or participating in a local self-organized friendly society or mutual, is all right in its own way, if nothing else is available.  But it carries the inescapable taint, not only of the quaint, but of the provincial and picayune—very much like the perception of homemade bread and home-grown veggies promoted in corporate advertising in the early twentieth century, come to think of it.  People who help each other out, or organize voluntarily to pool risks and costs, are to be praised—grudgingly and with a hint of condescension—for doing the best they can in an era of relentlessly downscaled social services.  But that people are forced to resort to such expedients, rather than meeting all their social safety net needs through one-stop shopping at the Ministry of Central Services office in a giant monumental building with a statue of winged victory in the lobby, a la Brazil, is a damning indictment of any civilized society.  The progressive society is a society of comfortable and well-fed citizens, competently managed by properly credentialed authorities, happily milling about like ants in the shadows of miles-high buildings that look like they were designed by Albert Speer.  And that kind of H.G. Wells utopia simply has no room for the barn-raiser or the sick benefit society.

Aesthetic sensibilities aside, such critics are no doubt motivated to some extent by genuine concern that networked reputational and certifying mechanisms just won’t take up the slack left by the disappearance of the regulatory state.   Things like Consumer Reports, Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau are all well and good, for educated people like themselves who have the sense and know-how to check around.  But Joe Sixpack, God love him, will surely go out and buy magic beans from the first disreputable salesman he encounters—and then likely put them right up his nose.

But seriously, practical questions concerning the feasibility of such a shift from state certification to networked reputational  certification systems are entirely legitimate.   Reputational systems really are underused, and most people really do take undue caution in the marketplace on the assumption that the regulatory state guarantees some minimum acceptable level of quality.

And as Michel Bauwens pointed out by email, the sudden implosion of the state and its certification mechanisms results in disaster unless there’s something in place to fill the vacuum.  The corporation and the central state have so crowded out social mechanisms, and so atrophied civil society, that there’s good reason to worry about how people will take up the slack as the old corporate-state system fades away.

But I think this seems like more of a danger when we take a static view of society.  It also helps to keep in mind that the collapse of the state-corporate system will probably not be sudden or catastrophic, but rather a generation-long process.  Given chronic underemployment and the imperative of networking in the social economy to prevent homelessness and starvation, the pressures to develop such networked mechanisms will be steady and consistent over time.  At the same time, network technologies are making such organization more user-friendly with each passing year.

I think people will be capable of changing their habits quite rapidly in the face of necessity.  Because people are not presently in the habit of automatically consulting such reputational networks to check up on people they’re considering doing business with, and are in the habit of unconsciously assuming the government will protect them, conventional liberals assume that people will not shift from one to the other in the face of changing incentives, and scoff at the idea of a society that relies primarily on networked rating systems.

But in a society where people are aware that most licensing and safety/quality codes are no longer enforceable, and “caveat emptor” is no longer just a cliche, it would be remarkable if things like Angie’s list, reputational certification by local guilds, customer word of mouth, etc., did not rapidly grow in importance for most people. They were, after all, at one time the main reputational mechanism that people did rely on before the rise of the absolute state, and as ingrained a part of ordinary economic behavior as reliance on the regulatory state is today.

In a society with rapid shortening of supply and industrial chains, of community re-industrialization through microfactories, of local production of ever larger shares of food and clothing, it would be remarkable if “friend of a friend” reputational systems didn’t regulate people’s choice of business ties.

Fifteen years ago, when even the most basic survey of a research topic began with an obligatory painful crawl through the card catalog, Reader’s Guide and Social Sciences Index—and when the average person’s investigations were limited to the contents of his $1000 set of Britannica pending a visit to the library—who could have foreseen how quickly Google and SSRN searches would become second nature?

Kevin Carson is a research associate at the Center for a Stateless Society, contemporary mutualist author and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy and Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective. Mr. Carson has also written for a variety of internet-based journals and blogs, including Just Things, The Art of the Possible, the P2P Foundation and his own Mutualist Blog.

  1. […] From the Regulatory State to Voluntary Certification Networks … […]

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