05 February 2013

Spontaneous order on the left?

In intellectual circles Evgeny Morozov has carved a niche for himself as the great debunker of the notion that the Internet is an irresistible or infallible tool for undermining authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, or any government you choose to pejoratize. It's really and sadly easy for Morozov to point out all the ways that political and corporate authority can control or at least co-opt information technology. Lucratively for him, idealists and optimists continue to publish books of hopeful predictions that he can shoot down. A book by Steven Johnson, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, is the latest occasion for Morozov to rain on the IT parade. His review appears in the current New Republic, where it intriguingly echoes some of the ideas about the relative effectiveness of activism and electoral politics expressed in the same pages. Morozov actually name-checks Sean Wilentz, the writer I identify most with an attempted principled defense of hierarchical, disciplined partisanship as the most effective means of liberal/progressive reform. Reviewing Future Perfect gives Morozov an opportunity to scoff at the anti-hierarchical, decentralist biases of Steven Johnson and other IT activists, but he also appears to be affirming something in what may be the house style of The New Republic, regardless of the magazine's management.

From Morozov's account, Steven Johnson seems to hold up the Internet and its interactive principle as a model for social and political organization. Johnson is said to argue that the Internet proves that "participatory, decentralized, and leaderless" institutions solve problems more efficiently than centralized, hierarchical structures. He appears to offer Kickstarter as a model for government problem-solving, noting that it raises more money for artists than the National Endowment for the Arts. Morozov's response to this is partly predictable, noting the actual limits to meaningful participation at Wikipedia, for instance. He claims that "Johnson cannot account for the background power conditions and inequalities that structure the environment into which his bright reform ideas are introduced," and that "Once those background conditions are factored in, it becomes far less obvious that increasing decentralization and participation is always desirable." This is part of a larger point that takes Morozov into the realm of political philosophy.

What if some limits to democratic participation in the pre-Wikipedia era were not just a consequence of high communication costs but stemmed from a deliberate effort to root out populism, prevent cooptation, or protect expert decision making? In other words, if some public institutions eschewed wider participation for reasons that have nothing to do with the ease of connectivity, isn't the Internet a solution to a problem that doesn't exist?

He adds: "Can't the lowering of barriers to participation also paralyze the system?" Populism seems to be a paralyzing factor, though Morozov isn't clear about what he means by that slippery term. He may seem anti-democratic for not endorsing "wider participation" as a good unto itself, especially when Johnson endorses some sort of anti-partisan "liquid democracy" that ideally minimizes the gatekeeping role of intermediary institutions like political parties. Morozov must look like a killjoy to some. But leaving aside his defense of partisanship for the moment, let's point out, as Morozov was a good enough sport not to, the alarming resemblance of Johnson's anti-hierarchical, anti-institutional ideas, for all that Johnson himself appears to be a man of the "Left," to the "spontaneous order" idealized by the libertarian "Right." Spontaneous order is theoretically founded on the more thorough exchange of information in a decentralized environment than is believed possible in a "top-down" hierarchy. While Johnson, unlike libertarians, apparently doesn't see government itself as an impediment to spontaneous order, he does seem, when seen through Morozov's eyes, to believe that government itself can become more effective by incorporating spontaneous-order principles. While libertarians often act as if politics itself violates spontaneous order, Johnson appears to promote a political form of spontaneous order with the idea of enhancing participatory democracy.  What could be wrong with that?

Morozov doesn't seem to believe in a benign spontaneous order in any sphere of human activity. He endorses the belief that "hierarchies are bound to emerge anyway, and that pretending that they do not exist [as he assumes Johnson would] simply lets unacknowledged leaders escape accountability." Conventional electoral politics, and presumably conventional partisanship, establish accountability by allowing people to confer responsibility on specific individuals and groups. These forces may also provide security for expertise against "populist" impulses; it would be in keeping with The New Republic's capital-P Progressive heritage to defend rule by experts. But Morozov also seems to prefer a more indirect democracy for deeper reasons. "[T]he rhythms and rituals of old-school politics do not stem merely from inferior technologies," he writes, "but rather reflect assumptions about human nature, power, and justice...what might seem like inefficiencies or gaps in participation or transparency might, on second look, prove to be the very democracy-enabling protective tissues that allow liberal societies to function." He distrusts a "totalizing" tendency in Johnson's "Internet-centrism" while warning that in politics "some problems (even at the city level) can only be mitigated -- never solved -- through bargaining, because those problems emerge from competing interests, not knowledge gaps." His implication is that Johnson's "post-ideological" attitude might prove more intolerant of disagreement, though we might also ask whether the competition among interests results at least partly from "knowledge gaps." It isn't clear at first glance whether Johnson's ideal is really less conducive to "bargaining," but Morozov may just have an axe to grind, as Sean Wilentz does, against people who seem to resent the necessity of bargaining. He shares Wilentz's disparagement of leftists who show any "antipathy to hierarchies and leaders," insisting that "Without well-organized, centralized, and hierarchical structures to push back against entrenched interests, attempts to make politics more participatory might stall and further disempower the weak." The question remains whether those structures can be trusted to push back when we need them to, without becoming entrenched interests themselves. Whether the Internet's alleged tendencies will make a difference here remains to be seen, though Morozov's skepticism seems more reasonable than Johnson's idealism. But if Morozov's skepticism, like Wilentz's toward activism in general, only encourages acquiescence in Bipolarchy, I'll still be open to the idealists' suggestions. 

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