Resilience = Anarchism = Resilience?

Resilience is often defined as the capacity for self-organization, which in essence is cooperation without hierarchy. In turn, such cooperation implies mutuality; reciprocation, mutual dependence. This is what the French politician, philo-sopher, economist and socialist “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had in mind when he first used the term ‘anarchism,’ namely, mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule” (1).

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As renowned Yale Professor James Scott explains in his latest bookTwo Cheers for Anarchism, “Forms of informal cooperation, coordination, and action that embody mutuality without hierarchy are the quotidian experience of most people.” To be sure, “most villages and neighborhoods function precisely be-cause of the informal, transient networks of coordination that do not require formal organization, let alone hierarchy. In other words, the experience of anar-chistic mutuality is ubiquitous. The existence, power and reach of the nation-state over the centuries may have undermined the self-organizing capacity (and hence resilience) of individuals and small communities.” Indeed, “so many functions that were once accomplished by mutuality among equals and informal coordination are now state organized or state supervised.” In other words, “the state, arguably, destroys the natural initiative and responsibility that arise from voluntary cooperation.”

This is goes to the heart what James Scott argues in his new book, and he does so  in a very compelling manner. Says Scott: “I am suggesting that two centuries of a strong state and liberal economies may have socialized us so that we have largely lost the habits of mutuality and are in danger now of becoming precisely the dangerous predators that Hobbes thought populated the state of nature. Leviathan may have given birth to its own justification.” And yet, we also see a very different picture of reality, one in which solidarity thrives and mutual-aid remains the norm: we see this reality surface over & over during major disasters—a reality facilitated by mobile technology and social media networks.

Recall Jürgen Habermas’s treatise that “those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increas-ingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the right of that public.” One of the main instruments for synchronization is what the military refers to as “shared awareness.” As my colleague Clay Shirky notes in his excellent piece on The Political Power of Social Media, “shared awareness is the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also under-stand that everyone else does, too. Social media increase shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks.” Moreover, while “Opinions are first transmitted by the media,” they are then “echoed by friends, family mem-bers, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference.”

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In 1990, James Scott published Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, in which he distinguishes between public and hidden transcripts. The former describes the open, public interactions that take place between dominators and oppressed while hidden transcripts relate to the critique of power that “goes on offstage” and which the power elites cannot decode. This hidden transcript is comprised of the second step described above, i.e., the social conversations that ultimately change political behavior. Scott writes that when the oppressed classes publicize this “hidden transcript”, they become conscious of its common status. Borrowing from Habermas, the oppressed thereby become a public and more importantly a synchronized public. Social media is the metronome that can synchronize the collective publication of the hidden trans-cript, yielding greater shared awareness that feeds on itself, thereby threatening the balance of power between Leviathan and now-empowered and self-organized mutual-aid communities.

I have previously argued that social media and online social networks also can and do foster social capital, which increases capacity for self-organization and renders local communities more resilient & independent, thus sowing the seeds for future social movements. In other words, habits of mutuality are not all lost and the Leviathan may still face some surprisesAs Peter Kropotkin observed well over 100 years ago in his exhaustive study, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, cooperation and mutual aid are the most important factors in the evolution of species and their ability to survive. “There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense… Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.” 

Sociability is the tendency or property of being social, of interacting with others. Social media, meanwhile, has become the media for mass social interaction; enabling greater volumes of interactions than at any other time in human history. By definition, these mass social interactions radically increase the probability of mutuality and self-organization. And so, as James Scott puts it best, Two Cheers for Anarchism

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4 responses to “Resilience = Anarchism = Resilience?

  1. Good to see more thoughts on the potential implications of social media on political and societal issues! I think an important opportunity is the increased geographical scope and reach offered by social media. The practice of mutualism was confined to local communities, thereby greatly limiting its reach. Nowadays, communities and thereby creation of social capital and mutualism are less constrained geographically. Granted, in the case of most natural hazards and crisis events, any mutuality, cooperation and self-organization has to be mainly localized. However, the SBTF shows that self-organization beyond geographic boundaries of communities is possible. Cheers!

  2. The opposite of this kind of anarchy-as-mutuality is of course the anomie of modern society. As people moved from fixed, long term and mutually understood relations in the countryside to the “anarchic” urban areas, they left behind the understandings and mutuality. So as the world becomes ever more urban and mobile that mutuality of expectations becomes ever more difficult. Can social media rebuild that? Or is the anonymity and loss of face to face contact of many media tools also going to undermine the mutuality, except perhaps in exceptional circumstances, such as a major disaster?

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m an optimist. Social media is social, and we are inherently social beings. The latest statistics from Meetup.com:

      Members = 13.34 million
      Meetup Groups = 124,011
      Countries = 196
      Monthly Meetups = 384,839

      Also, speaking from direct experience, the strong bonds that I have formed with fellow digital humanitarians over the years are absolutely comparable to bonds formed offline. I would further suggest that anonymity has not disappeared. Take Facebook’s 1.2 billion users, for example. As per FB’s ToS, users must use their actual identity (for better or worse). Ultimately, I think this boils down to a design question. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the mutuality developed during disasters does not all of a sudden disappear when other challenges arise in society. Quite on the contrary, it accumulates. As per the link I pointed to in my blog post:

      How Civil Disobedience Improves Crowdsourced Disaster Response (and Vice Versa)
      http://iRevolution.net/2012/08/22/civil-resistance-improve-disaster-response

  3. Pingback: Dependance a factor of weakening | Marcus' s Space

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