Self-Organising Systems and the Struggle Against Utopia
The following notes are offered as initial speculative comments on the nature of and extent to which systems observed in the natural world might offer constructive insights regarding libertarian-communist approaches to self-organisation, encompassing the underpinning possibilities for the sharing, and refinement of human ideas and practices regarding both bread-and-butter issues such as resource production and allocation, and modes of "gemeinwesen" (community).
Some readers might complain of the lack of a 'programme' in these notes. This is a deliberate omission on our part, as these observations are made from an explicitly non- or anti-Utopian perspective, on the basis that where human activity is concerned, the roles of contingency and flexibility are axiomatic. We view with suspicion the reduction of sociological, economic and behavioural theory to invariant laws, such as economic modelling or 'primatological variation'. Consistent with this, we are equally inimical to the political variant of this inflexibility of thought, as demonstrated by political ideologies such as Bolshevism or anarchism.
We perceive the apparent non-falsifiability of this approach in the present world of lies, where the process of acculturation imposed by capitalism posits that its own 'logic' has the status of a natural law. This absurdity, arrogance, and mendacity cannot be challenged by an equally ossified form of contestation. Despite this, we are aware that our insistence on the primacy and value of unpredictability pre-supposes a 'closed-system rule' for future societies of an absence of the exchange-economy, hierarchy, and false representation of the world.
With that in mind, and always aware of how changes to social experience under capital might play out in communism, we attempt a very basic contextualisation of the Net as an entity whose capabilities lend itself to systems analysis, according to two key categories, namely, emergence and self-organisation, discussed below.
The situation we are in intensifies, qualitatively alters, and goes beyond the alienation described by Marx, in that what comes back to confront us is both an alienation of our activity and a representation of this alienation, as a commodified version of ourselves as consumers as well as producers. Under existing conditions, the Net is central to the process of spectacular misrepresentation, enforcement and development of spurious norms, and the elision of the distinction between work and leisure. However, as technological medium pure and simple, the Net has the potential to facilitate struggle and encourage parity of communication.
Emergence and Self-Organisation
At its simplest, emergence describes (1) "the phenomenon where global behaviour arises from the interaction between local parts of the system" , which is general enough to cover many phenomena, in this case both the Net and international communism. Emergence throws up some useful questions for consideration by the global communist movement.
The aggregate of individual social groups (defined on the basis of members' mutual affinity), creates) a 'total' identity, or, to put it another way, a network of 'sub-networks' creates a 'meta-network', 'meta-zone', or overall system. In this arrangement, the identity of the global collectivity is defined as the sum, greater than its parts, of its constituent elements. This is desirable in social and cultural terms, in encouraging particularity and diversity, and being opposed to a hierarchical arrangement implied by pure centralism. However, it does not obviate the usefulness of a central administrative function, which would be limited to carrying out certain activities, such as:
• The coordination of resource needs data from individual zones or sub-systems.
• The responsive fulfilment of these needs via communication with and allocation of resources from other zones.
• The creation, maintenance, and expansion of a data bank of good practice.
• Enabling autonomous production by zones, as appropriate.
The central function would not only coordinate and serve its constituent parts, but would reflect back to them the totality of the organism of which each zone formed a part.(2) Even without the possibility of analysing the development of the whole system, its identity is already potentially knowable, with reference to the behaviours of its constituents as contributing elements, even though such behaviours may remain unknown on a case-by-case basis.
Complexity theory, regarded as a form of 'neo-emergence', seeks to correct a key feature of 'traditional' emergence, namely that one cannot understand the means by which emergence itself brings new phenomena into being as outputs or 'emergents'. As a minimum, we need to ask ourselves what the primary drivers are for human activity. Does it cluster around 'attractors'? If so, is the force of attraction necessarily stronger in relation to a factor bearing on the survival of the individual, and through the totality of individuals, the species?
There are other features of emergence that are of interest to us, namely the given relationship between the micro-zones and the macro-zone (the global human collectivity). The defining properties of the system derive from the macro-entity, composed of, and greater than, the activities of the micro-elements. These properties are the 'emergents', which in complexity terms, can change over time, as the practices and needs of individual collectivities will generate new attractors. These will in turn change the identity of the macro-entity.
Emergent systems do not imply a top-down arrangement, where the macro 'rules' or 'dictates'. In ontological terms, they would incline to a contrary arrangement, since the macro has no existence beyond its identity as the synthesis of the contributing micro-elements. Once having been created by x number and types of micro-behaviours, the macro can synthesise these in order to determine a potential direction of travel, which it can communicate back to the micro-elements, as the sum of socialised knowledge and behaviour.
"Self-organisation is a dynamical and adaptive process where systems acquire and maintain structure themselves, without external control."
We should preface this section with the following observations:
• Self-organisation and emergence are not mutually exclusive phenomena, and indeed can be fruitfully combined.
• We are keen to avoid interpretations, attractive to an infantile anarchist perspective, according to which the term 'self-organisation' and its characteristic features, such as autonomy, might lead to facile conclusions regarding 'lack of order'. That being said, we accept the scientific definition of 'chaos' (3) as a characteristic feature of complex systems, such as global social configurations.
Self-organisation presupposes a 'limitation', in being concerned with only a part of a wider system in order "to promote a specific function." Thus, a self-organising sub-system could cross the virtual boundaries of (a) human group(s) in seeking to address its concerns, such as ensuring the distribution of a given resource effectively and equably.
Within whatever limits it sets itself, a self-organised system is completely autonomous, and it acts to come to terms with increasing levels of complexity generated by the relevant 'macro-system' within which it operates. This autonomy does not prohibit the introduction of new phenomena, but does pre-suppose that they will not act as agents seeking to impose a structure or control from 'outside' the sub-system. This is due to the nature of emergents as being the product of elements contained within a given (sub-)system.
Self-organisation posits itself at the boundary of order, and chaos, a state with no order whatsoever. Self-organisation is concerned with progressive movement towards a certain type of attractor, that is to say, a certain form of organised behaviour, which it selects on the basis of both flexibility and robustness. Its responsiveness ensures both sensitivity to change (4) and a dynamic capability to act, both of which are key features of both an insurrectionary movement and an organic approach to social relations.
To summarise the key points regarding emergence and self-organisation:
• Self-organisation imposes order according to its own 'rules'.
• Self-organised complex systems, whose complexity is typical of emergent systems, cannot have external frameworks imposed on them as they emerge.
• Coherent behaviour is only possible at macro-level if it is allowed according to the autonomy characteristic of self-organisation.
• There are two ways of framing the 'incidence' of and inter-relationship between emergence and self-organisation – (a) the interaction between emergent elements is dictated by the principles of self-organisation or (b) self-organisation becomes manifest or 'patent' in the form of the emergent. Therefore self-organisation itself becomes an emergent.
Self-Organising Social Systems
The following two sections owe much to two papers by Christian Fuchs,(5) although we fundamentally disagree with his assessment (following Antonio Gramsci) of the role of 'civil society'. While we agree with Gramsci's overall definition of the concept, for us, civil society represents both ideology and organ of the 'advanced' State, a system of 'soft power' used to mediate the relationship of the polity with the 'hard power' of the State, in its policing function. As such, civil society ultimately acts as an obstacle to our aim, which is revolutionary, in the sense of seeking to destroy the State. However, Fuchs' texts bring useful observations into play to aid our understanding of systems, and act as a conceptual bridge to facilitate our appreciation of how the Internet, as a system, might support communist society.
The salient advantage of a systems-based approach over rigid proto-Utopian prescriptions for social change, both as protest and as entity is its emphasis on the complex inter-relationship between multiple factors. This has distinct benefits for the study of human behaviour, whose unpredictability pushes it beyond the boundaries of narrow rationalistic determinism. (6)
Equally, adopting this approach reinforces a key aspect of communities' attitudes to entities that form for the purpose of making decisions and furthering objectives. A movement is dynamic by definition (it has dynamism, it moves), and the vehicle it uses to express itself only has an effective meaning or existence when it is engaged in the activities for which it was 'designed'.
This contrasts with the party form, which ossifies into an organ of authority rather than a vehicle for self-directed action. As regards the period of transition between capitalism and communism, the movement for liberation is governed by 'aufheben', i.e., a process of abolition of existing conditions, synthesis of useful resources that will further our aims, and transcendence of the conditions that constrain the unrestricted deployment of those resources in the service of human self-actualisation.
As a description of a condition of permanent flux, self-organisation takes on the features of a social ontology, where the features of a given arrangement of relations are contingent on the emergents that derive from the system, themselves in turn being the outcome of a complex web of interactions between elements in the system as it was before a given emergent became manifest. The other ontological aspect of social movements is concerned with moving on from present reality in the act of becoming, or the construction of new realities.
Fuchs (2006, pp. 109-110) provides a summary of the various features of social movements, as provided by other writers (eg, Herbert Blumer, Manuel Castells, Mario Diani, Ron Eyerman & Andrew Jamison, Alberto Melucci, and Dieter Rucht). Blumer stresses the collective nature of such movements, and their dual character as being based on dissatisfaction with current conditions, and wishes for a new means of life.
However, it is over-optimistic to define a social movement as representing an emergent "new order of life", when this is defeated by capitalism, unless we accept that lessons of autonomous self-organisation are such emergents, however short-lived. This is where history and the presence of record (in the form of data) brings our one of the key means by which the Internet can serve our purposes, that is to say via the diffusion of transitory and instructive past moments of insurrection, subsequently buried under the slurry of capitalist historiography. As such, to date, genuinely revolutionary movements conform more to Eyerman and Jamison's description of "temporary public spaces...moments of collective creation that provide societies with ideas, identities, and even ideals".
Melucci, meanwhile, stresses the primacy of active conflict with existing structures, in talking of "breaking the limits of the system in which action occurs". Rucht draws attention to the contributions of networks of groups and of non-aligned individuals, which once again draws attention to the fluid and contingent nature of the composition of social movements, that do not demand an identity that outlasts the fulfilment of what might be short-term objectives.
The features of social movements that concern communists are the negation of current relations of dominance, the desire for change (including the search for new meanings, values, and identities), collective action, and communicative practices and strategies. What is more, these features are reciprocal:
"The synergies released by communication processes between human actors result in the production and reproduction of social structures, these structures enable further practices and communications by which social structures can again be produced and reproduced, etc. This process is self-referential, recursive, and cyclic, social systems permanently change themselves, their dynamic is given by an endless emergence of social structures from practices and communications of human actors. Social structures and human actions/communications produce each other mutually." (Fuchs, 2006, p. 115)
Although self-organising systems are governed by an internal logic determined by the nature and interplay of their constituent elements, they are also open, in the sense of engagement in a dialectical relationship with their environment, both negatively, in the case of destructive elements, and positively as regards those features that can be subverted or detourned for the purposes of communism.
Fuchs stresses that in their capacity as 'complex', self-organising systems are susceptible to the 'butterfly effect' of non-linear cause and effect, where a small and indirect cause can have multiple and unanticipated effects.(7)
Self-organising systems have various characteristics, which sometimes result in tension between themselves. They are perpetually self-creating and, thus, "never the same river twice" (Heraclitus), and at critical moments, tend towards the formation of a order, a result which in turn is subverted by a tendency towards chaos, characteristic of complex systems. This tendency is both negative, in challenging the very concept of 'organisation' and positive, in allowing sufficient flexibility for emergent novelty. A given novelty does not arrive out of thin air, but is one made available from a range of options offered by the nature of the previously-existing state of affairs, albeit subject to contingency in its form.
Fuchs assumes a temporal order to social change, where consciousness of the need for such change pre-dates the act of seeking to effect it. This does not acknowledge the dialectical nature of the. phenomenon of revolutionary praxis, where consciousness as theory develops in the practice of activism. Any other interpretation lends credence to the lie of bourgeois revolutions, including the Bolshevik one, where enlightenment is to be brought to the oppressed by revolutionaries as 'insurrectionary technicians'.
Fuchs (2006) includes a further summary of the features of social movements, many of which concern the communist movement, such as a positive tendency to identify potential avenues of social development, interrogation of current methods of interpreting the world, a need to transform global material conditions, the importance of creative imagination, an end to exploitation, and a critique of the concepts of 'rationality' and irrationality'.
The Internet as a Self-Organising System
As Fuchs correctly points out (undated, p. 1), the Internet is more than a purely technological system in the sense of a collection of hardware and software, since it needs human agency to be populated, used creatively, and adapted. A dialectic is thus created between the dead labour that inheres in technology, and the living activity of people, whether in the form of production, consumption, or the increasingly blurred middle ground, where 'playbour' or voluntary self-exploitation in the name of creative activity takes place. In turn, the structure of the Internet potentially enables various forms of many-to-many communication (dialogue without a leader), rather than the prevailing one-to-many arrangement dictated by the State or commerce.
As Fuchs puts matters, "the technological structure functions as a structural mass medium that produces and reproduces networked communicative actions and is its itself reproduced by communicative actions." (Fuchs, undated, p; 1). The capabilities and function of the medium define its composition and structure, which would be true under any form of social organisation.
"Self-organising systems are complex networks of entities that energetically interact and produce novelty. A network is a set of interconnected nodes that are structurally linked and communicate in certain ways." (Fuchs, 2006, 131-2).
In the case of the Internet, these networks are of course computer networks, and the loop of knowledge is completed by the interaction between human agency and the technological framework of the Internet. The human input of information generates new subjective knowledge and theory by its interconnection and human synthesis. In line with Fuchs, we could talk of two sub-systems, the social and the technological, that together comprise the Internet.
The Internet as medium has the capacity for the sharing of effective social praxis, as a particular form of knowledge, while compressing time and space. This latter feature, consistent with the accelerating velocity of capitalism, presents an opportunity for the refinement of opposition.
The emergence associated with the Internet is characterised by the development of new sites, offering new information and/or perspectives. As the digital network grows, it becomes more complex, with every fresh collection of new websites (n + 1) having the potential to generate yet more websites, in a contingent and unpredictable fashion.
Hypertext, the language used to post content, is itself "a network of informational nodes" (Fuchs, undated, p. 11), which has a potentially synthetic function in terms of being able to present and link existing media (text, images, videos, music, etc), which might already be discretely posted on a number of other existing websites. Equally, the a-spatiality of the Internet means that an apparently obscure post on one site can have effects far in excess of its initial apparent significance, lending a 'butterfly data' to the potential impact of online data characteristic of complex systems.
In that sense there is a constant reciprocity between the local (item posted on Site A) and the global, in terms of the potential of the infrastructure to communicate the item far beyond its place of origin. This is more fully understood within the wider context of Fuchs' classification of different types of globalised social movements, from those based in one location seeking greater international recognition, via those that operate quasi-autonomously in different locations to structures that share objectives, and are 'authentically' pan-spatial and global.
The capacity to alter the content of hypertext by a series of (often spatially-distant) human actors lends itself to cooperative development (8), and also confers a transitory nature on its content. In providing the technical means to network data, the Internet also reproduces and extends itself, a process termed by Fuchs as "self-referential".
Whatever order the Internet embodies is determined by the level of coherence of the communication that humans conduct through the medium. The Internet would cease to function as a self-organising entity without this communication, and in practice, the Internet comprises a series of self-organising systems that are inter-linked, and therefore cannot be described as discrete. Any sub-system that operates through the online medium cannot therefore be fully outside the wider infrastructure.
Digital Technology in the Service of a Communist Society
A preliminary discussion of cybernetics is necessary, because of its role as the conceptual framework of 'conversation' between humans and the artificial 'intelligence products' and the 'identities' it creates.
The original modern-day definition of the term 'cybernetics' was created by Norbert Wiener in the 1940s as "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine".This designation draws attention to the liminal blurring of the categories of 'animal' (us) and machine (digital technology) from both points of departure.
In considering the future communist organisation of society, how do we, can we, and should we, participate in 'conversations' with digital technology? Cyberneticists are concerned with "models of organizations [sic], feedback, goals and conversation[,] to understand the capacity and limits of any system (technological, biological, or social);".
Cyberneticists acknowledge that "their science of observed systems" (such as studies of the Internet) cannot be divorced from "a science of observing systems." (i.e., an analysis of how we study phenomena such as the Internet). This symbiosis 'closes the cognitive loop', in placing human subjectivity and perception at the limit of our understanding. It is this subjective emphasis of cybernetics that is crucial to the communist project, namely that our knowledge is bounded by but only has relevance as the entity to which human attention is lent, and from which conclusions are drawn.
Fuchs takes issue with Peter Bøgh Andersen's contention that the technological aspect of the Net is self-organising because its scale and complexity exceeds human comprehension to fully seize it. Despite features that would appear to favour that conclusion, it is only humans that can impose meaning or judge the coherence of online communication methods, and our point above regarding the 'closed loop' of human and machine holds true.
Equally, the Internet, through its function as data warehouse can mediate and contribute to human interaction, from which emergents derive, but these are only made possible through the intervention of human agency. Conversely, by 'communicating' its own form and limitations, a given organisational structure can also effect a top-down emergence, creating new actions and stimulating the formulation of new concepts.
These reciprocal processes re-create (in different manifestations) the self-organising system, where structures define the parameters of communication and action between the human actors, and in turn new emergents influence structure. Creativity is an integral feature of the act of communication, as it is even under the terms of alienated social relations. Also, in its capacity as data warehouse, the Internet, in common with the physical library before it, provides trans-temporal access to information and knowledge, enabling, potentially, the means to benefit from prior learning from previous epochs. This capacity reinforces the synchronic flow of data through time, whereby the insights of the past contribute to the theory of the present, creating perspectives in turn that enable us to re-evaluate the meaning and significance of previous thought.
Social media reduce complexity by reducing the repetition of lessons learnt, by means of their capacity to act as channels of communication between distinct social collectivities. Social media enable the direct encounter between different theories and perspectives in the act of enabling direct communication. In other words, through the act of mediating the 'encounter' of different schools of thought through their technical capacities, social media potentially shrink or remove ideological mediation, by exposing its purpose more widely, and identifying the community of interest it serves.
Of itself, technology is neutral, in the sense of being a 'disinterested entity' whose capacities are at the service of the party controlling it. At present, capitalism has increasingly adapted itself to decentralised, trans-spatial modes of organisation, a structure ably supported by the Internet. However, de-centralisation does not of itself confer the identity of self-organisation, which, by definition, is predicated on "freedom, chance, irreducibility, unpredictability, and indeterminacy." (Fuchs, undated, p. 3).
However, it would be incorrect to put the cart of the medium before the horse and driver of the agenda of maximised valorisation. That is to say, multi-national capitalism pre-dated the current predominance of the Internet. Adopting all and any opportunities to manipulate the Internet to our advantage by further refining our understanding of its use and effects will contribute to adjusting the balance of forces in our favour, and support efforts to develop the role of social media as tools of gemeinwesen. This must be a face-to-face as well as an online experience.
As we warned at the outset, this paper takes an explicitly anti-prescriptive approach to the detail of social organisation during and after the process of abolishing capitalism, beyond certain fundamental, general principles. However, there have been glimpses in the history of the spontaneous movement of general assemblies and workers' councils that provide a strong indication of useful lessons regarding the positive irruption of self-organisation and emergent social features.
As a preliminary, the Internet can facilitate the dissemination of this knowledge before, during, and after a genuinely global struggle is taken up. Equally, the global reach of the Internet, together with its capacity to support peer-to-peer communication and centralised resource planning and allocation in post-revolutionary society will make it a crucial tool in our kit for the foreseeable future.
Having noted this, there will always be critical social tensions that need to be addressed, such as the risk that centralised planning will be vulnerable to subversion, manipulation, or domination by a clique/party. The central function would not be executive but administrative, but its limits must be universally understood and zealously defended. Equally, to what extent should the micro-zones (9) be expected to conform to the production needs of the macro-zone? Beyond that, what of social behaviours that can only be described as falling into the realm of 'social ethics'? In either of these latter cases, if individual communities do not conform to expectations, what sanctions would or should be applied to them? We have much to talk about.
Jim Fearnley. November 2014
(1) Quotations in this section are taken from relevant Wikipedia pages.
(2) Or at least as much of that totality as individual zones are prepared to share. It should be noted that this latter quality is a departure from a defining feature of emergence, namely the "radical novelty" where "individuals... (have no) explicit representation of the global behaviour."
(3) That is to say, contingency and unpredictability.
(4) Which in the case of say, food, might be overproduction of a perishable resource.
(5) Fuchs, Christian (2006): The Self-Organization of Social Movements. Systemic Practice and Action Research, Vol. 19, No. 1, February 2006; Fuchs, Christian (undated): The Internet as a Self- Organizing Socio-Technological System. Human Strategies in Complexity Research Paper.
(6) For example, behavioural economics provides an object lesson in the extent to which humans are impelled by non-rational decisions regarding their financial planning and management.
(7) In (non-Darwinian) terms of the transmission via the Internet of given concepts and practices in the context of social struggle, the concept of the 'meme' (in a 'cultural' rather than Darwinian sense) may be of some use here, in conveying the scale of the cause in relation to its effects. A meme is defined as "an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.", or more specifically, as Nikos Salingaros defines it "[a] freely propagating cluster of information".
(8) Fuchs quotes Piérre Levy's phrase "nomadic co-operation".
(9) Also, there will be groups that choose a nomadic lifestyle over a settled one, which may have implications for the extent to which they can contribute to the collectivity.