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Techno-libertarianism, the Zapatistas and Rhizomatic Networks

The connection between techno-libertarianism, the Zapatistas and Al-Qaeda
Considering the placement of their respective ideological products on the political spectrum, Mexican revolutionaries the Zapatista's (wearing costumes as cool as Slipknot's or Gwar's), whose frontman Subcomandante Marcos' songs of freedom from Neo-Liberalism has gained a swooning fan base of leftist intelligentsia worldwide; and '90s Wired magazine-style capitalist techno-libertarianism -- the founding faith of the dot-bomb economy, boostered by the likes of right-wing former-BMO Congress Newt Gingrich -- apparently have little in common, apart from their mutual enmity.
But post-modern, memetically-spliced, political Frankenideologies don't necessarily fit neatly on a line graph. While it is doubtful that Subcomandante Marcos and Wired-magazine founder Louis Rosetto could put aside their ideological differences long enough to go out and hit the strip clubs together, there are curious similarities between the two. Central to both their visions is a belief in the necessity of the de-evolution of the state, in favor of a decentralized, networked society. More peculiarly, both ideologies use biological referents (actually, not so much used by the Zapatistas themselves as by their American supporters) to justify the state's dismantling. And as any Madison Avenue colonized supermarket shopper knows, natural equals good, right?

Wired magazine editor-at-large and techno-theorist Kevin Kelly is (given current economic and geopolitical changes one is tempted to say "was." However, we can be certain that the techno-libertarian view will continue to have its influence in the much-fabled future) one of the main ideologues of the techno-libertarian network economy. He (along with Bionomics author Michael Rothschild) relies heavily on ideas lifted from biology to explain the topography of what we used to call the new economy. In Kelly's books, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World and The New Rules for the New Economy the central biological model is the beehive. The hive provides an example of how a collection of autonomous members "that react individually according to internal rules and the state of its local environment" (1) can self-organize into a non-hierarchal superorganism. Kelly uses hive self-organization as a model for our increasingly networked society. Connected and communicating by the Internet and other information devices, individuals are able to organize spontaneously, without any reliance on centralized commands (i.e. the libertarian's Great Satan, the state.)

Any mention of political organization is absent from Kelly's books. But this is not from a lack of comprehensiveness on his part. Judging from Kelly's colleague and friend, Wired magazine founder Louis Rossetto's comments about Europe and the development of their information networks, the state in the networked hive society is not merely unnecessary. It is a malignant entity that interferes with the natural socio-economic growth and health that would occur if all the "dumb" autonomous agents were left alone to self-organize: High European taxes which have restricted spending on technology and hence retarded its development; state telco monopolies which have kept prices high and service bad, again impeding networking in the business and the home; state-directed technology investment, which has resulted in the monopolization of risk capital, uniformly bad technology policy, and the squandering of resources and opportunities; social welfare policies which reward parasitical living rather than risk; a truly atavistic, sick attachment to the compulsion and non-meritocratic elitism of statism as a way of life; and a kneejerk disdain for truly radical social and political thought that falls outside of Euro PC dogma (read failed Marxist-Fabian)-have all retarded and will continue to retard Europeans. (2)

Despite the lack of a state in the hive society, Rosetto doesn't want you to worry your old-skool, woolly, wine-and-cheese-tasting, hand-rolled cigarette smoking head about the preservation of democracy. It will still exist, but it won't be democracy as expressed by electoral politics. Rossetto describes the democracy of the human hive as a "real democracy" which "is not about campaigns, but about discourse, respect for opinions, achieving consensus" on the "thousands of forums" (3) on the Net. Think different. Think privately owned Yahoo Groups and ICQ instead the Electoral College. Networks also figure heavily in the rhetoric of the southeast Mexico-based Zapatista's. In the 2nd Declaration of La Realidad the Zapatistas declare:

That we will make a collective network of all our particular struggles and resistances. An intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberlalism, an intercontinental network of resistance for humanity. This intercontinental network of resistance, recognizing differences and acknowledging similarities, will strive to find itself in other resistances around the world. This intercontinental network of resistance will be the medium in which distinct resistances may support one another. This intercontinental network of resistance is not an organizing structure; it doesn't have a central head or decision maker; it has no central command or hierarchies. (4)

Like the network of the techno-libertarians, the Zapatista's network is without centralized control. The state is replaced by linked-up local, autonomous, democratic organizations. But while the main objective of transformation of society into a hive network would be market liberation (and thus, questionably, personal liberation), the Zapatista network of resistance has -- in addition to proletarian economic revolution goals like minorities', women's and environmental rights. These issues are absent from Kelly's discourse about the hive society, but due to the self-organization of the great Goddess Gaia, good results would presumably emerge from chaos, in the same mysterious way "dumb" individuals self-organized into anti-Arab racist lynch mobs after the chaos of the September 11th World Trade Center attack.

While the Zapatista themselves don't use biological models to describe their "network of resistance, that trendy task has been happily taken up by western academics such as Electronic Disturbance Theatre co-founder Stephen Wray. Wray uses French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guittari's concept of the rhizome as his model. The rhizome is a subterranean root structure that is horizontal, decentralized and multiple, "an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states," (5) in contrast to the tree-root structures which "are hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification... an element only receives information from a higher unit, and only receives subjective affectation along preestablished paths." (6) Like the individuals in Kelly's hive society, the nodes on the rhizomatic network of resistance link up, communicate and self-organize with the help of the internet:

The Zapatistas, immediately entered the global stage just after January 1, 1994, when their communiques signed by Subcommandante Marcos were distributed globally through the Net... through pre-existing and newly formed listservs, newsgroups, and cc: lists.. This movement of information through these various cyber-nets of resistance can be said to have occurred rhizomatically, moving horizontally, non-linearly, and underground. Rather than operating through a central command structure in which information filters down from the top in a vertical and linear manner... information about the Zapatistas on the Net has moved laterally from node to node. (7)

The multiple, additive nature of the rhizome maps nicely onto the Zapatista's philosophy of acceptance of difference of races, cultures and genders. Difference in Kelly's bee/human hive network appears to be more like a choice of which action figure you want to decorate your cubicle with, Spawn or Darth Maul.

The use of natural models such as the hive and the rhizome justifies the rollback of the state in a much more visceral and exciting style than those historically employed by right libertarian and left anarchist political ideologues of the Hegelian past. However, Deleuze and Guittari admit that natural does not automatically equate good: "the rhizome includes the best and the worst: potato and couchgrass, or the weed." (8) The rhizomatic networks that allow for the organization of the Zapatista's struggle (as well as the recent anti-globalization and anti-war protests) against global capitalism also give terrorist groups like Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization their peculiar advantage over state-bound forces. While the upper levels of al-Qaeda are known to be hierarchical -- and its ideological goals are an authoritarian, centralized Islamic state their tactic is to use decentralized network of "local cells that operate with [al-Qaeda's] blessing and support, but cannot be easily traced back. Each cell operates independently with its members not knowing the identity of the other cells. If one group is arrested they will not be able to betray others." (9) It was a weird and tragic irony that the decentralized network, the God of the libertarian capitalists, was used by al-Qaeda on 9/11 to strike at the center of global capital, striking a final blow against the already sinking reign of naive 90's style free-market internet capitalism and ushering in a new and more malevolent paradigm.

Biological techno-libertarian rhetoric also provided a hip justification for the shrinking of the welfare state and the deregulation of global corporations. Newt Gingrich, appearing on the cover of Wired and writing the introduction to Alvin and Heidi Toffler's book on third-wave governance, Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, used some of the glossy sheen of the new information age to buff and blind part of the population to some of the grittier details of his "Contract With America," such as increases in defense spending and decreases in environmental regulations. On the Gingrichian "free-market" con, Manuel De Landa states: And so today (1996,) in the United States, there is a very strong political movement, mostly by the right-wing, and Newt Gingrich is perhaps the well known politician in this regards, who are trying, as they say, shrink the size of the government, let the market forces have more room to operate. But of course... what they want to do is let anti-market [De Landa is using economist Ferdinand Braudel's term for top down, hierarchical economic organizations] run wild. They don't really want small producers and small manufacturers and printers and bakers and mom-and-pop shops to have more room to manoeuver and make money. They want national and international corporations to have more room to manoeuver. They want to shrink government so that there is less regulations to keep international and national corporations from doing what they want. (10)

In this reality, "Big Government" is not only against nature, it's not cool. Techno-liberation is hip. Liberation of not only corporate anti-markets but of you from the oppression of "Big Government" evils such as the social safety net, labor rights, affirmative action and consumer protection.

Non-hierarchical networked societies are a grand ideal. I'm no fan of nosey and anal governments poking their fingers into every act, regulating away all vitality. But a total de-evolution of the state at this time would be M.A.D. Over-optimistic fantasies aside, the techno-libertarian reality is a grim Social Darwinist one. We've already seen how this oligarchy functions, with its networked corporate drone-hives, their virtual trillions circulating the globe out of the grasp of the Job-like-masses, who've been permanently downsized and temped (pimped) out, suffering for their faith in the market. And far-left/anarchist fantasies about the potential perfection of wo-man (alleged to have lived in harmonious hunter-gatherer, agrarian or even Neolithic golden ages), after the corrupting state is removed, demonstrate an even more unsophisticated form of wishful thinking. Anarchist devolutionists don't only ignore most of the historical and evolutionary evidence, they fail to explain how we could get there from this far away, without killing off the several hundred million people who really want to go shopping at the mall. Really now, any major devolution of the state today is probably going to look either like Mississippi before the sixties, or the Balkans.

Some state interventions buffer the brutality of the markets, and the brutality of us, positively channeling and mitigating against destructive atavisms. A genuinely non-authoritarian, democratic state can form a collective bulwark against entropy. Around this core of stability, aspects of the spontaneous Gaian superorganism can be modeled and realized; such as creativity, abundance, eros and play.

1. Kevin Kelly. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. (Addison-Wesley, New York 1995) p. 22.

2. David Hudson. Hudson. "There's No Government Like No Government." www.malaysia.net/lists/sangkancil/1997-12/msg00511.html

3. Louis Rossetto. "IHS Speech." www.theihs.org/people/staff/dchetson/lrossetto.html

4. The Zapatistas. Zapatista Encuentro: Documents from the 1996 Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. (Seven Stories Press, New York 1998) p. 52-54.

5. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. (University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 1987) p. 21.

6. ibid. p. 16.

7. Stefan Wray. "Rhizomes, Nomads and Internet Use."  http://www.nyu.ed/projects/wray/RhizNom.html

8. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. op. cit. p. 7.

9. Laura Hayes. "Al-Qaeda: Osama bin Laden's Network of Terror."  http://www.infoplease.com/spot/terror_qaeda.html

10. Manuel de Landa. "An Interview with Manuel de Landa."  http://t0.or.at/delanda/intdelanda.htm

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