Simon Collister – Abstract Hacktivism as a Model for Postanarchist Organizing
The Anarchist Library
Title: Abstract Hacktivism as a Model for Postanarchist Organizing
It has been claimed that historically, anarchism has adopted a ‘highly ambivalent’ relationship with technology, ‘oscillating between a bitter critique driven by the experiences of industrialism, and an almost naive optimism around scientific development’ (Gordon, 2008: 111–113). Early influential anarchists, including Malatesta, Goldman and Kropotkin, viewed technology as providing workers with an emancipatory potential from capitalism, while oppositional readings of technology from the likes of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, however, reinforced the pessimistic view that technology can only have ‘the needs of capital encoded into it from the start’ (ibid.: 129).
Within such a deterministic reading of technology what space is left for models of anarchist organizing in the twenty-first century? We currently live in a society where technology is ubiquitous and increasingly responsible for mediating most, if not all, aspects of our lives. What space is left for a contemporary, technology-enabled organization of society along anarchist principles, if any?
Rather than seeking answers within these binary positions, this note will suggest a more complex reading of technology through its inculcation with contemporary social practices. Such a view will aim to reveal how any earlier ambivalence between anarchism, organization and technology can be fruitfully explored and potentially resolved through the adoption of contemporary anarchist perspectives, such as postanarchism, as well as recent approaches to technology, such as abstract and critical hacktivism, which permit more open and complex readings of technology’s latent, socially progressive and radical potential.
Before we can address such issues, however, it is helpful to first offer a short commentary on some recent anarchist engagements with technology, such as Cybernetics, Web 2.0 and Network Theory. Such debates, while moving closer to more pragmatic accounts of the contemporary technology’s radical potential have also revealed deterministic limitations similar to those experienced by earlier anarchist thinkers.
One of the earliest anarchist interventions in the history of modern, computer-mediated technology can be seen with the emergence of cybernetics in the mid-twentieth century. Limited space in this note prevents a thorough exploration of cybernetics fascinating and diverse origins within the fields of biology, information sciences and organizational theory, but cybernetics first comes to the attention of anarchists through the work of neurologist, robotician and ‘anarchist fellow-traveller’, William Grey Walter, who published on the subject in the British anarchist Colin Ward’s journal, Anarchy, in 1963 (Duda, 2013: 55).
Cybernetics, understood as technologically-managed systems capable of supporting ‘evolving self-organizing’ networks within ‘complex, unpredictable environment[s]’ and characterized by a ‘changing structure, modifying itself under continual feedback from the environment’ (McEwan, 1963 cited in Ward, 2001: 51), offered anarchists, such as Walter and Ward, a fecund connection between a theoretical model for anarchist organization and its application at a social-scale.
Explaining how cybernetic technology can lead to practical, leaderless forms of social organization, Ward cites the work of management theorist Donald Schön who, he argues:
like the anarchists sees as an alternative [to the centre-periphery model of government], networks “of elements connecting through one another rather than to each other through a centre,” characterised “by their scope, complexity, stability, homogeneity and, flexibility” in which “nuclei of leadership emerge and shift” with “the infrastructure powerful enough for the system to hold itself together… without any central facilitator or supporter…” (Schön, 1971 cited in Ward, 2001: 51–52)
Beyond Ward’s bold vision, cybernetics was seen as offering a clear technological solution for the implementation of an ‘anarchist conception of complex self-organizing systems’ (ibid.: 50). For John McEwan, cybernetic systems were ‘not a metaphor to be used to think or imagine the political more clearly; on the contrary [McEwan] genuinely believe[d] in the effective applicability of models and experimental results from management science and computer-aided learning to the anarchist project’ (ibid: 64). Similarly, drawing on the cybernetic tradition American anarchist Sam Dolgoff asserted that with cybernetics, ‘[t]here are […] no insurmountable technical-scientific barriers to the introduction of anarchism’ (Dolgoff, 1979: 46).
Despite the initial zeal for cybernetics, subsequent critical examination has taken the edge off its potential. Duda (2013) observes that in approaching cybernetics and anarchist practice we must, unlike early proponents, be careful to ensure ‘we avoid reifying self-organization into something distinct from, above or behind, the actual immanent development of a self-organised social movement’ (Duda, 2013: 57).