Friday, April 25, 2014

Freedom, Technology, Revolution and Reform

Interesting interview with Astra Taylor, a sort of cutting edge techie thinker who was heavily involved in the Occupy movement:
I think that a lot of us are libertarians. Libertarianism is the default ideology of our day because there’s something deeply appealing about the idea of free agents—people on their own in charge of their own destinies. That has to do with the retreat of institutions from our lives, which results in an inability to imagine a positive role for them to play. We’re still dependent on institutions; we just don’t recognize it or give them much credit.

This ubiquitous libertarianism, particularly in tech circles, was a major target of my book. All of these things you want these tools to bring about—an egalitarian sphere, a sphere where the best could rise to the top, one that is not dominated by old Goliaths—within the libertarian framework, you’ll never get there. You have to have a more productive economic critique.

But I also think that if you’re on the left, you need to recognize what’s appealing about libertarianism. It’s the emphasis on freedom. We need to articulate a left politics that has freedom at its center. We can’t be afraid of freedom or individuality, and we need to challenge the idea that equality and freedom are somehow contradictions.

At the same time, even on the radical left, there’s a knee-jerk suspicion of institutions. When we criticize institutions that serve as buffers or bastions against market forces, the right wins out more. It’s a complicated thing.

When I defend institutions in this book, I knew I might provoke my more radical friends. The position that everything is corrupt—journalism is corrupt, educational institutions are corrupt, publishers are corrupt—sounds great. And on some level it’s true. They’ve disappointed us. But we need more and better—more robust, more accountable—institutions. So I tried to move out of the position of just criticizing those arrangements and enumerating all their flaws and all the ways they’ve failed us. What happens when we’ve burned all these institutions to the ground and it’s just us and Google?
Which is pretty much what I think. Libertarians and anarchists have a powerful critique of our flawed institutions, but no realistic plan for making things better. I believe, as I think Taylor does, that only through the democratic process can the mass of people force significant social change. The power of money is too great for a lot of ordinary people to just get together and create a free, just society. I also agree that to be appealing, the left has to make freedom its central theme. It interested me that although Taylor can be so scathing about existing economic arrangements, she is deeply suspicious of revolution:
It’s actually harder to think of a revolutionary event that has had a positive outcome, whereas there have been lots of reforms and lots of things that people have done on the edges that have had powerful consequences.
This set me thinking; I don't think it is literally true that no revolutionary event has a positive outcome, although that would depend on how you define "revolutionary event." But it certainly is interesting that the rhetoric of revolution, so appealing to radicals for most of the past 250 years, now provokes mostly suspicion on the left.

No comments: