The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism — Newly Revised!

Translations of this material:

into Russian: Новое осмысление «Теории и практики олигархического коллективизма». Translated in draft, editing and proof-reading required.
Submitted for translation by demetrious 29.04.2012


People raise the question of whether the network revolution, in one area of our common life or another, will be coopted by the old forces of hierarchy. Will the old institutions manage to hang onto life by incorporating network elements, and thus survive the transition to the new society — with themselves in charge of it?

That’s what Christopher Hill and Immanuel Wallerstein argued the landed nobility of the late Middle Ages did. They reinvented themselves as agrarian capitalists, survived the transition, and coopted emerging market forms and the bourgeoisie into the successor system. The new system was defined, despite its market elements, by its structural continuities with the Medieval system. This system, in which feudal privilege and property relations coexisted with market clearing prices, was called “capitalism.”

So are the old hierarchies doing the same thing with network organization? They’ve certainly tried. The first wave of micromanufacturing, which dates back to the Japanese development of affordable small-scale CNC tools suitable for small shops, was incorporated into a corporate framework: Actual production was outsourced to small job-shops in Honduras, Vietnam or China, but corporations retained control of the product and distributed it at astronomical brand-name markups through their control of marketing, finance and “intellectual property.”

More recently, assorted “Enterprise 2.0″ or “Wikified firm” fads have become all the rage in business, and the military has tried to replicate the agility of networked movements like Al Qaeda within its own ranks through “Fourth Generation Warfare” doctrines.

The latest example of this sort of thing in the news is the so-called “99% Spring,” in which the previously(?) mainstream liberal organization plays a central role. A lot of people see the 99% Spring as an attempt by establishment liberalism to coopt the Occupy movement, and reshape it in its own image. The perceived danger is that MoveOn will impose all the conventional features of an establishment Left movement on Occupy — official spokespersons, lists of demands, electoral slates, etc. — just as establishment Left leaders have been pushing the movement to do since the beginning. Or worse yet, it will become the militant arm of the Coffee Party.

The thing is, though, all these attempts to put new wine in old bottles are failing because hierarchies are really lousy at copying networks.

They’re failing in manufacturing because digital machine tools are becoming several orders of magnitude cheaper than those used in the first wave of micromanufacturing; the marketing machinery is irrelevant to a garage factory marketing its wares to an urban neighborhood on a demand-pull basis, the financing is superfluous when any handful of people with the shop skills and a few grand can set up a micro-factory, and branding and other “intellectual property” claims are becoming unenforceable.

Enterprise 2.0 and 4GW are failing precisely because it’s hierarchies who are trying trying to coopt the network technologies. Hierarchies are extremely bad at using such technologies because their particular efficiencies disintegrate under the power interests of managers and bureaucrats. Despite the best intentions of business gurus and the scholars at West Point and TRADOC, the potential of networks is systematically sabotaged by middle managers and field grade officers.

But they’re failing most of all because they’re superfluous in an age of cheap technology, and they can’t effectively suppress the competition.

See, all the power of all these hierarchies, historically, has depended on scarcity and on the high capital outlay requirements for getting anything done. When the basic capital equipment for manufacturing, communication, or fighting a war is extremely expensive, and only a hierarchy can afford the capital outlays, then opportunities for doing these things will be scarce and mediated by hierarchies.

When doing these things no longer requires enormous capital outlays, and when network technology enables people to cooperate outside hierarchies with zero or near-zero transaction costs, the entire material basis for the old hierarchies is obliterated. They may try to suppress competition through “intellectual property” swindles or by using the regulatory state to criminalize independent production — just as the lord of a medieval manor prohibited using a handmill to grind one’s own corn.

But it was a lot easier to suppress ownership of handmills in a village than it is to enforce patent, copyright and trademark monopolies against micromanufacturers and hackers. Networks are many times more efficient than hierarchies at exploiting the advantages of new technologies, because a real network is a lot more agile and resilient than a stupid bureaucrat’s or pointy-haired boss’s attempt at playing network.

So what about the 99% Spring? I have no doubt it’s MoveOn’s baby, and they’d like to do all the things I said earlier, with Van Jones as the public face of the movement. But because of the realities I’ve described, they can’t do it.

Occupy is a networked, leaderless movement. It’s a brand that anyone can adopt for their own purposes, and a platform that any local node can plug into on a modular basis for its own purposes. The basic symbols of 99% and 1%, the basic organizational techniques, are out there for anyone to use. Anyone who hates Wall Street and the big banks, who resents the polarization of wealth and the privileges of the plutocracy, and who wants to put an end to the unholy alliance between big business and big government — whatever their specific agenda — can adopt the symbols and tactics of Occupy without asking anyone’s permission. The symbols and slogans, and the knowledge of technique, are a free good. The network communication technologies are already owned by anyone with a smart phone. The only “entry barrier” is the willingness to link up and start cooperating, and put to use the pool of knowledge and technique that’s already free for the taking.

So MoveOn, as a node — even if it’s a really big one — is free to make its own use of the Occupy brand and platform for its own agenda. They can do this just like the anarchists, the Greens, the Paulistas, and all the other movements in the leadersless Occupy network. More power to them! Let a hundred flowers bloom! But they can’t own the movement’s identity, any more than someone who uses material with a Creative Commons license can copyright it and enclose it against the other users.

So let MoveOn do their thing. They can’t own Occupy, they can’t speak for it, and they can’t stop the rest of us from doing theirs. They’re just — can only be — one more voice added to the chorus.

Emmanuel Goldstein, in the fictional world of Orwell’s 1984, wrote a book called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. He portrayed history as an eternal struggle between the High, the Middle, and the Low. The typical pattern of a revolution was for the Middle to contest control of the dominant institutions with the High, and to enlist the help of the Low under a popular banner. Once they seized control, the Middle became the new High and took their own turn at oppressing the Low.

All that was true — Pareto’s rotation of elites, Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy — so long as hierarchical institutions were universally accepted as the sole means of organizing large-scale cooperative effort. So long as that was true — because large institutions are simply not amenable to direct control by the many — every new revolution was a case of “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

But now that hierarchies are becoming superfluous to organizing cooperative effort, and their attempts at doing so are nothing but an embarrassment, we can throw that 5000-year-old rule book in the garbage where it belongs. This is a revolution that can’t be coopted by the old hierarchies, because the material basis of their power is being destroyed.