Come Together IV: Liberation Through Communication, Research Time, 20/03/2017

Continued from last post . . . Rousseau offers us conceptual resources to understand how political power is rooted not in the state or any institution, but in ordinary people themselves. If I can throw a bone to my right-wing populist friends, Rousseau is a classical source of critique against “the elites.”*

* Whoever these elites actually are, since the definition gets more than a little slippery.

Here’s the structure that “the sovereign” has when you read The Social Contract. It’s the energy of a whole community acting in harmony, the kind of self-conscious social harmony I described on Friday.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 and 2012 were attempts to overthrow
oppressive, tyrannical governments and replace their corrupt practices
with democratic, accountable leadership that served the common
interests of citizens. Citizens came to know their common interests
through talking with each other, which allowed them to come
together as one social body to demand change. Never forget this.
Sovereign power emerges from the expression of thousand (or maybe even millions) of people in a community acting together on their known common interest. That's the immanent power of political action.

Practically, you’re now forced to ask how to produce this intense solidarity in your community. It would be wonderful to live in that kind of community, where every interaction with your neighbours is defined by mutual aid and friendship.

Even though Rousseau often talks as though his ideals are impossibilities – a utopian through and through, that hypocritical old Genevan – he does give a few possibility conditions, even if in a roundabout way.

Communication is a necessary condition of the general will, the spontaneous unity and harmony of a whole community. He doesn’t argue for this directly in The Social Contract, but it’s implied by what he says about the conditions where a despot thrives.

By this, he means the material conditions. The most important one is the dispersal of a people in a country. If there are a lot of small, relatively isolated communities, dictators can do remarkably well.

Keep your eyes on the material conditions of the world where Rousseau was writing too. This is a world where real-time communication is pretty much impossible except between people standing literally right next to each other and physically speaking.

Rodrigo Duterte uses intense public relations through Facebook to
manage his public image in The Philippines, where as president he's
leading a radical and violent campaign against drug use and the drug
trade. Communications technology is a condition of liberation, but
can easily turn against the interests of free people.
To people of my generation, this is a strange, alien world. A 21st century person taken to the technological context of 1762 Geneva would probably have a mental breakdown from information starvation.

I’m not just talking about the internet – email, videoconferencing, all the social media and messaging platforms we use daily, casually. We’re a culture that’s just so accustomed to things like telephones, radio, and television that a world without these things is disorienting.

We take vacations camping in the middle of the woods to escape these networks for a few days, but if we ever had to live in these conditions for our entire lives, we’d curse the god who sent us there. Now imagine if this is the only world you ever knew.

Communicating over any distance whatsoever, with more than a few hundred people in your life, depends on mass media. And in Rousseau’s day, any kind of media transmission – printing presses, pamphlets, mail – depends on state institutions to guarantee their stability. Or just straight-up building the media networks in the first place.

It’s such a contrast to our lives, where the physical architecture of the internet – server farms scattered around the world, enormous cables strung under the sea, consumer ISPs hitching onto phone and cable lines, satellites – is beyond the control of any single government.

The Street Enters the House, a 1911 painting by Umberto Boccioni.
Boccioni's paintings often depict the mass movement of people and
technology recreating the physical world itself, always a unified,
harmonious movement.
Communication is necessary for building a community. It’s a truth that goes beyond just the similarity in words. Communication lets us know each other as people, lets us figure out together what ideas and goals our society will share. It helps us harmonize our beliefs and interests.

That’s the earliest, most rudimentary steps of harmonizing a society around common interests. In Rousseau’s time, this can happen only among small communities without the direct help of the state.

But in our time, like-minded people can connect with each other all over a country, and all over the world, for real-time communication limited only by the languages they speak. Communication technology has been central to democratic revolutions from the 1700s to today.

Of course, oppressive regimes can also use the communication technology that otherwise liberates. Having the technology doesn’t mean freedom will follow. But the technology for real-time mass communication would appear to be an important condition for an explosion of freedom.

But what shall we do with our freedom if we gain it? . . . . To be continued

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