Tag Archives: anarchism

Ask as Ideological Blinder

I started the Asking Project several years ago, out of irritation. The nominative use of the verb “ask” grates on my ears and, in organizations, it presents an illocutionary act of bad faith: an attempt by superiors to disguise orders or commands as requests. There is no negotiating an order issued in this form. You might talk about how you’re going to accomplish the task set for you, but not whether you are going to do it. No bids counter the ask, as they do on the trading floor, and refusal would amount to insubordination. 

In Private Government, Elizabeth Anderson finds the same bad faith gesture — and denial of an unwelcome truth — in the theory of the firm (here, as set out by Alchian and Demsetz in 1972). 

The question the theory is supposed to answer is why production is not handled entirely by market transactions among independent, self-employed people, but rather by authority relations. That is, it is supposed to explain why the hope of pro-market pre-Industrial Revolution egalitarians did not pan out. Alchian and Demsetz cannot bear the full authoritarian implications of recognizing the boundary between the market and the firm, even in a paper devoted to explaining it. So they attempt to extend the metaphor of the market to the internal relations of the firm and pretend that every interaction at work is mediated by negotiation between managers and workers. Yet the whole point of the firm, according to the theory, is to eliminate the costs of markets — of setting internal prices via negotiation over every transaction among workers and between workers and managers. 

Instead of allowing for negotiation, asks and bids, which it (rightly) sees as inefficient, the theory of the firm offers a hierarchy where managers have open-ended authority, or what Anderson sometimes calls “ incompletely specified authority.” Anderson herself muddles things a bit when she introduces this point: 

The key to the superior efficiency of hierarchy is the open-ended authority of managers. It is impossible to specify in advance all of the contingencies that may require an alternation in an initial understanding of what a worker must do. Efficient employment contracts are therefore necessarily incomplete: they do not specify precisely everything a worker might be asked to do. 

The larger point here is that presenting orders as requests — the ask —  is another “ideological blinder,” to use Anderson’s term: it borrows the jargon of the stock trader and market relations to describe (authoritarian) governance relations. Instead of the republican freedom that pre-industrial market advocates envisioned, workers are managed, or governed, as teams: 

The theory of the firm explains why [market relations among equals, or “anarchy”] cannot preserve the productive advantages of large-scale production. Some kind of incompletely specified authority over groups of workers is needed to replace market relations within the firm….in the great contest between individualism and collectivism regarding the mode of production, collectivism won, decisively. Now nearly all production is undertaken by teams of workers using large, indivisible forms of capital equipment held in common. The activities of those teams are governed by managers according to a centralized production plan. This was an outcome of the Industrial Revolution, and equally much embraced by capitalists and socialists. That advocates of capitalism continue to speak as if their preferred system of production upholds “individualism” is simply a symptom of institutional hemiagnosia, the misdeployment of a hopeful preindustrial vision of what market society would deliver as if it described our current reality, which replaces market relations with governance relations across wide domains of production.

 

The "Anarchist" and the Literary Agent: Julian Assange’s Book Deal

Sarah Palin may find common ground with Julian Assange after all. The founder of WikiLeaks is now officially trading on his celebrity: he has landed a 1.5 million dollar book deal.

The trouble is, now Assange will have to go from disrupting history to revising it. The man widely reviled as an “anarchist”, a terrorist, an enemy of the state, will have to enter the world of Palin and W., where messy lives merge into books and phony interviews and reality television programs, where serious flaws are glossed over, peccadilloes forgiven, legal expenses met by admirers and detractors alike. In this world, being a governor, a president, or a leaker of state secrets amounts to nothing more than a protracted publicity stunt, the ramp up to a non-stop book tour, the dues you have to pay to trade on your celebrity in the marketplace.

Whether Julian Assange will make this transition successfully remains to be seen, and that is already one part of his story playing into the pre-launch of his book. Everything is grist for the publicity mill. So, we are told, Assange is a reluctant author: as has been widely reported, he told the Sunday Times, “I don’t want to write this book, but I have to. I have already spent £200,000 for legal costs and I need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat.”

Unlike Sarah Palin, Assange is not comfortable turning himself into a commodity — at least that is what we are to believe. And unlike Palin, he is probably capable of writing a book all by himself, but with the delivery of a manuscript rumored to be scheduled for March, there is no reason to expect anything very polished or any great new insights.

But it sure will sell.

Who can blame him for striking a deal? With mounting legal expenses and a book about WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg due out at the end of January (Inside WikiLeaks: My Time at the World’s Most Dangerous Website), “a memoir from Assange is a logical step,” says Sarah Weinman. Pardon me, however, if I react with less than unbridled enthusiasm. Really, what is there to tell? Why is Assange’s short-lived publishing venture worthy of a memoir? Yes, there is the matter of setting the record straight, but given his present legal circumstances Assange will have to be very circumspect about how he or WikiLeaks worked with sources and how they received leaks. He will have to be on message, and everything he says will have to be vetted and cleared by his legal team.

This isn’t going to be a candid, tell-all account (or even a polished celebrity memoir, like the books put out this year by Patti Smith or Keith Richards). But why quibble over the truth when truthiness sells best? There will no doubt be a WikiLeaks movie coming very soon to a theater near you, right after The Social Network finishes its run.

It remains to be seen whether this book deal will rescue Julian Assange or WikiLeaks, whether the publicity machine behind it (Knopf in the U.S., Canongate in the UK) will help Assange win more of the world to his side, and whether it will magically put him beyond the reach of the law, as it seems to have done with Sarah Palin and George W. Bush.

Frost/Assange: An Exchange on Anarchy

Most Americans are probably tired by now of hearing about Julian Assange, but those still paying attention to his story could do worse than his interview with David Frost on Al Jazeera.

Now in his early 70s, Frost is one of the most capable interviewers on television today.

Frost gives Assange ample opportunity to answer his thoughtful questions (without badgering or interruption); he makes no effort to moralize or demand apologies; and he is certainly no tabloid schmuck. Instead of prurience, he offers intelligence, wit and — this is the thing that strikes the American viewer most — seriousness. For 24 full minutes. An interview of this length, on these subjects, would probably never make its way into American living rooms; and if it did, who would be watching?

The conversation even turns, at one point, to the question whether Assange is an “anarchist,” a question I explored in a previous post. Their exchange, which starts around 11 minutes in, runs as follows:

Frost: Do you think of yourself- when you see references to yourself as anarchic, or an anarchist, is that an accurate description of what you are?
Assange: No, it’s not at all an accurate description.
Frost: Why not?
Assange: That’s not what we do. We’re an organization that goes about and has a long record all over the world of exposing abuses, by exposing concrete documentation, proof of bad behavior. That’s not anarchy. That’s what people do when they’re civil, is that they engage in organized activity that promotes justice.
Frost: So therefore it’s — in that sense you’re not anarchic because you’re actually, you’re in favor of authority if it’s doing the right thing.
Assange: Correct. Correct.
Frost: You’re not automatically opposed to authority.
Assange: You know, having run an organization I understand the difficulties in building institutions, having a good institution. Institutions are very important. I mean anyone who’s worked in Africa, as I have, knows that successful civil institutions don’t just come from nowhere. It’s a — you’ll find a difference going between particular African countries or European and African countries well, clean roads and so on don’t just come from nowhere. There is an institutional infrastructure behind this. But secret institutions start to become corrupted in their purpose. They’re able to engage in secret plans which would be opposed by the population and carry them out for their own internal purposes. So they’re not performing the function that people demand that they perform.

The conversation moves on from there to the question who Assange considers his real enemies, but to my mind this exchange is the heart of the entire interview. It all turns on Assange’s distinction of anarchy from civility — and the positioning of Wikileaks as organized activity that promotes justice. He is eager to put himself and Wikileaks on the side of good government and the “people,” on the side of civil “institutions” and good “clean roads and so on.” He’s even on the side of “authority,” he assures Frost, if it’s “doing the right thing.”

You can easily imagine how this line of argument — which positions Assange as a member of the fourth estate, and Wikileaks as a watchdog — might play into the defense at a trial for espionage or subversion. Whether these arguments will ever be heard over the shouting and fear-mongering of the politicians, pundits and Palins is another question altogether.

Assange’s Got Everybody Agitated About Anarchy

Anarchists are back in the news again. I haven’t tracked down the first newspaper columnist to use the A-word with reference to Julian Assange, or liken him to “the anarchists of the early 20th century,” as Chas Freeman did in his New York Times editorial this past weekend. But the word has suddenly gained new currency. An old specter is once again haunting the world’s ruling powers.

One of the happier, unintended consequences of Cablegate may turn out to be a public history lesson about anarchists and the role they played in American (and European) political life before the First World War. But right now that outcome seems much less likely than another — that all the hysteria over the new anarchist threat may lead to severe restrictions on the flow of information: Palmer Raids for the twenty-first century, with the Security State raiding and policing its own Cyber-State.

This is the view L. Gordon Crovitz takes in a Wall Street Journal editorial today, labeling Assange an “Information Anarchist”:

The irony is that WikiLeaks’ use of technology to post confidential U.S. government documents will certainly result in a less free flow of information. … The Obama administration now plans to tighten information flows, which could limit leaks but would be a step back to the pre-9/11 period.
Mr. Assange is misunderstood in the media and among digirati as an advocate of transparency. Instead, this battening down of the information hatches by the U.S. is precisely his goal. The reason he launched WikiLeaks is not that he’s a whistleblower—there’s no wrongdoing inherent in diplomatic cables—but because he hopes to hobble the U.S., which according to his underreported philosophy can best be done if officials lose access to a free flow of information.

Crovitz goes on to liken Assange to “Ted Kaczynski, another math-obsessed anarchist,” and connects the “philosophy” of Assange’s writings on authoritarian conspiracy to the Unabomber Manifesto. He has to admit that Assange hasn’t mailed any bombs or killed anyone; but Kaczynski is “serving a life sentence for murder.” Ergo – nothing, really; but it sure sounds alarming, doesn’t it?

(The best Crovitz can do along these lines is to argue that Assange has put lives at risk. This is something everyone likes to say; it adds to the drama and stirs people. To his credit, Crovitz offers the example of Dr. Hossein Vahedi, an American citizen who now fears that his relatives in Iran will be targeted as a result of a leaked cable.)

In this view the state would seem justified in concealing its secrets in order to protect lives. The idea here seems to be that the American state is, mutatis mutandis, benevolent, and those who criticize the state or even seek to thwart the power of the state are likely sinister, violent or evil.

Over at the New York Times, David Brooks does not go that far, but he sees Assange as “an old-fashioned anarchist who believes that all ruling institutions are corrupt and public pronouncements are lies.” I doubt Brooks would really want to defend the counter-proposition, namely, that all ruling institutions are not corrupt and public pronouncements are true. But that’s really beside his point, and not what has him and all his fellow columnists so agitated about anarchists.

It’s really very simple. In Assange and in those who revel in the confusion and embarrassment of Cablegate, these self-appointed guardians of the public welfare see someone who wants to “disrupt the established order,” to quote Freeman. Here you may be forgiven for asking whether it is the job of the fourth estate to defend the established order. An “anarchist” like Assange forces them to declare allegiance; and their allegiance is to the power of the American super-state: these are the champions of the Pax Americana.

Still, that doesn’t keep them from reveling in the confusion and embarrassment of Cablegate. Maybe all the antidisestablishmentarianism is merely a hedge.

Be that as it may, there’s nothing terribly wrong with defending the Pax Americana: in many cases, our lies and corruption are certainly preferable to those of others. The trouble comes when those who have been entrusted with keeping the state honest by investigating its secrets and reporting on its activities turn out to be the State’s most ardent defenders, and present us only with a stark choice between raison d’etatand anarchy.