[iDC] What is Left? / What Does a Distributed Politics Look Like?

Stephen Downes stephen at downes.ca
Tue Sep 18 15:36:50 UTC 2007

Well OK.

I have always described myself as 'left' and I have been described as 
everything from a Marxist to a 'moderate socialist and radical 
democrat'. I have run politically from the left side of the spectrum, 
and when asked to describe my politics, will either choose 'very 
liberal' or 'socialist', depending on what the choices are. So I am in a 
position to offer a response.

But a response to what? "What is left?" That is, in the first instance, 
an empirical question. What do the people who collectively lable 
themselves 'left' believe, in the aggregate? But the result is not 
likely to be anything I believe, nor is it very likely to be anything a 
majority of left-leaning people believe, unless it is defined at such a 
level of vagueness as to be uninformative. Moreover, the answers from 
such a survey will vary with the questions asked, as Burmeister's post 
shows. Is 'left' the party of change? Looked at from one perspective, 
perhaps. Looked at from another, perhaps not.

In any case, we are in such a state of flux that it probably makes more 
sense to speak, not of what the left is, but what it ought to be. Not so 
much from the perspective of political advocacy - as in, 'we ought to 
save the environment' and 'we ought to support labour' - but as in what 
ought to be thought of as the foundational views of the left. Because 
it's very easy to get this wrong, and misleadingly wrong, by glossing 
what is the fundamental distinction.

To take an example, we hear that that the left is the party of the poor, 
the 'working class', while the right is the party of the rich. Such a 
definition automatically disenfranchises any person of means from 
leaning left. But more importantly, and more significantly, it separates 
people from their aspirations. Mostly people do not want to be poor, do 
not want to be a part of the working class, and insofar as the left 
represents such people, it is because being poor or being a worker is 
associated with bad things, like poverty and death.  The left needs to 
be able to speak to a person's aspirations as well and as clearly as it 
does to their status or to their class, and identifying supporters of 
the left as 'the working class' fails to do this.

Or another example, a commonly made distinction between right and left, 
specifically, that the right is about 'individuals' while the left is 
about the 'collective'. It is very tempting to take this definition, and 
the term 'socialism' suggests that the left concerns itself mostly with 
society, mostly with the affairs of groups, or more, in advocating the 
rights of groups over those of the individual. But to simply state the 
distinction thus is to miss some important differences between the right 
and the left. Because the right will advocate for the rights of the 
group when it suits them - when promoting nationalism and patriotism, 
for example, or when appealing to people's religious convictions. And it 
leaves the left open to a straw man attack, that it is not concerned 
with the rights of the individual, which is simply false.

Another common way of distinguishing between left and right is to 
characterize the left as the party of 'equality' while thinking of the 
right as the party of 'privilege'. This certainly has historical 
origins. But it again allows for misinterpretation. We are familiar with 
the misuse of 'equality' as a means of preserving privilege, for 
example. Opponents of affirmative action argue against the practice on 
the grounds that it results in 'unequal' treatment. The simple doctrine 
of 'equality' needs to be refined, to become something like 'equality of 
opportunity' or 'proportionality'. With each refinement the basic 
justice of the position is obscured, as the practice seems to allow more 
and more unequal treatment. And then there is the clincher, that to any 
simple observation, people in fact /are/ unequal, and that no amount of 
'social engineering' is going to change that.

And yet, if we reject all three principles, we get a rich individualist 
who believes his position is the result of innate ability rather than 
social injustice. Exactly, it seems, the opposite of what we would call 
a representative of the left. And therefore, while these principles 
cannot stand as definitive of the left, it certainly seems that there is 
something captured by these principles that we would call 
characteristically left.

If I had to characterize what it is about right-wing political 
philosophy that bothers people from the left, I would characterize this 
aspect as the inherent 'atomism' of the right. This is the atomism that 
informs classic liberalism, the idea of each individual agent striving 
for his or her own personal advantage. This atomism is what informs 
social darwinism, the 'survival of the fittest' mantra we so frequently 
hear from the right (which is why they also declare that collective 
action is 'unfair', since it distorts this /mano-a-mano/ competition). 
This is the individualism of Ayn Rand and the libertarians, the 
elevation of 'genius' as a natural category, the exaltation of CEOs and 
political leaders, the suggestion that people - even the children - are 
in their station in life because of choices they have made.  "Take 
responsibility" and "don't be a victim."

Atomism is an important doctrine and is at the heart of most of our 
contemporary structures and institutions, which is why parties of the 
right are today characterized as 'conservatives'. Atomism is, at heart, 
the doctrine that the qualities of the whole are are not the consequence 
of properties of the whole, but rather, are a consequence of the 
properties of the individuals that make up the whole. Just as, say, the 
nature of the bar of lead is not the 'leadness' that the bar as a whole 
somehow possesses, but rather, is the result of the nature of the 
individual lead atoms that make up the bar. In the same way, if a 
society is, say, 'just', it is not because of some obscure property of 
being a 'just society', but rather, is made up of the 'justice' in each 
individual member of society.

This way of viewing the right wing allows us to understand some of its 
most perplexing attributes. We hear, repeated over and over, for 
example, the doctrine of individuality. The right criticizes the left 
because of the left's advocacy of 'central government' - and then turns 
out to be the party encouraging nationalism and patriotism and 
conformance to a central doctrine, whether it be religious truth or 
hatred of a common enemy or instilling the values of good citizenship. 
The right also criticizes the left for favoring rules and regulations - 
for 'fettering the marketplace' - for example, and yet at the same time, 
characterizes itself as the 'law and order' party, insisting that 
criminals do maximum time. How do we make sense of this?

As follows: the right, on the one hand, celebrates the individualism of 
each atom, but at the same time, depends on the purity of each atom. If 
the 'leadness' of a lead bar is mad up of the 'leadness' of each of its 
atoms, then atoms that are not lead make the bar less lead-like. The 
nature of a lead bar comes from its individual atoms, but the value of a 
lead bar is derived from each of its atoms being the same. This is why 
it is essential, from the perspective of the right, to preach the 
apparently contradictory doctrines of individualism and conformity.

Again, I want to stress that this theory is what informs our social and 
political structures. Essentially, our institutions are made up of 
'atoms' of similar types. Hence, in a democracy, each person receives a 
vote, but the government is formed by people who all vote the same way. 
Similarly, religious faith is a personal decision - this is enshrined in 
various constitutions - but religious faiths are characterized as people 
who have all reach the same religious point of view. And nations, being 
composed of people who have the same race, the same language, the same 
culture, are typically depicted as people who have the same religion as 
well. Which is where we get not only the idea that the United states 
(say) is a 'Christian country', but also, the idea that it would be 
stronger if it were more Christian.

We can see here how the depiction of the left, or of left-leaning 
causes, as a 'mass movement' simply plays right into this picture. By 
accepting the idea of 'mass movement', we are either accepting that 
political movements are made up of masses of same-thinking individuals, 
or we are presenting some sort of (fictional) 'general will' that will 
be ascribed to, or imposed in some way, on the individuals comprising 
the mass. And there then comes to be little to choose from between a 
fiction imposed by the left and some set of principles, whatever they 
happen to be, articulated by the self-designated representatives from 
the right. Moreover, since the representatives from the right have 
generally some advantage of wealth or position, it appears that there 
must be /something/ to what they are saying, because they have achieved 
this position and wealth.

Historically, the left has achieved success by emulating the strategies 
and tactics of the right. The difference has been in the determination 
of the beneficiaries of those strategies and tactics. Thus, when the 
industrialists made themselves wealthy by owning the means of 
production, members of the left sought to seize the means of production. 
When the right wing resorted to military means to assert its dominance, 
the left resorted to military means in kind. When the right adopted the 
mechanism of the democratic vote (supplanted by influence-generating 
systems to sway voters) the left also adopted the mechanisms of 
political parties and propaganda. But what is important, is that none of 
these strategies - not unionism, not communism, not social democracy - 
/defines/ the left.

So what does? My own view is that, philosophically, we could see leftism 
as a blend between the ideas of Immanual Kant and John Stuart Mill. And, 
specifically, the following: from Mill, the idea that the greatest 
social good is achieved when each person is able to pursue his or her 
own good in his or her own way; and from Kant, the idea that each person 
is, and ought to be treated as, an end, and not a means. These are, I 
think, principles with which proponents would agree - and more, 
principles with which, when pressed, proponents of the right would 
disagree. Because, while at first glance these principles appear to be 
atomist principles, they are not, and they are not in the way that 
signifies what (to people on the left) constitutes the fundamental flaw 
of conservative philosophy.

We need to look at Rousseau to understand this. "Man is born free, and 
yet everywhere he is in chains." Why is this? Where does our 
imprisonment, our enslavement, come from? From /the requirement to be 
the same/. From the requirement that we constitute, in our atomism, one 
of the whole. When proponents of the right argue for, say, the freedom 
to pursue the good, they do not mean a person's '/his or her own good/', 
but rather, some sort of absolutist declaration of what constitutes 'the 
good', whether it be derived from religion or from misguided sense of 
national purity. And when proponents of the right consider the 'value' 
of a person, they see this value as conditional, based on a person's 
natural abilities, based on whether they 'contribute to society', based 
on whether they are of the right faith or the right nationality. /People 
are means/ to make a company great, to make a nation great.

The fundamental principle of the left is that each individual person is 
of value in and of him or her self, that this value is unconditional, 
and that derived from this value ought to be certain (socially 
constructed) rights and privileges. This is the origin of the doctrine 
of equality, this idea that each person ought to have an equitable share 
of the pie, a fair shot at the brass ring, or a right to a say at the 
meeting. This is the origin of the idea that social systems that leave 
people in poverty, in starvation, dispossessed and enslaved, is 
fundamentally wrong - not because of some higher principle, about the 
nature of the world or of society, but because of the simple truth, that 
each person, including the indigent, has a basic and fundamental 
standing in society.

But why? You may ask. The answer is two-fold. First, in atomism, the who 
may never be more than the sum of the parts. Atomism is a /quantitative/ 
philosophy. We don't ask what, where or why, we ask, "how much?" And 
second, because atomism is a philosophy based on sameness, the whole may 
never be better than the best of its parts. The best a bar of lead can 
get is to be as good (as pure) as the best lead atom in the bar. The 
point of atomism is not merely individualism, but that some individuals 
in society /set a standard/, to which the rest ought to aspire. But 
also, it is the idea that the decisions made by such a society, will be 
the decisions made by individuals, with which the rest will concur. The 
best decision, the best ideas, a society can have, are the ideas 
articulated by an individual, to which the rest will adhere.

But we know the weaknesses of each of those two parts. First, we know 
that (to use the popular slogan) /the whole is greater than the sum of 
its parts./ That a population - or even a mass of metal - has properties 
that are over and above the properties of its individual atoms. And 
second (and crucially), we know that these properties are /better/ than 
the properties of any individual in society. 'Better' not so much in the 
sense of 'ethically good' (though a strong case could be made for this) 
but, more concretely, 'better' in the sense of 'more accurate'. If the 
ship of state is governed by one person, the captain, then it has a 
greater probability of hitting an iceberg than if it is governed by the 

What the left has lacked for many years (what it has always lacked, in 
my view) is an articulation of /why/ the whole is greater than the sum 
of the parts, of /how/ that whole comes to be expressed, and in the 
context where the fundamental principles, just articulated, are 
essential elements of that articulation, and not accidental correlates 
that could, in a contingency, be ignored. In other words, it needs an 
articulation of why the whole is greater than some of the parts in such 
a way that the essential liberty and standing of the individual is never 

And that is accomplished by defining the whole as the result in 
autonomous, thinking, communicating, rational autonomous agents, rather 
than merely passive elemental atoms. Where the whole is created, not by 
what we /are/, but by what we /do/, such that where the actions of each 
person are seeing always as /contributing/ to the whole, not merely 
'adding to' it or 'subtracting from' it. By viewing, in other words, 
society, not as a mass, not as a machine, but as an ecology, a network.

In an ecology and in a network, the properties of the whole are not 
created from the sameness of the components, but rather, as a result of 
the interactions of the components. Consequently, the /properties/ of 
the network are not contained in any one individual in the network. The 
network is not some big copy of an individual of the network. Nor does 
it operate under the guidance and direction of one entity in the 
network. If we think of a forest, for example. It is made up of a 
mixture of trees and shrubs and birds and bears. There is no one part of 
the forest that the rest copies. There is no 'sameness' in a forest, 
except at very superficial levels. And the forest isn't governed in any 
sense by any of its members, or by anything. The forest becomes what it 
is as a result of the interactions of its members, such that /every/ 
entity in the forest contributes to what the forest becomes.

 From this perspective, we can now begin to articulate a political 
position, based on the premises describing what makes for an effective 
network - or, say, what makes for a healthy forest. These are principles 
that govern the effectiveness of networks in /general/, of which a 
society is only one example, and hence can be described, and studied, 
empirically, Hence, what I offer here is only my first estimation, based 
on an understanding of mathematical, computational and physical 
structures of networks. These are properties of the /individuals/ in a 
network - and I think, we can see, that the combination of these four 
properties, adds up not only to a formula for successful networks, but 
also as a formula describing the basic dignity of each member in society.

First, diversity. A successful network fosters difference, not sameness. 
There is no presumption of a 'pure' prototype, a creed or a faith, a 
doctrine or fundamental sent of principles to which all members of a 
society must adhere. One of the fundamental principles of Marxism is 
indeed a principle of /diversity/, not equality: "from each according to 
his means, to each according to his needs." Intuitively, we understand 
this. We know that a forest needs to be composed of a variety of trees 
and animals; when it is composed of a single type of tree, and few 
animals, it cannot survive, and must be tended, and even then is more 
likely to be wiped out by a virus or disease. Diversity is what Richard 
Florida writes about when he talks about the 'Creative Class', the most 
productive element of society.

Diversity is what propels some of the major planks of leftist thought: 
the idea that we live in a multicultural society, the idea that we ought 
to encourage and endorse people of minority faiths, values and statuses. 
The encourage of diversity is part of what propels a leftists' 
celebration of gay-lesbian causes, aboriginal rights, minority rights, 
and more, while at the same time encouraging people in the expression of 
their religious beliefs, not to mention expressions of culture and 
identity in art, music and drama.

Second, and related, autonomy. Where the individual knowers contributing 
of their own accord, according to their own knowledge, values and 
decisions, rather than at the behest of some external agency seeking to 
magnify a certain point of view through quantity rather than reason and 
reflection. Without autonomy, diversity is impossible and sameness 
becomes the predominate value of society. Autonomy is fundamental to 
human dignity, for without it, a person is unable to contribute in any 
meaningful way to the social fabric.

Autonomy underlies the left's interest in social justice and equality. 
People who live in conditions of poverty and dependence cannot express 
their will. The right wing often depicts the free market merely as the 
(best possible) means to distribute resources, howver, the market, as it 
now exists, has become the means through which we employ scarcity in 
order to create relationships of power, where one person, the one with 
the resources, is able to deprive the second person of his or her 
autonomy. Wage-labour isn't simply about the inequality of resources, it 
is about the capacity of one party to impose its will on the other. 
Leftists believe that market exchanges are and ought to be exchanges of 
multual value, not conditions of servitude imposed by one against the 
other, and hence seek the redistribution of resources in order to 
maximize autonomy.

Third, interactivity. Knowledge is the product of an interaction between 
the members, not a mere aggregation of the members' perspectives. A 
/different/ type of knowledge is produced one way as opposed to the 
other. Just as the human mind does not determine what is seen in front 
of it by merely counting pixels, nor either does a process intended to 
create public knowledge. Without getting too far from the topic of this 
discussion, knowledge is not merely the accumulation of facts and data, 
nor even the derivation of laws and principles, but rather, is the 
/recognition/ of states of affairs. Recognition is not possible without 
interactivity, because recognition entails an understanding of the 
relations between points, which requires several perspectives on those 

Interactivity lies behind the leftists insistence on matters of process. 
It is not simply the case that 'the results matter', because without 
process, getting the right results is a matter of luck, not policy.  An 
interactive process values and respects the rights of each of its 
members to speak and be heard. It is therefore a statement of the 
fundamental freedoms of society - of expression, of the press, of 
assembly. It is also the value that fosters respect for the principles 
and structures of society, the laws and institutions. It's why we have 
trials - where the matter can be discussed and brought out into the open 
- rather than mere rulings, and why things like arbitrary detentions and 
sentencing are contrary to the principles of a just society.

Fourth, and again related, openness. The is, in effect, the statement 
that all members of society constitute the governance of society. From a 
network perspective, the principle of openness entails a mechanism that 
allows a given perspective to be entered into the system, to be heard 
and interacted with by others. It is not simply a principle of 
connectivity between the members - though it is in part that - but also 
the principle that there is no single channel or proprietary mechanism 
through which that connection is established. It is, at its base level, 
at once the principle that there ought to be a language in which to 
communicate, but also, that no person should own that language, and that 
there ought not be any particular language.

In computer science openness means open standards and open source 
software; in political discourse it means open processes and accessible 
rule of law. It means that the mechanisms of governance ought to be 
accessible to each person in society, which results in policy running 
the gamut from electoral spending limits to voting reform to citizen 
consultancy and open government, and ultimately, direct governance by 
the people of their own affairs, self-governance, in the truest sense.

These may not be the only principles, and they may not be the most 
fundamental, but I offer them as a statement of what it means, and the 
most elemental level, to be left. These principles offers us some sort 
of hope in society, a hope that we as a whole can be better than the 
best of us, but also with the understanding that this is made possible, 
not through repression and control, but only through raising each and 
every one of us to the highest level possible, to participate most fully 
and most wholeheartedly, in society.

     Abe Burmeister wrote:
> What is Left?
> The left perhaps has never been unified. Perhaps it has always been a  
> patchwork of interests: labor unions, marxists, socialists,  
> feminists, queers, green activists, anarchists, progressives,  
> billionaire followers of Karl Popper, Hong Kong born pyramid  
> schemers, a whole slew of post-hippie entrepreneurs, and who knows  
> what else all get mushed together under the same banner, although a  
> few might deny it themselves. Unity is perhaps a luxury reserved for  
> the right, although it of course has it's own divides, particularly  
> between those whose politics stem more from a desire to gain and  
> retain power and those whose politics are more about a reluctance to  
> embrace change.
> Last week a study in Nature Neuroscience [ http://www.nature.com/ 
> neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/nn1979.html ] presented a very 21st  
> century interpretation of left vs. right. Those on the political left  
> apparently are more cognitively open to and aware of change itself.  
> The classic conservative vs. liberal divide has been reconstructed as  
> a neuro-politics. For those that identify themselves as being on the  
> left (and I suspect most of this list does in at least some regard)  
> it's a tantalizing study, for it basically says that to be  
> conservative is to be stupid. Unfortunately though it is based  
> entirely on a study of the letters "M" and "W" being flashed on  
> screen in a set up where response time is measured. Hardly enough  
> grounds to make large scale conclusions about politics at large, or  
> at least one would hope. For one thing the left is far more  
> conservative than many of it's members would like to let on.
> The right wing (or at least a small intellectual section of it) after  
> all has long been struggling to reclaim the word liberal, while large  
> sections of the left are increasingly mired in fits of nostalgia. In  
> the French Revolutionary era of course the left rapidly moved  
> rightward as new more radical members joined the Legislative  
> Assembly. Yet today if there is any movement at all it is probably  
> best described as a churning. The center left is alternately busy  
> dismantling the gains of the 20th century or busy frantically trying  
> to hold on to and defend what remains. The most active and charged  
> leftist movement of today is the green movement, which has the  
> scientific community behind it, and increasingly the media and in  
> some spaces popular politics behind it as well. Yet at its roots  
> environmentalism (or at least large strains of it) is about  
> conservation, that is to say conservatism by another name.
> It's not just in environmentalism where the left flirts with  
> conservatism. It's perhaps most visibly apparent in architecture at  
> least in America, the more liberal the town or neighborhood, the more  
> regressive the housing stock. Meanwhile it is conservatives who are  
> more likely to embrace genetically modified food, nuclear power and  
> the latest march to war. The liberal / conservative divide as laid  
> out in by neuroscience is all about change yet it breaks down when  
> applied across the actual politics of people. There are other vectors  
> for explaining and dividing politics of course, power being the most  
> glaring of them. But when you start combining it all, power, money,  
> change, faith, race, land, freedom and whatever else people bring to  
> the table, the political landscape that emerges does not divide on  
> left versus right axis at all, nor on straight top to bottom  
> hierarchy either but instead fragments in many dimensions, and into  
> the multifold complexities that make up real politics the world over.  
> What is left then is of course... very complicated.
> This is being posted to the "Institute for Distributed Creativity"  
> and the real question being asked is: What does a distributed  
> politics look like? For we are just beginning to create a tool set to  
> really look at and understand the distributed networks that  
> interweave the globe. From power laws to protocols, through tracings  
> and generations, and as it goes almost without saying by utilizing  
> the unprecedented ability to transmit information across the globe, a  
> whole new way of looking at politics is now at least theoretically  
> possible. There are antecedents of course, Bruno Latour and company's  
> Actor Network Theory (ANT) in particular comes to mind. But while ANT  
> and its variations has resulted in some rather interesting and  
> detailed tracings/portraits of complex networks, it has done little  
> to incorporated the actual advances in network theory itself. By  
> understanding these dynamics and ever evolving interconnections is it  
> possible to move beyond the politics of left and right, the politics  
> of have and have not and towards an understanding of distributed  
> politics?
> - Abe Burmeister
> New York City, September 2007
> ps. Big thanks to Trebor for inviting me to moderate this list, as I  
> non-academic I suspect it will be quite an intriguing and hopefully  
> exciting experience...
> Abe Burmeister | abe at abstractdynamics.org | +1 917.806.8177
> |||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||| 
> |||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||
> Abstract Dynamics | www.abstractdynamics.org
> Abe Burmeister Design | www.abeburmeister.com
> _______________________________________________
> iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (distributedcreativity.org)
> iDC at mailman.thing.net
> https://mailman.thing.net/mailman/listinfo/idc
> List Archive:
> http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/
> iDC Photo Stream:
> http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/idcnetwork/
> RSS feed:
> http://rss.gmane.org/gmane.culture.media.idc
> iDC Chat on Facebook:
> http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2457237647
> Share relevant URLs on Del.icio.us by adding the tag iDCref

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/attachments/20070918/948716c9/attachment-0001.html 

More information about the iDC mailing list