I frequently encounter “progressives” who argue that political involvement is the only way to achieve significant change. Refusal to participate in the process is “defeatist” and “irresponsible.”
This, apparently, is what passes for gritty realism on much of the “progressive” Left. That argument is pessimistic beyond belief.
The events of the past two years should be enough to make that clear to even the most starry-eyed goo-goo. Obama’s election and the large Democratic majorities elected in 2008 are probably a generational high-water mark for the possibilities of “progressive” politics. At the time of the election, it was described by exultant Democrats as a watershed comparable to 1932 or 1980.
And what happened?
Right off the bat, Obama revelaled himself as another Clinton, staffing his administration with bankers and neoliberal Clinton alumni — people like Summers, Geithner and Emanuel. And the opposition, after the biggest political curb-stomping since 1964, immediately began demonstrating the near-worthlessness of this unprecedented majority coalition.
This was the most powerful “progressive” coalition in over a generation, the most powerful likely to be elected for another generation to come — and it achieved a bit of minor tweaking around the edges of corporate power. The word that comes to mind is “Sisyphean.” Decades of effort to get the rock almost to the top of the hill, and then you start over again — and over, and over.
If the only way to achieve a free, decentralized society is through control of the state, we might as well give up.
Fortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. In fact it’s the goo-goos who are defeatist, when they argue that the only “realistic” hope for changing society is the same depressing prospect of rolling the rock uphill, once again, for yet another attempt at building an even larger majority and electing an even more progressive president next generation, and thereby securing sufficient control of the state to — maybe, just possibly — have somewhat better luck next time.
The real alternative is described by the Wobbly slogan “building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” Our real hope is building the kind of society we want through our own efforts while treating the state as an obstacle to be routed around.
The key is networked, bottom-up, stigmergic organization — the organizational form associated with wikis, file-sharing networks, and fourth generation warfare. We’ll already be well on the road to victory when we realize we can build the kind of society we want right here and now without permission, instead of waiting for some bureaucratic committee to spend a hundred thousand man-hours getting everybody on the same page.
The cost of effectively evading and circumventing state interference is probably a hundredth that of overcoming the state’s inertia and changing its policies from within. For example: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act may very well never be repealed, but things like bittorrent, proxy servers, mirror sites and darknets have turned it into a joke that nobody even pays attention to.
A recurring theme in my writing is the function of so-called “safety” codes, zoning laws, licensing regimes, “intellectual property,” and so on and so on, in imposing artificial high capital outlay costs and overhead on small producers and criminalizing low-overhead production in the informal sector.
Changing these laws is — to repeat — Sisyphean. The solution is not to spend years organizing to repeal them. The solution is to bypass them, just as the file-sharing movement bypasses copyright law: Decentralize production and enable encrypted networked local exchange, to the point that the alternative economy operates under the state’s radar.
In a time when virtually anyone can afford a “printing press” or a “music studio,” the primary rationale for the big media corporations — the high cost of the means of cultural production — has disappeared. Copyright law is the main thing preserving the control of the old proprietary content companies over decentralized production technology. And the unenforceability of copyright law is destroying their power.
The same thing is true of patents and trademarks in the industrial realm. Thanks to the new generation of CNC tools, the means of physical production are becoming amazingly cheap. “Intellectual property” is the main weapon used by corporations to retain control of distributed production.
But patents are rapidly becoming as unenforceable as copyright. They’re cost-effective only when the transaction costs of enforcement are low: When goods are manufactured by a handful of oligopoly firms, and distributed through a few giant retail chains. When knockoff goods are produced by garage factories serving a local market of a few thousand people, the patent regime becomes unsustainable.
Instead of working to change the law, we only need to work — at a tiny fraction of the cost — on ways to ignore it with impunity. Don’t change the law — make it irrelevant.