Watching Big Brother

One question anarchists are frequently asked is how a stateless society would prevent the mistreatment of workers and other forms of corporate misconduct.

The way this question is framed is instructive.  One of the major themes in the rise of the modern state was what James Scott (Seeing Like a State) calls “legibility” from above.  That is, the society is supposed to be transparent primarily to the state — vertical, as opposed to horizontal legibility, the latter implying transparency to one another.  The question, framed as “wouldn’t businesses be able to get away with this or that,” or “wouldn’t this be allowed,” suggests the questioner is implicitly (and probably unconsciously) viewing things from the state’s perspective.

The question that should be asked is, how would we hold one another accountable for doing harmful things?  And the answer is, we’re doing it now.

One of the most important effects of the computer and network revolutions is the number of functions, which previously required capital outlays of hundreds of thousands of dollars, that can now be done for the cost of a desktop computer.  Desktop publishing, software design, podcasting, editing an encyclopedia…  Throughout the information and entertainment industries, activities that twenty years ago could be performed only by bureaucratic hierarchies with expensive capital assets can now be done by individuals in their own living rooms.

And monitoring the activities of giant corporate bureaucracies is one of them.

Under the old industrial age paradigm, most forms of economic activity required enormous outlays on physical capital, so that only large organizations could afford the capital assets; massive, centralized bureaucracies were needed to govern the capital assets and direct the labor hired to work them.  And monitoring these massive bureaucracies was another function that could only be performed by other large bureaucratic organizations.  Unfortunately, in most cases the regulatory bureaucracies and regulated bureaucracies more often than not clustered together in complexes of related institutions, with the white upper-middle class men in suits in the alphabet soup regulatory agencies acting as ostensible “watchdogs” over white upper-middle class men in suits in the regulated industries — men with almost exactly the same educational and career backgrounds, who will quite likely be doing each other’s jobs five years from now.

Thanks to desktop computers and the Internet, though, the entry barrier to being a watchdog has fallen to virtually zero. At the libertarian magazine Reason, Jesse Walker writes about WikiLeaks, a website that hosts leaked documents:

“Above all, we’re better off now that the large, hierarchical institutions where potential leakers dwell have one more reason to look over their shoulders. At some point, even the most thick-headed, slow-moving bureaucratic dinosaurs just might recognize that they’re living in a new environment, one where corrupt corporations and government agencies are no more able to control the flow of embarrassing information than record companies can control the flow of digital music files.”

This is arguably the beginning of a major phase transition back to the kinds of horizontal legibility that existed before the absolute states of the early modern period stamped them out five or six hundred years ago.

Encouraging and accelerating that transition is, ultimately, a struggle for a vigorous civil society — one capable of making the bureaucratic approach to regulation irrelevant and supplanting it.

As I’m fond of saying, the twentieth century was the era of the large organization.  By the end of the twenty-first, there won’t be enough of them left to bury.

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist