Open and closed: inside-and-against polyarchy

Openness is today a powerful cult, a religion with its own dogmas.” So writes Evgeny Morozov, who goes on to state that:

This fascination with “openness” stems mostly from the success of open-source software, publicly accessible computer code that anyone is welcome to improve. But lately it has been applied to everything from politics to philanthropy… For many institutions, “open” has become the new “green.” And in the same way that companies will “greenwash” their initiatives by invoking eco-friendly window dressing to hide less-palatable practices, there has also emerged a term to describe similar efforts to read “openness” into situations and environments where it doesn’t exist: “openwashing.” Alas, “openwashing,” as catchy as it sounds, only questions the authenticity of “open” initiatives; it doesn’t tell us what kinds of “openness,” if any, are worth pursuing. We must differentiate the many different types of “open.”

It is Morozov’s focus on the politics of openness that resonates:

Of course, it’s important to involve citizens in solving problems. But who gets to decide which “particular problem” citizens tackle in the first place? And how does one delineate the contours of this “problem”? In open-source software, such decisions are often made by managers and clients. But in democratic politics, citizens both steer the ship (with some delegation) and do the rowing. In open-source politics, all they do is row.

This is important in light of Söderberg‘s First Monday article on Copyleft vs Copyright, which also highlights issues of power.

Companies like Netscape are attracted to free software, Open Source proponents exclaim, for the innovative capacity of the community. Another way to put it, lost to would-be Open Source revolutionaries, is that companies seek to slash labour costs. If companies are allowed to tap the unpaid, innovative labour of the community, inhouse and waged labour will be pushed out by the market imperative to cut down on personnel expenses. Inevitably, the employment and wage situation for software programmers, the livelihood of many in the free software community, will be dumped. The dangers of not making a critical analysis could not be demonstrated more clearly.

Which reminds me that a year ago I wrote for the communal university in the face of debt and polyarchy, and its strikes me that our fetishisation of open and openness, from the UK Government’s current open source fad to Western educators’ focus on MOOCs, form part of a set of solutions that are focused on creating structures for the accumulation of finance and cognitive capital, which are themselves predicated on polyarchic governance principles. The focus on open and openness has to be seen in light of austerity politics and the current political economic crisis; it is predicated on cycles of production/consumption and barriers to the accumulation of value. Moreover, their co-option by venture/finance capital operating inside private providers/using educational technology start-ups, restrict any meaningful discussion of open education as emancipatory. It is simply reduced to normative or deterministic ends, like employability or learning for work. If we learn anything from the IPPR avalanche report it is that open is a function of work. Thus, if they are to mean anything, open and openness have to be rehabilitated politically in the face of the circuits of intellectual and finance capital.

Ideas surrounding the communal university seem more prescient in light of Morozov’s claim that

a victory for “openness” might also signify defeat for democratic politics, ambitious policy reform and much else. Perhaps we should impose a moratorium on the very word “open.” Just imagine the possibilities this could open up!

For Söderberg the argument is clearly historical and material:

Conflicts are likely to evolve around the control, accessibility, and flow of profit allowed by the license especially as companies try to maximise the distance between the free labour pools engaged in any project while narrowing the conditions of use of the result

However, the distinguishing and most promising feature of free software is that it has mushroomed spontaneously and entirely outside of previous capital structures of production. It has built a parallel economy that outperforms the market economy. This can be taken as an indication of how the productive forces are undermining established relations of production.

So I repeat myself here at length.

The question then becomes how [academics might] respond [to the current debt-fulled crises of higher education]. However, responses tend to be unable to see beyond the politics of power that are revealed inside capitalism. Thus, we see clarion calls for a better capitalism, or for equality of opportunity or for equality, without a critique of our history of labour-in-capitalism from which these values emerge. As we are unable to take a systemic view of the crisis, we are unable to separate out how we define our humanist values from our need to create value as the primary form of social mediation within capitalism. Our values are predicated on liberal democracy, on tropes of equality or liberty, or on often ill-defined practices/qualities like respect or openness. Even inside the University, we are unable to think the unthinkable; to imagine a different form of life.

In attempting a more meaningful critique we might seek to locate the University inside the emerging critiques of polyarchy and network governance. Polyarchy is an attempt to define an elitist form of democracy that would be manageable in a modern society. It focuses upon normalising what can be fought for politically, in terms of: organisational contestation through free and fair elections; the right to participate and contest offices; and the right to freedom of speech and to form organisations. This forms a set of universal, transhistorical norms. It is simply not acceptable to argue for other forms of value or organisation without appearing to be a terrorist, communist, dissident or agitator. Within the structures of polyarchy it no longer becomes possible to address the structural dominance of elites within capitalism, or its limited procedural definition of democracy inside capitalism. Compounding this political enclosure is the control of the parameters of discussions about values or value-relationships like democracy and equality, or power and class, or as George Caffentzis argues over the morality of student loan debt refusal.

Key here then is to understand how the University supports the ways in which neoliberal capitalism intentionally designs, promotes and manages forms of democracy and governance that complement its material objectives, limit participation and power-sharing, and support coercion. Thus we might question how the rhetoric of student-as-consumer [or open practices that emerge from inside or against the University] enables the market to penetrate the sector, in order to open its resources up to the dominant or hegemonic order, and to manufacture consent for its practices. Manufacturing this consent depends upon coercion of the political cadre of organisational leaders. However, it is critical that once economic and productive power has been extended into, for instance, the educational space, that domination extends to the political, social and class-based relations in that space, through the implementation of ideological control throughout the mechanisms/institutions and cultures of civil society [including the ideas of open and openness]. We are simply not allowed to step beyond the controlling logic of the rights of consumers.

Part of the response might be shaped by a critique of network politics and power inside counter-hierarchies. Gramsci, whilst accepting the base-superstructure relationships of Second International Marxism, saw these relationships as a fluid interplay of forces in which different power and political configurations were possible, and where new hegemonies could emerge from the interplay between political and civil society. Developing these new counter-hegemonies or alternative spaces both for organising civil society and for imaging new forms of value, depended not upon the market or the rights of consumers, but on human consciousness and human relationships [and these might need to be open/closed/different].

Thus, any focus on networks as [open or] decentralised political spaces, or as participative, democratic alternatives has to be placed inside and against a critique of power and political economy. Those networks are themselves not the response to crises of political society, riven as they are with issues of power, social capital and hierarchy. What they offer is a new set of spaces for the construction of revolutionary potential, especially where they are underpinned by a communication commons that resists the reincorporation or normalisation of communicative action and dissent by capital. It might be argued that this is a key element to the occupy movement, that it incorporates diverse educational spaces for testing the truisms of civil society, and for re-imagining the world that is against and possibly beyond capital. This is not to reify what is offered as free [or open] on the web but which is circumscribed and embedded within capitalist social relations and which therefore offers no transformatory potential.

In recovering the possibility of overcoming socio-environmental dislocations, new forms of resistance that are against polyarchy and precription in education are needed. In the past we might have imagined these emerging from incubation inside the University. The obsession with free content, revealed in the clamour for openness or open or free, distracts us from the revolutionary need for general assemblies as democratic potentialities within education, for militant research strategies and for undertaking educational activity in public. Now we might have to imagine new forms of University life inside the Commune, where we can reveal the transnational nature of the attack on our educational lives, which uses procedural control over values like democracy and equality [and openness] in order to kettle our existence and extend the rule of money. The question then is how to turn that Communal University into meaningful counter-hegemonic practice that can resist, push back against and overturn the rule of money.

This means developing critiques of the ways in which transhistorical norms like open, or transhistorical values like openness, are subsumed under the imperatives of growth and the mechanisms for the accumulation of value. As Söderberg notes:

The productivity of social labour power impels corporations to subjugate the activity of communities. But here rouses a contradiction to capital, on one hand it prospers from the technologically skilled, unpaid, social labour of users; on the other hand it must suppress the knowledge power of those users to protect the intellectual property regime. To have it both ways, capital can only rely on its hegemonic force.

Without a critique of open or openness as historically-situated forms that normalise what can be fought for politically, the movements to which we ascribe, and which we claim as open, will simply be co-opted for consent inside austerity politics.


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