The Public. Common-Wealth. Scalability.


In these days of the hopeful disintegration of neo-liberalism, or whatever name you want to call the lunatic philosophy which in modern times Thatcher got under way, Reagan gave a healthy kick along in the US and then Keating and most alarmingly Howard then imported to these fair (work) shores, it strikes me that we need to not just to dance on its grave but to figure out how it ever seemed plausible in the first place.

I reckon there's one key way in which the fanatics of individualism got away with this variety of liberalism seeming so persuasive, for so long. They were able to persuade otherwise sensible people that only the level of the individual human being is real, and every human edifice beyond that is in some ways less real, and destructive of individual freedom and liberty. Worse, that one particular such edifice, namely government, when not enforcing law and order (i.e. protecting the property of those who already have it) is always a tyranny standing in the way of the free traffic of individual expression and action.

So like I said a while back here, it's a question of scale. They painted a picture of what little things are, and what big things are, and how they relate, and which bits are 'good' and which bits are 'bad'. I don't care much for political philosophies that don't take this sort of practical essence of what's going on into account. Organising people has always been about scales and scalability, that's not just a term geeky IT people invented in the last century. Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf.

The possibility that should stare neo-liberals in the face but stupefyingly doesn't is that people may have actually chosen to form big, collective things. I babbled on about the mechanics or architecture of how big things actually come from little things (or rather how there is no such thing as a big or little thing, there are just networks) here before, but in these days of economic meltdown the simple fact that historically people wanted big organisations like governments needs to be dragged into the middle of the debates. People wanted 'big' things, to link themselves to the interests of others and even be represented on the large scale by people, because they were utterly sick and tired of being individuals. Individualism didn't work, which is why they wanted some balancing force. Individualism turned everybody into their own little kingdom here on Earth, and the violence which resulted was relentless and endless.

But you can do even better. Because as even rational economic man knows, there is a thing called 'economies of scale'. And people discovered there were some real benefits to be had in combining forces in this way. It made life a hell of a lot easier. Capitalism uses economies of scale all the time, but bizarrely the neo-liberals who so adore the free market think that's a bad thing. In every economy of scale they see a satanistic monopoly. Never mind that the engine room of capitalism's growth has been economies of scale, they as always want their cake (capitalism) and to eat it too (no economies of scale please). Which is also why they absolutely worship small business, even though it's usually horribly inefficient and wasteful of resources. Anybody who's worked for a dreaded 'big business' quite likes the benefits they offer, made possible via their economies of scale, like better working conditions. OK some big businesses are also bastards, but so are many small businesses - the point is it isn't the size of the business that adds the goodness or the evil. Governments are really just collectives formed to serve the people who create them. The 'public' sphere is just this little engine room of usefulness that the people created to serve them.

[The anti-globalisation and anti-corporate thinkers miss the anthropological fact that business is just another way to organise people. I learned that from a theologian of all people, who was always astonished at the simplistic, misplaced criticisms of this aspect of the modern world. I sat in the tutorial he ran week after week listening to radical and even not-so-radical uni students trot out all of the standard social criticism themes, expecting the theologian to embrace their anger at corporate man, only for them to be continually astonished that he thought they were all nuts.]

We need more of the rearview historical mirror, as McLuhan said. We need to understand why our ancestors wanted big things as well as little things, so we don't rush straight back into the same hell they were desperate to avoid. When Hobbes wrote his Leviathan, the cover of which is at the top here, this was what was on peoples' minds. They were desperately trying to figure out ways to live together as a group, not as individuals. If only we had a time machine, we could send the neos of every persuasion back to Hobbes' day to enjoy the pestilence, plague and war of the world of Individual Man.

[By the way, dear reader (I hesitate to use the plural), I don't update much on weekends now because the tracker I use suggests I'm talking to myself on those days. And pretty much on all other days too, but again I enjoy myself, so that's what matters.]

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