METAtropolis as an outsider anarchist text

Paul Raven @ 27-07-2010

Just for a change, it’s not me projecting anarchist ideas onto contemporary science fiction. Instead, it’s one Margaret Killjoy (who may or may not be pseudonymous) writing at The Anvil Review, who takes a look at the John Scalzi-edited anthology METAtropolis and reads it as a selection of “outsider anarchist fiction” [hat-tip to William Gillis]:

The authors are not consciously political radicals, but they are clearly inspired by the possibilities of autonomy that have been opened up in the 21st century. I would guess that not a one of them has read Bakunin, Rolling Thunder, or anarchistnews.org; they’ve struck upon the idea of mutual aid economics and horizontal structuring largely in a vacuum.

To be honest, I think there’s an element of the vanity of the marginalised at play, there. Sure, Scalzi et al may not have read the sources Killjoy cites, but they’re hardly the only places that anarchist ideas crop up; anyone who reads Futurismic would have stumbled across the ideas of mutual aid economics and horizontal structuring, and – my personal politics aside – I don’t think anyone would claim this website as an explicitly anarchist text*. The ideas Killjoy is highlighting have been part of science fiction’s stock in trade for some time… that’s exactly where I discovered most of them, at any rate. I’m surprised at her surprise, in other words; sf is hardly the vacuum of ararchist ideas she seems to think it is.

However, once we get past Killjoy’s own outsider theatrics, she has some interesting readings to share, and raises an interesting point: that certain components of the traditional anarchist philosophical platform are indeed becoming more culturally acceptable (provided you define inclusion in science fiction stories as a badge of cultural acceptance, which I suspect would be contested vigorously by a large section of the populace), or at least acceptable enough to be put forward as plausible solutions to a difficult near-future in a fictional context.

I’m not just fascinated by the cultures that these stories present, I’m fascinated by their authors’ point of entry. I would suggest that technology culture in the 21st century is leaning more and more towards anarchist approaches. Centralization is being outed as the demon it is: centralization and homogeny are understood as the bane of a healthy online network, and many are beginning to realize that the same is true of offline networks. A sort of neo-tribalism is on the rise, as is simply understanding that people and cultures are more fascinating when viewed as webs, as horizontal networks, than as rigidly controlled and highly-formalized structures.

What’s more, intellectual property is increasingly out of vogue. A sort of anarcho-futurist mentality is on the rise: that we should borrow and steal freely from each other’s ideas, that copyright laws are an imposition on our aesthetic and creative freedom, that they stand in the way of moving our culture forward–or outward, or in whatever direction it feels like moving. Some are, I would argue, even beginning to understand that it is not that we steal ideas from one another, but that copyright and intellectual property actually represent theft from the public, enclosure of what by nature ought to be the commons. Knowledge knows no scarcity and there is no reason to charge for its dissemination.

Slowly, this critique of intellectual property is filtering out into meatspace, and now in the 21st century many geeks are coming to their own understandings of what Proudhon so famously stated in the 19th: property is theft.

Radicals would be fools to ignore this sudden appearance of fellow-travelers.

Radicals might also be fools for not realising that sf has had a fair few fellow-travellers for many years, too… but the underlying point is valid. Critiques of intellectual property, top-down power structures and the machinery of democracy are indeed rampant in modern culture, especially online, and especially in the sphere of science fiction. Whether that means sf is a vanguard for coming political change or merely a haven for otherwise unacceptable and marginal radical ideas (or perhaps both) remains to be seen.

[ * – Or maybe they would? For the record, I identify with anarchism but not as an anarchist; it’s always struck me that an ideology so obsessed with abandoning hierarchies can be so fussy about deciding who’s in and who’s out. Anarchism should surely be the -ism that rejects -isms, but – from my own outsider’s perspective, at least – it’s at least as obsessed with self-taxonomy and them-and-ussing as any other movement, if not more so… and much as I sympathise with many of the philosophies that inform them, my experience with radical groups has always brought to mind that well-known scene from Life Of Brian. Your mileage, of course, may vary. 🙂 ]


From punk rock to politics: new Icelandic career arcs

Paul Raven @ 28-06-2010

This story’s all over the place, for obvious reasons: not only has Iceland put same-sex marriages on equal footing with the more old-fashioned kind (and seen its prime minister marry her partner under said law) and signed in a raft of free speech protections to its legislature, but the capital city Reykjavik has elected a former anarcho-punk musician and stand-up comic and his lighthearted Best Party to the mayorship…

While his career may have given him visibility, few here doubt what actually propelled him into office. “It’s a protest vote,” said Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson, a political science professor at the University of Iceland.

[…]

“People know Jon Gnarr is a good comedian, but they don’t know anything about his politics,” he said. “And even as a comedian, you never know if he’s serious or if he’s joking.”

But as Mr. Gnarr settles into the mayor’s office, he does not seem to be kidding at all.

[…]

“Just because something is funny doesn’t mean it isn’t serious,” said Mr. Gnarr, whose foreign relations experience includes a radio show in which he regularly crank-called the White House, the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and police stations in the Bronx to see if they had found his lost wallet.

A vote based in protest and dissatisfaction it may be, but I find myself wondering if the Best Party will turn out to be any worse than the more traditional alternatives. There seems to be a growing discontent with party politics all over the world at the moment, and certainly here in the UK… personally, I’d be happy to trade comedians for the jokers we’ve got in Westminster right now.

More seriously, and as I suggested before, Iceland will be worth watching in the years to come because it’s a test case for mass rejection of traditional politics. To say that it’s a kneejerk reaction to the recent troubles the country has experienced is to miss seeing the wood for the trees: perhaps it’ll turn out that a polity needs to be screwed really badly by its corrupt political processes before they’ll wake up enough to start changing the system. Catastrophe has always given radicalism a boost, but now we have the tools to mobilise nationally (and globally) outside of the mechanics of electoral processes, radical change might pick up a little more momentum than it ever has before.

That cuts two ways, of course; it’d be just as easy for a fascist or fundamentalist party to take advantage of a power vacuum as it has been for Iceland’s cuddly comedian lefties. Perhaps the real lesson to take away is that it’s time we all started thinking for ourselves while we still can, instead of outsourcing our opinions to men in suits with false smiles and hidden agendas.

For now, though, I wish to restate my interest in purchasing a share in the Icelandic national identity; it sure reads like there’s more chance of change over there than here at home.