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Some time ago I re-published in this blog The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto written by a young online activist called Aaron Swartz. This last Friday came the news that Swartz had committed suicide at the age of 26. At the time of his death, Swartz was facing charges for breaking into the MIT network to download paywalled academic articles that could have placed him in prison for a very long time.

I’m not going to speculate on the reasons why Swartz decided to end his life, or comment on the disproportionality of his charges. Instead, I’m going to highlight a remarkable campaign that has been spreading in the social media: hundreds, if not thousands of academics have been tweeting free download links to their own papers that have been published in subscription journals, in tribute to Swartz. One can only hope that this will be the beginning of an awakening that will see an end to the information monopoly that has the academic world in a stranglehold. After all, it’s the academics whose work has been essentially stolen by these corporate vultures that have never contributed anything to society.

The US government has, predictably, positioned itself firmly on the side of capital and against freedom of information and human progress. However, while they may be able to destroy the life of one man, but they won’t be able to terrorise the entire international academic community. The Open Access Manifesto is now more relevant than ever.

Edit: You can now honour Swartz’s memory with a couple of clicks by liberating an article from the JSTOR library using this bookmarklet.

What is money?

 

Anthropologist David Graeber and Charles Eisenstein, author of the Book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition (2011), tackle the age-old question of the nature of money and its implications to society in this discussion that was held at NYU’s Kimmel Center in New York City on August 22, 2012. The sound recording isn’t very good in the video, but do bear with it.

This is the introduction from the new book Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet (2012), based on discussions Julian Assange had earlier this year with fellow hackers Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann.

“This book is not a manifesto. There is not time for that. This book is a warning.

The world is not sliding, but galloping into a new transnational dystopia. This development has not been properly recognized outside of national security circles. It has been hidden by secrecy, complexity and scale. The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen. The internet is a threat to human civilization.

These transformations have come about silently, because those who know what is going on work in the global surveillance industry and have no incentives to speak out. Left to its own trajectory, within a few years, global civilization will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible. In fact, we may already be there.

While many writers have considered what the internet means for global civilization, they are wrong. They are wrong because they do not have the sense of perspective that direct experience brings. They are wrong because they have never met the enemy.

No description of the world survives first contact with the enemy.

We have met the enemy.

Over the last six years WikiLeaks has had conflicts with nearly every powerful state. We know the new surveillance state from an insider’s perspective, because we have plumbed its secrets. We know it from a combatant’s perspective, because we have had to protect our people, our finances and our sources from it. We know it from a global perspective, because we have people, assets and information in nearly every country. We know it from the perspective of time, because we have been fighting this phenomenon for years and have seen it double and spread, again and again. It is an invasive parasite, growing fat off societies that merge with the internet. It is rolling over the planet, infecting all states and peoples before it.

What is to be done?

Once upon a time in a place that was neither here nor there, we, the constructors and citizens of the young internet discussed the future of our new world.

We saw that the relationships between all people would be mediated by our new world, and that the nature of states, which are defined by how people exchange information, economic value, and force, would also change.

We saw that the merger between existing state structures and the internet created an opening to change the nature of states.

First, recall that states are systems through which coercive force flows. Factions within a state may compete for support, leading to democratic surface phenomena, but the underpinnings of states are the systematic application, and avoidance, of violence. Land ownership, property, rents, dividends, taxation, court fines, censorship, copyrights and trademarks are all enforced by the threatened application of state violence.

Most of the time we are not even aware of how close to violence we are, because we all grant concessions to avoid it. Like sailors smelling the breeze, we rarely contemplate how our surface world is propped up from below by darkness.

In the new space of the internet what would be the mediator of coercive force?

Does it even make sense to ask this question? In this otherworldly space, this seemingly platonic realm of ideas and information flow, could there be a notion of coercive force? A force that could modify historical records, tap phones, separate people, transform complexity into rubble, and erect walls, like an occupying army?

The platonic nature of the internet, ideas and information flows, is debased by its physical origins. Its foundations are fiber optic cable lines stretching across the ocean floors, satellites spinning above our heads, computer servers housed in buildings in cities from New York to Nairobi. Like the soldier who slew Archimedes with a mere sword, so too could an armed militia take control of the peak development of Western civilization, our platonic realm.

The new world of the internet, abstracted from the old world of brute atoms, longed for independence. But states and their friends moved to control our new world — by controlling its physical underpinnings. The state, like an army around an oil well, or a customs agent extracting bribes at the border, would soon learn to leverage its control of physical space to gain control over our platonic realm. It would prevent the independence we had dreamed of, and then, squatting on fiber optic lines and around satellite ground stations, it would go on to mass intercept the information flow of our new world — its very essence even as every human, economic, and political relationship embraced it. The state would leech into the veins and arteries of our new societies, gobbling up every relationship expressed or communicated, every web page read, every message sent and every thought googled, and then store this knowledge, billions of interceptions a day, undreamed of power, in vast top secret warehouses, forever. It would go on to mine and mine again this treasure, the collective private intellectual output of humanity, with ever more sophisticated search and pattern finding algorithms, enriching the treasure and maximizing the power imbalance between interceptors and the world of interceptees. And then the state would reflect what it had learned back into the physical world, to start wars, to target drones, to manipulate UN committees and trade deals, and to do favors for its vast connected network of industries, insiders and cronies.

But we discovered something. Our one hope against total domination. A hope that with courage, insight and solidarity we could use to resist. A strange property of the physical universe that we live in.

The universe believes in encryption.

It is easier to encrypt information than it is to decrypt it.

We saw we could use this strange property to create the laws of a new world. To abstract away our new platonic realm from its base underpinnings of satellites, undersea cables and their controllers. To fortify our space behind a cryptographic veil. To create new lands barred to those who control physical reality, because to follow us into them would require infinite resources.

And in this manner to declare independence.

Scientists in the Manhattan Project discovered that the universe permitted the construction of a nuclear bomb. This was not an obvious conclusion. Perhaps nuclear weapons were not within the laws of physics. However, the universe believes in atomic bombs and nuclear reactors. They are a phenomenon the universe blesses, like salt, sea or stars.

Similarly, the universe, our physical universe, has that property that makes it possible for an individual or a group of individuals to reliably, automatically, even without knowing, encipher something, so that all the resources and all the political will of the strongest superpower on earth may not decipher it. And the paths of encipherment between people can mesh together to create regions free from the coercive force of the outer state. Free from mass interception. Free from state control.

In this way, people can oppose their will to that of a fully mobilized superpower and win. Encryption is an embodiment of the laws of physics, and it does not listen to the bluster of states, even transnational surveillance dystopias.

It isn’t obvious that the world had to work this way. But somehow the universe smiles on encryption.

Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action. While nuclear weapons states can exert unlimited violence over even millions of individuals, strong cryptography means that a state, even by exercising unlimited violence, cannot violate the intent of individuals to keep secrets from them.

Strong cryptography can resist an unlimited application of violence. No amount of coercive force will ever solve a math problem.

But could we take this strange fact about the world and build it up to be a basic emancipatory building block for the independence of mankind in the platonic realm of the internet? And as societies merged with the internet could that liberty then be reflected back into physical reality to redefine the state?

Recall that states are the systems which determine where and how coercive force is consistently applied.

The question of how much coercive force can seep into the platonic realm of the internet from the physical world is answered by cryptography and the cypherpunks’ ideals.

As states merge with the internet and the future of our civilization becomes the future of the internet, we must redefine force relations.

If we do not, the universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control.

We must raise an alarm. This book is a watchman’s shout in the night.

On March 20, 2012, while under house arrest in the United Kingdom awaiting extradition, I met with three friends and fellow watchmen on the principle that perhaps in unison our voices can wake up the town. We must communicate what we have learned while there is still a chance for you, the reader, to understand and act on what is happening.

It is time to take up the arms of our new world, to fight for ourselves and for those we love.

Our task is to secure self-determination where we can, to hold back the coming dystopia where we cannot, and if all else fails, to accelerate its self-destruction.

— Julian Assange, London, October 2012”

How to take up the challenge, then? One way to start is to organise a CryptoParty. We need to bring cryptography into the mainstream.

 

Physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra discusses in this talk the scientific thinking of Leonardo da Vinci. Capra argues that Leonardo was the first scientist to apply the scientific method based on systematic observation of nature. Leonardo, however, did not perceive the world as a combination of isolated objects. He was interested in living forms, patterns, processes, movement, growth and connections between things. He observed the world artistically by drawing it, which lead to a more holistic, qualitative grasp of phenomena. Capra sees Leonardo’s approach as more akin to systems thinking than the mechanistic Cartesian worldview still prevalent in science until quite recently. The talk was held at the Schumacher College in Totnes in May 2010.

What is permaculture?

 

In this talk David Holmgren provides a concise overview of permaculture thinking. He sees permaculture as a creative response to the oncoming period of energy descent where the use of non-renewable and slowly renewable resources will by necessity come drastically down. The goal of permaculture is not so much to approach a steady-state plateau of resource use, but to initiate an ongoing process of natural regeneration. In discussing food production, Holmgren emphasises the need to redesign not just the way we produce food, but also the ways we distribute and consume it. He goes on to outline a number of rather specific tasks to be carried out to move towards these goals. The talk was held at the Feasta Food Security Conference in Dublin on June 25, 2005.

Author and Occupy activist Yotam Marom tackles in his article the age-old question of reformism versus revolution. The article was originally published in the book We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation (2012). Here’s an excerpt discussing the nature of revolutions:

“In school, history is taught around dates and figures. We learn that revolutions are led by gallant individuals, and fought on certain days. We see images of revolutionary flags billowing on liberated mountaintops, of magnificent leaders applauded by masses of people, of moments of struggle when old orders collapse and new ones take their place.

But we rarely read of the decades of hard organizing that led up to those moments, the fight for small gains all along the way, the many working people of all colors and genders and sexual orientations who fought for survival day in day out making the movement a reality, the countless smaller uprisings that won smaller victories, the many that were crushed along the way. And we learn very little, too, about the struggle that takes place after momentary victories – the incredible work of transforming ourselves and those around us, of building institutions that facilitate a free society, of fighting again and again to keep what we’ve won, of the beautiful struggle of resisting, reclaiming, and reconstructing over and over again.

We have to come to terms with that history, although it might not be as appealing.  We’ve got to outgrow the idea that the revolution is an event to be measured in moments and actions, and that it’s just around the corner – that all we need are oppressive conditions and a match to light the flame. Those notions are based on immature premises, proven wrong time and time again, that the worse things get, the more likely we are to rise up – that reform, because it makes peoples’ lives better, is counter-revolutionary. We have to confront that thinking, because it’s popular, it’s sexy, it comes up over and over throughout history, and because it is cruel, empirically false, and incredibly divisive to the movement.

On a very basic level, that kind of thinking is heartless. A theory that compels us to oppose measures that would materially improve people’s lives in the service of some abstract goal cannot possibly be driven by the compassion, love, and idealism that must be at the center of any worthwhile revolution. The consequences of theories like this are disproportionately felt by those already most oppressed and most marginalized, and often proposed and defended by those with great privilege.

But even more to the point, it’s empirically untrue. The theory itself – that deep crisis on its own leads to revolution if it is met with a spark – is bankrupt. If all it took was conditions being terrible and a vanguard marching in the streets to wake everyone up, we wouldn’t need to be having this conversation. It’s already bad enough – just how awful does it have to get? The truth is it’s harder to fight back under worse conditions, not easier. The many working people all across this country struggling around the clock to support their families, straddled with debt, or facing foreclosure can attest to how hard it is to scrape together the time to be a revolutionary while constantly facing crisis. So can political organizers living in police states like Egypt, or under military occupations like Afghanistan, or close to starvation in places like Haiti where people eat cakes made of mud to survive. Desperation doesn’t mean it is any easier to be a revolutionary; it just means more suffering.

There is no magical tipping point, no low point so low that it automatically compels us to fight, no spark so compelling that is spontaneously wakes us all up. We fight because of our concrete experiences of oppression as well as the little bittersweet tastes of freedom we have pieced together, because of our education and the culture around us or the unexplained ways in which we have learned to reject them, because of hard organizing people have done for decades to prepare us, because a whole host of other factors we don’t even understand. In many cases, actually, we rise up not when we are absolutely desperate, but when we have won a little bit – enough to realize our collective strength.

Revolution is not event, but a process. There is nothing inevitable about it, and our freedom is not historically determined. To win it, we have to build movements able to fight for it, movements that struggle over long periods of time to knock down the institutions of the status quo and replace them with the institutions of a free society. That means growing, practicing, learning, teaching, and winning things that put the movement in an increasingly better position to win more; it means fighting back to protect ourselves while pushing forward to create new possibilities.”

Marco Berlinguer from the Transform! network maps here some potential points of rupture in our current form of capitalism. Excerpted from his article over at openDemocracy.

“Let’s put it simply. We are still living in a capitalist society; and in the last twenty years, one major change has been the qualitatively new importance of information, communication and knowledge both in the economy and in society at large. These two frameworks are overlapping, but they do not necessarily coincide which leads to some important problems and tensions worth closer study.

First, where knowledge, information and communication play a central role, the processes of production appear intrinsically and more immediately social. They benefit and rely on flows and networks of production which go beyond the formal boundaries of any specific organisation (not to say single individuals). This gives more prominence to the forces of cooperation and of mutual interdependence and presses any institution to experiment in organisational logics based on openness to the ‘outside’. This, for example, is one reason for the success of open source within a growing segment of IT-industry. More significantly this ‘openness’ is the logic behind the internet itself: an open architecture is its initial conception and the secret of its incredible (and fundamentally unplanned and decentralised) development.

But there is also another aspect of this social nature of production that needs to be noted: in many senses, the flows of production appeared to shift away from the formal boundaries of what is traditionally considered productive work, to spread into society at large. The gargantuan literature in business and media studies about the increasing blurring of the divide between consumer and producer has to do with this phenomenon. But just consider Google’s model of value production – that is, offering for free online services and platforms of social networks, to then exploit the user- generated data and contents in various ways – and here is one emblematic example of this shift.

In any case, the general problem which then emerges is that the social nature of these processes seems to put pressure on any regulatory, governance and accounting system closed within the boundaries of formally isolated organisations. This is well reflected in the proliferation of mechanisms of governance that stems directly from the need to regulate the collaborative action of a multiplicity of protagonists who are autonomous and so not governable by simple authoritative mechanisms. But, more deeply, this configuration also brings people to questioning the adequacy, legitimacy and efficiency of property regimes as we know them, be they private or state mechanisms. The increasing rediscovery of the notion of commons by these movements and many beyond them – has its roots here. Though yet arguably indefinite, it reflects the search for a new conceptual guide in the design of institutional frameworks more attuned to these new relations of production.

Let’s now turn to another aspect: the nature and organisation of work. When we look at the qualities which need to be mobilised and at the forms of organisation of production in these spheres, we observe an increasing importance of attitudes and capacities such as creativity, flexibility, development of information, continuous learning, problem-solving, initiative, communicational and relational skills, decision-making, attention, experiential/practical/”tacit” knowledge. Now, what makes these qualities peculiar is that they are embedded in individuals and are not easily reproducible and controllable through planned command or automated mechanisms. Moreover, they depend on motivations which are not easily reducible to the monetary, as is recognised in the same management literature and experience and as the experience of [Free Culture]-movements widely confirms. The necessity to deal with such a workforce and processes of production has been indeed one of the major sources of the crisis in the Fordist organisation of production and of innovation in management styles. But the puzzle for governance in these productive forces – which reflects a blurring of entrepreneurial and managerial functions and of dependent work – is far from being solved.

However, there is another dimension where the experience of the FC-movements is interesting. There are experiments of a different kind around these problems and these potentials which have contributed to re-framing in a different way complicated problems related to the meshing and mobilisation of different motivations, non-hierarchical division of labour, collaboration and coordination, and so on. And quite interestingly, they have done all this by experimenting with new notions of what constitutes property, working on the basis of a distributional/sharing – rather than exclusive – approach to property, conceiving themselves as producing common resources.

There is, finally, a third cluster of problems which I would like to highlight in this brief and very incomplete map. The increased immaterial and social nature of the processes of production and of products is creating a series of problems in the systems of measures. Economists, policy-makers and the business literature all struggle to define new parameters for the measure of the value of capital, of work, of wealth, of productivity. Such problems are evidently further complicated by the digital revolution, which made it possible that a digital product, once created, can be potentially reproduced “easier, faster, ubiquitously and almost free”; and which, moreover, is subversively creating social practices that are exploring an economy based on principles like, “not scarcity, not rivalry, not exclusivity”, that is something which evidently troubles basic rules both of economy and of the control of the appropriation of value. In this lies another clue that fundamental difficulties are emerging, which point toward what could be called a crisis of the system of value – which, indeed, has many other roots, well beyond this realm.

All this doesn’t mean that these problems are not solvable in principle within a capitalist framework. We can already observe innovative mechanisms of accumulation which effectively deal with these new developments. What is more dubious is that they can be managed without fundamental changes in the institutional framework.”

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