Date: Sat, 10 May 1997 21:18:22 CET
From: Igor Markovic

Space of Freedom

Igor Markovic

The essential problem of our times, regardless of many societies and countries becoming more democratic, is that freedom is in deeper and deeper trouble. Its highest possibilities are being suppressed and stepped on while a majority of the people still havenít realised their lack of freedom, nor have they realised the need for that lack to be overcome. Our mission is therefore to promote understanding of freedom and to point out the necessity of individual freedom as a pre-requirement for freedom of society and the accomplishment of democracy in its original sense. This mission is even more essential if we realise that the idea of freedom and democracy itself has become dubious and that a rationalisation of social organisation is not a sure path to greater freedom and democracy. Regardless of Toffler-type utopianisms, scientific and technological advances and the rationality of science itself do not necessarily mean that people will live rationally and without everyday mythologies, delusions and prejudices. Rational socio-political organisation often, rather than being a means of achieving freedom, turns out to be tyrannical and manipulative - a means of suppressing the individualís ability to act rationally as a free human.

I.

Democracy usually denotes rule of the people in which all people, all citizens have the same potential to participate in ruling. But in reality, democracy has not been faithful to this ideal, which incorporates freedom and equality and gives each individual real power over his life and the same (not equal!) rights in the community. The People has never been a homogenous community and democracy was regularly reduced to rule of the majority, which demanded the right to represent the entirety of people. Democracy has thus become not only rule over the minority but also, in Aristotleís version of elitism, tyranny of the elite. The French and American revolutions have shown that governmental institutions in democracy are quite often close to despotism. It is that despotism and tyranny of the elite that has limited freedom in democracy until present times. There has never been a democratic society without the momentum of despotism, which is especially evident in the new, post-communist countries - albeit itís least present in democratic societies. What can we say about virtual worlds and cyberspace in that context? Are they still the home of freedom, centre of free thought or simply an archetypal and utopian space, a safety valve of ever greater totalitarianism of real-world states? Or is it even a place of total enslavement of freedom, in place of supreme totalitarianism, which is based upon individualís conformity which is a central quality of modern society? Itís all and none of the above. Cyberspace inevitably reflects the real world, ie. consumerism, totalitarianism in the form of democracy, but it also, by its primary qualities, provides a greater workspace for different tendencies. But that workspace is far form an apotheosis of freedom. Itís simply a place in which inter-relations are more transparent and free of everyday mythology and elementary existential imperatives. Itís still a space of experiments, a space of possibilities, and the political left and right and net criticism and universities and commerce and art legitimately demand their part of it. The important thing for this little tractate is, however, nationalisation of cyberspace, which is being perpetuated equally from left and right.

II.

Current problems in Europeís political systems seem to anticipate the collapse of all democratic processes, and ultimately the incapability of governments to respond to demands of the time (Huntington). The basic problem of modern governments is the increasing pressures of political participants upon the political systems and the ever more evident inability of political systems to govern over this overgrown complex. The more a modern state is confronted with complex decisions, the feebler it becomes. Economic and social progress leads to ever bigger conflicts between interest groups, thus endangering the ideal of progress itself, including an imposition of limits upon technological progress. Enter the information explosion, and the distance - essential to classical democracy - between administrators and people becomes nearly irrelevant. Itís hard not to agree with Huntingtonís analysis, considering his political sensibility, but at the same time, itís also hard not to see that said ideas have greatly influenced Negroponte and the derivatives of the Californian ideology in pursuit of new and democratic, but surely less free online community/state. The most dangerous result of the crisis in the ability to govern is the crisis of legitimacy, for itís the forming of consensus that lies at the heart of democratic politics, and itís a bureaucratic (socialist or liberal) model in conjunction with itís lack of consensusóthe worst form of government. On this diagnosis Huntington superimposes a system of political elitism, limited political participation etc. The administrators see technological progress and cyberspace as a way out of this crisis. Current efforts in Web TV and push media are but a continuation of a perpetual striving to reduce the individual to a mere object of social events.

III.

If we think of Bakunin in the sense of Chomskyís conclusion: The consequences of such a choice are not obscure. By denying the instinct for freedom we will only prove that humans are a lethal mutation, an evolutionary dead-end; by nurturing it, if it is real, we may find ways to deal with dreadful human tragedies and problems that are awesome in scale. If the instinct for freedom exists, we must conclude that the fight for freedom is not necessarily the fight for democracy - not in the world of today. Many people forget that in democracy itís not only possible, but also quite common, to suppress the freedom of the individual, so that democracy loses the idea of freedom and deliverance.

Growing conformity instead limits and even destroys the most valuable forms of freedom, thus depriving more people of their own values and making them uniform, inert and apathetic. If, apparently given, freedom does not induce other values, but merely brings the unwanted weight of making decisions and an unpleasant feeling of responsibility, than the majority of common people will be willing to relinquish it and exchange the power to choose for material improvement. Those people do not consider the meaning and ends of freedom a question of the meaning of life, but merely try to conform as best as they can, so they can live their lives free of unpleasant experiences. In this time and age most valued individuals are not the ones that think for themselves, but the ones that are fit and melted into the mass of a big organization (Microsoft). In such an age democracy is the most efficient means of domination and freedom, as stated by Marcuse, conformist democratic nonfreedom. But, hope remains that people will never be satisfied with being syllables in godís mouth and that individual differences will always be a substantial obstacle in the way of total assimilation of the individual into the tissue of the state, as is the case in cyberspace.

That is why today any fight for freedom represents a clear awareness that the spirit of conformity is not truly human and that it is the negation of the highest values of freedom.

IV.

Cyberspaces offer great means of exchange between individuals, communities and democracy, and that is why, according to Rheingold, we must try to understand the nature of CMC, cyberspace, and virtual communities in every important context - politically, economically, socially, cognitively. This can prove to be of crucial importance not only for us as individuals, who in our little pockets of resistance try to wrestle off multinationalism and similar processes (because, as CAE pointed out, thatís not enough), but also in permanently demystifying the vision of on-line communities of virtual identities, that do not have bodies, so order cannot be perpetuated by physical repression (J P Barlow).

While the greatest part of our fight for freedom and the free expression of the individual goes on in the virtual world, it is deliverance in the real world thatís the only way to build the virtual world as a space of freedom.