The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
Domination & networks image

In reply to Tkacz, Mathieu O’Neil argues that ANT and Foucault’s networked conception of power does not account for how domination is reproduced over time or for people’s inner sense of justice, preventing ANT from constituting a credible alternative.

Domination § Networks

A response to Nathaniel Tkacz by Mathieu O’Neil

Commons-based peer production projects such as free software communities or Wikipedia represent a really existing example of a fairer way of allocating resources and resolving conflicts. They have accordingly generated high interest in issues of ‘governance’. Nathaniel Tkacz argues that Actor-Network-Theory’s Foucault-inspired reading of power as a distributed phenomenon represents an appropriate way to map and contest power asymmetries both in peer projects and in wider society (the ‘status quo’). In contrast to Tkacz, I argue that a networked conception of power fails to account for how domination is reproduced over time or for people’s inner sense of justice. I suggest some ways in which organisation studies can contribute to a better understanding of power in anti-authoritarian groups, and conclude by outlining in what way peer production governance can be said to constitute a credible alternative.  

ANT is characterised by a questioning of the classical definition of how science is constructed. Embracing social constructivism, it stresses that there are variations in how people experience reality and that research is always subjective. ANT’s scientific rejection of ‘positivism’ is accompanied by a political rejection of the classic Marxist view of Hegelianism. The aim of philosophy, wrote Marx, should not be to write about society, but to change it: ‘Philosophy cannot realize itself without abolishing the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot abolish itself without realizing philosophy’ (Marx, 1977). A central aspect of ANT, says Tkacz in his response to Söderberg, is that the ‘distinction between “theory” as something ineffectual or outside the material world, and practice (praxis) as the related thing that actually effects change, is not maintained’.

To understand how this fusion is realised, a background check is necessary. It is no coincidence that Tkacz refers to Michel Foucault in his discussion of ANT. One of the sacred notions ‘deconstructionists’ or ‘post-structuralists’ rose against was that there was a messianic subject of history, the proletariat, which would necessarily achieve revolution. A means to achieve this was to argue, as did Foucault, that power and agency are distributed in society. As Tkacz writes, ANT has taken this idea one step further, so that ‘this distributed notion of agency (…) does not privilege material things at the expense of signs, images, texts or words, but rather seeks to place them on the same ontological level’.

The Foucauldian notion that power is decentered has assumed quasi-orthodoxic status in diverse intellectual circles. Briefly, the argument goes as follows: power is not just repressive, but also a producer of subjectivity. Power shapes subjects through techniques and practices that are normalised into ways of conceiving the world and also structure actions in the world, including resistance to these techniques and practices (Clegg et al., 2006). As a result, contestation of power becomes difficult. As noted by one of Foucault’s chief advocates, Judith Butler (2005), liberation always ends up in new forms of oppression.[1] Consequently, resistance, for subjects, can only be exercised though oblique strategies of subversion – moving frontiers of power and especially of language (the orthodoxy also holds that power is primarily constituted through language) from the inside, using such strategies as irony, détournement, ‘tactical media’.

In the case of ANT, things at first appear slightly different. It is the act of mapping ‘relations of force’ which will serve to subvert domination. Here it is necessary to quote Tkacz at length: ‘Within ANT, however, this process of description is itself thought to have political significance in that it either reinforces existing relations of power, and thereby makes them “more real”, or offers a description that disturbs the established status quo, thereby making it problematic and less real, believable and certain (Law 2004). This politics of description partly stems from a belief in the performative nature of linguistic statements: knowledge is never a more or less faithful reflection of the world (…) In ANT, to describe the world differently is always already to “change it”.’

Tkacz is probably overstating the discursive dimension of ANT, as for example Bruno Latour is quite insistent about rejecting a Derridean focus on discourse, notably by including objects in the mapping process. But it is another central tenet of ANT – its refusal to discriminate between actants –  that appears much more problematic. To put it simply, not all actants are equal. At some point ANT will have to acknowledge that calcium, whatever admirable properties it may possess, does not have political agency, in contrast to other actants. Tkacz acknowledges as much when he writes ‘different sets of relations enable different kinds and levels of agency, some of which are clearly better than others’.  But this does not really resolve the issue. For focusing only on existing network properties prevents ANT, just like its more mathematically inclined cousin, Social Network Analysis (SNA), from accounting for the following question: why is it only certain types, or categories, or classes, of actants, always the same, who accumulate power in society? By understanding actants (ANT) or nodes (SNA) solely in terms of relations and translations such as inscriptions into objects (ANT), and in terms of clusters, centralities and densities (SNA), network-centric methodologies cannot consider the justice of the distribution of capacities and powers between these actants. The wider political implication is clear: far from being subverted, the status quo is, in fact, comforted by an exclusively relational focus.

What is remarkable is that a critique of the networked conception of power in society was formulated twenty years ago about Michel Foucault (McCarty, 1990); that Pierre Bourdieu repeatedly made the central point that some social actors have inherited forms of power – whether economic, social or cultural – which give them an advantage over other actors (Bourdieu, 1996); that others have pointed out how ANT closely mirrors the neoliberal understanding of markets as places where competition can flourish because all actors are the same (McClellan 1996; Mirowski & Nik-Khah, 2007). Despite all this, the conception of power as detached from systematically unjust concentrations continues to be treated as a viable proposition.

This may simply be attributable to ignorance of opinions which contradict an orthodoxic discourse. Like Söderberg, I can’t help noticing that something presented as a striking novelty of ANT – its insistence that the actions of individuals are conditioned by the relations they enter into (Tkacz: ‘without a ball, a team, field, umpire and opposition it is not possible to be “a soccer player”, with all the skills and identity traits that go along with it. These capacities are only possible, they only manifest, in relation to the network’) – precisely echo SNA, or Bourdieu’s notion that society is made up of overlapping ‘fields’ of relationships, each with their own ‘rules of the game’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992).

I also note in passing that it is a little weird that Tkacz should conclude his defense of ANT by calling for a more precise understanding of mechanisms of power in peer producing communities, as if no-one had ever done such an analysis, and then send it for comment and edits to someone who published a book on this very topic (O’Neil, 2009), a fact of which he is no doubt aware. It’s true that Marxist theory does not address the practicalities of coordinating action when all participants are volunteers. That’s why I turned to the Weberian notion that power needs to be legitimated. But how can classic social scientific concepts such as ‘authority’ escape the charge that they are totalising master narratives?

For someone who devoted such energy to systematically destroying the ideals of emancipation and humanism as tools of power, it is hard to explain why Foucault spent so much time campaigning against abuses within the political, psychiatric, judiciary, and prison systems (Bouveresse, 1984). Perhaps he felt, when he witnessed the powerful oppress the weak, the stirrings of a moral compass, of a sense of what is right and wrong? The existence of an inner sense of justice may well point to a common humanity, which not only concerns Western thinkers, but other traditions as well – see for example Amartya Sen (2010) on the Indian example. This sense of justice can operate as an anchor in the networked space of flows.

The governance structures of anti-authoritarian groups have traditionally been neglected by researchers, compared to more established or conventional organisations. However, early conceptualisations do exist. In 1960, Harrison described decentralised church groups as ‘volunteer associations’. He argued that such anti-authoritarian groups are always unstable because of their contrary requirements: ‘they require a bureaucracy to realise the mission of their organisations [but] their ideology is rooted in democratic traditions which are inimical to the tendency of technical bureaucracy to depersonalise the individual and to segregate roles on a functional and hierarchical basis’ (236).

Following the expansion of activist groups and of projects such as free medical clinics, legal collectives, food cooperatives, free schools, and alternative newspapers in the 1970s, Rothschild-Whitt (1979) defined ‘collectivist organisations’ as alternative institutions which ‘self-consciously reject the norms of rational-bureaucracy’. Aside from their ’value-rational’ orientation to social action (i.e., based on belief in the justness of a cause), collectivist organisations are groups in which authority resides not in the individual, by virtue of incumbency in office or expertise, but ‘in the collectivity as a whole’; decisions become authoritative to the extent that all members have the right to full and equal participation. There are no established rules of order, no formal motions and amendments, no votes, but instead a ‘consensus process in which all members participate in the collective formulation of problems and negotiation of decisions’ (511-512).

More recently such horizontal organisations have been described as ‘adhocracies’ (Mintzberg & McHugh, 1985) or as ‘heterarchies’ (Fairtlough, 2005). Researchers have focused on the emergence of democratic structures in FLOSS projects on the one hand (Auray, 2005; O’Mahony & Ferraro, 2007) and on new forms of corporate bureaucratic control on the other (Barker, 1999; Courpasson, 2000). The spread of distributed work in corporations has generated concepts which could be useful to analysts of peer production projects, such as the different kinds of conflict which occur in organisations (see Hinds & Bailey, 2003; Jehn, 2003; Mannix et al., 2002). These concepts can be used to determine how ‘online tribal bureaucracies’ differ from both communes and corporate bureaus (O’Neil, 2009).

Organisational studies do not feature in Lovink and Rossiter’s (2005) description of ‘organised networks’. Tkacz refers to this notion in his conclusion, as an example of the sort of cultural-activist project which he feels Critical Studies in Peer Production resembles. The ‘organised networks’ text is a dizzying mix: there are trenchant statements, such as the authors’ prescient understanding of free content users being exploited by hardware vendors and connection providers; or their observation that ‘people benefiting from such endeavours as the World Summit of the Information Society are, for the most part, those on the speaking and funding circuits, not people who are supposedly represented in such a process’. There are strategies for generating funds for cultural-artistic groups. There are pertinent questions: ‘Why is it so difficult for networks to scale up?’ [2]

And finally, Lovink and Rossiter’s paper features statements such as the following: ‘No matter what you think of Derrida, networks do not deconstruct society. It is deep linkages that matters, not some symbolic coup d’état. If there is an aim, it would be to parallel hegemony, which can only be achieved if underlying premises are constantly put under scrutiny by the initiators of the next techno-social wave of innovations.’ The opening sentences opposes ‘deep linkages’ to more superficial or symbolic actions: fair enough, but what exactly is meant by the ‘parallelizing of hegemony’? Once the discursive acrobatics have been put aside, we find ourselves in a familiar conundrum: how to contest power if power is everywhere around? How does one reach a ‘strategic’ dimension, something both Lovink & Rossiter and Tkacz argue for?

Tkacz’s statement that ‘political action is increasingly returning to and rediscovering the practice of living differently, of creating alternatives’, whilst a bit odd (when did political action ever stop doing that?) raises a useful, if familiar point: what should be done? In fact, another question needs to be addressed first: creating alternatives to what? What the justice of the distribution of capacities and powers between actants constitutes is the social order.

The contemporary social order is all at once patriarchal, capitalist and technocratic-industrial. A peer production project’s primary aims should be practical: for example, supporting people and initiatives which increase, wherever it is possible, the sphere of peer and gratis production, provided that sexism, homophobia and racism are absent. As regards capitalism, French writer Jean Zin (2010) makes a useful point when he says that what matters is to ‘nibble away’ at capitalism. Capitalism is not going to go away. What can be done right now is, as much as possible, to restrict its territory. In terms of technocracy, what matters for peer production projects is to always debate publicly and transparently, on the merits: the opposite of secretive and exclusive technocratic processes. In terms of industry, a political aim would be to articulate, and communicate, how peer and gratis production are part of the solution to the ecological crisis. The wider context in which we exist is this existential threat. For the industrial-capitalist system to change we need to relocalise our lives, and peer production, with its emphasis on DIY, cooperation and direct democracy certainly has a role to play in this process.

[1] In an article entitled ‘The Professor of Parody’, Martha Nussbaum (1999) has argued that Butler’s discursive and academic feminism constitutes a regression in the struggle against sexism.

[2] This is an important issue if free software and peer production are to compete with commercial/closed systems. I attended a workshop in Belgium in 2010 which brought together free software activists and hackers, researchers, and local and regional government officials, some of which were very favourably disposed toward free software as an alternative to the rent-seeking behaviour of commercial providers. However they found few or no free software teams able to provide solutions to complex infrastructural projects. The reason is that, once the number of participants in an organisation becomes too large, it is very difficult to maintain the individuality of the participants. Interchangeable roles replace unique people, just like any Wikipedia admin can be replaced by any other Wikipedia admin. Large free software projects resolve this by splitting up into sub-teams who have a great deal of autonomy.


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