4.3. Evolutionary Conceptions of Power and Hierarchy

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4.3. Evolutionary Conceptions of Power and Hierarchy

Japanese scholar Shumpei Kumon has given the following evolutionary account of power. In premodernity, he says, power is derived from military force. The strong conquer the weak and exact tribute, part of the produce of the land, labor (the corvee system). Rome was rich because it was strong. In modernity, military force eventually looses its primary place and monetary power takes over. Or in other words, the U.S. is strong because it is rich. It's productive capacity is more important than its military might, the latter derives from the former. It is commercial and financial power that are the main criterion of strength and success. In late modernity, a new form of power is born, through the power of the mass media. The U.S. lost the war, not because the Vietnamese were stronger militarily, or had more financial clout, but because the U.S. lost the war for the hearts and minds, and lost social support for the war effort. With the emergence of the internet and peer to peer processes, yet a new form of power emerges, and Kumon calls it the Wisdom Game . In order to have influence, one must give quality knowledge away, and thus build reputation, through the demonstration of one’s ‘Wisdom’. The more one shares, the more this material is used by others, the higher one’s reputation, the bigger one’s influence. This process is true for individuals within groups, and for the process among groups, thus creating a hierarchy of influence amongst networks. But as I have argued, in a true P2P environment, this process is flexible and reversible to a much larger extent than in the previous systems.

According to the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, premodern systems, including the early modern classical era of the 18th century, are characterized by the motto ‘make die or let live’: the sovereign has the power of life and death, but does not greatly interfere in the life of his subjects, which is ruled by custom and the divine precepts of the spiritual power. In modernity, Foucault sees two new forms of power arising: disciplinary power and biopower. Disciplinary power starts from the point of view that society consists of autonomous individuals, which are in need of socialization and ‘discipline’, so that they can be integrated in the normative framework of capitalist society. Biopower is the start of the total management of life, from birth to death, of the great mass of the people. The new motto is therefore, said Foucault: ‘make live, let die’.

His contemporary Gilles Deleuze noted a change though. In mass-media dominated postmodern society, which became dominant after 1968, disciplinary institutions enter in crisis. What is used is the internalization of social requirements through the use of the mass media, advertising and PR, with control mechanisms in place, which focus on making sure the right results are attained. The individual is now himself in charge of making it happen. Power has become more democratic, more social, more immanent to the social field, "distributed throughout the brains and bodies of the citizens" (Negri's Empire, p. 23). Philippe Zafirian, in his essay Temps et Modernite, further re-interprets the work of Deleuze by applying it to the workplace and calls the new power, the power of modulation, 'control by modulation' . Instead of tightly describing and dividing jobs, and controlling their debit, as was the case in the 'modern' factory system and in particular in the Fordist/Taylorist period, the focus is now on 'objectives' and 'deadlines'. Both the manager and the work are constantly evaluating and self-evaluating their ability to conform to the high-pressure objectives and deadlines, but are 'free' in how to attain it. Zafirian uses the metaphor of the 'elastic' : you can pull it in different directions, within it you are free to go about, but there are indeed limits that cannot be crossed.

In any case, Deleuze already prefigured, so many years ahead, the emerging dominance of distributed networks (rhizomes). If Foucault was the philosopher and historian of power of modernity, then Deleuze and Guattari can be considered to be the early theorizers of power in the network era. However there is a danger in missing important developments, radical innovations even, if we conflate the post-1968 under the one heading of postmodernity, since that would miss the accelerated growth of peer to peer processes, which started only in the 1990's, after the popularization of the internet. Perhaps future historians will date a new era that began in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall indicating the moment when the free flow of information began to destroy the most authoritarian regimes. In the figures below, I explicitly distinguish the postmodern era, from the emerging peer to peer era.

The P2P era indeed adds a new twist, a new form of power, which we have called Protocollary Power, and has first been clearly identified and analyzed by Alexander Galloway in his book Protocol. We have already given some examples. One is the fact that the blogosphere has devised mechanisms to avoid the emergence of individual and collective monopolies, through rules that are incorporated in the software itself. Another was whether the entertainment industry would succeed in incorporating software or hardware-based restrictions to enforce their version of copyright. There are many other similarly important evolutions to monitor: Will the internet remain a point to point structure? Will the web evolve to a true P2P medium through Writeable Web developments? The common point is this: social values are incorporated, integrated in the very architecture of our technical systems, either in the software code or the hardwired machinery, and these then enable/allow or prohibit/discourage certain usages, thereby becoming a determinant factor in the type of social relations that are possible. Are the algorhythms that determine search results objective, or manipulated for commercial and ideological reasons? Is parental control software driven by censorship rules that serve a fundamentalist agenda? Many issues are dependent on hidden protocols, which the user community has to learn to see (as a new form of media literacy and democratic practice), so that it can become an object of conscious development, favoring peer to peer processes, rather than the restrictive and manipulative command and control systems. In P2P systems, the formal rules governing bureaucratic systems are replaced by the design criteria of our new means of production, and this is where we should focus our attention. Galloway suggests that we make a diagram of the networks we participate in, with dots and lines, nodes and edges. Important questions then become: Who decides who can participate?, or better, what are the implied rules governing participation? (since there is no specific 'who' or command in a distributed environment); what kind of linkages are possible? On the example of the internet, Galloway shows how the net has a peer to peer protocol in the form of TCP/IP, but that the Domain Name System is hierarchical, and that an authorative server could block a domain family from operating. This is how power should be analyzed. Such power is not per se negative, since protocol is needed to enable participation (no driving without highway code!), but protocol can also be centralized, proprietary, secret, in that case subverting peer to peer processes. However, the stress on protocol, which concerns what Yochai Benkler calls the 'logical layer' of the networks, should not make us forget the power distribution of the physical layer (who owns the networks), and the content layer (who owns and controls the content).

The key question is: do the centralized and hierarchical elements in the protocol, enable or disable participation? This is shown in the following account of the development of the theory and practice of hierarchy, submitted to us by John Heron in a personal communication. In true peer to peer, the role of hierarchy is to enable the spontaneous emergence of 'autonomy in cooperation':

"There seem to be at least four degrees of cultural development, rooted in degrees of moral insight:

(1) autocratic cultures which define rights in a limited and oppressive way and there are no rights of political participation;

(2) narrow democratic cultures which practice political participation through representation, but have no or very limited participation of people in decision-making in all other realms, such as research, religion, education, industry etc.;

(3) wider democratic cultures which practice both political participation and varying degree of wider kinds of participation;

(4) commons p2p cultures in a libertarian and abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of participation of everyone in every field of human endeavor."

Heron adds that "These four degrees could be stated in terms of the relations between hierarchy, co-operation and autonomy.

(1) Hierarchy defines, controls and constrains co-operation and autonomy;

(2) Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere only;

(3) Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere and in varying degrees in other spheres;

(4) The sole role of hierarchy is in its spontaneous emergence in the initiation and continuous flowering of autonomy-in-co-operation in all spheres of human endeavor

From all of the above, we can conclude that hierarchy does not disappear in peer to peer processes, but that it changes its nature. Hierarchy, or authority ranking as it is called by Alan Fiske, takes on new forms such as peer governance, servant leadership, multistakeholdership.

Here is how Joseph Rost defines leadership in the new collaborative era:

“The first is that the activities be influential, that is, noncoercive. The second is that the activities be done by people in a relationship. The third is that the activities involve a real significant change. And the fourth element is that the activities reflect the purposes of the people in the relationship, not just a single person. All of these standards insure collaboration rather than the notion that leadership is a great leader doing great things ."

Similarly, another author on leadership, Jeffrey S. Nielsen distinguishes ‘rank thinking’, from ‘peer thinking’:

"I define rank thinking as the belief that only a few in any organization should be given special privilege to monopolize information, control decision-making, and command obedience from the vast majority either through coercive or manipulative power. Peer thinking, on the other hand, is the belief that everyone in the organization should have equal standing to share in information, participate in the decision-making process, and choose to follow through persuasive means. Peer thinking assumes that we each have equal privilege to speak and an obligation to listen. Peer-based organizations create a space--an arena--where we come to recognize and respect one another as equal participants in organizational life ."