Helmut Wilke on the Atopian Society

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Helmut Wilke:

"Place, space and distance increasingly are becoming negligible quantities for economic transactions. The term for placelessness, atopia, describes this moment of the market utopia that, in the idea of the utopian, heightens the nowhere to a somewhere. Utopia describes a place that does not exist. Atopia describes the irrelevance of the place, global placelessness. Global infrastructure systems of telecommunication and of traffic telematics, globally operating mass media and transaction networks make irrelevant the place which one communicates from, make irrelevant locality that is (Willke 2001). In an atopian society with a global radius the market utopia finds the conditions for its self-fulfilment. Even if market economists habitually tend to ignore this, their idealised markets so far suffer from the territorial, localised and locally binding guardianship of the state.

For humane reasons the self-description of the politics of our modern age may entail the civilising of power, and as a historical caesura may have done so for a good reason. But the practical task of civilising was accomplished by politics primarily by way of the taming of the anarchy of the markets. These were just as much a serious and direct danger to life and limb of the citizens of the burgeoning modern age as domestic and international strife was. Impoverishment and proletarianisation of the rural masses were the result of a market logic let loose. Only when the consequences of this barbarianisation confronted the political systems themselves with the possibility of revolutions, especially under the influence of the competing utopia of communism, politics found itself obliged to call a halt to the devastating work of free markets. This can most clearly be observed with Bismarck in Germany and in England with the influence of reformers like Robert Owen and William Beveridge.

Since then the market utopia has been suspected of postulating a profoundly inhumane order, which may optimise the production and distribution of goods from the point of view of cost, yet ignores the human cost of this regime. The more successful individual societies have been in combining, in the forms of the welfare state, the political taming of the free market with a nevertheless functioning industrial capitalism, and the more threatening the implementations of extant socialist utopias, the more powerfully this suspicion prevented the unfolding of the utopia of the pure market.

These days nothing restricts the possibilities of political control more effectively than the two complexes of revolutions currently taking shape in the dynamics of the so-called knowledge society and world society. The driving force of knowledge society is organised complexity, based on specialised knowledge and at the same time recursively enhanced by the more and more ubiquitous rooting of all social processes in questions of know-how. The driving force of world society is globalisation understood as a process that, on the basis of new global infrastructures for communication processes and transactions, undermines and perforates national frontiers and with every functional global sub-market feeds a recursive self-enhancement.

To the extent that organised complexity and globalisation push back a political control of society, but above all of the areas economy and financial markets, structured in conjunction with nation-states, the market makes a name for itself as the only alternative model for the control of complex systems of bartering relations. The more advanced socialist societies have seen this differently and they have failed because of this misjudgement. Today especially China is the prime example that even a developing country, with a mostly agrarian population and an economic output that is less than 15 per cent of the Japanese, commits itself in its economic transactions to the idea of the market, despite and beside a socialist political utopia, in order not to miss out on a future based on knowledge and globalisation.

Strangely enough, the prophets of the market utopia have only very surreptitiously hinted at the civilising and cosmopolitan explosive force of their utopia. For Smith just as for Ricardo, for Marshall just as for Samuelson it might have been too fantastic and altogether unimaginable to call into question the state’s containment of people and markets and to resist the Hobbesian primal fear of impending anarchy. It is even more remarkable that it was Hegel, usually labelled as an apologist of the authoritarian state, who built his philosophy of history on the imminent coincidence of rationality, liberty and liberal statehood and who, as a consequence, had world history, as a development process, end with the Battle of Jena in 1806 because there the cosmopolitan ideals of the French Revolution had been wrested from their nationalist appropriation through Bonapartism. On this fact, at least, Francis Fukuyama was right to insist (1992: 60ff.) and he expanded this Hegelian idea into the praise of a universal consumer culture rooted in liberal economic principles.

The historical irony of this situation is that the emancipation of the market toward its very own framework of pre-conditions takes place at the very moment of its history that marks the beginning of the end of the importance of locality in general. The utopia of the market is confronted with the atopia of transactions. The atopian society begins to take shape in the wake of the assumption that the difference of places merges in the unity of global accessibility, without noticeable costs and with no noticeable time delay, and yields to the new criteria of access/no access to the respective networks of digitalised transactions. Atopia as the utopia of placelessness, as the utopia of the irrelevance of diverging locality, finds its strongest arguments in the almost real-time and free digital transactions of the Internet and in the simultaneous global range of satellite-based communication infrastructures.

The atopia of transactions also manifests itself in the competitive and possibly creative destruction, in the context of an economic society no longer determined by locality, of the regulation regimes monopolised by nation-states as the pillars of public supra-structures. Standards, taken as collective systems of rules for private economic transactions, may be perceived locally or nationally as long as the corresponding markets, on their part, contend themselves with a local or national range while being subject, as “political economies”, to the political dictum. Once this assumption has become invalid with the globalisation of markets locality and local specificity of the standard are equally irrelevant. They are replaced by an atopian vastness and universality that on the one hand, no doubt, becomes apparent in the ubiquity and uniformity of McDonald’s and Coca Cola, of GSM and CNN, yet on the other hand also in the fact that the pompousness of local sovereignty and arbitrariness, for the first time in history, gives way to a cosmopolitan liberality breaching the despotism of local ties and restrictions in order to realize, in the freedom of an atopian market, locality as a mere contingency. With the help of cable networks, modems and satellite receivers this also goes for seemingly still closed systems like China fighting – “like the church fought the printing press five hundred years ago” – desperately as well as hopelessly against an opening respectively openness (Wright 2000: 6). Only if, in this sense, locality becomes a freely chosen option, instead of a mortgage prescribed by birth and tradition, the myth and the overestimation of locality, as witnessed in Germany even when it comes to the wages of lord mayors, will be tamed and exposed to the disciplining liberty of an explicit choice.

Atopia and the features of an atopian society are not an argument against the necessity of supra-structures. An atopian society, too, needs contextual rules for the controlling of its transactions and communication acts. Yet atopia underlines the fact that the appropriation and monopolising of supra-structures through the politics of the nation-state remains a part of history, like everything else. The question is which protagonists and bodies can and will take the place of the nation-state in order to create the required supra-structures, and which protagonists and bodies decide on which supra-structures are required.

In all its power-based sovereignty the politics of democracies is exclusively about creating the pre-conditions for the operational possibilities of social functional systems and to work off their negative externalities in a socially acceptable way. The only exceptions are the collective goods for the protection against external and internal enemies, for peace and stability of the law that is. Apart from that, though, politics is the repair workshop of a highly complicated, perilous and in many regards no longer controllable social machinery powered by the operational logics of functionally differentiated sub-systems. The most clear-sighted politics, therefore, may be observed where it does not simply wait for the usual breakage quota of functional systems but where it foresees that there is a self-destructive dynamic built into the operational logic of autonomous social systems that, paradoxically enough, depends on their very success. The invention of the welfare state is founded on just such a case of clear-sightedness. The fundamental revision of the welfare state, as it seems necessary today, presupposes a comparable deed of political shrewdness.

The sociological problem of globalisation and globalness consists in the fact that the hitherto nation-state-based societies are rocked in their foundations because of the removal of certain functional systems – like economy, science, or art – from the context of territorial fixation and social self-control while new means of re-stabilisation are not yet in the offing. The emerging global context, in particular, does not yet accomplish this re-stabilising for the simple reason that capacities for a global self-control are not even rudimentarily institutionalised so far.

This historically singular coincidence of sociality and territoriality is currently breaking up in the “post-national constellation” (Habermas 1998) of a multi-faceted and by no means homogeneous disintegration of social prerogatives of self-control on the level of the nation-state. Without going into detail we might nevertheless record the fact that the somewhat fruitless debate among the heralds of an end of the nation-state by and by is giving way to more differentiated analyses tracing back the loss of nation-state-based controlling expertise and skills to specific factors in the development of trans-national controlling regimes for very specific functional systems.

In any case, the emerging lateral world systems are challenging the territorially rooted, modern societies constituted as nation-states exactly where the responsibility that makes them societies in the first place is concerned: in the sovereignty of self-control." (http://www.myzel.net/biophily/moderne/willke_pu_en.html)