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)

The Crisis of Politics in a Atopian Society

Helmut Wilke:

"Digital computers open up a new dimension of symbolisation, as they no longer merely are able to store data, like inscriptions or books, but also instructions on the handling of the data and instructions on the use of instructions. In this way a symbolic architecture of different language levels is made possible, from the simple machine-friendly language to programming languages and on to highly aggregated operation systems and integrated software (Evans and Wurster 2000: 34).

What emerges here, in the deep structures of the digital revolution as a real revolution, is the self-referential progression of symbolic systems to conglomerates of networked functional chains. These rely on the possibility, described by John von Neumann, to autonomously link data and instructions in digital programmes and thus to generate architectures of automatised links, to be extended at will, no longer depending on the motifs and interests of single persons but, if at all, only on persons as contextualising constraints of the operational mode of symbolic systems.

A corresponding argument, according to Norbert Elias’ theory of the process of civilisation, forms the basis for the ability to set up long chains of action. In this case it is the increase in the expectability and the bindingness of actions – through the validity of anonymised and (relatively!) disposable symbols of power, money and knowledge – that symbolically broadens the reality-bound actions of persons and expands them, in a first wave of globalisation, into chains of action spanning the world. The question whether this has actually contributed to the civilising process or not shall not be answered at this point. Thus, in any case, chains of action relying on symbols and complex constellations of action are gaining a significant influence on the real everyday actions of people and organisations. Symbols become the glue holding together individual actions and allowing the creation of patterns and constellations of actions otherwise doomed to fail in the face of the real restrictions of time and space.

The split between the symbolic worlds of lateral world systems and the real world of territorially rooted society calls for a politics that brings into play understanding beyond mere reason and system rationality surpassing knowledge by orchestrating the multi-layered decentral clamour of the specialists into a halfway bearable concert – without being able, though, to take on the role of the conductor. Only in this way would it be able to lift the “fatal difference between problems of controlling and of understanding” (Habermas 1985: 421) which, unlike Habermas believes, has nothing to do with the idylls of the world we live in but a lot with the inability of politics to comprehend, as its actual job, a new form and constellation of society.

“When the power of unification vanishes from the life of people and the contrasts have lost their living correlation and reciprocity, gaining autonomy instead, then the need for philosophy arises,” Hegel had formulated against the background of a comparable constellation of change (Hegel 1986: 22). When the power of unification disappears from the life of society, and the contrasts of the operational logics of functional systems have lost their living relation and reciprocity and are gaining autonomy, “the need for politics” arises. Building on Hegel, though, we might say that what we have in mind is a politics envisaging indeed the general, and the relations and interrelations of the parts, and paying attention to the difficult balance between the possible autonomy of the parts and the necessary control of their interrelations.

Politics will not be able to fulfil even this task without help. It will have to fall back on the skills of many diverse organisations and institutions and on the reputation of regimes of “private authority” and, here too, will have to press ahead with the transition from “government to governance”. Yet in the mediation of communication processes between these diverse protagonists and systems, in the controlling of the anarchy of symbolic systems, the one specific competence of politics could mature which no other system brings forth. “Insofar it is a randomness,” we might hark back to Hegel once more. But in view of the given split between symbolic and real world, between functional systems and society, between organisational ends and system rationality, between innovations in the symbolic systems of the parts and system risks of the whole, between cyclopean visions of the specialists and the collective reason of a society, politics should be the necessary attempt “to abolish these splits and to comprehend the having become of the intellectual and of the real world as a becoming” in need of the mediation and supervision of politics because a natural evolution today closes off more contingencies and options than it opens up and thus forces too much order and allows for too little anarchy. Evolution alone is not enough anymore: “Only that obscurity is a chaos from which a world can spring.” (Schlegel 1958ff.: 263)

For the first time in their history people are confronted with the challenge to face unprotected a skill biological evolution happened to equip them with and which they may have made use of in marginal areas and brought to perfection in their thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and inventors in generally secondary fields of expertise that never, though, were able to impress the course of history in any significant way but instead, in case of doubt, always had to submit to the want of hunger or the violence of the stronger: the ability of thinking and imagining, that is, which now, after a long warm-up time, allows us to make knowledge, via an extremely accelerated continual learning, the basis of all life processes, consequently turning even living and surviving into projects of knowledge-based strategies and submitting them to a controlled development.

This cognitive turn of human history does not presuppose that the biological dependencies on food, territoriality, and family will vanish altogether – only that they will become menial occupations. Once the supply of food is guaranteed thanks to two or three percent of the working population, territoriality suspended through global interdependence and networking, and family made up for with the proliferation of family-like alternative forms of infantile socialisation and of intimacy, then a degree of independence from the organic constraints of man will have been achieved that will make a human quality going beyond the animalistic, the quality of cognitive reconstructions and projections of people’s worlds, the paramount basis of their material, personal, and social existence.

The crisis of a politics, having to reinvent governing in the context of an atopian knowledge society by redefining and constructing its core competences against the hysteresis of past successes, creates an inevitable confusion in its traditional systems of symbols, above all in the legal control system, the distribution and re-distribution logics of the welfare state, and in the deep structures of symbolic fixation. On the surface the rules appear to be the same and they still seem to be in operation, yet in the deep structures of their logic and in the grammar of their concatenations a virus of atopian dissolution is running riot. The established fixed allocations give way to a decentralised logic of contingent, situational re-combinations. Thus, for example, dissolving tariff regulations, local operating agreements, employment initiatives, regulations on Green or Blue Cards, local subsidies, and EU regulations on the prohibition of subsidies etc. collude, a process pushed forward by a perceived global competition of locations. The logic of legal systems of symbols is exposed to a pressure to adapt that threatens their innermost principles, the “normativity of norms”, and confronts them with the alternative of a symbolism of cognitive expectations of expectations. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that an anarchic whirlwind is sweeping through the legal systems of symbols. In their grammar symbolic systems, being operatively closed and non-intentional systems, reproduce an analectic of thesis, antithesis and hysteresis running contrary to the harmonistic dialectic of human perception (resolution into synthesis and the avoiding of cognitive dissonances) and here also deepens the discontinuities between man and society." ((http://www.myzel.net/biophily/moderne/willke_pu_en.html))