Despatch #1: On becoming a conservative

February 23rd, 20126:01 pm @

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This month, we’re publishing the first New Public Thinking book. Despatches from the Invisible Revolution (available to buy now through PediaPress) is a collection of reflections on the events of 2011. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing each of the pieces in the book as a post on this site, so that the conversations around them can continue and take off in new directions. We start with Vinay Gupta’s thoughts on the events of the past year and where they have left him.

2011 is the year I stopped being a radical. I did not change, rather the world moved around me and I was left in the political mainstream.

In much the same way that the environmentalists of the 1970s have become prophetic, as their worst fears are now our realities, so the civil libertarians screaming blue bloody murder about the growing power of the state, the centralisation of authority in the hands of unitary executives and the dismantling of the judiciary now find themselves vindicated. The National Defense Authorisation Act, signed into law on the last day of the year, stripped Americans and, indeed, the world of all of our civil liberties. The President of the United States is now lawfully able to imprison without trial or assassinate American citizens and, indeed, any human anywhere in the world. So 2011 was the year shit got real.

There are half a dozen ways through the maze of the past year. We could follow the trail of the Arab Spring, from it’s oh-so-hopeful inception to the everyone-is-broken stage now reported by activists like @sandmonkey. We could follow the thread of Julian Assange, falling like a complaining comet in a haze of reality and fiction intertwined, strangled by his own predatory mysteriousness and by likely-illegal financial lockdowns imposed by private companies to protect their own interests. We could discuss the horror of Obama-as-Reagan, the Great Black Hope revealed as a mid-right Republican president, unfortunately elected by the Democratic base, the black base, the feminist base, all of whom stand betrayed. We could talk about the fall of the Euro as the instrument of European unity and the rise of the Euro as the source of divergence, the internal stresses in each country’s polity, when the neighbours they are tied to by fiscal union insist on being The Greeks and The Germans, rather than (as was once dreamed) The Europeans. We could trace oil, we could trace resource price rises, particularly food, we could trace so many threads, but they are all converging towards one historic conclusion.

Things have fallen apart; the centre does not hold. While we are nowhere near the poet’s blood-dimmed tide, let me suggest something: 2011 is the year that all the genies escaped their bottles, and now we must contend with the havoc they will wreak, as they migrate from being subtle shifts in long-term national planning forecasts to acute threats, met in force by boots on the ground.

So let’s pick a thread. Let’s talk Occupy.

First there was Adbusters, that snarky anti-capitalist Wired, pushing Art & Riots instead of Bread & Circuses. I never liked Adbusters: it was all too polished, too produced, capitalist in every way except the message. A reading of McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message made it clear that Adbusters was commodified dissent sold as – Good Lord! – commodified dissent. It had achieved a perfect, self-congratulatory embrace of the mechanics of capitalism, selling itself as deconstructing itself: a Worm Ouroboros, a snake embracing its tail. Adbusters itself, in form and content, was simply advertising for nothing except, uniquely, itself. Bluntly, Adbusters is the Ron Jeremy of the new politics. [Disclosure: They lifted one of my pieces, Avoid Winter War, and released it, stripped of its subversive political content, as the core of Adbusters Tactical Briefing 18.]

Then Adbusters launched a movement, Occupy, and wrote its flaws across the sky in stars. The vacuous hole at the centre of the magazine became an endless series of feuding elites and banal, interminable committee meetings dressed up as consensus. We have failed to capture the needs of the age in a coherent way, and in replacing the real with the false, discarded generations of careful political work to build real alternatives, in favour of optimism-free, Mad Max-and-squalor-themed camps.

I’m in favour, by the way, of pleasant, safe, comfortable Occupy camps. I’m in favour of real democratic governance, not the tyranny of consensus which puts the loud and persistent, usually men, in charge. I’m in favour of beauty as a core value of politics, of Vaclav Havel’s integration of the aesthetic and the political, of the Black Rose. I am in favour of change.

But the next step must both look and be better than this one; Occupy has (so far) lacked both political sophistication and beauty. Neither the flower in a gun barrel, nor the Yippies, have yet emerged from its general assemblies. And now we come to the meat of the thing.

In 2011, everything that I’d been worried about since 2003 started to unfold: major currency collapses are now in play, possibly long expressions of the load of Peak Oil. Network-centric revolutions, the collapse of political consensus writ-large across half a dozen countries and threatened in many more. The emergence of the importance of land and infrastructure as core political dynamics within the Occupy movement is just the beginning of a vastly wider dialogue as the existing supply chain and infrastructure political dynamics, held together by long-term growth, begin to fall apart.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

If that smells like 2011 to you, then Yeats did us proud. It also means you were getting most of your news from the internet. Out there in TV land, it’s only a few riots in Egypt and a replacement for Mubarak, not the first seriously bloody engagement between networks and hierarchies for control of (the end of) the world.

The theme of the year is dispersion. The scattering, divisive effects of the networks have woven them through the year in politics and geopolitics in amazingly unexpected ways. Phone hacking and Wikileaks, Occupy and the Arab Spring, it’s all the whiplash effect of networked politics crunching towards the real world, on its way to be born.

I am a conservative, these days. I am no longer a radical. Because in 2011 the radicals went out to bat for the world, and they’ve made a fourth-class mess of everything they touched. Perhaps the next year will bring something beyond mess and dispersion, perhaps we’ll find passion and intensity and beauty and true will and true love out there on the streets, tearing down the worst of the old and replacing it with the best of the new. But right now we’re breaking down oaks and sowing dogwood. The worst of the new attacks the best of the old, and the resulting confusion is costing us an even vaguely orderly transition to a new order: instead, we have strife and division, and a society increasingly split by the ridiculous reactionary position of the establishment in the face of an undistinguished rabble who bray for change, but without a direction other than, perhaps, forwards.

How, then, are we to understand our roles in these times? For years now, I have sided with the best of the old, with the power at the centre in its most benign forms, because their people were smarter, more sophisticated thinkers with greater access to political power with which to attack our common enemy, which is, of course, the power at the centre in its predatory forms. Now my concerns – resource scarcity, global social justice, technological risks, social stability in the networked era – have become completely mainstream, at least to that community.

Without changing my mind, without changing my position, and without bending one quarter inch under pressure, I have moved from being a political radical to a political conservative.

And this, fundamentally, is the great fork in the road: those who see 2011 as the beginning of the revolution; and those who see it as the justification of the establishment, because what the revolution has brought is often worse than what has gone before. The dynamics of the future will balance on this knife-edge: what can Occupy offer us, instead of consensus, instead of filthy camp sites, to persuade us that their undoubtedly groovy ways are going to produce a better way of life and more, not less, social justice than the great concrete structures of Government?

The radicals of one generation are the conservatives of the next. I turned 40 in the first week of 2012, so make of this what you will.

I will think of this as the year in which all of my fears about network-centric radicalism came to pass, and in which the need for coherent modern governance moved from being an important task for the future into a crushingly urgent need in the present.

We must force the evolution of the state to be able to be able to respond to these times, or hand our legitimacy to the clearly-unready networked revolutionaries, who are making a colossal mess, failing to learn from the past, and in all other ways, showing real signs of being The Future.

That’s the thing, of course. Their pathologies are the pathologies of people who will win in the long run: the motorcar revolutionaries, the electrification revolutionaries, the microcomputer revolutionaries, the new genetics revolutionaries, the wildcats of solar and wind before the big guys moved in. Impractical, foolish and arrogant, but none the less, in the long run, probably right.

And so you find us at our fork in history, where we pick sides for the upcoming negotiation between the future and the past. Will we burn down our Library of Alexandria on our way to the better future, trashing what has made our civilisation great, in an attempt to reform it? Or will we disown the networks that offer to lead us to the future, because they are messy and foolish in their infancy? This is the negotiation of our times. We are at the start of a process which has finally made the headlines, and will shortly make history: capital-H, a period-with-a-name style, learn it in high school-type history. These are the spirits of our times.

I will join you on the street, when you get your acts together. For now, though, I’ve thrown in my lot with the Pirate Party: one foot in conventional electoral democracy, the other in the networked future. I want to build bridges, not burn them. And, in times like these, to choose electoral democracy as a primary means of political expression, no matter how radical the platform, is conservative. It would have been unthinkable for me to join the democratic political process until this year.

That is how far we have come, in a single year.