The State as Scaffolding

February 9th, 201112:16 am @


It is fashionable to be against the State, with all its secrets and lies, if you are for the internet, social media, and the revolutionary potential of the network. I do not mean anything as gauche as imagining smashing the State – not in person, in our 30s – but rather a certain condescending “Gov 2.0? How droll?” tone which perpetuates core myths about the State, about democracy, and about the origins and meaning of Power.

But let us be clear from the start: the State is wound through both the technology and the rights framework which make the network possible. The corporate structures and government – military – research money which made the internet, and the traditions of federated control and free speech which gave birth to internet culture are entirely artifacts of the United States. Like it or not, the revolutionary, abrasive edge of the internet – its seemingly endless hostility towards every form of Tyranny over the Mind of Man, to quote my favorite Founding Father, comes from the culture and nation that birthed it. The French had an internet once – Minitel – and you’ve never heard because it was not the technologies, but the values, which made the internet successful.

How did the internet work, back in the day, before it was overthrowing governments in its spare weekends? Nearly all the users connected through universities. The universities had a skilled technical staff, the system administrators, who were responsible for keeping the computers running. These people were judge, jury and executioner for the local internet at each university, because their job was to make sure the mail got delivered. Use of the internet which interfered with the harmonious brotherhood of sysadmins would rapidly result in internet access being lost. The federated structure of this control system – each university had its own laws and lawmakers – was effective enough that “whole internet” regulation seemed absurd, as it still does to many of us. Peering arrangements formed the core law. If users behaved so badly it threatened the connectivity of the university to other sections of the internet, the system administrators would pull somebody’s internet access or, in rare and persistent cases, set them on fire.

As large companies, ahem, democratized access to the internet, the personal (and, shall we say, sacred) relationship between system administrator and user was replaced by the pay-for-access model where if you behaved badly the ISP did not notice, because it was not in the ISP’s financial interest to notice. Even terminating service has little consequence because of the competitive market of ISPs.

In commercializing the internet, we went from a system where a technical guild maintained community standards into an environment where nobody is maintaining community standards. As a result, government feels not only invited but compelled to intervene. And the problem is that the standards the governments will bring to the internet are the standards which are convenient for large, bureaucratic states, not the original fire-and-brimstone technolibertarian free-speech-for-all federal internet of the early days.

If you’ve used the internet, you’ve been an American while online, and this is the core problem we now face. The Americans have exported a technology of free speech into countries where free speech is still illegal, and their technology and their revolution are beginning to crush the ability of repressive regimes to maintain order. We don’t know how far it will go, and we don’t know if it can possibly go all the way, but we owe it to the American Founding Fathers to notice their ideology, their work and their values in the spirit of every entitled internet user who thinks the idea of government censorship of their feed is absurd, who screams blue bloody murder at tiered access and commercial throttling, and who feels just a little freer for the blinking lights on their router which mean that however oppressed they are when they step outside their front door, online they are free. The internet has been a Virtual America, Anonymous its citizen militia, assembling crude electronic pipe bombs, assisted by the occasional hunter-turned-sniper, zealously fighting for a freedom that seems natural to them, because it was won two hundred years ago, and silently adopted as the terms of service and social norms by which the system administrators governed the internet.

It is a shame that the real America is in such trouble, as the Virtual America thrives, all over the world.

So this is the most direct way of illustrating the concept of State as Scaffolding. The values of the State underlie much of what is good and bad about modern society and culture. Its subsidies shape society, its laws form thought, and the complex debt we owe it seems more like an Escher drawing than the parody of a parasitic state either bleeding everybody dry by inefficiency or bleeding the poor dry in favour of the rich, depending on which exaggeration you believe.

We are going to miss it when its gone, and (unfortunately) there is a serious risk that the nation state we have come to accept and understand is an endangered species. Consider Belgium, where I’m currently writing this: Belgium hasn’t had a national government in years. They have a bureaucracy, which works, and so many weird little regional and cultural (language-group) governments that everything has continued to work seamlessly. The constitutional monarch sticks his oar in occasionally, but life goes on. Africa has another form of statelessness, vast wildernesses where there is no rule of law, human rights atrocities go unreported and unacted on, and nobody in the international community seems to know what to do. Egypt, Iran and so on have the push and the pull. China invests huge resources in trying to keep the internet benign, but the internet has other ideas.

There are certainly places where the State is strong and the lines well-defined – Sweden is doing ok – but every time an Iceland or an Ireland or a Greece detonates, even if the Nation remains strong, the State as an institution weakens. And the State – this elected corporation which owns everything and is responsible for everyone – the State is doing a lot of useful stuff right now, much of which we do not even notice, because it is infrastructure. Count the number of places the State touches your every day affairs, starting with the formation of a currency which puts money in your pocket, and working out through the legal frameworks of every corporation you buy or sell services to, the regulation of goods so that your food is not poisonous and your air freshener doesn’t give you cancer, and keep tracing the threads. All of that is governance, which is the product the State sells you in return for your taxes.

All States are based, one way or another, on the idea that God is behind the rulers. The exact form of the myth changes over time and across cultures – from Celestial Emperors of the east to the more mundane Holy Roman Emperor and the Divine Right of Kings. The magic football which is passed from the King to the democratic process over centuries in England is still the Divine Right of Kings, under a thin veil of dust and torpor. The Law which government makes is an echo of the Mosaic Law, religious codes which form the loose underpinning of, say, English Common Law.

The decline of the willingness to accept the implicit authority of the State comes with the waning of religiosity in intellectual culture. The absolutism which stood behind the proletarian dictatorship is an inverse and a parody of the faith in the King and the Pope, and the centralization of power at the heart of the disastrous forms of socialism is rooted in unconscious religiosity; just look at the iconography.

Both the godless communists and the Divine Right of Kings have waned in the agnostic and politically atheistic scientific and technical elite that is responsible for making most of what happens in the world happen. Even though they have not yet picked up their class might, the people who actually know how to work the machines have a set of values, and the system administrators cannot be bribed to efficiently filter porn, never mind politics. It’s just… not how it works, man. The same person paid to filter the network by day will help to subvert those filters by night. The internet technocrat spectrum of consciousness runs from the Big Lebowski on one end to Trinity and Neo on the other. Government cannot hope to make these people behave, and the combination of slack and aggression-towards-control is, in the long run, going to be deadly to the top-down management of technology. Cracking down on the internet is asking to unleash Project Mayhem on every network which is operated by a beard in a trade show t-shirt or a shaven head in black combat trousers. The people of the tech are almost American, because the tech carries with it the cultural values of those sysadmins of old, who set the culture of the internet in stone: Freedom.

So we must consider that the ability to govern now depends on a class who, frankly, are just not all that interested in the kinds of governing which governments are interested on foisting on us.

As Anonymous says, “if your government shuts down the internet, shut down your government.”

Could Thomas Jefferson wish for better heirs?

Here they are, the armed rabble, with crypto and mesh networks, standing up for free speech, for individual civil liberties, for cognitive freedom, as God intended. Organized religion and communism (its inverse) have fallen into increasing disrepute through a series of crushing scandals, an inability to adapt to modernity, massive practical failure and an increasingly flawed public discourse. The culture of the internet has different values. Reason (and lolcats) has come to dominate the sentiments of the technical elites who actually keep civilization running. The technical elites view a bone-deep faith in the kind of God that makes Laws as a suspicious sign which may indicate deeper mental illness, and they’re probably right.

The god that Carl Sagan worships, the technopantheism of unbridled wonder at the nature of infinite space and infinite time, and the improbability of our consciousness evolving from self-replicating chain molecules in the primordial slime is a worship of the infinite in matter, which knows nothing of faith. Its closest precursor is Deism, but the sentiment of religious wonder has been fully transferred to the infinite universe we see before us, and its wonders. This is not the atheism of the socialist period, or intellectual-rational atheism, but the religious worship of the infinite as known by Reason. It’s the religion of Star Trek’s Vulcans and by instinct it attacks faith and any certainty not rooted in experiment.

So now we must revisit the poor old State. The geeks are not going to give up free speech, and any attempt to pry it from them is going to spur technological innovation up to and including the creation of underground, parallel infrastructures which will simply criminalize people who want to create a better world by telling the truth to each other. The certainties of the general population are increasingly rooted in consumerism rather than loyalty to Pope, King, or Country. Rootless global elites rape the banking system and change countries and currencies like shoes. Who is minding the store of the institutions which provide the core infrastructure on which the game of life is played, the State itself? The politicians exploit it for short burst of power followed by a lifetime of has-beendom. The corporations which draw their very life from the limited liability the State provides to their shareholders avoid its taxes and laws whenever possible. The electorate have been dumbed down by generations of propaganda designed to put a stop to any more organized opposition to futile wars like Vietnam or to the alleged necessity of nuclear detente: it turns out that encouraging defense contractors to buy major media to muzzle the press was a mistake.

Who is genuinely for this power which has persevered through millennia and supported the growth of our rights over these centuries? Who is for the State – not simply its power, slaved to some religious or political agenda – but the aggregated welfare of the polis, the body politic, indeed the national commons which we are all heir to, as a birthright? Who is for the State which provides law, and which still has life underneath all the barnacles of corruption,  and hostility?

Damn near nobody, just as few fish are for water, but all fish are against oil. We rebel against the toxic contaminants which exist in this substrate of life – the exploitation, the secrecy and the lies – but nobody who is not willing to provide the bedrock services the State provides can seriously be against its existence. The questions of “how do you deal with mafias?” and “how do you deal with the mentally handicapped or mentally ill?” rapidly end the credibility of most plans for stateless organization. There may be non-state mechanisms for covering these needs, but let them be demonstrated.

The State continues to underpin our society. Exactly what are the core functions of the institution, and what are the warts, barnacles and corruptions is, in many ways, the silent core of real political debate, particularly in America. We have come to assume that hard-to-produce aggregates like Rule of Law are our birthright, and we pay little attention to the exquisitely complex social and cultural mechanisms which produce them. You do not understand the police until you have spent a little time with a third or fourth generation police man and understood the level to which their service ethic goes. The same is true in a less controversial sense for doctors and nurses. All of these structures are built on the State, right into the souls of the people who’s families have dedicated their lives to its maintenance for centuries.

However, the State is scaffolding, not bone. It must be understood as a means to an end, and that end is a fair and just society. The State has coercion in its very fabric, an accident of history, an appendix left over from mere Kingship. As we have seen, the State does not need to regulate speech, although it once did. Adventurism in control of substances like alcohol was disastrous and the ongoing disaster of drug policy hints towards an eventual settlement like Portugal’s, in which the State stays out of one’s recreational drug use and offers support when drugs stop being fun. Religion has gone from being enforced by the State to being a free choice protected by it in many nations. Slowly, slowly the State is – at least in the most progressive of countries – engineering its way out of our personal lives, and acting in an increasingly supportive and benign sense. As our societies slowly evolve towards a mature and responsible free will, the State withdraws from more and more of our lives. Retrograde motion, when it occurs, seems as wrong as water flowing up hill. We are slowly maturing out of the phase of our evolution where a State which commands us seems appropriate.

We must not destroy the State before it has served its purpose as the scaffolding on which we build a genuinely civilized culture. The last policeman and the last thief may well be friends. The State, when it finally withers, may be preserved much as Heraldry experts are maintained by the Crown in deference to history, rather than out of current need. Is it unimaginable?

Women can vote. Gay people can get married. Drugs are legal in Portugal with no ill effects. The evolution is occurring, and there is no greater mistake that we could make than to cut away the scaffolding before the temple of our free will can support its own weight. Until we evolve beyond needing the State, it supports us, and I, for one, am for that support. We have values which exist at the transpersonal level embodied and projected into the State – it can, under optimal circumstances, raise all of us to the level of the best of us. Let the State’s function be a dignified withdrawal from the affairs of the People, at a rate that produces growth, wholeness and independence, and let us all accept that our destiny is towards ever-increasing freedom, and the State is a bridge towards that goal. Let us hope that the current ructions knock the barnacles off our faithful friend and servant, and that its current illness soon ends, returning it to useful service, and to health.

(Much of the thinking which underlies this position can be found in The Big Deal, a series of essays about governability and the future.)