by David Hudson
The party platform on
which Harry Browne ran for president last year mentions the Internet but
once, and it's a rather bland mention at that. "You, and every other
person, have the right to speak and write freely -- on paper, on the
airwaves, on the Internet -- even if the government and the politicians
don't like what you say." That's it.
There's nothing else in the 3800 word document that even comes close to
suggesting that the advent of networked communications will bring about
universal liberty, the end of broadcast media, evenly distributed global
wealth in an economy of abundance, the end of the nation state, or the
restoration of ethics. And yet it is in precisely these terms that John Perry Barlow describes "The Best of All Possible Worlds" in his essay on what life will be like
fifty years from now. According to Barlow, if this world comes about, and
he naturally hopes it will, we'll owe it all to digital technology.
Quite a difference between Browne, head of "the third largest and fastest
growing political party" in the U.S., and Barlow, the outspoken optimist of
the "digital revolution" who once penned "A Declaration
of the Independence of Cyberspace." While Browne and his fellow
card-carrying members of the Libertarian Party (LP) go about the business
of trying to achieve the maximum amount of individual freedom with a
minimum of government interference, issue by issue, one election at a time,
Barlow has professed to feel more at home in a world that is "both
everywhere and nowhere."
We need a terminology, or even just a single word, to denote that
difference, and so far, many have made do by slapping the prefix "cyber"
onto "libertarian." It's clunky, but to the extent that it works for "sex"
and "space" (a limited and perhaps outdated extent), maybe we can make it
work here. I conducted a little experiment at the LP web site, however, and came up with
this: "No articles found for 'Cyberlibertarian'." Nor for any variation of
the word, with or without a hyphen or capitalization.
"I question whether cyber-libertarians exist outside the minds of nettime subscribers in Europe," adds Bruce
Sterling, referring to the mailing list devoted to taking a critical
look at technology -- and further spoiling my quest for the definitive
term. "Obviously, there are some guys with modems who are also major Ayn
Rand devotees, but they don't seem to me to be very interesting or
influential. They're kinda like Henry George single-taxers or Free Silver
enthusiasts; in a word, cranks."
But run-of-the-mill libertarians with email are not the group I'm after.
And Mike Huben only complicates matters by pointing out in his "Critiques Of
Libertarianism" that "the two major flavors [of Libertarianism] are
anarcho-capitalists (who want to eliminate political governments) and
minarchists (who want to minimize government). There are many more subtle
flavorings, such as Austrian and Chicago economic schools, gold-bug, space
cadets, Old-Right, paleo-libertarians, classical liberals, hard money, the
Libertarian Party, influences from Ayn Rand, and others."
The Browne/Barlow distinction seemed so much clearer. Perhaps it'd be
easier to talk of "cyberlibertarianism" than of "cyberlibertarians."
Because Sterling is right to point out that from a distance as wide as an
ocean, a certain set of beliefs is perceived that has nothing to do with
getting people elected to implement the LP platform, is in fact, or claims
to be "post-political."
"People believe electoral politics is democracy because they have been
brainwashed, period," says Wired editor
Louis Rossetto, a
cyberlibertarian if there ever was one, and obviously, Browne would have to
disagree. While libertarians struggle online and off for the values they
believe in, the new breed subscribing to the new flavor of libertarianism
is confident their brand of radical democracy will inevitably occur on its
own -- that the digital revolution and the libertarian revolution are one
and the same, and that, as Rossetto declares, "this revolution really is
out of control."
"There have always been many kinds of libertarianism," notes writer McKensie Wark from the
Australian perspective. "For example, Sydney Libertarians were always
pessimistic. California Libertarians seem to me too optimistic. On the
whole, their thinking goes back to Kropotkin and
the idea that there really are models of society without power."
So perhaps geography does have something to do with it. Wired UK associate
editor Hari Kunzru confirms that while "[t]here are definitely people on
the far right of the Conservative party in the UK who would call themselves
libertarians," the "hacker anti-establishment ethic (a kind of techno law
of the jungle -- if you can do it, you do, and it's up to other people to
be technically skilled enough to protect themselves, otherwise they have no
right to be there) meets economic libertarianism, boomer individualism...
all that stuff seems to be the US angle. No one I know believes in some
bright technological tomorrow. But people are determined to create moments
of freedom, and think technology can help them."
Kunzru adds that it's Hakim Bey's idea of the TAZ
[Temporary Autonomous Zones] rather than the digital revolution that seems
to be "the driving model for European technoculture." Strands of the far
left, those with roots in Situationism and punk, and the far right begin to
mingle as they edge toward anarchism, though of course, "in general they
represent totally different interests."
Anarchy is a key element in the mutual attraction between the Net and
extremists of the libertarian or any other kind. "The cool thing about the
Net as 'anarchy that works'," says Sterling, whose own writings have promoted the idea, "is that in point of fact it does work. It's
a genuinely novel approach to technical and social development, so it
rightly compels attention."
In purely technical terms, minor glitches or a possible future overload
aside, the model does indeed function. The question of whether human beings
can zip along past each other with as little friction as data packets
within the anarchic model, however, is still open. Further, Sterling adds
that whether the model "has anything to do with Chardin Noospherics is a
matter from an entirely alien realm of discourse."
What he's referring to is yet another radical tenet of cyberlibertarianism,
stemming from the ideas of theologian Teilhard de Chardin, which forecasts
the "hardwiring" of "the collective organism of the human mind in one
coherent simultaneous thing." Barlow again, this time as quoted by Mark
Dery in Escape Velocity.
Clearly, it's tough to generalize. There may be as many "flavors" of
cyberlibertarianism as Mike Huben counts off in prefix-less libertarianism.
Nevertheless, what can be fairly said of both is that they envision a world
functioning far better than the one we've got once government is done away
with. Perhaps McKenzie Wark puts it best. "What's so amusing about
cyberlibertarians is that they harness so much future-speak to the pursuit
of so ancient a mistake."