Let’s make ‘commoning’ and ‘flattening’ interchangeable and then we can start. We can think about horizontalism, anti-hierarchy, as a commoning of power. Flattened relationships of power are core to any anti-capitalist vision for political change. This flattening can be difficult to enact, even in microcosms. The failures are trope. In any pluralistic body, divergence is inevitable. Will is necessarily built within atomization. The flattened surface begins to tilt, undulate, distort. These kinds of failures are easily anticipated and most groups put mechanisms in place to address emergent tacit control structures. Unfortunately, no mechanism can account for truly pluralistic desire and attempts can quickly become convoluted and unintelligible. Perhaps this is why the du-jour leftist theory of the 21st century, left-accelerationism, rejects ‘folk politics or organicisms’† and instead proposes a politics that is hierarchical, institutional, and projective. Left-accelerationism tends to situate the shortcomings of ‘folk politics’ at its dedication to temporal immediacy and its faith-like belief in an as-yet-undiscovered natural self-perpetuating egalitarian system. We can combine these two tendencies into the strategy of prefiguration. Prefigurative political programs endeavor to create the reality of ideal political life within the social operation of the political movement itself so that it can be actualized into larger society through emergent processes. This is a way of projecting the future you are fighting for onto the current moment, and working to hone the vision through the process of fighting for it. Prefiguration points to where I will offer a different critique for ‘folk politics’. To enact a deterministic vision on the future through a simplification of the present is to deny the immediate and the organic. To flatten without relishing warp is to deny the immediate and the organic. Any totalizing political program will not account for the slippage, the mutation, that is endemic to the immediate and organic.
Mutation occurs in the present.
Both flattening and warp occur in the immediate. Any project of change occurs in the present; it intermingles with the incumbent. The inherent biases that are instilled in us by a racist patriarchal system, the association of authority with safety, the nearly-ubiquitous fear of difference, the intergenerational trauma, the general exhaustion from living a life inundated in power struggles and precarity; there are endless ways in which the present norm acts on us as we try to change it. Perhaps our models for organizing flatness aren’t misguided in their dedication to the immediate but instead are too simplistic or too rigid to account for all of the factors that work within and against them. The forces of hegemony have weaponized contradiction. They are multifarious and fluid. Our organizing principles must be as well.
Power struggles are organic.
Leftists are quick to point to natural systems as proof that a horizontal, egalitarian society is inevitable. The beauty of slime mold aside, there are far more examples of brutal competition and hierarchy within ‘the natural world’. Maybe horizontalism is unnatural. Taking a step back, I’ll say that I don’t believe in the natural vs. unnatural dichotomy so let’s replace it with dominant vs subordinate. Hierarchy is the dominant structure of relationships in our world. The ideal ecology may be sustained in interlocking, interdependent systems, but the more granular view of this is one of endless struggles for survival. I am going down this path to say that the natural, the inevitable, might be inextricably linked to the dominant. If this is the case then there probably is not a perfect, final solution to organizing human relationships horizontally. Instead, we have to enter into any project of flattening with the understanding that it will constantly mutate towards the dominant, natural order of brutal hierarchy and competition for survival. The forces of hegemony by virtue of their dominance, are natural. Until a counter-hegemony is constructed, the dominant order and its opposition will share a permeable membrane. Our organizing principles must remain vigilant to this.
I cannot blindly insist on a vague fluidity or vigilance though. What does this mean? Does it mean change everything all the time? This becomes the organizing equivalent of an endless dodge: a smirking suggestion to ‘live in the moment’ or ‘adapt or die’ . Does it mean: expect that your emancipatory efforts will be relentlessly undermined? Maybe the consideration of mutation and slippage has value as an orientation, but I would like to add something more to this. How do we build political programs and models for solidarity that can account for the fuzziness and mutability of oppositional politics. To understand this better I want to focus on one model for organizing flatness, free and open source software.
FLOSS (free, libre, open source software) is a way of commoning the production of software. Others are invited to contribute to the construction and maintenance of this code. Anyone can contribute code, design, documentation, and opinions. Decisions are made through some form of direct or representational democracy. It is easy to find declarations of open-source as an antidote to capital. This bears all the trappings of leftist ambition; the people own the product of their labor.
Despite the utopian impulse of this type of labor organization, capitalist enterprise is entrenched and omnipresent throughout the primary hubs for open-source development. Big tech is heavily invested in this space. The most popular online distribution and collaboration platform for FLOSS was recently bought by Microsoft. Many large for-profit companies donate open-source hours, and this labor is the core of how many of the biggest projects are maintained. This gives big tech an outsized influence in the kind of software that is made through open-source. Additionally, much of the work is done by the open-source equivalent of unpaid interns, people hoping to educate themselves, gain experience, and flesh out a resume by contributing to open source; the echoes of aspiration of success or survival within capitalism. Much of the culture within FLOSS is inaccessible for other reasons as well. From the homogeneity of a culture dominated by white college-educated men, to the obsession with expert status, FLOSS reflects the culture of big tech in many ways. All of this works to complicate the narrative of FLOSS, to create ‘crypto-hierarchies’‡, to add warp.
The Vulnerability of Mutability
If we maintain the belief that there is a perfect, natural horizontal system that resists all influence by capital, then we would say that FLOSS sold out, disregard its relevance and move on. This dogmatic and totalizing form of prefigurative politics is widespread. But instead, FLOSS does not disguise or obfuscate its relationship to dominant power structures. If FLOSS was originally an anti-capitalist, flattening gesture; it is today an averaging, an active mutation, a blur between the inside and the outside of its own ideology. I would suggest instead that this blurriness is why FLOSS maintains power and intelligibility despite the many obvious contradictions operating within it.
This is where the argument turns back on itself. The problem is that this staying power is now heavily enmeshed with the desires of big tech. This is a moment when that same most popular platform for FLOSS development, Github, maintains a contract with ICE and popular opinion is unable to shift this. So what then? If we remain rigid and willfully ignorant in the face of recuperation mechanisms of global capital then we build political projects that fail when confronted with the reality of the nebulous borders between inside and outside. If we let the ills of dominant culture in then our projects recreate the toxic world they were born within. But this is precisely why FLOSS is worth consideration. It offers examples of a space of active oppositional processes of change. FLOSS is flawed but there are no pretenses that it exists outside of the influence of dominant culture. With this transparent relationship to global capital, we can look at the needs that dominant culture has rushed in to fill as opportunities to realign, to reflatten, to iterate.
In the case of FLOSS, attempts to realign are already in process. Bottom-up funding is being addressed from multiple angles to figure out how to build mutual support economies that enable people without wealth privilege to contribute without precarity. Diversity in participation is being addressed by projects that devote themselves to inclusivity and accessibility for contributors from all backgrounds and experiences. Every terrain that dominant culture has rushed in to claim has a response, an attempt at an equal-and-opposite, a willful link in the chain of mutations.
Dual power can only be built if we understand the project of flattening as one that occurs in parallel to, and suffused within, a system of active change too large to hold in our collective imagination. Adherence to pre-determined tactics leaves us brittle, quick to critique and dispose of our projects as the reality of hegemony creeps into them. Outright dismissal of toxic tendencies will gradually strip away the coherency and accessibility of our movements. But operating with a flexible allowance or willful ignorance of those toxic tendencies will allow them to slowly gain dominance. It remains to be seen whether this will work in FLOSS culture, whether it will turn into a space irreparably influenced by the will of the pre-empowered, whether the flow of mutations will come from both sides. FLOSS offers lessons that can and should be applied to all projects that seek to root out tacit control structures. We can dismiss the ideal. There is no pure prefiguration; that position was always compromised. Instead we should look to where hegemony grows in through the cracks of our solidarity, and greet it with an eagerness to learn from its angle of attack. Let’s make ‘movement’ and ‘contradiction’ compatible and then we can start.
- *Scalapino, Leslie. It’s go in horizontal: Selected Poems, 1974-2006. University of California Press, 2008.
- †Srnicek, Nick, and Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work. Verso, 2016. p 10
- ‡King, Jamie. The Packet Gang: Openness and Its Discontents. Metamute.org, 2004.