May 28, 2009

The most significant and influential thinker of self-organisation in the past century was undoubtedly Friedrich Hayek

Against Self-Organization
from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro
Life on earth is doomed, according to the biologist Peter Ward in his new book The Medea Hypothesis. This book is meant to be polemical and provocative; I lack the knowledge to evaluate its particular scientific claims. But just as a thought experiment, it is bracing.
Ward’s book is a critique of the quite popular
Gaia Hypothesis, originally developed by James Lovelock, which claims that the Earth as a whole, with all its biomass, constitutes an emergent order, a self-organizing system, that maintains the whole planet — its climate, the chemical constitution of the atmosphere and the seas, etc. — in a state that is favorable to the continued flourishing of life. Essentially the Gaia Hypothesis sees the world as a system in homeostatic equilibrium — in much the same ways that individual cells or organisms are self-maintaining, homeostatic systems. Gaia is cybernetically, or autopoietically, self-regulating system: continual feedback, among organisms and their environments, keeps the air temperature, the salinity of the sea, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, etc., within the limits that are necessary for the continued flourishing of life.
Ward’s Medea Hypothesis directly contests all these claims...

Both Darwinian natural selection and economic competition tend to be celebrated as optimizing processes. Stuart Kauffman, for instance, the great champion of “order for free,” or emergent, self-organizing complexity in the life sciences, has no compunctions about claiming that his results apply for the capitalist “econosphere” as well as for the biosphere (See his Reinventing the Sacred, chapter 11). The highly esteemed futurist Kevin Kelly, a frequent contributor to Wired magazine, has long celebrated network-mediated capitalism, analogized to biological complexity, as a miracle of emergent self-organization; just recently, however, he has praised Web 2.0-mediated “socialism” in the same exact terms.

But the most significant and influential thinker of self-organisation in the past century was undoubtedly Friedrich Hayek, the intellectual progenitor of neoliberalism. For Hayek, any attempt at social or economic planning was doomed to failure, due to the inherent limitations of human knowledge, and the consequent prevalence of unintended consequences. In contrast, and inspired by both cybernetics and biology, Hayek claimed that the “free market” was an ideal mechanism for coordinating all the disparate bits of knowledge that existed dispersed throughout society, and negotiating it towards an optimal outcome. Self-organization, operating impersonally and beyond the ken of any particular human agent, could accomplish what no degree of planning or willful human rationality ever could. For Hayek, even the slightest degree of social solidarity or collective planning was already setting us on “the road to serfdom.” And if individuals suffer as a result of the unavoidable inequities of the self-organizing marketplace, well that is just too bad - it is the price we have to pay for freedom and progress.

Hayek provided the rationale for the massive deregulation, and empowerment of the financial sector, of the last thirty years — and for which we are currently paying the price. But I have yet to see any account that fully comes to terms with the degree that Hayek’s polemical argument about the superiority and greater rationality of emergent self-organization, as opposed to conscious will and planning have become the very substance of what we today, in Europe and North America at least, accept as “common sense.” Were the anti-WTO protestors in Seattle a decade ago, for instance, aware that their grounding assumptions were as deeply Hayekian as those of any broker for Goldman Sachs?

I don’t have much in the way of positive ideas about how to think differently. I just want to suggest that it is high time to question our basic, almost automatic, assumptions about the virtues of self-organization. This doesn’t mean returning to an old-fashioned rationalism or voluntarism, and it doesn’t mean ignoring the fact that our actions always tend to propagate through complex networks, and therefore to have massive unintended consequences. But we need to give up the moralistic conviction that somehow self-organized outcomes are superior to ones arrived at by other means. We need to give up our superstitious reverence for results that seem to happen “by themselves,” or to arrive “from below” rather than “from above.” (Aren’t there other directions to work and think in, besides “below” and “above”?).

Whitehead says that every event in the universe, from the tiniest interaction of subatomic particles up to the most complex human action, involves a certain moment of decision. There are no grounds or guidelines for this decision; and we cannot characterize decision in “voluntaristic” terms, because any conscious act of will is a remote consequence of decision in Whitehead’s sense, rather than its cause. Decisions are singular and unrepeatable; they cannot be generalized into rules. But all this also means that we cannot say that decision simply “emerges” out of a chaotic background, or pops out thanks to the movement from one “basin of attraction” to another. No self-organizing system can obviate the need for such a decision, or dictate what it will be. And decision always implies novelty or difference — in this way it is absolutely incompatible with notions of autopoiesis, homeostasis, or Spinoza’s conatus. What we need is an aesthetics of decision, instead of our current metaphysics of emergence.

Biopolitics and political economy
from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro
A new paper proposal:
In The Birth of Biopolitics, his 1978-1979 lecture course at the College de France, Michel Foucault makes a surprising turn towards the critique of political economy...

In taking a new look at Foucault’s lectures, I want to argue two points. First, that Foucault’s account of neoliberal rationality, centered upon the market, provides an important missing piece to a Marxist understanding of capitalism under the regime of flexible accumulation. And second, that Foucault’s own turn to the critique of political economy is, ironically enough, precisely what is missing from contemporary, post-Foucaultian accounts of biopolitics and biopower. My ultimate aim in this paper is to place biopolitics within the framework of capital accumulation and the contemporary regime of finance capital.

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