The following article gives a great outline of the concept of Panarchy. The latest technology has enabled more participation and under some repressive governments it has even allowed for anonymous dissent. Technology in internet cafes can protect people as they would otherwise face consequences for commenting against the government. This article helps shed light on other aspects of Panarchy that can help us to better understand how participatory democracy looks in our times. -Editor
Paul Hartzog introduces the concept of panarchy, a sociopolitical field that emerges when connective technologies, which lower the threshold for collective action, enable cooperative peer-to-peer production – of knowledge, of tools, of power.
Panarchy is the emerging system of sociopolitical activity that we might refer to as the “wiki-fication” of society. By “wikification,” I refer to the rise of mass participation systems, that include 1) software production, or “open source,” 2) knowledge production, e.g. wikipedia, or 3) group/identity production, e.g. communities. Mass participation is enabled by the recent spread of connective network technologies, from cell phones to the Internet. Panarchy emerges when these connective technologies, which lower the threshold for collective action, enable cooperative peer-to-peer production – of knowledge, of tools, of power.
Network technologies, because they increase human connectivity, increase both the speed and frequency of human interaction. But more connectivity also means more complexity, and therefore more unpredictability. As small events cascade into large ones, power becomes distributed throughout the system, at once everywhere and nowhere. The outcome of all of this is nothing less than the transformation of civilization. Where the current system is hierarchical, centralized, and differentiated, the new system is anarchical, diffuse, and overlapping. Where the current system marginalizes and represses difference, the new system generates difference in order to create, explore, and adapt to future possibilities and uncertainties. Where the current system reduces human labour to proprietary economic production, the new system consists of many modes of human labour and the production of open commons. And finally, where the current system institutionalizes static structures, the new system exhibits complex dynamics – it is a field whose elements and relations are continuously coalescing and dissolving, the whole field of which is called panarchy.
Power, knowledge, and democracy
Democracy is fundamentally about participation. Democratic theorists have long been aware of the complexities of participation. Who should participate? When? How? Network technologies emerged out of communities of participants who were deeply committed to democratic ideals of sharing and openness – basically hackers and hippies. Hackers and hippies are sharers, of everything from code to commons. Michel Foucault, deeply aware of the relationships between power and knowledge, expressed this open sharing attitude in his own work.
“If one or two of these ‘gadgets’ of approach or method that I’ve tried to employ with psychiatry, the penal system or natural history can be of service to you, then I shall be delighted. If you find the need to transform my tools or use others then show me what they are, because it may be of benefit to me.” (p. 65)
While it may seem odd to think of Foucault as a hacker, nevertheless his intuitions resonate with the hacker ethos which now permeates network culture. Yochai Benkler refers to these distributed systems as “commons-based peer production.” Networking technologies – TCP/IP, DNS, Usenet, the WWW, wikis, blogs, forums, mailing lists, podcasting, wearable computing, location-based technologies, and other forms of social software – all contribute to increased connectivity and participation in production. Consequently, we see also a resurgence in theories of “the commons.” Lawrence Lessig’s concern with the “fate of the commons,” David Bollier’s OnTheCommons website, as well as Ostrom and Hess’s recent book on “knowledge as commons.”
These networks challenge hierarchical power structures in both physical and digital realms. Saskia Sassen has identified global cities as one of the sites of interest, where informal, seemingly apolitical, movements emerge as phenomena worthy of further investigation. Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs also investigates the ease and rapidity of collective action enable by what he calls “technologies of cooperation.” Panarchy as a whole may be amorphous and polycentric, but some zones can be more concentrated, denser, than others. These are the zones where new forms of power emerge and contest existing powers. Hannah Arendt’s notion of power as something that exists wherever individuals come together for a common activity, is visible in these new zones of production, like wikipedia.
For, against, or away?
Ultimately, then, what can we do to more fully understand the panarchy which confronts us? Well, we can begin by looking to previous technologies that changed the sociopolitical structure. The printing press, and later the daguerreotype, created ripples of epistemological anxiety. That wikipedia benefits from dispersed collaboration is not really that surprising. Eisenstein notes the significant improvements in mapmaking after the advent of information-sharing and open practices, and the progress of science itself takes advantage of the same spirit (if not letter) of openness.
Nevertheless, traditional processes of validating and legitimating truth were suddenly challenged by the mere presence of a new alternative. What we have in wikipedia, and in wiki politics, is essentially the disruption of the author function. Production – of knowledge and politics – becomes diffuse and decentered, distributed throughout the system, disrupting previous spatial and temporal continuities. And just as the structural response to printing consisted of the emergence of the banned books index, so, too, the structural response to wikipedia has been slander and lawsuits. Foucault warned us about the conflicts that would arise under these conditions.
“There is a battle ‘for truth,’ or at least ‘around truth’ – it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted,’ but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true,’ it being understood also that it’s not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays.” (p. 132)
Ernesto Laclau gives us a way to understand the homogeneity of the systemic response when he explains that the state-system cannot distinguish between potentially antisystemic social movements undertaken for particular purposes (e.g. peer production) vs. social movements that are anti-systemic in intent (i.e. revolutionary).
The crux of emergent formations under panarchy is that they take one of three forms. First, groups can mobilize on behalf of current structures. Second, they can mobilize in opposition to current structures. But more importantly, they can mobilize as “third way” alternatives that reject both the dominant and opposition structures, and instead operate in parallel to current structures.
So, although many writers about global networks note their anti-systemic roots, it is also true that movements like “open source” software and wikipedia are not primarily anti-systemic in their formation or motivations despite the obviously system-transforming capacity of their innovative mode of production. In many ways, the consequences of the new formations must be analyzed separately from their intentions. When new alternatives operate in parallel to existing modes, their consequences are often less clear, and may even be of little interest to the actual participants.
In order to properly theorize about panarchy, we need to understand in depth both the new technologies and their configurations as networks and complex systems, as well as political philosophy and social theory. With only the technical knowledge, we risk treating the effects of new technologies in a superficial way, simply applying traditional economic or nation-state lenses, without a full appreciation of the potential deeper social and political consequences of those technologies. Conversely, with only the philosophy, we risk focusing only on what we acknowledge in our traditional field of vision – nation-states, organized labour, and such – while entirely missing where the real action is, even though it is happening in plain sight, because we simply have not trained ourselves to see it.
The social formations enabled by connective technologies are the most important object of study in social and political philosophy at present. Moreover, these formations are not merely of interest only when they intersect with traditional nation-states or economic structures. Panarchy creates and reproduces a new socio-economic-political space (sometimes referred to as “global civil society”), and its movements are either resistant to or ambivalent with respect to traditional hierarchical institutions. As a result, panarchy manifests through mechanisms of social governance that function independently of and in parallel to state governing. As Paul Wapner points out:
What threatens to overwhelm us as theorists is the sheer multiplicity of this space. Whether we call it “heterarchy,” or “plurilateralism,” or “cosmopolitanism,” or “polycontexturality,” or “neo-medievalism,” or “mobius web governance,” or “p2p [peer-to-peer] society,” what is essential about this multitude is that it cannot be represented on an axis that presents us with a unified epistemological or political “we.” This is taken up, for example, in Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, and Danilo Zolo’s critique Cosmopolis. All we get is flux; but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, it is a necessary thing: the resilience of complex systems is a function of their diversity. Though philosopher Mark Taylor is speaking of Foucault, Derrida, and postmodernists in general, he might just as well be referring to contemporary cosmopolitanists, when he remarks that what they “cannot imagine is a nontotalizing system or structure that nonetheless acts as a whole.” What self-organizing complex systems achieve is a balance between too much flexibility – therefore incoherence and a lack of identity – and too much rigidity – therefore a loss of adaptability that makes eventual collapse inevitable. The literature on complex systems and self-organization therefore provides another valuable analytical lens on panarchy.
In conclusion, in Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia, Ron Deibert suggests that:
“The heterogeneous nature of postmodern social epistemology, and the overlapping layers of political authority, not to mention the dispersed centers of surveillance themselves, would all act as strong constraints against the emergence of a single mass identity. It is more likely that this sense of a global imagined community would coexist in a complex montage of overlapping and fluid multiple identities.”
Herein, we have some things to fear – the rise of criminal networks and “netwar” – but also much to celebrate. We are not adrift; “no center” is not the same as “many centers.” With mobility, comes liberty, and with liberty, responsibilities. So, while some might find this realm of complex networks, unpredictability, and perpetual flux disconcerting or even dangerous, panarchy also offers the most exciting challenges and theoretical opportunities for the foreseeable future.