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<nettime> Don't Fuck with Democracy.
Lachlan Brown on Tue, 15 Jan 2002 23:36:56 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Don't Fuck with Democracy.

          [reformatted  {AT}  nettime]


Thanks for your reply. My mail is not meant as a criticism of your
conference (nor is the subject line) in Chicago nor of its theme
concerning rights and responsibilities in a 'digital commons' and
methods of tactical media. 

I just wondered where the phrase 'tragedy of the commons' came from
and what this phrase was doing in your conference call. It sounds like
dangerous right wing revisionism in new media suited to the
undemocratic agenda of the National Security State. 

I read in the conference call for participation a very familiar
history, the history of 'the commons' or common rights and
responsibilities in relation to land and community obligations; as
well as an idea developed from this history by democratic radicals
called Levellers or the Leveller Movement or Party during the 1640s.

Given the democratic gains of the period you mention, the 1640s in
England, intimately tied up with an outpouring of  'tactical media'
or 'press pamphlets', the formation of 'textual communities' or
reading publics (like Nettime bbs), 'tragedy of the commons' is not
merely incorrect it is dangerous undemocratic nonsense.

The Leveller party  or movement anticipated and in some cases won many
of the rights we now take for granted, or have recently lost.  The
Levellers invoked a notion of 'common wealth'  to put forward a
political platform that included parliamentary reform, the end of
monarchy, the formation of a Republic in England,  a written
constitution, and universal suffrage. 'Extremes' of the Leveller
movement included women writing as women for the first timeasserting
their right to speak for themselves and to lobby for full political
participation in politics including the vote and the right to sit in
parliament. This was 300 years before the right was won. The
'true-Levellers' orDiggers who acted on a remarkable insight that we
can still learn from concerning the interrelation of land ecology and
politcs. They occupied and cultivated common land near Royal Estates
arguing that the land should be parceled out among the poor.

Most of the Leveller platform was achieved during the following three
hundred years. The American revolution was deeply inflected by the
Leveller tradition.

The actions of Levellers introduced civil rights we take (or until
recently took) for granted.  To give an example, Leveller John
Lillburne by refusing to recognize the authority of a court of
Puritans who sat to trial him gave us the 'right to silence before
the law'  his argument was simple he refused to speak since he
could not see who had elected the judges who tried him: he refused
subjectivity to an arbitrary power.  I see we have recently accepted
subjectivity to arbitary power by accepting changes to the law that
remove this right.  

Modern Democracy appeared in template in the mid 1640s. The American
Revolution and Constitution recalled the Leveller platform. This is
hardly a 'tragedy of the commons'. 

The period is particularly relevant to tactical media, reading
publics, and activism hence it is great to see you recalling this
repressed history. It is not good however to assume that what was a
remarkable outpouring of ideas, creativity, and innovation in culture
and politics ended in tears. The Levellers made the world we know, and
when the surrendering British at Yorktown played 'the world turned
upside down' they played the hymn of the Levellers out of respect for
the achievement of Amercan democratic revolutionaries.  OK? Mate.

I have a paper of the period which I wrote as an allegory for the
coming digital revolution(and as a comparison for claims to radicalism
in electronic media), which was circulated among people getting
involved in 'the new media' in 94-95. I meant to write a second part
comparing 7 years of online electronic media with the time 1640s in
retrospect, but, well, events...

Sorry about my tone, I have a cold.


Lachlan Brown

P.S. The 'tragedy of the commons' probably refers to the Enclosures
Act of the 18th century.  This has relevance to what I have called
'new enclosures' attending the application of IT in libraries
impacting scholarship traditions in universities, etc. and while this
is one reaction, it is not a necessary consequence of radical
publishing, the formation of reading publics, and the production,
reproduction and dissemination of knowledge. It's a problem
Professors are eventually going to have to tackle before they allow
scholarship to be consigned to the 'unmarked grave of history'.

> Lachlan,
> Hi. Thanks for your thoughts on the "commons" and "commonwealth". They are
> important distinctions and I appreciate your bringing them to the fore.
> While we felt a little silly when we realized that we fired the initial call
> for participation off without a more thorough read by our allies here better
> suited to position some of the historical points, your response is a great
> reminder why we reached out in the first place.
> So, we've been nose down in the tactical, myopic, soup of getting this thing
> on and there are certain clarification issues that have not been nearly as
> realized as they maybe should be by now. Our goal is to provide an arena for
> a swell of people that can focus and examine this dialogue, we are not the
> group to provide a detailed historical analysis or all the critical input.
> That's where you come in. I am very interested to here more about your work
> and how you think you can contribute. We are re-working the symposia ideas
> as I type this and in the next few days will push you some more information,
> if you are interested. They are pretty, um, "global" (ie soft) because we
> are looking for the participants and moderators to run with them.
> The music, films, installations, sound art gallery, net object gallery,
> gallery and alternate performance space tours and after hour parties are
> going to be incredible. We think the symposia and various publications of
> works will be as well. Looking forward to hearing from you.
> Thanks again taking for taking the time to comment.
> Peace,
> Karl
> Ps. Hello to everyone else on your cc list. Yo, don't make other plans for
> April 18-20

> On 1/10/02 2:10 PM, "Lachlan Brown" <lachlan {AT} london.com> wrote:
> > 
> > No, this is not right. Its important to know your .histories (small h or
> > repressed histories rather than History) as the confusion over the meanings
> > of 'commons' and common-wealth' is an outcome of these repressed histories.
> > You can't know where you are at until you know where you came from, Once
> > you know both, you know where you are going.
> > 
> > >> The term /digital commons/ is derived from the Common Law movement in
> > >> England in the 1600s. The movement called for the protection of shared
> > >> public spaces - the "commons" - its tools and resources. Often, larger,
> > >> private interests overran the commons, and >this failure of the 
> > >> communities to maintain their public resources is known in the discourse 
> > >> as "the tragedy of the commons".
> > 
> > 'The Commons' is NOT an outcome of radical thinking in England in the
> > 1600s. The idea of 'Common-Wealth' is. It's an important idea that
> > inflected all radical thinking in the English speaking world including the
> > foundation of New England colonies and the American Revolution.  'The
> > Commons' is a part of a tradition of 'common law', the 'commons' being
> > the colonized English under the feudal Lordship of the Normans, or the
> > 'Norman Yoke'. If one wonders what Heath Bunting is doing leveling
> > enclosures, and leading the way for hundreds of Agfhani refugees to
> > illegally enter Britain through the Channel Tunnel,  he is, among a number
> > of others, merely embodying a deep tradition of dissent, revolt and
> > cultural revolution in English, and British life. Some of this may be
> > relevant to other cultural contexts, some of it may not.
> > 
> > I note that Mute magazine's editorial to its Leveller and Digger inspired
> > issue also made this error possibly due to hasty or foggy abridgement
> > somewhere down the line (probably Sean Cubitt) of Lachlan Browns paper
> > "Love is the Law: the passion of revolt" which was written in 1993-94
> > and published in Public #10, a rather obscure and sometimes irrelevant
> > Canadian art and theory journal published in Toronto.
> > 
> > The paper drew upon substantial research in the period by Christopher Hill,
> > in particular "The World Turned Upside Down" recommended reading for all
> > would be revolutionaries, as well as relevant contemporary cultural theory.
> > 
> > I wrote the paper at the outset of my research into the field of digital
> > culture to allegorise the threads, themes and issues the 'digital
> > revolution' might parallel during the 'long revolution' we are presently
> > engaged in. The idea was to contrast a distinctly radical historical
> > instance where publishing was associated with 'reading communities' or
> > nascent publics, including some distinct feminisms, with claims applied to
> > 'the digital revolution' and to map out some of the issues it would have
> > to address if it was to meet the honorific 'radical'.
> > 
> > I'll come to Chicago to deliver the original paper if you like, (there
> > were several important sections including the relevance of anti-colonial
> > movements in the New Model Army and The Leveller Party in 1647 to
> > contemporary post-colonial thinking edited out of the published paper) and
> > to discuss how mediation and distribution are related in new modalities of
> > publishing.
> > 
> > When I began my research into the cultural implications of Internet I was
> > interested in possibilities for alternative or radical publishing. The
> > 'culture of the press pamphlet' in England during our Civil War and failed
> > Republic (hijacked by the 'Independents' or Puritans, and ultimately
> > abandoned in a compromise with conservative forces) threw up a tremendous
> > range of 'proto-englightenment' ideas some of which were millenarian (or
> > religio-aesthetic), some of which were political and some that were
> > economic. Ultimately The English Revolution of the mid seventeenth century
> > merely helped make the world safe for The Hudson Bay company, The East
> > India Company The American Republic, and hence IBM and Microsoft, but many
> > of the ideas of the time have relevance for radical thinking today.
> > 
> > Its important to get these .histories (and the Leveller and Digger movement
> > was for centuries  repressed (small h) .history) right. Some of the ideas
> > and movements that appeared during the period are highly relevant to the
> > contemporary cultural situation during the War, or dare we call it
> > contemporary cultural revolution?
> > 
> > The 'digital commons' is an idea from 'common law'. The notion of
> > 'common-wealth' (all things in common for the good of community) has
> > resonances in the ecological debate, the political debate about uneven
> > development, distribution and access to resources and wealth, as well as
> > the present 'open source', shareware, and copyright debate.
> > 
> > As I say, you can't know where you are at until you know where you came
> > from.  Once you know both, you will already be half way to where you are
> > going.
> > 
> > If there is confusion over 'the digital commons' and 'the common wealth'
> > well, there's is a distinct hegemonic reason for this obfuscated history,
> > and of course I will discuss this too.
> > 
> > Best,
> > 
> > Lachlan

Lachlan Brown
T. (416)  826 6937
Voice Message (416) 822 1123

Cultural Studies
Goldsmiths College
University of London


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