The Politics of Crowds

If the characteristic method of collective action for Libertarians is the free market, then I submit that the characteristic method of collective action for left-anarchists is the crowd.

By "crowd," I do not mean "mob"; I mean more in the sense of "crowdfunding," "crowdsourcing," and the like. In a mob, individuals lose their individuality, submerging themselves in an unstoppable group tidal wave that breaks the bounds of civilized behavior without any sense of responsibility. In a crowd, on the other hand—at least in the sense that I mean—actors retain their individuality, and indeed can act to further it in ways that otherwise they could not have. The crowd allows you to participate in collective endeavors that would be beyond individuals. (Burning Man, for example, is not known for its oppressive uniformity!)

Let me explain. In a free market, the actions of individuals are coordinated with each other through the pricing mechanism, so that as each individual seeks his own interest, a larger social balance is achieved in an undirected, emergent process. (For details, read practically anything by Hayek.) In the pure form, free markets do not have collective action per se, in the sense of groups of people united around a particular goal—unless you consider "making money" to be that goal, and even then individuals compete with each other to achieve that goal. While there is some cooperation in the free market, usually around shared resources and institutions, the primary focus is on the individual's interests, which "automatically" generates social optima in a meta-interaction with the surrounding economy.

In a crowd, on the other hand, people do engage in united behavior around a shared goal—but of a special kind. Take crowdfunding, where someone publicizes a project that he wants to carry out, and others choose to contribute or not to contribute, as their own desires and identities impel. The point is not to submerge your own identity in a collective, as the Progressive corporatists tend to do. Rather, by contributing to a project you like, you are expressing your own individuality by what you choose to affiliate with. Importantly, you can choose to contribute to any number of projects if you like them, even if they might seem to be expressing different values, reflecting the multifarious nature of our identities.

The crowd is not coerced. It is free behavior, but it is also group behavior—where free individuals come together to do something as a community. And it is that aspect of community that distinguishes crowd behavior from markets.

Now, to say that crowd behavior is characteristic of the anarchist left is not to say that Libertarians, or anyone else for that matter, do not use crowdfunding from time to time. And likewise, left-anarchists do not eschew the market entirely. But they are skeptical of it at best, and it seems that they take to crowd activity much more readily than do anarcho-libertarians or the Right in general. Take Open Source Software development, an example of crowd activity in that people can contribute code to projects they like in an uncompelled manner. (Indeed, most successful crowds are structured like the "Bazaar" model  of famed OSSer Eric S. Raymond.) Engineers in general tend to lean to the Right, but it appears from casual observation that the OSS subculture has a stronger left-anarchist contingent than its anarcho-libertarian one.

Or, consider that in the last week, TechCrunch went live with its new crowdsourced sight for citizen involvement in legislation, Project Madison. Despite Madison's origins in the office of the impressive Republican congressman Darrell Issa, of the websites linked in my sidebar only the relatively left-anarchist sites BoingBoing and Slashdot reported on Project Madison going live. The conservative blogs I read did not cover the story, that I noticed. (This seems to be a strategic mistake, as the tool seems a fantastic way for small-government conservatives to get more input into active lawmaking.)

I last wrote on this blog of the need to develop a left-anarchist analogue to the Tea Party, which would contest the Democratic Party and challenge the Progressive corporatists for control, much as the Tea Party is wresting control of the Republican Party from the big-government faction. Such a left-anarchist movement (and what would it be called?) needs a platform for how it would govern differently from the Progressives. I believe that the concept of crowd action is a fruitful place to start.

Suppose, for example, that a portion of tax revenues (say 10%) were allocated not by Congress, but by the choices of individuals. Suppose that Amy Taxpayer can allocate $2000 in tax revenue between any government projects she feels like. In such a system, government departments that don't get their desired funding from Congress would be compelled to appeal directly to the people, and justify their value. If they are convincing, they may get fully funded or even overfunded, for example if Amy and her friends all decide to allocate their taxes to the Department of Education. At the same time, this would be a great way for disconnected citizens to become more engaged and knowledgable in the business of government, as they can feel more control over their own political efficacy.

The funding choices that people might make could be a useful corrective to the dysfunctions of Congress, as well as being a valuable source of information on voter preferences. In short, it would appeal to the left-anarchist values of involvement, freedom of choice, and community action in a way that might actually make government run better.

Nothing stops libertarians from seizing on this idea themselves, of course, and I wish they would. I don't think they will, however, and that is why we need a left-anarchist voter bloc to correspond to them.

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