appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

Month: July, 2014

Network Mutualism

photo credit

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This post is authored by me, but originally appeared at C4SS. Enjoi!

Human communication systems offer incredible insight to the creative nature of human beings, spontaneous social order and emerging markets within our societies. For the first time in human history we are sharing ideas from the local to the global in scale. With the advent of the Internet, social media and growing social networks, communication costs are at an all time low. These falling communication costs, as at every time in our collective history, are allowing us to work around traditional power structures that have historically controlled the amount and type of information we receive. As the Internet is a mechanism for global communication, we are now cultivating ideas based on individual and collective interaction with people who hold similar interests.

The described collaborative nature of inclined labor in the freed market has far-reaching political and socioeconomic implications for our societies. Historical evidence suggests that social and cultural development are dependent upon active participation from people in their local communities (Kretzmann & McKnight 1993). Emerging communication technologies and the spread (and ease of access to) information can lead to a transfer of authority from centralized institutions to neighborhood or community organizations (McCook 2000). Human communication systems play a fundamental role in the empowerment of all people and provide a wide range of benefits to communities (Wilcox 1996). Altruism is alive and well in the Internet age. The collaborative nature of the Internet, the ease of access to information, and the development of local to global markets over the net are of particular interest to market anarchists. After all, what better place to work on a project with peers, or organize a rebellion? The Molinari Institute website defines market anarchism this way:

Market anarchism is the doctrine that the legislative, adjudicative, and protective functions unjustly and inefficiently monopolised by the coercive State should be entirely turned over to the voluntary, consensual forces of market society.

The market anarchist seeks differing and competing modes of social organization. Market anarchism maintains replacing the state with a decentralized society is desirable because of the feasibility of, and the liberating principles innate to, left-wing free market economics. What better example of voluntary social organization exists than the vast networks emerging on the Internet? Important here is the concept of information ecology. Information ecology is a system of people, practices, values and technologies in a particular environment (Nardi & O’Day 1999) or community. This idea of information ecology helps us better understand human communication systems and how information moves within them – how is information used, who needs certain types of information, who is impacted by access (or lack there of) of information and what does this mean for our communities?

As communication continues its decentralized evolution in the age of the Internet more stakeholders will take active roles in community development, empowering people like never before (Mehra 2009). The online encyclopedia “Wikipedia,” for example, explicitly restricts corporations or governments from uploading information to its online content, instead allowing only individuals to add, remove or change content on the website (Kaplan 2010). Driving this collaborative effort is the idea that the labor of many individuals leads to better availability of information than any single person or actor could individually achieve (Fama 1970). The idea is that collaborative projects lead to more efficient markets. Collaborative projects enable the creation of information by interested users and are incredibly democratic.

A political example of this democratization is occurring right now in China. Yang (2003) notes that civil society and the Internet are dependent upon each other. The Internet facilitates the activities of a civil society by creating new markets for citizen participation. Civil society facilitates further development of the Internet by creating the social capital (citizens and citizen groups) for communication and interaction (Yang 2003). This co-evolution of the Internet and society has big implications for China’s model of government (even as the Chinese government attempts to control access to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook), as Yang explains:

The co-evolution of the Internet and civil society means that political control of the Internet in China will have to take the form of control of civil society as well, and vice versa. Both options are open to the state, but the simultaneous control of the Internet and civil society will add to the difficulty and complexity of control. The co-evolutionary process also means that civil society development will facilitate the democratic uses of the Internet as much as the diffusion of the Internet will shape civil society. This scenario may have long-term consequences for the development of the Internet and civil society in China.

Many more examples of networked decentralization exist across the net. Human beings are fond of organizing in groups and with new technology we are in the beginning phases of building a global market defined by collaborative social action.

The Internet, information technology and falling communication costs provide easy-access to local/regional/global/stigmergic networks. Communication networks are easily coordinated and create ‘‘virtual public spheres’’ (Langman 2005). Virtual public spheres are places in cyberspace where people and information intersect in virtual communities or subcultures (Langman 2005). Communities that are organized and cultivated on the Internet are just as real as the face-to-face interactions humans use on a daily basis. The Internet provides a space where people can acquire and share information as well as interact, debate and negotiate about issues pertaining to society (Langman 2005) – elevating the speech of all individuals, not just those in a position of power, like never before in human history. The Internet is incredibly empowering – the feedback loop between the Internet and civil society is an engine driving cultural evolution.

The rise of global communication, among all tiers of society, will have huge implications for the future of human civilization. It is important then, for all libertarian theorists, anarchists, and liberty minded individuals to recognize and challenge threats to the Internet. As empowering as network mutualism can be, technology also tends to centralize power – especially as it is the privileged intelligentsia that mainly moves innovation in this field forward. This gives the elite few the power of dominance over the many. Technology is often born in a system of bureaucratic control that champions a social structure based in top-down hierarchies. This is why the democratic nature of the Internet and our virtual public spheres are so unique – they deserve our protection. Wherever there is human flourishing, rest assured either a state or corporate bureaucrat (often both) discover a system they argue needs taxation, moderation, regulation and/or prohibition. Take Zach Epstein‘s warning  that a new privacy-killing CISPA clone is now a step closer to becoming law. He writes:

We all remember the outrage that swept the Internet and ultimately played a role in defeating CISPA, a proposed law that would have allowed government agencies and tech companies to exchange private information about United States citizens without their knowledge and without a warrant. Well, it’s time to get ready for another round of outrage because CISPA’s controversial successor is now a step closer to becoming law.

He is referring to the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2014 – approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee in mid-July. The new law (CISA) would allow companies to share private user data with local and federal law enforcement if the claim is made that it relates to any kind of alleged criminal activity. Another piece of legislation allowing the state-corporate apparatus to set-up wiretaps without warrant.

Now take the much more discussed Net-Neutrality debate. The Federal Communications Commission received more than 1 million public comments on the issue of net neutrality during a five-month commenting period for a proposal that would allow cable companies to charge content providers extra fees to deliver faster service. NPR reports it is the biggest public response the FCC has ever gotten on a policy matter in such a short period, and the second most commented-upon FCC issue, period. The overwhelming response from the public was that the internet should remain open in nature to ensure its benefits can be shared by all. In the same article, however, NPR asks George Washington University law professor Richard Pierce if the record breaking comments will even matter in the long run. Pierce notes that this has been extensively studied by academics and their research shows that rule-making or policymaking tends to be systemically biased to favor the industries that are affected by the regulation. NPR reprots:

In a recent example, Pierce points to the work of Kimberly Krawiec. Krawiec read all of the comments that were submitted in the rule-making that led to the Volcker rule — part of the Dodd-Frank Act’s banking reforms. She also reviewed the logs that described the meetings that agency decision makers had with parties who were interested in the outcome of that proceeding. Krawiec found that, while proponents of strict regulation of financial institutions dominated the comment process numerically, their comments were useless to decision makers, because the vast majority of them were identical form letters without data or analysis. The folks who do comment with the detail, data and analysis that can change minds? Deep-pocketed industries.

The academic conclusion: Research (and history) shows public comments do not affect outcomes – money talks. But, our speech is empowered like never before over the net. The best thing we can do for the Internet is to keep up the trend of decentralization. So far, the national debate has presented us with only two options:

  1. We need the state to protect us from losing the internet to corporate control via regulation and legislative decree, or
  2. We need the state to protect moneyed interests so corporations can practice their rights in the (state) capitalist market.

We must remember there is a third option – maintain common, mutual control over the net. By the very nature of information ecology, we can keep the Internet innovative and free. All battles against the state and capital are uphill but we are all empowered by the Internet. As the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) notes, as long as we continue to build and provide access to new market opportunities and create safe havens for free speech, the Internet will continue to empower and equalize horizontal social organization as opposed to vertical, top down hierarchies around the globe. We are winning, simply because we talk and are inclined to labor with one another. Information technologies are allowing for revolutions in markets, thus effecting business, government and global culture. For the first time in human history there is truly global communication. Though it is still a large privilege to have access to the Internet, more and more people, of many different socio-economic statuses, are crossing the digital divideand beginning to talk. As Tim Malone writes in The Future of Work about the coming revolution:

The new revolution promises to lead to a further transformation in our thinking about control. Where does power come from? Who should wield it? Who is responsible? Once again the result will be in a world where people have more freedom. A world in which power and control are spread more widely than our industrial aged ancestors would have ever thought possible… Dispersed physically but connected by technology, workers are now able, on a scale never before imaginable, to make their own decisions using information gathered from many other people and places.

As Malone points out, emerging orders in society will continue the trend of decentralization. If left in common control the net will continually become democratic, highly organized, structured and efficient – it will be anarchic progress. There has been a constant push throughout human history to decentralize when the time is optimal. The emergence of democracy, for example, shows off this trait. Now, in an era of low communication costs and emerging technologies, we may see enhanced social evolution, a stronger push to decentralize and the emergence of small social networks that can cause big changes in how we live our everyday lives. Information technology is beginning to impact our neighborhoods, cities, work places and governance. We are connected and with each blog, tweet, event, post or review prove we are not neutral, but instead are revolutionaries for network mutualism.

Works Cited:

Fama, E. F. (1970) Efficient Capital Markets: A Review of Theory and Empirical Work. Journal of Finance, vol. 25 no. 2, 383—417. Kaplan, Andres and Michael Hanlein. (2010) Users of the World Unite! The Challenges and Opportunities of  Social Media. Business Horizons. Kretzmann, J. P. & L. McKnight. (1993) Building Communities From the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Communities Assests. Institute for Policy Research. Langman, Lauren. (2005)From Virtual Public Spheres to Global Justice: A Critical Theory of Internetworked Social Movements. American Sociological Association. Malone, Thomas W. (2004) The Future of Work. Harvard Business School Press McCook, K. (2007) A Place at the Table: Participating in Community Building. ALA Editions. Mehta, Bharat & Ann Peterson Bishop. (2004) The Internet for Empowerment of Minority and Margenalized Users. New Media and Society Vol6 (6):781–802 Mehra, Bharat and Ramesh Srinivasan. (2007) The Library-Community Convergence Framework for Community Action: Libraries as Catalysts of Social Change. Libri, vol. 57,  123–139. Nardi, B & V. O’Day. (1996) Information Ecologies: Using Information with Heart. MIT Press. Wilcox D. (1996) Inventing the Future – Communities in the Information Society. NCVO. Yang, Guobin. (2003) The Co-Evolution of the Internet and Civil Society in China. University of California Press, vol. XLIII, no. 3.

A Mountain Justice Summer

Mountain Justice Summer 2014

Mountain Justice Summer 2014

The temperate, deciduous, mountain rain-forests of Central and Southern Appalachia are recognized as a biodiversity hotspot of global significance. In Eastern Kentucky stands Pine Mountain, among the most beautiful and biologically diverse mountains in the region — equipped with gentle views, waterfalls, endemic flora and fauna and undisturbed forests. In June the mountain was also home to a community dedicated to a sustainable Appalachia — the folks of Mountain Justice.

Mountain justice is both a call to action, and a call for help, from communities in the Appalachian Mountains. Specifically, Mountain Justice is a gathering of numerous concerned citizens and coalitions who are part of a growing network to abolish mountaintop removal valley fill operations and transition mountain communities beyond coal.

To date, more than 520 mountains throughout Appalachia have been leveled by mountaintop mining. More than 1.1 million hectares (an area three times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) of temperate forest have been converted to moonscape  and more than 2000 km of streams have been buried. Though there are reclamation requirements, to date, there is no evidence to suggest the environmental impairment of this practice can be offset.

There is a large toll to human populations as a result of these operations as well. Numerous health risks exist in Appalachian communities as a result of air and water pollution and industrial disaster is rampant in the coalfields. As environmental health is depressed, so are markets. Billions of dollars in wealth have been extracted from mountain communities only to enrich extractive resource industries, energy monopolies, state governments and the federal government – leaving coalfield residents in immense poverty. Appalachian history is wrought with class struggle, environmental degradation and corporatism. The mountains are on the front lines of the war with the politically connected – and Mountain Justice is striking back.

For ten years now Mountain Justice has worked on a diversity of tactics to end the destruction of Appalachian coalfield communities — from “paper wrenching” to non-violent direct action. Mountain Justice summer camp has become a staple of the Appalachian movement, it is a community; many know each other and alliances are quickly made. Mountain Justice Summer lasted ten days and featured workshops, training sessions, and good old fashioned story telling about Appalachian history and culture. Of course what is a summer camp without traditional foot stompin’ mountain music, films, bonfires, home cooked meals and camping?  All were present at Mountain Justice, accompanied with a healthy dose of revolution.

Particularly interesting about Mountain Justice (and almost all of Appalachian organizing for that matter) is the leaderless coordinating style of the movement. Groups are organized, decisions are made and actions are carried out without top-down hierarchies, but rather cooperative decision-making. The movement operates in the tradition of anarchist, anti-authoritarian social innovation. I cannot claim the entire movement hopes for a stateless society, but it is important to note the decentralized themes prevalent throughout Appalachian transition. The movement strives for economic and environmental sustainability — all to be achieved by local and worker ownership of the means of production, community owned democratic energy systems and solidarity economics.

Most importantly, the movement is achieving its goals. These small scale, decentralized markets are rising in the Appalachian coalfields. In West Virginia, coal miners who lost their jobs to the mechanization of the industry have started developing environmental markets. Worker coalitions are helping communities save money via efficiency programsCoal River Mountain Watch is achieving democratic energyDirect action after direct action raises awareness and halts new coal generation, closes strip mines and alleviates poverty. Because of groups like Mountain Justice regeneration is coming to Appalachia.

Neighborhood Environmentalism: Building Sustainable Markets

Photo Credit: New York Times. China flattens mountains for economic development.

Photo Credit: New York Times. China flattens mountains for economic development.

At this blog, I try to keep things near and dear to issues impacting the Appalachian bio-region – though I do stray from time to time. In the past I have published blogs about national affairs and US foreign policy, and I sometimes slip and post things to this site in that vein, but I am trying to keep things at this blog as regional as possible, hence the name Appalachian Son (though you can find all of my political writing at

But, for this third “Neighborhood Environmentalism” piece I am going to stray a bit again and call attention to something that is happening in China. I am doing this because there is an incredible amount of ecological destruction happening in the country right now, and it is because of something all too familiar to Appalachia: Mountaintop Removal Valley Fill operations. Chinese scientists are also looking to the same tired environmental players within the United States to help mitigate the situation (but not stop it). It is an important story, and if we can adopt solidarity economics in Appalachia, then perhaps we can offer a new way forward for China as well.

Just as Appalachia, the mountains and alpine forests of Central China are home to an incredible array of flora and fauna. The botanical richness of the high desert bioregion alone make the Chinese mountains a biodiversity hotspot. Specifically, the area provides crucial habitat to avian species, mammals and endemic vascular plants.

In a time of precipitous biodiversity loss, on course to yield the sixth great extinction, there should be high priority placed on protecting biodiversity. Instead of curbing habitat loss, the leading cause of extinction, however, the Chinese government actively pursues it. In the rich bioregion of central China, home to numerous species of endemic plants and animals, the state is leveling 700 mountains for economic development.

An article published earlier this June, by Chinese Scientists Peiyue LiHui Qian and Jianhua Wu, in the international journal, Nature, argues “the consequences of these unprecedented programmes have not been thought through — environmentally, technically or economically.” The authors go on to argue that such projects ultimately result in air and water pollution, soil erosion and large-scale geological hazards such as land subsidence. The authors conclude this project will lead to vast destruction of forests and agricultural fields – endangering rare flora and fauna.

State controlled media offers an alternative story, however, noting the loss of mountain habitat in the region will “lead to the creation of an environmentally sustainable economy based on energy-saving industries.” In their Nature article, though, the Chinese scholars note: “Many land-creation projects in China ignore environmental regulations, because local governments tend to prioritize making money over protecting nature.” The authors close by arguing the Chinese government needs to further research the project, recruiting help from other government organizations such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, United States Geological Survey and an international association of hydrologist’s from the United States and Canada. Though I agree more environmental protection would relieve some ecological stress, these recommendations do not strike the root of the problem – state economic power.

There is a strong tendency among environmentalists to empower the state, which is odd as there is a continual process of compromise between conservationists, big business and government courts that results in ever more encroachment on wilderness. If we instead apply laissez-faire politics to land management we may begin to view land as it is (natural, beautiful and important) as opposed to how it should be.

American libertarian and political philosopher Karl Hess Jr., in his book Visions Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range, attributes the decline in health of natural lands to inherent problems in government policy, ecological destabilization due to government intrusion and the destructiveness of sweeping land use policies. Hess believes that instead of looking for more laws and regulations to manage natural resources (inevitably enhancing state economic power) we should instead seek an economic system based on voluntary market interactions without the involvement of the state.

This adaptive approach to ecological protection yields incredible results. Take for instance the work of Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Her work reveals environmental sustainability is not the product of government intervention, but instead a result of self organized institutions where key management decisions are made as organically as possible. It is also wise to remember the old community based, sustainable management of village lands – suppressed by the great landlords, the communist state and the neoliberal state in succession.

Homogenization is dangerous for both world ecosystems and economics. Nature and human civilization are incredibly complex and dynamic – neither will be sustained by sweeping ideas of natural resource management.

Ecological systems and free markets share an affinity for diversity and both long for sustainability. The dissolution of power and control will advance best management practices. For this reason, we should not look vertically to state institutions, but horizontally to one another in the market. The goal should not be expanding the floor of the cage, the goal should be abolition. Neighborhood environmentalism will build sustainable markets — and markets are beautiful.

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