John D. McEwan’s article on anarchism and cybernetics

9 Jan

In the 1960s and 70s there was some small excitement among certain anarchists around the connections between anarchism and cybernetic theories of organisation. Cybernetics, originating in the work of Norbert Wiener but most interestingly developed by a series of British cyberneticians including Ross Ashby, Grey Walter, Gordon Pask and, perhaps most interestingly from an organisational perspective, Stafford Beer. John Duda has recently written on this history and his article, published in Anarchist Studies, is well worth a read.

Most of the key writings on anarchism and cybernetics, Duda’s article but also older sources such as Colin Ward’s ‘Anarchism as a Theory of Organisation’, Grey Walter’s ‘The Development and Significance of Cybernetics’ and Dolgoff’s ‘The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society’, are all available online. One of the most important and most interesting contributions, that of John D. McEwan, however, is not. McEwan write his ‘Anarchism and the Cybernetics of Self-Organising Systems’ as a response to Walter’s article and it was published in the same journal, Anarchy, edited by Ward, a few months later, in September 1963 to be precise, the 31st issue of Anarchy.

Colin Ward's A Decade of Anarchy

Colin Ward’s A Decade of Anarchy

I’ve been tearing my hair out the last few weeks because I had a photocopy of McEwan’s article that I’d requested from the British Library but I couldn’t for the life of me find it anywhere. I spent quite a while searching for it online to no avail, despite it being republished in the books A Decade of Anarchy (1961-1970), also edited by Ward, and Participatory Democracy. Prospects for Democratizing Democracy, edited by Dimitrios Roussopoulos and C. George Benello. I tried the Anarchist Academics email list too, but no one had an electronic copy of the article. Well, I managed to get a copy of the A Decade of Anarchy book this afternoon from the British Library and I’ve scanned the McEwan article so that it now has a place online (I’d like to transcribe it so that it’s searchable but that would take ages and I don’t have that kind of time at the moment).

So here it is, John D. McEwan’s 1963 article ‘Anarchism and the Cybernetics of Self-Organising Systems’ originally published in Anarchy number 31 (pages 270-83) but here scanned from A Decade of Anarchy (1961-1970), edited by Colin Ward and published by Freedom Press in London in 1987 (pages 42-58).

McEwan – Anarchism and Cybernetics – in Colin Ward ed. A Decade of Anarchy (1961-1970) London Freedom Press 1987

6 things tsū can tell us about how social media work

5 Nov

Tsū is the latest social media platform claiming to be an alternative to Facebook. What’s new about Tsū is that it will apparently pay you to use the service. That’s right, not only is it free to use but you’ll actually make money by using it. Well, if it sounds too good to be true it almost certainly is. However, there are some reasons why tsū is an important example and why it says a lot about what mainstream social media are and how we can define alternatives.

1. If it’s free to use, then you’re the commodity…

A lot of people seem to think that the way Facebook makes money is by owning the content you create (the photos, etc.) and selling them to advertisers. This is not how it works. Facebook isn’t selling content to advertisers, it is selling future clicks on adverts. Based on what you have clicked on in the past, Facebook sells a profile of predicted future clicks. TV advertising works in exactly the same way, and the concept of the audience commodity has been used by theorists like Christian Fuchs to explain how Facebook makes its money. The main difference is that with TV advertising, companies had to do the work of creating demographic profiles of audiences and using these to determining programme and time-specific prices. With Facebook, you do all of this work; all Facebook needs to do is track your clicks and how long you dwell on content, package this data and sell you, as a potential clicker to advertisers. You do (almost) all of the work and Facebook gets (completely) all of the revenue.

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Did you hear the one about the Anarchist Manager?

24 Sep

The 3rd Anarchist Studies Network conference took place between the 3rd and the 5th of September, at that network’s home, Loughborough University. As with the 2nd ASN conference two years ago, we organised a stream at the conference which invited participants to consider the relationship between Anarchism and (Critical) Management Studies (CMS). Over the past two years we also organised a similar event at the Manchester Critical Management Studies conference and a double book launch, here at Leicester. These various events, taken together, are leading up to a special issue of the open-access online journal ephemera, entitled “Management, Business, Anarchism”, due to be published this November. It has been an interesting two years.

that'd be great

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The (literal) death of the No vote in Scotland

20 Sep

The referendum was won by Better Together but only by 5%, nothing like the 60% or 70% projected at the start of the campaign and even in the last year. In terms of actual numbers of voters, the Yes campaign would have needed to convince around 220,000 people to vote with them in order for Scotland to have become an independent country.

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that large numbers of No voters will be disillusioned with Westminster’s failure to deliver more powers in the coming weeks and months, turning to the pro-independence movement, which is by no means finished. Aside from this likely shift to support for independence, given the generational differences in terms of support for independence and looking at Scotland’s current death rates, a story can be told about the future scope for winning a future referendum.

The No vote made up 73% of the over-65 age group who voted. There are an estimated 892,700 people aged over 65 in Scotland in 2014, based on the 2011 census and taking into account the annual death rate. Given that around 82.5% of the voting-age population voted, this puts the No vote in that age group at around 537,600 and the Yes vote at 198,800.

In 2013, around 55,700 deaths were reported in Scotland. 82% of these were of people 65 years old and over, so that’s around 44,900 in total. The death rate is pretty stable in Scotland although it did decrease 0.4 percent between 2012 and 2013. Based on these figures, the projected number of deaths of over-65s who voted in the referendum would be 36,700 in 2015; 36,500 in 2016; and so on.

If we stick with the rough figures above and the split in the vote of 73%-27% within this age group, it is possible to project what would happen to the support for independence in the coming years. For example, in 2015 one could estimate that 26,800 No voters would pass away along with 9,900 Yes voters; in 2016 the estimate would be 26,600 No voters and again 9,900 Yes voters (these numbers are rounded to the nearest hundred hence the similarity).

Taking the deaths of Yes voters and No voters, all other things considered to be remaining equal which of course they aren’t, it can be argued that overall support for No will fall by a certain number of voters every year. In 2015 this could be project as a difference of 16,900 voters, in 2016 16,700 voters. Based on these statistics alone, the 220,000 difference between Yes and No, recorded at the referendum, would be met in around 15 years.

So by 2030, based purely on looking at the numbers of No and Yes voters among the over-65s and the death rate in Scotland, the No vote will quite literally die out. This doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that those under 16 now will be able to vote in coming years, 16-18 year olds voted 71% for Yes and in general those under 55 voted overwhelmingly for independence. Nor does it take into account the fact that as Westminster fails to deliver on its promise of increased powers for Scotland, many will regret their decision of voting No and turn to a pro-independence stance. Furthermore, it doesn’t take into account the fact that by 2020, for example, a large number of some of those currently in the 55-64 bracket will be in the over 65s bracket and seeing as 55-64s voted 57% for No, this would also change the overall results.

Looking at demographic trends alone, the No lead would be likely to be eroded much sooner than 2030, but the fact is that the strong opposition to independence has its hardest core among the over-65s and through natural causes, this core of support will disappear leaving the Scottish electorate much more predisposed to independence. This is a rather morbid point to make but it does show that over time, support for independence is likely to rise.

Reflections on the #indyref and the future of radical politics in Scotland

19 Sep

I have to begin with the caveat that I write this as something of an outsider. I had to watch most of the developments in the independence referendum campaigns from a distance and although I have been involved in activism in Scotland in the past, aside from spending the few days I could manage campaigning for a Yes vote I can’t say that I’m an activist in Scotland anymore. I want that to change over the coming months and years, but that’s the situation at the moment and so what I write here comes from an outside perspective and insights gained through watching the campaign and aftermath closely as well as speaking to radical activists in the Yes campaign.

With that said, I want to offer a few theses on the referendum and its aftermath.

1.    Scottish politics has changed for the better

It’s clear who’s on which side and what those sides are. The working class and the progressive and radical left voted for independence. The middle-class, the rich and the right voted for Westminster. While some might bemoan a divided Scotland (I don’t want to say ‘nation’ because that’s not what it is in my mind: it’s a space of land with people living in it) but politics is about antagonism. Classes and other oppositions exist materially and no ideas of unity can change that. The left in Scotland will benefit from a situation in which people recognise these oppositions and align themselves accordingly in a conscious, political way. While perhaps not as clear and emotive as Occupy’s ‘We are the 99%’ slogan, which provided an identity and strategy for the movement, the emerging ‘We are the 45%’ slogan has the potential to galvanise the pro-independence movement.

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2.    Scottish Labour is finished

Firstly, a large number of Labour voters in Scotland sided with the Yes campaign for independence. Before the Brown intervention it was as high as 40% and given that the vote for Yes only fell by a couple of points when undecided are taken into account, the number of Labour voters going against the party and voting Yes could still be around a third of the total. Aside from this, however, Ed Miliband has already signal a turn-around on the Devo Max vow. A switch in such a short space of time, less than three days since he signed the vow, will enrage the Labour voters who voted No in the hope of getting Devo Max. The failure to deliver Devo Max, and it will be a failure (Miliband’s already reneging, Tory back-benchers are in open revolt and let’s face it, they never intended to implement it anyway), will turn more voters away from Labour.

The specificities of Scottish politics will mean that they’ll always have a core, Labour-regardless base of support, but this will dwindle over time. I think I’m probably among the first generation to not have to make a cognitive leap to disassociate Labour from left-wing politics. For me and others my age and younger, there was never any reason to connect the two and more and more are realising this. Perhaps Labour will lose control of Glasgow City Council which they have been able to hold onto despite mismanagement and mass opposition to their policies.

3.    The Scottish National Party will benefit in the long term, and maybe the short term

Alex Salmond has resigned, a move which might take wind out of the SNP’s sails, but from what I’m hearing there is a surge in support for the party. People who voted Yes want to crush Labour and build a strong united front, and many see joining or at least voting for the SNP as the clearest way to do this. Linking this with the demise of Labour, apparently the entire Labour for Independence group has today resigned and joined the SNP. Others might go to the Scottish Greens, and I’ve also heard of a surge in their membership since this morning. Returning to the Glasgow City Council example, the Green’s have 5 seats and 5.55% of the popular vote to the SNP’s 27 seats and 32.57% of the vote. Voters could see the SNP as having the best chance of uniting the opposition to Labour, but then the SNP and the Greens, who’ve worked together in the Yes campaign, could also work together in Glasgow to unseat Labour. In either case, and elsewhere in the country, there will be a potentially massive increase in membership and popular support for both parties.

Aside from membership numbers, the SNP and the broader Yes movement now has the moral high ground and can hold Westminster to account on their promises of more powers for Scotland. When I was involved in radical left politics in Scotland, a lot was made in certain circles of the concept of ‘transitional demands’. The idea behind transitional demands is that movements can make demands of capitalism and the state that are accepted as justified by the people but which those in power cannot, because of their internal structures and interests, agree to. In this case, Westminster has made a transitional demand of itself. It probably can’t deliver and this could lead to No voters regretting their choice and turning to the former-Yes campaign groups and parties.

4.    Women are poised to play a more important role in Scottish politics

Throughout the campaign, women were a key vote that had to be won by the Yes campaign. In the end this was done to a large extent, but it was done by the autonomous Women for Independence group actually creating spaces for women in Scottish politics. This was something that the spectacle of the televised debates between Salmond and Darling, criticised by some as the politics of middle-aged, middle-class men in suits as usual, didn’t offer but the social movement for independence did. Now with Salmond resigning and Nicola Sturgeon likely to replace him as SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, it seems that Scottish political life has been blown open by women activists.

5.    A new left-wing party could emerge, but this could be a bad move

Paul Mason hinted at the emergence of a Syriza/Podemos style radical left party emerging in Scotland. Perhaps the Scottish Socialist Party will return to the larger political stage, but it would more likely be a new party. Given that Mason has been speaking to Radical Independence Campaign activists in Glasgow in recent days, he may have heard of moves to form a new party. This, I think, would be a bad move for the radical left. A lot of radical activists have left the SSP in recent years in frustration with that party’s internal structures and politics. A new party wouldn’t necessarily be more of an accommodating space to those in radical social movements and they may be served better by remaining autonomous of parliamentary politics and exerting pressure on the Greens and the SNP.

What these movements could do to maintain their momentum is learn from movements in Southern Europe and take their radical activism into neighbourhood and community assemblies, providing a structure and space for those who’ve been politicised by the independence referendum. This could develop the kind of interaction with institutions Richard Gunn argues for and could prove decisive in defining the ways in which Scottish civil society opposes Westminster on the ground. This could well be what the radical movement has planned, and it’ll be interesting to see how it pushes on after succeeding in gaining ground in working class communities.

Better Together is Westminster sleaze at its best

9 Sep
Better Together’s campaign strategy seems to reflect much of what is wrong with the current state of the UK.

In June of this year, M&C Saatchi was appointed to lead their advertising operations. M&C Saatchi was of course founded by Charles Saatchi, cautioned by police last year after assaulting his then-wife Nigela Lawson. With such a pedigree in terms of respecting women, perhaps the patronising TV advert they produced is no wonder.

Better Together’s social media campaigning has since the beginning of their campaign been run by Blue State Digital. That company has run campaigns for the Labour Party as well as Obama’s two successful presidential campaigns. It is also owned by WPP plc, a UK-based company that has been implicated in tax avoidance, using schemes in Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands. The Guardian has estimated that between 2003 and 2009 WPP plc paid around a fifth of the corporate tax it should have paid, resulting in a £100 million shortfall.

In drawing on the old boys’ networks of London advertising agencies and supporting tax avoidance by providing revenue to WPP plc, Better Together, in contrast to their recent promises of increased powers for Scotland, seems to be UK politics as usual. Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of Better Together reveal them to be fundamentally embedded in the ugliest side of Westminster sleaze.

Anthony Glees’ comments on Scottish independence

8 Sep

The Scotsman reported this morning that there was a ‘“Scottish independence link” to ISIS Scots hostage’ David Haines. The short article was made up almost entirely of quotations from Professor Anthony Glees of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham.

Glees’ comments seem to originate in an article in the Sunday Post in which he says that ‘ISIS are masters of propaganda and realise the impact of selecting a Scot. They will hope by showing the UK is weak and unable to defend its citizens it will drive Scots to embrace independence.’

He goes on to argue that ‘One of the UK’s big selling points in remaining together is the strength of the UK on the world stage – their sword and shield. If they can no longer strike hostile forces who attack their citizens, the UK is clearly in danger of being a spent force heading towards division. And a weakened UK is exactly what the ISIS wants.’

It is interesting that Glees gives absolutely zero evidence for his argument aside from the supposedly logic leap from Haines being Scottish to ISIS aiming to influence the independence referendum. Indeed, it is questionable whether Haines being Scottish and having family in Scotland is of any interest to ISIS at all. Glees’ appears to be building his argument on attributing motivations to ISIS that there isn’t really any evidence for.

As Glees highlights, ISIS are masters of propaganda, so it’s strange that they have completely failed to mention that Haines is Scottish. The video in which they threatened to execute Haines as they have done James Foley and Steven Sotlof makes no explicit reference to Haines being Scottish and the this fact is something reported in the press based on their own investigations and not on information provided by ISIS. It is tenuous at best to argue, as Glees does, that ISIS is deliberately trying to influence the outcome of the independence referendum.

What is less tenuous is the argument that Glees, in contributing to the debate around ISIS in this way, is trying to influence the result of the referendum. Glees has made perfectly clear on his Twitter account that he is opposed to Scottish independence, posting several messages like these over the last few weeks:

Glees’ comments then, far from being an unbiased, academic contribution to the debate based on his experience as an scholar of intelligence look instead to be a concerted attempt to introduce the prospect that by voting Yes Scots are playing into the hands of ISIS.

From what I can tell, the argument has been met with the derision it deserves on social media, but nonetheless Professor Glees should be called to account for such inflammatory and groundless accusations that, one could easily claim, exploit the shocking executions by ISIS for his own interest in seeing the UK remain a single state.

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