Tim Rayner “Maker democracy: Roberto Unger, progressive politics, and collaborative experimentation”: there are many words to parse in this title, a veritable lexicon of the changes within and against the walls of the academy, relating a critique of established institutions, perhaps, from the critical legal studies standpoint, through non-cognitive assurances of legal knowledge. But then, too, within the networked world writ large, there are the maker stories of disruption.
What has become the spirit of “maker” – hacker– that animates the disruption of the do-it-yourself culture, creative disruptions outside the political sphere like that of “human centred design, hackathons, and the maker movement“, that have inspired in turn Maker Day? Are they become mere creative? Or are they become less political? We might well ask. Indeed, we must ask.
And “democracy”—what can it provide by way of questions if not answers? Rayner claims that we live “[I]n an age in which our best institutions are failing us, in which political parties on the left and right seem incapable of taking action to forstall the crises that everyone sees on the horizon”. And so, Rayner goes on, “we need new thinking”, only to affirm that we can “have fun and be creative, and to work with people on disrupting the political imagination” in Maker Day, that is, but no less “an incredible political opportunity” in which “a fraction of the ideas will be implemented”, for example. What can democracy do, after all? Can the very noun itself, “democracy”, come to be used as a verb? Indeed as a transitive verb? In other words, what if we could all democracy?
Then, there’s Roberto Unger, the founder of the critical legal studies, the leftist movement in modern legal thought and practice, through which he seeks to realise what he terms the “empowered democracy”. Unger aims at creating a more open and synthetic set of social institutions in which individuals and groups can interact, propose change, and effectively empower themselves to transform social, economic and political structures.
There is, however, a conflict in Unger’s exploration of institutional reform, intellectual one, which provides a basis for undermining the democracy. The exploration is held back by his own view of progressive politics. For Unger, progressive politics is managed in the interest of “a trenchant critique of existing institutions and an ethos of collaborative experimention oriented towards refashioning institutions for the good of all”. The ambition for governmental reform that gave rise to a challenging of Obama’s second-term presidential candidacy in 2012 is crossed over into the needs for recognition. As Rayner points out:
Only the trauma of defeat, Unger explained, would force the party to rethink its strategies, tap into its progressive roots, and reinvent itself as the progressive party it is supposed to be.
The conflict is distraction from the reformist politics. It in part reflects Unger’s mentality as a hacker. Unger “thinks about institutions in the same way as hackers think about code: get in there, take it apart, play around with it and make it better”. Where the hacker comes to identify with the code she or he is hacking, Unger comes to identify with “the trauma of defeat”. When “the hacker comes to identify with his or her own commodification”, explains McKenzie Wark (2004) in A Hacker Manifesto, “[R]ecognition becomes formal, rather than substantive. It heightens the subjective sense of worth at the expense of objectifying the products of hacking as abstraction” (Wark 2004:40). Heeding the assertion, one might say that Unger redefines what the trauma of defeat is. He reclaims the common interest of the party in sharing the trauma or its shared responsibility of recognition for its progressiveness. From this policing of the radical, reformist politics arises a new conflict. “Commentators on the left and right were dumbfounded by this argument. Calling on party faithful to participate in their own defeat violates the laws of political logic”.
Unger’s hacker mentality is not, however, without value. Rayner sets up a thought experiment to demonstrate this.
The thought experiment I’d like to propose involves bringing together Unger’s argument concerning how progressives should attempt to revivify democracy with the empirical observation that collaborative experimentation is increasingly shaping the zeitgeist.
Rayner has observed that Unger “addresses the wrong community in his call to arms”. Unger does this by “calling on progressives in the world of party politics (a world that is constitutionally resistant to disruption) to embrace collaborative experimentation”. Rayner’s suggestion, then, is that Unger “reach out to progressives in the maker movement to lead the charge”.
It is of great importance that Rayner’s insistence upon collaborative experimentation is matched up with his own experimental mode of thought. What is remarkable about such engagement is that Rayner gives an account of how Unger will be able to bring about a transformation of experience. Rayner does this not only by disrupting Unger’s view of progressive politics. He does this by “reconfiguring” Unger’s hacker mentality, recharting its place in maker democracy, and reviewing its location in collaborative experimentation. This is less a project in the nostalgiacs of recuperation than a renewed struggle to set free Unger’s reformist politics from constraint that is imposed upon the self. As Wark writes, “it is the act of hacking (“as a pure, free experimental activity”) that composes, at one and the same time, the hacker and the hack” (Wark 104). By marrying the hacker and the hack, Unger and the maker (movement) in this manner, Rayner gives an important portrait of how one becomes the facilitator of a discussion on our interdependence.
Of great interest to me is Rayner’s move away from reformist politics and towards micropolitics within an engagement with microtechniques. In several other posts I have read in Philosophy for Change, Rayner seeks to start a dialogue amongst his audience about what he sees as something that we haven’t done a lot of conscious consideration of. Rayner points the way towards a different way of paying attention to our world and of putting it into our own perspective. He shows an eagerness to imagine things otherwise than they are, transform them not by diminishing or distorting them but grasping them in what they are or could be. It is akin to the sense of care – care for life that a reader is taken aback, if forgotten, that we’re at the potential of the tip of collaborative experimentation.
Climate change, earthquake, tsunami, financial crisis, war…things happen. But then, too, we–social creatures–try to connect up with others, humans and non-humans, via technology, that push beyond those limits that will generate a transformative effect. Perhaps it is beyond necessity that makers democracy.