Heather Marsh’s new book puts forward a challenge: how to achieve mass collaboration on a global scale and awaken what is inherently human in the heart.
We live in revolutionary times of transition and significant change in the foundations of society. 2010 was a year of revelation. The publication of classified documents by WikiLeaks revealed the world of corrupt government secrecy and war crimes beneath corporate headlines, making ‘illegitimate authority’ a household term. WikiLeaks empowered the public to demand transparency and accountability of official action as a check and balance on the exercise of power. With the global legitimation crisis, new horizons opened up.
Then, in 2011, the world saw waves of dissent as grassroots activism arose into coalitions of resistance that ripped through political parties, morphing into the powerful 99% alliance. From the Arab Spring to town squares in Greece and Spain to the Occupy movement that spread around the globe, people began walking away from moneyed politics and hitting the streets in assemblies and circles of consensus.
Then came the response. With police crackdowns and suppression of the movements, the encampments were evicted and a certain momentum was lost, at least in their initial forms. In the wake of the draconian state response across the globe, utopian visions of taking back power from corporate elites that had once been glimpsed on the horizon quickly dissolved back into the scorched landscape of chaos and uncertainty. Many are now asking the question: What’s next?
‘A Completely New System of Governance’
Heather Marsh’s book Binding Chaos offers a pathway to walk through that chaos. Published in May 2013, the visions articulated here for “a completely new system of governance” could not have found a better spokesperson than Heather Marsh.
Many know Marsh by her online pen name @GeorgieBC. Marsh is a human rights campaigner and internet activist as well as a computer programmer. She has been at the front-lines during this pivotal period of global social change. As administrator of the WikiLeaks-endorsed news site WL Central, she saw government crimes, corruption and secrecy from up close as they were unveiled before the public eye. As editor-in-chief of the news site from 2010 through 2012, Marsh used the revelations of WikiLeaks to shed light on human right abuses and advocated for greater transparency. Through the creation of Take the Square, Marsh not only observed the rise of insurgencies around the world, but also participated in the budding revolutions by facilitating new forms of vital connection and communication.
Her book was written partly from the view of a first-hand witness to the rise of illegitimate governance. This personal experiences gave Marsh special insight into how the current world system of capitalist nation-states is broken beyond repair. She urges the reader to take an honest look at history and recognize that “every political system we have tried has proven incapable of protecting human rights and dignity.” Highlighting the pitfalls of each of these systems and pointing to their common tendency to devolve into oligarchy, Marsh astutely identifies problems, yet does not stop at simple diagnosis. Instead, she articulates a new model that tries to address these issues. In her words, this vision is a system that would “give individuals control and responsibility” and would “bring regional systems under regional governance” to “protect the heritage of future generations.”
A Compelling Invitation and a Critical Examination
Making no claims of definitive answers, Marsh’s book is a rather compelling invitation. She facilitates the process of examining past efforts and imagining alternative futures by exploring “what ideas have not worked and why, and what ideas seem to be working.” She examines ideas of consensus, anonymity, peer-to-peer (P2P) networking and the hive mind that have largely arisen through collaboration made possible by the internet. Marsh writes that “old authoritarian systems can no longer bind the natural chaos of a free society, but we can show the power of chaotic order and the beauty and creativity of collaborative freedom.”
Marsh engages the reader with questions about representative democracy vs direct democracy, personality vs idea, individual vs group affiliation, trade economy vs “approval economy”. By having old and new ideas dialogue with one another, she builds a bridge and takes the first steps over them. Marsh’s thoughts are threads that ‘bind chaos’ and help us trust our tentative steps in this period of uncertainty and transition as the old world-order crumbles.
After the author highlights the inevitable demise of representative democracy and its inherent inequality and injustice, she grapples with the idea of direct democracy. She challenges its oft-discussed promise as an alternative form to electoral politics; a view held adamantly by some on the left and anarchists who came forward in the wake of Occupy. Along with a realistic assessment of the challenges that lie in the actual application of having everyone fully participate in decision-making processes and the attendant time constraints, Marsh points out how “‘true’ democracy is at best only one step removed from ochlocracy or mob rule”. She claims that “pure direct democracy is a pure tyranny of the majority,” and when the majority rules, the needs of minorities are ignored. She shows how such a system has the potential to jeopardize individual rights.
Beyond Representative Democracy
The book traces the history of representative democracy in its relationship to individual rights. Marsh contends that “representative democracy is designed not to care about individual rights but to care about what noun each person can identify with and how strong is the lobby group associated with that noun.” She observes how under representative democracy, groups act as individuals and vice versa. She furthermore reveals that what is behind the mechanism of ‘representation’ is a conversion of the individual’s inner desire into something exterior that one identifies with, such as a political party, a particular leader or an interest group.
Once the individual is absorbed into the group, their faces and particular interests tend to disappear as diverse opinions are consolidated and homogenized into the single voice of pre-selected leaders who claim to represent them. Marsh cautions how this form of ‘representation’ not only fails to truly count individual voices, but also how it makes them invisible and deprives them of their responsibility. She sheds light on how the engineered groups in this system of ‘representation’ obscure the origin of hidden agendas and ideologies within the manufactured collective.
“When individuals speak as groups we frequently do not even know who the members behind the groups are or what their individual opinions are,” Marsh writes, showing how — when individuals act as a group — true accountability of their actions is difficult and easily exploited. In this, Marsh argues, lie the seeds for corruption. She points out the danger of people’s blindness that allows them to accept and believe “the falsehood that the voice of its oligarchs is the voice of the people and the subsequent falsehood that their rule is a form of rule by the people.”
Moreover, Marsh shows how representative models of governance have a problem ensuring the rights of all minority groups: “a group is not an individual and must not be used to represent individual thought.” Here one can see Marsh’s passion, her core faith in an individual’s power to govern their own lives that permeates all of her work. She encourages people to reclaim their voices and begin speaking for themselves: “If individual rights for everyone are put above any group consensus in every assembly, if they are applied equally without distinction of any kind, there is no need for anyone to have group representation.”
Beyond Conformity and Group Thinking
Marsh deconstructs the system of representative politics in order to discover personal power and restore the innate sense of agency. She reveals an underlying concept of humanity that built the architecture of representative democracy and traces it in Western individualism, as a core value put forward by enlightenment thinkers. She then explains how this political system protects and fosters this particular view of personhood and keenly observes that group affiliation is an essential component in the maintenance of the system.
Bringing attention to the phenomenon of affiliation, Marsh asks what happens when individuals begin identifying themselves with a certain group and begin to conform to the ideas that are central to that group. She sees the act of group affiliation as a subtle engineering of conformity where the will of individuals is coerced without their knowledge. She strips Western individualism down and defines it as isolated individuals, artificially coerced into the conformity of group-thinking but cut off from the roots of their true common interest. She sees the group affiliation embedded in representative democracy as a vehicle for this particular conditioning of the self, which is manufactured through persuasion in the form of propaganda, PR and personality-driven celebrity culture. She describes this system as a vehicle for the advancement of self-interested agendas and ideologies belonging to an often-times hidden privileged class.
Furthermore, Marsh emphasizes the shadow side of group affiliation: how one’s identification with a certain group creates a tendency towards exclusivity and a sense of ‘the other’ and ideologies, or ‘isms”, that can easily dehumanize and silence the voices of those who are excluded from the narrow circle of self-interests. She sees unconscious group affiliation as “the root of all racism, nationalism, agism, sexism, and every other form of bigotry and believes.” Instead, she calls for a return to our true self, as a connected individuality that is not uprooted from its own experience. “People who are currently faceless and voiceless do not need another to be their face and voice,” she writes. Rejecting this system of representation is an important step to connect with one’s own voice and authenticity. It is the act of each individual speaking for him- or herself that frees others to claim their own voice as well.
Beyond the Isolation of the Empty Self
The global trend of social revolution that burst onto the surface in 2011 has revealed this crisis of representation. Governing structures are being challenged all over the world. In the rubble and chaos of the present political system, Marsh points to an agent that can create a new form of governance. She reminds the reader that truly democratic social systems must be built on recognition of the full potential of the individual; on an identity that is rooted in the larger whole, and in our interconnectedness with others, rather than our isolation into an abstracted empty self — one that thrives on exploitative social structures to feed its own hunger for connection.
Marsh suggests that we reboot our economy on a vision of a new individualism that carries concern for the vulnerable in society. Marsh opposes the trade economy that in her view disregards those on the fringes of society. She sees marginalization as a manifestation of the modern society that we have inherited, which she describes as lacking “the idea that [we] are responsible to a society of people.” Instead, she puts forward the idea of a giving economy with a belief that “an economy needs to be based on service to all of society.” When people recognize their responsibility to one another, she contends that we create “a giving economy instead of a gift economy, with exchange not between just two trading partners.” This vision is one of “acceptance by society based on actions instead of assets,” and includes everyone with a recognition that “those dependent in society for some things also have gifts to give.”
Differentiating this giving economy from other emerging economic practices of peer-to-peer exchange and gift economies that are now being embraced as a culture of sharing (particularly online), and that are being put forth as alternatives to the current arrangement of centralized capitalism, Marsh describes how the latter ideas are still tied to the old structure, pointing out what she perceives to be the pitfalls in this. “The peer-to-peer/gift economy structure is encouraged as a form of trade suitable to a non-hierarchical society,” she writes, arguing that this structure does not address the fundamental issue of exploitation that lies at the heart of contemporary capitalism.
Marsh also calls into a question what a ‘peer’ actually is. Who is this peer that relates to another person? Acknowledging the power of the decentralized network that allows one to directly connect to another, she asks how this peer can be free from the market economy that reduces our interaction into a trade exchange. Marsh seeks to recognize those who are not ‘qualified’ as peers, those who are not able to trade, and she points out how “anyone unable to trade an object or act of direct value to a person in power will be left out of a trade network and dependent on charity.”
Awakening What Is Human in the Heart
With this vision of an “approval economy”, Marsh tends to human desires and needs in an attempt to humanize the economy. She redefines wealth as something “created by giving”. Instead of the idea of charity, she claims that “care for dependents of society is the responsibility of all and dependents should have power to gift approval to those who assist them.” Marsh tries to listen to the voices of those who are silenced by roles defined and assigned purely through capitalistic values; those whose labors are ignored or undervalued in economic production. She emphasizes the needs of those who are neglected, vulnerable and invisible; women, the disabled, elderly, the poor, and so on; charging those more capable in society to see and include them in the basis of the new social order.
Finally, Marsh urges the reader to look beyond an identity framed through a narrow economic lens, beyond the speculative mind that is busy calculating self-interest and profits. She hopes to eliminate economic activity divorced from real human relationships by awakening the heart that remembers who we are; not consumers and merchants, but humans who care for one another and live in constant active recognition of one another’s needs.
Binding Chaos is a book not simply about the economy, governance and human rights. It strives to move beyond political theory, constructs and concepts that float around in political science and sociology. What the author passionately advocates is an awakening to our innate human needs and aspirations. Professor Robert Jensen once said that “the chaos of truth is a product of the rational, and whatever clarity of truth we can achieve is produced not in our minds but in our hearts.” In Binding Chaos, Marsh challenges her readers by asking who we can become beyond the confinements of an economically manufactured identity shaped by a corporate-driven world.
Marsh shows us how a society that includes everyone is not just an ideal, but is already emerging as an actual possibility. She reminds the reader that the realization of such a society requires each of us to see the other and truly recognize those who are forgotten; even those who are silenced by human rights advocates and groups that are said to represent them. Here one finds a radical vision of individualism-in-connection; one that is not threatened by others but embraces and welcomes them.
How can we rediscover the heart — boundlessly courageous and generous? How can we step forward, unified as individuals who gather in service to others? This is the challenge Marsh puts forward; to awaken what is inherently human in the heart. She believes such great power is in each person and reminds us that it is this power within that can bind the chaos.