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Realities bleed

A vignette: the Spokesperson’s journey.

  • Feb 11 2023
  • Laura Lotti
    is a researcher and writer. She investigates networked organizations with Other Internet and is co-developing Black Swan.

Even though the limo was scheduled to arrive at 8.45am, closing the infinity symbol that was drawn around the city every day by two representatives of each affinity group, that morning, The Spokesperson woke up way too early. She was anxious about the encounter and fearful about its consequences. But at least she felt that she could trust the Vibeswatchers. They were the affective glue that tied The Organization together, working alongside and sideways to The Algorithm that ran everything in the world created by The Organization after The Shattering, from cultural production to caretaking to the very fabric of Order & Chaos. It was effectively the realization of the pre-Shattering dream of fully automated, luxury decentralized organizing—and the nightmare had only just begun.

The Spokesperson was a representative of the Investment of the Self affinity group. Her role was monitoring and evaluating the rate and strategies of “self-investment,” or affective investment, into The Organization by its new and old members in relation to the resources held in common. Basically, she dealt with what in the Pre-Shattering world was economics and finance (even though these terms were now seemingly forgotten, or implicitly banned). Pre-Shattering, she was involved in socioeconomic architecture and organizational design. That was something that animated many of the members of The Organization back then—the dream of realizing synthetic catallaxies, the possibility of using heterodox economics for heterodox goals, perverting market mechanisms for anticapitalist aspirations. 

Way before the cataclysmic convergence of the innumerable forces that had led to The Shattering, it had become obvious that the longevity of a collectivity was not only dependent on its material production, but also on the level of “self-investment”—that is, identification with that collectivity and not just fleeting desire—that its constitutive elements put into it. As a long-forgotten book that she now held dear called Alienation and Charisma put it, as early as 1980: “[B]elief alone, without actual widespread self investment cannot, by this definition, produce charismatic authority” (11) and, therefore, cannot produce a social body. The author, Benjamin Zablocki, used the interplay between alienation and charisma to understand the problem of collective decision-making. According to Zablocki’s analysis, charismatic power provides a mechanism to overcome the alienation derived from the inability to reach consensus due to the proliferation of choices in a social formation. Since the establishment of The Spokesperson’s affinity group, they affinity group had been practicing the teachings of Zablocki’s book, but she feared that they were now reaching the limits of theory.

She was extremely concerned because, according to the most recent data from the Psychosocial Investment Index, the cultural economy of The Organization was inflated, and it looked like the bubble was about to burst. For the first time, one of the daily diagrams that The Algorithm spat out of its black box revealed an extreme disparity between the value of material resources held in the Common Purse and the valuation that members of The Organization assigned to it. At the same time, it showed a drastic reduction in the affective density of specific areas of the city, suggesting that fewer and fewer people were self-invested in those communes. Gossip had it that people were increasingly joining Idiopathic retreats, but The Spokesperson wasn’t so sure about it. 

The results were not conclusive, but The Spokesperson had a running hypothesis: people had been too busy shilling the values of their Councils so as to acquire higher status and more access to resources, rather than materially applying those values to their communes. The affinity groups ossified around empty signifiers of communitarian life, but practical solidarity hadn’t been achieved yet. As the pre-Shattering, profit-based economy demonstrated, the basic problem of resource redistribution was that the “haves” needed to be “incentivized,” in some form, to give resources the “have-nots,” but that was never the case because of the runaway logic of endless accumulation. The Organization knew that, so it had replaced numbers with qualitative social metrics. But now that Participation had become a KPI for each Council—expressed through language and tracked through computational means, instead of evanescent sparks of joy and gifts without return—The Spokesperson feared that the incentive structure devised by The Organization had degenerated. It had led to a system in which the capacity to attract resources in the future (i.e. capital, though this term was also disused) was considered more valuable than the resources one already had at their disposal from “the past.” The form of the asset had already replaced the commodity form before The Shattering. But it was happening again, it seemed: affectivity had become a currency. History repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

At the same time, The Spokesperson was concerned for her own place in The Organization. Everyone in The Organization was so bullish on the future that The Algorithm presented to them in its typical aesthetically evocative diagrams that her warnings would have sounded vain. She couldn’t afford to be once again penalized and marked as “outlier.” The ledger never forgets. Another shame-token would seriously affect her digital soul and perhaps even compromise her place in her council. She was so alienated by now that she almost felt empathy toward The Idiopaths, the masters of the old world, TradFi fiends and ancaps—the “‘Market Knows Best’ types”—the pre-Shattering oppressors,now-underdogs that had withdrawn to escape the world of The Organization. Maybe she could have silently left, too. But that was exactly what she was concerned about, and because she cared about The Organization and the project of a viable world after The Shattering, she felt she had to fight for it. As The Algorithm kept optimizing for consensus and unity, The Organization was losing the generative power of dissensus, and with it, the capacity to grow and evolve through friction and clashes. 

As the limo approached, The Spokesperson couldn’t help but think about the old adage that she had heard so many times before The Shattering, to the point of nausea: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Reluctantly, she admitted that perhaps it wasn’t wrong; no one had imagined that things would turn out this way. Assembled from the rage and dissatisfaction with the post-industrial technomic regime known by a thousand names, one of which was “late capitalism,” The Organization had done everything by the book—those pre-Shattering books that decried the violence of capitalism and gave opinions on how to overcome it. Contrary to pre-Shattering democracies, the world of The Organization was one primarily based on charisma, and not on the control of violence (the other possible one was control of information, according to the old sages Graeber and Wengrow). It had replaced profit-based, bureaucratic structures with a mutualistic, communitarian ethos and ritual-based open hubs and affinity groups. And yet, alienation seeped through the fabric of its society. The underlying problem was that no one had asked what would have happened when collectivity had won. Now, the members of The Organization were left dealing with the ideological debris that had outlived The Shattering as the ruins of a previous world that, even if useless, couldn’t be disappeared, and at this point, couldn’t be totally ignored.

A reflection: after the end

Omsk Social Club’s Alienation & Charisma takes the end of capitalism as a departure point to imagine, and play out a new world. This is a world made of “a maze of large-scale decentralized organizations and frameworks” fueled by Charisma as the basis for coordination. Through play, they invite us to reflect on practices of self-organization in the arts. As with Omsk’s Real Game Play, experiences, expertises, and fears bleed between fiction and reality, as four guests (Liz Stumpf, Maria Paula Fernandez, The Mycological Twist, and I) were invited to provide unscripted cameos, confronting the world set in motion by The Organization from our own situated perspectives. Needless to say, none of the accounts were particularly hopeful or utopian.

As mentioned in the rendition by The Spokesperson, for Zablocki (1980), charisma is a social technology that overcomes the existential alienation that comes from the inability to make collective decisions, historically marked by the proliferation of choices and ideological factions. While the first communes formed primarily around religious and ideological factors, industrialization led to the emergence of secular communes and social support groups animated by political goals. As neoliberalism and the internet have made the proliferation of choices the basis of their business models, with not just platforms but communities competing against each other for attention—the only scarce resource—alienation has become the basic condition of existence amidst the incessant overflow of information, recommendations, ideologies, and hot takes. It is only natural that communitarianism is reemerging in different forms: brands, stans, coins, DAOs, et cetera. Because of this unprecedented degree of choice, charismatic tendencies have become structural to the ways people form bonds through the internet. However, as David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021) observe, charisma is no less a form of social domination than the control created through violence and control via information.   

The conspicuous similarities between art and crypto have been widely debated—they are both conduits for immaterial value decoupled from material production, with potentially unbounded upsides. Like crypto, art as a mode of organizing already operates primarily on charisma as the basis for coordination. Beneath the “overt, formal, and often highly ritualized collective search for consensus,” both fields rely on what Zablocki describes as a “covert, informal, and continuous process of relational decision making in which people are constantly being accepted or rejected, dominated or deferred to, courted or ignored” (1980, 11). Beyond the ritualized, standardized public grant application processes on the one hand, and the global circuits of the art market on the other, there is a dense network based on “grooming” and free cultural labor that implicitly impacts economic dynamics at a larger scale. Crypto just makes that potentially easier by providing computational vessels for charismatic tendencies. After all, the price of a token has less to do with the fundamentals of protocol and more with the degree of affective labor that its acolytes generate through social media and more or less covert forms of market manipulation. In this system, HODLing (“Hold On For Dear Life,” or buying tokens and holding them on the blockchain) becomes a sign of devotion, even when everyone else has cashed out.  As Vibeswatcher Rain observes in the film, “One person’s community is another person’s cult.”

Paradoxically, with the proliferation of computational means to organize information and coordination at scale (from DAOs to voting protocols and communication platforms) the realm of the informal—with back-channeling, gossip, DMs, deals under the table—is all the more relevant and powerful. But if left unchecked, it can backfire. When investment of the self becomes impersonal, transferable and incentivized—that is, “bureaucratized” through some form of tokenization or automated tracking, for instance—“the freedom to make promises and commitments and thus build relationships, [can] be turned into its very opposite: into peonage, serfdom or permanent slavery” (Graeber and Wingrow 2021, 429). Perhaps that’s what happened in The Organization as it scaled up and laterally. 

Both Zablocki (1980) and Graeber and Wengrow (2021) describe the affordances of charisma as a channel for social power. However, neither of these theories explain how to deal with the inherent violence left by the older forms as they become undone. We are told that The Shattering was a violent event to begin with. In this sense, The Shattering as a rupture was by definition apocalyptic—revealing the contradictions embedded in the crumbling pre-Shattering world; our present. Taking these blind spots as a starting point, Omsk Social Club’s Alienation & Charisma channels the imagination to grapple with unavoidable externalities of the present. The film is an explicitly anti-utopian tale, yet it’s not dystopian per se. It deals with the full scope of the Reality we inhabit without naïveté, taking the normalized dystopian traits that characterize the present as raw material for its plot, leaning into them to imagine ways of productively confronting them. 

Pace the crypto libertarians, it is not enough to replace the monopoly on violence of the state with a “credibly neutral” infrastructure based on encryption. One also needs to think about how to deal with the inherent violence that becomes liberated from the monopoly of the police state. Analogously, simply enshrining current patterns of behaviors into a more decentralized infrastructure does not automatically lead to a better form of organization. The world of The Organization is a world that “knows more about its future than its past,” not dissimilar to the mini-worlds created by crypto communities. For those of us who want to build new kinds of institutions, the challenge is dealing with the trauma left over from decades (centuries, in fact) of competition and zero-sum games, the externalities of which are felt at every scale of analysis—from the psycho-social to the ecological. The very same ones that lead to alienation, or uncritical passive compliance, to a broken system for fear of rejection.

Collectivity does not necessarily equal decentralization, and my character was guilty of perhaps too quickly conflating the two for the sake of dramaturgy. I leave it to the transcript of the film to reveal what The Spokesperson suggested as ways to address the situation with The Organization. What it didn’t suggest, but could have, were it not so fearful of the potential consequences, was forking. How many art worlds would we need to fork before getting to one in which  we would feel comfortable? Forking only works when there is enough social liquidity to grant circulation of charisma, without tokenizing it. Value, whatever else it may be, cannot be exhausted in its capture.

    Omsk Social Club (2022), Alienation and Charisma Game Handbook.
    Graeber and Wengrow (2021), The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.
    Zablocki (1980), Alienation and Charisma: A Study of Contemporary American Communes.


    Benjamin Zablocki’s sociogram.



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