Logo: Capitalist Tool?

Brian Harvey
University of California, Berkeley

In 1964, John Holt wrote How Children Fail, based on his careful observation of actual interactions in classrooms. He found several common ways in which the events of classroom life led to miseducative results. Holt's stance at that time was that once teachers understood these mistakes, they'd be corrected, and schools would be much better places.

By 1972, Holt had seen his ideas become widely accepted, at least in the abstract, but schools were as bad as ever. In his book Freedom and Beyond he asks himself why:

In a way this book marks the end of an argument. For some time I and others have been saying--some before I was born--that children are by nature smart, energetic, curious, eager to learn, and good at learning; that they do not need to be bribed and bullied to learn; that they learn best when they are happy, active, involved, and interested in what they are doing; that they learn least, or not at all, when they are bored, threatened, humiliated, frightened. Only a few years ago this was controversial, not to say radical, talk. Not any more. Almost any body of educators, hearing such things, will yawn and say, ``So what else is new?''

This is not to say that everyone has been won over. Some may never be. But on the whole these once radical and crazy ideas have become part of the conventional wisdom of education. Students in most colleges of education are regularly required to read, and I suppose take tests on, books by people who not long ago were being called ``romantic'' critics. The unthinkable has become respectable.

At any rate, what concerns me now is that so many people seem to be saying that our schools must stay the way they are, or at any rate are going to stay the way they are, even if it means that children will learn less in them. Or, to put it a bit differently, our schools are the way they are for many reasons that have nothing whatever to do with children's learning. If so, convincing people that most of our present schools are bad for learning is not going to do much to change them; learning is not principally what they are for...

More and more it appeared that a large part of our problem is that few of us really believe in freedom. As a slogan, it is fine. But we don't understand it as a process or mechanism with which or within which people can work and live. We have had in our own lives so little experience of freedom, except in the most trivial situations, that we can hardly imagine how it might work, how we might use it, or how it could possibly be of any use to us when serious work was to be done. For our times the corporate-military model seems to be the only one we know, trust, and believe in. Most people, even in democracies, tend to see democracy as a complicated process for choosing bosses whom all must then obey, with this very small difference--that every so often we get a chance to pick a new set of bosses.

Not understanding freedom, we do not understand authority. We think in terms of organization charts, pecking orders, stars on the collar and stripes on the sleeve. If someone is above us on the chart, then by virtue of being there he has a right to tell us to do what he wants, and we have a duty to do whatever he tells us, however absurd, destructive, or cruel. Naturally enough, some people, seeing around them the dreadful works of this kind of authority, reject it altogether. But with it they too often reject, naturally but unwisely, all notions of competence, inspiration, leadership. They cannot imagine that of their own free will they might ask someone else what he thought, or agree to do what he asked, because he clearly knew or perhaps cared much more about what he was doing than they did. The only alternative they seem to see to coercive authority is none at all. I have therefore tried to explore a little further the nature of freedom, so that we may better understand how people of varying ages and skills may live together and be useful to each other without some of them always pushing the others around.

Perhaps Holt's discovery that schools are not mainly about learning merely demonstrates a specifically American naivete. Perhaps intellectuals in the civilized world, with a tradition of political discourse, would sum up Holt's entire argument by saying, ``The purpose of schools is to reproduce the class structure of society.'' Indeed, much of Holt's book is taken up with statistics about poverty, and with a debunking of the idea that better education would bring everyone out of poverty. (But most of the book is filled with quite specific, practical suggestions for building alternative institutions in which adults and children can live together in freedom.)

What does this have to do with Logo? We, too, have seen our ideas about education move from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream, with hardly any actual change in the practice or the results of schooling. Just as John Holt had to come to terms with this contradiction in Freedom and Beyond, Seymour Papert takes up the problem in his 1993 The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. But Papert reaches his analysis of the institution of schooling by way of a technical detour through what he calls ``pilotage'' or ``emergent programming.'' Suppose you want to get a Logo screen turtle to follow a specific path--for example, through a maze drawn on the screen. You can accomplish this straightforwardly by writing a program that embodies the exact desired path as a sequence of precise moves and turns. But this ``dead reckoning'' approach will not work for a physical robot turtle trying to follow the same path on the floor, because the real-world imprecision in the robot's movements will accumulate so that it soon ends up moving in entirely the wrong direction. Instead, a maze program for a physical robot must use feedback--from touch sensors or light sensors--to correct its movements dynamically. Papert's point is that such a program does not directly embody the desired path. Rather, the robot's motion along the path ``emerges'' from a combination of the program's rules and the feedback from the actual situation. Central planning is bad; reacting to the local situation is good.

When one is overwhelmed, as everyone must be from time to time, by a sense that School is too firmly implanted ever to change, it is helpful to contemplate the political changes across the globe that were until recently considered quite impossible...

Mikhail Gorbachev, whose name has deservedly become emblematic of change, is also one of history's most interesting examples of resistance to change. Even as he ushered in previously unthinkable reforms, he continued to pay allegiance to the ideas on which the system was founded, and renounced the Communist party only when he was on the verge of being renounced himself. His slogan of perestroika (which literally means ``restructuring'') became synonymous with a policy of struggling to reform a system in serious crisis without calling in question the foundations on which it was built. It should be clear by now that I see most of those who talk loudly about ``restructuring'' in education in much the same light--though few of them have the courage to carry the reforms as far in their realm as Gorbachev did in his. In their case a more appropriate phrase than ``restructuring'' might be ``jiggering the system.''

The analogy between perestroika and education reform would be instructive even if it went no further than highlighting these general features of change and resistance to change. But there is more. Using the language of system dynamics developed earlier, the problems of both the old Soviet Union and School can be described in terms of a conflict between tightly and emergently programmed systems.

This seems to me to be an extremely simplistic analysis. The ideas to which Gorbachev maintains his allegiance are not primarily a belief in tightly programmed systems! Rather, they are ideas about the class nature of society, about the fact that different societies work differently because they are planned that way: Each society is controlled by certain people, who set up institutions that serve their needs. A profound critique of the Soviet Union would have to ask who controlled it, and whose interests it served, rather than what administrative structures were used.

In the United States, the current organizational wisdom tells us that airplane travel should be run in a decentralist manner, whereas rail travel should be centrally planned. Our telephone system, once the best in the world, was built by central planning--but by a private company, not by government. In the name of decentralism we have replaced that central planning with a maze, so that ordinary people can no longer figure out which of three companies to call for help with a telephone problem (the manufacturer of their telephone equipment, the local operating company, or a long distance carrier), although big business benefits from competition through price breaks for large-volume customers. The key point about all of these examples is that the central or decentral organization is actually not so important; trains and planes are both run to serve the rich. The ``smart bombs'' that Papert admires in this book[*] may work by emergent programming, but their development was funded by a massive concentration of political and economic power, not by market forces or individual initiative!

[*] (Footnote added later.) Nobody ever believes me about this, so here is an excerpt from the relevant section, starting on page 179, the beginning of Chapter 9, "Cybernetics":

Television pictures of the war over Iraq gave millions of people their most vivid view of cybernetic technology, in the form of the "smart" missile, which seemed to hover like an insect before lunging into the entrance of a hangar or other building.

It is depressing to feel again that the best way to open a discussion is with a military image, but it reflects a real fact of life that has played a big role in the strategies that have guided my work. The people who forge new technological ideas do not make them for children. They often make them for war, keep them in secret places, and show them in distant views...

Most people watching the missiles on TV would not have been able to give a better explanation, if asked how they worked, than that "they are programmed to do it." The booty I am after is a set of ideas (and technologies to allow children to appropriate them) that would allow a more specific answer. Of course the missiles are programmed. But they are programmed in a particular way, using specific ideas whose development has played an important role in the intellectual history of our century and whose implications might play an even bigger role in the coming one. My hope is that for anyone who has appropriated these ideas, the smart missiles will become transparent and, with them, a whole range of technologies and areas of science...

The outline of this new subject will emerge gradually, and the problem of situating it in the context of School and the larger learning environment will best be broached when we have it in front of us. Here I give a preliminary definition of the subject--but only as a seed for discussion--as that kernel of knowledge needed for a child to invent (and, of course, build) entities with the evocatively lifelike qualities of smart missiles. [Emphasis in original.]

Seymour Papert is not the only Logoite for whom the contemplation of emergent programming has given rise to bad political analysis. Papert's MIT colleague Mitchel Resnick, in his 1994 book Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds, moves beyond Papert's mixture of praise and criticism for Gorbachev. Resnick's political hero is Boris Yeltsin, the new Russian tsar. Because Yeltsin dissolved the centralist Soviet Union, Resnick takes at face value his claim to be a democrat and a decentralist. But the people of Chechnya understand, as Resnick does not, that Yeltsin is neither of those things. What looks like decentralism to Resnick is mere ethnocentrism (Russian Jews, in particular, face much worse antisemitism than they did even in the Soviet Union days), and what looks like democracy is opportunism.

The spread of decentralized ideas can be seen in organizations of all sizes and types--countries, companies, schools, clubs. Although details are different in each case, the basic idea is always the same: pushing authority and power down from the top, distributing rights and responsibilities more widely. For some countries (such as the Soviet Union) decentralization has meant breaking apart into separate pieces. But changes in national boundaries are not nearly as important as changes in political and economic structures. Politically, countries throughout the world are shifting away from totalitarianism toward democracy. Economically, countries are shifting away from centrally controlled economies toward market-oriented economies. As a result, decision making (both political and economic) is becoming more decentralized than ever before. Of course, there are exceptions to the trend. In China, the government reasserted its centralized power with the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square. And on many of the former Soviet republics, democracy is very fragile. But the overall trend is clear. Between 1989 and 1991, countries with a combined population of 1.5 billion people, more than one-quarter of the world's population, moved away from autocratic toward more democratic forms of government, according to Freedom House, an American human-rights group. Now, for the first time ever, more than half of all countries are democracies.

What's wrong with this passage is that Freedom House is not a ``human rights group.'' Rather, Freedom House is a well-funded cold war propaganda mill.

Both the Freedom House survey and the State Department reports seem to have a clear bias reflecting American foreign policy interests and/or reflecting an undifferentiated, visceral anticommunism. Thus, the Freedom House reports during the 1980s consistently rated El Salvador and Guatemala, two countries allied with the United States that have been notorious for government-allied ``death squads,'' which murdered thousands of their citizens, as having a comparable or (usually) more favorable human rights climate than Hungary or Yugoslavia, two one-party Communist regimes which were not engaged in the slaughter of their citizens. [Robert Justin Goldstein, ``The Limitations of Using Quantitative Data in Studying Human Rights Abuses,'' in Human Rights and Statistics: Getting the Record Straight, edited by Thomas B. Jabine and Richard P. Claude, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.]

In describing the behavior of ants, termites, robot turtles, and other mindless agents, the idea of decentral control, of emergent programming, truly does capture all of the important aspects of the mechanism by which such simple devices can give rise to seemingly complex behaviors. Emergent programming may even turn out to explain how human intelligence itself arises from the simple behavior of neurons. But once we set out to describe a system in which the ``elements'' are intelligent human beings, there is much more to be said. Papert and Resnick both fall victim to technocentrism; having discovered the power of central vs. decentral control as an explanation, they take on such questions as autocratic vs. democratic, governmental vs. private, and led vs. leaderless as if all of those were merely central vs. decentral in different words.

Autocratic / Democratic Is Not Central / Decentral

Mitchel Resnick's anticommunist friends at Freedom House use ``autocratic'' to mean communist and ``democratic'' to mean capitalist. This use of language confusingly blends several distinct questions:

So, for example, the current movement in the United States to eliminate federally funded programs in favor of state funded programs is a move toward decentralist planning, but it is not a move toward democracy; the state governments are no more and no less under popular control than the federal government.

The history of the Soviet Union, following the abandonment of communism by Lenin and Stalin, makes it easy to blend all these questions. It may be helpful, therefore, to review the nature of the only government ever blessed by Marx himself as authentically communist: the short-lived Paris Commune of 1870-71. The following is from Engels' introduction to Marx's The Civil War in France. (I quote Engels because Marx writes at much greater length, but it's worth reading the third part of Marx's book, in which he describes the Commune; the other parts are about the external political and military events that led to its formation and then its defeat.) In brackets I'll point out how this passage is relevant to the issues under consideration here.

The members of the Commune were divided into a majority, the Blanquists... and a minority, members of the International Working Men's Association, chiefly consisting of adherents of the Proudhon school of socialism. [That is, the Commune was multi-party.] ... Naturally, the Proudhonists were chiefly responsible for the economic decrees of the Commune, both for their praiseworthy and their unpraiseworthy aspects; as the Blanquists were for its political commissions and omissions. And in both cases the irony of history willed--as is usual when doctrinaires come to the helm--that both did the opposite of what the doctrines of their school prescribed.

Proudhon, the Socialist of the small peasant and master-craftsman, regarded association with positive hatred. [He was a decentralist, like Papert and Resnick.] He said of it that there was more bad than good in it; that it was by nature sterile, even harmful, because it was a fetter on the freedom of the worker; that it was a pure dogma, unproductive and burdensome... that, as compared with it, competition, division of labor, and private property were economic [i.e., good] forces. Only in the exceptional cases--as Proudhon called them--of large-scale industry and large establishments, such as railways, was the association of workers in place.

By 1871, large-scale industry had already so much ceased to be an exceptional case even in Paris, the centre of artistic handicrafts, that by far the most important decree of the Commune instituted an organization of large-scale industry and even of manufacture which was not only to be based on the association of the workers in each factory, but also to combine all these associations in one great union... [Economic planning was done centrally, but bottom-up. The workers of a particular factory were the experts on how that factory could best contribute.]

The Blanquists fared no better. Brought up in the school of conspiracy, and held together by the strict discipline which went with it, they started out from the viewpoint that a relatively small number of resolute, well-organized men would be able, at a given favourable moment, not only to seize the helm of state, but also, by a display of great, ruthless energy, to maintain power until they succeeded in sweeping the mass of the people into the revolution and ranging them round the small band of leaders. This involved, above all, the strictest, dictatorial centralization of all power in the hands of the new revolutionary government. [These ideas of the Blanquists were reinvented barely a dozen years later by Lenin. Too bad he didn't appreciate Engels' critique! In Lenin's defense, the conditions in which he worked, under the brutal oppression of Tsarist Russia, were different from the relatively free conditions in Paris.] And what did the Commune, with its majority of these same Blanquists, actually do? In all its proclamations to the French in the provinces, it appealed to them to form a free federation of all French Communes with Paris, a national organization which for the first time was really to be created by the nation itself. It was precisely the oppressing power of the former centralized government, army, political police, bureaucracy, which Napoleon had created in 1798 and which since then had been taken over by every new government as a welcome instrument and used against its opponents--it was precisely this power which was to fall everywhere, just as it had already fallen in Paris.

From the very outset the Commune was compelled to recognize that the working class, once come to power, could not go on managing with the old state machine; that in order not to lose again its only just conquered supremacy, this working class must, on the one hand, do away with all the old repressive machinery previously used against it itself, and, on the other, safeguard itself against its own deputies and officials, by declaring them all, without exception, subject to recall at any moment. What had been the characteristic attribute of the former state? Society had created its own organs to look after its common interests, originally through simple division of labour. But these organs, at whose head was the state power, had in the course of time, in pursuance of their own special interests, transformed themselves from the servants of society into the masters of society. [The government is ``at the head'' of social institutions, but fundamentally no different from any other. The sort of ``decentralization'' that transfers control from a government agency to a private company is irrelevant to democracy vs. autocracy.] This can be seen, for example, not only in the hereditary monarchy, but equally so in the democratic republic. Nowhere do ``politicians'' form a more separate and powerful section of the nation than precisely in North America. There, each of the two major parties which alternately succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions. It is well known how the Americans have been trying for thirty years to shake off this yoke, which has become intolerable, and how in spite of it all they continue to sink ever deeper in this swamp of corruption... [If the part about shaking off the yoke seems less familiar and truthful to the modern American reader than the part about professional politicians, remember that Engels wrote this passage in 1891, at the height of the activities of the Knights of Labor, and just five years after the Haymarket massacre and rebellion in Chicago that are still remembered worldwide as the workers' holiday, May 1.]

Against this transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society--an inevitable transformation in all previous states--the Commune made use of two infallible means. In the first place, it filled all posts--administrative, judicial and educational--by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers...

Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Governmental / Private Is Not Central / Decentral

I shall have little to say about this obvious point. In the United States, such educational initiatives as the Head Start program are federally funded, and standards are set federally, but the programs are controlled and administered separately by each school district. By contrast, the assignment of telephone area codes to cities is done centrally, but by private companies: originally by AT&T and now by a consortium of telephone operating companies.

In practice, mixed approaches are most common. Government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration set minimum standards that private companies must meet, but the private companies have room for initiative within those standards. It is worth noting that private companies sometimes encourage government regulation, because every company in an industry may know how to make a safe product, and may want to make a safe product, but may be afraid that some competitor will undercut their prices by making unsafe products.

The theory of the ``free'' market is that over the long run, consumers will reject bad ideas, and so businesses will be forced by market pressure to provide good products without government regulation. Adam Smith wrote about these ideas in a time of small industry and personal craftsmanship. But in the era of monopoly capital, and of complex technology, people's lives are strongly affected by economic decisions over which they have no market influence. The most dramatic recent example was the Savings and Loan catastrophe in the United States, in which deregulation paved the way not for healthy competition but for widespread theft. (Did the United States learn its lesson? No; right now we are having a similar scandal about ``derivatives'': a form of legalized gambling with stockbrokers as the bookies. The news media now wish us to believe that the money lost by cities and pension funds has just vanished, instead of finding out who has gotten richer. Why didn't we learn? Because the deregulation enthusiasts in the government, while they speak the language of Papert and Resnick to ``prove'' that deregulation helps the economy in general, are really promoting their own class interests rather than those of consumers.) But even when deliberate theft is not at issue, how can a consumer, for example, realistically be expected to check on the safety standards of different airline companies? We can't watch the mechanics work on the airplanes, and most of us wouldn't know how to judge their procedures if we did see them. But government can check.

Led / Leaderless Is Not Central / Decentral

In Resnick's book, the word ``leader'' is repeatedly used to mean ``controller.''

Most strikingly, the students' strategies were almost always centralized, relying on a leader to make decisions. Fadhil centralized control at the spaceship: ``If a robot finds gold, it sends a signal to the spaceship. Then, the spaceship sends signals back to the other robots, telling them where to go. The spaceship would be constantly monitoring all of the robots.'' Benjamin suggested that ``the leader robot should send the others in all directions, like the spokes of a wheel.'' Ramesh had a similar idea: ``One robot is in charge, sending all these robots out. Where most gold is found, it sends more in that direction. And where the gold is not found, you eliminate that direction...''

As with many emergent programming ideas, this use of language is appropriate in its original context, but not as a metaphor for human social behavior. Robots do not form societies; they obey programs. For robots, a ``leader'' can only mean one who gives orders. But that's not true for human beings, as John Holt reminds us in the passage I quoted near the beginning of this paper. Here is an example of how Resnick gets in trouble by thinking that leadership means giving orders:

Conspiracy theories are another example of centralized thinking. For almost every perceived problem in society, people look for a clearly identifiable culprit to blame. Something is wrong with the world economy? Blame the Trilateral Commission. Traditional family values are on the decline? Blame the producers in Hollywood. In general, people tend to focus blame on a centralized cause rather than sort through the complex, interacting factors that underlie most social phenomena.

This passage is misleading in two ways. First, equating leadership, even coercive leadership, with conspiracy is a red herring. The passage, despite its lip service to complexity, seems to leave us with a choice of only two extremes: Either we eliminate human agency and self-interest from our world view or we must be paranoid conspiracy theorists. Blaming Hollywood, at least in part, for the rise in violence in our society is not like blaming the Trilateral Commission for the state of the economy. Paul Goodman understood the middle ground; the second paragraph of what follows, from Growing Up Absurd, makes the key point:

In American society we have perfected a remarkable form of censorship: to allow every one his political right to say what he believes, but to swamp his little boat with literally thousands of millions of newspapers, mass-circulation magazines, best-selling books, broadcasts, and public pronouncements that disregard what he says and give the official way of looking at things. Usually there is no conspiracy to do this; it is simply that what he says is not what people are talking about, it is not newsworthy.

(There is no conspiracy, but it is not undeliberate. ``If you mean to tell me,'' said an editor to me, ``that Esquire tries to have articles on important issues and treats them in such a way that nothing can come of it--who can deny it?'' Try, also, to get a letter printed in the New York Times if your view on the issue calls attention to an essential factor that is not being generally mentioned.)

The second flaw in Resnick's analysis is that he equates leadership with coercive leadership. Most of the StarLogo programs in his book demonstrate emergent techniques working out admirably for the ants, termites, and so on that he simulates. But one of his simulations shows how the individual actions of independent agents can combine to produce a result that nobody desires: In a mixed community of turtles and frogs, the desire of each individual to have at least a few same-species neighbors leads eventually to a complete segregation of the two groups into ghettos, even though each individual would be happy to live in a mixed community, even as a member of the minority in that neighborhood.

This turtle/frog scenario was inspired by the writings of Harvard economist Thomas Schelling. In an article titled ``On the Ecology of Micromotives,'' Schelling (1971) notes that the ``micromotives'' of individuals can lead to ``macro'' patterns that are not necessarily desired by any of the individuals. At a cocktail party, for instance, men and women might end up in single-gender conversation clusters, even if everyone would prefer mixed-gender clusters. And a residential neighborhood might become more segregated ethnically or racially than any individual would find desirable.

Resnick goes on to explain the mathematical principles that make these undesired results emerge from the situation. But he stops there, without suggesting a solution. That's because the obvious solution--leadership--would work against his desire to equate human society with ant society. In the example of unintended segregation, people who understand how the result emerges from the individual behaviors could teach other people to understand it also. Then, neighbors could voluntarily agree not to behave in the way that makes the segregation emerge. At the same time, members of a local majority who understand the risk could be led to go out of their way to make their minority neighbors feel at home. This is not telling people where to live by force of law, but it is leadership.

Mindful / Mindless Is Not Central / Decentral

Resnick's central pedagogic point is about what he calls the ``centralized mindset'': People expect every phenomenon to be the result of deliberate planning. We ascribe social organization to insects, for example, when really each insect is separately following simple, built-in rules of behavior. Religion is the same mistake applied to the creation of the world; according to the centralized mindset, if there is a world, there must have been Someone who planned it. One way of expressing Resnick's point is that people expect phenomena to be the result of mindful behavior, whereas really many phenomena result from mindless, automatic processes.

As with several of the points discussed earlier, I think that this dichotomy between central, mindful, deliberate, conscious, planned behavior and decentral, mindless, automatic, unconscious behavior is completely appropriate in describing insects, traffic jams, and even neurons in the human brain. But it is inappropriate when applied to the interactions of human beings. One example is that Resnick gives a rather idiosyncratic description of the history of psychoanalysis, a description that I believe all the researchers he mentions would reject, because he equates ``Ego'' with ``conscious, central, rational'' and ``Id'' with ``unconscious, decentral, irrational.'' It's true that in psychoanalytic theory the human consciousness is part of the Ego, but it's a very tiny part; most of the Ego (and certainly the part interesting to psychoanalysts) is unconscious.

Neither Papert nor Resnick would say ``planning is bad'' in so many words. Indeed, both explicitly disclaim that position. Nevertheless, their merging of the ideas ``centralist'' and ``planned'' is what leads both Papert and Resnick to embrace laissez-faire capitalism, deregulation, and the exaltation (as in Adam Smith) of individual greed, as the alternative to Soviet-style oppression.

Instead, Papert and Resnick would do better to study examples of democratic, decentral social structures that are nevertheless planned, mindful, and humane. I've already mentioned the Paris Commune as an example; another that I like is the Society of Friends (the Quakers). The Friends are the group that has most carefully developed the process of decision-making by consensus instead of by vote; everyone must agree to a proposed change of policy. Decisions affecting the members of a particular Meeting House are made by those members directly. Decisions for the Society as a whole are made bottom up; after consensus is reached at each Meeting, representatives are sent to regional and then national or international meetings to seek a wider consensus. If there is no wider consensus, the issue is sent back to the local Meetings for further discussion.

When decisions are made by consensus and by direct participation of all members, there are no political parties and no professional politicians. It's hard to change a major policy if everyone must agree to the change, but when the policy does change, the new policy is carried out wholeheartedly by the entire membership. (This is what was wrong with Soviet planning: not that large scale plans were made, but that those plans were made top-down, by decree, and presented to a rank and file with no commitment to the plans.) So, for example, in the United States before the Civil War, the Society of Friends was very late in joining the movement for the abolition of slavery, because for many years they had no consensus about slavery. But once the Friends did decide to join the movement, they quickly became a leading organization in the struggle, because all of their members joined the fight with energy and dedication. And of course it matters that the decisions of the Society are, because of the consensus process, always principled decisions, in sharp contrast to the quid pro quo that is typical of virtually all governmental processes. In the language of this paper, the Society's decisions are democratic because they are both decentral and profoundly mindful, not at all like the ``invisible hand'' of Adam Smith's marketplace of individual greedy entrepreneurs.


All of this is obvious; in some ways I'm embarrassed to be writing a paper saying so little. But it seems not to be obvious in Massachusetts. Seymour Papert and Mitchel Resnick will both, I think, be distressed to see themselves presented as allies of the right wing Republican Party in the United States. (Indeed, Papert harshly criticizes then-President George Bush's educational plans in The Children's Machine.) But their arguments support the right wing; they express themselves in the vocabulary of the right wing; and ultimately they embrace the main economic standard of the right wing, namely, that what matters is the efficiency of a nation's economy on average, rather than the position of the poorest members of a society.

You see, those ants and termites achieve their successes for the group as a whole through behaviors that sacrifice many individual members of the group. If everyone looks for food randomly, rather than according to a plan, some individuals will, by chance, find a new food supply that benefits the entire group. But other individuals will, by chance, not find food at all, and will starve. For the process of evolution, by which insect behaviors develop, all that matters is the survival of the species; it's perfectly okay for individuals to die needlessly. And that is precisely the Republican position about human beings; in fact, they're happy to have a class of poor people--what Marx called the reserve army of the unemployed--as a weapon to use against labor unions.

What makes Papert and Resnick's position both ironic and dangerous is that their newfound political allies, the ones from whom they learned the vocabulary of ``economic freedom'' and deregulation, are promoting freedom only for capitalists. The same politicians, in the United States right now, are hard at work taking away reproductive freedom from women, establishing a state religion, chipping away at the constitutional protections against unwarranted search and seizure, and attacking freedom of speech. Papert and Resnick, whatever their personal beliefs, are contributing to this attack on freedom by helping its architects pretend that Science is on their side.