[iDC] The New Socialism

Kevin Lim injulim at buffalo.edu
Sat Jun 20 16:02:44 UTC 2009

Please don't miss Lessig's response to KK's New Socialism:

Here's an excerpt which I believe is the root of his argument against
the use of the term "socialism":

"Words have meaning. We don't get to choose their meaning. If you call
something "X" people will hear the equation. They won't read the
fine-print which says ("By X, I mean really not-X).

Kelly says: When masses of people who own the means of production work
toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they
contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge,
it's not unreasonable to call that socialism.

That statement is flatly wrong. It is completely unreasonable to call
that "socialism" -- at least when the behavior described is purely
voluntary. It's like saying "Because Stalin set up a competition
between different collective farms, it's not unreasonable to call that
free market capitalism." Both statements are wrong because they point
to a feature that is common, and ignore the feature that is
distinctive. At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is
a separate question). At the core of the behavior Kelly celebrates is

Kevin Lim
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On Sat, Jun 20, 2009 at 9:39 AM, Dean, Jodi<JDEAN at hws.edu> wrote:
> Problems with Kevin Kelly:
> 1.  The presence of communal aspects of digital culture is not an indication of an emerging collectivism. Kelly's point presumes a prior rampant individualism, as if there were no
> community or group based practices and activities and as if the use of an available media tool automatically implies collectivism rather than multiple individual uptakes.
> Communal aspects of digital culture run deep and wide. Wikipedia is just
> one remarkable example of an emerging collectivism—and not just Wikipedia
> but wikiness at large. Ward Cunningham, who invented the first
> collaborative Web page in 1994, tracks nearly 150 wiki engines today, each
> powering myriad sites. Wetpaint, launched just three years ago, hosts more
> than 1 million communal efforts. Widespread adoption of the share-friendly
> Creative Commons alternative copyright license and the rise of ubiquitous
> file-sharing are two more steps in this shift. Mushrooming collaborative
> sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, the Hype Machine, and Twine have added
> weight to this great upheaval. Nearly every day another startup proudly
> heralds a new way to harness community action. These developments suggest
> a steady move toward a sort of socialism uniquely tuned for a networked
> world.
> 2.  The notion of socialism without the state is inseparable from a notion of mass culture.  All Kelly is highlighting is the way that mass culture does not only happen top down--but
> this is an old point from cultural studies.
> We're not talking about your grandfather's socialism. In fact, there is a
> long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class
> warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the
> newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the
> state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of
> socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather
> than government—for now.
> 3.  Hard to call the chaos of the free market 'brilliant' today unless by brilliant one means a machinery of destruction that reappropriates the work and energy of the majority in order
> to enrich the few.
> The type of communism with which Gates hoped to tar the creators of Linux
> was born in an era of enforced borders, centralized communications, and
> top-heavy industrial processes. Those constraints gave rise to a type of
> collective ownership that replaced the brilliant chaos of a free market
> with scientific five-year plans devised by an all-powerful politburo. This
> political operating system failed, to put it mildly. However, unlike those
> older strains of red-flag socialism, the new socialism runs over a
> borderless Internet, through a tightly integrated global economy. It is
> designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is
> decentralization extreme.
> 4.  Collective worlds? Or, individuated media spheres in which we can maintain a happy, idiotic isolation? Collective worlds? at a time when over a billion people are starving? when union
> membership is (in the US) at its lowest point since it began? Meritocracies? Umm--like the one that rewards CEOs with giant golden parachutes? that dumps tons of money into failed banks?
> that gives medals to war criminals? Instead of rations and subsidies--which belong to the banks, we have a bounty of free goods? Really? Oh--maybe he means the millions of houses standing
> empty since their owners couldn't pay the mortgage.
> Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds.
> Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual
> co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps,
> scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless
> meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done.
> Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of
> government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods.
> 5.  And who are the owners, then? Stockholders? This is a stretch--particularly today. Or maybe he means contingent labor, migrant labor, those who pick up work by the piece.
> When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common
> goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor
> without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it's not unreasonable
> to call that socialism.
> 6.  Kelly is trying to give us neoliberalism with a human face--he's picked up (smart boy) on the rage against the banks and is trying to throw out the bath water of finance talk while
> keeping the baby of entrepreneurialism.
> In the late '90s, activist, provocateur, and aging hippy John Barlow began
> calling this drift, somewhat tongue in cheek, "dot-communism." He defined
> it as a "workforce composed entirely of free agents," a decentralized gift
> or barter economy where there is no property and where technological
> architecture defines the political space. He was right on the virtual
> money. But there is one way in which socialism is the wrong word for what
> is happening: It is not an ideology. It demands no rigid creed. Rather, it
> is a spectrum of attitudes, techniques, and tools that promote
> collaboration, sharing, aggregation, coordination, ad hocracy, and a host
> of other newly enabled types of social cooperation. It is a design
> frontier and a particularly fertile space for innovation.
> 7.  To call sharing the mildest form of socialism omits the way practices of sharing always play a role in the lives of those who rely on language--kids wouldn't survive into adulthood
> without some kind of sharing. Again, this kind of remark evinces Kelly's bizarre underlying assumption about a totally atomistic individualized capitalism wherein any kind of human
> contact indicates incipient collectivism.
> The online masses have an incredible willingness to share. The number of
> personal photos posted on Facebook and MySpace is astronomical, but it's a
> safe bet that the overwhelming majority of photos taken with a digital
> camera are shared in some fashion. Then there are status updates, map
> locations, half-thoughts posted online. Add to this the 6 billion videos
> served by YouTube each month in the US alone and the millions of
> fan-created stories deposited on fanfic sites. The list of sharing
> organizations is almost endless: Yelp for reviews, Loopt for locations,
> Delicious for bookmarks.
> Sharing is the mildest form of socialism, but it serves as the foundation
> for higher levels of communal engagement.
> 8.  The product isn't free--we pay in different ways: one way, by our digital traces/footprints, the information we leave whenever we access something. Another way we pay--
> attention, the lack of attention to other things, for tools and access.
> Adding to the economic dissonance, we've become accustomed to enjoying the
> products of these collaborations free of charge. Instead of money, the
> peer producers who create the stuff gain credit, status, reputation,
> enjoyment, satisfaction, and experience. Not only is the product free, it
> can be copied freely and used as the basis for new products. Alternative
> schemes for managing intellectual property, including Creative Commons and
> the GNU licenses, were invented to ensure these "frees."
> 9.  Who are the workers who have this ownership that he's talking about?
> Of course, there's nothing particularly socialistic about collaboration
> per se. But the tools of online collaboration support a communal style of
> production that shuns capitalistic investors and keeps ownership in the
> hands of the workers, and to some extent those of the consuming masses.
> 10.  And, the real core: he doesn't really think any of this socialism--and that's fine with him!!
> Indeed, a close examination of the governing kernel of, say, Wikipedia,
> Linux, or OpenOffice shows that these efforts are further from the
> collectivist ideal than appears from the outside. While millions of
> writers contribute to Wikipedia, a smaller number of editors (around
> 1,500) are responsible for the majority of the editing. Ditto for
> collectives that write code. A vast army of contributions is managed by a
> much smaller group of coordinators. As Mitch Kapor, founding chair of the
> Mozilla open source code factory, observed, "Inside every working anarchy,
> there's an old-boy network."
> This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some types of collectives benefit from
> hierarchy while others are hurt by it. Platforms like the Internet and
> Facebook, or democracy—which are intended to serve as a substrate for
> producing goods and delivering services—benefit from being as
> nonhierarchical as possible, minimizing barriers to entry and distributing
> rights and responsibilities equally. When powerful actors appear, the
> entire fabric suffers. On the other hand, organizations built to create
> products often need strong leaders and hierarchies arranged around time
> scales: One level focuses on hourly needs, another on the next five years.
> 11.  Wouldn't it be great if capitalists never had to pay workers anything!
> The dream is to scale up this third way beyond local experiments. How
> large? Ohloh, a company that tracks the open source industry, lists
> roughly 250,000 people working on an amazing 275,000 projects. That's
> almost the size of General Motors' workforce. That is an awful lot of
> people working for free, even if they're not full-time. Imagine if all the
> employees of GM weren't paid yet continued to produce automobiles!
> 12.  Good thing that we realized that we could pool mortgages, break apart their risks, insure them, and then creates markets in all these things. This
> worked a lot better than going door to door asking folks if you could borrow their mortgage. And prosperity in recent decades? The average worker in the US is
> worst off than he was in the mid 70s. Seems like the prosperity was for the top .0001 percent.
> A similar thing happened with free markets over the past century. Every
> day, someone asked: What can't markets do? We took a long list of problems
> that seemed to require rational planning or paternal government and
> instead applied marketplace logic. In most cases, the market solution
> worked significantly better. Much of the prosperity in recent decades was
> gained by unleashing market forces on social problems.
> 13.  I wish I could send SMS messages to a porn call center and watch hot people following my instructions on television.
> Now we're trying the same trick with collaborative social technology,
> applying digital socialism to a growing list of wishes—and occasionally to
> problems that the free market couldn't solve—to see if it works. So far,
> the results have been startling. At nearly every turn, the power of
> sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, free pricing, and
> transparency has proven to be more practical than we capitalists thought
> possible. Each time we try it, we find that the power of the new socialism
> is bigger than we imagined.
> We underestimate the power of our tools to reshape our minds. Did we
> really believe we could collaboratively build and inhabit virtual worlds
> all day, every day, and not have it affect our perspective? The force of
> online socialism is growing. Its dynamic is spreading beyond
> electrons—perhaps into elections.
> Jodi
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