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Re: <nettime> revenge of the concept
Brian Holmes on Sun, 26 Jan 2003 06:22:06 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> revenge of the concept


"Hayeck is dead. But who killed him and how?" This would be as good a 
way as any to describe the stakes of this thread. Because Friedrich 
von Hayeck (the economist/philosopher behind the Thatcher/Reagan 
program) seems to have had his day in the sun. His exaltation of 
individual entrepreneurship and unfettered markets emerged in the 
eighties as the effective heritage of the anti-bureaucratic revolt of 
the sixties. The result was to call a halt to the development of the 
Keynesian welfare-state, and to launch the dynamics of transnational 
financial speculation, leading ultimately to what I call 
"transnational state capitalism," where the state mainly serves 
transnational capitals and corporations. Now those dynamics have in 
turn entered into crisis, as I've pointed out here before, with my 
recent contributions "Deflation, anyone?" and "The End of Neoliberal 
Globalization." The problem is, it has not yet been possible to 
locate any current of thinking or acting capable of articulating new 
values, and above all a new conception of social interaction that can 
rise to the challenges that we are now looking squarely in the eye, 
as the Hayeckian ideology of "neoliberal" globalization collapses and 
we must consider the cruder realities of a world capitalism 
articulated by rivalries between three major continental blocs 
(NAFTA, EU, and in the near future, China/ASEAN). The question is 
whether it is possible to imagine, encourage, and develop any 
response to these crude rivalries, from the bottom up, using the 
productive capacities and agency that we situated individuals may 
have in our lives.

What I tried to broach in the paper at the origin of this little 
thread was the possibility of extending an existing, rather pragmatic 
line of thinking about co-operative production. Everyone involved 
with the Internet knows the paradigm of cooperative software 
production associated with Richard Stallman and Linus Torvald. Most 
everyone has become aware that there is an analogy, and indeed a 
certain family resemblance, between this cooperative paradigm and the 
kinds of social protocols that preside over the production and 
circulation of academic knowledge. In both cases, the motivation for 
what is essentially informational or cultural production is detached 
from the commodity form (stuff you sell or pay for, with someone 
gaining a profit). The motivation derives rather from what is quite 
vaguely defined as "recognition," "reputation," "idealism," etc. 
(each of these being somewhat different). In his excellent paper, 
"Coase's Penguin: Linux and The Nature of the Firm," Yochai Benkler 
explains, not the motivation, but the technical and legal 
preconditions for cooperative informational and cultural production. 
The technical considerations are basically: telematically interlinked 
personal computers. The legal precondition is basically: that 
information be treated as what it arguably is, a "non-rivalrous 
good," i.e. a resource that can't run out, that can't be destroyed in 
the using, and that therefore cannot be treated as an ownable 
commodity. Benkler's conclusion is that networked informational and 
cultural production obeys neither the constraints of a firm (with a 
bureaucratic organization), nor the price signals given by a market 
("buy" and "sell" are irrelevant to non-rivalrous goods). So Benkler 
is talking about a form of production which is at once 
non-bureaucratic and, yes, non-capitalist, i.e. divorced from that 
complex and changeable human institution which transnational state 
capitalism now dominates almost entirely: the market.

Given all that, my idea was twofold. First, to point out that there 
existed another important and quite visible realm of cooperative 
production, involving both aesthetic display and academic-type 
reasoning: this is the realm of the new political dissent, combining 
carnavalesque performance with political-economic critique. Second, I 
wanted to stress what Benkler refers to only vaguely in a footnote: 
namely, that the motivations for this kind of cooperative practice 
are specifically anti-capitalist, and indeed, anti-state-capitalist, 
insofar as they lead people to use cooperative production techniques 
as a way of explicitly refusing the social norms of neoliberal 
society. These norms tend at once to individualize people in 
conformity to market ideology, and to make those highly 
individualized people nonetheless amenable to bureaucratic control 
systems. Such individualized conformity is the characteristic feature 
of what I call "the flexible personality." I think it is basically 
what the counter-globalization movement is against, at an everyday, 
affective, motivational level.

The risk I took - and this is the weakest part of my argument - was 
to use Marcel Mauss's notion, developed in his essay on The Gift, 
that human societies are only sustainable through the operation of 
complex reciprocities which cannot be accounted for in the logic and 
language of markets as we know them under liberal (or neoliberal) 
capitalism. The reason my argument is weak here, is that I do not 
have a good sociologial or anthropological language to describe how 
these reciprocities work in _our_ societies, today. Of course there's 
a reason for that lack: these reciprocities are almost destroyed by 
individualizing, flexibilizing capitalism, its firms and its markets. 
What I do describe appears as a kind of weak, desperate resurgence of 
older survival strategies. In the absence of a clear language 
expressing the necessity of relationships not built on money and 
which an adequately fulfilled contract does not abolish, the appeal 
to the "gift economy" looks romantic (Ken Wark's word). Indeed, if 
you want to contribute somehow to the general profile of "the one who 
killed Hayeck," you have to go beyond anything "romantic." So some 
conceptual help on this point would be much appreciated.

Unfortunately, the two main arguments that have been put up against 
me so far are not to much use in this sense. Keith Hart wants to save 
a market and invent new kinds of money to articulate cooperative 
production: fine. I have no problem, as long as one agrees that the 
present rules governing market transactions are highly inimical or 
even fatal to cooperating, at least to cooperating outside the 
constraining framework of the contemporary firm. (The proof of that, 
by the way, is the pressure that academic production itself is under, 
particularly when the "publish or perish" imperative meets the 
competitive framework installed by scientific journals managed for a 
hefty profit. Here it would be necessary to talk more about the 
spreading revolt which seeks to establish a new peer-review and 
publication system via Internet). Beyond the distinction between 
markets in the broad sense and specifically capitalist markets, 
Keith's main point is that we should get working on the nitty-gritty 
of actual cooperative production. Strangely, he doesn't see that I am 
indeed talking about just that, as Benkler does too. But I'm talking 
about it exactly in those realms of political confrontation where 
there is an attempt to change the current, fatal rules imposed both 
on markets and on public institutions that diverge in any way from 
the norms of the competitive, profit-seeking firm.

Ken Wark's argument is quite different, in that it seeks to refine 
the oppositionality I'm talking about down to a clear, specific 
opposition that he places at the cutting edge of society's historical 
development. This is the opposition between an information-owning 
"vectorialist class" and a hacker resistance that treats information 
as a non-rivalrous good ("free"). The logic is elegant, and it 
clarifies a real conflict. But it doesn't fully explain the 
resistance movements which actually exist, and give impetus to the 
most interesting and promising aspects of real politics today. Much 
of the resistance is in fact motivated by concern over ecological 
issues, or in other words, over clearly rivalrous goods, whose 
overuse destroys them. Water. Timber. Fish. The air itself. And so 
on. A teleological Marxism allows you to think that such struggles 
are subordinated to the main one at the cutting edge of production. 
But observation shows that the real resistance generally procedes 
from these "archaic" struggles, and only thence identifies the new 
struggle over the freedom, or not, of information. I think that the 
reason why the seemingly "outdated" issues come first is that they 
are survivability issues. Live or die questions. And since they make 
collective struggle against resource exploitation and then collective 
management of resources into preconditions for surviving, they link 
back to patterns of reciprocity (or of solidarity if you prefer) 
which can actually inform and deepen the new kinds of cooperative 
production, while pushing aside the harmful ideologies. Romantic? I'm 
not sure. I think that human society necessarily works out its 
collective survival strategies through a continuing reference to and 
transformation of older patterns, or in other words, through a 
cultural delay. You could even think of symbolic culture, with all 
its rituals and enigmas and obscure aspects, as the cumberous gift of 
a rather inefficient survival strategy that has to be "paid back" to 
the following generations. A gift that can turn out to be full of 
unrealized potential (like conceptual art in the age of Internet), or 
that can turn out to be poisoned (as when a figure like Hayeck arises 
from the rotting remains of older and more complex philosophies of 
political liberalism). Hmm, it's all a bit complicated. Marx wasn't 
very clear on that. But it was one of his weak points, I'd say.

best to all, Brian

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