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Re: <nettime> revenge of the concept
Felix Stalder on Tue, 28 Jan 2003 00:51:20 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> revenge of the concept


>  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.


I think 'non-capitalism' is a missreading of Benkler's argument and of the 
Open Source Software phenomenon. I deliberately say OSS and not Free 
Software, since such a reading might apply more narrowly to FS (though I'm 
not even sure about that) but certainly not to the OSS in general. I think 
"(non)capitalism" is a category that doesn't help much explaining the 
practive of OSS (as supposed to some of the political theories that 
motivate some of the FS/OSS figures).

What Benkler said in this essay, which is indeed brilliant, is that 
conventional economists know only of two ways how to organize production: 
within a closed organization (the firm, the bureaucracy) and in an open 
system (the market). The question is always: how to achieve efficient 
organization of people and resources in regard to a desired productive 
outcome. Signals used to achieve this coordination within the closed 
structure are commands relayed through hierachies. In the open structure, 
it's money: prices attached to goods (and services). What he claims now, 
and I basically agree with him, is that a third way of organizing labour 
has emerged, heavily relying on the Internet. He calls it 'commons-based 
peer production.'

Now, there are capitalist firms and non-capitalist 'firms' (state 
bureaucracies, co-ops) and there are capitalist and non-capitalist markets. 
A traditional farmer's market, for example, is not a capitalist market. 
Just remember Fernand Braudel's distinction between markets and 
anti-markets which Manuel DeLanda dusted off a few years ago (check the 
nettime archives).

In the same sense, there is capitalist 'commons-based peer production' 
(think of Amazon's way to recommend books, or IBM's investment in Linux, 
Redhat and so on). There's also non-capitalist 'commons-based peer 
production' (say, GNU, Debian, Wikipedia, nettime and so on).

What is perhaps most interesting is how the 'capitalist' and 
'non-capitalist' elements intersect and what that might tell us about the 
politcal dimension of these movements. I think it's exactly this hybridity 
(along with the limitation to non-rivalrous goods and even more, to 
'functional works') that makes the OSS phenomenon very interesting but only 
of limited value as a political project (which is not necessarily a bad 
thing).


Felix




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