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<nettime> Out-Cooperating the Empire? - Exchange with Christoph Spehr
Geert Lovink on Sun, 9 Jul 2006 11:48:40 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Out-Cooperating the Empire? - Exchange with Christoph Spehr


Out-Cooperating the Empire?

Exchange between Geert Lovink and Christoph Spehr on Creative Labour  
and the Hybrid Work of Cooperation

I have just finished an exchange with Christoph Spehr, the German ?free  
cooperation? theorist, on creative labour and the hybrid work of  
cooperation. This online dialogue grew out of the work that Trebor  
Scholz and I did on the documentation of the Free Cooperation project.  
A book is scheduled to come out with Autonomedia late 2006 in which a  
key text on the art of (online) collaboration was written by German  
theorist Christoph Spehr. The following dialogue started as a series of  
comments by Christoph Spehr on the introduction to the Free Cooperation  
anthology that Trebor Scholz and I wrote in January 2006. An earlier  
online interview between Christoph Spehr and me took place in June 2003  
and can be found in the nettime archive. In this conversation we try to  
jump over our shadows and discuss precarious work, the gift economy  
concept and the relation between online and offline work. What does it  
mean to ?out-cooperate? the Empire in the sense of out-playing,  
out-performing the System? Is it aimed at creating  
?surplus-virtuosity?, drawing from a rich and diverse pool of lived  
experiences? Out-cooperating strategies should be read as the network  
equivalent of the outsourcing logic and relates back to questions of  
scalability, mass-adoption of ?social networking? practices admidst a  
looming crisis how to monetarize cultural artifacts (and earn a decent  
income). (Geert)

Cooperation & Individualization

GL: I discussed with you whether to have the word ?online? in the title  
of our Free Cooperation book, but you didn?t prefer that. Is it because  
the Internet hype is over? Why do you dislike writing texts on online  
collaboration? Or do you think the distinction between real and virtual  
should not be made?

CS: I really think such a distinction leads us into the wrong  
direction. We all are tempted to produce texts that look smart because  
they put ?online? and ?cooperation? in the title. It?s part of a  
wishful promise to scrutinize exciting, new, really sophisticated forms  
of interaction. But I doubt that there is such a thing as  
non-sophisticated social interaction. It?s no accident that it?s much  
easier to make a computer predict the course of a space vessel than to  
program a roboter to bake pancakes. Space is very empty. The Internet  
is empty, compared to a kitchen. It?s a point of view that we?d do  
?basic stuff? at home in the kitchen with our kids, partners,  
organizing the day etc., and do ?advanced stuff? out there in Internet  
communities or doing conferences ? an idiom of would-be  
patriarchal-academic classism. Cooperation is alwaysa complex thing.

GL: What do we mean by complexity? For me this word has often been  
misused by experts who are incapable or just too lazy to explain what a  
subject matter is all about and instead say: ?You have to understand,  
this is a complex matter.?

CS: People using the term ?complexity? in that way have no idea about  
its meaning. All they want to say is ?Keep out - this is not your  
business.? But complexity is something completely different. A complex  
structure is one with a high density of information, a great range of  
reactions and options without being really random, something that  
cannot be brought down to a formula, cannot be exactly predicted. We  
are only just beginning to understand how complex structures work or  
are generated. Variety, feedback, interaction play a great role. We  
have come to see complex structures everywhere: life, nature, history,  
is like that. So while we think we would give orders, realize plans,  
understand processes, what we really do is a labour of managing  
complexity, with more or less satisfying results.

The point is, writing a program is usually much less complex than what  
happens in a kitchen - cooking, talking, raising children, forming  
ideas, reaffirming and changing social structures, doing the dishes.  
But when we try to build online networks and online communities, we  
should learn from ?real life? networks and communities. And maybe,  
?real life? interaction may get inspired by how we do it in the Net,  
too. And both should show a different strategy of managing complexity  
than the dominant actors in bureaucracy, in the military, in politics  
do. Theirmain strategy remains one of reducing complexity by  
authoritarian means, bringing it into hierarchical order. But they,  
too, are learning, and learning fast.

GL: Now what was that about the Internet. Is it complex? Or, is  
cooperation on the Internet complex?

CS: It is the strength of the Internet that it has a structure of  
emergence: building rich structures out of very few and very simple  
rules. But when it comes to cooperationon the Net, rules become more  
complex, more real-life. Building online networks is a difficult thing.  
It cannot be brought down to a few simple rules, it has to be taught  
and learned by practice, and it often fails. On the other hand, we can  
learn from the Net about what rich structures we can build in real life  
if we operate with sets of very limited numbers of very simple rules,  
and let them develop, mutate, interact. In fact that seems to be the  
way how cooperation unfolds at all amongst very different, very  
distinct players. Very few, simple rules. That?s the way how to speed  
up. Operating light, in terms of information weight.

What I find interesting in the context of the Net is the notion of  
individualization and its ?rise?. From a Marxist perspective it?s quite  
clear that the potential for individualization is a result of the  
development of the forces of production. Stranded on an island, there?s  
not much room for individualization. Individualistic strategies, ways  
of living, ideas, projects become possible because society has  
developed in such a way that life is not precarious, that a basic  
security is established, that we have a certain access to public  
wealth, strategic commons, to capital, information, communication and  
so on, and that direct social control weakens because the market allows  
us to change cooperations, to move, to leave, etc., because we are held  
together by the bounds of abstract cooperation. You can do enormous  
things in the net because someone has built it. Because someone is  
keeping it up. It?s this stage of ?abstract cooperation? that makes  
individualization possible - and not only for very few individuals but  
as a mass phenomenon. Not only in the cultural sphere but as a  
productive force itself. From this point on, cooperation looks as if it  
is something special, voluntarily engaged, as if we were monads that  
come together to collaborate. While the truth is that we can only act  
in this monad-like way because we are embedded in very elaborated  
abstract cooperation, because we have so many resources and structures  
ready at hand.

This is very much what neo-liberalism is all about: Using the  
collective forces for very individualistic plans, but without paying  
them respect for this. The collective work thus precedes the  
possibility and experience of individualization, and in so doing the  
collective time becomes a forgotten work. And of course, the potentials  
of individualism are distributed unequally. Many people are forced to  
deliver the rawest forms of pure labour, without any control,  
creativity, social collaboration involved. While others can use the  
machine to collaborate, to individualize, to be creative. A  
revolutionary movement that leads us out of today?s capitalism,  
however, must accept individualism as something to be freed, to be made  
available for everybody and all cooperations. Not something to be  
tossed aside again to ?go back? to Fordism and the world of the 60s. In  
my view, a future socialism will allow us all to use collective forces  
and cooperation for plans of our own. Some kind of individualistic  
collectivism, or ?socialist individualism?, as Magnus Marsdal from  
Norway puts it (?Socialist Individualism?,  

GL: How do you see the relation between ?free cooperation? and work  
done inside institutions that is never entirely free of dirty deals and  
exploitation? What to think about institutions anyway? Ned Rossiter and  
I have been working on the concept of ?organized networks?. We see this  
as a way to ?invent? new institutional forms in the age of the  
Internet. Of course the ?institutional critique? of the nineties is  
still there, and remains valid, but has by and large been very  
moralistic and without consequences.

CS: We really have to re-think institutions. We?re anti-institution in  
our attitude, of course. But there is some distinct flavour of  
neo-liberalism in this attitude. We tend to think that it?s the  
institution that is black, and autonomy that is white, basically. But  
it?s not that easy. There is a complicity with the system without  
institutions, and this involves implementing the system?s forces and  
rules while feeling apparently absolutely on our own. Deleuze raised  
this issue in his famous ?Transcript on Control Society?. If we are  
acting free, and the outcome of this freedom is a high level of  
conformity, then there is something wrong with this freedom, then we  
are not really free, obviously.

During the seventies we reflected the structures of the Fordist times  
that were just about to end. ?You tell me it?s the institution,? the  
Beatles sang, and the movements and projects wanted to be autonomous.  
Neo-liberalism tore down the institutions as well - well, some of them,  
but not others - like the IWF and the World Bank. In other words,  
neo-liberalism pretendedto be extremely anti-institutional, to support  
an autonomy against institutions. At the same time, integration and  
assimilation under power structures became organized more and more  
through markets, and so the new question became complicity, not  
autonomy in the old sense.

Looking into the future, there are two things that follow from this.  
First, we have to study the complicity between neo-liberalism and  
institutions, to destroy its aura of ?freedom for everybody? by  
re-telling the real story and its facts. Second, we have to think about  
new ways to imagine institutions (and markets, as well). To balance  
public, democratic control and the potentials for individualism in a  
new way. That will be crucial if we want to get rid of what we have  
today. We have to be clear that a new attitude, that of living in a  
society that is ours, can not be obtained without institutions. This is  
something very important about cooperation, free cooperation. Social  
power lies not only in the fact that we are allowed to do this or that,  
or that we can do it, no matter what. Much more important is that  
social power lies in the fact that we can prevent others from doing  
this or that, and that we can make others do this or that. That?s  
really power. In society, this power is gained by solidarity, but  
institutions are an operationalization of this solidarity. Institutions  
guarantee to mea certain access to our collectivepowers.

I think we have to re-think autonomy today as well. Autonomy is a form  
of separate organisation. But it is also a quality, a goal to be met,  
be it by common organisation, separate organisation or special tools  
and structures. The goal here is that the interests of a social group,  
e.g. women, or a special political concern, i.e. feminism, are not  
subdued by the overall logic of the organisation or the cooperation ?  
that they are powerful enough to resist, to insist, to say No.  
Organisational autonomy contributes to that goal, but it is not enough  
? you also need integration, control, veto's, ?mainstreaming?, etc. In  
my view, we have to ask questions like, what may ?organized networks?  
contribute to autonomy, or, how can we construct institutions and  
organisations with open spaces, that allow for self-organisation and  
relative autonomy?

The Prospects of ?Giving Away?

GL: How do you look at the tension between giving away code, music,  
texts, for free, and the growing desperation of (young) people and how  
they make a living? For me there is a direct link, a strange  
dialectical relationship between McJobs and Linux. The more  
peer-to-peer networks there are, the less likely it will be for  
?precarious? creative workers to get out of the amateurization trap.  
Instead of Lawrence Lessig, Joi Ito and other Creative Commons gurus we  
should argue in favour of professionalization. Not so much in order to  
defend existing professions and related IP-regimes, but as a way to  
invent new professions. My example here would be the VJ. It would be  
great if many more VJs could live from their work and be taken  
seriously ? not just by the club culture but by society at large.

CS: We have two important notions. The first is that some people, some  
cooperations, some structures get out-cooperated by others in the  
course of things. This is a typical way economy develops ? its  
Darwinian logic, if you like. And the dark side to the all-too-often  
friendly discourse of cooperation. ?Let?s all do it together, but do it  
funkier than the rest?. Today it happens to the editors of the  
Encyclopedia Britannica who get out-cooperated by Wikipedia. They  
cannot compete. But it happens to millions of workers as well ? in the  
harbours, in the ship industry, in the production of goods, in the  
proliferation of services. They lose their jobs, or they have to work  
for less income, with longer working days, harder conditions, less  
rights. Is this the same thing? Obviously, we have an idea of positive  
out-cooperating ? this is when new forms of collaboration arise that  
are applied by the workers themselves, and old forms of hierarchy get  
ruled out in the same process. And we have a notion of negative  
out-cooperating ? that is, when global power structures aim at the  
dis-empowerment of workers and local people, when hierarchy is  
re-inforced by the power of being global, of combining and re-combining  
global workforce, resources and markets without participation of  
workers and people. Can we say which is which in any case? That would  
be important, even if it?s not all simply black and white, of course.

The second notion is that exploitation happens not only inside the  
factory. That?s the question: who exploits whom, who makes capital out  
of whose paid or unpaid work, is crucial in old and new capitalism? So,  
working for free does not guarantee anti-capitalism. That much should  
be clear. Nonetheless we have to take a very close look at this  
phenomenon as it operates within the networks of ?open cultures?. I  
wrote a paper on symbolic value and how it is produced in free software  
and network projects, how it is appropriated by some, and how it can  
even be exchanged into ?real? money in the end (?Trust No One - Some  
Remarks on the Political Economy of Virtual and Global Networking?,  
http://www.all4all.org/2004/05/820.shtml). Symbolic value is the object  
of the ?style wars? in HipHop, the tremendous fights about Who  
Represents, sometimes a fight to death. HipHop is as very instructive  
example. It tossed aside the ?old school? of the left, setting up a  
?new school? of ?Representation?, of self-assertion. At the same time  
HipHop found itself sucked up by neo-liberalism. Successful HipHopers  
could avoid the pain of ?being low?, but got the disparity of  
competition instead ? fighting a war on representation almost without  
any content, except that of competition itself. ?What are you talking?  
about? I?m not talking about anything, I?m just dissin?.? HipHop really  
used the possibilities of ?racing? the system by using the cultural  
surplus of the imagined ?hood, of individuallyselling the cultural  
productivity of collectivesin a post-modern world where there seems to  
be no us and them in the old, class-informed way.

We have to realize that ?free? projects can be more exclusive than  
?non-free? structures in terms of gender, race, qualification, class.  
You need institutions to be inclusive. This sounds strange to us, but  
institutions are not only a matter of alienation. They are  
materializations of compromise, of conflict-borne rules on  
partizipation and mutual obligation. The alleged freedom of many  
structures means actually that there?s just free competition where the  
priviledged prevail. As soon as you want gender equality in your  
network, as soon as you start to practice gender mainstreaming, as soon  
as you enable gender autonomy in the sense of working-groups and forums  
etc., you?re building institutions. Because an institution means that  
you do not have to put up the same fight at every single occasion but  
establish a certain base of rule and compromise.

The notion of ?prolonged exploitation? is also a reminder to the first  
notion of out-cooperating. The Encyclopaedia editors are out-cooperated  
because the Wikipedia authors work for free. But this is partly an  
illusion, because the Wikipedia authors have to eat and dress and live  
in houses too. Only they get paid by other structures, outside the  
Wikipedia collaboration, not by the project itself. So we do not know,  
so far, which form of collaboration is more productive. The costs of  
Wikipedia are hidden, they are externalized. Whoever can externalize  
its costs, wins ? that?s a basic rule in capitalism, and that?s why  
ecological movements always claim the internalization of costs. The  
reason Wikipedia is really more productive is because it does not have  
to spend work, money etc. into means of forcing people to work, because  
editorial work is spread among all participants and not located in a  
fixed editors? class, because the roles of producer and consumer get  
blurred, because a strong responsibility of the worker for his or her  
work is established, etc.

GL: Is it productivity that counts? Ultimately a new system will win  
against the existing system, just because it?s more productive?

CS: Yes, I think so. More productive, not more efficient. Usually, a  
new way of production, and a new society linked to it, is successful  
because it can accomplish something the old way of production (and the  
old social structures linked to it) could not. Machines, weapons,  
ideologies, structures of environmental control, intelligent machines,  
you name it. It is not successful because it is more cost-efficient. If  
something really new, really useful, really powerful can be  
accomplished, costs really don?t matter. That?s a very important  
historical lesson. So the question is: what is it about the new modes  
of production, as they emerge today, that enables them to accomplish  
things the old ones could not? It?s not that Wikipedia authors work for  
free. That?s not the point. But maybe it is Wikipedia indeed. And  
what?s related to it. Maybe it?s the astonishing productivity of free  
cooperation in such forms. That would be the new forces of production,  
and the new relations of production would be that of free basic income,  
personally free labour and shared means of production.

So what is it that new cooperations, like Wikipedia, can produce that  
older forms of cooperation could not? Wikipedia, using the tool of the  
wiki and the knowledge of online community building, creates a product  
that is completely up-to-date, that is mistake-free, error-free, while  
it works in extremely error-friendly ways at the same time. It is quite  
unbiased in terms of cultural hegemony, it is strongest when it comes  
to entries other encyclopaedias wouldn?t even have. You may find better  
articles elsewhere, more to your gusto, but usually ideology is kept  
checked, balanced, controlled in Wikipedia. If you want it unbiased,  
you go there.

I think it?s not even imagined where we could take that. Compare that,  
combine that, with real-world approaches like participatory economics.  
Could we build wikis that contain the knowledge about how our city, our  
village, our neighbourhood works and how it functions? Could we  
establish that kind of economic, political, cultural transparency?  
Could we lay economic source codes that open? What would that mean?  
Ain?t that a road to economic democracy? We could use these new tools  
for cooperative decision-making. Just open up. We could use Artificial  
Intelligence as a means of empowering Lenin?s female cook to really run  
a factory, a city, the state ? collectively. If people can play  
SimCity, why shouldn?t they be able to govern their real city? Why  
shouldn?t they likeit?

The Future of Creative Work

GL: Let?s go back to the question of the (im)possibility of an online  
economy. Is giving away for free really the only option left? 

CS: The culture of giving it all away needs a closer look. That you  
cannot sell your product to make a living,is not so new a situation in  
history. Before capitalism, a lot of things could only happen when the  
producergot paid, got supported, was kept alive ? it wasn?t the product  
that was paid for, it was the producer that was financed. That?s how  
medieval courts sustained art in the 13th century. We can see this  
development at several points in history: first, culture as religious  
work, as performed by a priest cast; then, second, stuff that was  
directly paid for as a service that was ordered; third, stuff that was  
produced as hobby work in free time (soldier poets, the antecedents of  
free software programmers, in that sense); fourth, stuff that was  
produced by real freelancers that worked for a kind of market system,  
people who were paid because they were ?good?, who made a living out of  
their work (that is, they could choose between different possible  

Is there a rule? Is it that culture is controlled by an elite class,  
and then starts to slip, to break loose, to become ?free? (often  
commercial at the same time), then changes its domain of containment to  
a new, emerging class; and then this new elite class stops this  
ambivalent ?freedom? and uses direct service work, again? Then the  
freedom of hobby production, of giving away, of working for markets,  
etc. would not seem to be real opponents, but changing forms of  
inbetweeness, of emancipation from the old elite class. It?s just using  
opportunities. That would fit well for the internet today. It would fit  
well for the whole semi-world of semi-precarious intellectual labour  
today. We?re just shifting. The problem is, can we keep this state of  
not-being-bound, this time? Can we take part in a new movement of  
change while, at the same time, defining our role in more autonomous  
ways, both in the present as well as in a utopian future?

GL: Is it really necessary to live precariously when you?re working  
with the Internet, and in particular when you?re producing content?

CS: Stephen King could not raise money with internet content. But why?  
It is not that his content has no ?value? ? out of the internet, his  
books sell very good. But the internet proved unable to deliver a  
stable structure of allocation for his artistic production. The  
business model was this: you could read the chapters of the book for  
free, but were asked to pay a dollar so that the production could go  
on. This didn?t work, because the individual prospect of non-paying was  
real while the goal of continued production could not be guaranteed by  
an individual paying anyway. This, combined with a completely anonymous  
social context, failed to establish a stable structure of allocation.  
There is a specific problem of re-allocation raised by the internet and  
the digital copy: it is difficult to prevent people from consumption  
without contributing to the costs of production. And there is another  
problem ? a lot of content loses its value because in an easily  
accessible global medium it?s no longer special or distinct. In a  
global area, there?s always someone better than you, and enough who are  
equal to you. So why pay you? Why work with you? We?ve already reached  
the point that local cultural producers, local creative workers, are  
not paid for their work - but that they payfor being allowed to do  
their work, for the opportunity of being visible. This is not a problem  
for the top dogs in cultural production, but for the others ? the local  
bands, authors, artist, cultural workers ? there?s the problem of being  
out-of-time and out-collaborated by a global market. These are not  
necessarily good things for the development of collaborative or free  

Here again we face what you mentioned before: the connection between  
McJobs and Linux. In a global economy almost every content loses its  
value except the most outstanding products that escape competition  
because they have no real competiton in the quality stakes. The winners  
are the producers of high quality products for global markets, and the  
producers of the cheapest mass products for global markets. The rest  
loses. So it?s Hollywood and China, German Hi-Tech export firms and  
Eastern European assembly lines, the Pentagon and the maquiladora belt.  
Not the people who work there; the people and institutions that own  
them, ?run? them. That?s the way it?s meant to be from the perspective  
of today?s global elite class.

The exact relation between the elite class and ruling class has to be  
discussed. Ruling is not government work, of course. But ruling is more  
contested today, it seems, more difficult, more compromised work, more  
taking into account of the global masses, at least the more privileged  
parts of them.

Are there alternatives emerging? New coalitions between intellectuals  
and workers, ?new? (more set-free, semi-precarious,  
academic-proletarian) intellectuals and ?new? (more cooperative, more  
self-ruling, more collectively responsible, more organized, more  
educated) workers? I hope so. That?s the new proletariat, and Wikipedia  
is its bible, perhaps. And it?s really the internet that shaped it:  
open source as it is, connecting and opening the knowledge of the  
world. Some of it. Some other parts stay hidden. And some parts cannot  
be taught, learned, transferred in this way, they need personal  

But lines get blurred, hybrid forms of knowledge transfer and creation  
emerge and become more and more important. The hybrids. We have to talk  
more about the hybrids. We have to watch out for the hybrids.

We have two extreme approaches to the issue at the moment. One  
standpoint it that of the traditionalists in the music business:  
protect your content. Downloading is stealing. Catch the thieves. The  
other standpoint is that of Oekonux: give everything away for free. The  
only way of allocation for a future society is, according to Oekonux,  
that all goods are free, all services are free, all content is free,  
and that work is done completely independent from money, done only by  
the motivation of self-fulfilment. Reality tends to a third way at the  
moment: Use it, but don?t sell it ? and if you do sell it, then  
contribute to the production costs, which have to be covered if the  
production is to go on. The whole thing splits into different parts: A  
part of ?general production? which is done by ?general work? that is  
not paid by special means, and a part of ?special production? which is  
done by ?special forces? and is paid ? and the ways and rationality of  
payment change, too. A Star Wars film raises more money by licenses for  
toys and advertisements than by selling ticket, which means people  
contribute to the costs of production by paying a kind of global Star  
Wars tax that is raised by selling silly Star Wars products. Strange,  
but it works.

And here, maybe, we get a preliminary idea about why and how new forms  
of cooperation may out-cooperate the Empire. Neo-liberalism was very  
good in ?special work? ? in combining and re-combining labour,  
resources, connectivity, on a global scale. Dissolving first, of  
course, but then re-combining for new, huge, global tasks. Free  
cooperation is very good in ?general work? ? in producing the ?white  
noise? of production, the general background, the overall element.  
These are factors often addressed as ?social capital? today, but this  
is a poor definition because it doesn?t explain anything. It?s like the  
alchemists talking of an all-abundant, but invisible, insensible  
element called ?Ether?. This is something the Empire has great  
difficulties in producing. That?s why they cannot build stable civil  
societies in countries they have occupied. That?s why they keep borders  
flowing between formal and informal labour ? not only to throw out  
people from inside, but also to breath, to take in, people and content  
and any results of cooperation from outside.

Our whole thinking about distribution and markets has to be re-shaped.  
Classical theory doesn?t work, but giving-away ideologies don?t work,  
either. The point is: a classical capitalist market, like theory  
sketches of it (where competition works towards lowest possible prices  
and most efficient ways of production), needs some closure in space and  
openness in time. We act by bounded rationality, we have no sufficient  
knowledge, no total information, never. So the crucial question and the  
structuring decision is: shall I buy his product again? It?s a kind of  
tit-for-tat-strategy, which is normal for bounded rationality, as game  
theory teaches us. Only repetition rules out fraud. Only closure in  
space gives a chance of gathering sufficient information over time. At  
the same time, calculation (as part of organising production) is never  
frozen in time, calculation is always open in time: if I sell something  
cheaper, more people will buy, and I will become somewhat dominant in  
this market segment, I can then sell goods or services at a more  
expensive price ? so futureexpectations are always built-in to the  
smart business strategy, however unpredictable that may be. So this  
assumes also a strategy that can handle risk, loss and contingency. And  
in this sense, it?s never a case of pure ?efficiency? in the neoclassic  
sense. This is always true. It?s nothing new. Now: if an economy  
enlarges to global markets, at a high speed with low transport costs,  
relations shift. Fraud rules. Buyers have trouble keeping path with  
sellers in terms of information. Strategies that link present and  
future become dominant over strategies stuck in the present. Market  
domination becomes more important than tit-for-tat-adeptness.

My point is that economy never worked through ?the market? alone. It  
was always through the market in a very special way, as one tool among  
others, as part of a more complex strategy and mechanism of rule. We  
have to think, if we think about the future, in terms of these kind of  
mechanisms and strategies. ?You can?t sell CDs any longer? is too  
simple. But this is something that ?Wikipedia forms of production? can  
solve much better. They are a solution to the fraud problem. They  
reduce fraud considerably. Because there are rules and checks and, you  
might call them, ?institutions?. But also because the work isn?t paid.

GL: Lately, interesting critiques of Creative Commons have been voiced.  
For some it is the legal contract itself, which is the problem. Both  
GPL and TRIPS are legal documents. It?s already often stated that  
Creative Commons is a form of copyright. CC does not transcend the  
legal system and is not pointing in any new direction how we can  
develop sustainable structures. It?s a mere defensive license in that  
it explicitly refuses to tell how professionals and amateurs that  
attempt to make a living out of their work can start to earn money.  
It?s dogmatic in this one message: abandon all hope and give it all  
away for free, put that funky CC license on your content and shut your  
mouth. Both Joi Ito and Lawrence Lessig are good at staying on the  
message. How you make a living is your individual problem and we?ll be  
the last ones to tell you how to solve this problem? apart from wishing  
you good luck with your t-shirt sales. That?s the cynical logic of  
these Creative Commons leaders. For them CC is about the ?freedom? of  
?amateurs? to ?remix?. But we are not all amateurs that fool around on  
the Net in our spare time. What should concern us is how amateurs can  
professionalize. Amateurs that want to remain amateurs is fine, of  
course. The amateur status should be a personal choice, not the default  

CS: Who could really ever make money out of content? Ain?t that always  
a problem? Problem is, the producer of creative content has such a  
strong interest in publicity, in making it public, that he/she has  
almost no bargaining power. He/she would do it for zero, even pay for  
it sometimes. Because he/she needs that, it?s the kind of investment  
he/she can never afford him/herself. So every producer of creative  
content tends to work for zero, always, because it?s so crucial to be  
heard. Not only for a mission, for the belief in what you do, but for  
economic reasons. The only chance you?ll ever have of getting really  
paid is global prominence. So meanwhile, you get paid in  
advertisements. That?s why we need public support for creative  
producers. They just starve, or completely lose track of their creative  

That?s the main way to understand so-called ?free? or ?give-away?  
economy in the net. The smart bands virtually give away some stuff for  
free, as a kind of self-advertisement, and that?s all that counts.  
Often it works. They don?t sell their music if it comes packaged in  
digital forms. They sell themselves in the form of giving concerts. The  
rest is a global advertisement. And that?s the trend we see in the  
e-economy. The companies that do well, like Google, EBay, Amazon, earn  
more and more through advertisements, while they provide more and more  
services for free.

GL: Yes, but what have writers to offer? Does it mean that writers have  
to give away all their texts for free and will have to live from the  
lecture tours they do? And who is going to organize these lecture  
tours, if not a publishing house? What strategies could we develop to  
turn interesting and creative work, done by artists, designers, writers  
and activists into more or less sustainable jobs, without going back to  
the old regime of intellectual property rights? There is no going back  
anyway. Creative Commons is already the default option, and I don?t  
mind that.

CS: We have to get organized, and we have to develop some vision. There  
are four problems that need different, but consistent answers. The  
first is the problem of the Encyclopaedia Britannica editors and  
authors: that there are free and better alternatives to their product,  
produced by ?amateur? collectives in their leisure time. Here the only  
answer is: give it up. If the work is done by a distributed,  
non-professional collectivity, there is no more need for a professional  
to do the job. Change your job profile, re-define your professional  
activity to another field, like printers had to do when hot type was  

The second problem is the Stephan King problem, that there is no sound  
re-allocation for the investment of your workforce when it comes to  
digitally reproducible content and creative mass commodities, like  
online novels or mp3-tracks. The radical solution would be: No more  
individual payments; introduction of a ?content tax? on PC hardware;  
financing artists by public programs and democratically controlled  
public culture institutions. The GEMA (German music revenue collector)  
is a step into that direction. At the same time, instead of privatising  
science production, there has to be a growth of public education and  
knowledge production that encompasses more than classical science work  
but ?basic creative work? as well.

The third problem arises when you do specialized creative work for a  
company that actually sellsa product where your work is a part of it. A  
printed book, for example, belongs to this category: What sells is a  
complex product made of writing, editing, marketing, product placement,  
access to distribution and control of cultural markets. That?s the  
difference between being printed and being published. Here the problem  
is that powerful actors can force others to accept poor contract  
conditions. The solution is getting organized in a trade-union style,  
like scriptwriters demonstrated in Hollywood, with support from state  
regulation that guarantees minimum wages and fair contract conditions.

The fourth problem is that companies try to privatise collective  
knowledge and heritage and raise quasi-feudalistic fees. Here the only  
answers are laws that prevent any such privatisation of ?intellectual  
goods? ? very simple. Such a non-dogmatic, but visionary approach would  
bring a real advantage to the whole of creative production.

GL: How should artists make the collaborative aspect in their work  
visible? In opera, theatre, film and in television and radio there are  
very well defined rules for that. Credits make the division of labour  
and importance of each individual contribution in a production pretty  

CS: This not only counts for artists. Art is a field of production  
where lots of people contribute but some are in charge. Art cannot be  
done without special means of production that have to be produced by  
others (paper, PCs, paint), that?s easy. But art is also a form where  
collective experience and life gets transformed into artistic products.  
So how does the author pay back the people who inspire him or her, who  
give their lives to produce what the artist uses for his or her work?  
Because the artist alone can?t do anything. How many people really  
collaborate in the making of a work? How visible is this togetherness  
in the art work, and in the artist?s conscience? How much do we know  
about this process of collaboration that exceeds the world of artists  
and artists? collaboration, about the process of people collaborating  
in producing culture? Let?s discuss this as well! Otherwise, it would  
be a quite bourgeois discussion.

GL: Why? Don?t you think that most creative workers are already living  
under ?precarious? circumstances? I just read Mickey Kaus? term  
?involuntary entrepreneurs?. Glenn Reynolds used it in his book An Army  
of Davids. What it points at is the inevitability of neo-liberal  
working conditions. There is no way that workers one day will return to  
their Fordist factories, or their offices for that matter. They will  
have to get used to the ?freedom? of being a freelance contractor. 

CS: In a way, precarity doesn?t matter. Of course this problem has to  
be solved, but if some people decide ? and are able to decide ? to be  
culturally productive no matter what their income is, it does not allow  
them to forget that their work is still part of a collective  
production. The game of ?99 percent of us will starve but 1 percent  
will be paid off in individual glory? is still a bourgeois game. The  
point is to resist the temptation of out-cooperating others, to resist  
the temptation of privilege, to pay respect to others. On the other  
hand, society has to accept that it cannot exist without cultural  
production and creative work, that this is no luxury or individual  
hobby, and that it has to be paid respect (and income), too.

Alternative Economies

CS: ?The alternative economy aspect is under-examined?, you write  
together with Trebor in Collaboration: For the Love of It.Do you see  
any attempts to examine this? What about Oekonux? But it has become  
more of a nerd philosophy, of a software programmers? religion, than an  
instrument of economic analysis, yes? At what point did it start to  
slip? What should be put into the centre of such an economic analysis?

GL: We might agree with a lot of people that the Oekonux debate would  
need a restart, with a fresh input from various directions. Originally  
German Oekonux debate (2000-2002) tried to make a blueprint for society  
centred around the free software production principles. After a few  
years the Oekonux debate got stuck for the simple reason that, in the  
end, it was controlled by the founder of the forum, Stefan Merten, who  
doesn?t want to let go and probably has little experience with how to  
scale up and transform, from a cozy and closed high-level German  
context, into an international debate in which there would be a  
multitude of players and intentions. What is needed, in a sense, is a  
clash of theories, between the Marxist use-value approach and the  
hardcore libertarian free software/open source philosophy. Oekonux  
claimed to be its synthesis, but it wasn?t. Still, it asked all the  
right questions. I am still inspired by Oekonux, and so are you, I?d  
guess. After all, that?s where we both met.

CS: Yes, virtually and literally! In the discussion on alternative  
economy, there are two positions prevailing at the moment: one stating  
that capitalism itself is out-cooperated and has to be replaced by a  
new cooperative model of economic accumulation, allocation, information  
and decision-making. That?s the Oekonux position. The other position is  
that the alternative is a strongly regulated capitalism under political  
control, but an economy where the driving forces and modes of  
regulation are capitalist, an economy of profit, competition and  
private ownership. That?s the de factoposition of most Left parties in  
Europe. The main argument for the latter position goes: capitalism is  
ugly but there is no other system so far that could compete with it in  
terms of the speed of innovation. Not ingenuity, but a tempo of real  
change in production. What do you think of this? What is your  
experience with cooperative project and innovation? And is innovation  
that important at all? Is that all we?re in it for, innovation?

GL: We have seen where the ?political primate? ultimately takes us.  
What I have strongly believed in is the model of temporary  
laboratories. Not eternal utopias that fail but experiments with a high  
level of collective imagination. What we need is fresh story-telling  
capacities. Social movements have an incredible capacity for this. But  
they can maintain the ?autonomous zone? only for a limited time.  
Instead of going for the ?penis enlargement? model of the never-ending  
orgasm, I believe in a steady accumulation of best practices. This is  
not reformist as I do not really believe that we have to ?insert? such  
stories and concepts inside existing institutions. Maybe I?m too much  
of a media Gramscian, but yes, I believe in the capacities of the many,  
the multitudes of great people that I meet everywhere, to create a new  
cultural hegemony that can precontextualize the political. Learning  
from the Neocons, if you like. I am not the only one who is arguing for  

CS: I?m not convinced that this is enough. Filling the gaps is not  
enough. We have to run the system in another way. This is what was  
discussed at the latest meeting of the German Rosa-Luxemburg  
Foundation?s ?Future Commission?: What exactly is it that  
neo-liberalism does? What is the productive contribution? What is the  
kind of work that is most strongly supported and honoured by the rules  
of neo-liberal markets? It seems to be combination and re-combination ?  
of work, of resources, on a global scale and on a scale combining  
material and immaterial, professional and amateur work in a new way.  
That?s the productive labour that is honoured by shareholder capital.  
It is not sustainable, it is not just, it is destructive, etc., etc.  
But it is a kind of productive labour, and very powerful, and it is an  
elite kind of skill. And it?s no wonder why this is the case ? somebody  
has to do it.

There is no economic system without a structure of accumulation or  
allocation. How is it accomplished that labour and resources are  
concentrated and/or distributed, allowing the action of production? How  
is the outcome of this production relevant to the continuation of  
production, and how is this relevance expressed in structures that  
?inform? or force the productive unit to go on or not? Any accumulation  
system strengthens certain kinds of work and ignores others. So, saying  
?the financial markets become more and more the driving force of  
production? doesn?t really say very much. The point is, financial  
markets are just a means of accumulation. But why is accumulation  
handed to them in neo-liberalism? Because they strengthen certain kinds  
of work and ignore others. They ignore social capital, long-term  
collaboration, etc.; they strengthen the work of global combination,  
the dissolvement and re-combination of labour and resources on a global  
scale. It?s no error that neo-liberalism features hedge funds. It?s  
because they are effective in destroying old complexes of labour and  
resources and transferring the money and the resources to new  
labour-resources-complexes, especially those who operate world-wide.

Now: we want to terminate the unchallenged rule of this kind of work.  
But we do not want to eliminate this kind of work altogether, the work  
of combining and re-combining labour and resources for global tasks. We  
do it ourselves in a lot of cases. It?s important. But we want it to be  
done on a free basis, not a forced one, not as a hierarchy, but as a  
driving and inspiring force.

It?s clear that we aim at an economy where commons play a great role.  
Old and new commons ? commons, where the public gets free access to  
information, communication, tools, technologies, small capital. But not  
everything will be done by commons, of course. There will be local  
markets and regional production. And there will be global projects that  
will need special modes of accumulation in order to get re-funded. At  
the moment, we do not know exactly how this should be done if it were  
up to us.

I?m also not in favour of contemporary ideas that all economic activity  
should consist of small collectives. Big scale production may be  
progressive too. And the separation between work and capital may have  
its emancipatory aspects also. I do not only want to control what I am  
directly working with. I want to have some influence on everything that  
happens in society. For this, ?having shares in something? is an  
important tool. That?s why I like the Swedish idea of combining  
workers? control on the shop floor with economic democratisation  
through workers? funds.

Unfolding Utopia

CS: In the introduction to Free Cooperation that you wrote with Trebor  
Scholz, there is something that can be read easily as your contribution  
because you stress it all the time. It?s ?the importance of being  
inspired?. Could you explain more about it? To you, it seems to be the  
REAL productive force in cooperation, in the Net, in the real world.  
And obviously, as in Oscar Wilde?s ?The importance of being Earnest?,  
it is something that is felt as important by others so that we try to  
fake it, if necessary ... What is it you?re thinking of, when you?re  
talking about this ?being inspired??

GL: Let?s deal with its cynical reading first, the Lebenshilfe aspect.  
In English that would be filed in the self-help, the mind, body and  
spiritual New Age section that we find in today?s bookstore. In the  
past I insisted that theory is not there to help you through the day.  
Music can do that job, a good joke, a short conversation. This  
inevitably leads to a dilemma for those amongst us who want to further  
theorize collaboration. You did a clever, yet classic German move by  
giving free cooperation a negative, dialectical foundation, namely the  
freedom to walk away. Still, very few of us are actually in such  
position. Or want to. We all look for a motivational theory, to either  
get into what we do or transform the situation in which we find  
ourselves. To get a better understanding how, exactly, theory inspires  
people, is not a minor detail. We have to be open minded, on the  
look-out, read and interpret our feelings, get over frustrations, yet  
take our discontent deadly serious.

CS: You?re also talking about ?extreme democracy?. What does it mean?  
How does it apply to online cooperation?

GL: It?s not a term that I developed, but I like it. Extreme  
Democracyis the book title of a collection of essays, pretty wild  
online material from 2003-2004, written by US-American  
techno-libertarian activists/bloggers such as Radcliffle, Lebkowsky,  
but also Ito, Shirky, Weinberger and Boyd. It was written in the period  
of the Howard Dean campaign, the breakthrough of blogs and social  
networks, but before the Web 2.0 hype. What?s extreme about it is most  
likely not the ideas (because they are flat and kind of mainstream now)  
but the dynamics of those social networks. Their growth (potential),  
the easy ways to link and refer to each other, opens up dialogues on a  
massive scale, and is indeed remarkable. I get inspired by such social  
networks. But from a leftist point of view, there is not much more to  
learn than radical self-criticism. Why can?t progressive social  
movements be part of this? What makes this whole world of NGOs and  
unions so slow? Why is today?s resistance so dull and arguably  
reactionary, if you look at the defensive and desperate tendencies in  
the French protests? Why do young people think that identifying with a  
bankrupt welfare state is the only option left, to live like their  
parents? What we in fact need is more extreme social imagination of how  
people want to live and work in the 21st century. To expect life-long  
care when you?re 21, I don?t know. Would that really be utopia? Why not  
go the extra mile and propose a basic income for all? Or other forms of  
radical redistribution of income? What disturbs me is the petty,  
fear-driven agenda of today?s protests in Europe. In that sense it is,  
still, more interesting to look what the US libertarians are tinkering  
together in projects like http://www.worldchanging.com.

CS: That?s why the struggle to make free basic income a central demand  
of the political Left is so important at the moment, and quite  
difficult in Left parties, because it contradicts the classical Fordist  
assumptions held up by the trade unions. Lacking, however, are visions  
for capital control, for free productivity, for personality  
development, etc.

The French riots in the Banlieus weren?t exactly boring where they?  
People resisted a law that allowed to fire young people without any  
protection against it for as long as two years after they were hired. I  
think that?s a good reason for protest. It?s about seizing power,  
resisting powerlessness at work. And when young people are very aware  
of the family as an important way of life, we should listen carefully.  
Our ideas of independence, free contract labour, new productivity are  
often a question of class ? you have to be a quite qualified immaterial  
worker to practice that successfully. Family networks and/or social  
security through the state are still the only means of security and  
freedom for most people. But you?re right that here a discussion about  
visions must start ? renewed visions, that make new ideas compatible  
with the interests and desires of, to put it bluntly, ?the masses?.

?Collaboration asks for concentration?, you write. Could you explain  
that further? How can we reach that concentration? Is that why The  
Matrixcombines the virtuality hype with Eastern philosophy?

GL: Those who are impatient and have some kind of genius idea about  
themselves are incapable of collaborating. When you work with others  
online, there is a lot of social noise on the line and it takes a lot  
of patience and wisdom not to give up. If you need Eastern philosophy  
for that, or not, is a personal matter. I don?t but I perfectly  
understand those who do. One has to be ready to speed up if the  
velocity picks up and mentally ready for the numerous delays and  
hic-ups on the way. It is this confused rhythm of speeding up, slowing  
down, being stagnant and again moving forward that tires people out and  
could be one of the main (and least understood) reasons why people jump  
ship and abandon Internet-based projects.

CS: Again, that?s very similar in real life organizing processes! Just  
consider the process of funding a new Left party out of the PDS and the  
WASG: a lot of people are attracted and then get confused, bored, angry  
about these rhythm thing, the need for patience ? and the need for  
velocity and action ? and then patience again ...

It?s often said that hierarchy is unavoidable to organize processes. I  
don?t want to buy that, but it?s difficult. What do you think from your  
experience? The software programming model is what exactly does not  
convince me. The art of collaborative projects often doesn?t convince  
me of it either. How can we change roles? I have the sense that you  
need strong cooperation, cooperative wealth, if such trials are to  
proceed. What is your definition of hierarchy? Is it cooperation  
without influence on the goals, on the purpose?

GL: What you often seem to presume in your writings is trust and  
friendship of relationships within a relatively close vicinity. The  
problem is that these are becoming rare these days, mainly because of  
increased mobility. What trust and friendship need is time that you all  
spend together in the same space in order to build up common  
experiences. Only then, for instance, can you deal with hierarchy in a  
non-authoritarian way. Namely when the ?anti-hierarchy? is no longer a  
slogan or an ideology but becomes a negotiated practice. But that is  
really difficult to realize with people you hardly know. I am not  
saying that hierarchy is a natural process but rather that you all have  
to work really hard to undermine such processes. So the real challenge  
is to question hierarchy in new, and fast changing social environments  
? not when you?re amongst old friends. The need for celebrities,  
visionaries, leaders and gurus is immense and only seems to be growing.  
You find it in virtually all environments, from work to hobbies and  
sport, in entertainment and the arts. It is by no means restricted to  
politics or business.

For me hierarchy sets in when groups get bigger, when organizations  
grow, when there are more and more teams and task forces. So it?s quite  
close to project work and division of labour. It also comes with the  
introduction of (middle) management. There is in a sense no hierarchy  
if there is just the boss and the others. People who motivate and give  
directions are usually quite open and egalitarian. The problem starts  
when mid-levels are introduced. I have no problem with ?leaders? that  
inspire. What sucks are boring managers without ideas. I have no idea  
why, time and again, they have to be brought in. Hierarchy is a product  
of abstract, bureaucratic administration procedures, not an expression  
of (absolute) power.

CS: So hierarchy is the organized subduction or withdrawal of  
collectivity, and the transformation of collective productivity into  
shadow labour. ?Shadow labour? is the labour that is not organized as a  
subject. Would you agree that definition?

 GL: Yes, it?s not identified, qualified or visible. But what will  
happen when we get used to online encyclopaedias, Wikipedia or not?  
That?s my field of interest. What will happen when the online world,  
and our presence in it, will become so ubiquitous, so intense, that we  
no longer take notice. We are there, out in the (online) world, but  
we?re also not there. This being present, while absent is a  
contemporary condition that interests me, and how this affects  
political formations, and political culture of the everyday. The way  
you portray it is too much of a doom scenario. The Net is not a one-way  
street in which we are drawn, with no possibility of escape. What young  
people show is this extraordinary capacity to create presence in  
parallel worlds, simultaneously. There is also a gender aspect to it.  
Apparently males have great difficulty when it comes to multi-tasking  
at work and in the household. This in turn leads to an entire army of  
male philosophers who make us believe that we have to chose between the  
real and the virtual world. No, what we need is a poly-gender  
socialisation which is focussed on the cultivation of multi-tasking.

CS: I like that! The female art of social multi-tasking, of  
simultaneously talking and listening, being in and out, as the core  
qualification of the emerging, global, individualized network  
production! But this also calls for a radical reduction of working  
hours ? you can?t stand this 40 hours a week, 8 hours a day. And we  
should keep in mind what you said about ?Cooperation asks for  
concentration?. We are developing a whole new division of labour at the  
moment, and I would not want the multi-taskers (mostly female, many  
migrant) to be the new 'precariat' and the focussed nerds the new  
white-collars. We need a common, visionary perspective for a real  

This brings us back to our initial question of ?out-cooperating the  
Empire?. I?d like to ask how we imagine change today. In my opinion,  
our whole concept of change is itself rapidly changing at the moment.  
The prevailing concepts of change have always been very simple, it?s  
strange that there is little science and theory about it. The classical  
Marxists theory is as simple and unsatisfying as the Oekonux idea of  
the ?Keimform? (germ), not to speak of the still dominant ideas of  
gradualism and continuous evolution. At the moment, there are very fast  
and very interesting developments in the theory of evolution. The new  
theories sketch a process that is evolutionary and revolutionary at the  
same time, like we feel it in history and the transformation of  
societies. Notions of co-evolution, of memory of alternative  
possibilities, of rapid change and rapid adaptation, etc. are changing  
our perception in evolutionary biology.

I guess similar notions are growing for our understanding of  
programming processes, of network development. And in this perspective,  
we might get a new understanding of what is also typical for female  
multi-tasking and communication: a strong sense for ?potentiality,?  
which always tends to make men confused and nervous. The constant  
evolution and preservation of potentiality seems to play an important  
role in evolution. I?m sure all this will lead us to a better  
understanding of what it means to ?out-cooperate Empire?.

(edited by Ned Rossiter)

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