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<nettime> cyber-communism <2>
Richard Barbrook on Mon, 6 Sep 1999 20:40:10 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> cyber-communism <2>


The Revenge of Saint-Simon

Across the industrialised world, this conservative appropriation of
Stalinism now dominates discussions about the Net. Every guru celebrates
the emergence of the new technocracy: the digerati. Every pundit claims
that these pioneers of the Net are building a new utopia: the information
society. Yet, like their Soviet predecessors, contemporary right-wing
intellectuals can only produce corrupted versions of Saint-Simon's
prophecy. While this socialist philosopher wanted economic progress to
liberate everyone, these proponents of reactionary modernism exclude the
majority of the population from their hi-tech future. For the privileges
of the digerati depend upon the subordination of the unenlightened masses.
In the Californian ideology, permanent technological revolution is always
identified with unchanging social hierarchy. However, without the promise
of eventual redemption, economic modernisation becomes an end in itself. 
Once again, conservative philosophers are promising an imaginary future to
dissuade people from improving their lived present. 

Although always imminent, the arrival of the information society must be
perpetually postponed. As in the former Soviet Union, the prophecy of
Saint-Simon is never supposed to be actually realised within the USA. On
the contrary, the development of the forces of production is designed to
reinforce the existing relations of production. For both public and
private institutions only introduce new information technologies to
advance their own interests. Back in the 1960s, the US military funded the
invention of the Net to fight nuclear wars. Ever since the 1970s,
financial markets have used computer networks to impose their hegemony
over the entire world.  During the last few years, both capitalist
companies and government departments have adopted the Net to improve
communications with their employees, contractors and clients. At the
moment, every speculator on Wall Street is looking for the
cyber-entrepreneur who is building the next Microsoft. Despite all the
utopian predictions of the digerati, there appears to be nothing
inherently emancipatory in the convergence of computing,
telecommunications and the media. Like earlier forms of capitalism, the
information society remains dominated by the hierarchies of the market and
the state. (Schiller 1995; Winston 1998: 321-336) 

At the beginning of the new millennium, American neo-liberalism seems to
have successfully achieved the contradictory aims of reactionary
modernism:  economic progress and social immobility. Because the long-term
goal of liberating everyone will never be reached, the short-term rule of
the digerati can last forever. Yet, as in the former Soviet Union, this
dialectic of development and stasis is inherently unstable. By modernising
agricultural societies, the ruling parties of Stalinist communism slowly
destroyed the foundations of their own power. Over time, the relations of
production formed by totalitarianism became incompatible with the
continual expansion of the forces of production. At this historical
moment, Saint-Simon finally had his revenge on his false disciples. 

'The [Stalinist] communist revolution... has brought about a measure of
industrial civilisation to vast areas of Europe and Asia. In this way,
material bases have actually been created for a future freer society.
Thus, while bringing about the most complete despotism, the [Stalinist]
communist revolution has also created the basis for the abolition of
despotism.' (Djilas 1966: 41-42) 

Like its erstwhile opponent, American neo-liberalism is now also being
undermined by the development of the forces of production. As predicted by
Saint-Simon, the full potential of recent technological and social
advances cannot be realised within the traditional hierarchies of
capitalism.  According to the proponents of the Californian ideology, the
Net is founded upon the buying and selling of information goods and
services. Only through market competition can individual desires be
satisfied. Yet, when they go on-line, Net users are primarily engaged in
giving and receiving information as gifts. Quite spontaneously, people are
adopting more democratic methods of working together within cyberspace. 

Fulfilling the prophecy of Saint-Simon, these new relations of production
have emerged at the cutting-edge of economic progress: the Net. Not
surprisingly, they are being pioneered by a privileged minority of the
world's population: people with access to computer-mediated communications
technologies. As a result, these new ways of working are most widespread
within the leading capitalist nation: the USA. The technological and
social preconditions for the realisation of Saint-Simon's prophecy are now
present. While conservative ideologues remain entranced by the theoretical
legacy of Stalinist communism, their fellow Americans are discovering the
practical benefits of a new version of this concept: cyber-communism. 

'Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They
arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity
problems with survival goods.' (Raymond 1998: 9) 

The gift economy of the Net emerges from the technological and social
advances catalysed by capitalist modernisation. Over the last three
hundred years, the reproduction, distribution and manipulation of
information has become slowly easier through a long process of
mechanisation. A manually-operated press produced copies which were
relatively expensive, limited in numbers and impossible to alter without
recopying. After generations of technological improvements, the same
quantity of text on the Net is easily circulated, copied and remixed.
However, individuals need money and time to access this advanced
communications system. While most of the world's population still live in
poverty, the inhabitants of the industrialised countries have reduced
their hours of employment and increased their wealth over two centuries of
economic growth. Ever since the advent of Fordism, mass production has
depended upon workers having enough resources and leisure for mass
consumption. (Negri 1988) Having disposable income and spare time, many
workers within the metropolitan countries are now able to work on their
own projects. (Gorz 1989) Only at this particular historical moment have
the technical and social conditions developed sufficiently for the
emergence of cyber-communism. 

'Capital thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating
production.' (Marx 1973: 700) 

The Academic Gift Economy

The invention of the Net was the greatest irony of the Cold War. At the
height of the struggle against Stalinist communism, the US military
unwittingly bankrolled the creation of cyber-communism. Faced with the
threat of nuclear attack on command and control structures, research money
was given to scientists for experiments in computer-mediated
communications. Although initially developed for the military, its
inventors soon started using the Net for their own purposes. Crucially,
scientists simply assumed that all information should be distributed for
free over their new communications system. Unlike most other sectors of
production, the gift economy has long been the primary method of
socialising labour within universities. Funded by the state or by
donations, scientists don't have to turn their intellectual work directly
into marketable commodities. Instead, research results are publicised by
'giving a paper' at specialist conferences and by 'contributing an
article' to academic journals. By being quoted, scientists acquire
personal recognition which enhances their career prospects within the
university system. Despite increasing commercialisation, the giving away
of findings remains the most efficient method of solving common problems
within a particular scientific discipline. 

'The rationality of professional services is not the same as the
rationality of the market... In the professions, and especially in
science, the abdication of moral control would disrupt the system. The
producer of professional services must be... responsible for his products,
and it is fitting that he not be alienated from them.' (Hagstrom 1982: 29) 

Because of these pioneers, the gift economy became firmly embedded within
the social mores of the Net. Over time, the charmed circle of its users
has slowly grown from scientists through hobbyists to the general public.
Each new member doesn't just have to observe the technical rules of the
system, but also adheres to certain social conventions. Without even
thinking about it, people continually circulate information between each
other for free.  Although the Net has expanded far beyond the university,
its users still prefer to co-operate together without the direct mediation
of money. 

There are even selfish reasons for adopting cyber-communism. By adding
their own presence, every user is contributing something to the collective
knowledge accessible to those already on-line. In return for this gift,
each individual obtains potential access to all the information provided
on the Net by others. Within a market economy, buyers and sellers tend to
exchange commodities of equivalent worth. Yet, within the hi-tech gift
economy, everyone receives far more from their fellow users than any
individual could ever give away. (Ghosh 1998: 10) Not surprisingly, there
is no popular clamour for imposing the equal exchange of the marketplace
on the Net. Even the most dogmatic neo-liberals are happily participating
within cyber-communism. 

>From the beginning, these gift relations of production were hardwired
into the technological structure of the Net. Although funded by the
military, scientists developed computer-mediated communications to
facilitate the distribution and manipulation of their own research data..
Working at universities, they never conceived of this information as a
commodity. On the contrary, these academics were advancing their careers
by giving away the results of their labour. Creating a communications
system for their own use, they incorporated these working methods inside
the technologies of the Net. (Geise 1996: 126-132) Above all, their
invention depends upon the continual and unhindered reproduction of
information. When on-line, every connection involves copying material from
one computer to another. Once the first copy of a piece of information is
placed on the Net, the cost of making each extra copy becomes almost zero.
The architecture of the system presupposes that multiple copies of
documents can easily be cached around the network. Although most of its
users are now from outside the academy, the technical design of the Net
still assumes that all information is a gift. 

'In an information space, we can consider the authorship of materials, and
their perception; but.... there is a need for the underlying infrastructure
to be able to make copies simply for reasons of efficiency and
reliability.  The concept of "copyright" as expressed in terms of copies
made makes little sense.' (Berners-Lee 1996: 11) 

The Eclipse of Copyright

Despite its huge popularity, the gift economy of the Net appears to be an
aberration. Mesmerised by the Californian ideology, almost all
politicians, executives and pundits are convinced that computer-mediated
communications can only be developed through market competition between
private enterprises. Like other products, information must be bought and
sold as a commodity. This faith in market forces comes from historical
experience.  During the past three centuries, the mediation of commodity
exchange has dramatically increased the productivity of labour. Responding
to changes in prices, workers and resources are distributed towards the
most efficient sectors of the economy. Competing against rival firms,
entrepreneurs must continually improve the methods and means of
production. When disciplined by the market, the self-interest of
individuals can be directed towards increasing the wealth of the whole
nation. (Smith 1970; Ricardo 1973) 

The founding fathers of liberal economics discovered the central paradox
of capitalism: individual property is the precondition of collective
labour.  In pre-modern societies, the aristocracy and clergy's control
over their lands was circumscribed by feudal rights and duties. The work
of the peasantry was organised through the particular set of customs found
in each domain. In contrast, the pioneers of capitalism transformed land
into a tradable commodity: the enclosures. Once feudal bonds were removed,
work of different types and in various locations could be regulated by a
single mechanism: the marketplace. (Marx 1976: 873-930) Over the last few
centuries, this modern form of collective labour has become ubiquitous.
For the disciplines of market competition not only raised productivity
within traditional trades, but also encouraged the development of new
industries.  Within the metropolitan countries, ordinary people are now
using goods and services which were unavailable even to kings and popes in
earlier times.  However, each of these technological wonders has been
shaped by the peculiar production relations of capitalism. As well as
satisfying a human desire, every new product must also be sold as a
commodity. Within a market economy, the enclosure of collective labour is
perpetual. (Midnight Notes Collective 1990) 

Under capitalism, most goods and services are produced as commodities. If
they're tangible objects or temporary actions, this social transformation
is usually unproblematic. However, the commodification of intellectual
labour has always been more difficult. While teaching and entertaining are
like other services, publications are very different from other goods.
Most of work to create an information product is expended in making the
first copy. Even with the earliest printing presses, the cost of producing
each subsequent copy is always much cheaper. In an open market, publishers
would be encouraged to plagiarise existing works rather than paying for
new material. The first capitalist nations quickly discovered a pragmatic
solution to this economic problem: copyright. Although everyone could buy
cultural artefacts, the right to reproduce them was limited by law. Like
every other form of work, intellectual labour could now be enclosed into a
commodity. (May 1998: 68-73) 

'Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the
activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for 5 and thus
became a merchant.' (Marx 1976: 1044) 

At the end of the twentieth century, copyright continues to provide the
legal framework for information production. Many forms of intellectual
labour are sold as commodities: books, music, films, games and software. 
The publishers of copyright-protected artefacts have become major
industries: the multi-media multinationals. The international legal
agreements protecting intellectual property are continually tightened: 
Berne, the WTO, TRIPS. Not surprisingly, most politicians, executives and
pundits assume that the Net will inevitably be commercialised. Like radio
broadcasting and cable television in earlier times, the moment of the gift
economy can only be temporary. As in other cultural industries,
intellectual labour within cyberspace has to be enclosed into information
commodities. (May 1998a; Frow 1996, Porter 1995) 

Anticipating this obsession, some pioneers did try to incorporate
copyright protection within computer-mediated communications. For
instance, Ted Nelson's Xanadu project contained a sophisticated tracking
and payment system for enforcing intellectual property. Using this
software, individuals could work together by trading information
commodities with each other. Yet, despite its technical brilliance, the
Xanadu scheme failed for entirely social reasons. (Wolf 1995) Instead of
encouraging participation, copyright protection proved to be a major
obstacle to on-line collaboration. For almost most people more from
circulating information without payment than trading cultural commodities.
By giving away their own personal efforts, Net users always receive the
results of much greater amounts of labour in return from others. The
scarcity of copyright cannot compete against the abundance of gifts. Far
from intensifying commodification, the Net is the practical vindication of
the old hacker slogan: "information wants to be free". (Lang 1998; Ghosh
1998) 

At the cutting-edge of modernity, the exchange of commodities now plays a
secondary role to the circulation of gifts. The enclosure of intellectual
labour is challenged by a more efficient method of working: disclosure. 
Within universities, scientists have long solved problems within their
specialisms by pooling their findings. As the Net grows, more and more
people are discovering the benefits of the gift economy. For they are not
only have the opportunity to contribute their own information, but also
gain access to the knowledge of many others. Everyday, the users of the
Net are sending emails, taking part in listservers, making websites,
contributing to newsgroups and participating within on-line conferences.
No longer enclosed in the commodity, intellectual labour is continually
disclosed as a gift. The passive consumption of fixed information products
is transforming into a fluid process of 'interactive creativity'. 
(Berners-Lee 1998: 5) 

'The logic of digital technology leads us in a new direction. Objects, as
well as ideas, are no longer fixed, no longer tangible. In cyberspace,
there is no weight, no dimensions; structure is dynamic and changing; size
is both infinite and immaterial. In this space, stories are written that
change with each new reader; new material can be added, and old material
can be deleted. Nothing is permanent.' (Kleinman 1996: 76) 

The types of 'interactive creativity' between Net users are very varied. 
While some on-line encounters are only temporary, others evolve into
long-lasting collaborations. Although many users only talk to close
friends and family, some are building relationships which solely exist on
the Net.  If most on-line conversations are frivolous, other groups are
meeting to talk about serious issues. Out of all these different types of
'interactive creativity', Net users have developed their own distinctive
form of social organisation: the network community. (Rheingold 1994;
Hamman 1999) By circulating gifts between each other, individuals are able
to work together on common projects. For, as well as having fun, the
members of network communities are engaged in a continuous process of
collective labour.  Everyone can send out gifts of texts, visuals,
animations, music, games and other software to their on-line colleagues.
In return, they will receive lots of virtual presents from their fellow
community members. By contributing their own work, each individual
potentially possesses the creative efforts of the whole network community.
(Ghosh 1998; Kollock 1999) 

The pleasure of giving and receiving gifts can radically change the
personal experience of collective labour. Within the marketplace,
individuals primarily collaborate through the impersonal exchange of
commodities. The buyers and sellers should remain unconcerned about each
other's fate. In contrast, the circulation of gifts encourages friendships
between its participants. The construction of a successful network
community is always a labour of love. Working within cyber-communism can
be not only more productive, but also more enjoyable than digital
capitalism.  According to Howard Rheingold, these social benefits of the
hi-tech gift economy are not confined to the Net. Despite all their
wealth, many Americans are suffering from the isolation and alienation
imposed by market competition. Luckily, some can now find friendship and
intimacy within network communities. Since there is no necessity for the
enclosure of collective labour within cyberspace, Americans can compensate
for the damage caused by their nation's '...loss of a sense of a social
commons.' (Rheingold 1994: 12) 


The results of 'interactive creativity' within network communities are
often trivial and mundane. Yet, at the same time, some on-line
collaborations are creating very sophisticated products. Among the most
celebrated are the network communities working on free software. From the
beginning, scientists developed the core programs of the Net as gifts. The
exponential expansion of the system was only made possible by the absence
of proprietary barriers. For instance, although the Xanadu project
contained most of the technical capabilities of the Web, this prototype of
computer-mediated communications lacked the 'killer app' of Tim
Berners-Lee's invention: the absence of copyright. Neither the program nor
its products were designed to be commodities. (Berners-Lee 1996) 

In recent years, the rapid growth of the Net has catalysed a exuberant
revival of the hacker ethic. Increasingly frustrated with commercial
products, techies have come together to write their own software. When
enclosed by copyright, a program's capabilities are frozen until the next
version is made available. Even its bugs cannot be fixed. In contrast,
when disclosed as a gift, this virtual machine can be continually
modified, amended and improved by anyone with the appropriate programming
skills. The product has become a process. Above all, each member of the
network community developing a program potentially has access to the
skills of all their colleagues. If one person can't solve a software
problem, others within the group will help find the solution. (Leonard
1998a) By participating within such 'interactive creativity', formerly
isolated techies are now making friends across the world. Like other
network communities, collective labour within free software development
can be not only more efficient, but also more enjoyable than working on
commercial projects. As technological convergence intensifies, this gift
economy of the Net is now encroaching further into the market economy of
computing.  (Porterfield 1998) Starting from a prototype by Linus
Torvalds, a network community of developers is building their own
non-proprietary operating system: Linux. (Linux Online 1999) For the first
time, Microsoft has a serious competitor for Windows. Enclosed by a
capitalist monopoly, many American techies are working hard to perfect its
pragmatic alternative:  software cyber-communism. 

'...you assume that bugs are generally shallow phenomena - or, at least,
that they turn pretty shallow when exposed to a thousand eager
co-developers pounding on every single new release.' (Raymond 1998a: 7) 

The convergence of many different technologies around digital formats is
also reinforcing the gift economies found in other areas of cultural
production. According to the multi-media multinationals, the Net will soon
have to adopt the methods of the marketplace. Protected by encryption and
passwords, digital information will be traded as a commodity. However,
these aspiring enclosers of the Net are already confronted by the partial
decommodisation of their own cultural industries. For instance, the
home-taping of music has existed for many decades. The continual advances
in digital reproduction and the rapid spread of the Net are making this
piracy of copyright material ever easier. (Chesterman and Lipman 1988: 
36-45; Leonard 1998) Crucially, the most innovative forms of popular music
now emerge from the creative appropriation of other people's intellectual
property: house, hip-hop, drum & bass. Instead of remaining frozen in a
single recording, tunes and breaks can be repeatedly sampled, mixed and
remixed. If someone has a good idea, many other musicians will try to
refine the concept. Like the Net, contemporary DJ culture is also
'interactive creativity'. (Garratt 1998; James 1997) 

For years, the most popular word entered into search engines was quite
predictable: 'sex'. Yet, in 1999, the top request became the music format
of the Net: 'MP3'. (Wice 1999) For the commercial music industry, the
minor problem of home-taping is amplifying into a major crisis. Since
copying and distributing is now so easy, many people are giving away
digital recordings not only to their friends, but also to complete
strangers. As music is integrated within the Net, the scarcity of
commodities is spontaneously transforming into the abundance of gifts.
(Leonard 1998) As well as facilitating the piracy of existing recordings,
technological convergence also deepens musical 'interactive creativity'.
Like many other people, musicians are working together, making friends and
inspiring each other within network communities. By publishing their own
material, they can offer their music as gifts to Net users across the
world. From these on-line collaborations, they are inventing new forms of
rhythmic expression: midi-jamming, interactive music, cyber-trance. 

As other media technologies converge into the Net, all forms of cultural
production are slowly integrating into the hi-tech gift economy. Even
television and film-making will soon be transformed by the possibilities
of 'interactive creativity'. Despite their power and wealth, the
multi-media multinationals can only inhibit this economic transformation.
Quite spontaneously, the users of the Net are adopting more efficient and
enjoyable ways of working together. At the dawn of the new millennium,
many Americans are now experiencing the practical benefits of
cyber-communism: 


                commodity                       gift
                enclosure                          disclosure
                copyright                          piracy
                fixed                                 fluid
                product                            process
                proprietary                       open source
                digital encryption             free download
                original recording              latest remix
                scarcity                             abundance
                alienation                         friendship
                market competition           network communities
                e-commerce                       cyber-communism





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