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Top P2P Books You Should Have Read in 2014 (1): The return of the cooperative commonwealth

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
25th January 2015

Our book of the year is Humanizing the Economy by John Restakis. See why below.. I can truthfully say it’s one of the most important books I have read in the last ten years.

2014 was definitely the year of the commons – cooperative convergence. Two objective trends especially since the systemic economic crisis of 2008 are the revival of the commons, mostly driven through peer production; AND a revival of cooperatives and cooperativism, which had been subjected to a certain decline and even a neoliberal degeneration in the period since the 1980’s. What was new in 2014 is that these two sectors started talking and looking at each other. At the P2P Foundation, we call for a new synthesis in the form of open cooperativism, i.e. cooperatives which consciously and structurally co-produce commons, as pioneered by the Catalan Integral Cooperative or the Allianza Solidaria in Quito.

The best record of this, which we don’t count as a book, is the following report of a in-depth convergence conversation by leading commoners and cooperativists:

* 0. “TOWARD AN OPEN CO-OPERATIVISM. A New Social Economy Based on Open Platforms, Co-operative Models and the Commons. A Report on a Commons Strategies Group Workshop Berlin, Germany, August 27-28, 2014. By Pat Conaty and David Bollier. CSG / Boll Foundation / Foundation pour le Progres de l’Homme, 2014.

We strongly urge everyone to read this.

Our top book about the cooperative commonwealth tradition is paradoxically a book that appeared in 2010, but that strongly deserves a second life with its second print run this year. It is the marvelously well written book by John Restakis, entitled “Humanizing the Economy”, which places cooperativism in its historical tradition, and presents innovations such as solidarity cooperatives. Learn there about the cooperative tradition in Emilia-Romagna and the innovative Seikatsu movement in Japan. Since, John Restakis has developed a much stronger understanding of the commons and worked with the P2P Foundation and myself on the commons-cooperative convergence. The evidence of this lies in our P2P-Foundation published e-book on the Commons Transition, which has strong chapters by John Restakis on the convergence of the commons economy, the partner state approach, and the cooperative economy. Finally, our own book, “Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy” co-authored by Vasilis Kostakis, gives a detailed vision of expectations related to this cooperative commons economy: will it fullfill its promise, of fall victim to the forces which extract its value for purely private benefit of large multinationals of netarchical capital?

1. Humanizing the Economy. Co-operatives in the Age of Capital. by John Restakis. New Society Publishers, 2010

1. 1. b eBook: COMMONS TRANSITION: POLICY PROPOSALS FOR AN OPEN KNOWLEDGE SOCIETY. By Michel Bauwens and John Restakis. P2P Foundation, 2014

* 1.1.c. Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy. By Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

The second trend, the revival of the commons, produced two very important book this year, by David Bollier and Jeremy Rifkin.

David Bollier’s book is a very well written general introduction of what ‘commoning’ means for human life, comparable to these great classics like The Gift by Lewis Hyde; Jeremy Rifkin’s book may not go deep enough in the problematic transition, but gives a great historical introduction to changes in the modes of production, and why the commons is now an economic fact, destined to grow not just in the so-called ‘immaterial’ economy, but also in the physical economy, through the ‘margical cost’ effects of distributed energy and 3D printing.

* 2. Think Like a Commoner. A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons. by David Bollier. New Society, 2014

* 2.1. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. by Jeremy Rifkin. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

More good books on the Revival of Cooperativism:

* 3. Capital and the Debt Trap. Learning from Cooperatives in the Global Crisis. By Claudia Sanchez Bajo and Bruno Roelants. Palgrave MacMillan (2013)

“The recent financial crisis has had a devastating impact around the globe. Thousands of businesses have closed down and millions of jobs have been cut. Many people have lost their homes. Capital and the Debt Trap explains how key economies have fallen into a ‘debt trap’, linking the financial sphere to the real economy, and goes beyond, looking into alternatives to the constant stream of financial bubbles and shocks. Overlooked by many,cooperatives across the world have been relatively resilient throughout the crisis. Through four case studies (the transformation of a French industrial SME in crisis into a cooperative, a fishery cooperative in Mexico, the Desjardins Cooperative Group in Quebec and the Mondragon Group in the Basque country of Spain), the book explores their strategies and type of control, providing an in-depth analysis within a broader debate on wealth generation and a sustainable future.”

* 3.1 e-Book: Democratic Wealth: Building a Citizens’ Economy. Ed. by Stuart White, and Niki Sethi-Smith. openDemocracy and Politics in Spires, 2014

“Democratic Wealth’ is a collection of essays that challenges the poverty of thinking around economic policy, particularly after the 2007 financial crash. It explores the renewed interest in republicanism and suggests this as a framework to shape an economy that serves the common good. It is a selection of articles from a series published by openDemocracy and Politics in Spires, a blog run by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

* 3.2 eBook: Alternatives To Capitalism: Proposals For A Democratic Economy. by Robin Hahnel, Erik Olin Wright. New Left Project, 2014

“New Left Project’s new e-book, Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy, is now available for download.
In it the leading radical thinkers Robin Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright take on the crucial but all-too neglected question: what kind of society should we be fighting for instead of capitalism? Hahnel favours ‘participatory economics’. Wright advocates ‘real utopian socialism’. Alternatives to Capitalism puts these practical proposals through their paces in an in-depth, frank and extremely instructive debate about the central question of our time.”

* 3.3 Gary Alexander. eGaia Growing a peaceful, sustainable Earth through Communications. Published by Lighthouse Books, ISBN 0907637248 (2nd ed. 2014)

A updated second edition. See here for reviews.

* 3.4 Co-operatives in a Post-growth Era. Creating Co-operative Economics. Edited by Sonja Novkovic and Tom Webb. Fernwood Pubn. (with Zed Books), 2014

“Featuring a remarkable roster of internationally renowned critical thinkers, this book presents a feasible alternative for a more environmentally sustainable and equitable economic system. The time has never been better for cooperatives everywhere to recognize their own potential and ability to change the economic landscape.”

* 3.5 Robert Costanza and Ida Kubiszewski. Creating a Sustainable and Desirable Future: Insights from 45 Global Thought Leaders. World Scientific, 2014

“The book offers a broad, critical discussion of what a sustainable and desirable future should or can be, with chapters written by some of the world’s leading thinkers, including: Wendell Berry, Van Jones, Frances Moore Lappe, Peggy Liu, Hunter Lovins, Gus Speth, Bill McKibben, and many more.”


Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Commons Transition, Cooperatives, Ethical Economy, Featured Book, Open Models, P2P Books, P2P Business Models, Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

A Critical Review by Brian Holmes of the “Network Society’ book by Bauwens / Kostakis

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
30th December 2014

A great but critical review by Brian Holmes:

“Thanks for this book, Michel and Vasilis. “Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy” is exceedingly timely and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the Commons specifically, or in political economy more generally. In response, I’ve written something in between a review and a letter to the authors. I address Michel because he posted it. Hopefully he will respond to a few of my comments!

I like the book, Michel, but I must also say, I’m somewhat mystified by it. I like the very sophisticated strategy that it sets out at the end for a possible transition to a society of commons-based production. I’m mystified by the rather simplistic presentation of contemporary capitalism at the beginning. What explains the gap?

In Part I you adopt the theoretical framework of “long waves of capitalist development” as put forth by Kondratiev and Schumpeter, and more recently, by Freeman and Perez (Trotsky and Mandel aren’t mentioned). In its most general form, the long-wave idea is that capitalist society periodically goes through major depressions, during which investment is withdrawn from production. Meanwhile inventions accumulate until such time as conditions look good, and a massive wave of technological investment lays the foundations for a new growth cycle. Right now we’re in such a depression. Therefore you try to analyze the possible futures of the current “techno-economic paradigm.”

There is some ambiguity here, but that’s OK. On the one hand the book follows Carlota Perez, explaining that the information technology paradigm has run up against a set of internal contradictions and that a mature phase of sustained growth can only come under new political and institutional arrangements. On the other hand it hints in certain places at the emergence, in the upcoming years or decades, of an entirely new paradigm (which, according to Schumpeter or Freeman, implies a distinct set of technologies and organizational forms). And then near the end it quite strongly claims, with Marx, that capitalism must now be overcome in favor of a different system. The upshot seems to be that the new society will emerge from the old, perhaps not entirely smoothly, but not through an apocalyptic rupture either. That’s realistic and desirable, in my view.

I too think some kind of new growth wave is almost inevitable, within a decade or so – and though it will probably not be on anywhere near so intensive as the postwar growth wave that so many theorists take as a norm, it could well be more extensive, reaching far more people on our densely populated planet. I also think such a new long wave does imply distinctly new technologies capable of attracting new investment; but in the absence of radical breakthroughs, the big difference is most likely to be in the political and institutional structures that govern those technologies. In other words, the current technology set is more likely to be augmented and institutionally inflected (as early mass manufacturing was by postwar Keynesian Fordism) than it is to be radically transformed (as Keynesian Fordism was radiclly transformed by the IT revolution). In other words, we are likely to get an extension and amplification of the certain aspects of the current paradigm, but under new institutional arrangements.

The problem is, Michel, you never really discuss the current techno-economic paradigm in any serious way. What you and your co-author are talking about, in Parts I and II, is a small though important field of activity, the one that can be identified with keywords such as P2P, social media, crowd-sourcing, sharing economy, etc. The best parts of the book contain significant insight into these activities, as one would expect. However, by claiming to discuss the future of the entire capitalist system and then not really doing so, you blur the issue and diminish the potential value of your work.

One can follow Manuel Castells and call the current techno-economic paradigm “Informationalism” – or better, “Neoliberal Informationalism,” to give some idea of how this mode of production is governed. But Informationalism does not mean that the only significant commodity on the contemporary market is information. Nor does it signal an eclipse of industry, as you suggest in chapter 1. Instead, Neoliberal Informationalism has been based on a “lead technology” which is new kind of producer goods, namely IT in all its facets (computers, software, cables, mobile telephony, communications satellites, etc). These goods in combination with networked organizational forms are used to create transnational supply chains, constituting what is generally called “just-in-time production” or “the global factory.” The characteristic companies of neoliberal informationalism are not Facebook and Google, as one would gather from your book, nor even less, recent start-ups like AirBnB or Uber. They are giant networked firms like WalMart and Apple, which have their products manufactured in China, coordinate their work forces and supply chains through sophisticated IT systems, and sell their wares on the web as well as in the store. Or they are specialized corporations like Cisco, Verizon and IBM, which furnish the hardware and software for the new mode of production, distribution and sales. All these corporations have evolved under the anti-welfare policy mix of neoliberalism, and with the resources allocated by speculative finance, which has largely replaced the central planning of national governments. Not coincidentally, finance itself is crucially enabled by IT. Computers, cable and satellite networks, transnationalism and financial governance are key aspects of the current techno-economic paradigm.

Now, it’s necessary to add that older sectors, such as petroleum, steel, chemicals, automobiles, engineering, grain production, etc, remain tremendously significant for the global economy. They are not just going to disappear in the next ten or twenty years. However, the way these sectors are articulated, both internally and between each other, has effectively been transformed by IT, and that’s why we can speak of Neoliberal Informationalism as a distinct techno-economic paradigm. As you and Vasilis point out, this paradigm has been predicated on low-wage precarious labor, and it has called on finance to furnish the means of consumption through the extension of credit to individuals. The debt burden of the working and middle classes has risen tremendously and now, in the overdeveloped world at least, these classes can no longer consume enough to prop up economic growth. So the system is in a deep crisis, one which cannot be resolved by simply pumping money into asset markets as various governments have been doing. That crisis is further intensified by geopolitical factors (rise of Asia) and by climate change (which has been made a lot worse by the rise of Asia). How will the global political economy reconfigure itself under these circumstances? And what can civil society do to influence the next redeployment of capital? That’s what we need to know.
In Part II, it’s really interesting how you present a diagrammatic field of four distinct yet neighbouring scenarios, divided on the one hand between distributed and centralized organization (or local and global scales), and on the other hand, between capitalist and commons-based development paths (or “for profit” and “for benefit” activities, as you also say). However, for the reasons already stated, the capitalist or for-profit side of the diagram is not very convincing. In chapters 4 and 5 we are introduced to two supposedly emergent categories. First, a corporate-scale “netarchical capitalism” where sharing and cooperative production are enabled by interfaces with closed, privately controlled backends that facilitate the harvesting of monetary value from social interaction. And second, an individual-scale “distributed capitalism” where everyone is asked to become a networked entrepreneur of him- or herself, creating their own backends for profit. Now, without a doubt these are already both realities. The first has already undergone significant expansion, partially wiping out the old media sphere with some inroads on the hobby, transport, in-person service and vacation sectors. The second has all the reality of neoliberal ideology: it is the computerized version of the entrepreneurial ideal, where everyone freely competes in an open, unregulated economic realm. But the claim that these figures represent the capitalism of tomorrow could only hold true if “we are not talking about monopoly capitalism” – which is a crucial caveat that you supply early on.

The problem is that we are talking about exactly that, Michel, just look around you. The great oligopolies that corral major sectors of the world economy, fixing prices and blocking the entry of smaller actors, are alive and despicably well in every major economic sector, including IT; and they are supported by very solid forces of the national and transnational state. To suggest that monopoly capitalism is on the way out through some force of networked nature is just plain mystifying, and that’s the principal argument I have with this book.

Something else really is changing, though; and this is where the book’s proposals, and more generally, those collected by the P2P Foundation over the last decade, are really worth one’s attention. What’s happening is an impoverishment of the former “First World,” which is losing out to the newly developed countries at the same time as it starts being subjected to the environmental stresses of climate change. What one can see on the horizon is a gradual evening-out of global wages, leaving much of the former West in decaying housing with legacy appliances and amenities, while populations in the East and South rise up to a roughly similar level and then stagnate. That’s already happening: and the frustration it engenders was behind the wave of protests in 2011-2013, whether in Egypt, Brazil, Russia and Turkey, or in Spain and the US. It is precisely the existence of the oligopolies and the financial elites (the famous 1%) that account for this dynamic. And we’re likely to see even more intense frustration and anger as these populations have to confront the difficulties of climate change. Under these conditions, both newly unemployed people and those who have gained or retained a precarious hold on middle-class status are likely to find great attraction in what the book calls “resilient communities” and “global commons.” Additionally, intellectuals with a capacity to see the dead-end future, whatever their class, will start to look for serious alternatives.

The discussion becomes tremendously interesting when the “for benefit” categories are discussed, in their local and global forms. This is the Marxian part of the book, where a change of the system itself starts to look desirable. Both the for-benefit categories are based on the generative matrix of the Commons, and I love the clarity with which you’ve expressed its basic principles: “It could be said that every Commons scheme basically has four interlinked components: a resource (material and/or immaterial; replenishable and/or depletable); the community which shares it (the users, administrators, producers and/or providers); the use value created through the social reproduction or preservation of these common goods; and the rules and the participatory property regimes that govern people’s access to it.”

At this point (Part III), the strict focus on information production is abandoned and what comes to the fore are the new possibilities presented by the maker revolution: not only 3-D printing, but all the computer-controlled tools which can use freely circulated open-source designs to create practical objects ranging from housing to automobiles. One can easily see the relevance of such productive capacities for impoverished communities, especially when they are beset by the stresses of changing climates, violent storms and soon, rising water levels. What’s more, to take a page from Jeremy Rifkin’s recent books, it becomes clear that with falling costs for solar and wind generation, energy production itself could potentially be decentralized and managed according to commons principles so as to build resilient communities. The combination of alternative energy sources with micro-manufacturing techniques represents a possible basis for a new form of economic growth that could cater to very large numbers of people despite, or rather because of, their inability to reach Fordist and Neoliberal levels of grotesque hyperconsumption. If the development of capitalist production during the next upswing could be influenced so as to furnish the infrastructure and toolkits of decentralized energy production and micro-manufacturing, then the next wave of growth could have many positive consequences. That’s the paradigm shift that we need, and Part III makes that quite clear, bravo. The question is, how to make it happen? What are the “new institutional arrangements” that we need, and how to achieve them?

Or as you and Vasilis write:

“Arguably, the issue is not to produce and consume less per se, but to develop new models of production which will work on a higher level than capitalist models. We consider it difficult to challenge the dominant system if we lack a working plan to transcend it. A post-capitalist world is bound to entail more than a mere reversal to pre-industrial times. As the TEPS theory informs us [ie, the theory of techno-economic paradigm shifts], the adaptation of current institutions and the creation of new ones take place in the deployment phase of each TEP. We claim that the times are, finally, mature enough to introduce a radical political agenda with brand new institutions, fueled by the spirit of the Commons and aiming to provide a viable global alternative to the capitalist paradigm beyond degrowth or antiglobalization rhetorics.”

Now, that’s not Carlota Perez talking anymore. That’s a utopian Marxist strain that has affinities with Italian Autonomia, to the extent it believes that progressive use-values slumber within the technologies of capitalist exchange, and that these use-values can be liberated through the kinds of self-organization that the Internet facilitates. The question is, how to avoid making this a purely utopian thinking, as Autonomia has proven to be so far? How can commons-based peer production reach deeply into daily life? And how can it expand globally, both as a philosophy and as a set of informational tools that can take full advantage of the new decentralized energy and manufacturing toolkits? Or, to put it in strategic terms: How can civil-society actors find the opportunity, in the current depression and in the upswing that will almost inevitably follow it, to push corporate production into supplying the toolkits for a society that will finally escape the worst and most life-threatening consequences of the capitalist system?

In chapter 8, I feel that you are groping for a way to bridge the gap between two rather different things. First, the many specific micro-examples of (mainly informational) commons-based production that you do provide, in welcome detail. Second, a full-fledged economic praxis that could rival with the existing forms of Neoliberal Informationalism, which you (and the rest of us) can only imagine somewhat fuzzily. The way you approach this problem suggests that you do recognize the difficulties of overcoming the norms imposed by monopoly capitalism: after all, they are exemplified by the trajectory of Free and Open-Source Software, which has still not been broadly adopted even though the operating systems are now perfectly serviceable and perfectly free. You cite two very promising projects from what could become the next techno-economic paradigm, namely the Rep-Rap 3-D printer project and the Wikispeed automobile project, both of which are impressive and point the way toward a new articulation of social production. But it’s clear that without support from either large social movements, or powerful economic actors, or more likely both, a new wave of capitalist growth will render these projects insignificant – or at least, no more significant than Free Software is currently. Traditional monopoly capital will put the breaks on Wikispeed. The coming wave of investment and development has to be bent to fit collaborative priorities. Otherwise, a no-future scenario looms.
It is in this context that you introduce the “Partner State Approach”: “The PSA could be considered a cluster of policies and ideas whose fundamental mission is to empower direct social-value creation, and to focus on the protection of the Commons sphere as well as on the promotion of sustainable models of entrepreneurship and participatory politics.” This is absolutely true: commons-based production requires infrastructure investments that commoners themselves cannot provide, at least, not as individuals or a members of small and fractious voluntary networks. The implication (which I don’t think is anywhere clearly stated in the book) is that we need collective investments in order to stimulate forms of growth that are very different from those seen under Neoliberal Informationalism. We need a government capable of shaping an environment in which Commons-friendly investments will be possible. Yet so far, not a single state has emerged as a reliable partner. I’m curious: How do you feel about this today, Michel (and Vasilis), after the difficulties that the FLOK project encountered in Ecuador, in the attempt to generate exactly such a Partner State Approach?

The problems that our civilization faces are vast. The extension of commons-based peer production from the software to manufacturing and energy production does suggest a path forward. But support for it, in the form of something like a Partner State, can only be generated from a far broader civil-society movement than we have today. Such a movement is being called into existence by the rising awareness that the current form of development is literally a dead end. On one hand, it is important to nurture this movement (and ourselves, as parts of it) with pragmatic principles of hope, of the kind provided by experiments with Commons-based peer production. On the other, it’s necessary to cultivate a very lucid of what’s actually happening in society, not to paint an apocalyptic picture but just to identify the really existing obstacles. That kind of analysis is often lacking on the postmodern left. You could have used a little more Trotsky and Mandel, imho.

I think that civil-society movements have a tremendous amount to learn from experiments with peer production, and therefore, from the reflections in the last third of this book. However, I don’t think any of this will go anywhere without a more realistic assessment of the forces currently in play. A broad movement needs to know both what to ask for and what to create, in view of pushing the really existing political-economic system towards a fundamental structural change. That means clearly facing the structure and power of corporate monopoly capital in its transnational form. I feel you have dispatched that issue too quickly and on that level, the book could definitely be improved. Actually, a careful read of this book has left me with the desire to rewrite parts of it, while keeping others intact – which I guess is a pretty good outcome for a book that reccomends the use of Peer Production Licenses!

Let me close this long review/letter with one more quote from Bauwens and Kostakis, a particularly astute and admirable one:

“According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2011) ‘When the changes happen faster than expectations and/or institutions can adjust, the transition can be cataclysmic.’ To avoid such a cataclysm, we arguably need political and social mobilization on the regional, national and transnational scale, with a political agenda that would transform our expectations, our economy, our infrastructures and our institutions in the vein of a Commons-oriented political economy.”

I could not agree more.”


Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Empire, Ethical Economy, P2P Books, P2P Theory, Peer Production, Politics | No Comments »

The Real Trouble with Disruption

photo of Nathan Schneider

Nathan Schneider
28th November 2014


Young wannabes doing their thing at a Techcrunch Disrupt conference in 2012. Photo via Flickr user JD Lasica

At the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco, ads for Oakley sunglasses are everywhere. “Disruptive by design,” they declare—or, rather, #DESRUPTIVEBYDESIGN. Behind those words are gray images of blueprints and lasers and factories with big bolts like in Charlie Chaplin’s spoof Modern Times. Fittingly, the campaign is a collaboration with Wired, the foremost media enterprise devoted to the worship of all things new. In the Silicon Valley lexicon, disruption is such an overused incantation that it’s almost dull. Now even sunglasses can do it.

The truth, however, is that disruption is not boring at all. It impacts people’s lives every day—though much more often the lives of vulnerable working people, rather than those of the complacent fat cats all this talk of “disruption” is supposed to threaten. We need to be a lot more careful about how we throw that word around and, much more importantly, how we actually disrupt.

Jill Lepore’s recent essay in The New Yorker, “The Disruption Machine,” offers an important intervention. She questions the economic logic of the gospel of disruption being taught at business schools and startup accelerators—that forever disrupting the way of things means endless innovation, growth and progress. Lepore points out that this worldview overlooks the great bulk of the economy that rests on relative stability and rather marginal improvements. Compared to them, disruption is a bit of a sideshow. Even in tech.

A good way to start thinking about disruption is by asking questions like this: Who is being disrupted most? And who really benefits? 25-year-old startup CEOs—the people we hear talking about disruption the most these days—come and go. Some of them will manage to make a living on the basis of their disruptive ideas, and a few will get very rich, but most will end up going through cycles of boom and bust, disrupting themselves until they wind up working for someone else. The venture capitalists who fund them, and who so eagerly egg on their disruptive talk, hedge their bets and diversify their portfolios and will probably end up with plenty of money no matter what.

The most serious disruption of our economy in recent memory, the 2008 financial crash, is a particularly troubling example of this pattern. What caused the crisis? A financial industry gone recklessly amok, disruptively innovating complex instruments like derivatives and new ways of packaging mortgage-backed securities without regard for the consequences. Who suffered those consequences? Some well-paid bankers were laid off, but millions of people across the United States lost their homes, their jobs, or both.

A bailout arrived for the banks, and soon they rehired most of those who’d been laid off and kept—or even increased—their stratospheric executive bonuses. For people in other sectors who were able to get back to work, it was generally to lower-paying jobs. Foreclosed homes in many communities were acquired by big companies on behalf of Wall Street, rather than being bought back by individuals and families who lived in them. That disruption, in the end, only helped the fat cats.

No matter who causes a disruption—or, in some respects, even what kind of disruption it is—those who are best prepared to take advantage of it are the ones who win out. In 2008, the banks had lobbyists and PACs and their own former co-workers at the highest levels of government. The people left homeless or jobless, meanwhile, had little recourse but silence and a misplaced sense of shame. Disruption, then, tends to make our rampant inequality even worse.

Another kind of disruption is that of a resistance movement. We all watched, often with surprise and dismay, what happened in the wake of the 2011 uprising in Egypt. The initial pro-democracy wave created a massive disruption and forced a ruler from power. But the democratic forces were fairly marginal in Egyptian society, and that was just about the last we heard from them. Soon, the Muslim Brotherhood took power, having joined the protests only reluctantly. The group won elections not because its members sparked the unrest, but because for decades they had been building formidable networks throughout the population. Before long, they were crushed by the military, a vast apparatus fueled by billions of dollars in aid from the United States. Once again, entrenched power prevailed over the agents of disruption, and those who’ve suffered most have been working class Egyptians.

Disruption is essential, and a fact of life. This is a world rife with injustice and cruel inertia, and we should definitely explore creative ways of resisting those tendencies. We should be in the streets protesting when we need to, and we should be creating new kinds of organizations that push the boundaries set by old ones. But disruption, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a good thing unless those who are most vulnerable in society are poised to benefit.

There are ways communities can make that happen, or at least make it more likely. They can build strong, disciplined coalitions. They can organize workers and develop habits of self-reliance. An important recent conference in Jackson, Mississippi, for instance, focused on building resilient cooperative enterprises in black communities, which were especially hard-hit by the 2008 crisis. African Americans in the South know this lesson well. Decades earlier, the civil rights movement turned its disruptions into victories because of tight-knit networks like churches and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Disruption is not a word we should use lightly, or cynically, or in order to sell more eyewear. It is not a mere business model. Perhaps it should be treated more like a swear word, in the sense of being especially potent and rather seldom used. We draw our swear words from sexuality and religion—important things that can have dire consequences. Disruption is important and dire, too, and it’s time we talked about it that way.

Originally published in VICE


Posted in Activism, Cognitive Capitalism, Copyright/IP, Crowdsourcing, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Empire, Original Content, Politics | No Comments »

The coming financial crisis: a harbinger of world renewal?

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
28th November 2014


As the prospect of global financial crisis beckons once again, will our elected leaders finally accept the need for an entirely new economic approach that breaks away from the primacy of growth and profit – or will their hand be forced by a resurgence of mass public protest?

A full six years after the global financial crisis, not only have governments failed to rethink the way we organise our economic systems, but politicians across the world have pressed forward with an obsolete political agenda that has paved the way for yet more financial chaos. The failure of our elected representatives to adopt a just and sustainable alternative to neoliberal capitalism has also set the scene for years of increased hardship and popular unrest that will inevitably follow any future economic crash.

The very real prospect of a repeat of the 2008 meltdown is now widely accepted in the mainstream media, and the many possible factors that could trigger it are readily discussed in policy circles. As the International Monetary Fund makes plain in its latestWorld Economic Outlook report, for example, the risk of a worldwide recession is of particular concern – especially as the Holy Grail of achieving respectable levels of economic growth is becoming ever more elusive.

Of particular concern is the Eurozone where five countries, including Spain and Italy, are already experiencing economic deflation. All eyes are currently on Germany, which is teetering on the brink of recession as its economic activity continues to contract over consecutive months. The implications for the Eurozone as a whole if Germany enters a contractionary cycle will be far-reaching, since Germany is widely regarded as the main engine for growth in Europe and often props-up neighbouring states when they experience financial hardship. The overarching concern is that this entire currency block could soon succumb to a deflationary spiral, which would plunge it back into a full blown Euro crisis.

The expansion of the shadow banking industry, especially in Europe, has also been flagged by senior officials within the banking industry and the IMF as a threat to global financial stability. This shrouded sector of finance is far less regulated than mainstream banking, partly because they make use of tax havens and complex speculative instruments. Assets managed by investment funds operating within this sector, which include hedge funds, have risen by 30% in the past two years alone.

Global debt and other tipping points

Mounting levels of debt, largely fuelled by historically low interest rates that encourage excessive borrowing, are another potential cause of future crisis. According to the latest Geneva Report, global debt has reached a staggering $158.8 trillion, which sets a new debt-to-GDP record. China has been the real engine driving this indebtedness – their external debt has risen by 50% in the last year alone, making them particularly vulnerable to financial crisis at a time when their economic growth rate is also stagnating.

The impact of debt will, of course, be most keenly felt in developing countries. According to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, reckless lending to a set of 43 developing countries has surged by 60% since 2009 – raising the prospect of a new debt crisis in the developing world. Undoubtedly, this will leave many governments with crippling debt repayments over the next decade, which will further thwart government efforts to reduce poverty and provide essential public services.

As James Medway of the New Economic Foundation explains, the real problem arises when high levels of debt (as are currently evident across the globe) combine with low rates of growth, which will almost certainly decline further in the period ahead. If there is not enough economic growth to repay these debts with interest, then the entire system will inevitably come to a grinding halt.

On top of this already lethal cocktail of stagnant growth, excessive debt and burgeoning speculative activity, we can also add the recent drop in oil prices, which will have dramatic implications for oil exporting countries. Venezuela, Iran and Russia, for example, are all heavily dependent on their income from this commodity to finance government spending or maintain the strength of their currency. And these economic concerns do not even take into account the financial impact of Ebola, the economic consequences of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or the cost of climate change if we fail to reverse our current trajectory of inaction.

From any angle, the world financial outlook can only be regarded as rapidly deteriorating, and this starkly reflects how little policymakers have done to address the root causes of the 2008 crisis. Instead of dramatically overhauling the global economy and safeguarding the needs of the majority, governments have chosen to resuscitate a discredited economic ideology that preaches more of the same deregulatory, consumption-driven, austerity-backed neoliberalism. As the social and environmental impacts of the ongoing economic crisis become ever more apparent, how long will concerned citizens be willing to tolerate a political elite that is largely self-serving and neglects the needs of ordinary people?

The road towards system change

Despite the palpable frustration being expressed everywhere since the current cycle of public protest began, our leaders have failed to listen to the voice of the people, preferring instead to continue pandering to the same corporate interests they are so closely allied with. Consequently, the top 1% of the world’s population are richer now than they were before the financial crisis and this tiny minority own almost half of all available wealth. Meanwhile, half the world’s population now share a mere 1% of the world’s combined wealth, a staggering 2 billion people remain undernourished, and global income inequality has returned to 1820 levels.

There can be little doubt that we are entering a prolonged period of economic hardship, which will be accompanied by a steady escalation in public protest as large swathes of ordinary people join activists and civil society organisations in calling for social justice, environmental stewardship and true democracy. As is happening right now in Hong Kong and London’s Parliament Square, it will be in iconic public spaces that these citizens will make their demands and thereby gain mainstream media attention and support from within the wider populace.

If governments across the world intend to avoid the inevitability of economic upheaval, social unrest and public protest, they need to finally accept that the existing economic model is wholly responsible for the current crisis. At the very least, any solution will require a decisive break away from the myopic pursuit of economic growth, the maximisation of corporate profit, and the relentless promotion of consumerist values. As campaigners have long been demanding in response to the convergence of crises we face, we urgently need a new economic paradigm – one in which wealth, power and resources are shared more equitably and sustainably within nations and internationally.

Will politicians make these changes willingly and in accordance with the many sane alternatives that are widely discussed among progressives? A transformative shift in public policy is certainly not on the cards any time soon. But with prolonged financial crises on the horizon and public protest intensifying across the globe, it will remain impossible for governments to ignore the voice of the people indefinitely.

Photo credit: wsilver - flickr creative commons


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A brief history of contemporary “consumerism” and anti-consumerism

photo of David de Ugarte

David de Ugarte
27th November 2014

What made us go from the kibutz to the eco-village, from the commune to co-living, and from cooperatives to collaborative consumption? Is it a bottom-up movement or a fashion? Is it enduring or a flash in the pan?

History books usually study social movements of the second half of the nineteenth century from the point of view of the split between anarchists and Marxists. Both theories played an important role in debates of the great workers’ movements of the following century, and for a long time, no one seemed to question the root they shared: the idea that the origin of the “social problem” was in the way in which the production of things was organized.

la huelgaIt’s normal for that powerful idea to occupy, almost without question, the center of historical stories: from the First International to the fall of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, the story of European reforms and revolutions was written in terms of work stoppages, general strikes, “wildcat” strikes and factory occupations. In the world of alternatives in the same days, not much was different. For two centuries, to say “cooperative” in continental Europe or in South America automatically meant “worker cooperative,” and it was the most powerful community movement of the time. Israeli “kibbutzim” (communities) were founded to create a productive base in the wastelands of Jewish migration in Asia. Even when the Catholic Church started to develop its “social doctrine” with the encyclical Rerum Novarum, its focus was on the same starting point as the theoreticians of the IWA: the drama of proletarianization of the artisan and the peasant, the transition from the workshop and its culture to the factory and alienation.

Social Anglicanism

Principios cooperativos de RochdaleBut the Anglo-Saxon world was going the other direction. In Great Britain, a strong philanthropical tradition existed, linking both liberals and conservative social Christianity, which was afraid that unions would be “contaminated” by the radical ideas of the continent. At the end of the nineteenth century, this tendency had little influence on unions, but had a strong relationship with different experiments of workers’ stores and little mutuals, often linked to the social outreach of Anglican parishes. Little by little, from this effort there emerged a “friendly cooperativism.” The worker cooperative showed the possibility of a world where capitalists were not the owners of the businesses; however, a consumer cooperative can put in question the need for a shopkeeper-owner, but not owners as a group, so it didn’t question the social order.

These are the cooperatives that met in the “First British Co-operative Congress” in 1869. Wanting to create an “alternative” to the dominant workers’ movements, they will rewrite the history of cooperativism as it was then commonly understood, placing its origins in Robert Owens, a liberal philanthropist–rather than in Fourier–and will date the birth of cooperativism to “the Rochdale Pioneers,” an English consumer cooperative, ignoring the fishing, agrarian and artisan commons that had been modernizing and becoming modern [worker] cooperatives for at least sixty years prior.

For a long time, this reductionist interpretation was almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon. In 1895, when the first assembly of the “International Cooperative Alliance” took place, the delegates belonged almost exclusively to the British Empire: England, Australia, India, and Ireland. The Anglo-Saxon homogeneity was only broken by the participation of German Christian cooperativism, born of the Lutheran Church, a minority in an environment of overwhelming development of social democracy.

United States

consumersAfter the Second World War, “consumerism” took off in the United States. US unions spread consumer and housing cooperativism across the country as a way to protect their members from the economic crisis following the Japanese recovery. The idea that “conscious consumption” can not only relieve crises but transform the very international economic structure is made manifest in 1946, when the Committee Central Mennonite creates “Ten Thousand Villages,” the first “fair trade” association.

Meanwhile, society is stunned to discover the proportions of the Jewish genocide, and the media have to explain how “Hitler’s madness” could have led to electoral success and social consensus in enlightened Germany.

The attention of academics and creators of opinion turns to techniques of mass manipulation. There is a growing distrust of the power of the media and the effects of the then nascent television. The publicists of Madison Avenue (“Mad Men”) will soon become the epitome of the new industrialist fascism, which is able to use Goebbels’ mass techniques in a new way, to make us consume what we don’t need. Alternative consumption and what soon will be called the “counterculture” are then defined as a new form of resistance. And in ’59, when the Cuban Revolution demands an ideological response from the Kennedy administration, the model to export will be the consumer cooperativism of conservative unions, so that in the ’60s, the ground was already prepared in all possible places for the idea that “the system” would be renewed not by politics or the redefinition of forms of work, but by organized consumers.


Die Grunen/ WahlplakateIn Europe, during the ’70s, a good number of college kids–then much less numerous than today–discovered the radical Left. After failing again and again to convince the workers that they needed a revolutionary party, they wonder the same thing that, years before, Bordieu and Castoriadis had asked in the magazine Socialism or Barbarism: “Why is the proletariat no longer revolutionary?” Castoriadis’ answer, and above all, Bordieu’s, later followed by his Situationist disciple Guy Debord, will be very well developed intellectually. According to these authors, capitalism had entered a new phase, where the determining factor of the social order, including the control and the generation of identities, was carried out not in the direct relationship between capital and labor, in production, but rather in the system of reproduction of the labor force, consumption, where the new contradictions of the system were concentrated. More than capitalism, we would have to call the new mode of social production/reproduction “consumerism.”

The discourse is soon taken up by the non-parliamentarian German and Dutch Left: the fundamental contradiction of capitalism is no longer between capital and labor, as Marx described, but between capital, culture and natural resources. The enemy was no longer capitalism, but consumerism and industrialism. The discourse recovers the priority and urgency of an alternative: the dream of a world revolution–something that the people make, and would have to make–will gradually be substituted with a global ecological catastrophe, something that would be beyond people’s control if they don’t change their lifestyles and consumption habits. In that ideological framework, die Grünen, the Greens, are born, the first European political party to systematically organize campaigns of alternative consumption.

The fall of the Communist regimes of eastern Europe, with the consequent loss of influence of the parties of Marxist inspiration, gave even more relevance to anti-consumerism–and therefore to “consumerism”–in alternative discourse in a wide variety of forms and topical associations: from catastrophism and radical ecologism to the discourse of movements against climate change and a good part of the “sharing economy.”


Sharing generationAnd in fact, it has been the development of a whole series of movements born in the English-speaking world over the two latest decades that has ended up establishing the argument of the “centrality of consumption” among new social sectors in Europe and Latin America. Alternative discourse has gone from the productive kibbutz, still a major point of reference in the ’70s, to “ecovillages” that only share ownership of common services, from cooperatives with houses to “co-living,” and even from consumer co-ops themselves to “collaborative consumption” platforms listed on the stock market. And if there is no belief that production is the center of social organization, it is difficult to understand the nature and distribution of property as the determinant institution of an era.

consumerismThe “consumerist” discourse, the idea that consumption patterns can modify the social structure through the market, has gained extraordinary strength. Paradoxically, it has fed and given legitimacy to a certain sense of “guilt” about consuming and enjoying doing so, a certain ascetic and degrowthist ideal, closer to Christian millenarianism than to the dream of abundance of the utopian and revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century. A new social consensus about how to change the world seems to have formed.

And yet, we realize that something substantial is diluted when we ignore production. Maybe it’s because our empowerment as consumers, by definition, has a ceiling. Perhaps because we realize that unemployment and poverty can’t be addressed by changing only our purchases, or only distributing production another way. Perhaps because consuming “less,” or “even less,” is the immediate result of the crisis (economic “degrowth”), and we see that it means nothing but poverty. Or simply because, inside, we know that, for as valuable and important as sharing culture is, our sovereignty and that of our communities continues to depend on our ability to satisfy the needs of our loved ones, and that that, beyond cultural change, in the end has to do with capacity and the mode of production of goods, both material and cultural, that satisfy them.

Translation by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish)


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Video of the Day: Alternative Forms of Labor Organizations: Union Substitutes or Something Else?

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
25th November 2014


Third of a series of videos from the New School on Digital Labor. You can find the whole series here.

Alternative Forms of Labor Organizations: Union Substitutes or Something Else?


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Video of the Day: Algorithmic Hegemony & the Droning of Labor

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
22nd November 2014


First of a series of videos from the New School on Digital Labor. You can find the whole series here.

Algorithmic Hegemony & the Droning of Labor -


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Video of the Day: The Future of Workers in the Sharing Economy

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
21st November 2014


Second of a series of videos from the New School on Digital Labor. You can find the whole series here.

The Future of Workers in the Sharing Economy


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Choosing between 3 strategies against netarchical capital and its state form

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
11th November 2014

The internet and technology are often essentialized which then results in versions of technological gnosticism, where technology is either seen as a false god that inevitably plays an evil role in human society, or the different forms of cyber-utopianism. In its most recent iterations, the dark vision takes root in the revelations of Edgar Snowden about NSA and other surveillance, to argue that the internet has become a tool of control and oppression; while for example the bitcoin enthusiasts often see the mis-identified ‘peer to peer’ currency as the tool that will bring down governments and large banks to usher in a anarcho-capitalist utopia.

To avoid these simplifying debates, it helps to see technology and the internet specifically, as socially constructed and reflecting various social interests and biases, who are engaged in an ongoing battle. In order to do this, it helps to make some crucial distinctions. The first is the polarity between centralized and distributed control, which can also be interpreted in the context of scope or geographical orientation, distinguishing the global vs local polarity. The second polarity is economic, which allows us to distinguish for-profit orientations, i.e. maximizing shareholder value, from ‘for-benefit’ orientations, where the economic logic is subsumed to the achievement of social goals.

This allows us to look at at least four possible scenarios that can serve both as analytical tools for the critique and identification of current technological models, but also to envisage them as ‘societal scenarios’, i.e. socio-technological structures that are dominated by either one of the four models.

The first model we can identify is the ‘netarchical’ model, which combines centralized control of the technological infrastructure with a for-profit orientation. In this model, exemplified by the internet giants such as Amazon, eBay, Google or Facebook, while the front-end allows a certain, and even large measure, of peer to peer driven interactions, the technology itself is nevertheless owned and controlled by shareholders. These forces are the new ‘intermediaries’ of the internet, positioning themselves as facilitators of social cooperation and peer to peer interaction, but connecting these sharing platforms and spaces, dominated by the logic of use value, to the logic of exchange value. Users have very limited ways to create livelihoods, pay heavy transaction taxes to the platform owners, have no input into the design or social protocols which govern their own behaviour and interaction. Netarchical capital ‘enables and empowers’ peer to peer interactions, while also exploiting it. In fact, we can consider this as a form of hyper-exploitation, since in many cases, nearly 100% of the extracted exchange value goes to the owners, while the creators of the use value, without which the platform could not exist nor extract exchange value, remain unrewarded.

Could we argue that to this emerging new sector of capital, corresponds a new state model ? We would say yes, and the Snowden revelations point towards the emergence of netarchical state forms, in which peer to peer interactions are allowed, but also monitored and controlled. It is no secret that there is a close cooperation between both the commercial netarchical operators, and the national governments that support them. The dream of the netarchical state is behavioural control and modification by directly connecting our online behaviours, to neurological prompts.

There is a second for-profit model, which is ideologically distinct, though pragmatically leads to very similar results. This second model opts for distributed infrastructures, but with a underlying for-profit orientation. Bitcoin is of course the exemplar of this approach. The ‘peer to peer’ aspect of bitcoin however, is limited to consider computers as peers, obviously not seeing any issue with the existence of super-peers which own thousands if not more computers, vs. the poorest three billion of the population, who may not have access to computers at all. With its deflationary design, its highly unequal property structure which exceeds the GINI coefficient of countries with sovereign currencies, it favours the ‘hacker class’ of early believers and investors and quickly leads to domination by a new class of ‘mining’ intermediaries. Because anarcho-capitalism sees no qualms in inequality, it ignores power law dynamics (concentration of resources in the hands of the few), and rather quickly moves to netarchical monopoly. We also put in this category the emerging sharing economy, which similarly aims to “liberate” p2p commercial interactions for idle goods. While we could say that netarchical capital capitalizes directly on non-commercial social cooperation, and creates market dynamics around it, distributed capitalism aims to commodify every social interaction directly. Things that could have been shared (excess space through non-monetary couchsurfing), are monetized and commodified, turning every citizen in a owner of distributed capital. At least in the sharing economy, though perhaps less in the bitcoin economy, all interactions are also transparent to the platform owners and the same techniques of social and behavioural control, can be perfected over time. While anarcho-capitalist ideology may be theoretically opposed to concentration of resources, they quickly lead to highly unequal social structures.

However, there are alternatives, for-benefit alternatives, which we believe hold a better deal for the majority of citizens and technology users.

The third model, and our first alternative model, combines a local orientation with a focus on community benefits. We have seen over the last few years an exponential growth of open food networks, of local complementary currencies and time banks, of Transition Towns and their multiple localization initiatives, where networked technology is used to increase local resilience. Countless fablabs, hackerspaces, and co-working spaces have also been created to stimulate local cooperation. While the orientation is local, the cooperation is often global, such as for example the co-learning through a formal pattern language, undertaken by the Transition Towns the world over. Nevertheless, we believe this approach is still insufficient in terms of the creation of global counter-power.

Thus, we would argue for the fourth model, which combines for-benefit practices with a global commons orientation. In this model, the internet and networked technology is not seen as a means of communication, but as a ‘means of production’. Global open design (and knowledge, software) communities create global technical, scientific commons that allow for local distributed manufacturing, using these open designs for local benefit. At the same time, the local producers see themselves as nodes of a global cooperative value-creation and on-demand manufacturing network, that can create global ‘phyles’, i.e. global community-oriented, commons co-producing alliances that have the potential to become peer to peer transnational organisations creating global solidarity mechanisms. In time, these organisations will also produce social and political power that can challenge the domination of the shareholder multinationals. We have argued elsewhere for the adoption of new cooperative governance mechanisms, on the basis of commons-based reciprocity licenses.

So what are we to do. We see three main options ?

The first option is the hacker option, which entails the reconstruction of a wholly new true p2p internet. This is necessary and vital work but it should be undertaken without illusions. Thus, it may already be too late to wean average consumers from the netarchical platforms, which are highly funded, easy to use and already have obtained insurmountable network effects. We would argue that such hacker alternatives should be above all used internally by the global peer producing communities, as real tools of production, that could be increasingly inter-networked.

The second approach is to directly challenge the governance, ownership and extractive practices of the netarchical platforms. Rather than leave them and isolate the most conscious activists amongst themselves, this approach calls for organizing user groups, and create political pressure to regulate these platforms for public benefit. Eventually, depending on social strength and the balance of forces, the private ownership or at least exclusive hierarchical governance, of such public utilities can be challenged. This strategy is pretty much akin to the strategies of the labour movement and how it tackled privately owned factories. If we have no real choice but to use them, then we need to challenge them and change them.

But the third approach is to concentrate on the actual reconstruction of a different counter-economy at the heart of value creation. To create vibrant, self-governed, cooperatively owned peer production communities, as we have indicated above. And from this practice, reconstruct political and social movements.

The role of art and artists may be to explore some of these alternatives, or actively co-construct peer produced alternatives. We are thinking here of art collectives like Furtherfield.org in the UK, with Ruth Catlow and Mark Garrett, with their projects like the creation of a Furtherfield Commons (a common space for artistic and cultural peer production), the World of Open Source Art (curation of open art), their Do It With Other series, exploring co-produced networked art and which has become a global movement. In Italy, we have the Art is Open Source movement by Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico, which recently supported the Near Future Education Lab, a serious attempt to let design students redesign their own education, after the future of the institution was challenged by budget cuts. These art collectives, through their own peer production practices, prefigure what can be done with technology, if its social contradictions are embraced, with a vision of using it for human emancipation. The technology itself can’t do it, but technology that is used as one of the political and social tools, can make a huge difference. Rather than the simplistic debates pro and con ‘technology’, the real question is ‘which technology’ and how to enhance and spread the existence of tools which can really assist with the distribution social and political power, never on its own, but always in conjunction with struggling social and artistic social movements, and their ongoing co-production of social realities.


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Essay of the Day: Spectrum Regulation in the Communism of Capital

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
7th November 2014

* Essay: Spectre of the commons: Spectrum regulation in the communism of capital. By Rachel O’Dwyer.

From the Abstract:

“The past decade has seen a growing emphasis on the social and juridical implications of peer production, commons-based property regimes and the nonrivalrous circulation of immaterial content in the online domain, leading some theorists to posit a digital communism. An acquisitive logic, however, continues to operate through intellectual property rights, in the underlying architecture that supports the circulation of content and in the logical apparatuses for the aggregation and extraction of metadata. The digital commons emerges, not as a virtual space unfettered by material exploitation, but as a highly conflictive terrain, situated at the centre of a mode of capitalism that seeks valorisation for the owners of network infrastructure, online platforms and digital content.

Using a key example from core infrastructure, this paper will explore how controversies surrounding the management of the electromagnetic spectrum provide insight into the communism of capital in the digital domain. This paper proceeds in two parts: The first is historical, exploring how the history of spectrum management provides a lucid account of the expropriation of the digital commons through the dispossession and progressive deregulation of a communicative resource. The second considers current transformations to spectrum regulation, in particular the growing centrality of shared and commons spectrum to radio policy. Does a shift towards non-proprietary and unlicensed infrastructure represent an antagonistic or subversive element in the communism of capital? Or, if this communality of resources is not at odds with capitalist interests, how is it that an acquisitive logic continues to act?”

Rachel O’Dwyer discusses ‘virtual communism':

“The facility to leverage communicative capacities, support non-hierarchical cooperation and enable the circulation of non-proprietary content, has led a number of theorists to posit a ‘virtual communism’ (Lessig, 2004; Benkler, 2006; Kelly, 2009). This traces an immaterial space that trades in knowledge and culture, at once free from commercial subjugation and conversely capable of exerting influence on the material substrate of capital.

Such ‘virtual communism’ is, to echo Virno, ‘a communality of generalized intellect without material equality’ (Virno, 2004: 18). The underlying architectures that support the circulation of content are still proprietary. While user-generated content becomes increasingly central to the economy, the possibility of a ‘core commons infrastructure’, as Benkler (2001) calls it, is constrained by a variety of institutional, technical and juridical enclosures. The digital commons emerges, not as a virtual space unfettered by material exploitation, but as a highly conflictive terrain. The commons is situated at the centre of a mode of capitalism that seeks valorisation for the owners of network infrastructure, digital platforms and online content. This proprietary interest is diffuse, and increasingly so; it blends in a series of highly confluent mechanisms the essence of ‘the commons’ with new forms of enclosure.

Today we encounter conditions in which the core tenets of communism – the socialisation of production, the abolition of wage labour, and the centrality of commons-based peer-production – are remade in the interests of capital (Virno, 2004). These conditions imply new forms of sovereignty and political economy. This is not to say that the commons has not historically potentiated capitalist accumulation, but that we are witnessing a dramatic intensification of these conditions. In turn we are faced with a number of questions: through what proprietary mechanisms and juridical processes is the digital commons enclosed? How, in turn, is surplus value extracted from the digital commons – through what technological apparatuses, property regimes and composition of capital? Finally, what political and economic possibilities might emerge alongside the hegemony of the commons?

This paper will explore how recent controversies surrounding the management of electromagnetic spectrum provide insights into the composition of contemporary capitalism. As the communications channel for all mobile and wireless transmissions, electromagnetic spectrum is a core apparatus in the digital economy; its enclosure is part and parcel of the techniques that facilitate capitalist accumulation through production over wireless and mobile networks. This discussion proceeds in two parts: First, the history of spectrum regulation provides an account of the expropriation of communicative and cooperative capacities through the dispossession, deregulation and progressive rarefaction of a common resource. As mobile data grows exponentially, however, we are witnessing changes to the ways in which this resource is managed, with many calling for a greater communality of the radio spectrum in response to perceived scarcity in mobile bandwidth. The second part of the paper explores these emergent conditions. On one hand, it appears as though antagonisms between openness and enclosure in information capitalism prefigure a crisis in property relations that potentiate possible forms of anti-capitalist ‘exploit’ (Galloway and Thacker, 2007). On the other, it is also possible that capitalist accumulation is becoming ever more tightly organised through highly fluid and distributed mechanisms that route, not only around a direct intervention in production, but increasingly around the old property regimes.

The aims of such a study are reflexive. If the burgeoning political vocabulary of the ‘communism of capital’ offers a critical insight into the enclosure of the digital commons, spectrum management also provides an empirical case to reflect on the theoretical underpinnings of this vocabulary. For example, much of this theory not only acknowledges correspondence between forms of the commons with capitalist accumulation, it also identifies a number of contradictions in such an alliance, whether through the socialisation of production or through the imminent crisis of an underlying proprietary logic. This paper explores how the production of artificial scarcity around electromagnetic spectrum, when situated against the growing demand for a greater fluidity of network resources, provides a lens for what are perceived to be the irreconcilable elements of the communism of capital. Does a shift towards non-proprietary and unlicensed infrastructure represent an antagonistic or subversive element in the communism of capital? Or, if this communality of resources is not at odds with capitalist interests, how is it that an acquisitive logic continues to act?”


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