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André Gorz on the Exit from Capitalism

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David Bollier
23rd February 2015


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In an amazingly prescient essay, “The Exit From Capitalism Has Already Begun,”journalist and social philosopher André Gorz in 2007 explained how computerization and networks are causing a profound crisis in capitalism by making knowledge more shareable. He argues that shareable knowledge and culture undercuts capitalist control over the global market system as the exclusive apparatus for production and consumption (and thus our “necessary” roles as wage-earners and consumers).

The essay, translated by Chris Turner, originally appeared in the journal EcoRev in Autumn 2007 and was reprinted in Gorz’s 2008 book Ecologica. It’s worth revisiting this essay because it so succinctly develops a theme that is now playing out, one that Jeremy Rifkin reprises and elaborates upon in his 2014 book The Zero Marginal Cost Society. 

Let’s start with the conundrum that capital faces as computerization makes it possible to produce more with less labor.  Gorz writes:

The cost of labor per unit of output is constantly diminishing and the price of products is also tending to fall. The more the quantity of labor for a given output decreases, the more the value produced per worker – productivity – has to increase if the amount of achievable profit is not to fall. We have, then, this apparent paradox: the more productivity rises, the more it has to go on rising, in order to prevent the volume of profit from diminishing. Hence the pursuit of productivity gains moves ever faster, manpower levels tend to reduce, while pressure on workers intensifies and wage levels fall, as does the overall payroll. The system is approaching an internal limit at which production and investment in production cease to be sufficiently profitable.

Over time, Gorz explains, this leads investors to turn away from the “real economy” of production, where productivity gains and profits are harder to achieve, and instead seek profit through financial speculation in “fictitious” forms of value such as debt and new types of financial instruments. The value is ficititious in the sense that loans, return on investment,  future economic growth, trust and goodwill are social intangibles that are quite unlike physical capital. They depend upon collective belief and social trust, and can evaporate overnight.

Still, it is generally easier and more profitable to invest in these (fictitious, speculative) forms of financial value than in actually producing goods and services at a time when productivity gains and profit are declining.  No wonder speculative bubbles are so attractive:  There is just too much capital is sloshing around looking for profitable investment which the real economy is less capable of delivering.  No wonder companies have so much cash on hand (from profits) that they are declining to invest. No wonder the amount of available finance capital dwarfs the real economy. Gorz noted that financial assets in 2007 stood at $160 trillion, which was three to four times global GDP – a ratio that has surely gotten more extreme in the past eight years.

Meanwhile, climate change adds yet another layer of difficulty because it virtually requires an abrupt retreat from capitalism, as Naomi Klein argues in her recent book This Changes Everything.  Gorz made this point quite clear:

“It is impossible to avoid climate catastrophe without a radical break with the economic logic and methods that have been taking us in that direction for 150 years. On current trend projections, global GDP will increase by a factor of three or four by 2050. But, according to a report by the UN Climate Council, CO2 emissions will have to fall by 85% by that date to limit global warming to a maximum of 2° C. Beyond 2° C, the consequences will be irreversible and uncontrollable.

“Negative growth is, therefore, imperative for our survival. But it presupposes a different economy, a different lifestyle, a different civilization, and different social relations. In the absence of these, collapse could be avoided only through restrictions, rationing, and the kind of authoritarian resource-allocation typical of a war economy. The exit from capitalism will happen, then, one way or another, either in a civilized or barbarous fashion. The question is simply what form it will take and how quickly it will occur.

“To envisage a different economy, different social relations, different modes and means of production, and different ways of life is regarded as “unrealistic,” as though the society based on commodities, wages, and money could not be surpassed. In reality, a whole host of convergent indices suggest that the surpassing of that society is already under way, and that the chances of a civilized exit from capitalism depend primarily on our capacity to discern the trends and practices that herald its possibility.”

This is where the many initiatives and movements that revolve around the commons, peer production, the solidarity economy, co-operatives, Transition Towns, degrowth, the sharing and collaborative economy, and much else, come in. These are all harbingers of a different way of meeting everyday needs without becoming ensnared in utopian capitalist imperatives (constant growth, ever-increasing productivity gains, profits from the real economy). Pursuing this path ultimately destroys a society, as we can see from years of austerity politics in Greece.

In other words, the most promising way to resolve the capitalist crisis of our time is to start to decommodify production and consumption – i.e., extend and invent non-market ways to meet our needs.  Indeed, we need to reconceptualize “production” and “consumption” themselves as separate categories, and begin to re-integrate them — and our role as actors in them — through commons-based peer production.

Fortunately, the Internet and digital technologies are enormously helpful in this process.  They are already converting proprietary knowledge, know-how, and branded products into freely shareable public knowledge, via commons. This is the basis for a different kind of economy, one that can transcend the anti-social, anti-ecological imperatives that prevail today.

Gorz reminds us that innovation is less about meeting real needs than about creating monopoly rents:  “The proportion of the price of a commodity that is rent may be ten, twenty or fifty times larger than its production cost. And this is true not only of luxury items; it applies also to everyday articles like trainers, T-shirts, mobile phones, CDs, jeans, etc.”  That is why so much innovation is focused not on utility or even profits per se, but on inventing new forms of rent:

“Everything in [the proprietary market] system stands opposed to the autonomy of individuals, to their capacity to reflect together on their common ends and shared needs, to agree on the best way of eliminating waste, to conserve resources, and to develop together, as producers and consumers, a common norm of “the sufficient” – or of what Jacques Delors has called a “frugal abundance.” Quite clearly, breaking with the ‘produce more, consume more’ trend and redefining a model of life aimed at doing more and better with less presupposes breaking with a civilization in which we produce nothing of what we consume and consume nothing of what we produce; in which producers and consumers are separated, and in which everyone is opposed to herself in as much as she is always both producer and consumer at the same time; in which all needs and all desires lead back to the need to earn money and the desire to earn more; in which the possibility of producing for one’s own consumption seems – wrongly – out of reach and ridiculously archaic.

“And yet ‘the dictatorship over needs’ is losing its power. Despite the explosion of expenditure on marketing and advertising, the hold that corporations have over consumers is becoming more fragile. The trend towards self-providing is gaining ground again as a result of the increasing proportion of immaterial contents in the nature of commodities. The monopoly on supply is gradually slipping away from capital.”

Read the whole essay. Gorz’s impressive, big-picture analysis helps explain why we need to extend or create non-market alternatives such as commons-based peer production: It’s the only sustainable way to build a more humane, ecologically benign order.


Originally published in Bollier.org

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Posted in Collective Intelligence, Commons, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Featured Essay, Original Content, Politics | 1 Comment »

Essay of the Day: Peak Inequality and the Impoverishment of Society

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Michel Bauwens
31st January 2015


The conditions for a peer to peer society are being severely undermined.

* Essay: Peak Inequality: The 0.1% and the Impoverishment of Society. David DeGraw.

The excerpt below is adapted from the book, The Economics of Revolution.

The conclusion of the study about the evolution in the U.S. is clear: “the In the present economy, under current government policy, 70% of the population is now sentenced to an impoverished existence.”

Excerpts

The essay presents a shocking case about inequality in the U.S that has been climbing in recent years and the deteriorating conditions for the unfortunate 99%:

“The latest comprehensive look at wealth distribution data reveals that the “ultra-rich” economic top 0.01% of US households now has an all-time high 11.1% of overall wealth. The next tier, the 0.1% – 0.99% has 10.4%, and the top 1% – 0.9% has 18.3%. In total, the top 1% now has an all-time high 39.8% of wealth.”

“In the present economy, it is impossible for 70% of the working age population to earn enough income to afford basic necessities, without taking on ever-increasing levels of debt, which they will never be able to pay back because there are not enough jobs that generate the necessary income to keep up with the cost of living. For every 3.4 working age people, there is only one that can generate an income high enough to cover the cost of living without taking on debt. In total, only 20% of the overall population currently generates enough income to sustain the cost of living. As a result, poverty and declining living standards are much more prevalent throughout US society than the government and corporate media report.”

“Beyond unemployment and underemployment, the percentage of full-time working poor has grown significantly. US workers are presently producing twice as much wealth per work hour than they were in 1980. Instead of median incomes doubling since then, they have stagnated. The gap between wealth production and median income is now at an all-time high.”

To make inequality worse there is more wealth that is hidden:

“However, to get a more complete understanding of how corrupt the global economic system is, we also need to factor in wealth that is hidden from public view. Disregarding trillions of dollars in hidden wealth just because the wealthy have the ability to illegally hide it is an absolute injustice.”

and a new form of aristocracy formed:

We now live in a neo-feudal society. The evidence is undeniable. The indentured servant is now the indebted wage slave. A recent scientific study revealed that the United States government is subservient to the whim of the .01%. Political office is now merely a stepping-stone and initiation process that politicians go through to be accepted into the aristocracy.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Hierarchy Theory | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Free Software and the Law

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Michel Bauwens
28th January 2015


* Article: Free software and the law. Out of the frying pan and into the fire: how shaking up intellectual property suits competition just fine. By Angela Daly. Journal of Peer Production, Issue 3, July 2013

From the Abstract:

“Free software is viewed as a revolutionary and subversive practice, and in particular has dealt a strong blow to the traditional conception of intellectual property law (although in its current form could be considered a ‘hack’ of IP rights). However, other (capitalist) areas of law have been swift to embrace free software, or at least incorporate it into its own tenets. One area in particular is that of competition (antitrust) law, which itself has long been in theoretical conflict with intellectual property, due to the restriction on competition inherent in the grant of ‘monopoly’ rights by copyrights, patents and trademarks. This contribution will examine how competition law has approached free software by examining instances in which courts have had to deal with such initiatives, for instance in the Oracle Sun Systems merger, and the implications that these decisions have on free software initiatives. The presence or absence of corporate involvement in initiatives will be an important factor in this investigation, with it being posited that true instances of ‘commons-based peer production’ can still subvert the capitalist system, including perplexing its laws beyond intellectual property.”

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Posted in Copyright/IP, Featured Essay, Free Software, P2P Legal Dev. | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: The Role of Crowdsourcing for Better Governance in Fragile States

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Michel Bauwens
25th January 2015


* Report: The Role of Crowdsourcing for Better Governance in Fragile States Contexts. World Bank, 2014

From the Summary:

““[The report serves] as a primer on crowdsourcing as an information resource for development, crisis response, and post-conflict recovery, with a specific focus on governance in fragile states. Inherent in the theoretical approach is that broader, unencumbered participation in governance is an objectively positive and democratic aim, and that governments’ accountability to its citizens can be increased and poor-performance corrected, through openness and empowerment of citizens. Whether for tracking aid flows, reporting on poor government performance, or helping to organize grassroots movements, crowdsourcing has potential to change the reality of civic participation in many developing countries. The objective of this paper is to outline the theoretical justifications, key features and governance structures of crowdsourcing systems, and examine several cases in which crowdsourcing has been applied to complex issues in the developing world.”

Patrick Meier discusses the findings:

“The research is grounded in the philosophy of Open-Source Governance, “which advocates an intellectual link between the principles of open-source and open-content movements, and basic democratic principles.” The report argues that “open-source governance theoretically provides more direct means to affect change than do periodic elections,” for example. According to the authors of the study, “crowdsourcing is increasingly seen as a core mechanism of a new systemic approach of governance to address the highly complex, globally interconnected and dynamic challenges of climate change, poverty, armed conflict, and other crises, in view of the frequent failures of traditional mechanisms of democracy and international diplomacy with respect to fragile state contexts.
That said, how exactly is crowdsourcing supposed to improve governance? The authors argues that “in general, ‘transparency breeds self-correcting behavior’ among all types of actors, since neither governments nor businesses or individuals want to be caught at doing something embarrassing and or illegal.” Furthermore, “since crowdsourcing is in its very essence based on universal participation, it is supporting the empowerment of people. Thus, in a pure democracy or in a status of anarchy or civil war (Haiti after the earthquake, or Libya since February 2011), there are few external limitations to its use, which is the reason why most examples are from democracies and situations of crisis.” On the other hand, an authoritarian regime will “tend to oppose and interfere with crowdsourcing, perceiving broad-based participation and citizen empowerment as threats to its very existence.”
So how can crowdsourcing improve governance in an authoritarian state? “Depending on the level of citizen-participation in a given state,” the authors argue that “crowdsourcing can potentially support governments’ and/or civil society’s efforts in informing, consulting, and collaborating, leading to empowerment of citizens, and encouraging decentralization and democrati-zation. By providing the means to localize, visualize, and publish complex, aggregated data, e.g. on a multi-layer map, and the increasing speed of genera-ting and sharing data up to real-time delivery, citizens and beneficiaries of government and donors become empowered to provide feedback and even become information providers in their own right.”

According to the study, this transformation can take place in three ways:

1) By sharing, debating and contributing to publicly available government, donor and other major actors’ databases, data can be distributed directly through customized web and mobile applications and made accessible and meaningful to citizens.

2) By providing independent platforms for ‘like-minded people’ to connect and collaborate, builds potential for the emergence of massive, internationally connected grassroots movements.

3) By establishing platforms that aggregate and compare data provided by the official actors such as governments, donors, and companies with crowdsourced primary data and feedback.

“The tracking of data by citizens increases transparency as well as pressure for better social accountability. Greater effectiveness of state and non-state actors can be achieved by using crowdsourced data and deliberations* to inform the provision of their services. While the increasing volume of data generated as well as the speed of transactions can be attractive even to fragile-state governments, the feature of citizen empowerment is often considered as serious threat (Sudan, Egypt, Syria,Venezuela etc.).” *The authors argue that this need to be done through “web-based deliberation platforms (e.g. DiscourseDB) that apply argumentative frameworks for issue-based argument instead of simple polling.”

The second part of the report includes a section on Crisis Mapping in which two real-world case studies are featured: the Ushahidi-Haiti Crisis Map & Mission4636 and the Libya Crisis Map. Other case studies include the UN’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) initiative in the Sudan, Participatory GIS and Community Forestry in Nepal; Election Monitoring in Guinea; Huduma and Open Data in Kenya; Avaaz and other emergent applications of crowd-sourcing for economic development and good governance. The third and final part of the study provides recommendations for donors on how to apply crowd-sourcing and interactive mapping for socio-economic recovery and development in fragile states.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Governance | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: The Role of Technology in the Circular Economy

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Michel Bauwens
20th January 2015


* Paper: A systems and thermodynamics perspective on technology in the circular economy. By Crelis F. Rammelt and Phillip Crisp. real-world economics review, issue no. 68

From the Abstract:

“Several discourses on environment and sustainability are characterised by a strong confidence in the potential of technology to address, if not solve, the ecological impacts resulting from physically expanding systems of production and consumption.
The optimism is further encouraged by leading environmental engineering concepts, including cradle-to-cradle and industrial ecology, as well as broader frameworks, such as natural capitalism and the circular economy. This paper explores the viability of their promise from a biophysical perspective, which is based on insights from system dynamics and thermodynamics. Such an ecological reality check is generally ignored or underestimated in the literature on aforementioned concepts and frameworks. The paper ultimately reflects on what role society can realistically assign to technology for resolving its ecological concerns. While environmental engineering undoubtedly has something to offer, it will end up chasing its tail if the social and economic forces driving up production and consumption are not addressed.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Ecology, P2P Energy | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Real-Time Organigraphs for Collaboration Awareness

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Michel Bauwens
19th January 2015


* Article: Real-Time Organigaphs for Collaboration Awareness. By C.J. van Aart and A.H.J. Oomes.

From the Abstract:

“Collaboration awareness, as extension to organization awareness, is knowing how organizations do work and achieve their goals. This knowledge moves on a scale from stated prescribed ways of acting (such as procedures and protocols) to informal channels of communication, teamwork and decision-making. Based on available static and dynamic data, standardized insights can be given about collaboration in emergency situation in the form of organigraphs. We argue that gaining practical collaboration awareness, next to insights in the formal structure of an organization, also informal interaction should be inspected. Informal interaction includes informal communication channels, actual decision making on the spot and multi disciplinary joint activities. We have implemented our system in the form of a web based visualization tool. This tool would have been useful in the Hercules disaster, giving insights in informal information exchange, possibly preventing fatal decisions.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Collaboration, P2P Infrastructures | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: the Leukippos Platform for Cloud Collaboration in Synthetic Biology

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Michel Bauwens
17th January 2015


* Article: Leukippos: A Synthetic Biology Lab in the Cloud. By Pablo Cárdenas, Maaruthy Yelleswarapu, Sayane Shome et al. BioCoder, Issue 4, 2014

From the Abstract, by Eugenio Maria Battaglia, Gerd Moe-Behrens et al.:

“As we move deeper into the digital age, the social praxis of science undergoes fundamental changes, driven by new tools provided by information and communication technologies. Specifically, social networks and computing resources such as online cloud-based infrastructures and applications provide the necessary context for unprecedented innovations in modern science. These tools are leading to a planetary-scale connectivity among researchers and enable the organization of in silico research activities entirely through the cloud.

Research collaboration and management via the cloud will result in a drastic expansion of our problem-solving capacity, since groups of people with different backgrounds and expertise that openly gather around common interests are more likely to succeed at solving complex problems. Another advantage is that collaboration between individuals becomes possible regardless of their geographic location and background.

Here we present a novel, open-web application called Leukippos, which aims to apply these information and communication technologies to in silico synthetic biology projects. We describe both the underlying technology and organizational structure necessary for the platform’s operation. The synthetic biology software search engine, SynBioAppSelector, and the game, SynBrick, are examples of projects being developed on this platform.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Research, P2P Science, P2P Software | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: P2P Search as an Alternative to Google

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Michel Bauwens
15th January 2015


* Article: P2P Search as an Alternative to Google: Recapturing network value through decentralized search. By Tyler Handley. Journal of Peer Production, Issue 3, July 2013

From the Abstract:

“This paper examines the intersection between Google’s desire to “database the world’s knowledge” and the many ways in which Google’s approach affects both the nature of the information users find and how they find it. The paper will argue that Google has monopolized the socially constructed nature of the World Wide Web; Benkler’s concept of social production will be used as an example of this process. Google capitalizes on the attention economy, using a combination of PageRank and personalization to dominate the search market. To do so, it must store and retain vast amounts of user data, this data being a representation of the cultural and social relations of Google users. By storing user data in “centralized” logs, Google’s approach to search opens up questions about how such sensitive data should be stored, and what the ownership of such a social ‘map’ by a private corporation means. To further establish the meaning of Google’s position this paper outlines the potential for new contrasting forms of search, that allocate more control to the user. In particular, this paper will analyze the Peer-to-Peer distributed search engine YaCy to see how it can alleviate the specific problems of various censorship and filtering that affects Google search results, and how it can address the wider issue of the private appropriation of social and cultural networks. This comparison of Google and Peer-to-Peer search will allow a clear view of the issues at stake as search is developed over the next decade, issues which will have resonating consequences on what information we receive.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Infrastructures | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses To Advance Reciprocity for the Commons

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Michel Bauwens
27th December 2014


* Article: BETWEEN COPYLEFT AND COPYFARLEFT: ADVANCE RECIPROCITY FOR THE COMMONS. Miguel Said Vieira & Primavera De Filippi. Journal of Peerproduction,

From the Summary:

“Licensing debates abound in the “free culture” academic discussion (see, i.a., Downes, 2009; Hill, 2005; Lemos, 2010; Netpop Research, 2009; UNESCO OER Community, 2011), but we believe much of it suffers from one of two problems. First, restricting themselves to a purely technical, legalistic approach; this kind of approach is important and necessary for improving licenses, but it is not sufficient to deal with the social impacts and ramifications of such licenses. Second, adopting a dualistic and overly antagonistic approach, particularly with regard to the debate on commercial usages. This debate touches important aspects of the licensing discussions, but it frequently stalemates (due to its polarized character) before it is possible to make significant advances in deepening our knowledge about these issues, and coordinating efforts for improving the knowledge commons.

The copyfarleft licensing model is a concrete proposal related to the commercial usages debate. It suggests one way to improve on “non-commercial clauses”, arguably making them more effective in reducing negative social impacts, such as wage labour being exploited in building the commons. We believe it is an interesting contribution that mostly avoids the problems mentioned above, but also has its potential drawbacks. This position paper comments on them (as well as on some merits of this model), and proposes an alternative or complementary model that attempts to solve some of those drawbacks.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, Open Standards, Peer Property | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: FabLabs, 3D-Printing and Degrowth

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Michel Bauwens
25th December 2014


* Essay: FabLabs, 3D-printing and degrowth – Democratisation and deceleration of production or a new consumptive boom producing more waste? by Charlotte Knips, Jürgen Bertling

This was a ‘Stirring’ Paper for the Degrowth Conference in Leipzig 2014

Summary:

“No technology can be sustainable in itself – for it to contribute to a truly green economy in a degrowth society the attitudes and needs of the people have to be addressed as well (Grunwald 2002, Lipson 2013). Thus the technology of a decentralized production holds a twofold potential: on the one hand the risk of exploding production and consumption of easy-to-make, easy-to-throw-away gadgets and on the other hand new possibilities for sufficiency, ecological design and repair-culture.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Ecology, P2P Manufacturing | No Comments »