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John Michael Greer on intermediation and the end of the market economy

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
16th December 2014


France, Château de Beynac Window

Extracted from his blog, John Michael Greer talks about the historical role of intermediation in both thriving and declining economies. This extract forms part of larger series of posts entitled “Dark Age America”


One of the factors that makes it difficult to think through the economic consequences of the end of the industrial age is that we’ve all grown up in a world where every form of economic activity has been channeled through certain familiar forms for so long that very few people remember that things could be any other way. Another of the factors that make the same effort of thinking difficult is that the conventional economic thought of our time has invested immense effort and oceans of verbiage into obscuring the fact that things could be any other way.

Those are formidable obstacles. We’re going to have to confront them, though, because one of the core features of the decline and fall of civilizations is that most of the habits of everyday life that are standard practice when civilizations are at zenith get chucked promptly into the recycle bin as decline picks up speed. That’s true across the whole spectrum of cultural phenomena, and it’s especially true of economics, for a reason discussed in last week’s post: the economic institutions and habits of a civilization in full flower are too complex for the same civilization to support once it’s gone to seed.

The institutions and habits that contemporary industrial civilization uses to structure its economic life comprise that tangled realm of supposedly voluntary exchanges we call “the market.” Back when the United States was still contending with the Soviet Union for global hegemony, that almost always got rephrased as “the free market;” the adjective still gets some use among ideologues, but by and large it’s dropped out of use elsewhere. This is a good thing, at least from the perspective of honest speaking, because the “free” market is of course nothing of the kind. It’s unfree in at least two crucial senses: first, in that it’s compulsory; second, in that it’s expensive.

“The law in its majestic equality,” Anatole France once noted drolly, “forbids rich and poor alike to urinate in public, sleep under bridges, or beg for bread.” In much the same sense, no one is actually forced to participate in the market economy in the modern industrial world. Those who want to abstain are perfectly free to go looking for some other way to keep themselves fed, clothed, housed, and supplied with the other necessities of life, and the fact that every option outside of the market has been hedged around with impenetrable legal prohibitions if it hasn’t simply been annihilated by legal fiat or brute force is just one of those minor details that make life so interesting.

Historically speaking, there are a vast number of ways to handle exchanges of goods and services between people. In modern industrial societies, on the other hand, outside of the occasional vestige of an older tradition here and there, there’s only one. Exchanging some form of labor for money, on whatever terms an employer chooses to offer, and then exchanging money for goods and services, on whatever terms the seller chooses to offer, is the only game in town. There’s nothing free about either exchange, other than the aforesaid freedom to starve in the gutter. The further up you go in the social hierarchy, to be sure, the less burdensome the conditions on the exchanges generally turn out to be—here as elsewhere, privilege has its advantages—but unless you happen to have inherited wealth or can find some other way to parasitize the market economy without having to sell your own labor, you’re going to participate if you like to eat.

Your participation in the market, furthermore, doesn’t come cheap. Every exchange you make, whether it’s selling your labor or buying goods and services with the proceeds, takes place within a system that has been subjected to the process of intermediation discussed in last week’s post. Thus, in most cases, you can’t simply sell your labor directly to individuals who want to buy it or its products; instead, you are expected to sell your labor to an employer, who then sells it or its product to others, gives you part of the proceeds, and pockets the rest. Plenty of other people are lined up for their share of the value of your labor: bankers, landlords, government officials, and the list goes on. When you go to exchange money for goods and services, the same principle applies; how much of the value of your labor you get to keep for your own purposes varies from case to case, but it’s always less than the whole sum, and sometimes a great deal less.

Karl Marx performed a valuable service to political economy by pointing out these facts and giving them the stress they deserve, in the teeth of savage opposition from the cheerleaders of the status quo who, then as now, dominated economic thought. His proposed solution to the pervasive problems of the (un)free market was another matter. Like most of his generation of European intellectuals, Marx was dazzled by the swamp-gas luminescence of Hegelian philosophy, and followed Hegel’s verbose and vaporous trail into a morass of circular reasoning and false prophecy from which few of his remaining followers have yet managed to extract themselves.

It’s from Hegel that Marx got the enticing but mistaken notion that history consists of a sequence of stages that move in a predetermined direction toward some as-perfect-as-possible state: the same idea, please note, that Francis Fukuyama used to justify his risible vision of the first Bush administration as the glorious fulfillment of human history. (To borrow a bit of old-fashioned European political jargon, there are right-Hegelians and left-Hegelians; Fukuyama was an example of the former, Marx of the latter.) I’ll leave such claims and the theories founded on them to the true believers, alongside such equally plausible claims as the Singularity, the Rapture, and the lemonade oceans of Charles Fourier; what history itself shows is something rather different.

What history shows, as already noted, is that the complex systems that emerge during the heyday of a civilization are inevitably scrapped on the way back down. Market economies are among those complex systems. Not all civilizations have market economies—some develop other ways to handle the complicated process of allocating goods and services in a society with many different social classes and occupational specialties—but those that do set up market economies inevitably load them with as many intermediaries as the overall complexity of their economies can support.

It’s when decline sets in and maintaining the existing level of complexity becomes a problem that the trouble begins. Under some conditions, intermediation can benefit the productive economy, but in a complex economy, more and more of the intermediation over time amounts to finding ways to game the system, profiting off economic activity without actually providing any benefit to anyone else.  A complex society at or after its zenith thus typically ends up with a huge burden of unproductive economic activity supported by an increasingly fragile foundation of productive activity.

All the intermediaries, the parasitic as well as the productive, expect to be maintained in the style to which they’re accustomed, and since they typically have more wealth and influence than the producers and consumers who support them, they can usually stop moves to block their access to the feed trough. Economic contraction, however, makes it hard to support business as usual on the shrinking supply of real wealth. The intermediaries thus end up competing with the actual producers and consumers of goods and services, and since the intermediaries typically have the support of governments and institutional forms, more often than not it’s the intermediaries who win that competition.

It’s not at all hard to see that process at work; all it takes is a stroll down the main street of the old red brick mill town where I live, or any of thousands of other towns and cities in today’s America. Here in Cumberland, there are empty storefronts all through downtown, and empty buildings well suited to any other kind of economic activity you care to name there and elsewhere in town. There are plenty of people who want to work, wage and benefit expectations are modest, and there are plenty of goods and services that people would buy if they had the chance. Yet the storefronts stay empty, the workers stay unemployed, the goods and services remain unavailable. Why?

The reason is intermediation. Start a business in this town, or anywhere else in America, and the intermediaries all come running to line up in front of you with their hands out. Local, state, and federal bureaucrats all want their cut; so do the bankers, the landlords, the construction firms, and so on down the long list of businesses that feed on other businesses, and can’t be dispensed with because this or that law or regulation requires them to be paid their share. The resulting burden is far too large for most businesses to meet. Thus businesses don’t get started, and those that do start up generally go under in short order. It’s the same problem faced by every parasite that becomes too successful: it kills the host on which its own survival depends.

That’s the usual outcome when a heavily intermediated market economy slams face first into the hard realities of decline. Theoretically, it would be possible to respond to the resulting crisis by forcing  disintermediation, and thus salvaging the market economy. Practically, that’s usually not an option, because the disintermediation requires dragging a great many influential economic and political sectors away from their accustomed feeding trough. Far more often than not, declining societies with heavily intermediated market economies respond to the crisis just described by trying to force the buyers and sellers of goods and services to participate in the market even at the cost of their own economic survival, so that some semblance of business as usual can proceed.

Read the full text here.

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Empire, Politics | No Comments »

Homage to Liberation Psychologist Ignacio Martin-Baró

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Guy James
12th December 2014


Mural at the Cooperativa Martín-Baró featuring Padre Ignacio Martín-Baró.

Mural at the Cooperativa Martín-Baró featuring Padre Ignacio Martín-Baró. (Photo: Amber / https://www.flickr.com/photos/amccy/878267727 )

This excellent article opened my eyes to Liberation Psychology, a discipline which seeks to shine a light on the inherent bias towards the political status quo which is present and goes undetected in mainstream psychology, and one of its main adherents historically,  Ignacio Martin-Baró who was murdered in El Salvador by a “counter-insurgency unit” created at the US Army’s School of the Americas.

As a Jesuit priest, Martin-Baró embraced liberation theology in opposition to a theology that oppressed the poor, and as a social psychologist, he believed that imported North American psychology also oppressed the majority of people. Martin-Baró concluded that mainstream psychology either ignored or only paid lip service to social and economic conditions that shape people’s lives.

Ruling elites and power structures – from monarchies to military dictatorships to the US corporatocracy – have routinely used “professionals” to control the population from rebelling against injustices so as to maintain the status quo. While power structures routinely rely on police and armies to subdue populations, they have also used clergy – thus, the need for liberation theology. And today, the US corporatocracy uses mental health professionals to manipulate and medicate people to adjust and thereby maintain the status quo – thus, the need for liberation psychology.


Read more here…

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Silicon Valley Is Creating ‘The Camera Panopticon’

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Guy James
7th December 2014


Aral Balkan speaking at a conferenceIn this powerful and indignant article, Aral Balkan – verging on ‘mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more‘ mode, exposes the nascent total surveillance state, what he calls ‘Spyware 2.0′ and their fraudulent ‘free’ services. He likens the exchange of convenient technology for personal data as tantamount to a theft of one’s soul, and the centralisation of all personal information into private hands as a classic enclosure of the Commons.

When you combine Google’s recent investments in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and robotics with their existing monopoly in digital services, devices, and connectivity, you get a perfect storm for creating the ultimate surveillance machine; the Camera Panopticon.

The article is given even more weight by the fact that Balkan is ‘walking his talk’ by creating a new mobile phone which he promises will be entirely free of spyware of any variety and will make respect for individual privacy as important as convenience of use. The crowdfunding campaign finishes soon and just needs one final push to be 100% funded has now been successfully funded.


Read more here.

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Posted in Activism, Crowdfunding, Empire, Mobile Developments, P2P Technology | No Comments »

From Coldwar Communism to the Global Emancipatory Movement

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Kevin Flanagan
30th November 2014


From Coldwar Communism to the Global Emancipatory MovementFrom Coldwar Communism to the Global Emancipatory Movement: Itinerary of a Long-Distance Internationalist

By Peter Waterman

‘This is an admirable memoir of an intellectual-activist who has lived most intensely the progressive struggles of the last sixty years of world history. Yes, world history, because despite being born in Europe, Peter, in the best tradition of Communist internationalism, participated in struggles and movements, not only in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in Africa and most recently in Latin America. But this is much more than a memoir. It is so well documented that, in this personal experience, there are reflected some of the most decisive events of contemporary history. It is a living history book. But even more than this, this book is so clearly and vividly written that at times it reads like the script for an imaginary documentary of our times. This book should be read by all concerned with our recent history in order to get a much more complex inside view of what happened while it was happening. In particular it should be read by the youth in order to get a close-up of the difficulties and possibilities in building another possible world at a time where there existed a vibrant international communist movement. It is up to such youth to evaluate whether difficulties are now less or more daunting, the possibilities less or more luminous’.

Available for Free to Download from

http://www.into-ebooks.com/book/from_coldwar_communism_to_the_global_emancipatory_movement/reviews/

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The Real Trouble with Disruption

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Nathan Schneider
28th November 2014


disrupt

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

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

The ‘Medicine’ of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

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Kevin Flanagan
14th November 2014


-55

by Pete Dolack at CounterPunch.org

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is as dangerous as ever. Denying access to medicines, increased surveillance of Internet usage and mandatory patents at the behest of multi-national corporations are some of the corporate goodies stashed in the TPP’s intellectual property chapter, revealed by WikiLeaks this month. Journalism could even be criminalized.

The more we know about the TPP, the worse it gets, which is why the governments of the 12 countries involved, led by the Obama administration, continue to negotiate in unprecedented secrecy. The latest text of the TPP’s intellectual property chapter shows very little change from an earlier draft also published by WikiLeaks. In a press release accompanying this month’s publication of the revised text, WikiLeaks says:

“[T]here are significant industry-favouring additions within the areas of pharmaceuticals and patents. These additions are likely to affect access to important medicines such as cancer drugs and will also weaken the requirements needed to patent genes in plants, which will impact small farmers and boost the dominance of large agricultural corporations like Monsanto.”

An analysis by Public Citizen explains:

“A rule [would] require the patenting of plant-related inventions, such as the genes inserted into genetically modified plants, putting farmers in developing countries at the mercy of the agriculture industry, including seed manufacturers such as Monsanto, and threatening food security in these countries more broadly.”

Monsanto, already attempting to gain a stranglehold over the world’s food supply, is hardly in need of yet more favorable treatment. Proprietary seeds and genetically modified organisms are Monsanto’s routes to control what you eat and what farmers grow. Once under contract, farmers are required to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the Monsanto herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant.

Stealth ‘fast-track’ process needed to sneak TPP through Congress

Concomitant to the secrecy shrouding the TPP is the stealth needed to pass the “free trade” treaty. The Obama administration is seeking to be given “fast-track” authority by Congress. Under the fast-track process, Congress cedes its right to make any changes, limits its time to debate, and must schedule a straight yes-or-no vote (no amendments allowed) in a short period of time. Some of the worst “free trade” deals have been approved in this manner, and the importance of fast-track is shown in that the last U.S. trade pact approved, with South Korea, was approved in 2007 — literally one minutebefore fast-track authority expired!

A fast-track bill, known as Camp-Baucus for its two sponsors, was essentially dead on arrival early this year due to widespread opposition in Congress, mostly by Democrats but also some Republicans. That this arose was because of organized activist work by groups across the United States. But Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, last April, signaled his intention to introduce a new fast-track bill, which he rebranded “smart track.” U.S. activists widely speculate that either Senator Wyden’s thinly disguised “smart track” bill or a more openly fast-track bill, perhaps written by Republicans in the House of Representatives, will be introduced in Congress following the November election with the intention of ramming it through a lame-duck session.

U.S. activists for the past year and a half have focused on stopping fast-track in Congress because it will be virtually impossible to pass the TPP otherwise. Other countries have signaled their reluctance to agree to a final TPP text unless Congress grants the Obama administration fast-track authority. Without such authority, Congress would retain the right to make changes to an agreed-upon treaty, potentially unraveling any deal. The Canadian government, in late September, made this reluctance explicit.

Washington Trade Daily recently reported that the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, said Canada and other negotiating countries won’t conclude negotiations until the Obama administration has the “political muscle” of trade-promotion authority (the formal name for fast-track). Thus, activists advocate no lessening of vigilance against new attempts to introduce fast-track legislation. A Week of Action Against Fast Track is being organized for November 8 to 14 in the U.S. In Australia, a series of rallies opposing the TPP are taking place this week in Sydney and Canberra.

These efforts come against a renewed push for a completed deal; negotiators are meeting this week, to be immediately followed on October 25 by a ministerial-level meeting in Sydney.

Criminalizing your right to know

There is much to oppose in the Trans-Pacific Partnership itself. A trade-secrets provision in the leaked intellectual property chapter is written in a way that makes it possible for reporting the contents of a future trade deal to be prosecuted. The article in questionstates:

“In the course of ensuring effective protection against unfair competition … each Party shall ensure that natural and legal persons have the legal means to prevent trade secrets lawfully in their control from being disclosed to, acquired by, or used by others (including state commercial enterprises) without their consent in a manner contrary to honest commercial practices.”

Criminal penalties would be mandatory for:

“the unauthorized, willful access to a trade secret held in a computer system; the unauthorized, willful misappropriation of a trade secret, including by means of a computer system; or the fraudulent (or unauthorized) disclosure of a trade secret, including by means of a computer system.”

WikiLeaks’ publication of this text would be a criminal matter under this provision. This provision would make it mandatory for signatory governments to enact strict laws protecting undefined “trade secrets.” The text of the TPP itself is classified as a secret! Legislators and the public are excluded from seeing the text. In the United States, the only people other than negotiators to have access to the text are 605 “advisers,” who are almost all executives of multi-national corporations or corporate lobbyists.

The Age newspaper of Melbourne summarizes the threat to journalism this way:

“The leaked treaty text shows that in an effort to deal with ‘unfair competition,’ largely from Chinese industrial espionage, the United States has pushed ahead with proposals to criminalise disclosure of trade secrets across the Pacific Rim. The draft text provides that TPP countries will introduce criminal penalties for unauthorised access to, misappropriation or disclosure of trade secrets, defined as information that has commercial value because it is secret, by any person using a computer system.  …

There are no public interest or free speech exemptions. Criminalisation of disclosure would apply to journalists working for commercial media organisations or wherever the leak was considered harmful to the ‘economic interests’ of any TPP country.”

Barriers to cheaper generic medications

Other rules in the TPP intellectual property text would raise barriers to generic medications becoming available and mandating that the terms of patents be extended on demand by patent holders. The United States and Japan even propose language that would require intellectual property enforcement to be elevated above any other legal consideration! The U.S. is also seeking the criminalization of copyright infringement, even in cases where there is no attempt to gain financially, such as a fan posting a work, and would also mandate that Internet service providers remove content upon a corporation’s demand to avoid legal penalties.

The linchpin to enforcement of draconian rules — the worst of which are put forth by the United States with Japan often seconding — is the “investor-state dispute mechanism.” That is a requirement that governments submit to binding arbitration in secret tribunals when an “investor” wants a law changed; the judges in these tribunals are corporate lawyers.

The dispute mechanism is not directly mentioned in the intellectual property chapter, but the one article that purports to uphold national sovereignty is contradicted by another article that mandates that multi-national corporations be given the same rights as national corporations. That clause, standard in “free trade” agreements, is a battering ram used by the secret tribunals to order the withdrawal of laws safeguarding environmental, safety, health or labor standards. These rulings, in turn, become precedents that are used to hand down future harsher decisions.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, however, is far from the only danger to working people. There is also the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the U.S. and the E.U.; the Trade In Services Agreement that would eliminate the ability of governments to regulate the financial industry (50 countries are in on this one); and the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Each of these are designed to elevate corporations to the level of a country, although in practice, because of tribunal precedents, they would elevate corporations above national governments.

“Free trade” agreements have little to do with trade, and much to do with imposing the domination of capital in as many spheres of life as possible. They are massive failures for working people in all countries. They offer, and can offer, nothing but a race to the bottom. Attempting to reform a race to the bottom is a fool’s errand. The TPP and its equally vile cousins must be defeated, and a complete re-conceptualization of trade and who should benefit from trade, substituted. That in turn requires directly challenging prevailing economic systems, otherwise we will be shoveling against the tide.

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Choosing between 3 strategies against netarchical capital and its state form

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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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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Empire, Original Content, P2P Art and Culture, P2P Foundation, P2P Hierarchy Theory, P2P Theory | No Comments »

Hannah Arendt on How Bureaucracy Fuels Violence

photo of Guy James

Guy James
1st November 2014


Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (image from Wikipedia)

States that have attempted to centralise power, whether from the ‘left’ or ‘right’ of the political spectrum (these distinctions become essentially meaningless in many cases once the totalitarian state is fully formed), have inevitably, and usually unwittingly, created an unaccountable bureaucratic minion class which unthinkingly carries out state violence either directly, or by remaining passive and unwilling to take responsibility.

Maria Popova from brainpickings.org highlights the work of the political theorist Hannah Arendt, particularly her seminal book ‘On Violence':

In her indispensable 1970 book On Violence, the celebrated German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) considers the evolving role of warfare in the context of the twentieth century. Writing a generation after the Atomic Age and at time when the threat of biological weapons was just beginning to penetrate our collective conscience, her meditation is all the more poignant and timely half a century later, in the age of drones and WMDs and all the political negotiations that surround them.

This quote particularly struck a chord and I am sure will resonate with anyone who has had to deal with state bureaucracy, however minor the encounter:

The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

Read the rest of the article here.

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Can we turn Netarchical Platforms into worker-owned businesses?

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Stacco Troncoso
18th October 2014


facebook
In answer to the question posed in the title, I don’t think we can do much to reclaim our rights as producers of content and use value in netarchical platforms. However, we can work to raise awareness on the subject and help the shift toward real P2P platforms. This is already happening right now, with Diaspora enjoying a revival in the wake of Ello’s failed promise to deliver a true alternative to Facebook. The following article was written by John Robb and originally published in Home Free America.


“We don’t get ownership because we don’t expect ownership… We’ve been conditioned to give away our work and our patronage for free while the schmucks on Wall Street walk away with buckets of money.”

Do you contribute to Facebook, Yelp, Reddit, or sites like that?

Most of us do contribute to some sites like this and our contributions, more or less depending on our contribution, are the reason these companies are valuable.

Our contributions are the reason people come to these sites day after day, so why don’t we get a bit of ownership for our contributions?

Lots of ownership goes to the employees.  But, nobody goes to these sites for the high quality software, elegant design, or robust hosting.  Further, all of the tech they are using is the result of innovation by other people.

Most of the ownership goes to the financing.  Yet, these sites don’t cost much to run.  A pittance actually.  The cloud makes them very cheap to operate.  In fact, the amount is so small, nearly all of the money needed to launch these sites could be raised by the customers using these sites.

We don’t get ownership because we don’t expect ownership.

We’ve been conditioned to give away our work and our patronage for free while the schmucks on Wall Street walk away with buckets of money.

There is a small glimmer of hope things might finally be changing (it’s something I tried to do back in 2010-12 and got my ass handed to me for trying to do it).

My hope is due to three things:

  1. Desire to do the right thing.  We don’t see enough of this in Silicon Valley anymore, despite the fact that all great innovations start with getting the “why” right.  Reddit’s CEO, Yishan Wong (formerly of Facebook) is doing the right thing.  He’s planning to make Reddit’s users into owners, depending on their contribution to the site.
  2. There’s a way to create a form of liquid ownership that doesn’t require Wall Street.  This new method is based on the bitcoin blockchain.  That technology makes it possible to issue ownership to contributors in a decentralized and trusted way.
  3. The combination of blockchain stock, Yishan’s example, and the experience of participants will set in motion a wave of change in Silicon Valley.  The message is:  if you want to build an online company, you better find a way to make your customers/contributors owners.

PS:  This is potentially a sea change in financing/ownership.  There’s much more to this.  Wall Street’s banksters should be worried.

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Collective Intelligence, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Empire, Networks, Politics | No Comments »

John Holloway on Changing the World Without Taking Power

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
15th October 2014


JohnHolloway-main

John Holloway, a sociology professor in Mexico, recently gave an interview with Roar magazine suggesting how to introduce a new social and economic logic in the face of the mighty machine of neoliberal capitalism.  Holloway’s idea, recapitulating themes from his previous book and 2002 thesis, is to build “cracks” in the system in which people can relate to each other and meet their needs in non-market ways:  “We have to keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking confluence, or preferably, the commoning of cracks.”

This strategic approach has immediate appeal to commoners, it seems to me — even though some engagement with state power is surely necessary at some point.  Below, Holloway’s interview with by Amador Fernández-Savater. It was translated by Richard Mac Duinnsleibhe and edited by Arianne Sved of Guerrilla Translation.

In 2002, John Holloway published a landmark book: Change the World Without Taking Power. Inspired by the ‘¡Ya basta!’ of the Zapatistas, by the movement that emerged in Argentina in 2001/’02, and by the anti-globalization movement, Holloway sets out a hypothesis: it is not the idea of revolution or transformation of the world that has been refuted as a result of the disaster of authoritarian communism, but rather the idea of revolution as the taking of power, and of the party as the political tool par excellence.

Holloway discerns another concept of social change at work in these movements, and generally in every practice—however visible or invisible it may be—where a logic different from that of profit is followed: the logic of cracking capitalism. That is, to create, within the very society that is being rejected, spaces, moments, or areas of activity in which a different world is prefigured. Rebellions in motion. From this perspective, the idea of organization is no longer equivalent to that of the party, but rather entails the question of how the different cracks that unravel the fabric of capitalism can recognize each other and connect.

But after Argentina’s “que se vayan todos” came the Kirchner government, and after Spain’s “no nos representan” appeared Podemos. We met with John Holloway in the city of Puebla, Mexico, to ask him if, after everything that has happened in the past decade, from the progressive governments of Latin America to Podemos and Syriza in Europe, along with the problems for self-organized practices to exist and multiply, he still thinks that it is possible to “change the world without taking power.”

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Firstly, John, we would like to ask you where the hegemonic idea of revolution in the 20th century comes from, what it is based on. That is, the idea of social change through the taking of power.

I think the central element is labor, understood as wage labor. In other words, alienated or abstract labor. Wage labor has been, and still is, the bedrock of the trade union movement, of the social democratic parties that were its political wing, and also of the communist movements. This concept defined the revolutionary theory of the labor movement: the struggle of wage labor against capital. But its struggle was limited because wage labor is the complement of capital, not its negation.

I don’t understand the relation between this idea of labor and that of revolution through the taking of state power.

One way of understanding the connection would be as follows: if you start off from the definition of labor as wage or alienated labor, you start off from the idea of the workers as victims and objects of the system of domination. And a movement that struggles to improve the living standards of workers (considered as victims and objects) immediately refers to the state. Why? Because the state, due to its very separation from society, is the ideal institution if one seeks to achieve benefits for people. This is the traditional thinking of the labor movement and that of the left governments that currently exist in Latin America.

But this tradition isn’t the only approach to a politics of emancipation…

Of course not. In the last twenty or thirty years we find a great many movements that claim something else: it is possible to emancipate human activity from alienated labor by opening up cracks where one is able to do things differently, to do something that seems useful, necessary, and worthwhile to us; an activity that is not subordinated to the logic of profit.

These cracks can be spatial (places where other social relations are generated), temporal (“Here, in this event, for the time that we are together, we are going to do things differently. We are going to open windows onto another world.”), or related to particular activities or resources (for example, cooperatives or activities that pursue a non-market logic with regard to water, software, education, etc.). The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks.

The rejection of alienated and alienating labor entails, at the same time, a critique of the institutional and organizational structures, and the mindset that springs from it. This is how we can explain the rejection of trade unions, parties, and the state that we observe in so many contemporary movements, from the Zapatistas to the Greek or Spanish indignados.

But it isn’t a question of the opposition between an old and a new politics, I think. Because what we see in the movements born of the economic crisis is that those two things come to the fore at the same time: cracks such as protests in city squares, and new parties such as Syriza or Podemos.

I think it’s a reflection of the fact that our experience under capitalism is contradictory. We are victims and yet we are not. We seek to improve our living standards as workers, and also to go beyond that, to live differently. In one respect we are, in effect, people who have to sell their labor power in order to survive. But in another, each one of us has dreams, behaviors and projects that don’t fit into the capitalist definition of labor.

The difficulty, then as now, lies in envisioning the relation between those two types of movements. How can that relation avoid reproducing the old sectarianism? How can it be a fruitful relation without denying the fundamental differences between the two perspectives?

Argentina in 2001 and 2002, the indignados in Greece and Spain more recently. At a certain point, bottom-up movements stall, they enter a crisis or an impasse, or they vanish. Would you say that the politics of cracks has intrinsic limits in terms of enduring and expanding?

I wouldn’t call them limits, but rather problems. Ten years ago, when I published Change the World without Taking Power, the achievements and the power of movements from below were more apparent, whereas now we are more conscious of the problems. The movements you mention are enormously important beacons of hope, but capital continues to exist and it’s getting worse and worse; it progressively entails more misery and destruction. We cannot confine ourselves to singing the praises of movements. That’s not enough.

Could one response then be the option that focuses on the state?

It’s understandable why people want to go in that direction, very understandable. These have been years of ferocious struggles, but capital’s aggression remains unchanged. I sincerely hope that Podemos and Syriza do win the elections, because that would change the current kaleidoscope of social struggles. But I maintain all of my objections with regard to the state option.

Any government of this kind entails channeling aspirations and struggles into institutional conduits that, by necessity, force one to seek a conciliation between the anger that these movements express and the reproduction of capital. Because the existence of any government involves promoting the reproduction of capital (by attracting foreign investment, or through some other means), there is no way around it. This inevitably means taking part in the aggression that is capital. It’s what has already happened in Bolivia and Venezuela, and it will also be the problem in Greece or Spain.

Could it be a matter of complementing the movements from below with a movement oriented towards government institutions?

That’s the obvious answer that keeps coming up. But the problem with obvious answers is that they suppress contradictions. Things can’t be reconciled so easily. From above, it may be possible to improve people’s living conditions, but I don’t think one can break with capitalism and generate a different reality. And I sincerely believe that we’re in a situation where there are no long-term solutions for the whole of humanity within capitalism.

I’m not discrediting the state option because I myself don’t have an answer to offer, but I don’t think it’s the solution.

Where are you looking for the answer?

Whilst not considering parties of the left as enemies, since for me this is certainly not the case, I would say that the answer has to be thought of in terms of deepening the cracks.

If we’re not going to accept the annihilation of humanity, which, to me, seems to be on capitalism’s agenda as a real possibility, then the only alternative is to think that our movements are the birth of another world. We have to keep building cracks and finding ways of recognizing them, strengthening them, expanding them, connecting them; seeking the confluence or, preferably, the commoning of the cracks.

If we think in terms of state and elections, we are straying away from that, because Podemos or Syriza can improve things, but they cannot create another world outside the logic of capital. And that’s what this is all about, I think.

Finally, John, how do you see the relation between the two perspectives we’ve been talking about?

We need to keep a constant and respectful debate going without suppressing the differences and the contradictions. I think the basis for a dialogue could be this: no one has the solution.

For the moment, we have to recognize that we’re not strong enough to abolish capitalism. By strong, I am referring here to building ways of living that don’t depend on wage labor. To be able to say “I don’t really care whether I have a job or not, because if I don’t have one, I can dedicate my life to other things that interest me and that give me enough sustenance to live decently.” That’s not the case right now. Perhaps we have to build that before we can say “go to hell, capital.”

In that sense, let’s bear in mind that a precondition for the French Revolution was that, at a certain point, the social network of bourgeois relations no longer needed the aristocracy in order to exist. Likewise, we must work to reach a point where we can say “we don’t care if global capital isn’t investing in Spain, because we’ve built a mutual support network that’s strong enough to enable us to live with dignity.”

Right now the rage against banks is spreading throughout the world. However, I don’t think banks are the problem, but rather the existence of money as a social relation. How should we think about rage against money? I believe this necessarily entails building non-monetized, non-commodified social relations.

And there are a great many people dedicated to this effort, whether out of desire, conviction or necessity, even though they may not appear in the newspapers. They’re building other forms of community, of sociality, of thinking about technology and human capabilities in order to create a new life.

John Holloway is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico. His latest book is Crack Capitalism (Pluto Press, 2010).


Originally posted at bollier.org

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