Analyzing mixed socio-economic systems

This is a response to “Should we worry about capitalist commons?” by Michel Bauwens . What follows won’t make as much sense if you don’t read that article first.

Avoiding the language trap

As Michel Bauwens acknowledged in an article about theories of property rights subtitled “The Ubiquity of Mixed Systems”, when we try to superimpose political and economic theories, doctrines, and ideologies on actual human society we nearly always end up needing to think in terms of mixed or hybrid systems. As he importantly noted in that article, an “arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.” It is vital that in developing new economic and social theory we work from actual examples, cases, and histories, as Michel did in “Should we worry about capitalist commons? by basing his discussion on the case of the free software movement.

Michel’s post also takes important steps in describing the relation between the socio-economic status quo at any given time and emergent relations and phase transitions. Michel writes:

It is simply inconceivable that a slave-based empire could undergo a phase transition towards the feudal mode of production, without the existence of proto-feudal modalities within that system; it is equally inconceivable that the feudal mode of production could have a phase transition towards the capitalist mode of production, without proto-capitalist modalities existing within that feudal system. It is the ultimate strengthening and intermeshing of these proto-capitalist modalities, which creates the basis for a political and social revolution that ultimately guarantees the phase transition.

This reminds me of the “include and transcend” trope in the Integral Theory of Ken Wilber and the Spiral Dynamics theory of psychology professor Clare W. Graves.

Relationships between a status quo and an emerging transition state are often reflected in their respective linguistic and rhetorical idioms. Terminology can include and transcend or it can be provocative and divisive. Often a particular terminology is chosen precisely to signify affinity with one group and/or distinction from another, as in the case of “capitalist” terminology and “anti-capitalist” terminology.

I have learned as a computer programmer that I can take a flow chart depicting the logical relations between a set of inputs, outputs, and algorithms and I can code that sucker in any one of a dozen computer “languages”. What’s more, in any one of those languages I may have alternative choices of data structures, methods, etc. for accomplishing the same ends. Likewise a crafter of detective stories can tell the same story in many different styles and structures. Then that book can be translated into any number of languages.

The underlying logic, values, relations, and specifications of the computer program or novel are in many ways more important or fundamental than the language in which they are embodied. The latter becomes important only in relation to the environment in which the program must run or the book must sell. The same is true when it comes to expressing socio-economic models and theories with language.

One of my personal rhetorical preferences is to use terminology that is familiar and comfortable to people in the center in mainstream culture, especially when I am discussing ideas that may be culturally unfamiliar or uncomfortable to many. By choosing “business” terminology that is native to the mainstream, and even native to my political opponents, I sometimes alienate my own friends on the left. But my intent is a kind of rhetorical “Jujutsu” (a Japanese martial art for defeating an armed and armored opponent in which one uses no weapon).

Wikipedia says: “‘Ju’ can be translated to mean gentle, supple, flexible, pliable, or yielding. “Jutsu” can be translated to mean “art” or “technique” and represents manipulating the opponent’s force against him rather than confronting it with one’s own force.”

Or maybe I just take a perverse pleasure in being provocative towards my own philosophical and political community. Or both.

Actually, there is a good reason for stepping on liberal corns and tipping our radical sacred cows. All too often we liberals (and especially we “mavericks”) have emotional attachments to our chosen doctrines and jargon that are not justified by actual technical utility. If we are students of history we may have observed how often old intellectual “wine” is simply repackaged in new bottles. How often does the re-bottling really accomplish anything, and how often does it cause unintended consequences such as the wine getting spilt or going sour? Occasionally the new package actually does something new like dispense single servings while keeping the rest fresh. But often it turns out the new bottle does little or nothing more than the old one did. Its the old “distinction without a difference”. (Or is it the other way around?)

In stark contrast, to actually improve the wine itself might require a long, laborious apprenticeship under a master vintner to acquire a thorough and pragmatic knowledge of soils, vines, cultivation practices, harvesting, pressing, blending, fermenting, racking, bottling, and cellaring. Within and between each subsystem there are many elemental, functional, or essential values and relations. The bottle is vital, but it is perhaps the most uncomplicated piece in all of this (less problematic than even the lowly cork), and for a wide range of bottle designs one kind may do just as well as another.

Another analogy that bears on the subject of “sustainable terminology” is a recycling and re-purposing analogy. We can conserve intellectual capital and labor by recycling our “bottles” rather than tossing the old, used terminology in the linguistic landfill and manufacturing new ones from scratch. Perhaps only a small number of cracked or chipped bottles need to be discarded and replaced with new ones. Our new, improved intellectual wine might just as well be re-packaged in the same old bottles as the the old wine once they have been well cleaned and inspected.

I may have belabored these analogies a bit but I have demonstrated how ideas about one thing, such as terminology, can be repackaged in other terminology as foreign to that subject as enology, or wine making. It is far less a stretch to repackage some new socio-economic understanding or sensibility in old soci-economic terminology with a minimal number of pragmatic tweaks and hacks.

One example I have recently seen is “copy-far-left”. This is a portmanteau, or  “hack”, of the familiar word “copyright” and the familiar expression “far-left” which signifies an ultra-liberal or radical political orientation. (The expression comes from the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly during the French Revolution. The most radical members were seated on the far left of the chamber.) But this expression and others such as copyleft, copywrong, and copy-just-right are somewhat subjective and come with various degrees of emotional, philosophical, political, and historical baggage.

I prefer instead the more conventional term “conditional copyright” which signifies a copyright that is a bundle of individual and severable rights– any, all, or none of which may be explicitly retained or waived by an author. An author is anyone who has created a work or “added value” to an existing work. It can be argued that all works are derivatives of previous work but that does no harm to the notion of an author as someone who has added value either to a particular work or to the general body of creative human expression. The latter generalization is perfectly consistent with a conditional copyright, which can serve the same purposes as any of the other copy-whatever hacks. The conditional copyright is simply any copyright that has a specification which explicitly spells out the rights that are (or are not) either retained by the copyright holder or granted to others with or without other special conditions. The familiar specification “all rights reserved” is simply a special case of the conditional copyright where the entire bundle of rights is retained unconditionally by the specified copyright holder.

A similar conditionality has long been recognized in the English and American common law of real and personal property through the same bundle of rights metaphor.

I challenge any of my liberal or radical friends to define a form of property ownership, non-ownership, anti-ownership, enclosure, non-enclosure, or commons that I cannot model with a conditional property or copyright specification without the need for any new terminology whatsoever, proving that new terminology is unnecessary for a full and fair technical or legal discourse. If new terminology is still desired it should be admitted that it serves a poetic, rhetorical, emotional, or ideological need rather than a technical or analytical one.

(Disclaimer:  the only case to which I will not try to apply conditional copyright principles is the proposition that there is no value created or added; or that any value which may be added does not require any formal or legal means of protection because  some other, informal means is sufficient. Also, I’m not a copyright attorney–these conditional copyright principles may or may not be compatible with current national statutes and international agreements.)

“The map is not the territory” (Alfred Korzybski)

Regardless of what terminology we use to discuss socio-economic theories such as “commons-based peer-production” or “capitalist commons“, we should remember that “the word is not the thing” (Alfred Korzybski). We are discussing actual social and economic relations in vivo and in situ.

In our lives we have one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to many relations–relations between people and people, people and groups, people and objects, groups and objects, groups and the environment, etc. You can find many of the same, identical relations across many cultures, past and present, spoken of via many different metaphors and ritualized/institutionalized in many different ways.

Our choice of terminology and metaphor should be audience-appropriate, but analytically and technically we need to focus on functional relations, values and criteria. We can call something public, private, civic, social, or common. We can call something a group, a partnership, an association, a corporation, a collective, or a community. But people can differ wildly about what any of those terms mean. Any distinctions we attribute to those terms really arise from a more basic and fundamental class of issues: power, rank, consent, transparency, accountability, democracy, inclusion, opportunity, sustainability, reciprocity, symmetry, justice, fairness, dignity, & etc., etc., etc. Too often when we argue at the level of public vs private or common vs corporate we are arguing about the “bottles” and fail to ever connect with those underlying assumptions, values, and relations that really make the wine what it is.

At the academic level there are heroic efforts to put economics on an empirical, scientific footing. Those efforts are largely thwarted by the influence of money and power. But at the level of public discourse economics is almost entirely a vehicle for ideology (a disease of the mind).

Michel Bauwens is taking important strides towards an interdisciplinary, non-ideological, doctrine-neutral analysis of social, political, and economic relationships and I really dig it. That is the kind of framework I want to build on. That is the kind of framework we can all build upon collectively and cooperatively no matter what our personal biases may be.

Poor Richard

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