“In the current debate concerning the rise and consequences of “cognitive capitalism”, a new discourse is developing around the concept of a “social knowledge economy”. But what does a social knowledge economy mean and what are its implications for the ways in which a society and an economy are ordered?
Cognitive capitalism refers to the process by which knowledge is privatized and then commodified as a means of generating new sources of profit for capital. The centralization and control of knowledge replaces the traditional processes of material production and commodity distribution as the driving force of capital accumulation. This process is sustained and extended through the complex and ever evolving web of patents, copyright laws, trade agreements, think tanks, and government and academic institutions that provide the legal, policy, and ideological frameworks that justify it. Above all, the privatization and commodification of knowledge is embedded in the values, organization and operation of the capitalist firm.
A social knowledge economy is based on the opposite principle of knowledge conceived not as an instrument of commercial profit but as a social commons characterized by free and open access for the pursuit of social ends and what Rene Ramirez describes as “good living”.
This pursuit of a social knowledge economy is at the heart of what Ramirez conceives as the key to transforming Ecuador’s economy from one of dependence on the North and on multi-national corporations to one of increased autonomy and service to the common good through the transformative effect of freely accessible knowledge on the productive systems of the country.
What is left unanswered is how the existing organizational and institutional structures of the economy help or hinder the power of knowledge to play the transformative role assigned to it.
A key starting point for addressing this question is the premise that knowledge in a society – its creation, utilization, and value – is a construct that is conditioned by the social and economic forces that define the power relations in a community. Knowledge has always been at the service of power. Cognitive capitalism, the process by which human knowledge is both privatized and commodified, is a consequence of the overwhelming domination and power of capitalist economic and social relations, and in particular, the undemocratic and privatized nature of economics, markets, and the organizational structure of firms.
In previous ages knowledge was also controlled and monopolized, to the extent that it was possible, by king or church. Today’s information technology, combined with global corporate power, has made such centralization and control far easier and far more extensive.
If the organization and use of knowledge in a society is a reflection of existing social, political and economic relations, the pursuit of a social knowledge economy must also entail a necessary re-visioning and re-aligning of social, political, and economic relations such that they, in turn, embody and reinforce the fundamental values and principles of what knowledge as a commons implies. How then, would a social knowledge economy operate in an overwhelmingly capitalist economy?
Where is the social and economic space in which such an open and accessible knowledge commons could be accessed and made to work in the service of the broader community or for collective aims? Without viable and autonomous civic institutions committed to the idea of the commons and the production of social goods, open knowledge systems are subject to co-optation and ultimate commodification by capitalist firms as is currently the case with the internet itself.
In short, the creation of a social knowledge economy in which knowledge is a conceived as a common resource in the service of collective benefits requires the corresponding social and economic institutions that can utilize knowledge for the realization of these ends. The operation of a social knowledge economy depends on social and economic institutions that embody the same principles of commons values, mutualist aims, and free and open democratic association for the pursuit of social ends. A social knowledge economy ultimately rests on social economy values.
And, just as cognitive capitalism depends on the manifold institutional supports supplied by government policy, legislation, free market ideology, and the collective power of firms and the institutions that serve them, so does a social knowledge economy require the corresponding civic and economic institutions that can support and safeguard the value of commons, of collective benefit, of open and accessible markets, and of social control over capital as embodied in the structure of democratic enterprises, of peer-to-peer networks, of mutually supporting small and medium firms, and of civil society and the social economy.
The identification of these institutions and of the public policies needed for their development and growth is the over arching aim of this research.”