Netarchical ideologies and the corporatization and marketisation of free collaboration

What could be more subversive to consumer capitalism than a mass movement of people working without pay to create free stuff for other people? But capitalists shouldn’t worry, says Johnson; they should rejoice. The innovations of the unpaid web-enabled masses may be “conceived in nonmarket environments,” but they ultimately create “new platforms” that “support commercial ventures.” What appears to excite Johnson is not the intrinsic value of volunteerism as an alternative to consumerism, but the way the net allows the efforts of volunteers to be turned into the raw material for profit-making ventures.

Part One: Framing Sharing as a business opportunity

Nicholas Carr cites Steven Johnson above as part of a new breed of business authors that seem to be motivatived by a desire to enclose free collobration and sharing practices within a business paradigm.

He also cites the authors of the book on “Collaborative Consumption”:

Botsman and Rogers are more interested in co-opting anti-consumerist energies than unleashing them. Economically speaking, they’re radical conservatives.

And he cites a review by Rob Horning who stresses that point:

“Were the emphasis of What’s Mine Is Yours strictly on giving things away, as opposed to reselling them or mediating the exchanges, it might have been a different sort of book, a far more utopian investigation into practical ways to shrink the consumer economy. It would have had to wrestle with the ramifications of advocating a steady-state economy in a society geared to rely on endless growth. But instead, the authors are more interested in the new crop of businesses that have sprung up to reorient some of the anti-capitalistic practices that have emerged online — file sharing, intellectual property theft, amateur samizdat distribution, gift economies, fluid activist groups that are easy to form and fund, and so on — and make them benign compliments [sic] to mainstream retail markets. Indeed, conspicuously absent from the book is any indication that any business entities would suffer if we all embraced the new consumerism, a gap that seems dictated by the book’s intended audience: the usual management-level types who consume business books.”

This leads Carr to the following conclusion about the ideological function of those authors:

“What most characterizes today’s web revolutionaries is their rigorously apolitical and ahistorical perspectives – their fear of actually being revolutionary. To them, the technological upheaval of the web ends in a reinforcement of the status quo. There’s nothing wrong with that view, I suppose – these are all writers who court business audiences – but their writings do testify to just how far we’ve come from the idealism of the early days of cyberspace, when online communities were proudly uncommercial and the free exchanges of the web stood in opposition to what John Perry Barlow dismissively termed “the Industrial World.” By encouraging us to think of sharing as “collaborative consumption” and of our intellectual capacities as “cognitive surplus,” the technologies of the web now look like they will have, as their ultimate legacy, the spread of market forces into the most intimate spheres of human activity.”

Nicholas Carr is an eminently reactionary thinker, but an intelligent one, but who usually frames his critiques in an exagerrated manner that provokes reactions.

Please note that both Steven Johnson and Rachel Botsman have replies in the comments, disagreeing with what they feel is the unfair and unbalanced characterization of Nicholas Carr:

Rachel Botsman writes for example (excerpt):

“In terms of detail, my reaction to the comment (“….having raised the specter of an anti-consumerist explosion, Botsman and Rogers immediately defuse the revolution they herald”) is to say that it depends on what you mean by “immediately”. In case your comments on What’s Mine is Yours seem to based entirely on the Horning review, the first section of the book takes a heavy swipe at the current unsustainable model of consumerism. Elsewhere, the book devotes considerable attention to non-profit ventures like Landshare, Freecycle and Timebanking that are using technology to facilitate sharing and that collectively represent the nascent (I emphasize nascent) stages of a redefinition of the relationship between citizens and society.

One of the key strands examined in the book is the promise that collaborative consumption will ultimately drive the life-cycle of products to extend in ways that will eventually force companies to drastically reposition the longevity vs. obsolescence fulcrum in the products they produce. Personally, I welcome this promise. If collaborative consumption helps to bring forward the day when a light bulb lasts for 1000 days instead of 500 hours, I’ll be happy. If collaborative consumption helps a new generation of designers to think differently about how shared products can be personalized, upgraded, repaired etc or how products are not required at all to fulfill a need, I will be VERY happy.”

Part Two:; Framing a correct attitude towards enterpreneurship, business, and capitalism

Commentary by Michel Bauwens:

Whatever its exagerrations, Nicholas Carr does point to a real point of debate and division amongst those that favour openness, sharing, and the commons as social practices.

It’s important to note that these are first of all social practices, and though these are not value-less, people from different sides of the political spectrum can love and adhere to those practices.

People with leftist leanings will typically like the communal aspects of the new practices; while people on the right will love the free initiative, i.e. enterpreneurship, that is linked to these practices; people on the left will insist on the aspects of the new practices that transcend capitalism and its ideology; while people on the right will insist on how it not only accomodates with business practices but promotes wealth.

Here I would like to outline the kind of attitude I have favoured within the dialogical community of the P2P Foundation:

* the dialogue must be pluralistic and honour all those who approve of the practice, within the limits of civil discourse

* communities, markets and states are all part of our lifeworld, and we must all deal with it, and somehow accommodate them for the sake of our livelyhoods and those of our families, communities, and projects; it is likely that they will continue to play a role even if a post-capitalist world comes to be

Nevertheless, I personally add the following basic attitudes:

1) capitalism, as an infinite growth system that does not take into account negative environmental and social externalities is not compatible with the survival of the biosphere and our species, and is headed, at most in a few decades, towards some form of self-destruction

2) markets, have pre-existed and will probably survive the destruction of capitalism; markets are simply one of the ways to allocate scarce resources

3) communities and commons can accommodate, cooperate and even honour market players who acknowledge the rules and norms of a commons, and contribute to its sustainability

4) nevertheless, profit maximisation is unethical and should be subsumed to ethical goals and the benefit of the common good

5) peer communities should preferentially choose for those enterpreneurial forms that honour the value systems of the commons, and even create their own vehicles, phyles, as ideally, the people who create the value should also be the
people who realize the value

6) peer to peer is the most economically, politically and socially productive mode of value creation presently available to humankind and is part of an important emancipatory process; in the last analysis, this makes it incompatibe with the eternal continuation of a system where inequality and injustice are structrural features

7) it’s aim is to supersede capitalism and to embed market structures in a higher ethical superstructure that acknowledges the common good

8) in order to achieve this transformation to a civilisation and political economy where the commons and peer production are at its core, we need to develop a new and broad social hegemony, and this entails seeking commonality with a wide variety of social forces, including progressive entrepreneurs, genuine conservatives, including forces they may nominally claim they are in favor of ‘capitalism’ (but in practice mostly mean ‘markets’)

9) we have to acknowledge that it is frequently a positive thing for peer communities in particular, and the growth of peer production generally, when it is taken up by entrepreneurial forces, even as they themselves supporters of profit maximisation

With all these caveats in mind, it is still important to recognize the distinction between those social forces 1) who are simply interested in ‘exploiting’ peer to peer practices; 2) want to limit peer to peer practices to what is compatible with the continued existence of a infinite growth system.

Netarchical capitalism, as a concept, not only is meant to convey that sections of capital, understand the importance of peer production to their own viability and profitability, but also to denote ideological efforts to keep peer production within the bounds of, and eternally subordinated to the market system.

In my view, then the key to judge the works of people like Don Tapscott, Steven Johnson and Rachel Botsman, is to go beyond their own focus on market-friendliness but to see whether they honor the autonomy of peer production communities, the fair exchange between the commons and entrepreneurial entities; and if their imaginary is compatible with peer production and the commons taking a core role in our society, rather than a subordinated role.

I have not read any of the three works mentioned by Nicholas Carr, so I have to withhold any judgment on this. But even if I would disagree with their staying within the bounds of the present system, this would not preclude dialogue and mutual learning.

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