Cyber-Socialism?

Wired “senior maverick” Kevin Kelly has called a wide variety of P2P collaborations a new form of socialism. For example, he points to Craigslist as a collective where the principle “from each according to abilities, to each according to his needs” may well be functioning:

How close to a noncapitalistic, open source, peer-production society can this movement take us? Every time that question has been asked, the answer has been: closer than we thought. Consider Craigslist. Just classified ads, right? But the site amplified the handy community swap board to reach a regional audience, enhanced it with pictures and real-time updates, and suddenly became a national treasure.

Operating without state funding or control, connecting citizens directly to citizens, this mostly free marketplace achieves social good at an efficiency that would stagger any government or traditional corporation. Sure, it undermines the business model of newspapers, but at the same time it makes an indisputable case that the sharing model is a viable alternative to both profit-seeking corporations and tax-supported civic institutions.

Larry Lessig is not happy with the socialism talk. There’s a fascinating conversation in the comments there, but I just want to add a “legal realist” angle to the debate.

First, Kelly’s ideological evolution is interesting. Best & Kellner’s review of Kelly’s early work reveals a naively libertarian theme in works like “Out of Control” and “New Rules:”

Kelly envisions a future with radically different forms of social and organizational control. In this future world, control is dispersed in highly pluralistic, open and decentralized systems. . . . [W]hereas Kelly is correct to see unity in all complex systems, there are also differences that he collapses; e.g., capitalism is something of a self-organizing system, but its dynamics are also shaped by class struggle, competition between major economic units, and complex interaction between economic and political institutions, unlike any natural system.”

Kelly’s chapters on the economy are wholly uncritical and say nothing about such things as exploitation or monopoly control, and not much about ecological problems. He has little sense of how power operates and of how big organizations manipulate the economy and polity for their own ends. It is indeed not clear to us how an economic system can be self-organizing when it is shaped by giant corporations, quasi-monopoly control of key technologies, and the state.

The libertarian solution often focuses on getting rid of the state actors that distort the market, and sometimes this is clearly the right thing to do. But to the extent they hope the state will “wither away,” libertarians may end up the unlikely bedfellows of those on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Thus perhaps Kelly’s move from libertarianism to “socialism” should not be that surprising.

(Admittedly, Eran Fisher has persuasively argued that “Kelly’s discourse on the network market represents a fundamental shift in the political culture of contemporary capitalist societies, from social democracy to neoliberalism, or from embedded markets to market fundamentalism.” But that was so 2007. Like John Gray, Kelly is a public intellectual with a keen sense of the zeitgeist, and even premier fabulists of market magic have backpedaled recently.)

For me, the main problem with Kelly’s new Wired essay is that he seems to assume that the “moderate socialism of Sweden” will make it possible for us all to take risks and give up privacy on the new platforms. His rhetorical method is to predict an inevitable future and then to try to get that future to come about by encouraging people to adapt to the inevitable. I’d love for this self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic to take hold. But as the Senate eviscerates progressive legislation coming out of the Obama White House, it’s irreponsible to urge people to act in ways that assume they will be supported by a more humane social welfare state.

For example, Kelly praises innovations like “PatientsLikeMe, where patients pool results of treatments to better their own care, [and] prove that collective action can trump both doctors and privacy scares.” Until the US has universal health care, those patients are taking a huge risk that they will end up in the individual insurance market and be discriminated against by insurers. Do customers have enforceable contracts from the new Web 2.0 platforms guaranteeing they will not share data with insurers? Ironclad protection against data breaches and/or indemnification in case of such breaches?

As for Lessig: I have to agree with his point that, “in America the term ‘socialism’ is a smear.” But we have to remember that treating it as such also plays into a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the book Shaping political consciousness: The language of politics in America from McKinley to Reagan shows, Hoover and Roosevelt used to fight to be identified with the term “liberal.” Labels are as contestable as they are overinclusive or vague. According to one recent US poll, “adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided.”

In conclusion: I think the key is to realize that the state is always around, encouraging or discouraging the “free collectives” Kelly promotes. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine these collectives providing food, shelter, health care, basic education, or other essentials of daily life. As Chris Sagers has said in the essay “The Myth of Privatization” (59 Administrative Law Rev. 37 (2007)):

The basic choice in the organization of society is not between organization by government bureaucracy on one hand, and markets on the other–a choice that is assumed in the privatization literature. Rather, the basic choice is between two kinds of bureaucracy, which really do not differ much at all. Indeed, the chief difference seems to be that one of them lacks even a nominal obligation toward the public interest.

I have tried to argue for alternatives to bureaucracies that “lack even a nominal obligation toward the public interest” in recent posts on search engines and health care. Those public options are not “socialism.” They’re merely an effort to rebalance some fields where market concentration and middlemen threaten fundamental values of democratic governance, transparency, and efficiency. (And for the record, I believe the threat is much greater in health care than in search, but both fields are important enough to start addressing in these terms.)

4 thoughts on “Cyber-Socialism?

  1. What Kevin Kelly was doing in his article was evangelizing the same stuff, call it “net utopianism”, that’s been around forever. Except before it was as libertarian freemarketism, now it’s the “NEW” socialism. But either way, it’s meant to be corporate-friendly exercise showing why no traditional government is needed in the happy future.

    Yes, these do meet in the fog of punditry. So focus on the result (powerless individuals who have no real way of opposing exploitation) rather than the blather.

    Look at the old/new sidebar in the article if you have any doubt he’s just relabeling tired preachings.

  2. thanks, Greg–I responded over there. The allergy to comparisons to other countries is a troubling dimensions of this I overlooked.

    I think the controversy is much closer to “lipstick on a pig” than Letterman/Palin.

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