Sunday, May 24, 2009

Digital socialism = capitalism.

In the Jun 2009 issue of Wired, Kevin Kelly uses the loaded term "socialism" to describe how the fragmentation of everything is giving us access to more choice than ever before.  He admits to using a word with much cultural baggage, and it's not clear if by coining the phrase "digital socialism" the result will be to co-opt and re-define the popular meaning of the word, or if careless readers will simply think he's giving a nod of approval to a dangerous meme that of necessity is associated with coercion and top-down control.

Open Source founder and guru Richard Stallman reminds us of the two meanings of "free":  The first ("as in beer")  refers to not having to pay for something. But the second, which embodies the real power of the open internet, means liberty, the freedom to choose what you like, with no coercion from a government or supplier.  Traditional socialism offers a world that is free in the first sense ("free healthcare") but not in the second ("freedom to choose a non-government appointed supplier").  Capitalism, in the original Adam Smith sense, emphasizes the second (liberty) aspect of free. The Invisible Hand won't work unless you can freely choose your suppliers and customers.

Kevin Kelly's insight is that we are moving to a world where we can have both meanings of "free".  The best things in  what the Wired issue calls the "New New Economy" are free in both senses (e.g. Wikipedia, which lets you both access and modify freely without payment).  He calls it "digitial socialism", but he wants us to think of it as a third way that renders irrelevant the old debates about traditional capitalism and socialism.

But it isn't a third way.  What Kevin Kelly calls "digital socialism" is just plain old decentralized, Hayekian capitalism: zillions of independent, free actors whose individual self-motivated choices add up to something bigger than any of us. The real baggage of socialism, and the reason I think Kevin Kelly's term doesn't work, is that it relies on coercion by a third party (government) to make it work.  Capitalism and liberty are always tightly associated because neither can work without the other.  Socialism's "free as in beer" is always associated with a strong (government) Leviathan who can (by force if necessary) redistribute from one person to another.

In the digital world, where redistribution has no cost, Kevin Kelly thinks we can remove the coercive aspect of socialism.  Nobody forces you to contribute your Linux bug fixes or Youtube videos to the collective -- you give freely and selflessly, something he believes you would never do in a world motivated only by money.   But capitalism isn't about money, as  Adam Smith himself notes: "The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it."  If Kevin Kelly's digital socialism simply means we no longer need government to reduce the cost of acquiring things, then why not use the term that already describes a system that does exactly that:  capitalism.

update: Lawrence Lessig agrees,  disputing Kevin Kelly’s word choice.  Socialism requires coercion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the following political movements are closer to the open source and free software community ideals than "socialism" as described by "95% (of Americans)".

Libertarian socialism (sometimes called socialist anarchism,[1][2] and sometimes left libertarianism[3][4]) is a group of political philosophies that aspire to create a society without political, economic, or social hierarchies, i.e. a society in which all violent or coercive institutions would be dissolved (or at least drastically reduced in scope), and in their place every person would have free, equal access to the tools of information and production.[5]

This equality and freedom would be achieved through the abolition of authoritarian institutions that own and control productive means as private property,[6] in order that direct control of these means of production and resources will be shared by society as a whole. Libertarian socialism also constitutes a tendency of thought that informs the identification, criticism and practical dismantling of illegitimate authority in all aspects of social life. Accordingly libertarian socialists believe that “the exercise of power in any institutionalized form – whether economic, political, religious, or sexual – brutalizes both the wielder of power and the one over whom it is exercised.”[7]

"Here Libertarian means extreme advocate of total tyranny. That's what libertarian means here. It means power ought to be given into the hands of private, unaccountable tyrannies. Even worse than state tyrannies, because there the public has some kind of role." - Noam Chomsky - Libertarian Socialism: Contradicting terms? |

The basic principles of anarcho-syndicalism are workers' solidarity, direct action, and workers' self-management. Workers’ solidarity means that anarcho-syndicalists believe all workers, no matter what their gender or ethnic group, are in a similar situation in regard to their bosses (class consciousness). Furthermore, it means that, in a capitalist system, any gains or losses made by some workers from or to bosses will eventually affect all workers. Therefore, to liberate themselves, all workers must support one another in their class conflict. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that only direct action – that is, action concentrated on directly attaining a goal, as opposed to indirect action, such as electing a representative to a government position – will allow workers to liberate themselves.[4] Moreover, anarcho-syndicalists believe that workers’ organizations – the organizations that struggle against the wage system, and which, in anarcho-syndicalist theory, will eventually form the basis of a new society – should be self-managing. They should not have bosses or "business agents"; rather, the workers should be able to make all the decisions that affect them themselves.