ox4 Notes III: Money and Patterns
This post continued my coverage of the ox4 conference (part 1, part 2). The topic of Raoul Victor’s talk was Money and Peer Production. He pointed out that money as a dominant social relation emerged only with capitalism. In pre-capitalist societies, most social relations weren’t based on money and symmetric exchange. That’s an important reminder since people often believe that money and markets are more or less neutral tools which can be used for non-capitalist purposes, since they are far older than capitalism. They forget that money and markets have never been the primary means of organizing production in any non-capitalist society, they only played minor, supporting roles. Money cannot become the dominant social form outside of capitalism, and capitalism cannot exist without money.
Raoul also explained that money is just the incorporation of symmetric exchange; you cannot abolish money without abolishing exchange, and vice versa. Money emerges spontaneously when it is needed, e.g. cigarettes were used as a substitute money in times of war. When markets are forbidden but there is no other adequate way of organizing production and distribution, black markets appear—markets in their worst form. So money can only be abandoned by getting rid of its root cause: exchange.
Peer production isn’t based on exchange (it’s based on contributions, I would add), and therefore makes money superfluous and useless in the areas where it is successful. Whenever social relations aren’t based on exchange, money disappears automatically—that’s the case, for example, in the production and distribution of free software, which is abundant and not scarce.
“Peer money” is a contraction in terms, because money incorporates the capitalist logic (the logic of exchange), which is totally different from the logic of peer production.
Today, capitalist companies are heavily involved in peer production, but they are forced to accept at least parts of the new logic in order to do so successfully. In the 12th and 13rd century there have been many hybrid forms between feudalistic and capitalist production; it’s not surprising that we’re now seeing something similar between capitalism and peer production. Then, like now, there were many conflicts between the old logic and the new one. As long as the old doesn’t manage to subjugate the new, we’re on the right track.
Money is still needed in many areas where the old logic dominates, but is has already become largely obsolete in others (such as software and knowledge). In a fully developed peer society, there won’t be need for symmetric exchange, and thus for money.
The last talk of the second day was by Franz Nahrada (photo above): A Pattern Language of the Postindustrial Society. Franz tries to connect two sources: Marshall McLuhan, who coined the term “Global Village”, with his theory of media; and Christopher Alexander, who invented the concept of pattern languages, with his theory of patterns. These are very different thinkers, but they both understand the world as interplay of related, interacting processes.
For Franz, there are different source of change which must come together—free software is not the only germ form (Keimform) of a new society. Rather, there are several important processes and developments which so far develop more or less in isolation but which need to be connected (free software, permaculture, and others).
Franz’s goal is to create a pattern language for the post-industrial society. Doug Schuler has started a similar effort (“Liberating Voices! A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution”), but he decided to fork since Doug’s patterns are mainly “opposition pattern,” about how to organize opposition against the state and the market. Franz is instead interested in positive patterns for a new, post-industrial society.
He discussed or mentioned various patterns, including: commons; fractality and subsidiarity; voluntary, self-driven culture; self-directed cultural communities; hypercycling and social hacking (solidarity economy, cooperatives etc.); living systems (permaculture, regenerative design); flexible fabrication; learning center; life maintenance organization. For me, these pattern seemed a somewhat wild and vague mixture, and no consistent picture began to emerge (while consistency and interconnectedness of purpose and spirit are distinguishing elements of Alexander’s really remarkable architectural patterns). But maybe that’s only a matter of time…
- Part 1: Notes from the Fourth Oekonux Conference
- Part 2: Open Hardware Challenges and Ambitions
- Part 4: Case Study of a Large Free Software Project
Alexander’s Pattern Language is indeed great work and very worthwhile for everyone interested in design and planning with a view to human well-being. It was developed to avoid the inhumanity felt, at the time, to be the result of modern planning efforts. It is, however, always simpler to combine „tried and tested patterns“ of good design – which is what Alexander wanted to do with his „timeless way of building“ – than to develop something really new, where mistakes have to be made. Maybe for this reason, projects really built with Alexander’s method have, architecturally considered, a somewhat reactionary feeling.
It’s somewhat typical, to my mind, of what happens when creativity is only allowed to operate on the basis of predefined patterns. (By the way, Alexander’s new book is called „The nature of order“. Honi soit qui mal y pense!)
Good point. Martin, but in this respect Alexander was not entirely consistent with himself. If you start reading the Pattern Language, already the first pattern (and Alexander highlights it with the highest category of validity, three stars!) is totally speculative and unproven. He calls the pattern „Independent Region“ and slightly makes allusions to small nations, but in fact here we have a new and totally speculative pattern which supposes a world without imperialism, dominance and all the beautiful anti-patterns that we face nowadays. There is no „casern“ or „barack“ patern in the whole pattern book, supposing that military is no longer part of our built reality. And so on and so on. For me the Pattern Language is a beautiful science fiction book like Hesses Glasperlenspiel – not about technological but about cultural progress bringing out the beauty that is already in this world in a possible world where we strive for the best we have. Yes, there are other patterns like that pretty unproven in the book and largely ignored by architects. Take „living hills“ (pattern 39) for example, a pattern rarely realized.
Alexander did not mean that he had predefined all reality. Note that the title is „A“ pattern language and not „The“ pattern language. We are called to continue this work, even in the domain of architecture. But we are also called to ground our thoughts and avoid abstract speculation.
For me, A Pattern Language is one of the five best books that were ever written.
Which are the other four?
I grant you „The Pattern Language“ as a great book, but one has to be careful in using his method. There’s a structural conservatism in it. In all his books, Alexander points out that good things can only be based on preexisting fields of influences at work, in integrating existing patterns etc. The possibility of creating something genuinely new is not granted enough space. – Already in „Notes On the Synthesis of Form“ (1964), his first book, one sees what comes of this. The first variable (of 141) is „Harijans regarded as ritually impure, untouchable etc.“ (p. 137) This is now meticulously integrated with a lot of other variables, like pattern 6 „Wish for temples“, and influences the basic layout proposed for an indian village (i.e. pattern D2, p. No thought is spared where the „wish for temples“ or the „impurity of Harijans“ comes from, these are simply taken to be there (labeled in this case as „religious needs“). Though without a doubt these needs were really felt by (most of the) villagers, the fact that a good layout might change some of these existing forces of society is discounted. The people in the community who don’t think in these terms are overruled, the structures found in the society are built in the environment. (In the book, a detailed design for an indian village is developed, which integrates all this „forces“.)
Alexander talks a lot about „life“ and living structures, about good and bad design. What he means with „life“ is mostly reverence for existing structures and forces found in life and society. Try to read „The Timeless Way of Building“, which gives the theory to „The Pattern Language“. I promise everyone a bar of chocolate who reads this from the first to the last sentence – and I’m confident I don’t have to pay because his endless chewing on bloodless metaphors („Quality without a name“) and his hate for everything modern, technological, efficient, obviously human-made etc. makes this forbidding work. In „The Production of Houses“, he recommends poor Mexicans to draw the layouts of their houses on the floor, walk through them, imagine the building, then build it with their own hands, assisted by the neighbors, with certain simple methods (i.e. every room gets a little dome!). (Only thing missing is them singing together while they lift the stones.) It’s the fantasy of a Californian of the good and simple life, but not what people want.
I read „The Pattern Language“ in great detail some years ago and was faszinated. Most people who read the book seem to be enchanted. But the results, as I said, are not that great. Try „A New Theory of Urban Design“ (1987), it’s less well known than the others. In this, he redevelopes a whole area of San Francisco with his students (as a model), closely adhering to Pattern Language principles (not to the patterns themselves, new patterns are also introduced). The result is a very mediocre, highly eclectic-looking post-historicist architecture, with lots of „nice features“ like playgrounds and fountains, but no intellectual daring or special character.