Dam Builders and Ship Builders
Last Saturday I attended the workshop COM‘ ON! — Die alte Eigentumswelt dreht sich, see commons.rosalux.de for the homepage.
The workshop has been organized by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung which is the foundation of the party „Die Linke“ in Germany. „Die Linke“ is the socialist party in Germany. As far as I understood the Keimform people co-organized this event.
The workshop has been attended by about 40 persons. At least 8 of them were on the Oekonux list at some point. It was very nice to meet all these people again — some of them I had not met since years.
Some other people came from the broader commons debate. Most of the remaining attendees I’d consider coming from the classical left which is of course what „Die Linke“ is.
The topic of the workshop was: What does the concept of commons mean for the left in general and for „Die Linke“ in particular.
Well, I’m not really into this commons debate but my impression is this: It is composed of two discourses which IMHO have nothing to do with each other. One of the discourses is the commons based peer production discourse which is put forward by people like StefanMz and ChristianS. I.e. the topic of the Oekonux list. The other discourse is a very classical left discourse with all the same old, same old questions and approaches. Here are some aspects which IMHO mark the boundary:
- Appropriation of means of production: Part of the left commons discourse seems to be the classical discussion about power relationships. As one example the power over means of production is discussed in the form that the means of production must be appropriated from the current owners. That reflects closely the classical discussion that the working class should be owner of the means of production. In the peer production discourse this question — which is of course an important one — is answered differently: Let’s build the means of production ourselves. This is a very different approach.
- Importance of environmental issues: In the left commons discourse environmental issues seem to play an important role. This is of course part of the more recent left standard program. In peer production I can’t see that environmental issues play any special role.
- Retrial of failed concepts: One of the interesting questions to the participants was: „How are you involved in the commons on a daily basis?“ Of course I listed all the digital commons I’m using daily and producing for often enough. Many other at the table named classical approaches like people’s kitchens (Volksküche), organizations which are similar to cooperations (Genossenschaften) or gratis shops (Umsonstläden). If I add self-governed companies I guess many of those people would agree. Well, of course these things have been tried for decades. Many of them came up in the 1970-ies, some are as old as the workers‘ movement. What seems to be clear to me is that after so many decades we know that these approaches may be a nice individual niche but they don’t have any practical relevance on a larger political scale. In peer production we don’t see these failed concepts at all.
- Classical oppression and equality: One person spelled out the classical oppression topics like gender or disablement. Race could be probably also added. This persons’s critique in the commons debate was that it doesn’t include this type of inequality — or rather that it doesn’t make inequality a topic. I tried to explain that inequality escpecially in needs and abilities is central to a peer production approach. What is a project worth where all participants want the same and have the same abilities? Unfortunately this didn’t reach this person at all. I also tried to make clear that under Selbstentfaltung conditions the chance for equal chances for all are much better. But even this was refused by this person. In the end I have no idea what this person wanted — beyond: you need to do what I think is right. Or in other words: political correctness.
- Political correctness as a precondition: In another discussion a similar topic came up: People find it hard that in commons projects they have to accept people with a different political opinion. In other words: They would prefer that political correctness should be a precondition for becoming member of a commons project. Well, I saw many leftists who suggested Free Software licenses with political correctness built in. It never worked. In fact I think one of the key advantages of Free Software licenses is that they do not require political correctness on any side. Don’t let me be misunderstood: Of course there are rules in peer production projects. But these rules relate to the goals of the project and not to alienated goals like political correctness.
- Reference to crafts: In many cases there is rather a reference to (classical) crafts than to modern industry or automation. This certainly reflects the technology scepticism in the post 1970-ies left. Of course in peer production technology is welcomed and seen as a means to bring us forward.
- Ignorance of the new mode of production: People like StefanMz bring this topic up again and again: By peer production we talk of a new mode of production. Still it seems not to be heard. Or may be what this means is just not understood. Given that the mode of production is one of the main Marx terms this makes things worse, however. One hint to the latter is that this strong thesis is not even criticized!
Well, as I said I’m not really into the commons debate. But my impressions from Berlin strengthened my scepticism: There are two discourses where the classical left discourse in a nutshell is old wine in new bottles. I see that the visible peer production realms like Free Software and Wikipedia do inspire the classical left. But they don’t really understand what happens in front of their eyes. They prefer to do and think the same old, same old, instead. Like generations before them.
I thought about possible reasons for this. After all these people want to engage for a viable alternative — why do they spend their time with pointless activities then? May be the classical materialist saying that the being determines the concsiousness (Marx) applies here. Many of these people are not involved in the digital commons/peer production — probably most of them still even prefer M$. So they have no practical idea of what peer production may mean. Yet they don’t understand this concept. And look at Oekonux for another hint: Many of the most influential people are into both: Politics and technology including peer production.
An extreme variant of this ignorance of modern thoughts was the main topic of one talk. In the brand new party program of „Die Linke“ the word „commons“ does not appear at all and also the German translation „gemein…“ does appear only once. This after some years of commons debate in the left. Although this is not really surprising IMHO it makes finally clear that „Die Linke“ is not useful for a promising project. This is a pity IMHO.
The whole workshop reminded me of a picture which came up in the Oekonux debate long ago. There are two ways of dealing with the ever rising flood: Build dams to protect the existing or build ships to sail for new shores. The classical left discourse IMHO focuses on building dams. They want to protect what is. The peer production discourse is of course a ship builder approach.
I like this picture because it makes clear a couple of things. For instance that both approaches are needed. At the very least the ship builders can not build ships when there are no dams to protect them From the flood. But the most important difference this picture illustrates is this: For building dams you need a completely different set of abilities and tools than for building ships.
You even need different mind sets. Dam builders need to prefer strength, firmness, immobility and stability and are interested in the past and presense they want to protect. They fight against something. Ship builders need to prefer dynamic, agility and are interested in new horizons. The fight for something. In a way it is funny and sad at the same time that today those who think they are oh so progressive turn out to be so conservative…
I often compare our time with early capitalism. When I project the current commons discourse into this time I’d say that it is a discourse between the early capitalists and the rebel fraction of the nobility. While the first opposed monarchy the second only wanted a different king. How should this possibly work?
Well, as you may imagine there were very little to learn for me during this workshop beyond some impressions of the commons debate. However, one thought was new and after all this sceptical stuff I’d like to share it with you.
We talked about needs and an older woman from Austria told that she well remembers a time when it was simply clear that you get a job and there is sufficient social security and so on. A situation younger people usually have difficulties to even imagine. She said that life felt differently then and that even the needs were different. I think she is right. And it’s pretty obvious that you don’t need to care much about your social security if it is simply given and you can be sure that this is still the case in 20 years.
I know this effect from Free Software. I remember that in the 1980-ies I stored a copy of the Gnu Free Software onto a tape of my own although I didn’t need it. I wanted to own a copy so I’m sure I can use it if I want. Today I’d not even have this idea — because I know that Free Software is available and will be available tomorrow. And Wikipedia is available and will be available tomorrow.
In other words: these resources are part of the common infrastructure and it’s clear that they will stay. We discussed this a but further and suggested that insurance models like in health insurance or flat rate models may have a similar effect although on a paid-for basis.
[I also sent this comment to the Oekonux mailing lists in reply to Stefan’s original article.]
This was specifically the topic of the world-cafe table I hosted: „Was passiert mit den bestehenden Produktionsstrukturen im Falle einer gesellschaftlichen Transformation?“ [What becomes of the existing structures of production if society is transformed?] (I’ll publish the full protocol of the discussion here at keimform.de in a few days – update: it’s online now.)
The two positions you describe are caricatures of two extreme end points of the spectrum of opinion. „Lets just appropriate the existing means of production (MoP) and use them as they are“ is indeed the classical leftist/socialist position, but almost nobody at the table voiced it quite like that (you attended parts of the discussion yourself). Most people tended more in the direction argued for by you and me: that it’s essentially necessary to build new, and better MoP, that are aimed at producing for benefit and self-entfaltung rather than for profit. Instead of appropriating the source code of Windows and the content of the Encyclopedia Britannica, peer producers created GNU/Linux and the Wikipedia.
But obviously you cannot start from nothing. For writing free software and free texts, people need computers, and for creating free physical means of production and using them to produce useful things such as furniture and food, you need at the very least natural resources such as wood and metals, and land. So the question „How do we get the resources and other MoP necessary to create benefit-oriented productive infrastructures?“ is still an important one.
They obviously play a role. Indeed the turn-money-into-more-money logic of capitalism strives for infinite growth (which in the long run is impossible on our limited planet), while the benefit-oriented logic of commons-based peer production contains no such built-in grow imperative. Hence I think the ecological argument is one of the most important arguments why peer production is not only better, but indeed essential.
See my article „Das gute Leben produzieren“ (German), or, for English, my contribution to the upcoming volume of CSPP which should be published sometime in January.
That again looks like a caricature. I have never heard any single leftist argue that all people should be „equal“ in the ridiculous sense you imply (say, everybody should be male, 28 years old, 175 cm high, brown-eyed, and well-versed in programming, cooking, and Western philosophy). Quite clearly, equality means that everybody should be able to choose how to live their life, where to get engaged and what to do, rather then being prevented or hindered by prejudice, explicit discrimination, or lack of accessibility from doing so. In other words, equality means that everybody should be able to „self-entfalt“ as they deem fit. As such, it is an important precondition of peer production, and is also recognized as such in its theoretical underpinnings, e.g. in the hacker-ethical position that „Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as degrees, age, race, sex, or position.“
However, that peer production gets it right in theory doesn’t mean that there are no problems in practice. Quite on the contrary, as anybody who investigates why there are so (relatively) few women in free software projects and the Wikipedia will quickly learn. I think it’s very good that there are some venues for peer production that explicitly care for and address such issues (e.g. FSCONS), while I have always perceived your attempts to keep them out of Oekonux as one of the biggest weaknesses of that project.
Maybe the reason is that he can’t explain it because he himself doesn’t really understand it. At least his talk indicates this.
In his talk he says: Both capitalism and commons production are forms of producing our lifes, the things we need etc. Both of them produce things we all need and relate the produced things with our needs. No difference until here.
So then, what are the main differences, according to him?
First: Capitalism first produces, then relates to needs and this happens indirectly. Vs. commons production, where the relation to needs is done first and directly.
Second: Abstract (money) vs. concrete (common).
Third: The commodity needs the commons while the commons don’t need the commodities.
Really: If the main differences are things like the order of managing things or if one does something directly or not, then why should I care? Because what I really want and what is important: A production of things for my needs and a relation with my needs does happen in both forms of production, according to Stefan.
Hence from his talk, I really can’t see why commons production is something completely different or better. It sounds like two alternatives for the same end and the main differences sound rather marginal.
Sounds like being rather arbitrary what to go for.