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Archive for April 30th, 2008

the fourth box

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Being by nature a top-downer, a statist, I give some thought, but not enough thought, to the various strands of open-source, quasi-anarchistic social and political thought that’s been bubbling up during the last decade or so.

(More material from Benkler, who, to his credit, makes just about everything he does available for free on his site… In fact, you can download the whole of his book The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, which I’ve not yet read but which has been sitting in my “to be read” folder for far too long now and needs to be gotten to.)

During the video above (from the usually rather abominable TED conference), Benkler throws the following powerpoint slide up on the screen:

 

Now, the most important box is the one in the upper right-hand corner. It’s the one that Benkler claims is new, a recent development that emerges with the rise of open source software and the like. Of course he’s wrong about it being new – there have always been decentralized, non-market based economies and arrangements. Borrowing your neighbor’s ladder, giving gifts, barn-raising, communal living arrangements, self-starting communal farming – you get the picture, these things have always been with us. 

Still, we know what he means. We understand that Linux and p2p filesharing do represent a sort of giant exception to the hegemony of market-based exchanged, and that they distinctly exhibit signs of aspects of human nature that we always knew were there but which the conventional economists and political thinkers would have us believe are not and never were. 

And further, we understand what Benkler means when he opposes this fourth box not only to market-based models of economic organization but also to non-market versions, in particular that of the NGO and the government. No, if there ever was a reasons to develop an allergy to the state, that time is now, when it is ever more clear that the primary purpose of government has devolved into PR flacking and material facilitation for the military-industrial complex and oil companies, soft selling neo-liberal “reform,” and the policing of borders when convenient to corporate interests and the co-signatories to economic treaties that permit the movement of capital but not its creators.

But still, my allergy to the state is met and matched by a far more profound allergy to those (mostly the same guys as above, strangely enough) who wish to do in the state. Techno-anarchism, even when as eloquently presented by the likes of Benkler, seems in general to serve as a political outlet most appropriate to testosterone-addled tech bunnies who need neither stable work nor health care nor really much to do with the public sphere at all. Open-source politics could well be an efficient and free distributor of many things, including information, information, and information. But when it gets to the stuff that lies outside of the so-called “information economy” – when it comes to the relatively minor items like a roof over your head or food on the table or a stable income, I’ll be damned if I can see how non-market social-sharing systems are going to help a whole lot. For these open systems are mostly cash and resource poor unless they sell themselves back into the market, and then the game is fixed anyway.

So I remain a statist. But still…. I can’t help but feel that there is something to this open-source argument. In fact, tonight, I am wondering if the something in question is what is produced when the two boxes on the right, the government box and the social sharing and exchange box, are aufhebunged together into a tight little ball.

In short, while it is clear why one would want to overcome the state as it is, it is not clear that the state (or am I talking about the government – I’m not sure – but “government” certainly doesn’t sound like the right word in this case and maybe that is part of the issue) couldn’t itself be re-conceived as itself a sort of open source project, a medium of social sharing and exchange. Dare I say that it might even be rebranded – and in the wake of rebranding, reworked or replaced – as what Benkler might call a platform that facilitates just such a stance as he describes.

Another phrase to describe the result, I think, would be democratic socialism.

But lots of questions remain. Should our conception of the state follow the lead of Linux (which developed its own open system completely independently of its un-open competitor, Microsoft’s OS) or is it a case more parallel to that of the Mozilla foundation, which inherited itself from the for-profit Netscape Corporation. Of course, this only draws us back into one of the oldest and most persistent debates in the development of Marxist political theory, the one that centered on the viability of the bourgeois state apparatus for transformation into a socialist state. And further, am I simply talking about a new nomenclature (a new marketing campaign) to describe what we already know, or would the synthesis of the two boxes result in the generation of new approaches and demands?

More to think about, for sure. But for now, I’ll post and get it over with for the night….

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April 30, 2008 at 12:57 am

Posted in open, socialism