ads without products

the fourth box

with 8 comments

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….

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 30, 2008 at 12:57 am

Posted in open, socialism

8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. This is a really interesting post, and I’ll try and say something more later. But one quick point I think, the founding document of Free Software, the GNU Manifesto, is pretty explicitly socialist. The last two paragraphs:

    ” In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting. There will be no need to be able to make a living from programming.

    “We have already greatly reduced the amount of work that the whole society must do for its actual productivity, but only a little of this has translated itself into leisure for workers because much nonproductive activity is required to accompany productive activity. The main causes of this are bureaucracy and isometric struggles against competition. Free software will greatly reduce these drains in the area of software production. We must do this, in order for technical gains in productivity to translate into less work for us.”

    It’s also interesting that if you make this claim to a lot of free software fans they’ll accuse you of trolling.


    April 30, 2008 at 1:41 am

  2. Two additions to voyou’s note.

    1) There was a pretty quick take-backsies; it didn’t seem like more than a hot minute before Stallman was explaining that when he said “information wants to be free,” he mean “free” as in “free speech,” “free markets,” “free trade,” “free enterprise,” “free will,” and “free elections” — not as in “free beer.” (I actually think this is an unstable distinction, but it’s telling that Stallman and Brand wanted to make and maintain it).

    2) Alas, Stallman’s economic knowledge could use a bump. It’s at least partially true that, despite a “greatly reduced the amount of work that the whole society must do for its actual productivity,” it remains the case that “only a little of this has translated itself into leisure for workers.” But this has little to do with “bureaucracy and isometric struggles against competition.” As long as stuff still costs money, you need people to labor so that they can get paid enough that they can buy stuff so that money can return to the productive system, continue the cycle and pursue its fate as capital (M-C-M´ as they say). Technological in necessary labor can have no isolate effect on exploitation, and “post-scarcity” has to mean the end of wage-labor to mean anything, yeah?


    April 30, 2008 at 4:42 am

  3. People that want to do in the state. . . You mean, like Marx?

    Not that I think shareware is in the slightest bit a threat to capital. Actually, given the way that Gates got his start, and given the imbrication of work at research universities with industry, it rather seems like a good way to get people to do work for free. What’s better than a researcher who works on her/his spare time? Create little fertile zones of potlatch and then move in with your patent lawyers and your paperwork and. . . voila! free money. Which is a way of saying that it’s worse than what Jane outlines above. [I realize that this scheme runs into potential problems with regard to labor theory of value but, in the case of something like a computer program (an industry of the means of production?) it seems like you don’t really need to pass through the dialectic of exploitation. Plunder works perfectly well.]


    May 1, 2008 at 8:13 am

  4. voyou and jane,

    very very helpful as usual. Will read the document very soon…


    Yeah, like Marx. And of course I don’t think that “shareware” threatening to capital either. And of course you’re right about the instrumentalization of these practices for exploitation (what do they call that? mob-sourcing? there’ve been a strew of articles in the FT and elsewhere recently about just that sort of thing…) But I’m not sure the fact that these forms can be exploited means that they don’t retain progressive potentiality. If the very idea of freely-given collaborative work for collaborative ends is an non-starter, I’m afraid we’re left in a fairly dark place right at the start, don’t you think?


    May 1, 2008 at 9:50 am

  5. Yes, you’re right. I wouldn’t want to suggest that times aren’t dark, but in the spirit of May Day and in honor of the dockworkers striking against the war, I’ll admit that there’s a way in which these cooperative efforts could become extensive enough that they’d put pressure on the system. But they’d have to do more than provide software. In the short term, the value, I suppose, is that they seem to promise something more than what they can actually provide: free association, unalienated labor and products so abundant they are free—in other words, communism. In no way should we look down on such promises, however false. The trick, though, is to keep them from becoming what Virno calls the “communism of capital.” I mean, I enjoy working at my son’s coop preschool, but is this just enough non-alienated labor to make the rest of my life bearable? And it’s not like the coop can just opt out of the market. . .

    I do think that the state/anti-state binary needs some disentangling. My feeling right now is that you need to work both sides. This article seems like it’s heading in the right direction–

    Not incidentally, I’m giving a talk at the end of the month about this precise issue—trying to examine the ideology of web 2.0, especially among poets. My sense right now is that the “democratizing” force of the web bears a strong resemblance to the formal freedom of liberal citizenship. And it thus demands an appropriately dialectical stance—one that’s difficult to produce, at least for me, in a comments box.

    I try my best to produce that stance here:


    May 1, 2008 at 4:03 pm

  6. First of all, how did that friggin smiley get into my response?


    May 1, 2008 at 6:45 pm

  7. Very much agreed – both sides need to be worked. And, wow, a coop preschool. Very lucky.

    I think what I’m interested in – and perhaps the thing that this blog is centered on, or at least one of the things it’s centered on – is mining out sort of vernacular inclinations or anticipations of the change we’d like. Wikipedia definitely fits the bill, even if – yes – it’s not a simple model for political change in anyway. So do co-op preschools.

    I look forward to reading your piece, once I get my kiddo down.


    May 1, 2008 at 7:49 pm

  8. […] given that Empire was and is pretty much entirely correct. I was reminded of this by a post on ads without products, in which: When it gets to the stuff that lies outside of the so-called “information economy” – […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: