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Telekommunist Manifesto: a useful but faulty map

St. Brendan Celebrating Mass on a Seamonster.

St. Brendan Celebrating Mass on a Sea-monster.

There’s a common wisdom, especially prevalent in the anglosphere, where it is, admittedly, closer to being true, that “information workers”–computer programmers, network and system administrators, and the like–have a particular affinity for capitalist ideology, in its most extreme forms as articulated by the Austrian school and so-called right-libertarians. This should be surprising to Marxists, given that, exceptional aberrations aside, information workers are members in good standing of the working class. There have been a number of explanations given to this phenomenon, from a culture of anti-authoritarianism, to self-serving justifications about the “end of history” and the imminent triumph of the market economy. They all seem unsatisfying to me, because they don’t appear to be connected to material forces: why information workers? If they had an anti-authoritarian culture, for instance, why would it develop in that particular sector and no others? Is it a purely contingent matter?

Whatever response we can give to this question–and I will attempt to address it elsewhere some time–the Telekommunist Manifesto demonstrates that there is a strong and vibrant strand of socialist thinking in the hacker community, which though not exclusive of Europe seems to manifest more strongly here than in the English-speaking countries. This work attempts the important task of linking two traditions of struggle: the hacker culture and socialism. To this end, it uses historical materialist arguments and applies them to the modern conditions of production resulting from computerisation and automation. While it doesn’t say the last word in these matters, it is a first step in a long path we must follow in order to deal with the modern instantiation of capitalism.

First off, it’s useful to point out that, as acknowledge by its introduction, the Telekommunist Manifesto is not a single unit, like the Communist Manifesto, but rather a collection of essays that was repurposed and put together. It’s also not meant to establish a definite ideological position, but to contribute to an ongoing conversation involving leftists, hackers, and leftist hackers. Whether this was intended, as some sort of isomorphic allusion to the idea of “remix culture”, or simply an accident, it leaves us with a slightly disorganised whole, which has some duplications, but also some missing holes that should probably have been treated in such a work. Perhaps the author didn’t have a sufficiently integrated vision for the manifesto, or perhaps he thought such an approach would be unwise. As a result, I will describe the core of the arguments made on the different parts, and try to infer the general conclusion for the work, which is also missing.

In the conditions of the working class on the Internet the author largely recapitulates a Marxist class analysis. There’s a good discussion on how a mode of production must reproduce its own conditions for existence, and hence in order to overcome capitalism we must relate differently, produce differently, in ways that are self-sustaining. The analysis of capitalist production has a slightly neo-ricardian and topocentric bend. By this I mean that the category of rent is deployed to explain the hegemonic power of the bourgeoisie vis-a-vis the working class. Rent, though, is deployed in more metaphorical senses that often have to do with place: property is described as the ability to control productive assets at a distance, owners are described as absent and idle, and there’s a strong emphasis placed on the state as a territorial entity. That’s why I refer to this approach as topocentric.

Against the figures of the centralising power of property and the state, the notion of networks is proposed. Markets, both as metaphor and as reality, are grounded on rent extraction, often on the basis of territorial monopolies, whereas networks are characterised by the voluntary flow of goods and services. The notion of commons-based production in pastoralist communities, perhaps taken from Elenor Ostrom‘s research, combines with the idea of distributed, trans-spatial networks, to suggest a nexus of opposition to the state. What seems wanting is a better account on how these networks are supposed to organise themselves and their self-reproduction. Although this is partly addressed elsewhere, networks of this nature seem to function on the edges of society, surviving on surplus and overhead produced within the capitalist economy. Free software is often the act of an employed programmer disposing of leisure time. Under such constraints, the efficacy and sustainability of such networks is highly contestable.

There’s also a strong and in my view misguided anti-centralist bias. The emphasis on voluntary, distributed arrangements, while not precluding coordination in principle, does seem to make it significantly more difficult in practice. This anti-centralism is emphasized throughout the whole work, and is perhaps its least attractive aspect. On the necessity of centralisation, enough has been written here recently, so I need add nothing.

Trapped in the World Wide Web is a historical review on how the Internet evolved from a peer-to-peer structure with decentralised services such as email and Usenet, to what it is today: an increasingly monopolised collection of privately owned data warehouses aggregating value from people’s uncompensated labour, engaging in user monitoring and profiling, censorship, and so on. Where this article is best is at criticising the process of information enclosures which has been taking place since the 90s, with the WWW becoming the central service in the network, the sharp decrease in competition in bandwidth provision, the generalisation of asymmetric and restrictive ISP regimes, and the web 2.0 phenomenon, which is a clear instance of capital accumulation resorting to valorising unpaid work. What’s perhaps missing is a recognition on how some of these steps have accompanied significant degrees of deskilling in areas of the economy. Previously professional occupations such as proof-reading, editing, high quality photography and typography are now being done by people for free at scale until they get them right. This is another way capitalism cuts–or rather shifts–its variable costs and undermines the potential for organised skilled labour to struggle.

The worst elements of this essay pertain to the already mentioned anti-centralist bias. The idea of peer-to-peer is fetishized to an unwise degree, suggesting that decentralised solutions are technically and socially preferable. This fails to account for the fact that such decentralised protocols have failed to keep up with the pace of technology and are largely superseded by the Web. One of the reasons offered, that capital does not invest in them because it is difficult to appropriate profits that way, seems insufficient, given that they arose in the first place. I would suggest that issues which are more difficult to deal with in decentralised settings, such as monitoring antisocial behaviour–for example spam–and a slower pace of change due to higher transaction costs (a central system can change any time, but a decentralised system requires coordination) are more likely to be at the root of this problem. If decentralised systems are desirable, solutions to these problems must be proposed. However, the fundamental problem with the cloud is not that it is a cloud, and that it runs on a large datacenter, but who owns it and to what purpose.

In peer production and the poverty of networks the notion of an exclusively immaterial role for peer production is criticised. Such an approach would make it impossible to capture value, since immaterial goods have effectively no cost of reproduction, and hence the very real and material conditions of existence, or at least subsistence, for the workers engaging in such production could not be met. Reducing peer-production to immaterial goods would be relegating it to a mere superstructural artifact, like charity, condemned to cohabitate with the dominant capitalist mode of production.

Peer production is hence, and in my view somewhat dubiously, identified as a new incipient mode of production entirely, characterised by the workers possessing a stock of productive assets in common. While a short disclaimer refers to the potential of cooperatives to engage in exploitation of each other, or to suffer it under other capitalist formations, the solution of utilising a centrally planned economy is disparaged, uncritically taking up the analysis of a supposed coordinator class from authors such as Michael Albert. The idea that a central plan would require a specific and parasitical bureaucratic caste due to nesting coordinating structures seems far-fetched to me, although it is undeniable that it is a potential failure mode. However, the proposal of collectives independently producing for use seems inherently reactionary and infeasible, taking us back to some sort of sought-for self-sufficient autonomy that never was. Such peer-production units must either trade with each other, or engage in some form of non-exchange relation grounded on some means for planning. So neither capitalism nor the plan can satisfactorily be discarded by an appeal to Emersonian socialist self-sufficiency.

The section on venture communism contains what are in my view the most interesting proposals. In order to capture and retain resources outside the cycle of capital accumulation, and by analogy with the notion of copyleft–which subverts copyright by using it against itself–the proposed structure is that given us by corporate law: the firm. I’ve written about corporate personhood before, so this suggestion doesn’t perhaps outrage me as much as it may others. The advantages of limited liability are too significant to do without, especially when, as it happens, we find ourselves in a position of weakness, having little capital to mobilise for such programmes. The fundamental problem with this idea isn’t the fact it uses corporate forms, or that it depends on the state and bourgeois law, but that the way it is envisioned it is likely to be legally infeasible in many states.

The fundamental problems with venture communism arise from corporate law. As this is a question that varies from state to state, I will simply enumerate (without detailed legal discussion, which would be out of place) some of the issues that I’ve noticed.

First off, it’s all well and good to structure ourselves as a firm, but firms under law have a profit motive. This is not to say that they can’t conduct themselves in unprofitable ways–I’m sure capitalists would be delighted should their profits be somehow legally guaranteed–but it does mean that it opens the firm’s actions up to legal challenge, in particular by some of the firm co-owners. While the firms that are being envisioned are constituted by socialists, people can change their minds, or capitalist agents can infiltrate them, and issue a legal complaint against the firm’s non-profit policies.

Second, the firm structure suggested is not easy to set up under current corporate law: incorporating and removing new members in ways that affect the ownership quotas of others are complex legal operations (secondary offerings, capital decreases, etc). Even under the less stringent forms of incorporation, it’s not likely that this could be done with sufficient flexibility. The foundation form might serve us, but it’s deeply an inherently undemocratic, as well as requiring large pools of capital to set up.

Another problem is the link between labour and corporate ownership which is inherent to this proposal. Each person is to hold an equal share in the firm, on the exclusive basis of labour contributions, but not capital. The reason this is problematic is that most legal regimes ban this altogether. Capitalist firms aren’t allowed to bestow shares on the basis of services, but ownership must be based on participation with capital. This makes forming such firms rather difficult under the prevailing legal regime. This becomes only more complex when we add that cooperatives which depend on the firm aren’t the firm’s owners, but each member of each cooperative as also an equal share. This is, in my view, undoable with the corporate law we have.

Finally, the question that seems the biggest obstacle for me is how this firm is formed at all, given the existence at law of minimum capital requirements that must be filled, if the firm co-owners are to participate exclusively with labour. This is not touched on in the work at all, and it makes the idea an interesting thing to discuss, but not something we can start doing any time soon.

The parts of venture communism, which I think can be adapted to other cooperative or para-corporate models, are the ideas of having the firm as a capital holding entity, the use of bond issuance to acquire new capital, and the principle that firm owners would pay in accordance to their use of firm resources, by auction, and get dividends from the firm’s operations. Without having a proper strategy to constitute such entities, though, this is not that much of an advance.

The second half of the book I found a lot less interesting, perhaps because much of what it discusses has already been said elsewhere. It presents a critique of the copyright regime not too dissimilar, though more detailed, than my own thoughts on culture in an age of superabundance. It has a good, though not new, critique of the Creative Commons movement, pointing out its ultimately reformist character, as a way to maintain the legitimacy of copyright. It presents a good, though not new, critique of the Free Software movement, arguing that by accepting copyright law and the myth of its utility for authors, it fails to challenge the mode of production as a whole. It points out that free software is limited to immaterial goods, and demonstrates how in practice it only works for capital and not consumer goods (what Marx would call Department I, production for production, as opposed to Department II, production for consumption, though it is not named that way in the book). It contains what in my view is a highly unfair criticism of Eben Moglen, one of the thinkers of the free software movement, who used a materialist analysis to try to justify the abolition of private property, without pretending that this would solve all problems.

Perhaps what’s most disappointing though, is a sort of neo-ricardian view that capitalism is just not being true to itself:

Without market inefficiencies, capital would be unable to capture any more than its own reproduction cost in any branch of industry. The elimination of competition is central to the logic of capitalism. Without unfair advantages, a capitalist class of owners could not accumulate wealth and there could be no capitalism.

The fundamental proposal on this part of the book lies with the idea that copyleft is insufficient to deal with Department II goods, and that these require a different licence which protects the commons from appropriation by those outside them, but allows free information and sharing within. The difficulty with such a licence, which is otherwise a good idea, is that enforcement would be rather difficult on the light of the potential ambiguity that it contains, and the necessary judicial interpretation which would be required, particularly if such an alternative mode of production becomes quantitatively significant. In the case of free software, the GPL may be a slightly atypical licence, but it is doing something fairly simple. The proposed copyfarleft licence is trying to do something a lot more complicated, and it would be a matter of debate whether copyright law can bear that weight–a debate which would have to take place in bourgeois courts and cost a great deal of money.

Perhaps the most useful reminder in the whole book is right at the beginning: Politics is not a battle of ideas; it is a battle of capacities. It’s essential to remember that ideas are not sufficient to change the world: they must become active in social relations, through an organisation capable of implementing them, with sufficient resources to reproduce itself. While capitalists hold the material advantage, especially while the power of workers is invisible, propaganda is likely to be fruitless, even when objective conditions favour us. It is imperative that we capture sufficient resources to amplify our voice, to normalise our discourse, and to be able to implement our ideas, at least in miniature. This book has a clear destination, and some outlined territory we must hold, but no viable path to get there.

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About modulus

Modulus is an unaffiliated Marxist from South Western EU (Spanish state). He studied computer science and law, and is at present preparing for civil service exams for the Spanish administration. An avid IRC user, he enjoys arguments and will occasionally play devil's advocate. He regards himself as orthodox and is concerned about unscientific attitudes on the left on such things as nuclear energy, biotechnology, and so on. His support for the European Union as a platform to unify the class struggle across the continent has earned him plenty of strong opposition, and doubtless will continue to do so; until, that is, his view is vindicated by history.
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4 Responses to Telekommunist Manifesto: a useful but faulty map

  1. Hey, thanks for this article! It’s a little unfortunate that the title and some of the framing suggests perhaps that we disagree more than we really do, hopefully careful readers will note the common views and build on them. Also, I’m actually Canadian, though I live in Berlin.

    Best,
    Dmytri

  2. modulus says:

    Hi, DK,

    Thanks for commenting (sorry for the sluggish moderation).

    Indeed, looking at it it does come across more critical than the content actually justifies. I suppose I was focussing on the issues where there are differences–but I do agree with the majority of your position, and where I disagree much of it’s probably tactical, implementation issues.

    It seemed more interesting to focus on the differences, of course. Saying “I also agree on x” all the time would be less generative. That said, I definitely respect your work and think it’s a very useful step. (Ah, and sorry about getting your nationality wrong!)

  3. Alan Avans says:

    “The parts of venture communism, which I think can be adapted to other cooperative or para-corporate models, are the ideas of having the firm as a capital holding entity, the use of bond issuance to acquire new capital, and the principle that firm owners would pay in accordance to their use of firm resources, by auction, and get dividends from the firm’s operations. Without having a proper strategy to constitute such entities, though, this is not that much of an advance.”

    Finding the killer app to make this all work has illuded us because it does seem to require legal entities that allow for such an open enterprise model as Dmytri posits, hence some engagement with Chris Cook’s concept of Open Capital. But more than this, the killer app requires a reconceptualization of the creditary relationship between producers and consumers.

    Not only does the latter not have to be difficult, it turns protest events into creditary events through the simple matter of individuals making pledges and by individuals authorizing issues of credit matched by these pledges.

    Once this is ironed out, the bond issues that Dmytri propses can make a lot of sense IF you have a two-tier federated trade credit system. You issue the bond along side an issue of trade credit that bondholders may use during the term of the bond. Upon maturity the trade credit spent by investors is off-set against the bond’s face amount, and redemption of the bond made accordingly. Voila, you just created a White Shadow banking system based on pledges and authorizations patterned after the rather excellent relationship that exists between the US Federal Reserve and US Treasury.

  4. modulus says:

    Many thanks on the suggestion to check out Chris Cook and the concept of “open capital”. Of course I have a different view on markets–I think they’re inherently untamable–but I’ll be taking a close look at the legal form of limited liability partnerships, as they may make possible a lot of the proposals on the TM that I considered legally infeasible.

    Regarding the notion of trade credit and pledges, the problem with all this stuff is how much good infrastructure it requires and how expensive dispute resolution is. Who can go to court to claim on a 10-euro share? And if one can’t go to court, who can trust the borrower not to run away with the money?

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