Dreaming a New Freedom

Capitalism is in crisis… again. There is a glaring need for alternative visions of society, but few are being presented, and none taken seriously. The old alternative, the communist dream of a free and equal society, has been in a terminal crisis of its own for decades. Humanity desperately needs new dreams of freedom.

It was not so much Stalin’s terror that stripped communism of its utopian aura as it was the bureaucratic mediocrity of socialist life: the closed society, the out-of-date planned fashions, the state-mandated art forms. While Socialism in the East collapsed in economic failure and military defeat, the communist dream in Britain simply deflated.

Thatcher offered a home of your own and an entrepreneurial spirit. Socialists in Britain offered boring, restrictive central planning. They missed a sociological shift towards a new individualism, an increased desire to express one’s unique nature, especially through consumption. Where they recognised it, they could only see it as a threat to the principle of solidarity amongst the working class, the commodification of identity itself.

Socialism seems an ideology designed for a different people, living in a different material environment. Workers’ councils represent some of the highest points of human liberty, and will doubtless play an important role in any future free society. But we are in an era of individualism, in a country where there are few large manufacturing plants, at a time when decentralised just-in-time production is on the rise. Workers’ councils are not the answer to the immediate needs and desires of the people of Britain.

Capitalism as a system it is not necessarily oppressive, in that like Adam Smith we can imagine a market of small shop-owners and producers trading with relative freedom and equality. However we have seen from two centuries of actually existing capitalism that its reliance on ever-expanding pools of financial capital creates huge inequalities of wealth and power.

We could say that Capitalism tends towards inequality, and provides fertile ground for exploitation. Starting a successful business is out of the reach of most people, as seed funding usually comes from a bank loan or wealthy individuals. Most of us have to give over eight hours each day someone else’s plans. We produce for them, to their design and to their schedule, or we lose our homes.

What we need is a system that tends towards equality, and provides fertile ground for free association. It can’t be something we invent around a conference table or in long theoretical treatises – it has to be based on tendencies existing in the world around us, on the latest economic developments, on the everyday experience of the people.

The leading edge of production today is the information revolution. 20th century socialists saw huge centralised factories and the state intervention they required to stay afloat, and created central planning. We should look to the information economy and just-in-time manufacturing, and imagine a decentralised, unplanned future.

Much of the world’s best computer software is already created and owned in common. This software is called Free Software – free as in freedom, “free speech not free beer”. Free software is the result of class struggle between technology workers and technology employers – IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook. Technology workers, like a kind of cyberspace Jewish Bund, have created a true counter-culture, one that produces a large amount of value and distributes it without exchange.

This has been possible because once you own a computer, both information goods and information capital can be copied infinitely at near-zero cost. The workers have no need for capitalists in order to produce. And so we have seen an explosion in production, first of software and then of all information goods. Never before have so many working class people published so much content. The value (and aesthetic quality) of a facebook status or youtube video might be minimal, but this is the crux – copying is so cheap that there is no harm in copying a valueless thing.

More and more of this production takes place without alienation, and without pay – people are producing for the sheer joy of producing. That’s the original communist dream in the truest sense. A part of the world’s production has gone over to a communitarian ethic, not because a communist political party used the state to organise the population to record millions of youtube videos, but because the development of personal computing created fertile ground for free production.

Often, the institutions of the free software world are not even formally democratic. Most projects are run by what the community jokingly calls their Benevolent Dictator For Life (usually the project founder). Shockingly, these dictatorships do not impinge on the freedom of those involved, nor do they alienate producers from their labour. This is very confusing if, like me, your political education was steeped in enlightenment values and classical liberalism – surely formal democracy is the only guarantee of freedom?

The truth is that in a capitalist system, political democracy is a sham because the power of financial interests is always be greater than the power of the people. In a peer production system, dictatorship is a sham because the power of the producers is always greater than the power of the Benevolent Dictator, leaving the ‘dictator’ little more than a forewoman or foreman. The producers can leave whenever they like, taking a free copy of the productive capital with them. The peer production system provides fertile ground for freedom.

Free software and free culture has been very successful in a very short space of time – most of world’s smartphones and the overwhelming majority of the web runs on free software; the free culture values of producing and sharing are more powerful than the entertainment industry values of buying and consuming.

Freedom in the coming decades will be won or lost by the extent to which the peer production system can take hold in physical manufacturing, food production, and resource extraction.

Capitalists have moved more and more to computerised just-in-time manufacturing, where robotic factories retool to different tasks as needed. Technology is forever miniaturising. At the forefront of the peer production movement today are efforts to create a factory in every home, a world where the cost of a physical good is the same as the cost of its raw materials and production is completely autonomous.

Food and resource production will be harder nuts to crack. There is hope: bio- and nanotechnology are still at a very early stage, and developing rapidly. The first home biotechnology tools, computer-controlled of course, are starting to appear. In the future, these could produce food of all kinds. This century we will begin harvesting ore from asteroids, many of which contain more rare metals than the entire upper crust of the Earth.

As new technologies emerge over the next century, we must make sure that they are structured to provide fertile ground for freedom. Until recently, the main challenge was to have free software widely distributed on client devices. Google’s Android has achieved that. Now we must decentralise the network hardware so that the internet cannot be switched off by governments, as happened during the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian revolts. We must create alternatives to gmail and Facebook that allow people real control over their data.

In the coming decades, we must push our governments to provide access to any resources that remain necessary to distributed production.

Imagine if we gave every human a house, a renewable power source, and a computer that could manufacture any item or grow any foodstuff. If manufacturing decentralises far enough in a free computing environment, engaging in economic exploitation will become very very difficult indeed.

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3 Responses to Dreaming a New Freedom

  1. modulus says:

    Hi, Alistair, first off welcome to Spirit of Contradiction.

    I think you make interesting points about free software. At the same time, there’s also another way of looking at it. Arguably free software has become a sort of exploitable commons where producers work for free and enterprises can reap the benefit without contributing back, certainly not to the people who wrote the code. While the prevalent impression that free software is primarily written by volunteers is false, there’s an enormous amount of unpaid labour being performed resulting in very large profits. The tendnecy of companies to require programmers to have github profiles, or other publicly verifiable record of contribution to free software, seems to me to be putting pressure on coders to produce for free, in the hope they’ll be employed. Writers and artists followed a similar model, and it’s seldom gone well for them.

    Then there are the centralised social networks. As some say, when you’re being provided a service for free, you’re probably the product. Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter or Google+ are really interested in leveraging personal data to make money. Recently, on a summit on data privacy, the EU seems to be withdrawing from its consumer-protection paradigm and saying there needs to be balance with business requirements, and telcos are talking about selling usage data to third party advertisers. It’s something that to say the least worries me, and I’m not sure that decentralised alternatives like Diaspora can be successful even in principle, due to network effects.

    With free culture… it’s difficult to make up one’s mind. It’s true there’s been tremendous disintermediation in the last 5 years or so, culminating in the ebook revolution. Many writers and musicians get a much higher percentage of the proceeds of their work. At the same time, the previous system where publishers would filter materials, work with the writers to improve them, and try to nurture their growth, had some clear advantages. Full-time writing is very time-consuming, and not likely to be feasible without an economic return. Publishers, through advances, made sure that beginning writers could devote time to their craft and become better. Now it’s sink-or-swim: if your work sells, you get a lot more out of it; while if it doesn’t, you’re on your own.

    I think the situation is very ambivalent: even Wikipedia has been accused of deskilling a sector of cultural creation making it practically economically unviable. Still, it’s clear that commons-oriented production has to be something we place in the focus of our thinking, because it seems to me it’s a genuine change in the mode of production and it may be prefiguring future non-exchange forms.

    My apologies for such a long reply! I guess I got carried away. Welcom again, and thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  2. Samantha says:

    You provide no references to artists and writers not doing well on their own. There are plenty of counter examples. DJ Lars did a few tours without signing a record contract. Amanda Palmer had a million dollars crowd-sourced from he fans in a month to record a new album.

    There is this perennial problem in these fields that you’re only as good as your last season’s performance, but that includes musical theatre and programming too. If you expect to get paid for future performance when you can produce no evidence of your ability to provide, of course you will be disappointed. You don’t get booked to support the largest acts on your first tour gigging.

    And writing? The published writers I know did not write to get paid. In fact, as soon as writers start writing with the expectation of getting paid (and under an externally imposed dealine), they tend to start writing badly. The point of writing is to produce good writing, not to produce a good paycheck.

    I think you may need to reassemble the entire world to fit your world view. It doesn’t work that way. There will always be a need to find a way to prove yourself before you gain the confidence of the crowd.

  3. modulus says:

    True, I didn’t provide references. I’m going from what I’m hearing from quite a few people involved in those fields–which I’m not. I also pointed out that it’s working out very well for some artists and writers: I’m not denying disintermediation has positive effects too. I’m just saying it’s not an unqualified good.

    As to writers, I’ll set aside the debate of whether one can write well for money. A lot of what’s considered part of the canon today was commercially written as serials, but let’s say people write better when they’re impelled by something other than monetary considerations. That still doesn’t mean they don’t need certain means of subsistence. Time spent obtaining them is time not spent writing and improving one’s work. I’d go as far as saying this notion that writers should be freed from even thinking about business is a bit romantic, but the fact is, the disintermediation causes them to have to think about this more, not less, since they must perforce become their own management, marketing team, and so on. So they become more beholden to money by far.

    In a way the publisher system is a socialism of a sort: many authors get advances, most of which won’t be profitable for the publisher, but which are paid with the returns on very successful books. With self-publishing, authors of best-sellers get most of the pot, and those whose books don’t do well get next to nothing and lose the chance to try again which the financial cushion of an advance gave them. Authors like Charles Stross consider it a serious danger to mid-list authors. Similar case with music but more so, given music requires more equipment, more training, more resources–for studio time and editing–…

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