Mutual Aid: A Factor in Cyberspace

Kevin Kelly, author of the excellent Out of Control, produces Wired's entry in the Socialism Is Back genre. But he never once uses the words "Obama," "Chrysler," "TARP," or even "France." In fact, as Paul Raven writes with only mild exaggeration, "most of the article would work just as well if you replaced every instance of the word 'socialism' with the word 'capitalism.'"

From Kelly's article:

Nearly every day another startup proudly heralds a new way to harness community action. These developments suggest a steady move toward a sort of socialism uniquely tuned for a networked world.

We're not talking about your grandfather's socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government--for now....

A similar thing happened with free markets over the past century. Every day, someone asked: What can't markets do? We took a long list of problems that seemed to require rational planning or paternal government and instead applied marketplace logic. In most cases, the market solution worked significantly better. Much of the prosperity in recent decades was gained by unleashing market forces on social problems.

Now we're trying the same trick with collaborative social technology, applying digital socialism to a growing list of wishes--and occasionally to problems that the free market couldn't solve--to see if it works. So far, the results have been startling. At nearly every turn, the power of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, free pricing, and transparency has proven to be more practical than we capitalists thought possible. Each time we try it, we find that the power of the new socialism is bigger than we imagined.

In other words, Kelly's "socialism" is what other people would call either "voluntary cooperation without a conventional capitalist firm" or "voluntary cooperation without cash transactions." (Or without as many cash transactions. Most of his examples are securely nested within the market economy, even if they rely substantially on unpaid amateur labor.) There's plenty of precedent for such uses of the word, but it's been a century since they were close to common in the United States.

Given the unpopularity of the term socialism on these shores, I don't think it particularly constructive to use it to describe Kiva and Wikipedia. And Kelly doesn't grapple as much as he should with the fact that many of the platforms he cites are owned and operated by proprietary, profit-seeking companies. On the other hand, if he can persuade the trendies who've been turning toward socialism since the economic crisis began that this is what they're really for, power to him.

Elsewhere in Reason: A decade ago -- in an article titled "After Socialism"! -- Virginia Postrel discussed the "dynamist left":

Even more striking is a profound split on what used to be the left. While leftists like [Richard] Sennett are attacking economic dynamism, their erstwhile allies are finding in markets the values of innovation, openness, and choice. The counterculture has morphed into the business culture--to the consternation of both commerce-hating leftists and cultural conservatives. The left that gave us socialism is not the left that gave us personal computers and Fast Company magazine. Yet both the PC and America's hot new business magazine were unquestionably created by people who, by both personal history and political agenda, saw themselves as left-wing critics of establishment institutions. Individuals who would have no great love of "markets" if that concept implied static, hierarchical, bureaucratic corporate structures have embraced the idea of markets as open systems that foster diversity and self-expression.

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  • ||

    "Individuals who would have no great love of "markets" if that concept implied static, hierarchical, bureaucratic corporate structures have embraced the idea of markets as open systems that foster diversity and self-expression."

    Well, maybe that's because markets don't, in fact, imply "static, hierarchical, bureaucratic corporate structures." Such structures are more often a product of (or at least protected from market forces by) government interventions of one form or another. This is a fact very much recognized by smart libertarians, but often ignored by some self described "libertarians" who for some odd reason think that defending large corporations is a defining charateristic of libertarianism.

  • ||

    Mac: You're about to experience the hard knocks of a free market, bitch. Get ready to feel it where it hurts.

    Charlie: Your dick.

    Mac: No. No, not his dick. His--his wallet.

  • ||

    At nearly every turn, the power of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, free pricing, and transparency has proven to be more practical than we capitalists thought possible.

    Uh, cooperation, collaboration, openness, free pricing, and transparency, are pretty much inherent in free markets.

    Every trade is a cooperative act.
    Every business partnership is a collaboration.
    Openness and Free pricing are alternate terms for deregulation.
    Transparency is another term for financial disclosure.

    Excuse me, but what moron thinks that "capitalism" is somehow opposed to these things?

  • MaterialMonkee||

    Maybe Mutualism is the word this bloke was looking for

    Teh Intertubes seem pretty capitalist to me

  • ||

    "Socialist" and "capitalist" have been used as insults and excuses for bad actors for so long they contain as little semantic content as "fascist" or "liberal" or "Christian" at this point.

    Either you believe that the desires of an individual are paramount to the needs of the collective or you don't. Once that is made clear, the difference between voluntary and involuntary aid to other people becomes easy to understand.

  • ||

    Now we're trying the same trick with collaborative social technology, applying digital socialism to a growing list of wishes--and occasionally to problems that the free market couldn't solve--to see if it works. So far, the results have been startling. At nearly every turn, the power of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, free pricing, and transparency has proven to be more practical than we capitalists thought possible. Each time we try it, we find that the power of the new socialism is bigger than we imagined.

    Just remember, there will come a time when the advertising model breaks down and the costs of the internet then have to be borne by the users. We'll see how much cooperation there is then...

  • Joel||

    We took a long list of problems that seemed to require rational planning or paternal government and instead applied marketplace logic.

    Who's 'we', and when and where did 'we' do this?

  • not the real jb||

    Just remember, there will come a time when the advertising model breaks down and the costs of the internet then have to be borne by the users. We'll see how much cooperation there is then...

    There are plenty of us who were online before the advertising model and we long for those days to return.

  • T||

    Either you believe that the desires of an individual are paramount to the needs of the collective or you don't.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that KK falls into the "don't" category after reading this article. I also note the fundamental difference between choosing to be involved in helping develop open source software and being told your health care decisions will be managed by the collective on your behalf, which seems to escape him.

  • ||

    Individuals who would have no great love of "markets" if that concept implied static, hierarchical, bureaucratic corporate structures have embraced the idea of markets as open systems that foster diversity and self-expression.

    Sounds like libertarians to me.

    The problem is, while everybody agrees on goals at a global level, the conflict arises on how you get to the promised land. Leftists part with libertarians because lefties see the State as the primary vehicle for constructive change in society, and libertarians, well, don't.

  • ||

    The left gave us personal computers? WTF? Apple might fit the "leftist" mold, but IBM, Microsoft, Intel and Compaq do not. Those are the five big players in the eighties emergence of personal computing. It's not until the rise of Google that you find a second significant "leftist" computing company.

  • ||

    R C Dean, you make the mistake of assuming that libertarians have "constructive change in society" as a goal. Change in society is a side effect of reaching our goal, not the goal itself.

  • Jesse Walker||

    The left gave us personal computers? WTF?

    Left-wing or not, the Homebrew Computer Club was certainly associated with the counterculture.

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