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.