A definition and criticism of cybercommunism.

Author:Vaden, Tere
Position:Report
 
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Cybercommunism and capitalism

If we accept the notion of egaliberte (the demand for equality--freedom that transcends any existing order) proposed by the French philosopher Etienne Balibar in the context of digital technology, it can be claimed that digital information has tremendous revolutionary potential. As noted by US president Ronald Reagan as long ago as 1989 (quoted in Kalathil & Boas, 2003), 'Technology will make it increasingly difficult for the state to control the information its people receive.... The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip'. Anything that can be presented as digital code can be copied with very little cost and no loss to the original. Once the necessary infrastructure is in place, digital information is not a scarce resource. Consequently, the cornucopian digital sphere supposedly transcends the physical limitations of traditional economies.

Correspondingly, on the social level the digital world has been seen as containing the first germs of new forms of organisation that will have radical political effects. Volunteer hacker communities and the various civil society activities organised with the help of the internet have been seen as completely new forms of self-management (for theories of hacker communities, see Levy, 1984; Castells, 1996; Himanen, 2000). For instance, while looking for examples of the new multitudes they advocate as the basic models of future politics, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004, 301ff) turn to free and open-source software (FOSS) communities. When the self-organisationed nature of hacker communities is combined with the abundance of digital code, some theorists detect a cybercommunist utopia in which volunteer communities of nonalienated labour manage themselves in a post-scarcity economy (see, e.g. Zizek, 2002b, 2006a; Merten, 2000). Slavoj Zizek delivers the idea with characteristic poignancy:

However, does capitalism really provide the 'natural' frame of the relations of production for the digital universe? |s there not also an explosive potential for capitalism itself in the world wide web? Is not the lesson of the Microsoft monopoly precisely the Leninist one: instead of fighting its monopoly through the state apparatus (recall the court-ordered split of the Microsoft corporation), would it not be more 'logical' just to socialise it, rendering it freely accessible? Today one is thus tempted to paraphrase Lenin's well-known motto, 'Socialism = electrification + the power of the soviets': 'Socialism = free access to internet + the power of the soviets.' (Zizek 2002b)

More modestly, a whole school of writers (for an overview, see Lessig, 2004) has argued that in addition to the 'first' commercial economy, there exists another economy, variously called, for example, the amateur economy, sharing economy, social production economy, non-commercial economy, p2p economy, or gift economy. Even if a cybercommunist utopia is still far away--what will the hackers eat? Will everyone be a hacker?--inside the first economy, a change is already happening. By adopting aspects of the second economy, the first tries to present itself as having 'a human face'. The imitation can be observed on many fronts: schools and universities provide access to informal learning using social media tools and present themselves as hubs of social interaction rather than as formal institutions of power; nation states shift policy from traditional industry to favour competition in terms of design and high-quality experiences; and companies invite their customers to co-create their future products in a process in which innovation itself is supposedly dispersed and equalised (for innovation, see Thrift, 2006).

Again, Zizek (2006b) has his finger on the pulse when he discusses a new form of business in which 'no one has to be vile'. One step removed from the utopia of cybercommunism, Zizek calls this new ideal 'liberal communism', and these are its rules:

  1. You shall give everything away free (free access, no copy right); just charge for the additional services, which will make you rich.

  2. You shall change the world, not just sell things.

  3. You shall be sharing, aware of social responsibility.

  4. You shall be creative: focus on design, new technologies and science.

  5. You shall tell all: have no secrets, endorse and practise the cult of transparency and the free flow of information; all humanity should collaborate and interact.

  6. You shall not work: have no fixed 9 to 5 job, but engage in smart, dynamic, flexible communication.

  7. You shall return to school: engage in permanent education.

  8. You shall act as an enzyme: work not only for the market, but trigger new forms of social collaboration.

  9. You shall die poor: return your wealth to those who need it, since you have more than you can ever spend.

  10. You shall be the state: companies should be in partnership with the state. (Zizek, 2006b, citing O. Malnuit in the French magazine Technikart)

This is all well and good as far as it goes. But like many other forms in which the first economy simulates or appropriates features of the second, liberal communism conveniently forgets the essential structural conditions of its own existence. For Bill Gates to give away huge sums of his fortune in charity, he had first to collect it by ruthless monopolistic practises. More generally,

Developed countries are constantly 'helping' undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc.), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World.... [O]utsourcing is the key notion. You export the (necessary) dark side of production--disciplined, hierarchical labour, ecological pollution--to 'nonsmart' Third World locations (or invisible ones in the First World). (Zizek 2006b)

The qualification 'non-smart' reveals a crucial structure to which all cyber-utopias should pay attention: education as such, with no reference to the content and consequences, is not necessarily a good thing. Due to self-reinforcing processes of economic growth, population growth, technological expansion, arms races and growing income inequality, standardised and commodified education functions as a stop-gap. It is shocking to realise that people with higher degrees do the greatest harm when it comes to the above-mentioned problems: 'This realisation arises from the observation that the vast majority of people in crucial decision-making positions have tertiary qualifications' (Lautensach & Lautensach, 2008). And it is they who make the most ill-advised, short-sighted and self-serving decisions: 'An empirical correlation appears evident between higher education and inadequate decision-making' (ibid.).

The hunger for knowledge driven by the needs of a competitive global market is so great that it eclipses almost all other considerations. The developed world is using its information and education supremacy as a weapon in upholding and increasing economic inequality. In a recent article on the US Army's recruiting trends, Michael Massing notes how the education promised in the military service has been a great incentive for young people wanting to achieve middle-class standards of living. He offers these haunting words: 'In today's America, the hunger for a college degree is so great that many young men and women are willing to kill--and risk being killed--to get one' (2008: 36). There can hardly be a more poignant characterisation of both the local and global injustices built in to the western education system.

Information society 'for all' promises a lot: freedom and servitude at the same time. 'We' will be freed from fixed identities locked into the structures of the old bureaucracies of nation states; from the old models of one-way broadcasting; from the supremacy of the power centres. But simultaneously, freedom becomes a constraint: 'there is no alternative' to economic globalisation, perpetual networking or interactivity. This form of freedom has very little to do with actual freedom: often it is a mere facade for formal freedom; that is, the freedom to choose from ready-made alternatives. Participation in a never-ending chain of short-term projects is the name of the game.

The same holds true for information society theories and analysis: researchers need to move in a rapidly changing field almost without any firm conceptual positions, without a rigidness of authenticity and fundamental objectivity, always ready to change their viewpoints. The information society lets all the flowers bloom, as long as they are information society flowers. Thus the dilemma of these theories is in their concurrent unity and diversity: the net of information theories as well as the information society itself allows plurality, but in reality it acts as a totality.

Is it, not possible, however, that this dilemma is badly defined? Globalised liberal capitalism needs both the pluralistic markets in which anything can be sold and a universal medium: it needs the apparently smooth market regime governed by state legislation and its structural power. Is it not precisely this dilemmatic dualism that catapults global capitalism to new heights and new victories--while destroying pluralism (cf. Klein, 2002), it displays itself as a catalyst and a protector of all cultural forms (cf. Zizek 2004a, Hardt & Negri 2000)?

As Zizek...

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