Neo-Progressivism watch: online collectivism as the 3rd way that works

Just finished reading Kevin Kelly’s piece The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online in Wired Magazine. It talks about the same themes Taylor and I were trying to surface Progressivism’s End and I suspect we agree with Kelly’s in many regards.

Taylor and I talked about how the left (now old left) killed progressive politics and how progressive politics is re-emerging in new forms (I had wanted to use Mozilla as a mini-case, but came to it too late). Kelly’s piece deals less with the past and focuses exclusively on the nascent politics that is emerging in the online space:

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.

When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.

Maybe. I think the socialism label takes the argument a bit far. Kelly’s piece portrays open source and collective online projects as disconnected from capitalism. Certainly in the case of open-source, this is a strained argument. While motivations vary, many people who fund and contribute to Firefox do so because having an open browser allows the web – and all the commerce conducted on it – to be open and competitive. Same with Linux, between 75%-90% of contributors are paid by their employers to contribute. As Amanda McPherson, director of marketing at the Linux Foundation notes: “They’re not the guys in the basements, the hobbyists.” Consequently, many open-source projects are about preserving an open platform so that value can shift to another part of the system. It is about allowing for better, more efficient and more open markets – not about ending them.

Still more difficult to believe is Kelly’s assertion that “The more we benefit from such collaboration, the more open we become to socialist institutions in government.” If there is one political philosophy that is emerging among the online coders and hackers it isn’t socialism – it is libertarianism. I see no evidence that socialism is making a comeback – this is where Kelly’s use of the term hurts him the most. If we are seeing anything it is the re-emergence of the values of progressive politics: a desire for meritocracy, openness, transparency, efficiency and equality of opportunity. The means of achieving this is shifting, but not back towards socialism of any form.

One area I strongly agree with Kelly is that neo-progressivism (or as he prefers, the new socialism) is strongly pragmatic:

On the face of it, one might expect a lot of political posturing from folks who are constructing an alternative to capitalism and corporatism. But the coders, hackers, and programmers who design sharing tools don’t think of themselves as revolutionaries. No new political party is being organized in conference rooms—at least, not in the US. (In Sweden, the Pirate Party formed on a platform of file-sharing. It won a paltry 0.63 percent of votes in the 2006 national election.)

Indeed, the leaders of the new socialism are extremely pragmatic. A survey of 2,784 open source developers explored their motivations. The most common was “to learn and develop new skills.” That’s practical. One academic put it this way (paraphrasing): The major reason for working on free stuff is to improve my own damn software. Basically, overt politics is not practical enough.

As we wrote in an early draft of Progressivism’s End:

Having lost, or never gained, hope in either partisan politics or the political institutions that underlie the modern state, much of this generation has tuned out.  Driven by outcomes, neo-progressive’s are tired of the malaise of New Deal institutions. Believing, but with a healthy dose of skepticism, in both the regulatory capacity of the state and the effectiveness of the market economy, they are put off by the absolutism of both the right and left.  And, valuing pragmatism over ideology, they are embarrassed by partisan bickering.

The simple fact is that in a world that moves quickly, it is easier than ever to quickly ascertain what works and what does not. This gives pragamatists a real advantage over theoretically driven ideologues who have a model of the world they want reality to conform to. Kelly may be right that, at some point, this neo-progressive (or new-socialist) movement will get political. But I suspect that will only be the case if a) their modes of production are threatened (hence the copyright was). I suspect they will simple (continue) ignore the political whenever possible – why get them involved if you can achieve results without them?

8 thoughts on “Neo-Progressivism watch: online collectivism as the 3rd way that works

  1. rabbit

    What is intereresting is that there are many developments that are supported (or at least not opposed) by both the left and the right:- Open-source software.- Broad-based stock ownership via low-cost trading.- Democratization of journalism via blogs.The common denominator is that there is no compulsion by government. People do these things of their own volition, and government has little involvement. This property, of course, is essential to libertarians.

  2. Havvy

    I would say calling most open source projects socialist would be a huge misuse of the term. Socialism implies top-down rule, whereas in most open source communities, it is the bottom-up structure that works.It is also not socialism because there is no explicit force. No open source application is attempting to force others to use it, only to persuade them to use it through the usage of logic. Nor would an group strong enough to do so, work in an open source manner.The New Deal type programs are actually the most socialist programs in America.Kelly's assertion, “The more we benefit from such collaboration, the more open we become to socialist institutions in government.”, can be proven wrong by looking at the difference between forced collaboration, and free collaboration. Free collaboration leads to a prospering civilization, whereas forced collaboration leads to a corrupt and weak society.

  3. dr belgon

    Kelly is wrong to say socialism is centralised. Socialism has never been achieved. 'True' or 'pure' socialism is complete decentralisation – no government, money, etc. Marx configured socialism to be an enlightened anarchy.This point aside, you touch on a major concern I have with the Web 2.0 hysteria. Figures about facebook membership get pumped out as if we should be in awe, but consider the average facebook user – what do they bring to me? Social networks don't link everyone in, they link a person to their friends and colleagues. Aggregators on the other hand have a use, but only in the sense that they are giant water-coolers where you can see what everyone is gossiping about.There is so much hype centred on social networking and blogging as democratised journalism, but when you look at the amount of facebook/twitter updates that run along the lines of 'omg got sooooo wasted last night', and the vast proportion of utterly dreadful and irrelevant blog posts that plague the internet, what are we really gaining? My suspicion is far less than Web 2.Woah-ers would have us believe.(I am, of course, posting on a blog I found through my subscription by rss to an online magazine which I read using an online reader which facilitates my sharing of interesting things with my immediate online community, so I'm hardly practicing my preaching here)Your point about the paid Linux contributors was excellent.

  4. Dax

    What Wired seemed to miss completely was that the “social sharing” actually has benefits that fit in with more classical, liberal views of capitalism (Thomas Paine, Jefferson): the contributors actually get rewarded for their merit by receiving prestige, recognition, job opportunities, ad revenue, and the likes. This does not fit in with the label of socialism, at all. It is more akin to the classical liberalism of Paine, Franklin, etc., or the meritocracy of science (come-on, you do not work in academic research for the money!).It follows ideals of the enlightenment in which the individual and the individual's self-development is centralized, in stead of some forced form of “sharing” (i.e. theft in the name of whoever is in power deems to be the greater good).

  5. Patrick

    A few comments:It seems a common error to conflate socialism and communism – the latter of which was the notion Marx wished would come about sooner rather than later. Further, it is a furphy to claim that socialism 'forces' cooperation. The very notion of socialism is that people come together to produce and create. Force is not necessary because the benefits outweigh no joining. Further, the claim of 'personal development' being somehow more akin to liberalism misses the point that Marx identified alienation as the RESULT of not being separated from the outcome of one's labour. That is, by being part of a large organisation, the individual is sequestered into a section of production where they cannot express themselves and do not see a direct correlation between their labour and the outcome. Large capitalist style organisation can only exist when they take your labour (whether that be intellectual or physical) and obtain a greater remuneration than they pay to you. The very basis of socialism is that individuals are not reimbursed according to their efforts, but are alienated from production, from the output AND the means. Marx was also a believer in the Enlightenment and hoped: “…that the tools of the Enlightenment – the application of scientific and systematic forms of reason – would lead to 'a comprehensive emancipation of humankind'” (Hughes, Martin, Sharrock, 1995: 218).He also believed in human nature as “…dominated by spontaneous, free activity which is required “… to assert his true individuality…” (Marx and Engels, 1984 [1844b]: 115).Socialism is a force for the benefit of individuals as opposed to capitalism, which is for the benefit of the owners of the means of production. This is not YOU, unless you own a company, factory or even shares. Things which mean that you determine (to a considerable extent) the path and nature of what your employees will do.Another point is the following. Though a great many people are paid for working on Linux distributions, the great majority are not. Debian for instance, anyone? Not only this, but the people who make the applications are predominantly unpaid and are provided assistance by people who are unpaid.…Citing the above, even if the majority of persons working on the kernel (note: the kernel, not the GUI, not the applications) are paid, this says nothing about the remaining people who produce the the rest of the parts that make up each distro.

  6. rabbit

    Open-source software is a straight-forward application of copyright law. It's free people excercising their property rights. It's no more inherently socialist than someone donating to charity.

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