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?