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Plastic rubbish garbage pollution in ocean causes environmental problem

We’re now into the second week of The Lives and Afterlives of Plastic, an onlinbe conference that I’m helping run as part of the Political Ecology research Centre at Massey University.

This week, we have a Keynote from Professor Gay Hawkins entitled Governed By Plastic, as well as having four panels. These look at 1) Packaging Life Cycle Analysis and Design, 2) Representations and Aesthetics, 3) Materiality and 4) Marine Microplastics.

It’s been wonderful watching the diverse and brilliant ways that people have responded to and challenged the idea of what an online version of a conference paper might look like, and it’s been fascinating to watch and hear about such a broad range of projects relating to plastic.

It’s also been really interesting to see how the diverse forms of scholarship form the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities speak to one another.

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plastic polymer granules

This week sees the launch of an online, interdisciplinary conference that I’ve been involved in organizing as part of the Massey University Political Ecology Research Centre. It’s called The Lives and Afterlives of Plastic, and it focuses on the broad range of issues that pertain to plastics, waste, toxicity and pollution.

We’re pleased to say that we’ve got presenters from fields ranging from marine biology and toxicology through to media studies, fine art and anthropology, so there’s a real mix of fields and areas, and will be fascinating to see how that mix of voices works together in the discussions.

The first week of the conference has a keynote from Richard Thompson, who’s one of the world’s top experts on marine plastics, which is titled Marine Debris: Are There Solutions to this Growing Problem?, along with panels the look at the amazing an inspirational Civic Laboratory of Environmental Action Research, a feminist science lab in Newfoundland, Canada, Marine Plastics, and Representation and Aesthetics.

I’m really looking forwards to seeing these presentations, and taking part in the online discussions around them. Being in New Zealand can be quite geographically isolating (especially compared to the UK, where so many researchers and institutions are so close), and online conferences might be a really useful way of allowing us to stay connected to our overseas colleagues without having the ecological (or for that matter economic) cost associated with getting on a plane and flying halfway across the world. Indeed, when the University of California Santa Barbara Environmental Humanities centre ran a similar online conference last year, they estimated that this only involved around 1% of the carbon footprint associated with a traditional conference.

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On Friday journalist Paul Mason published a fairly long article in the Guardian entitled ‘The End of Capitalism Has Begun.’ It features some interesting thoughts, and will hopefully help disseminate some ideas which have been floating about in academia for quite a while to a broader audience. That said, there are a few things in the piece which I think are somewhat naieve and require a response to.

The main thrust of Mason’s argument is that capitalism is inevitably on the way out because of several social changes being wrought by contemporary networked information processing technologies. Firstly, Mason argues that because of the increased levels of automation brought by digital systems, there will be a dramatic reduction in the volume of work required within a society. Secondly, he argues that the fundamental laws of economics have been broken by an information economy within the contemporary state of informational abundance. Finally, he argues that ‘cognitive capitalism’ is predicated on a mode of collaborative and networked social production which itself is contradictory to the type of individualised wealth production associated with capitalism.

The first of these points is hardly new. The displacement of labour from humans into various forms of machinery is, of course, something which has occurred for at least a couple of hundred years, as was presciently observed and described by Karl Marx (in the Fragment on Machines, a text which Mason cites later in his essay). Alongside the ongoing historical transformation of production processes, there have always been the claim that technology will make everyone’s life better by reducing the need for arduous and boring labour tasks, instead freeing humanity to enjoy increased levels of leisure time accompanied by a higher level of material wealth and comfort. And whilst there are certainly some humans who are in that situation today, we could also point to the increasing precariousness of work, particularly within neoliberal economies where full employment has never been an important goal, as a reminder that decreasing the overall level of manual labour does not necessarily entail benefits for all.

Rather than seeing work and wealth equally being divided amongst citizens, today we instead find millions of unemployed or underemployed humans who are effectively used as an industrial reserve force to reduce any demands for increased wages, reduced working hours and other kinds of benefits which were associated with the collective action of the twentieth century trade union movements. Whilst a relatively small number of humans become more materially wealthy than any of their predecessors, this occurs alongside a growing inequality between the global super rich and everyone else. As research last year found, the richest 85 individuals on the planet now own more than the poorest 50% of the global population, around 3.5 billion people.

Additionally, in a ‘creative’ ‘digital economy where communicative acts are themselves commodified over corporate social networks, what does and does not count as productive work is itself problematised. Theorists ranging from autonomist Marxists such as Franco Berardi through to cyberutopian capitalists such as Clay Shirky have argued that what used to count as leisure time is now a key motor of wealth generation, as your online ‘leisure’ activities are used to tailor personal, location-aware advertising to your behaviour.

Which brings us to Mason’s second point, that economics is predicated upon scarcity, and that the current abundance of information demarcates that we have entered an era where traditional economic theory cannot adequately function. Again, rhetoric surrounding the end of the economics of scarcity is not new, but such thinking fundamentally fails to grasp the dynamics of scarcity surrounding informational systems, and systems is a key word here, because economics is about circulation and flows, not a single thing (be it information, energy or anything else). Information is certainly a crucial component of digital networked ecologies, and the volume of contemporary information – what Mark Andrejevic and Berardi have both described as information overload – is certainly not one of scarcity, but the key is to think in systemic terms as to what type of scarcity is generated as a consequence of the abundance of information. The answer, is that human attention is what become scarce when information is abundant.

Indeed, the notion of the attention economy is not that new, with early versions of the term being deployed by authors such as Michael Goldhaber and Georg Franck around the turn of the century. For an excellent overview of contemporary debates surrounding economies of attention I would suggest reading this article by Patrick Crogan and Sam Kinsley. The key point, is that far from rendering the economics of scarcity redundant, what we instead find is that the abundance of online information means that human attention is increasingly scarce and thus becomes a desirable and lucrative commodity, which is why heavily targeted online advertising is a booming multi-billion business, one which ventures such as Google’s search engine, Facebook, YouTube and other major online players are almost entirely dependent upon for their revenues and astronomical market valuations.

The third point Mason raises, that online networks are predicated upon modes of social cooperation and collectivity which are contradictory to the mode of capitalism they are located within, and thus contain the seeds of a new social system which will eventually replace capitalism itself, is arguably the most complex and interesting point he raises. However, this too is hardly a new statement, as it is one of the central tenets of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s triad of books Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth, as well as being an argument which has been raised in differing forms by theorists such as Bernard Stiegler (via the economy of contribution) and Michel Bauwens (via peer-to-peer production). I wont go into these positions in much detail here, but what I do think is worth highlighting is that many of these claims about biopolitical production, economies of contribution and peer-to-peer production were originally made quite a while ago (Empire was released in 2000), and that since those times, there has been the emergence of the the big corporate social media players whose financial model is entirely predicated on the exploitation of the free cooperative labour of their users.

This isn’t to say that people don’t get anything from Facebook (basically some cost-free server storage, a fairly clean user interface, and access to the billion-plus strong Facebook network), but that Facebook’s market valuation of over 250 billion US dollars is entirely built upon its ability to commodify the social relationships of its users. Far from existing outside of, and in opposition to a capitalism which is wrongly assumed to by monolithic and rigid, we see the way that capitalism (which depends upon finding new areas to provide growth) has found a way of extending what it understood to be a commodity, so that many aspects of our social lives, which were previously thought to be intangible, unquantifiable and thus could not be monetised, are now major players in global financial markets.

Indeed, whereas during the early days of the internet, the underlying technology itself and the modes of cooperation it made possible such as the distributed mode of production that underpins Free and Open Source software were seen as radical new technologically-enabled alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, what we have seen more recently has been the way that capitalism has been able to find novel ways of reintegrating these innovations into financial markets, such as the way that Google utilises open source software outside of search in areas such as Android and Chrome. Indeed, one of the most interesting analyses of contemporary capitalism comes from Jodi Dean, who argues that our current era is marked by a stage of communicative capitalism, whereby far from forming alternatives to global capitalism, participation in networked digital telecommunications has become a central driver of the capitalist economy.

Mason surmises his argument by stating that:

The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information; and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy: between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next

This presents a straightforward binary opposition between network and hierarchy, between the new, good digital ways which point towards a postcapitalism and the bad, old ones which represent our capitalist past and present. However much I might wish this to be the case, and it would be really lovely to think that current technologies will inevitably lead to the replacement of a system of gross global social inequalities and catastrophic climate change with something better, I find the kind of technological determinism present in Mason’s essay to be blinkered at best. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari remind us in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, it is not a case of opposing hierarchical models with networked and decentralised ones, but a case of understanding how these two tendencies occur in different ways in actual systems which are almost always a combination of the two.

Thinking this way means mapping the new hierarchies and modes of exploitation associated digital technologies whilst also looking for the lines of flight, or positive ways of transforming the situation that the new technological formations present. That doesn’t mean that there can be no hope for change that involves technology, but that positing this situation as a good/bad binary opposition, or suggesting that technology itself holds essential characteristics which will necessarily transform society in a particular direction is a misguided approach. Indeed, some of the most interesting materials coming out of the P2P foundation recently have argued that openess is not enough, that just making things open or collaborative can lead to growing inequalities as the actors with the most attentional, algorithmic and economic resources are ususally those best placed to leverage open data, open culture and open source ventures. Alongside openess, they argue that we need to think about sustainability and solidarity in order to bring about the type of social and ecological transformation that would mark the end of capitalism. That to me sounds like a far more productive call to action than simply gesturing towards the digital technologies whose introduction has not thus far been accompanied by a more egalitarian and sustainable global society.

 

 

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Arts of the Political is the new release penned by cultural geographers Nigel Thrift and Ash Amin, and which explores various manifestations of left wing politics and political movements in order to consider why movements based around equity and community have seemingly achieved so little over the past thirty odd years in the face of neoliberalism. Indeed, this question is particularly pertinent given the financial crisis of 2008, and the inability of the left in places such as the UK (where both Thrift and Amin teach at Warwick and Cambridge respectively) to form a movement seemingly capable of enacting widespread positive changes, or even mounting a serious campaign to challenge the Conservative narrative of enforced austerity as a means for enacting further cuts to public services – a policy David Cameron has recently felt sufficiently emboldened to openly state is a reflection of ideology rather than a situation enforced by economic circumstances.

One might argue that the sweeping cuts made by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition are a prime exemplar of what Naomi Klein has termed the shock doctrine – the neoconservative leveraging of moments of critical instability to enact sweeping changes which increase inequality and benefit elites through privatisations which would likely be too unpopular to pass outside of these specific moments. The question then, is why has the right been so successful at exploiting these opportunities whilst the left has not.

For Thrift and Amin, the answer is primarily that the left has historically been successful when it has been able to articulate new visions, new desires and new organisations which expand the terrain of what is understood to be politics itself, and by doing so energises mass movements through articulating the possibility for a better collective future.

 Movements campaigning for the rights ofwomen, the working class, and other neglected and downtrodden subjects managed to turn engrained orthodoxies on their head in the quarter-century before the First World War by building mass support and accompanying socio-political reform. Although these movements applied particular principles and practices, the record shows that their acts of redefinition went far beyond what was originally intended. These movements freed up new imaginations, invented new political tools, pointed to elements of existence that had been neglected or concealed, and created a constituency that, once constructed, longed for another world. In other words, these movements produced a new sense of the political and of political potential. 1he emerging Left both opened the doors of perception and provided the tools with which to do something about these new perceptions. This is what was common, in our view, in the disparate examples we consider, from the American Progressive Movement and British feminism to German Marxism and Swedish social democracy. In their own way, each of these movements disclosed new desires.

The thesis that drives this book is that progressive movements should pay more attention to such world-making capacity, understood as the ability not just to produce a program in the future but also to open up new notions of what the future might consist of. The most important political movements, in our estimation, are those that are able to invent a world of possibility and hope that then results in multiple intertventions in the economic, social, and cultural, as well as the political sphere. They free thought and practice and make it clear what values are being adhered to, often in quite unexpected ways. p9

Thrift and Amin contend that three areas (or arts) of the political which it is crucial for the left to pay close attention towards are invention, the process of bringing forth tangible futures which hold the promise of a better life; organisation, the practices which are used to bind and articulate these movements; and the mobilisation of affect, considering the ways that political decision making goes beyond rational information processing:

In particular, we consider the whole phenomenon of what Walter Lippmann (1961) called the manufacture of consent: how it is being bent to the needs of the Right and how it could be mobilized more effectively by the Left. At the same time, we attend to how the consideration of affect brings space into the frame. A whole array of spatial technologies has become available that operate on, and with, feeling to produce new forms of activism, which literally map out politics and give actors the resources to kick up more and across more places.3 In other words, the practical mechanics of space must be part of the politics of the Left. p15

Thrift and Amin begin by exploring a range of historical examples whereby left wing politics was able to achieve the kind of redefinition of the political they seek, considering the German Socialism of the SPD before world war 1, Swedish Social Democracy, the British Suffragette movement, and progressive capitalists in the US circa 1900. Thrift and Amin contend that:

In all cases, progress depended on prizing open newpolitical ground and filling it with real hope and desire. Appeal and effectiveness-at a time heavily laden with the weight of tradition, vested power, restricted social force, and new capitalist imperative-had to come from an ability to imagine and build community around the yet to come or the yet to be revealed. This meant inventing new historical subjects, new technologies oforganization and resistance, newvisions of the good life and social possibility, new definitions ofhuman subjectivity and fulfillment, and new spaces of the political (such as “direct action,” “voting,” “public involvement,” “class struggle,” “welfare reform,” “government for the people,” “women’s rights”). A possible world had to be fashioned to render the old unacceptable and the new more desirable and possible. The Left today seems to have less desire or ability to stand outside the given to disclose and make way for a new world.

In seeking to formulate areas where there is the potential for opening up analogous new political spaces, Thrift and Amin incorporate theoretical material from Bruno Latour regarding the status of democracy and agency with regards to nonhumans, arguing that the traditional binaries between sovereign human subjects and inert and passive nonhuman objects is an area which can productively challenged by a revitalised left wing politics.

bow. We want to take up Bruno Latour’s (1999) call for a new parliament and constitution that can accommodate the myriad beings that populate the world, a call that entails acts of definition and redefinition of “actor” so that many humans and nonhumans can jostle for position, gradually expanding the scope and meaning of”collective”
politics. p41

This leads T&A to consider the human as a distributed being, whose processes of cognition stretch far beyond the boundaries of the skin, coming close to Deleuze and Guattari’s positions around ecological machinic flows of matter. Arguing from a position which begins to sound fairly close to some of Bernard Stiegler’s work, they contend that:

Human being is fundamentally prosthetic, what is often called “tool-being.” We are surrounded by a cloud ofall manner of objects that provide us with the wherewithal to think. Much ofwhat we regard as cognition is actually the result ofthe tools we have evolved that allow us to describe, record, and store experience. Take just the example of the craft of memory. 1his has extended its domain mightily since the time paintings were made on the walls of caves, and as a result, a whole new means of thought has come into being…

Memory is a compositional art depending on the cultivation of images for the mind to work with. This state of affairs has continued but has been boosted by modern media technology and its ability to produce communal rhetorics that would have been impossible before and that are inevitably heavily political, especially in their ability to keep inventing new variants of themselves that can be adapted to new situations. p50/51

This sense of distributed being and agency is used to reinforce the Latourian argument surrounding the agency of objects, and thus their importance in a new an enlarged sense of politics and democracy. Using Gilbert Simondon’s notion of transduction T&A explore:

The way in which tools and other symbiotes can produce environments that are lively in their own right, that prompt new actants to come into existence. To illustrate this point, we need to look no further than the types of digital technology that have become a perpetual overlay to so many practices and the way in which they are changing political practices. Here we find a domain that has gained a grip only over the past ten years but is now being used as part of an attempt to mass-produce “ontological strangeness” (Rodowick 2007) based on semiautomatic responses designed into everyday life through a combination of information technology based tools and the practices associated with them (from implants and molecular interventions to software-based perception and action). In particular, these automatisms are concerned with the design and prototyping of new kinds of space that can produce different affective vibrations. p64

T&A bring this discussion back in to realm of the more conventionally political by using distributed agency and co-evolutionary strategies as a way of opening up though surrounding ecological crises and how a coherent left political response to climate change requires precisely the type of expanded politics which they characterise as world making:

What is needed instead is a leftist politics that stresses interconnection as opposed to the “local,” however that is understood. What is needed is “not so much a sense of place as a sense ofplanet” (Heise 2008, ss) that is often (and sometimes rather suspectly) called “eco-cosmopolitanism.” Thus, to begin with, the experience of place needs to be re-engineered so that its interlocking ecological dimensions again become clear. This work of reconnection is already being done on many levels and forms a vital element in the contemporary repertoire of leftist politics: slow food, fair trade, consumer boycotts, and so on. Each of these activities connects different places, and it is this work of connection that is probably their most important outcome. Environmental justice then needs to be brought into the equation. The privileges of encounters with certain ecologies, as well as the risks associated with some branches of industry and agribusiness, are clearly unevenly distributed, and it may well be that certain environmentally unsound practices have been perpetuated because their effects go unnoticed by the middle class. Again, environmental justice movements have to refigure spaces, both practically and symbolically, so that interconnection becomes translucent. Finally, we need new ways to sense and envisage global crowds that are dynamic. The attempts to produce people’s mapping and geographic information systems, to engage in various forms of mash-up, and to initiate new forms of search are all part and parcel of a growing tendency to produce new lands of concerned and concernful “Where are we?” Politics starts from this question. p75

This is followed by a a chapter which claims to look at contemporary leftist politics, surveying the landscape through the apertures of anti-capitalism, reformist capitalism, post-capitalism and human recognition. What is striking about the majority of these contemporary left wing political movements is that they aren’t actually political movements.  Anti-Capitalism is not approached through Occupy or Climate Camp, it is Zizek, and Badiou alongside Hardt and Negri – which conflates two very different theoretical perspectives on anti-capitalism – and is summarily dismissed as hopelessly over-optimistic and unable to visualise a future. Reformism is not Syriza/The Five Star Movment/Bolvarian Socialism, it is Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens’s reflexive modernity and third way. By post-capitalism T&A mean ‘A third leftist stance on the contemporary world can be described as “poststructuralist,” in that it draws on feminist, postcolonial, antiracist,and ecological thinking, much of which heavily influenced by poststructuralist ideas’ p91. Conceptually that would seem to fit Hardt and Negri quite well, but here T&A refer instead to GIbson-Graham’s work on small scale, local, co-operative ethical and sustainable, which could have been productively mapped onto the actions of groups and initiatives such as transition towns, permaculture groups, feminist networks, Greenpeace and other NGOs and the broad range of groups and movements who actually practice some of these ideas, but instead is again explored as a mere theoretical argument rather than political praxis. Human recognition is used to refer to a liberal left based around ethics derived from Wendy Brown’s writings – again rather than exploring groups who actually employ this mode of left politics, probably best embodied by online liberal campaign groups such as Avaaz or 38 Degrees. Finally T&A return to Latour and the notion of Dingpolitik and the role of bringing objects into democracy, a position which has been criticised within academia for being politically conservative as Latour’s works tend to entirely ignore issues surrounding inequalities and exploitation, content instead to simply map actor networks, in contrast with more politically engaged posthuman scholarship from the likes of Felix Guattari or Manuel DeLanda. Perhaps there could have been an interesting dialogue here between T&A’s Latourian positions and the actions and ideologies of animal rights groups or deep ecologists, but again for T&A the left today does not consist of movements of people actually campaigning, occupying, protesting and organising, it simply appears to be a disparate collection of academics.

Put simply, this was what was most frustrating about Arts of the Political, rather than engaging with the broad and varied range of social and ecological activisms which currently exist, the left is reduced to academic thought, whilst the authours proclaim themselves to be engaged in materialist analysis. Perhaps it is simply indicative of the fact that the book’s authors are ageing men living and working in universities who are so totally detached from the actual practices of the left wing groups they claim to represent that they are barely able to acknowledge their existence. Indeed, Thrift has seen protests and occupations from students at Warwick surrounding his astronomical pay increases as Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick over the past couple of years (from 2011 to 2013 Thrift’s salary has increased from £238,000 to £316,000 at a time when tuition fees have tripled for his institution’s students). That as a background perhaps helps explain why the actually existing left is almost entirely absent from T&A’s exploration of left wing politics.

In the following chapters where T&A discuss organisation, there is a mixture of some interesting thoughts surrounding ecology, using Stengers, Deleuze and Guattari, to consider the notion of ‘addressing the political as an ecology of spatial practices’ p133 alongside a consideration of the organisation of the EU as a potentially fruitful model for the left, as it involves multiple parties across different scales having to cooperate. Such a politics of pragmatic cooperation could of course be understood as a mainstay of anticapitalist politics since the 1990s – the alter-globalisation movement and its manifestations within the world social forum, the peoples global assembly and Indymedia all sought to embody a politics of the multiple, as theorised by Hardt and Negri, and similar claims could be made regarding the anti-war movement, climate change activism and Occupy. But in keeping with their refusal to actually engage with left wing movements, we instead get a lionisation of the EU at a time where elements of the actually existing left are campaigning against the EU’s proposed free trade deal with the US which would effectively allow corporations to sue governments using secret panels to bypass parliaments.

This is a shame, as some of theoretical material around affect, space and that relating to the need to build positive visions of a left wing future articulated by T&A are in places very strong. The central argument that the left needs to find a way to escape what Mark Fisher has called Capitalist Realism, the notion that neoliberalism is the only possible game in town (with the alternative being an eco-apocalypse), is undoubtedly correct, and the politicisation of affect and the reorientation of politics towards an ecology of ethical practices are both concepts worth pursuing. However, they require consideration in relation to the actual practices of political movements, rather than simply as abstract theoretical constructs.

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This is a brief write-up of a talk I gave at the Cube Microplex last night as part of a night co-organised by Permanent Culture Now, Bristol Indymedia and Bristol Radical Film Festival. The night itself was an interesting mix, with the film This Land is Our Land kicking things off, followed by my inchoate ramblings, and Mike from PCN reading a text about commons, sustainability and land.

Whilst This Land is Our Land presents a really useful introduction to the notion of the commons, demarcating a range of types of commons ranging from communally managed land, through to ‘natural resources’ such as air and water, to public services and the Internet – I think that it’s worth taking a step back and considering whether or not classifying these phenomena as the same thing is really all that useful. Whilst they all are not forms of private property, they do exhibit some differing characteristics that are worth further explication.

The first mode of commons I’d like to discuss is the model of common land – what we could think of as a pre-industrial mode of commons, albeit one which still exists today through our shared ownership and access to things like air. Land which was accessible for commoners to graze cattle or sheep, or to collect firewood or cut turf for fuel. Anyone had access to this communal resource and there was no formal hierarchical management of the common land – no manager or boss who ensured that no one took too much wood or had too many sheep grazing on the land (although there did exist arable commons where lots were allocated on an annual basis). So access and ownership of this communal resource was distributed, management was horizontal rather than hierarchical, but access effectively depended upon geographical proximity to the site in question.

A second mode of commons is that of the public service, which we could conceptualise as an industrial model of commonwealth. For example consider the example of the National Health Service in the UK: unlike common land, this was a public service designed to operate on a national scale, for the common good of the approximately 50 million inhabitants of the UK. In order to manage such a large scale, industrial operation, logic dictated that a strict chain of managerial hierarchy be established to run and maintain the health service – simply leaving the British population to self-organise the health service would undoubtedly have been disastrous.

This appear to be a case which supports the logic later espoused by Garret Hardin in his famed 1968 essay the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby Hardin, an American ecologist forcefully argued that the model of the commons could only be successful in relatively small-scale endeavours, and that within industrial society this would inevitably lead to ruin, as individuals sought to maximise their own benefit, whilst overburdening the communal resource. Interestingly, Hardin’s central concern was actually overpopulation, and he argued in the essay that ‘The only way we can preserver and nurture other, more precious freedoms, is by relinquishing the freedom to breed.’ Years later he would suggest that it morally wrong to give aid to famine victims in Ethopia as this simply encouraged overpopulation.

More recent developments, however, have shown quite conclusively that Hardin was wrong: the model of the commons is not doomed to failure in large-scale projects. In part this is due to the fact that Hardin’s model of the commons was predicated on a complete absence of rules – it was not a communally managed asset, but a free-for-all, and partially this can be understood as a result of the evolution of information processing technologies which have revolutionised the ways in which distributed access, project management and self-organisation can occur. This contemporary mode of the commons, described by Yochai Benler and others as commons-led peer production, or by other proponents simply as peer-to-peer(P2P) resembles aspects of the distributed and horizontal access characteristic of pre-modern commons, but allows access to these projects on a nonlocal scale.

Emblematic of P2P process has been the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons movement. FOSS projects often include thousands of workers who cooperate on making a piece of software which is then made readily available as a form of digital commons, unlike proprietary software which seeks to reduce access to a good whose cost of reproduction is effectively zero. In addition to the software itself, the source code of the program is made available, crucially meaning that other can examine, explore, alter and improve upon existing versions of FOSS. Popular examples of FOSS include WordPress – which is now used to create most new websites as it allows users with little technical coding ability to create complex and stylish participatory websites – the web browsers Firefox and Chrome, and the combination of Apache (web server software) and Linux (operating system) which together form the back end for most of the servers which host World Wide Web content.

What is really interesting, is that in each of these cases, a commons-led approach has been able to economically outcompete proprietary alternatives – which in each case have had huge sums of money invested into them. The prevailing economic logic throughout industrial culture – that hierarchically organised private companies were most effective and efficient at generating reliable and functional goods was shown to be wrong. A further example which highlights this is Wikipedia, the online open-access encyclopaedia which according to research is not only the largest repository of encyclopaedic knowledge, but for scientific and mathematical subjects is the most detailed and accurate. Had you said 15 years ago that a disparate group of individuals who freely cooperated in their free time over the Internet and evolved community guidelines for moderating content which anyone could alter, would be able to create a more accurate and detailed informational resource than a well-funded established professional company (say Encyclopaedia Brittanica) most economists would have laughed. But again, the ability of people to self-organise over the Internet based on their own understanding of their interests and competencies has been shown to be a tremendously powerful way of organising.

Of course there are various attempts to integrate this type of crowd-sourced P2P model into new forms of capitalism – it would be foolish to think that powerful economic actors would simply ignore the hyper-productive aspects of P2P. But for people interested in commons and alternative ways of organising, a lot can be taken from the successes of FOSS and creative commons.

Now where some this gets really interesting, is in the current moves towards Open Source Hardware (OSH), what is sometimes referred to as maker culture, where we move from simply talking about software, or digital content which can be entirely shared over telecommunications networks. OSH is where the design information for various kinds of device are shared. Key amongst these are 3D printers, things like RepRap, an OSH project to design a machine allowing individuals to print their own 3D objects. Users simply download 3D Computer-Assisted-Design (CAD) files, which they can then customise if they wish, before hitting a print button – just as would print a word document, but the information is sent to a 3D rather than 2D printer. Rather than relying on a complex globalised network whereby manufacturing largely occurs in China, this empowers people to start making a great deal of things themselves. It reduces reliance on big companies to provide the products that people require in day-to-day life and so presents a glimpse of a nascent future in which most things are made locally, using a freely available design commons. Rather than relying on economies of scale, this postulates a system of self-production which could offer a functional alternative which would have notable positive social and ecological ramifications.

Under the current economic situation though, people who contribute to these communities alongside other forms of commons are often not rewarded for the work they put into things, and so have to sell their labour power elsewhere in order to make ends meet financially. Indeed, this isn’t new, capitalism has always been especially bad at remunerating people who do various kinds of work which is absolutely crucial the the functioning of a society – with domestic work and raising children being the prime example. So the question is, how could this be changed so as to reward people for contributing to cultural, digital and other forms of commons?

One possible answer which has attracted a lot of commentary is the notion of a universal basic income. Here the idea is that as all citizens are understood to actively contribute to society via their participation in the commons, everyone should receive sufficient income to subsist – to pay rent, bills, feed themselves and their dependants, alongside having access to education, health care and some form of information technology. This basic income could be supplemented through additional work – and it is likely that most people would choose to do this (not many people enjoy scraping by with the bare minimum) – however, if individuals wanted to focus on assisting sick relatives, contributing to FOSS projects or helping out at a local food growing cooperative they would be empowered to do so without the fear of financial ruin. As an idea it’s something that has attracted interest and support from a spectrum including post-Marxists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri through to liberals such as British Green Party. It certainly seems an idea worth considering, albeit one which is miles away from the Tory rhetoric of Strivers and Skivers.

For more details on P2P check out the Peer to Peer Foundation which hosts a broad array of excellent articles on the subject.

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Cities have long been the pivotal sites of political revolutions, where deeper currents of social and political change are fleshed out. Consequently, they have been the subject of much utopian thinking about alternatives. But at the same time, they are also the centres of capital accumulation, and therefore the frontline for struggles over who has the right to the city, and who dictates the quality and organization of daily life. Is it the developers and financiers, or the people? David Harvey’s Rebel Cities places the city at the heart of both capital and class struggles, looking at locations ranging from Johannesburg to Mumbai, and from New York City to Sao Paulo. By exploring how cities might be reorganized in more socially just and ecologically sane ways, Harvey argues that cities can become the focus for anti-capitalist resistance.

Here’s the audio from Harvey’s Festival of Ideas talk in Bristol this evening. It covers issues around cities, capital accumulation, sub-prime mortgages and the financial crash, Occupy, and how a coalition of the urban dispossessed can form a meaningful alternative to neoliberal hegemony.

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http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/portal/publications/network-notebooks/the-telekommunist/

The telekommunist manifesto is an interesting and inventive re-imagining of the communist manifesto for the network society penned by Dmitri Kleiner. In the age of international telecommunications, global migration and the emergence of the information economy, how can class conflict and property be understood? Drawing from political economy and concepts related to intellectual property, The Telekommunist Manifestois a key contribution to commons-based, collaborative and shared forms of cultural production and economic distribution.

Proposing ‘venture communism’ as a new model for workers’ self-organization, Kleiner spins Marx and Engels’ seminal Manifesto of the Communist Party into the age of the internet. As a peer-to-peer model, venture communism allocates capital that is critically needed to accomplish what capitalism cannot: the ongoing proliferation of free culture and free networks.

In developing the concept of venture communism, Kleiner provides a critique of copyright regimes, and current liberal views of free software and free culture which seek to trap culture within capitalism. Kleiner proposes copyfarleft, and provides a usable model of a Peer Production License alongside a useful critique of Web 2.0 as a capitalist reterritorialisation of the space of possibility for commons based peer production.

Encouraging hackers and artists to embrace the revolutionary potential of the internet for a truly free society, The Telekommunist Manifesto is a political-conceptual call to arms in the fight against capitalism.

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