The only sense in which we are communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature, the commons of what is privatized by intellectual property, the commons of biogenetics; for this, and only for this we should fight. Communism failed absolutely.
Given Zizek’s thoroughly Leninist prior statement regarding the situation in Greece:
The situation in Greece looks more promising, probably owing to the recent tradition of progressive self-organisation (which disappeared in Spain after the fall of the Franco regime). But even in Greece, the protest movement displays the limits of self-organisation: protesters sustain a space of egalitarian freedom with no central authority to regulate it, a public space where all are allotted the same amount of time to speak and so on. When the protesters started to debate what to do next, how to move beyond mere protest, the majority consensus was that what was needed was not a new party or a direct attempt to take state power, but a movement whose aim is to exert pressure on political parties. This is clearly not enough to impose a reorganisation of social life. To do that, one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness.
I seriously doubt the sincerity of his words at OWS, but it is nevertheless telling that he chose to voice them at such a key historical juncture. Zizek was articulating the ideology of “commonism,” which arose out of the autonomist thought and open-source movement of the 1990s. Zizek is fond of using the example of “coffee without caffeine” to describe our current sanitized ideology, so in the same spirit it seems apt to describe commonism as communism without planning. The socialist critique of capitalism is articulated without the nasty particulars that socialism tripped up on in the 20th century. Rather than address these problems head-on, the commonists tend to give us an overly-optimistic portrait of how socialism is spontaneously arising out of capitalism, and is just around the corner (luckily we don’t have to figure out how it will work!). The article “The Emergence of Benefit-driven Production” by Von Christian Siefkes is very much indicative of this intellectual tendency, which is utopian and best, and dishonest at worst.
Von Christian Siefkes combines the work of thinkers as various as Yochai Benkler and Nick Dyer-Witheford in describing how open-source “benefit-driven production” heralds the coming of commonism. The article is interesting, but suffers from the romanticism characteristic of autonomist writing, it lacks a serious analysis both of how the political economy of open-source actually functions, and the limitations of the open-source model in showing the way towards a socialist future. The author very much plays down the important role played by (often corporate sponsored) foundations in the open-source community, and fails to make the vital distinction between the production of public goods, versus that of private goods. It is certainly true that “benefit-driven” production has been an amazing progressive development, and that volunteer work is an integral part of this production system, but the author avoids a proper materialist analysis of open-source production.
A great deal of production of free and open software is done in the producers’ “free time.” Recognizing this fact naturally leads one to ask what these producers are doing in their “unfree time” in order to gain the material use-values of food and shelter which “benefit-driven production” does not provide. The answer is by and large that they are working as wage slaves in the capitalist system producing something else. The only way that the production of free and open software can secure the necessities of life for the producer is if they are “sponsored” in their work by donors (either in the form of individual donors or foundations).
I believe it is fair to say that Linux and all its associated software would not be in the position it is today without the work of paid producers who “anchor” the work of unpaid contributors and help to provide a general direction to their “stigmergy.” This paid work would in turn not have happened without the monetary contributions of IBM, Novell, Red Hat, Oracle, Google, Nokia, Canonical, etc.
For example Ubuntu has become the most popular Linux distribution since its launch 8 years ago. This is largely seen to be the case because of A) its user-friendly orientation and B) its steady funding. Prior to the creation of Ubuntu the notion of creating a user-friendly Linux was often looked upon with outright hostility by elitist members of the Linux community, who argued that it would “encourage stupidity.” This accusation is still often leveled at Ubuntu despite its successes in spreading the use of free and open software. “Stigmergy” was not predisposed to creating a democratic form of Linux. This only occurred after the creation of a well-funded project with a definite direction.
Ubuntu is not the only such example. The popular GNOME, Unity, and KDE desktops, the GTK project, the LibreOffice project and many more fall into this pattern. Even the development of the Linux kernel itself receives corporate support!
This is not to say that “benefit-driven production” requires corporate funding. There is nothing in its structure to suggest that, as the foundations that drive its development often operate at “arm’s length” from their corporate sponsors. The funding could just as easily come from “the associated producers” and this is what truly indicates the progressive character of the “benefit-driven production” model. The current system of free and open software production should be subjected to a critique of its actual political economy, and not romanticized with rose-coloured boosterism that ignores its fundamental contradictions and injustices.
We should not celebrate the fact that the majority of contributors to the development of open-source projects cannot receive the essentials they need to reproduce themselves from their work. Contributions to open-source are not wage labour, but they are still an unsatisfactory solution to the problem of wage labour. The fundamental problems of building socialism remain real problems, and cannot be wished away.
Paul A. Samuelson is usually credited as the first economist to develop the theory of public goods. In his classic 1954 paper The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure, he defined a public good, or as he called it in the paper a “collective consumption good”, as follows:
…[goods] which all enjoy in common in the sense that each individual’s consumption of such a good leads to no subtractions from any other individual’s consumption of that good…
This is the property that has become known as Non-rivalry. In addition a pure public good exhibits a second property called Non-excludability: that is, it is impossible to exclude any individuals from consuming the good.
The opposite of a public good is a private good, which does not possess these properties. A loaf of bread, for example, is a private good: its owner can exclude others from using it, and once it has been consumed, it cannot be used again.
Because the production of open-source software is the production of public goods (non-excludable and non-rivalrous) it unproblematically benefits everyone who wishes to consume it. While ideas are generally considered to have always been public goods, the development of productive forces has essentially eliminated scarcity in the distribution of open-source software. Open-source software is available for download free of charge, and the cost of its reproduction of trivial. Furthermore the use of the software does not exclude others from its use, and the ease of reproduction ensures that it is non-rivalrous (A point guaranteed in law by the GPL).
The article does not point out that most other forms of production are productive of excludable and rivalrous private goods. It does mention in passing that “In commonism, as in any society, decisions on how to use the available resources will be necessary.” But its superficial mention of this issue fails to acknowledge that this is the fundamental problem of economics. How are the excludable and rivalrous products of society be distributed amongst its members? Will the productions of scarce goods for social consumption simply occur spontaneously through “stigmergy?” I have my doubts!
The author argues that “Peer production, on the other hand, is production for others which is neither based on coercion nor motivated by monetary gain.”
This would only be true under conditions of highly-developed socialist automation, where material goods such as bread, houses, and tables would become so easy to produce that they would effectively be public goods, which is hardly a fait accompli. It is not as though the often back-breaking conditions of agricultural production could instantly be changed by social fiat, and the article itself acknowledges that there are serious limitations to how far worker-oriented automation can progress under capitalism. A transitional regime of production that would develop this worker-oriented automation and an accompanying egalitarian society is still required, despite the promising developments we can see in today’s “benefit-driven production.” While the “commonist” argument recognizes the capitalist situation and has a vision of the benefits of communism, it imagines that these benefits will somehow materialize without a transition stage that confronts us with its own problems. This is because the “commonists” want to pretend that the seemingly intractable problems of 20th century Communism do not need to be addressed and that the promise of the socialist project can be achieved through some kind of spontaneous historical dispensation.
Today it is not enough to articulate a moral critique of capitalism. Nor is it even enough to articulate a systemic critique of capitalism. The challenges of our day require us to directly confront the history of 20th century socialism and articulate alternatives that allow us to escape the present capitalist morass and realize the commonist dream.