Sustaining the Commons: The Last Page of the Internet

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November 27, 2012 by Katarina Lovrecic

The Last Page of the Internet from The Useless Web

The latest setting for the brilliance in eloquence while discussing the Internet? Panel no. 5 at the Economy of Crisis Capitalism and Ecology of the Commons  conference (it needs a shorter name!). Chaired by Tomislav Medak, a co-ordinator of a theory program and publishing activities of the Multimedia Institute/MAMA in Zagreb, Croatia. The invited speakers were Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation), Dmytri Kleiner (Telekommunisten) and Felix Stalder (Notes&Nodes). The given theme was sustaining The Commons with the focus on a peer production.

Can the peer production become autonomous, and independent of the current political economy?

Autonomy is not a Toothless Project

Michel Bauwens explained first how free software creation is based on free content production but also, capitalism production. So, which are the models that work in the interest of people within the capitalist system? Those with the utopian ingredient. “Net criticism is a toothless project without a utopian dimension (Geert Lovink).” But, which new methods introduced will really matter in switching the market based economy to a network based one?

Since the venture capitalists are buying everything they can, the Commons are experiencing a leak of the exchange value. “For-profit companies use the Commons without paying, while if only non-profits, those who contribute to the Commons used it, a sustainable livelihood for the contributors would be created,” Bauwens explains.

There are some examples of forming new self-sustainable communities, “people are no longer waiting for financial reform from the top down, but are busily creating a monetary bio-diversity,” he makes plain in another article. “Local complementary currencies are already well-known, in the form of LETS and Time Banks, but they are now experiencing a real boom, even in emerging countries such as Brazil. Fortified by studies that show how local currencies insulate the local economy from boom and bust cycles and from “leakage”, many communities are starting new ones since 2008.”

Bauwens suggests an open signaling system, one of a mutual coordination, where, most simply, “you have the ability to see what everybody else is producing”, thus, to see clearly what is needed and solve this – as a community. Of course, in this scenario, it would have to be possible to share and use the knowledge of others.

Bauwens also calls for “a return to a sane monetary system that requires neither infinite growth nor the impoverishment of many, not by waiting for the agreement of the 1 per cent and their institutions, but by creating the conditions for change on the different scales where citizens can act right now.”

For-benefit associations, as he describes them, are an important innovation that will protect the common good.

New Subjectivities: And Then You Encounter Others

However, each Commons project relies on the internet infrastructure, but which attributes make it into a powerful tool, instead of a utopian one?

Felix Stalder warns about differences that we need to consider while studying these attributes, the difference between ownership and usage rights, rule setting and choice, between horizontal and vertical visibility. Also, between structural reformations that are driven by technology (adapt or die), and political transformations that are driven by the people who organize together to change the game. Felix explains in length such potential for change, in his book Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks, “there is, now, real potential for the creation of a new model of media production and distribution not subject to the traditional economic pressures. The combination of collaborative, distributed modalities and autonomous infrastructures can allow new subjectivities and composing communities to emerge. But such non-hierarchical collaboration, based on self-motivation, needs new strategies to reach a scale in which the output can really match those of traditional media production.” So, what is exactly this new subjectivity?

Felix informs us at the conference: “First you are an individual, and then you encounter – others.” Basically, we are now a part of the networked production of culture, and our communication is – the communication in public. Communities are the new actors that can create new models of financing, sustaining themselves, but the state still remains the key actor. Public money from public institutions goes to production of private goods. Why can’t these goods enter the Commons? Felix finds this to be a self-contradictory truth, a paradox. He also warns how the state and the market are ONE, and communities need to find a way to intricate themselves into this system. By inscribing their interest in the state, Felix suggests. He calls for a new rising class, a group that will function not only as a crisis mechanism, but as a long-term principle.

The World Wide Web as the Venture Capitalist’s Paradise

Finally, Dmytri Kleiner appears with The Telekommunist Manifesto (highly recommended) to clearly portray for us this class conflict. “Computer networks, like economic systems, may be described in terms of social relations,” he demonstrates. And, who is in control?

“Without most users noticing, the architecture of the internet is changing, and the topology of the network is being remade in such a way that not only serves the interests of capitalism, but also enables monitoring and control of its users on a scale never dreamed of before.”

And here’s a new spin on the Web 2.0: “Web 2.0 emerged as a venture capitalist’s paradise, where investors pocket the value produced by unpaid users, ride on the technical innovations of the free software movement, and kill off the decentralizing potential of peer-to-peer technology.”

Depressed, yet?

“A freer internet cannot exist within the present system of capitalist financing,” Kleiner is convinced.

The panel preceding this one, brought up a theme of “communism” as the elephant in the room, an obvious matter, mostly unaddressed when we discuss the Commons (Danijela Dolenec, The Commons and the Social Movements panel).

Kleiner takes this matter even further by introducing the “venture communism”, a P2P communism that is to oppose the client-server state. “The venture commune holds ownership of all productive assets that make up the common stock employed by a diverse and geographically distributed network of collective and independent peer producers.”

But, how can such innovation escape venture capitalists?

Kleiner explains how the Internet was created with the goal of creating use-value which involves peer to peer production and mesh topology of the networks (decentralized nodes). However, the capitalists created online services within a client-server system that uses a star topology of the network where you can only communicate through the central node (allowed by the Operator). The peer to peer concept is becoming more and more criminalized, engineered out of the internet. While those with commercial interest are basically buying out everything from the Internet they can. There goes a dream about a structural reformation driven by technology. A dream of Eben Moglen building Freedom Boxes. “Those (Freedom Boxes) are only economic fictions,” Kleiner assesses, “the technology is not stopping the venture capitalists. They are actually using the peer to peer infrastructure (e.g. Facebook), building free and open communication platforms, with one exception – they can surveil, control and exclude contributors. We had a code, already, but from a decentralized system we became a centralized system. How did we let this happen?” This, none could answer. Thus, to see that none are still dreaming, I’ll draw one more strong statement from Kleiner, “the Internet as we know it is essentially gone.”

So much about the structural transformation. A political one, then, that of social activism? The only one real instrument of change? Mutualization of knowledge, of property, a new spin on money, culture, institutions and their members/contributors, avoidance of exchange value leak from the Commons.

Indeed, the Commons are the last page of the Internet. That will be written by the people instead of – the machine. We, the debtors.

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