May 26, 2009

Anarchism and Digital Media

Warning – this may be a bit rambling and maybe not well thought through, but here goes:

You sometimes hear it said that the web is an anarchic place. It can certainly feel like it.

In doing some research in Buenaventura Durruti and the Durruti column in the Spanish Civil War I started reading up some materials (well, Wikipedia articles) on Collectivist Anarchism and was struck by the parallels that you find between this political position and the ideas of many writers and activists in the digital media world – especially in relation to Open Source, Open Learning, Creative Commons, podcasting and Web 2.0 services, such as DIGG, Facebook, YouTube and so on.

A quick background. Collectivist Anarchism is s political doctrine first championed by Mikhail Bakunin who was the primary opposition to Marx at the First International proclaimed at the St. Imier Congress (1872).

The basic doctrine:

‘advocates the abolition of the state and private ownership of the means of production, with the means of production instead being owned collectively and controlled and managed by the producers themselves.’

What distinguishes it from other systems, especially Communist Anarchism is that it allows for money, or at least reward for effort -

‘while communism and collectivism both organise production in common via producers’ associations, they differ in how the goods produced will be distributed. Communism is based on free consumption of all while collectivism is more likely to be based on the distribution of goods according to the labour contributed.’

So – to summarise. The means of production and distribution are collectivised with individuals paid a wage based on the amount of effort they supply to the collective – a wage that is agreed by the community.

A few quotes:

from Anarchist Collectives about the SCW:

‘In distribution the collectives’ co-operatives eliminated middlemen, small merchants, wholesalers, and profiteers, thus greatly reducing consumer prices. The collectives eliminated most of the parasitic elements from rural life, and would have wiped them out altogether if they were not protected by corrupt officials and by the political parties. Non-collectivised areas benefited indirectly from the lower prices as well as from free services often rendered by the collectives’

from James Guillaume:

‘such a society would “guarantee the mutual use of the tools of production which are the property of each of these groups and which will by a reciprocal contract become the collective property of the whole … federation. In this way, the federation of groups will be able to … regulate the rate of production to meet the fluctuating needs of society.’

from Wikipedia about Bakunin:

‘By “liberty”, Bakunin did not mean an abstract ideal but a concrete reality based on the equal liberty of others. In a positive sense, liberty consists of “the fullest development of all the faculties and powers of every human being, by education, by scientific training, and by material prosperity.” Such a conception of liberty is “eminently social, because it can only be realized in society,” not in isolation. In a negative sense, liberty is “the revolt of the individual against all divine, collective, and individual authority.”’

Let’s pick this apart a little.

The idea that the means of production are collectivised is very common in web 2.0 – from blogging onwards the principle is that the tools for production are available to all and not controlled by specific interests (though some may query that…).

What is interesting is that on top of this is a layer of rewards that makes the current digital environment closely aligned to the system outlined by Bakunin. Whether we are talking about donations to wikipedia or to the students working on a neat little app in their dorms, to the satisfaction given to a viral video maker on YouTube these services are designed to stimulate further effort by demonstrating a return to those willing to invest. This is not necessarily financial, but it is there. The implicit understanding is that the more you put in, the more you can get out. Wikipedia, for example, is great for browsing information, but are the rewards greater, for you and the community, when you actively put effort into creating and editing articles.

It is also worth noting that as outlined in the example from the Spanish Collectives, much of this cuts out the middle men – publishers, broadcasters, distributors etc etc. This is not an exclusive element of collectivist anarchism as opposed to communist anarchism, but the latter emphasises a central decision about the distribution of rewards whilst the former makes it more of a community decision. This to my mind is more in line with the way the web structures these things.

It’s also important to see the emphasis placed on the social as opposed to the individual. Bakunin felt that progress, whether community or individual, was essentially a social phenomenon. It is in social and community interaction that we find the ability to reach our potential, and the web is the means par excellence for making those connections.

Open Source is a collective exercise that is beneficial to the whole, and individually rewarding to the architects and builders of materials.

Blogging is a collective exercise that whilst highly individualized, could not realise its potential without the network of social connections that underpin it.

Web services and digital media production take the tools of production and collectivise them whilst open distribution networks reward the producers of content in the form of kudos or cash.

I recognise that better brains than mine may choose to pick this apart, but I am open for debate on this.

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