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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.

November 24, 2008

VAT reduction = political genius

Ok, so whilst £2.50 for every £100 spent is not WooHoo exciting here is why this move, plus all the other possible announcements make total political sense.

1. Darling and Brown announce stuff, it works, they are hailed heroes and storm the election

2. Darling and Brown announce stuff, nothing works, Tories win the next election and inherit a tax nightmare, forced to put up taxes, everyone hates them again, Labour landslide at the next election

So there you go. 2.5% matters bugger all when most shops are already discounting at 20%+ but the political decision making seems obvious to me.

October 19, 2006

Taxation, taxation, taxation

Writing about web page

Interesting challenge ahead for David Cameron. In an amusing ‘from the grave’ swipe a tax reform working party set up by Michael Howard has recommended that the Conservative party back massive tax cuts – in the tune of £21bn.

This contradicts many of the messages DC et al have been giving recently about taxation – that they would not just leap into sweeping tax cuts.

Watching the news last night, it was noticable that Cameron and Letwin both looked like they wanted to back this, but couldn’t. The link between tax cuts and services is too close to make the kind of promises made in the 80s acceptable to the electorate.

What surprised me was that neither attempted to make the connection between taxation and value for money.

What strikes me is that people will tolerate higher taxes as long as they can see a return on investment – that the services they get in return balance the additional cost.

Where Labour has gone wrong in recent years is in failing to demonstrate that the additional revenue is resulting in more tangiable benefits for the tax payer.

The arguement on taxation has shifted from simply raising or lowering tax, to whether the party in office gets the best value from them. I don’t think Howard’s working group have that figured out yet.

Another interesting observation. On the BBC last night they showed a model which mapped the UK’s shift from a low-tax American system to a European style high-tax system. I would be interested to compare the American tax figures to Europes if the figures factored in the amount that is spent on private health insurance. I suspect that if you added the spend to the taxation you might end up with a number pretty similar to the European average.

May 05, 2006

The missing part of the reshuffle

Interesting to see the cabinet reshuffle unfold but you can't help feel that there is a major missing shuffle – the man making the decisions.

I really believe Blair is now finished as an effective leader. It is in the Labour Party's best interests to see him go now. Frank Dobson gave a pretty damning assessment of Blair's position this morning and I agree with him.

That said, I doubt Brown could really sort the mess out either. The current leadership is pretty much the same that was there 10–15 years ago. The party leadership needs a major overhaul and injection of fresh blood. The youthful enthusiasm that characterised the 1997 election is now the property of the Tories, who look fresh, different and seem to be reinventing themselves at a rate of knots (whether there is any substance to this transformation remains to be seen!)

15 years ago Blair was the up and coming hot thing, now he is the old and tired incumbent reluctant to let go of the strings he picked up. He and Brown are the establishment they fought to change in the 1990s. They need to let new ideas in.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems look pretty screwed to be honest.

Oh, for a genuine political alternative.

The other thing that occured to me this morning was whether any Cabinet Minister can be responsible for effective change. Take the NHS. Can you seriously suggest that any Health Minister is ever going to be in a position to really enable significant change across the Health Service? Some of these organisations are just too big to implement change. Perhaps we should ask whether these great beasts need to be broken up into more manageable chunks.

Charles Clark on the radio now – sounds really pissed off despite saying " I remain a strong supporter of the Prime Minister" – riiiiight.

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