Can Digital Commons Escape from Capital
- Phd Thesis: The Digital Commons: Escape from Capital? By Robin Paulson. University of Auckland, Department of Sociology
"This thesis analyses a selection of digital commons projects using a range of theoretical tools, to assess their relationship to the capitalist mode of production."
"My argument that the digital commons presents a possible escape from capitalism will be examined through detailed studies of three initiatives that have been widely seen as exemplary demonstrations of the digital commons in action."
"This thesis will also examine how far the narratives promoted by enthusiasts of these and other digital commons initiatives correspond to the outcomes of their actions, and how far these instances of the digital commons are subject to processes familiar from studies of the capitalist mode of production.
"...the digital commons may not be as egalitarian and non-exploitative as its proponents present it. It further appears to offer another area of activity that has become enclosed by capitalist relations."
From the introduction
"This thesis analyses a selection of digital commons projects using a range of theoretical tools, to assess their relationship to the capitalist mode of production. The projects studied are Linux, a piece of computer software; the Wikipedia encyclopedia; and Open Street Map, a database of geographic information. Where necessary, I will also include examples from other digital commons projects. The Digital commons have been defined by Mayo Fuster Morell as information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusivedible, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favor use and reuse, rather than to exchange as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources
The status of these projects as digital commons is maintained through the licenses they are released under, which define rights allowing relatively unhindered inspection, use, modification and redistribution of the artefacts so assembled. These licences further prevent the projects being enclosed or privatised, as any modifications must be returned to the commons.
The digital commons has further been hailed as communist, anarcho-communist, anti-capitalist and neighbourly. These descriptions all point to a form of social organisation that operates outside any direct exchange relationship, not demanding any money or other commodities in return for accessing its use-value, instead offering a more social way of conducting relations around the artefacts assembled. In addition, due to the nature of the licenses under which the artefacts of the three case studies are released, and as noted by Eric Raymond, there is little potential for dictatorial behaviour, or the hierarchical organisation of those who take part in the assembly and maintenance of the projects. Commoners are relatively free to take part in a project or not, and to have their views heard on a basis of equality. As such, the methods employed by the projects offer the possibility of an escape from the prevailing current system of production and consumption, the state of affairs which dictates all relationships must be capitalistic, all human existence can be expressed through exchange in a 'free' market which is the ultimate device for allocating resources. However, as I will argue in the analysis that follows, in part three of this thesis, the digital commons may not be as egalitarian and non-exploitative as its proponents present it. It further appears to offer another area of activity that has become enclosed by capitalist relations.
The mode of production that characterises the digital commons represents the third paradigm of production since The Middle Ages, the first being land-based production, in the form of growing crops, renting land, grazing cattle or using simply processed materials such as wood and stone for construction. During the Industrial Revolution, a second mode of production came to the fore, organised around the mass manufacture and consumption of a proliferating range of material goods, from clothes, furniture and kitchen utensils, to pens and cars. With the progressive decline of this manufacturing base, it has been argued, the capitalist system has become increasingly reoriented around immaterial production based on service work, education, affective labour and the manipulation of symbols and images.
There has been a continual tension between this impetus to enclose and the idea of the commons, as store of collectively owned and managed resources, operating outside the reach of the market, and governed by the same commoners who maintain and use the artefacts 12. Through an aversion to privatisation of the cultural commons, there is thus an indication of resistance not only to modern capital and its desire to enclose, but to any form of hierarchical, transcendent structure. This thesis follows this dialectic of commons and enclosure into the digital arena.
The analysis I will carry out focusses on an examination of the digital commons relative to the capitalist mode of production, through Karl Marx's Capital, Volume 1 13, and Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 14, the first of which is the defining critical analysis the capitalist mode of production, while the second lays out a detailed study of alienation due to capitalist waged labour. It is pertinent to use Marx's work as he describes important aspects of the capitalist mode of production, the particular concepts I will use here are class, commodities, alienation, commodity fetishism and the extraction of surplus-value to produce profit.
My argument that the digital commons presents a possible escape from capitalism will be examined through detailed studies of three initiatives that have been widely seen as exemplary demonstrations of the digital commons in action. The first instance, the development of the Linux operating system kernel software, has become one of the flagship illustrations of the free software movement, in which commoners develop a part of a computer operating system which is available at no charge to anyone who wishes to use it. It further, although this was not the original intention for it, competes effectively with proprietary software such as UNIX and Microsoft's Windows. The other two cases, Wikipedia and Open Street Map, provide a way into the analysis of collaborative ventures that mobilise a wider range of commoners to assemble archives of information, in the two cases under consideration here, an encyclopaedia and a database of geographical information. This thesis will also examine how far the narratives promoted by enthusiasts of these and other digital commons initiatives correspond to the outcomes of their actions, and how far these instances of the digital commons are subject to processes familiar from studies of the capitalist mode of production
From the Conclusion
In the preceding chapters, I have explored the relationship between the digital commons and aspects of the capitalist mode of production, taking three iconic projects: the Linux operating system kernel, the Wikipedia encyclopedia and the Open Street Map geographical database as case studies. As a result of these analyses, it appears digital commons represent a partial escape from the domination of capital.
As the artefacts assembled by our three case studies can be accessed by almost anybody who desires, there appear to be few class barriers in place. At the centre of this is the maxim “information wants to be free” underpinning the digital commons, which results in assistance and education being widely disseminated rather than hoarded. However, there are important resources whose access is determined by a small group in each project, rather than by a wider set of commoners. This prevents all commoners who take part in the projects from attaining their full potential, favouring one group and thus one set of values over others. Despite the highly ideological suggestion that anyone can fork a project at any time and do with it as they wish, which would suggest a lack of class barriers, there is significant inertia which makes this difficult to achieve. It should be stressed however, that the exploitation and domination existing within the three case studies is relatively minor when compared to typical capitalist class relations. Those who contribute are a highly educated elite segment of society, with high levels of self-motivation and confidence, which serves to temper what the project leaders and administrators can do.
The artefacts assembled cannot be exchanged as commodities, due to the license under which they are released, which demands that the underlying information, be it the source code, knowledge or geographical data always be available to anyone who comes into contact with the artefact, that it remain in the commons in perpetuity. This lack of commoditisation of the artefacts similarly resists the alienation of those who assemble them. The thing made by workers can be freely used by them, they make significant decisions around how it is assembled, and due to the collaborative nature essential to the process of assembly, constructive, positive, valuable relationships are built with collaborators, both within the company and without. This reinforces Stallman's suggestion that free software, and thus the digital commons is a more social way of being.
Further, the method through which the artefacts are assembled reduces the likelihood of fetishisation. The work is necessarily communal, and involves communication and association between those commoners who make and those who use. This assists the collaboration essential for such high quality artefacts, and simultaneously invites a richer relationship between those commoners who take part. However, as has been shown, recent changes have shown there are situations where the social nature of the artefacts is being partially obscured, in favour of speed, convenience and quality, thus demonstrating a possible fetishisation.
The extraction of surplus-value is, however, present. The surplus extracted is not money, but in the form of symbolic capital. This recognition from others can be exchanged for other forms of capital, enabling the leaders of the three projects investigated here to gain high paying, intellectually fulfilling jobs, and to spread their political beliefs. While it appears there is thus exploitation of the commoners who contribute to these projects, it is firstly mild, and secondly does not result in a huge imbalance of wealth and opportunity, although this should not be seen as an apology for the behaviour which goes on. Whether in future this will change, and the wealth extracted will enable the emergence of a super-rich as seen in the likes of Bill Gates, the Koch brothers and Larry Ellison remains to be seen, but it appears unlikely.
There are however ways in which these problems could be overcome. At present, the projects are centred upon one website, and an infrastructure and values, all generally controlled by a small group who are often self-selected, or selected by some external group with their own agenda. This reflects a hierarchical set of relationships, which could possibly be addressed through further decentralisation of key resources. For examples of this, we can look at YaCy, a search engine released under a free software license. The software can be used in one of a number of ways, the most interesting of these is network mode, in which several computers federate their results together. Each node searches a different set of web sites, which can be customised, the results from each node are then pooled, thus when a commoner carries out a search, the terms are searched for in the databases of several computers, and the results aggregated. This model of decentralisation prevents one entity taking control over what are a large and significant set of resources, and thus decreases the possibility of exploitation, domination and the other attendant problems of minority control or ownership over the means of production.
Addressing the problem of capitalists continuing to extract surplus, requires a technically simple, but ideologically difficult, solution. There is a general belief within the projects discussed that any use of the artefacts is fine, so long as the license is complied with. Eric Raymond, author of the influential book on digital commons governance and other matters, The Cathedral and The Bazaar, and populariser of the term open source, is perhaps most vocal about this, stating that the copyleft tradition of Stallman's GNU is overly restrictive of what people, by which he means businesses, can do, and that BSD-style, no copyleft licenses are the way forward. The majority of commoners taking part do not follow his explicit preference for no copyleft licenses, but nonetheless have no problem with business use of the artefacts, suggesting that wide spread use makes the tools better, and that sharing is inherently good. It appears they either do not have a problem with this, or perhaps more likely do not understand that this permissiveness allows for uses that they might not approve of. Should this change, a license switch to something preventing commercial use is one possibility."