Introduction to Generative Justice

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* Article:An Introduction to Generative Justice. By Ron Eglash. Revista Teknokultura, Vol. 13(2), 369-404.



Ron Eglash:

"Marx proposed that capitalism’s destructive force is caused, at root, by the alienation of labor value from its generators. Environmentalists have added the concept of unalienated ecological value, and rights activists added the unalienated expressive value of free speech, sexuality, spirituality, etc. Marx’s vision for restoring an unalienated world by top-down economic governance was never fulfilled. But in the last 30 years, new forms of social justice have emerged that operate as “bottom-up”. Peer-to-peer production such as open source software or wikipedia has challenged the corporate grip on IP in a “gift exchange” of labor value; community based agroecology establishes a kind of gift exchange with our nonhuman allies in nature. DIY citizenship from feminist makerspaces to queer biohacking has profound implications for a new materialism of the “knowledge commons”; and restorative approaches to civil rights can challenge the prison-industrial complex. In contrast to top-down “distributive justice,” all of the above are cases of bottom-up or “generative justice”." (


Ron Eglash:

"It is common to hear conservative politicians declare that “liberals just argue over who got a smaller piece of the pie—but we want to make a bigger pie for everyone.” While this characterization is often misleading rhetoric, it reveals an uncomfortable truth about the political left: they have historically focused on the “distributive justice” of top-down government intervention. But in the last 30 years, new forms of social justice have emerged that are better described as “bottom-up”. Open source computing is perhaps the best known of these trends: the bloated, proprietary software of giant corporations is increasingly replaced by code that was generated in a kind of “gift exchange” of labor value: free distribution inspires free contributions. Another example is the food justice movement: the networks of community composting, urban gardens, “farm to fork” organics, and other means to establish a gift exchange with our non-human allies in nature. A third is the “maker” movement — a kind of open source network for the material world—which puts technologies ranging from 3D printing to “DIY bio” in the hands of lay citizens. Bottom-up value generation is not only a framework to address wealth inequality and environmental degradation; it also characterizes liberation from authoritarian control over free expression: peer-to-peer distribution of music, arts and other media; grassroots activism for sexual diversity across the globe; and so on. The time has come for a framework to describe these bottom-up alternatives to distributive justice: hence the need for this collection on generative justice.

Generative justice is more than just a list of helpful activities; it is a fundamentally different way of thinking about economics, politics, technology, ethics, and other categories that make up our vision for how societies should be arranged. If we think of the spectrum running from capitalism to communism, generative justice would be orthogonal to that line: open source software, composted soil, and reproductive rights have been just as much a struggle in the context of state ownership as they have been under private ownership. As isolated examples of bottom-up organization we already have “peer to peer economy” movements, “eco-utopia” movements, “restorative justice” movements, etc. But there is no cohesive framework for understanding what they have in common. Generative justice defines that common principle as the bottom-up circulation of unalienated value. This essay will provide a basic understanding of generative justice; a means to recognize its presence and potentials as it emerges; and a vision for how we might nurture its growth from these isolated examples to systems that can encompass an entire technosocial landscape." (

Generating Unalienated Value

Ron Eglash:

"In Marx’s original formulation of “alienated labor value”, he contrasted the meaningful work of traditional skilled artisans, taking pleasure in their craft and earning respect from their community, with the dull repetition, low pay and enervating conditions of factory labor under capitalism. There are at least four challenges to making the alienation concept useful today. First, corporate marketing schemes are increasingly appropriating the artisanal allure: my Starbucks coffee is served by an underpaid “barista”; my cookies claim they were hand-made by Keebler elves. I can buy Domino’s Artisan Pizzas, Tostitos’ Artisan Recipes Tortilla Chips, Burger King’s Artisan bun, and Dunkin’ Donuts’ Artisan Bagels. If artisanal labor is so easily simulated, what chance do we have for making it a basis of social critique? Second, evoking older, pre-capitalist forms could be read to imply that artisanal labor is better because it is more natural. But as I will outline below, some of the best examples of unalienated craft labor today are in highly “unnatural” realms of open source hardware and software. And romantic organicist notions of what constitutes “natural” labor are notoriously tied to stereotype gender roles; homophobic claims that only heterosexuality is natural; nationalist claims that “nature did not intend the races to mix” and so on. Third, older production forms may be a poor fit to contemporary population densities and needs. And finally, the stress on artisanal production often overlooks the gender, race and ecological dimensions of economies of care and histories of colonialism. To address these problems, we need a deeper look at what the concept of “generating unalienated value” could mean if liberated from some of this unwelcomed baggage.

The phrase “generating value” is implicitly referring to the power of “self-generation.” In his 1944 book What is Life? physicist Erwin Schrödinger noted the mysterious way organisms seemed to defy the second law of thermodynamics: “It is by avoiding the rapid decay into the inert state of 'equilibrium' that an organism appears so enigmatic; so much so, that from the earliest times of human thought some special non-physical or supernatural force... was claimed to be operative” (p. 70). He characterized this self-generative property of life as “negative entropy” (later shortened to “negentropy”). Terms for this phenomenon can now be found at every scale: “autocatalysis” for cycles in which biomolecules produced themselves; “autopoiesis” for an organism’s self-reproduction; “sympoiesis” for ecosystem self-assembly, and so on. When we grow living organisms for food, we tap into this self-generating power; that is to say, some of the value that is normally circulated can be diverted for our own use. It is here that we must choose between either becoming part of the circulation, or extracting— i.e. alienating—that value. Soils for example can be easily depleted of nutrients. Yet traditional farmers and horticulturalists have avoided this problem for thousands of years simply by returning our waste to the soil, and thus becoming part of the circulation of value through a broader array of sustainable practices called agroecology.

Marx made an analogy between unalienated labor and agroecology in Capital volume 1, where he stated that capitalist farming “prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing... All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil...” (Marx 1976, pp. 637-638). Recalling Schrödinger’s comment that the negentropic character of life is often attributed to a supernatural force, it is no surprise that Marx’s inspiration for this insight, German chemist Justus von Liebig, originally justified recycling sewage back to farm lands because of a “vital force” that gave living soils their generative power. Marx was dedicated to eliminating “mystification”, but when he invokes the “living labor” of unalienated production, it sounds suspiciously like the vitalist “living soil” of von Liebig. This is not necessarily a flaw. Granted, it does pose the dangers of any organicist or naturalizing discourse, as noted above. But one can also interpret vitalism as humility; as a way of saying “there is something complex and wonderful in the generative force that we do not fully understand”. Indeed that was Schrödinger’s final conclusion. Today we know that the “living soil” concept was not far off: ordinary dirt is a complex ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, nematodes, decaying matter, water percolation, minerals and other features that form a dynamic, evolving network which still challenges our understanding. Analogous complex, selfsustaining networks in the social domain—not the simulation of artisanal labor in the Starbucks barista or Keebler elf—are necessary for real unalienated labor. We will now turn to one exemplar for such a network. " (

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