Latest draft is at http://docs.telekommunisten.org/The+Telekommunist+Manifesto
Dmytri Kleiner, 2010
Extended and reworked from texts by Dmytri Kleiner, Joanne Richardson and Brian Wyrick, 2004–2008
I coined the term “Venture Communism” in 2001 to promote the ideal of workers self-organization of production as a way of addressing class conflict. Telekommunisten is a collective based in Berlin, Germany, where I have lived since 2003. I first encountered the term “Telekommunisten” (which became the name of the collective) in 2005, while visiting the apartment of a friend. He and his roommate had given the name “Telekommunisten” to the local area network used in their apartment to share Internet access. Telekommunisten had been used as a derogatory term for Germany’s former state telephone company, Deutsch Telekomm, which is now a private transnational corporation whose “T-Mobile” brand is known worldwide. The usage of communist here is intended to cast the Telephone company as a monolithic, authoritarian, and bureaucratic behemoth. This is a completely different sense than the one in which use the term as a positive one for engagement in class conflict towards the goal of a free society without economic classes, one where people produce and share as equals, a society that has no property and no State, and produces not for profit, but for social value. We are not simply a collective of worker-agitators working in the sphere of telecommunications, Telekommunisten promote the notion of a distributed communism; a communism at a distance; a Tele-communism. A venture commune is not bound to one physic allocation where it can be isolated and confined. Similar in topology to a peer-to-peer network, Telekommunisten is intended to be decentralized, with only minimal co-ordination required among its international community of producer-owners.
My background is in the hacker and art communities, in which I have been active since the early 90s. My views have been developed and expressed in on-line and off-line correspondence in the course of my involvement in software development, activism and cultural production. Although I have written a few essays over the years, those who know my work generally know me personally through encounters in electronic and physical social spaces. The present work is a “Manifesto,” not in the sense that it outlines a complete theoretical system, a dogmatic set of beliefs or the platform of a political movement, but in the spirit of the meaning of manifesto as a beginning or introduction. Matteo Pasquinelli, who pushed me to undertake this “Manifesto,” felt that my role as a background voice in our community was too underground and declared it was “Time to come out” with a published text. He connected me with Geert Lovink, who suggested the structure and approach of the text and offered to serve as editor and, through the Institute of Network Cultures, as its publisher.
The Telekommunist Manifesto is largely a cut-up and reworking of texts I’ve produced and co-produced over the last few years. It incorporates significant passages from “Copyright, Copyleft and the Creative Anti-Commons” produced in co-operation with Joanne Richardson and originally published under “Anna Nimmus” on the subsol website. Much of the text regarding the commercialization of the Internet is taken from “Infoenclosure 2.0,”co-written with Brian Wyrick originally published in Mute Magazine. Credit is also due to Mute Magazine editors Josephine Berry Slater and Anthony Iles, for their work on “Infoenclure 2.0” and “Copyjustright, Copyfarfleft,” much of which is reused here.
This publication is intended as summary of the positions that motivate the Telekommunisten project, based as it is in an exploration of class conflict in the age of international telecommunications, global migration, and the emergence of the information economy. The goal of this text is to introduce the political motivations of Telekommunisten, including a sketch of the basic theoretical framework in which it is rooted, covering views on political economy and intellectual property. The text also covers some broader topics, such as workers self-organization of production, anti-copyright/copy-left dissent against intellectual property, and peer to peer as a networked application topography, as well as a set of relations with growing social implications as networks become more central to how we produce and share. The Telekommunist manifesto is also intended to introduce the reader to some the specific theoretical components of the project, such as Venture Communism and Copyfarleft, and to explain why we have chosen to struggle against capitalism by way of the international telephone system.
The economic analytical models employed in this text are heterodox, based in the ubiquitous terms of classical political economy and borrowing from its diverse theorists and critics. This text is especially addressed to politically motivated artists, hackers and activists, not to evangelize a fixed position, but to contribute to an ongoing critical dialogue.
In the preface to “A Contribution the Critique of Political Economy,” Marx and Engels argue “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production.” What is possible in the information age is in direct conflict with what is permissible. Publishers, film producers and the telecommunication industry conspire with lawmakers to bottle up and sabotage free networks, to forbid information from circulating outside of their control. The corporations in the recording industry continue to forcibly maintain their position as mediators between artists and fans, while fans and artists merge closer together and explore new ways of interacting. Competing software makers, like arms manufacturers, play both sides in this conflict; providing the tools to impose control, and the tools to evade it. The non-hierarchical relations made possible by a peer network such as the Internet are contradictory with Capitalism’s need for enclosure and control. It’s a battle to the death, either the Internet as we know it must go, or Capitalism as we know it must go. Will Capital throw us back into a network dark-ages inspired by CompuServ, Mobile Telephones and Cable TV rather than allow peer communications to bring about a new society? Yes. If they can. Marx and Engels go on to conclude “No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.”
The Internet represents a powerful platform for new forms of production to emerge; however, the rapid commercialization of the Internet is increasing the centralization of ownership and control of Internet-based communications platforms. This is visible in the consolidation of Internet service providers by massive international telecommunications conglomerates. This rise of Social Media and “Web2.0” have pushed more free, decentralized “peer to peer systems to the clandestine margins of the network while”cloud computing" further centralizes the infrastructure. If new ways of producing and distributing wealth do not emerge to challenge the capitalist order, ways which are not based on force and enclosure, it is not only the freedom of the Internet that will be lost, but the chance to remake society in it’s image will be lost with it.
The Telekommunist Manifesto is an exploration of class conflict and property, born in the realization of the primacy of economic capacity in social struggles. Emphasis is placed on the distribution of productive assets and their output. The interpretation here is always tethered to the understanding that wealth and power are intrinsically linked, and only through the former can the later be achieved. As a collective of intellectual workers, the work of Telekommunisten is very much rooted in the free software and free culture communities. However, a central premise of this Manifesto is that engaging in software development and the production of immaterial cultural works is not enough. The communization of immaterial property alone can not change the distribution of material productive assets, and therefore can not eliminate exploitation, only workers self-organization of production can. Venture Communism is a form of struggle against the continued expansion of property-based capitalism; it is a model for worker self-organization inspired by the topology of peer to peer networks and the historical pastoral commons."
Imaging that a “better” copyright system or a “freer” Internet could exist within the present system of economic relations is to misplace the deterministic factors. The intrinsic truth in arguments against copyright and the clear technical superiority of distributed technologies over centralized ones have not been the deciding factors in the ultimate development of our intellectual property system or our global communications infrastructure, both of which have gotten more consolidated, regulated and restrictive. The determining factor is, as always, the fact that those whose interests are served by restricting freedom have more wealth with which to relentlessly push toward their ends then is available to resist them. The economic reasons for this are well understood, this numerically small class of Capitalists are the beneficiaries of an unfair distribution of productive assets that allows then them to capture the wealth produced by the masses of property-less workers. If we want to have a say in the way copyright works (or to abolish it) or to influence the way communication networks are operated, or if we want to make any social reforms whatsoever, we must start by preventing property owners from turning our productivity into their accumulated wealth. The wealth they use to endorse restrictions on our freedoms is the wealth they have taken from us. Without us they would have no source of wealth, even the great accumulated wealth from centuries of exploitation can not ultimately save them if the you are unable to continue to capture current wealth. The value of the future is far greater than the value of the past. Our ideas about intellectual property and network topology are ultimately no threat to Capitalism, who can always co-opt, sabotage or simply ignore them. It is the new ways of working together and sharing that are emerging that have the potential to threaten the capitalist order and bring about a new society.
Often discussions of the productive relations in free software projects and other collaborative projects such as Wikipedia attempt to bottle up commons-based production and trap it within the sphere of “immaterial production,” restricting it exclusively to the domain where it can not affect wealth distribution and thereby play a role in class conflict. Yochai Benkler, Professor for Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, coined the term “Peer production” to describe the way free software, Wikipedia articles and similar works are produced. Benkler limits his analysis to the so-called “Networked Information Economy.” The novelty of Peer Production as understood by Benkler and many others is that the property in the commons is entirely non-rivalrous property: Intellectual property and network transferable or accessible resources. Property with virtually no reproduction costs. Also, another distinguishing feature of this limited concept of Peer Production is that the producers in these examples do not receiver enumeration for what they have produced since their products are available for free, for example users of free software do not compensate the original developers. Thus they claim that Peer Production is “Non-reciprocal.”
There is no denying that Benkler’s wealthy network has a lot to offer. The value of this information commons to its users is fantastic, as evident by the millions who employ Free Software, Wikipedia, on-line communications and social networking tools, etc. However, if commons-based peer-production is limited exclusively to a commons made of digital property with virtually no reproduction costs, how can the use-value produced be translated into exchange-value? Where is the money to pay for the production of these valuable things? Something with no reproduction costs can have no exchange-value in a context of free exchange, anybody who wants a copy can obtain one from anybody that has one. But if what they produce has no exchange-value, how can the peer producers be able to acquire the material needs for their own subsistence?
The wealthy network exists within a context of a poor planet. The source of the problem of poverty does not dwell in a lack of culture or information but in the direct exploitation of the producing class by the property-owning classes. The source of poverty is not reproduction costs but rather extracted economic rents, surplus value captured by way of forcing producers to accept less than the full product of their labour as their wage by denying them independent access to the means of production. So long as commons-based peer-production is applied narrowly to only an information commons while the capitalist mode of production still dominates the production of material wealth, owners of material property will continue to capture the marginal wealth created as a result of the productivity of the information commons. Whatever exchange value is derived from the information commons will always be captured by owners of real property, which lies outside the commons. For Peer Production to have any effect on general material wealth it has to operate within the context of a overall system of goods and services, where the physical means of production and the virtual means of production are both available in the commons for peer production. By establishing the idea of commons-based peer-production in the context of an information-only commons, Benkler is creating a trap, ensuring the value created in the peer economy is appropriated by property privilege. We have found Benkler standing on his head, and we will need to redefine Peer Production to put his head above his feet again.
It is not the “production” in “immaterial, non-reciprocal” production that is immaterial. The computers, the networks and the developers and their places of work and residence are all very much material and all require material upkeep. What is immaterial is the distribution. Digitized information, source code or cultural works, can multiply and zip across global networks in fractions of a second, yet production remains a very material affair. If Peer Production can only produce immaterial good, such as software, and the producers get nothing in return for such production, if Peer Production is “immaterial, non-reciprocal” production, then this form of “production” has no right to be called a mode of production at all. First and foremost any mode of production must account for it’s material inputs or else vanish, these inputs must include the subsistence costs of it’s labour contributors, to at minimum “enable the labourer’s, one with another, to subsist and to perpetuate their race” in the words of Ricardo. “Immaterial, Non-reciprocal” production can not do so, since to produce free software, free culture or free soup the producers must draw their subsistence from some other source, and therefore “immaterial, non-reciprocal” production is not a form of production at all, only a special case of distribution within another form of production. “Immaterial, Non-reciprocal” production is no more a mode of production than a charity soup kitchen or socialized medicine. It is simply a super-structural phenomenon which has another mode of production as its base.
Rather than placing emphasis on the immaterial distribution of what is produced by current examples of Peer Production, we may note instead that such production is characterized by independent producers employing a common stock of productive assets. This view of Peer Production is not categorically limited to immaterial goods. Understood this way, the concept of Peer Production, where a network of peers apply their labour to a common stock for mutual and individual benefit, certainly resonates with age-old proposed socialist modes of production where a class-less community of workers(“peers”) produce collaboratively within a property-less(“commons-based”) society. Unlike the “immaterial, non-reciprocal” definition this formulation can account for its material inputs, its labour specialization, its means of capital formation, etc, and also better describes the productive basis of free software as well as more closely relates to the topology of peer networks from which the term is derived. Further, this formulation also is better rooted in history, as it describes historical examples of commons-based production such as the pastoral commons, cottage agriculture and cottage industry as well. As the distribution of productive assets is so much at the root of the inequality of wealth and power that perpetuates exploitive systems, a mode of production where productive assets are held in common is clearly a potentially revolutionary one if it could take root. However if the form of production can be contained to the immaterial, if it can be categorized as immaterial by definition, then it’s producers can not capture any of the value they create, and thus Harvard Law Professors strive to keep it so defined. However if we can implement ways of independently sharing a common-stock of material assets and thereby expand the scope of the commons to include material as well as immaterial goods, then direct producers who employ these assets in their production can retain a greater portion of their product.
Peer production is distinct from other modes of production. Worker’s independently employing a common-stock of productive assets is a different mode, distinct from both capitalist and collectivist modes. The capitalist mode of production is exploitive by nature, its fundamental logic is to capture surplus value from labour by denying independent access to the means of production. However, collectivist modes can also be exploitive. For instance in Co-operative production, in which producers collectively employ jointly owned productive assets, the distribution of productive assets is likely to be unfair among different co-operatives, allowing one to exploit the other. Larger scale collectivist forms, such as Socialist states or very big diversified co-operatives can be said to eliminate the sort of exploitation that can occur between co-operatives, however, the expanding coordination layers needed to manage these large organizations give rise to a coordinator class, anew class consisting of a techno-administrative elite that has proven in historical examples to have the capacity to be just as parasitic and stifling to workers as a Capitalist class. However the community of Peer producers can grow without developing layers of co-ordination because they are self-organizing and produce independently, and as such they do not need any layers of co-ordination other than that what is needed to provision the common stock of productive assets, thus co-ordination is limited to allocation of the common stock among those who wish to employ it. It is no surprise then, that this sort production has appeared and flourished where the common stock is immaterial property, the low reproduction costs eliminate allocation concerns. Thus what is needed for Peer production to incorporate material goods into the common-stock is a system for the allocation of material assets among the independent peers which imposes only a minimal co-ordination burden. Venture Communism is such a way.
The core innovation of Copyleft was to turn the copyright system against itself. The chief vehicle of asserting control under copyright is the license the work is released under, this establishes the terms under which other are permitted to use the copyrighted material, thus copyleft uses the authority of the license to prescribe freedom, using the authority granted by copyright to guarantee that access for all and require that this freedom is passed on. This is consistent with the copyright laws, and dependent on them, as without copyright and the institutions that protect it, there could be no copyleft. Copyleft effectively hijacks the apparatus that exists to enforce intellectual privilege and instead instrumentalizes it to guarantee intellectual freedom. Venture Communism requires that this same freedom be extended to material productive assets, as such it seeks to prescribe this freedom to property, not intellectual property, and the chief vehicle of asserting control of productive assets is the firm. Thus Venture Communism is not based on a license, but rather on a corporate form: The Venture Commune. Employing a Venture Commune to share material property hijacks the apparatus that exists to enforce privilege to instead protect a common stock, available for use by independent producers.
Legally, a Venture Commune is a firm, much like the Venture Capital Funds of the Capitalist class, however it has distinct properties which transform it into an effective vehicle for revolutionary worker’s struggle. 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. The Venture Commune does not co-ordinate production, the peer producers produce according to their own need sand desires, the role of the Commune is only to manage the common-stock, making property available to the peer producers as they require. The Venture Commune is the federation of these workers collectives and individuals workers and is itself owned by each of them. In the case that the worker’s are working in a collective or co-operative, ownership is held by the individuals that make up the collective or co-operative individually. Ownership in a Venture Commune can only be acquired by contributions of labour, not property. Only by working is ownership earned, not by contributing land, capital or even money: Only labour. Through the commune, Property is always held in common by all the members of the Commune. The Venture Commune is owned equally by all its members. Each member can only have one share. Thus, each member may never accumulate a disproportionate share of the proceeds of Property. Property can never be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
The function of the Venture Commune is to acquire property and allocate it to its members. The commune acquires property when requested to do so. The members interested in having this property offer a rental agreement giving the terms they wish to have for possession of this property, the Commune issues a series of Bonds which are backed with the demanded property-itself as collateral and the offered rental agreement as guarantee. This series of Bonds are sold with a public auction setting the interest rate. If the Bond sale clears, the property is acquired and the rental agreement is executed. The property returns to the commune whenever those renting it no longer want to or are unable to meet the agreed terms, at which point the Commune offers it, once again at auction, to its members, who bid on new rental terms. If there is no more demand for the asset, it is liquidated. After the Bonds that where issued to acquire an asset are fully redeemed it becomes fully owned by the Commune. The remaining rental income the property earns is from then on divided up equally among all members of the commune and paid out to them, proceeds from liquidated property is likewise divided. In this way, members using exactly their per-capita share of the commune’s fully owned property neither pay nor receive any payment, since what the pay in rent for that property will equal what the receive as their share of this income. Member’s using more than their per-capita share will pay more, and presumably be choosing to pay because they are employing the property as a productive asset, and thus earning enough to pay. Conversely, member’s using less than their per-capita share receive more in payment then they pay in rent, thus being rewarded for not hording property. The main activities of the Venture Commune, managing bond s and rental agreements do not impose a high level of co-ordination and, just like the computer networks that manage the allocation of immaterial goods, are activities that are well suited for computerized automation. Many Venture Communes could be exist and as they become interrelated, merge together forming larger, and more stable and sustainable, communities of commons-based producers.
Proposing a form of class conflict that employs a joint stock corporation, bonds, rental agreements and retains market exchange of the products of labour will be shocking to many revolutionaries. It must be noted that Venture Communism is a only means of class conflict, it is not an ideal. It is intended as a means of organizing production towards the end of building the economic capacity required to engage in class conflict. In the words of the IWW, “not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old” Capitalism, a mode of production where the worker earns only subsistence while property owners retain the remainder of the productive output can only create a society in which the interests of the property owner will be reflected in the social institutions and the interests of the producers subjugated. As long as producers operate within the Capitalist mode of production, they can not change society politically, because whatever wealth they can apply to influencing social institutions must come from the share of the product that they retain and thus will always be smaller then the share of the product that can be applied by property owners to prevent this change.
Any change that can produce a more equitable society is dependent on a prior change in the mode of production which increases the share of wealth retained by the worker. The change in the mode of production must come first. This change cannot be achieved politically, not by vote, or by lobby, or by advocacy, or by revolutionary violence. Not as long as the owners of property have more wealth to apply to prevent any change by funding their own candidates, their own lobbyists, their own advocates, and ultimately building up a greater capacity for counter-revolutionary violence. Society cannot be changed by a strike, not as long as owners of Property have more accumulated wealth to sustain themselves during production interruptions. Not even collective bargaining can work, for so long as the owners of Property own the product they set the price of the product and thus any gains in wages are lost to rising prices. Venture Communism should not be understood as a proposal for a new kind of society, it is an organizational form with which to engage in social struggle. Venture Communes are not intended to replace labour unions, political parties, NGOs and other potential vehicles of class conflict,, but to compliment them, to tilt the economic balance of power in the favour of the representatives of worker’s class interest. Without Venture Communism, these other organized forms are always forced to work against opposition with much deeper pockets, and are thus doomed to endless co-option, failure and retreat. Without Venture Communism, we can not change society to better represent the interests of producers. Not by political means, nor by strike, nor by collective bargaining. The only way is to stop applying our labour to property owned by non-producers and instead form a common stock of productive assets. This means taking control of our own productive process, retaining the entire product of our labour, forming our own Capital, and expanding until we have collectively accumulated enough wealth to achieve a greater social influence than those that defend exploitation, making real social change possible, change that is far greater than the modest goals of Venture Communism. A truly free society would have no need for copyleft, copyfarleft or Venture Communism; these are only practices around which workers can unite towards the realization of their historic role, building a classless society, a society of equals. Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.
Summary of Principles
The first step in the revolution of the working class is to develop a network of enterprises where people produce for social value and share as equals, and to build and expand the economic size of these enterprises to raise the organized proletariat to the position of being the dominant economic class. Only when workers control their own production can we win the battle of democracy.
The proletariat will use its expanding economic power to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to decentralise all instruments of production into a common stock directly in the hands of those whose production depends on it.
Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of structuring our enterprises on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; which appear economically insufficient and untenable, and contrary to our ends, but which, in the course of the movement, impose further transformations upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.
These measures will, of course, be different in different communities.
Nevertheless, in most communities, the following will be pretty generally applicable.
- Mutualisation of all instruments of production and application of all rents to mutual purposes.
- The right to membership of all who contribute their labour and awarding of membership only by contribution of labour, not by inheritance, purchase or transfer of any kind.
- A binding agreement with all member enterprises to forgo all private ownership of their own productive assets and instead take possession of what they need by renting it from the mutual common stock.
- Establishment of a mutual bond market, where bonds are sold at auction for the purpose of building the common stock of productive assets.
- Development of resources that put the means of communication and transport in the hands of all members.
- Provide to all enterprises the opportunity to acquire and extend the available instruments of production to the greatest degree possible.
- Equal opportunity of all to participate and produce.
- Abolition of all the distinction between producers and consumers and and the transformation of relations from market based transactions to generalized distribution, where production of social value takes precedent over the production of goods for sale.
- Establish knowledge and skill sharing networks and systems of support for all members, and provide opportunities to develop skills by contribution production.
- When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been distributed in the hands of a vast association of the whole world, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a organisation, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."