Out-Cooperating the Empire? – Exchange with Christoph Spehr

Out-Cooperating the Empire?
Exchange between Geert Lovink and Christoph Spehr on Creative Labour and the Hybrid Work of Cooperation (July 2006)

Cooperation & Individualization

GL: I discussed with you whether to have the word ‘online’ in the title of our Free Cooperation book, but you didn’t prefer that. Is it because the Internet hype is over? Why do you dislike writing texts on online collaboration? Or do you think the distinction between real and virtual should not be made?

CS: I really think such a distinction leads us into the wrong direction. We all are tempted to produce texts that look smart because they put ‘online’ and ‘cooperation’ in the title. It’s part of a wishful promise to scrutinize exciting, new, really sophisticated forms of interaction. But I doubt that there is such a thing as non-sophisticated social interaction. It’s no accident that it’s much easier to make a computer predict the course of a space vessel than to program a roboter to bake pancakes. Space is very empty. The Internet is empty, compared to a kitchen. It’s a point of view that we’d do ‘basic stuff’ at home in the kitchen with our kids, partners, organizing the day etc., and do ‘advanced stuff’ out there in Internet communities or doing conferences – an idiom of would-be patriarchal-academic classism. Cooperation is always a complex thing.

GL: What do we mean by complexity? For me this word has often been misused by experts who are incapable or just too lazy to explain what a subject matter is all about and instead say: ‘You have to understand, this is a complex matter.’

CS: People using the term ‘complexity’ in that way have no idea about its meaning. All they want to say is ‘Keep out – this is not your business.’ But complexity is something completely different. A complex structure is one with a high density of information, a great range of reactions and options without being really random, something that cannot be brought down to a formula, cannot be exactly predicted. We are only just beginning to understand how complex structures work or are generated. Variety, feedback, interaction play a great role. We have come to see complex structures everywhere: life, nature, history, is like that. So while we think we would give orders, realize plans, understand processes, what we really do is a labour of managing complexity, with more or less satisfying results.

The point is, writing a program is usually much less complex than what happens in a kitchen – cooking, talking, raising children, forming ideas, reaffirming and changing social structures, doing the dishes. But when we try to build online networks and online communities, we should learn from ‘real life’ networks and communities. And maybe, ‘real life’ interaction may get inspired by how we do it in the Net, too. And both should show a different strategy of managing complexity than the dominant actors in bureaucracy, in the military, in politics do. Their main strategy remains one of reducing complexity by authoritarian means, bringing it into hierarchical order. But they, too, are learning, and learning fast.

GL: Now what was that about the Internet. Is it complex? Or, is cooperation on the Internet complex?

CS: It is the strength of the Internet that it has a structure of emergence: building rich structures out of very few and very simple rules. But when it comes to cooperation on the Net, rules become more complex, more real-life. Building online networks is a difficult thing. It cannot be brought down to a few simple rules, it has to be taught and learned by practice, and it often fails. On the other hand, we can learn from the Net about what rich structures we can build in real life if we operate with sets of very limited numbers of very simple rules, and let them develop, mutate, interact. In fact that seems to be the way how cooperation unfolds at all amongst very different, very distinct players. Very few, simple rules. That’s the way how to speed up. Operating light, in terms of information weight.

What I find interesting in the context of the Net is the notion of individualization and its ‘rise’. From a Marxist perspective it’s quite clear that the potential for individualization is a result of the development of the forces of production. Stranded on an island, there’s not much room for individualization. Individualistic strategies, ways of living, ideas, projects become possible because society has developed in such a way that life is not precarious, that a basic security is established, that we have a certain access to public wealth, strategic commons, to capital, information, communication and so on, and that direct social control weakens because the market allows us to change cooperations, to move, to leave, etc., because we are held together by the bounds of abstract cooperation. You can do enormous things in the net because someone has built it. Because someone is keeping it up. It’s this stage of ‘abstract cooperation’ that makes individualization possible – and not only for very few individuals but as a mass phenomenon. Not only in the cultural sphere but as a productive force itself. From this point on, cooperation looks as if it is something special, voluntarily engaged, as if we were monads that come together to collaborate. While the truth is that we can only act in this monad-like way because we are embedded in very elaborated abstract cooperation, because we have so many resources and structures ready at hand.

This is very much what neo-liberalism is all about: Using the collective forces for very individualistic plans, but without paying them respect for this. The collective work thus precedes the possibility and experience of individualization, and in so doing the collective time becomes a forgotten work. And of course, the potentials of individualism are distributed unequally. Many people are forced to deliver the rawest forms of pure labour, without any control, creativity, social collaboration involved. While others can use the machine to collaborate, to individualize, to be creative. A revolutionary movement that leads us out of today’s capitalism, however, must accept individualism as something to be freed, to be made available for everybody and all cooperations. Not something to be tossed aside again to ‘go
back’ to Fordism and the world of the 60s. In my view, a future socialism will allow us all to use collective forces and cooperation for plans of our own. Some kind of individualistic collectivism, or “socialist individualism”, as Magnus Marsdal from Norway puts it (‘Socialist Individualism’, http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/marxind2.html).

GL: How do you see the relation between ‘free cooperation’ and work done inside institutions that is never entirely free of dirty deals and exploitation? What to think about institutions anyway? Ned Rossiter and I have been working on the concept of ‘organized networks’. We see this as a way to ‘invent’ new institutional forms in the age of the Internet. Of course the ‘institutional critique’ of the nineties is still there, and remains valid, but has by and large been very moralistic and without consequences.

CS: We really have to re-think institutions. We’re anti-institution in our attitude, of course. But there is some distinct flavour of neo-liberalism in this attitude. We tend to think that it’s the institution that is black, and autonomy that is white, basically. But it’s not that easy. There is a complicity with the system without institutions, and this involves implementing the system’s forces and rules while feeling apparently absolutely on our own. Deleuze raised this issue in his famous ‘Transcript on Control Society’. If we are acting free, and the outcome of this freedom is a high level of conformity, then there is something wrong with this freedom, then we are not really free, obviously.

During the seventies we reflected the structures of the Fordist times that were just about to end. “You tell me it’s the institution,” the Beatles sang, and the movements and projects wanted to be autonomous. Neo-liberalism tore down the institutions as well – well, some of them, but not others – like the IWF and the World Bank. In other words, neo-liberalism pretended to be extremely anti-institutional, to support an autonomy against institutions. At the same time, integration and assimilation under power structures became organized more and more through markets, and so the new question became complicity, not autonomy in the old sense.

Looking into the future, there are two things that follow from this. First, we have to study the complicity between neo-liberalism and institutions, to destroy its aura of ‘freedom for everybody’ by re-telling the real story and its facts. Second, we have to think about new ways to imagine institutions (and markets, as well). To balance public, democratic control and the potentials for individualism in a new way. That will be crucial if we want to get rid of what we have today. We have to be clear that a new attitude, that of living in a society that is ours, can not be obtained without institutions. This is something very important about cooperation, free cooperation. Social power lies not only in the fact that we are allowed to do this or that, or that we can do it, no matter what. Much more important is that social power lies in the fact that we can prevent others from doing this or that, and that we can make others do this or that. That’s really power. In society, this power is gained by solidarity, but institutions are an operationalization of this solidarity. Institutions guarantee to me a certain access to our collective powers.

I think we have to re-think autonomy today as well. Autonomy is a form of separate organisation. But it is also a quality, a goal to be met, be it by common organisation, separate organisation or special tools and structures. The goal here is that the interests of a social group, e.g. women, or a special political concern, i.e. feminism, are not subdued by the overall logic of the organisation or the cooperation – that they are powerful enough to resist, to insist, to say No. Organisational autonomy contributes to that goal, but it is not enough – you also need integration, control, veto’s, “mainstreaming”, etc. In my view, we have to ask questions like, what may ‘organized networks’ contribute to autonomy, or, how can we construct institutions and organisations with open spaces, that allow for self-organisation and relative autonomy?

The Prospects of ‘Giving Away’

GL: How do you look at the tension between giving away code, music, texts, for free, and the growing desperation of (young) people and how they make a living? For me there is a direct link, a strange dialectical relationship between McJobs and Linux. The more peer-to-peer networks there are, the less likely it will be for ‘precarious’ creative workers to get out of the amateurization trap. Instead of Lawrence Lessig, Joi Ito and other Creative Commons gurus we should argue in favour of professionalization. Not so much in order to defend existing professions and related IP-regimes, but as a way to invent new professions. My example here would be the VJ. It would be great if many more VJs could live from their work and be taken seriously – not just by the club culture but by society at large.

CS: We have two important notions. The first is that some people, some cooperations, some structures get out-cooperated by others in the course of things. This is a typical way economy develops – its Darwinian logic, if you like. And the dark side to the all-too-often friendly discourse of cooperation. ‘Let’s all do it together, but do it funkier than the rest’. Today it happens to the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica who get out-cooperated by Wikipedia. They cannot compete. But it happens to millions of workers as well – in the harbours, in the ship industry, in the production of goods, in the proliferation of services. They lose their jobs, or they have to work for less income, with longer working days, harder conditions, less rights. Is this the same thing? Obviously, we have an idea of positive out-cooperating – this is when new forms of collaboration arise that are applied by the workers themselves, and old forms of hierarchy get ruled out in the same process. And we have a notion of negative out-cooperating – that is, when global power structures aim at the dis-empowerment of workers and local people, when hierarchy is re-inforced by the power of being global, of combining and re-combining global workforce, resources and markets without participation of workers and people. Can we say which is which in any case? That would be important, even if it’s not all simply black and white, of course.

The second notion is that exploitation happens not only inside the factory. That’s the question: who exploits whom, who makes capital out of whose paid or unpaid work, is crucial in old and new capitalism? So, working for free does not guarantee anti-capitalism. That much should be clear. Nonetheless we have to take a very close look at this phenomenon as it operates within the networks of ‘open cultures’. I wrote a paper on symbolic value and how it is produced in free software and network projects, how it is appropriated by some, and how it can even be exchanged into ‘real’ money in the end (‘Trust No One – Some Remarks on the Political Economy of Virtual and Global Networking’, http://www.all4all.org/2004/05/820.shtml). Symbolic value is the object of the ‘style wars’ in HipHop, the tremendous fights about Who Represents, sometimes a fight to death. HipHop is as very instructive example. It tossed aside the ‘old school’ of the left, setting up a ‘new school’ of ‘Representation’, of self-assertion. At the same time HipHop found itself sucked up by neo-liberalism. Successful HipHopers could avoid the pain of ‘being low’, but got the disparity of competition instead – fighting a war on representation almost without any content, except that of competition itself. ‘What are you talking’ about? I’m not talking about anything, I’m just dissin’.’ HipHop really used the possibilities of ‘racing’ the system by using the cultural surplus of the imagined ’hood, of individually selling the cultural productivity of collectives in a post-modern world where there seems to be no us and them in the old, class-informed way.

We have to realize that ‘free’ projects can be more exclusive than ‘non-free’ structures in terms of gender, race, qualification, class. You need institutions to be inclusive. This sounds strange to us, but institutions are not only a matter of alienation. They are materializations of compromise, of conflict-borne rules on partizipation and mutual obligation. The alleged freedom of many structures means actually that there’s just free competition where the priviledged prevail. As soon as you want gender equality in your network, as soon as you start to practice gender mainstreaming, as soon as you enable gender autonomy in the sense of working-groups and forums etc., you’re building institutions. Because an institution means that you do not have to put up the same fight at every single occasion but establish a certain base of rule and compromise.

The notion of ‘prolonged exploitation’ is also a reminder to the first notion of out-cooperating. The Encyclopaedia editors are out-cooperated because the Wikipedia authors work for free. But this is partly an illusion, because the Wikipedia authors have to eat and dress and live in houses too. Only they get paid by other structures, outside the Wikipedia collaboration, not by the project itself. So we do not know, so far, which form of collaboration is more productive. The costs of Wikipedia are hidden, they are externalized. Whoever can externalize its costs, wins – that’s a basic rule in capitalism, and that’s why ecological movements always claim the internalization of costs. The reason Wikipedia is really more productive is because it does not have to spend work, money etc. into means of forcing people to work, because editorial work is spread among all participants and not located in a fixed editors’ class, because the roles of producer and consumer get blurred, because a strong responsibility of the worker for his or her work is established, etc.

GL: Is it productivity that counts? Ultimately a new system will win against the existing system, just because it’s more productive?

CS: Yes, I think so. More productive, not more efficient. Usually, a new way of production, and a new society linked to it, is successful because it can accomplish something the old way of production (and the old social structures linked to it) could not. Machines, weapons, ideologies, structures of environmental control, intelligent machines, you name it. It is not successful because it is more cost-efficient. If something really new, really useful, really powerful can be accomplished, costs really don’t matter. That’s a very important historical lesson. So the question is: what is it about the new modes of production, as they emerge today, that enables them to accomplish things the old ones could not? It’s not that Wikipedia authors work for free. That’s not the point. But maybe it is Wikipedia indeed. And what’s related to it. Maybe it’s the astonishing productivity of free cooperation in such forms. That would be the new forces of production, and the new relations of production would be that of free basic income, personally free labour and shared means of production.

So what is it that new cooperations, like Wikipedia, can produce that older forms of cooperation could not? Wikipedia, using the tool of the wiki and the knowledge of online community building, creates a product that is completely up-to-date, that is mistake-free, error-free, while it works in extremely error-friendly ways at the same time. It is quite unbiased in terms of cultural hegemony, it is strongest when it comes to entries other encyclopaedias wouldn’t even have. You may find better articles elsewhere, more to your gusto, but usually ideology is kept checked, balanced, controlled in Wikipedia. If you want it unbiased, you go there.

I think it’s not even imagined where we could take that. Compare that, combine that, with real-world approaches like participatory economics. Could we build wikis that contain the knowledge about how our city, our village, our neighbourhood works and how it functions? Could we establish that kind of economic, political, cultural transparency? Could we lay economic source codes that open? What would that mean? Ain’t that a road to economic democracy? We could use these new tools for cooperative decision-making. Just open up. We could use Artificial Intelligence as a means of empowering Lenin’s female cook to really run a factory, a city, the state – collectively. If people can play SimCity, why shouldn’t they be able to govern their real city? Why shouldn’t they like it?

The Future of Creative Work

GL: Let’s go back to the question of the (im)possibility of an online economy. Is giving away for free really the only option left?

CS: The culture of giving it all away needs a closer look. That you cannot sell your product to make a living,is not so new a situation in history. Before capitalism, a lot of things could only happen when the producer got paid, got supported, was kept alive – it wasn’t the product that was paid for, it was the producer that was financed. That’s how medieval courts sustained art in the 13th century. We can see this development at several points in history: first, culture as religious work, as performed by a priest cast; then, second, stuff that was directly paid for as a service that was ordered; third, stuff that was produced as hobby work in free time (soldier poets, the antecedents of free software programmers, in that sense); fourth, stuff that was produced by real freelancers that worked for a kind of market system, people who were paid because they were ‘good’, who made a living out of their work (that is, they could choose between different possible clients).

Is there a rule? Is it that culture is controlled by an elite class, and then starts to slip, to break loose, to become ‘free’ (often commercial at the same time), then changes its domain of containment to a new, emerging class; and then this new elite class stops this ambivalent ‘freedom’ and uses direct service work, again? Then the freedom of hobby production, of giving away, of working for markets, etc. would not seem to be real opponents, but changing forms of inbetweeness, of emancipation from the old elite class. It’s just using opportunities. That would fit well for the internet today. It would fit well for the whole semi-world of semi-precarious intellectual labour today. We’re just shifting. The problem is, can we keep this state of not-being-bound, this time? Can we take part in a new movement of change while, at the same time, defining our role in more autonomous ways, both in the present as well as in a utopian future?

GL: Is it really necessary to live precariously when you’re working with the Internet, and in particular when you’re producing content?

CS: Stephen King could not raise money with internet content. But why? It is not that his content has no ‘value’ – out of the internet, his books sell very good. But the internet proved unable to deliver a stable structure of allocation for his artistic production. The business model was this: you could read the chapters of the book for free, but were asked to pay a dollar so that the production could go on. This didn’t work, because the individual prospect of non-paying was real while the goal of continued production could not be guaranteed by an individual paying anyway. This, combined with a completely anonymous social context, failed to establish a stable structure of allocation. There is a specific problem of re-allocation raised by the internet and the digital copy: it is difficult to prevent people from consumption without contributing to the costs of production. And there is another problem – a lot of content loses its value because in an easily accessible global medium it’s no longer special or distinct. In a global area, there’s always someone better than you, and enough who are equal to you. So why pay you? Why work with you? We’ve already reached the point that local cultural producers, local creative workers, are not paid for their work – but that they pay for being allowed to do their work, for the opportunity of being visible. This is not a problem for the top dogs in cultural production, but for the others – the local bands, authors, artist, cultural workers – there’s the problem of being out-of-time and out-collaborated by a global market. These are not necessarily good things for the development of collaborative or free cultures.

Here again we face what you mentioned before: the connection between McJobs and Linux. In a global economy almost every content loses its value except the most outstanding products that escape competition because they have no real competiton in the quality stakes. The winners are the producers of high quality products for global markets, and the producers of the cheapest mass products for global markets. The rest loses. So it’s Hollywood and China, German Hi-Tech export firms and Eastern European assembly lines, the Pentagon and the maquiladora belt. Not the people who work there; the people and institutions that own them, ‘run’ them. That’s the way it’s meant to be from the perspective of today’s global elite class.

The exact relation between the elite class and ruling class has to be discussed. Ruling is not government work, of course. But ruling is more contested today, it seems, more difficult, more compromised work, more taking into account of the global masses, at least the more privileged parts of them.

Are there alternatives emerging? New coalitions between intellectuals and workers, ‘new’ (more set-free, semi-precarious, academic-proletarian) intellectuals and ‘new’ (more cooperative, more self-ruling, more collectively responsible, more organized, more educated) workers? I hope so. That’s the new proletariat, and Wikipedia is its bible, perhaps. And it’s really the internet that shaped it: open source as it is, connecting and opening the knowledge of the world. Some of it. Some other parts stay hidden. And some parts cannot be taught, learned, transferred in this way, they need personal training.

But lines get blurred, hybrid forms of knowledge transfer and creation emerge and become more and more important. The hybrids. We have to talk more about the hybrids. We have to watch out for the hybrids.

We have two extreme approaches to the issue at the moment. One standpoint it that of the traditionalists in the music business: protect your content. Downloading is stealing. Catch the thieves. The other standpoint is that of Oekonux: give everything away for free. The only way of allocation for a future society is, according to Oekonux, that all goods are free, all services are free, all content is free, and that work is done completely independent from money, done only by the motivation of self-fulfilment. Reality tends to a third way at the moment: Use it, but don’t sell it – and if you do sell it, then contribute to the production costs, which have to be covered if the production is to go on. The whole thing splits into different parts: A part of ‘general production’ which is done by ‘general work’ that is not paid by special means, and a part of ‘special production’ which is done by ‘special forces’ and is paid – and the ways and rationality of payment change, too. A Star Wars film raises more money by licenses for toys and advertisements than by selling ticket, which means people contribute to the costs of production by paying a kind of global Star Wars tax that is raised by selling silly Star Wars products. Strange, but it works.

And here, maybe, we get a preliminary idea about why and how new forms of cooperation may out-cooperate the Empire. Neo-liberalism was very good in ‘special work’ – in combining and re-combining labour, resources, connectivity, on a global scale. Dissolving first, of course, but then re-combining for new, huge, global tasks. Free cooperation is very good in ‘general work’ – in producing the ‘white noise’ of production, the general background, the overall element. These are factors often addressed as ‘social capital’ today, but this is a poor definition because it doesn’t explain anything. It’s like the alchemists talking of an all-abundant, but invisible, insensible element called ‘Ether’. This is something the Empire has great difficulties in producing. That’s why they cannot build stable civil societies in countries they have occupied. That’s why they keep borders flowing between formal and informal labour – not only to throw out people from inside, but also to breath, to take in, people and content and any results of cooperation from outside.

Our whole thinking about distribution and markets has to be re-shaped. Classical theory doesn’t work, but giving-away ideologies don’t work, either. The point is: a classical capitalist market, like theory sketches of it (where competition works towards lowest possible prices and most efficient ways of production), needs some closure in space and openness in time. We act by bounded rationality, we have no sufficient knowledge, no total information, never. So the crucial question and the structuring decision is: shall I buy his product again? It’s a kind of tit-for-tat-strategy, which is normal for bounded rationality, as game theory teaches us. Only repetition rules out fraud. Only closure in space gives a chance of gathering sufficient information over time. At the same time, calculation (as part of organising production) is never frozen in time, calculation is always open in time: if I sell something cheaper, more people will buy, and I will become somewhat dominant in this market segment, I can then sell goods or services at a more expensive price – so future expectations are always built-in to the smart business strategy, however unpredictable that may be. So this assumes also a strategy that can handle risk, loss and contingency. And in this sense, it’s never a case of pure ‘efficiency’ in the neoclassic sense. This is always true. It’s nothing new. Now: if an economy enlarges to global markets, at a high speed with low transport costs, relations shift. Fraud rules. Buyers have trouble keeping path with sellers in terms of information. Strategies that link present and future become dominant over strategies stuck in the present. Market domination becomes more important than tit-for-tat-adeptness.

My point is that economy never worked through ‘the market’ alone. It was always through the market in a very special way, as one tool among others, as part of a more complex strategy and mechanism of rule. We have to think, if we think about the future, in terms of these kind of mechanisms and strategies. ‘You can’t sell CDs any longer’ is too simple. But this is something that ‘Wikipedia forms of production’ can solve much better. They are a solution to the fraud problem. They reduce fraud considerably. Because there are rules and checks and, you might call them, ‘institutions’. But also because the work isn’t paid.

GL: Lately, interesting critiques of Creative Commons have been voiced. For some it is the legal contract itself, which is the problem. Both GPL and TRIPS are legal documents. It’s already often stated that Creative Commons is a form of copyright. CC does not transcend the legal system and is not pointing in any new direction how we can develop sustainable structures. It’s a mere defensive license in that it explicitly refuses to tell how professionals and amateurs that attempt to make a living out of their work can start to earn money. It’s dogmatic in this one message: abandon all hope and give it all away for free, put that funky CC license on your content and shut your mouth. Both Joi Ito and Lawrence Lessig are good at staying on the message. How you make a living is your individual problem and we’ll be the last ones to tell you how to solve this problem… apart from wishing you good luck with your t-shirt sales. That’s the cynical logic of these Creative Commons leaders. For them CC is about the ‘freedom’ of ‘amateurs’ to ‘remix’. But we are not all amateurs that fool around on the Net in our spare time. What should concern us is how amateurs can professionalize. Amateurs that want to remain amateurs is fine, of course. The amateur status should be a personal choice, not the default destiny.

CS: Who could really ever make money out of content? Ain’t that always a problem? Problem is, the producer of creative content has such a strong interest in publicity, in making it public, that he/she has almost no bargaining power. He/she would do it for zero, even pay for it sometimes. Because he/she needs that, it’s the kind of investment he/she can never afford him/herself. So every producer of creative content tends to work for zero, always, because it’s so crucial to be heard. Not only for a mission, for the belief in what you do, but for economic reasons. The only chance you’ll ever have of getting really paid is global prominence. So meanwhile, you get paid in advertisements. That’s why we need public support for creative producers. They just starve, or completely lose track of their creative work.

That’s the main way to understand so-called ‘free’ or ‘give-away’ economy in the net. The smart bands virtually give away some stuff for free, as a kind of self-advertisement, and that’s all that counts. Often it works. They don’t sell their music if it comes packaged in digital forms. They sell themselves in the form of giving concerts. The rest is a global advertisement. And that’s the trend we see in the e-economy. The companies that do well, like Google, EBay, Amazon, earn more and more through advertisements, while they provide more and more services for free.

GL: Yes, but what have writers to offer? Does it mean that writers have to give away all their texts for free and will have to live from the lecture tours they do? And who is going to organize these lecture tours, if not a publishing house? What strategies could we develop to turn interesting and creative work, done by artists, designers, writers and activists into more or less sustainable jobs, without going back to the old regime of intellectual property rights? There is no going back anyway. Creative Commons is already the default option, and I don’t mind that.

CS: We have to get organized, and we have to develop some vision. There are four problems that need different, but consistent answers. The first is the problem of the Encyclopaedia Britannica editors and authors: that there are free and better alternatives to their product, produced by ‘amateur’ collectives in their leisure time. Here the only answer is: give it up. If the work is done by a distributed, non-professional collectivity, there is no more need for a professional to do the job. Change your job profile, re-define your professional activity to another field, like printers had to do when hot type was disabled.

The second problem is the Stephan King problem, that there is no sound re-allocation for the investment of your workforce when it comes to digitally reproducible content and creative mass commodities, like online novels or mp3-tracks. The radical solution would be: No more individual payments; introduction of a ‘content tax’ on PC hardware; financing artists by public programs and democratically controlled public culture institutions. The GEMA (German music revenue collector) is a step into that direction. At the same time, instead of privatising science production, there has to be a growth of public education and knowledge production that encompasses more than classical science work but ‘basic creative work’ as well.

The third problem arises when you do specialized creative work for a company that actually sells a product where your work is a part of it. A printed book, for example, belongs to this category: What sells is a complex product made of writing, editing, marketing, product placement, access to distribution and control of cultural markets. That’s the difference between being printed and being published. Here the problem is that powerful actors can force others to accept poor contract conditions. The solution is getting organized in a trade-union style, like scriptwriters demonstrated in Hollywood, with support from state regulation that guarantees minimum wages and fair contract conditions.

The fourth problem is that companies try to privatise collective knowledge and heritage and raise quasi-feudalistic fees. Here the only answers are laws that prevent any such privatisation of ‘intellectual goods’ – very simple. Such a non-dogmatic, but visionary approach would bring a real advantage to the whole of creative production.

GL: How should artists make the collaborative aspect in their work visible? In opera, theatre, film and in television and radio there are very well defined rules for that. Credits make the division of labour and importance of each individual contribution in a production pretty clear.

CS: This not only counts for artists. Art is a field of production where lots of people contribute but some are in charge. Art cannot be done without special means of production that have to be produced by others (paper, PCs, paint), that’s easy. But art is also a form where collective experience and life gets transformed into artistic products. So how does the author pay back the people who inspire him or her, who give their lives to produce what the artist uses for his or her work? Because the artist alone can’t do anything. How many people really collaborate in the making of a work? How visible is this togetherness in the art work, and in the artist’s conscience? How much do we know about this process of collaboration that exceeds the world of artists and artists’ collaboration, about the process of people collaborating in producing culture? Let’s discuss this as well! Otherwise, it would be a quite bourgeois discussion.

GL: Why? Don’t you think that most creative workers are already living under ‘precarious’ circumstances? I just read Mickey Kaus’ term ‘involuntary entrepreneurs’. Glenn Reynolds used it in his book An Army of Davids. What it points at is the inevitability of neo-liberal working conditions. There is no way that workers one day will return to their Fordist factories, or their offices for that matter. They will have to get used to the ‘freedom’ of being a freelance contractor.

CS: In a way, precarity doesn’t matter. Of course this problem has to be solved, but if some people decide – and are able to decide – to be culturally productive no matter what their income is, it does not allow them to forget that their work is still part of a collective production. The game of ‘99 percent of us will starve but 1 percent will be paid off in individual glory’ is still a bourgeois game. The point is to resist the temptation of out-cooperating others, to resist the temptation of privilege, to pay respect to others. On the other hand, society has to accept that it cannot exist without cultural production and creative work, that this is no luxury or individual hobby, and that it has to be paid respect (and income), too.

Alternative Economies

CS: ‘The alternative economy aspect is under-examined’, you write together with Trebor in Collaboration: For the Love of It. Do you see any attempts to examine this? What about Oekonux? But it has become more of a nerd philosophy, of a software programmers’ religion, than an instrument of economic analysis, yes? At what point did it start to slip? What should be put into the centre of such an economic analysis?

GL: We might agree with a lot of people that the Oekonux debate would need a restart, with a fresh input from various directions. Originally German Oekonux debate (2000-2002) tried to make a blueprint for society centred around the free software production principles. After a few years the Oekonux debate got stuck for the simple reason that, in the end, it was controlled by the founder of the forum, Stefan Merten, who doesn’t want to let go and probably has little experience with how to scale up and transform, from a cozy and closed high-level German context, into an international debate in which there would be a multitude of players and intentions. What is needed, in a sense, is a clash of theories, between the Marxist use-value approach and the hardcore libertarian free software/open source philosophy. Oekonux claimed to be its synthesis, but it wasn’t. Still, it asked all the right questions. I am still inspired by Oekonux, and so are you, I’d guess. After all, that’s where we both met.

CS: Yes, virtually and literally! In the discussion on alternative economy, there are two positions prevailing at the moment: one stating that capitalism itself is out-cooperated and has to be replaced by a new cooperative model of economic accumulation, allocation, information and decision-making. That’s the Oekonux position. The other position is that the alternative is a strongly regulated capitalism under political control, but an economy where the driving forces and modes of regulation are capitalist, an economy of profit, competition and private ownership. That’s the de facto position of most Left parties in Europe. The main argument for the latter position goes: capitalism is ugly but there is no other system so far that could compete with it in terms of the speed of innovation. Not ingenuity, but a tempo of real change in production. What do you think of this? What is your experience with cooperative project and innovation? And is innovation that important at all? Is that all we’re in it for, innovation?

GL: We have seen where the ‘political primate’ ultimately takes us. What I have strongly believed in is the model of temporary laboratories. Not eternal utopias that fail but experiments with a high level of collective imagination. What we need is fresh story-telling capacities. Social movements have an incredible capacity for this. But they can maintain the ‘autonomous zone’ only for a limited time. Instead of going for the ‘penis enlargement’ model of the never-ending orgasm, I believe in a steady accumulation of best practices. This is not reformist as I do not really believe that we have to ‘insert’ such stories and concepts inside existing institutions. Maybe I’m too much of a media Gramscian, but yes, I believe in the capacities of the many, the multitudes of great people that I meet everywhere, to create a new cultural hegemony that can precontextualize the political. Learning from the Neocons, if you like. I am not the only one who is arguing for this.

CS: I’m not convinced that this is enough. Filling the gaps is not enough. We have to run the system in another way. This is what was discussed at the latest meeting of the German Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation’s ‘Future Commission’: What exactly is it that neo-liberalism does? What is the productive contribution? What is the kind of work that is most strongly supported and honoured by the rules of neo-liberal markets? It seems to be combination and re-combination – of work, of resources, on a global scale and on a scale combining material and immaterial, professional and amateur work in a new way. That’s the productive labour that is honoured by shareholder capital. It is not sustainable, it is not just, it is destructive, etc., etc. But it is a kind of productive labour, and very powerful, and it is an elite kind of skill. And it’s no wonder why this is the case – somebody has to do it.

There is no economic system without a structure of accumulation or allocation. How is it accomplished that labour and resources are concentrated and/or distributed, allowing the action of production? How is the outcome of this production relevant to the continuation of production, and how is this relevance expressed in structures that ‘inform’ or force the productive unit to go on or not? Any accumulation system strengthens certain kinds of work and ignores others. So, saying ‘the financial markets become more and more the driving force of production’ doesn’t really say very much. The point is, financial markets are just a means of accumulation. But why is accumulation handed to them in neo-liberalism? Because they strengthen certain kinds of work and ignore others. They ignore social capital, long-term collaboration, etc.; they strengthen the work of global combination, the dissolvement and re-combination of labour and resources on a global scale. It’s no error that neo-liberalism features hedge funds. It’s because they are effective in destroying old complexes of labour and resources and transferring the money and the resources to new labour-resources-complexes, especially those who operate world-wide.

Now: we want to terminate the unchallenged rule of this kind of work. But we do not want to eliminate this kind of work altogether, the work of combining and re-combining labour and resources for global tasks. We do it ourselves in a lot of cases. It’s important. But we want it to be done on a free basis, not a forced one, not as a hierarchy, but as a driving and inspiring force.

It’s clear that we aim at an economy where commons play a great role. Old and new commons – commons, where the public gets free access to information, communication, tools, technologies, small capital. But not everything will be done by commons, of course. There will be local markets and regional production. And there will be global projects that will need special modes of accumulation in order to get re-funded. At the moment, we do not know exactly how this should be done if it were up to us.

I’m also not in favour of contemporary ideas that all economic activity should consist of small collectives. Big scale production may be progressive too. And the separation between work and capital may have its emancipatory aspects also. I do not only want to control what I am directly working with. I want to have some influence on everything that happens in society. For this, ‘having shares in something’ is an important tool. That’s why I like the Swedish idea of combining workers’ control on the shop floor with economic democratisation through workers’ funds.

Unfolding Utopia

CS: In the introduction to Free Cooperation that you wrote with Trebor Scholz, there is something that can be read easily as your contribution because you stress it all the time. It’s ‘the importance of being inspired’. Could you explain more about it? To you, it seems to be the REAL productive force in cooperation, in the Net, in the real world. And obviously, as in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The importance of being Earnest’, it is something that is felt as important by others so that we try to fake it, if necessary … What is it you’re thinking of, when you’re talking about this ‘being inspired’?

GL: Let’s deal with its cynical reading first, the Lebenshilfe aspect. In English that would be filed in the self-help, the mind, body and spiritual New Age section that we find in today’s bookstore. In the past I insisted that theory is not there to help you through the day. Music can do that job, a good joke, a short conversation. This inevitably leads to a dilemma for those amongst us who want to further theorize collaboration. You did a clever, yet classic German move by giving free cooperation a negative, dialectical foundation, namely the freedom to walk away. Still, very few of us are actually in such position. Or want to. We all look for a motivational theory, to either get into what we do or transform the situation in which we find ourselves. To get a better understanding how, exactly, theory inspires people, is not a minor detail. We have to be open minded, on the look-out, read and interpret our feelings, get over frustrations, yet take our discontent deadly serious.

CS: You’re also talking about ‘extreme democracy’. What does it mean? How does it apply to online cooperation?

GL: It’s not a term that I developed, but I like it. Extreme Democracy is the book title of a collection of essays, pretty wild online material from 2003-2004, written by US-American techno-libertarian activists/bloggers such as Radcliffle, Lebkowsky, but also Ito, Shirky, Weinberger and Boyd. It was written in the period of the Howard Dean campaign, the breakthrough of blogs and social networks, but before the Web 2.0 hype. What’s extreme about it is most likely not the ideas (because they are flat and mainstream) but the dynamics of those social networks. Their growth (potential), the easy ways to link and refer to each other, opens up dialogues on a massive scale, and is indeed remarkable. I get inspired by such social networks. But from a leftist point of view, there is not much more to learn than radical self-criticism. Why can’t progressive social movements be part of this? What makes this whole world of NGOs and unions so slow? Why is today’s resistance so dull and arguably reactionary, if you look at the defensive and desperate tendencies in the French protests? Why do young people think that identifying with a bankrupt welfare state is the only option left, to live like their parents? What we in fact need is more extreme social imagination of how people want to live and work in the 21st century. To expect life-long care when you’re 21, I don’t know. Would that really be utopia? Why not go the extra mile and propose a basic income for all? Or other forms of radical redistribution of income? What disturbs me is the petty, fear-driven agenda of today’s protests in Europe. In that sense it is, still, more interesting to look what the US libertarians are tinkering together in projects like www.worldchanging.com.

CS: That’s why the struggle to make free basic income a central demand of the political Left is so important at the moment, and quite difficult in Left parties, because it contradicts the classical Fordist assumptions held up by the trade unions. Lacking, however, are visions for capital control, for free productivity, for personality development, etc.

The French riots in the Banlieus weren’t exactly boring where they? People resisted a law that allowed to fire young people without any protection against it for as long as two years after they were hired. I think that’s a good reason for protest. It’s about seizing power, resisting powerlessness at work. And when young people are very aware of the family as an important way of life, we should listen carefully. Our ideas of independence, free contract labour, new productivity are often a question of class – you have to be a quite qualified immaterial worker to practice that successfully. Family networks and/or social security through the state are still the only means of security and freedom for most people. But you’re right that here a discussion about visions must start – renewed visions, that make new ideas compatible with the interests and desires of, to put it bluntly, ‘the masses’.

‘Collaboration asks for concentration’, you write. Could you explain that further? How can we reach that concentration? Is that why The Matrix combines the virtuality hype with Eastern philosophy?

GL: Those who are impatient and have some kind of genius idea about themselves are incapable of collaborating. When you work with others online, there is a lot of social noise on the line and it takes a lot of patience and wisdom not to give up. If you need Eastern philosophy for that, or not, is a personal matter. I don’t but I perfectly understand those who do. One has to be ready to speed up if the velocity picks up and mentally ready for the numerous delays and hic-ups on the way. It is this confused rhythm of speeding up, slowing down, being stagnant and again moving forward that tires people out and could be one of the main (and least understood) reasons why people jump ship and abandon Internet-based projects.

CS: Again, that’s very similar in real life organizing processes! Just consider the process of funding a new Left party out of the PDS and the WASG: a lot of people are attracted and then get confused, bored, angry about these rhythm thing, the need for patience – and the need for velocity and action – and then patience again …

It’s often said that hierarchy is unavoidable to organize processes. I don’t want to buy that, but it’s difficult. What do you think from your experience? The software programming model is what exactly does not convince me. The art of collaborative projects often doesn’t convince me of it either. How can we change roles? I have the sense that you need strong cooperation, cooperative wealth, if such trials are to proceed. What is your definition of hierarchy? Is it cooperation without influence on the goals, on the purpose?

GL: What you often seem to presume in your writings is trust and friendship of relationships within a relatively close vicinity. The problem is that these are becoming rare these days, mainly because of increased mobility. What trust and friendship need is time that you all spend together in the same space in order to build up common experiences. Only then, for instance, can you deal with hierarchy in a non-authoritarian way. Namely when the ‘anti-hierarchy’ is no longer a slogan or an ideology but becomes a negotiated practice. But that is really difficult to realize with people you hardly know. I am not saying that hierarchy is a natural process but rather that you all have to work really hard to undermine such processes. So the real challenge is to question hierarchy in new, and fast changing social environments – not when you’re amongst old friends. The need for celebrities, visionaries, leaders and gurus is immense and only seems to be growing. You find it in virtually all environments, from work to hobbies and sport, in entertainment and the arts. It is by no means restricted to politics or business.

For me hierarchy sets in when groups get bigger, when organizations grow, when there are more and more teams and task forces. So it’s quite close to project work and division of labour. It also comes with the introduction of (middle) management. There is in a sense no hierarchy if there is just the boss and the others. People who motivate and give directions are usually quite open and egalitarian. The problem starts when mid-levels are introduced. I have no problem with ‘leaders’ that inspire. What sucks are boring managers without ideas. I have no idea why, time and again, they have to be brought in. Hierarchy is a product of abstract, bureaucratic administration procedures, not an expression of (absolute) power.

CS: So hierarchy is the organized subduction or withdrawal of collectivity, and the transformation of collective productivity into shadow labour. ‘Shadow labour’ is the labour that is not organized as a subject. Would you agree that definition?

GL: Yes, it’s not identified, qualified or visible. But what will happen when we get used to online encyclopaedias, Wikipedia or not? That’s my field of interest. What will happen when the online world, and our presence in it, will become so ubiquitous, so intense, that we no longer take notice. We are there, out in the (online) world, but we’re also not there. This being present, while absent is a contemporary condition that interests me, and how this affects political formations, and political culture of the everyday. The way you portray it is too much of a doom scenario. The Net is not a one-way street in which we are drawn, with no possibility of escape. What young people show is this extraordinary capacity to create presence in parallel worlds, simultaneously. There is also a gender aspect to it. Apparently males have great difficulty when it comes to multi-tasking at work and in the household. This in turn leads to an entire army of male philosophers who make us believe that we have to chose between the real and the virtual world. No, what we need is a poly-gender socialisation which is focussed on the cultivation of multi-tasking.

CS: I like that! The female art of social multi-tasking, of simultaneously talking and listening, being in and out, as the core qualification of the emerging, global, individualized network production! But this also calls for a radical reduction of working hours – you can’t stand this 40 hours a week, 8 hours a day. And we should keep in mind what you said about ‘Cooperation asks for concentration’. We are developing a whole new division of labour at the moment, and I would not want the multi-taskers (mostly female, many migrant) to be the new ‘precariat’ and the focussed nerds the new white-collars. We need a common, visionary perspective for a real multitude.

This brings us back to our initial question of ‘out-cooperating the Empire’. I’d like to ask how we imagine change today. In my opinion, our whole concept of change is itself rapidly changing at the moment. The prevailing concepts of change have always been very simple, it’s strange that there is little science and theory about it. The classical Marxists theory is as simple and unsatisfying as the Oekonux idea of the ‘Keimform’ (germ), not to speak of the still dominant ideas of gradualism and continuous evolution. At the moment, there are very fast and very interesting developments in the theory of evolution. The new theories sketch a process that is evolutionary and revolutionary at the same time, like we feel it in history and the transformation of societies. Notions of co-evolution, of memory of alternative possibilities, of rapid change and rapid adaptation, etc. are changing our perception in evolutionary biology.

I guess similar notions are growing for our understanding of programming processes, of network development. And in this perspective, we might get a new understanding of what is also typical for female multi-tasking and communication: a strong sense for ‘potentiality,’ which always tends to make men confused and nervous. The constant evolution and preservation of potentiality seems to play an important role in evolution. I’m sure all this will lead us to a better understanding of what it means to ‘out-cooperate Empire’.

(edited by Ned Rossiter)