Nettime — Out-Cooperating the Empire? – Exchange with Christoph Spehr

Topic(s): Collaboration | Comments Off on Nettime — Out-Cooperating the Empire? – Exchange with Christoph Spehr

Cristoph is a really interesting person and this exchange seems pertinent to our discussions. One of the questions that we are confronted with is if there are modes of exchange that fall out of the market (small horizontal) / anti-market (capitalism) binary. Cooperation seems to be one response. Cristoph’s notion of free-cooperation has been useful in distinguishing a cooperation that is “free” from one that is more common in society which is often obliged, demanded, co-erced. -rg
Out-Cooperating the Empire?
Exchange between Geert Lovink and Christoph Spehr on Creative Labour
and the Hybrid Work of Cooperation
I have just finished an exchange with Christoph Spehr, the German Œfree
cooperation‚ theorist, on creative labour and the hybrid work of
cooperation. This online dialogue grew out of the work that Trebor
Scholz and I did on the documentation of the Free Cooperation project.
A book is scheduled to come out with Autonomedia late 2006 in which a
key text on the art of (online) collaboration was written by German
theorist Christoph Spehr. The following dialogue started as a series of
comments by Christoph Spehr on the introduction to the Free Cooperation
anthology that Trebor Scholz and I wrote in January 2006. An earlier
online interview between Christoph Spehr and me took place in June 2003
and can be found in the nettime archive. In this conversation we try to
jump over our shadows and discuss precarious work, the gift economy
concept and the relation between online and offline work. What does it
mean to Œout-cooperate‚ the Empire in the sense of out-playing,
out-performing the System? Is it aimed at creating
Œsurplus-virtuosity‚, drawing from a rich and diverse pool of lived
experiences? Out-cooperating strategies should be read as the network
equivalent of the outsourcing logic and relates back to questions of
scalability, mass-adoption of Œsocial networking‚ practices admidst a
looming crisis how to monetarize cultural artifacts (and earn a decent
income). (Geert)
Cooperation & Individualization
GL: I discussed with you whether to have the word Œonline‚ 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 Œonline‚ and Œcooperation‚ 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
Œbasic stuff‚ at home in the kitchen with our kids, partners,
organizing the day etc., and do Œadvanced stuff‚ out there in Internet
communities or doing conferences ˆ an idiom of would-be
patriarchal-academic classism. Cooperation is alwaysa 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: ŒYou have to understand,
this is a complex matter.‚
CS: People using the term Œcomplexity‚ in that way have no idea about
its meaning. All they want to say is ŒKeep 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 Œreal life‚ networks and communities. And maybe,
Œreal 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. Theirmain 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 cooperationon 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 Œrise‚. 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 Œabstract 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 Œgo 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 (ŒSocialist Individualism‚,
GL: How do you see the relation between Œfree 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 Œorganized networks‚. We see this
as a way to Œinvent‚ new institutional forms in the age of the
Internet. Of course the Œinstitutional 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 ŒTranscript 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 pretendedto 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 Œfreedom 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 mea certain access to our collectivepowers.
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 ˆ
that they are powerful enough to resist, to insist, to say No.
Organisational autonomy contributes to that goal, but it is not enough
ˆ you also need integration, control, veto’s, „mainstreaming‰, etc. In
my view, we have to ask questions like, what may Œorganized 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 ŒGiving 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
Œprecarious‚ 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 ˆ 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 ˆ its
Darwinian logic, if you like. And the dark side to the all-too-often
friendly discourse of cooperation. ŒLet‚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 ˆ 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 ˆ 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 ˆ 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 Œopen 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 Œreal‚ money in the end (ŒTrust 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 Œstyle wars‚ in HipHop, the tremendous fights about Who
Represents, sometimes a fight to death. HipHop is as very instructive
example. It tossed aside the Œold school‚ of the left, setting up a
Œnew school‚ of ŒRepresentation‚, of self-assertion. At the same time
HipHop found itself sucked up by neo-liberalism. Successful HipHopers
could avoid the pain of Œbeing low‚, but got the disparity of
competition instead ˆ fighting a war on representation almost without
any content, except that of competition itself. ŒWhat are you talking‚
about? I‚m not talking about anything, I‚m just dissin‚.‚ HipHop really
used the possibilities of Œracing‚ the system by using the cultural
surplus of the imagined ‚hood, of individuallyselling the cultural
productivity of collectivesin a post-modern world where there seems to
be no us and them in the old, class-informed way.
We have to realize that Œfree‚ projects can be more exclusive than
Œnon-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 Œprolonged 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 ˆ 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 ˆ collectively. If people can play
SimCity, why shouldn‚t they be able to govern their real city? Why
shouldn‚t they likeit?
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
producergot paid, got supported, was kept alive ˆ 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 Œgood‚, who made a living out of
their work (that is, they could choose between different possible
Is there a rule? Is it that culture is controlled by an elite class,
and then starts to slip, to break loose, to become Œfree‚ (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 Œfreedom‚ 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 Œvalue‚ ˆ 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 ˆ 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 payfor 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 ˆ the local
bands, authors, artist, cultural workers ˆ 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
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, Œrun‚ 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, Œnew‚ (more set-free, semi-precarious,
academic-proletarian) intellectuals and Œnew‚ (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
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 ˆ 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 Œgeneral production‚ which is done by Œgeneral work‚ that is
not paid by special means, and a part of Œspecial production‚ which is
done by Œspecial forces‚ and is paid ˆ 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 Œspecial work‚ ˆ 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 Œgeneral work‚ ˆ in producing the Œwhite
noise‚ of production, the general background, the overall element.
These are factors often addressed as Œsocial 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 ŒEther‚. 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 ˆ 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 ˆ so futureexpectations 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 Œefficiency‚ 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 Œthe 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. ŒYou can‚t sell CDs any longer‚ is too
simple. But this is something that ŒWikipedia 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, Œinstitutions‚. 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 Œfreedom‚ of
Œamateurs‚ to Œremix‚. 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
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
That‚s the main way to understand so-called Œfree‚ or Œgive-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 Œamateur‚ 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
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 Œcontent 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 Œbasic creative work‚ as well.
The third problem arises when you do specialized creative work for a
company that actually sellsa 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 Œintellectual
goods‚ ˆ 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
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 Œprecarious‚ circumstances? I just read Mickey Kaus‚ term
Œinvoluntary 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 Œfreedom‚ 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 ˆ and are able to decide ˆ 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 Œ99 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: ŒThe 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 factoposition 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 Œpolitical 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 Œautonomous zone‚ only for a limited time.
Instead of going for the Œpenis 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 Œinsert‚ 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
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 ŒFuture 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 ˆ
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 ˆ 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
Œinform‚ or force the productive unit to go on or not? Any accumulation
system strengthens certain kinds of work and ignores others. So, saying
Œthe 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 ˆ 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, Œhaving 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 Œthe 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 ŒThe 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 Œbeing 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 Œextreme 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
Democracyis 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 kind of mainstream now)
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 http://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 ˆ 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 ˆ renewed visions, that make new ideas compatible
with the interests and desires of, to put it bluntly, Œthe masses‚.
ŒCollaboration asks for concentration‚, you write. Could you explain
that further? How can we reach that concentration? Is that why The
Matrixcombines 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 ˆ and the need for
velocity and action ˆ 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 Œanti-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
ˆ 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 Œleaders‚ 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. ŒShadow 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 ˆ you can‚t stand this 40 hours a week, 8 hours a day. And we
should keep in mind what you said about ŒCooperation 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
This brings us back to our initial question of Œout-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 ŒKeimform‚ (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 Œpotentiality,‚
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 Œout-cooperate Empire‚.
(edited by Ned Rossiter)