May 28, 2009  ·  Lessig

As I wrote last week, I threw away a week I didn’t have penning an “insanely long” review (as I described it), of Mark Helprin’s insanely sloppy “Digital Barbarism.”

The part of that book that really got me going was the incessant Red-baiting — the suggestion that the movement of which I am a part is a kind of warmed over Marxism from the 1960s.

That part always gets me going because it betrays a kind of mushiness in thinking that I should have thought a decade of writing by scores of advocates would have driven away. As I wrote about Helprin:

It is in this extreme of Red-baiting that one can see the mushiness of Helprin’s brain: Let’s say he were attacking a bunch of scholars who believed copyright should be as robust as the Framers of our Constitution had it. That was a regime that secured copyrights only to those who registered their work. And not just any work, but only “maps, charts, book or books” (music, for example, was excluded). Imagine the term of the protection was again just as the Framers made it — 14 years, renewable by the author, if living, for another 14 years (but again, only if he registered the renewal). And imagine finally that the rights granted were forfeit if the author failed to deposit the copyrighted work with the government, or if he failed to mark the work with the appropriate sign. Such a reform would certainly be radical. It is wildly more radical than anything any of the scholars Helprin attacks would recommend.

But here’s the question: would one who so recommended be a “collectivist”? Were our Framers “collectivists”? Obviously not. Because the consequence of a limited copyright is not that the collective gets to control who does what. The consequence of a limited copyright is that the work is in the public domain, and anyone has the liberty to do anything he or she wants with the work. The state or the “collective” is not privileged over the individual. The individual is privileged over the state or “collective.” And so strong is that privilege in America that a Court of Appeals in Colorado recently held that the government can’t remove work from the public domain unless it satisfies a strict First Amendment test first.

The kind words of some in response to the review made me think perhaps the week wasn’t completely wasted. But then as I got settled into a 13 hour flight to Australia, I read this piece by Kevin Kelly, “The New Socialism.”

Words have meaning. We don’t get to choose their meaning. If you call something “X” people will hear the equation. They won’t read the fine-print which says (“By X, I mean really not-X).

Kelly says:

When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.

That statement is flatly wrong. It is completely unreasonable to call that “socialism” — at least when the behavior described is purely voluntary. It’s like saying “Because Stalin set up a competition between different collective farms, it’s not unreasonable to call that free market capitalism.” Both statements are wrong because they point to a feature that is common, and ignore the feature that is distinctive. At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question). At the core of the behavior Kelly celebrates is freedom.

Kelly’s argument is like so many today that has implicitly embraced the view that free market, libertarian sorts believe that the only thing in the world is competition, or people working to non-common goals. It is the idea that we are free only if we are antagonistic, and that free market theorists have been working to create a world where individuals struggle against, not with. A world that aspires to dog-eat-dog as its central value.

But that conception of capitalism/free-market/libertarianism has no basis in fact. And so as I ranted in my head about Kelly’s confusion, I was enormously happy to have the chance to hear an economist at the conference I was attending at Canberra present a paper that (unintentionally) completely destroys Kelly’s thesis.

Nicholas Gruen is an economist with the consulting group, Lateral Economics. His paper (PDF) (blog entry) was titled “Adam Smith 2.0: Emergent Public Goods, Intellectual Property and the Rhetoric of Remix.” And he introduced the paper by remarking a fact that I had missed — this year is the 250th anniversary of Adam Smith’s first (and last) published book, A Theory of Moral Sentiments (alas, the second edition). (Last because he finished his 6th edition of the book responding to the terrors of the French revolution just before he died in 1790).

What the modern misunderstanding of markets forgets about Smith is that his aim was as much to understand the provision of public goods as it was to understand the role of the market. Indeed, you could only understand the role of the market against a background of public goods (including civil society), and one critically important question is how a society produces those public goods.

Unlike statists of later years, Smith was fascinated by emergent public goods — goods that were public goods (since nonrival and nonexcludable, as economists later would formalize the concept), but that were created not by any central actor like the state, but by the mutual and voluntary actions of individuals. Language is the simplest example — language is a quintessentially public good, but no central coordinator is necessary to produce language. But Smith was eager to describe a wide range of emergent public goods that set the preconditions to a well functioning market.

Obviously, in this focus on civil society, Smith is not alone — even among the heros to libertarian/capitalist/free marketeers. In this respect, Hayek continues the tradition Smith began. He too was deeply sensitive to the health of civil society, and recognized how civil society was produced by “masses of people who own the means of production [and] work toward a common goal and share their products in common, [people who] contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge.” But Hayek too was not “socialist.”

The thing that Smith was pointing to (and Hayek too), is not “socialism.” It is not reasonably called socialism. Because “socialism” is the thing Smith was attacking in the 6th edition of his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Socialism is using the power of the state to force a result that otherwise would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people. As Gruen quotes Smith:

The man of system. . . is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. . . . He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

Coercive government action is — IMHO — a necessary condition of something being “socialism.” It isn’t sufficient — there is plenty of coercive governmental action that doesn’t qualify as socialism, like raising taxes to fund national defense, or to pay the police. But if you’re calling something “socialist,” then a requirement for using that term correctly — meaning in the way it is understood at least by people who don’t take the time to read a 3,500 word essay that redefines the term — is to be able to point to the coercive state action that produces the thing you’re talking about.

I’m not an opponent to all things plausibly called “socialist” (though as I’ll argue in a moment, our political culture could do well to avoid the most prominent examples of socialism that Washington has produced over the past 8 years). A graduated income tax could properly be called “socialist,” because it is coerced, though I’m in favor of it. Forcing polluters to internalize the cost of their pollution (carbon as well as others) is not, in my view, properly called “socialist,” even though it is the product of coercive state action. There are many examples in the middle of course — schools, parks, public highways. But all of the examples of proper “socialism” begin with pointing to coercion by the state. A conservative Baptist church is not “socialist” when it voluntarily collects money to give to the poor, even though the result is similar to the result of a “socialist” plan to redistribute money from the rich to the poor.

On this account, none of the things that Kelly (and I) celebrate about the Internet are “socialist.” No one forces Wikipedia editors to build a free encyclopedia. No one sends to the Gulag (Helprin’s book notwithstanding) photographers who don’t use CC licenses to share their photographs in Flickr. Scientists who share their research freely within the Public Library of Science are not necessarily friends of Che. They may be. But their freely sharing their knowledge is not a certain signal of leftist leanings.

All this would have been obvious to Kelly if he had included in his list of purportedly “socialist” organizations the Christian Right. Say what you want about the politics of the Christian Right (and don’t get me started), one can’t say they are “socialists.” But likewise, whatever you think about organized religion (and again, don’t get me started), one can’t deny that it represents “masses of people who own the means of production work[ing] toward a common goal and share[ing] their products in common, [] contribut[ing] labor without wages and enjoy[ing] the fruits free of charge.” Yet it would be patently “unreasonable” to call the Baptist Church “socialism.”

Likewise might this have been obvious if Kelly had focused on other writing about the stuff he and I celebrates, that emphasizes more than Benkler, for example, the commercial or business dimension to this phenomenon. Half of REMIX is about what Kelly calls the “hybrid,” but my point is about the hybrid as a business strategy. So too with the fantastic book, Wikinomics. Again, the focus of that book is on how a sharing economy gets leveraged by a commercial economy to benefit both. In no instance is that leveraging coercion. In no way, therefore, is it “socialism.”

Now of course Kelly works hard in his essay to disassociate the term “socialism” from lots of “cultural baggage” (as he puts it; victims of the Gulag may have a different way of describing that): As he writes:

The type of communism with which Gates hoped to tar the creators of Linux was born in an era of enforced borders, centralized communications, and top-heavy industrial processes. Those constraints gave rise to a type of collective ownership that replaced the brilliant chaos of a free market with scientific five-year plans devised by an all-powerful politburo. This political operating system failed, to put it mildly. However, unlike those older strains of red-flag socialism, the new socialism runs over a borderless Internet, through a tightly integrated global economy. It is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is decentralization extreme.
Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods.

And of course, these distinctions are right and true. But what is not true is that something is “socialism” because “technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions.” Tim O’Reilly gave us a good enough word for such technologies — Web 2.0. And if that term is too geeky, then how about “civil society”? Or the extraordinary words of Smith from 250 years ago.

I launch this rant against a friend not to betray a Stallman-like-tic. I think think some fuzzy language is productive. I don’t insist on precision at every linguistic turn.

But sloppiness here has serious political consequences. When a founder of the movement which we all now celebrate calls this movement “socialist,” that plays right in the hand of those would attack everything this movement has built. Again, see Helprin. Or Andrew Keen.

It is a fact that in America the term “socialism” is a smear. I’m not defending that fact. I wouldn’t give up defending programs merely because they could be so smeared.

But I do think that now is not the time to engage in a playful redefinition of a term that has such a distinctive and clear sense. Whatever “socialism” could have become, had it not been hijacked by revolutions in the east, what it is in the minds of 95% of America is not what Wikipedia is.

And indeed, when I look around at the real socialism of the past decade, I am almost Declan-esque in my revulsion towards it: America has plenty of “socialism.” The most recent versions we should all be very skeptical of. This is the general practice of socializing risk, and privatizing benefits. I’d be happy to join the “anti-socialist” movement if we could agree to end that perversion first.

But that deal notwithstanding, I will never agree to call what millions have voluntarily created on the Net “socialism.” That term insults the creators, and confuses the rest.

  • M. D.

    I’ve never trusted Helprin’s writing, ever since the late 1970s when he was on one of my National Park Service ranger-led tours at Ellis Isand and literally transcribed my tour and turned it into a “short story” under his name. I don’t think he thinks for himself. I think he picks this stuff up from other people and makes it look like his own. There was no way to charge him with plagiarism by transcription that I knew of, but I think his work should always be considered supsect.

    Margaret Dwyer

  • http://arcticpenguin.wordpress.com yvette

    Socialism, in essence, is a very fundamental and perhaps innocent term to describe cooperative living, but it has been warped and is now confused with Marxism, communism, etc. To be fair, we must be careful in describing new cultural phenomena using existing political terms and understand that even the same word can have a different connotations and agendas in another part of the world. For instance, in the U.S. I would be considered liberal, and yet in Korea, which is where I am from, I would be considered conservative.

  • http://www.daviddfriedman.com David Friedman

    It sounds to me as though you haven’t spent enough time arguing with socialists.

    The definition you want to use, and the one I usually use, is one meaning of “socialist” and probably the most clearly defined. But there are lots of people who consider themselves socialists but reject, or at least say they reject, state coercion as a means. Some of them describe the Soviet Union as “state capitalism.” Some of them imagine a socialist society as involving the sort of voluntary cooperation that you (and I) consider entirely consistent with a libertarian, free market system. Some of them describe themselves as both socialists and anarchists.

    In my first book, written more than thirty years ago, I suggested that “socialism” had become a word with (at the time, for many people) positive implications and essentially no content, and that perhaps libertarians ought to announce that laissez-faire is true socialism.

    With your substantive point, that voluntary coordination via mechanisms other than explicit cash markets is a perfectly normal part of free market societies, I of course agree. As you probably know, Eric Raymond, one of the more articulate spokesmen for the Open Source movement, is almost as extreme a libertarian as I am.

  • http://ragesossscholar.blogspot.com Sage Ross

    I don’t want to defend a wholesale equation of online collaboration with socialism, but I don’t think you can dismiss the connection between the two so easily.

    Why does coercion have to come from the state for it to be socialism? Some aspects of social media (Wikipedia is the prime example) have become ubiquitous to the point where you can’t disengage with them the way you can from, say, a Baptist church. And on the web, the laws of a state are not the only relevant forms of coercion (as you should be the first to recognize; code is law, right?).

    One longstanding part of Wikipedia culture is “sofixit”: if you have a problem with flawed Wikipedia content (e.g., content that affects your livelihood negatively and unfairly), the onus is on you to contribute to the system to correct it. That combined with the broader cultural prevalence of Wikipedia amounts to (social rather than legal) coercion to engage with Wikipedia. And through a combination of technical and social mean within Wikipedia, you are coerced into participating in certain ways.

    The web is for the most part a political space that exists outside and across conventional states, but (as Mathieu O’Neil argues in the book “Cyberchiefs”), it is not, as some have claimed, a space without authorities and coercion. In a space where the state is not the dominant source of coercion, it still makes sense to me to talk about “socialism” as much as it makes sense to talk about markets and democracy in certain aspects of the social web; it’s different from the traditionally meaning of socialism, but not so much that isn’t useful to use that language. Anyhow, “new socialism” does indicate some difference from the old, right?

    Because online communities exist across and beyond states, it also makes sense to look at online political systems from the perspective of individual projects. Just as one may be to leave the coercive grasp of a socialist nation through emigration, one can leave an online project at will. But those who choose to be part of Wikipedia have to assent to the basic economic agreement of the project: everything you write becomes the property of the group, to be transformed and re-written according to what is best for the whole project. Redistribution of linguistic wealth, if you will.

    As a Wikipedian, it makes sense to me to think of Wikipedia as a form of social democracy.

  • Edward Parsons

    I’ve got to chime with yvette and Friedman here that the definition of socialism used in this piece is really problematic. Though I’m not sure I’d call myself a socialist, I still take exception at the simple elision of socilism with coercion. This is certainly not born out in the beliefs of those who call themselves socialists, and is only partly borne out by the behaviour of the so call socialist regimes. There exists a strong and vibrant line of volunteerist socialism, in the form of the Anarchist and other self-organising, non-statist forms.

    Unfortunately, the problem here is partly that Dr Lessig draws all of his commentary on the matter from economic, rather than political, texts and partly the trans-atlantic language divide. Here in the UK, socialism has a much broader meaning, and was in fact only occasionally associated with the Soviet and Chinese regimes (we generally used the term Communist instead). The fact that, until fifteen years ago, one of our major parties stood on an explicitely socialist platform should give some indication of the difference in opinion. Further, non-state socialism, non-coercive socialism has a deep and rich history, going back into (as Tony Benn always maintained) exactly the sort of mutual aid, charitable acts and egalitarian ideas of the free churches that Dr Lessig discounts.

    It’s rather a shame that, in a piece where he rails at Kelly for using words to mean whatever he pleases, Dr Lessig is guilty of doing exactly the same thing in redefining socialism to mean, merely, “something not desirable” (though, in fairness, he admits sympathy with some “socialist” outcomes). Though I don’t entirely agree with Kelly’s theory, I do think it a grave disservice to define an idea set that many people put considerable thought into to simply a derogatory parody of itself, rather like redefining the whole of Christianity to only the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army.

  • Jan Hansen

    “When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.

    That statement is flatly wrong. It is completely unreasonable to call that “socialism” — at least when the behavior described is purely voluntary. It’s like saying “Because Stalin set up a competition between different collective farms, it’s not unreasonable to call that free market capitalism.” Both statements are wrong because they point to a feature that is common, and ignore the feature that is distinctive. At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question). At the core of the behavior Kelly celebrates is freedom.”

    Lessig you need to calm down. Socialism is only a dirty word in USA. I have no problem stating I am a socialist. You seem to say socialism is involuntary by definition, yet many countries have had democratically elected socialist governments for most of the 20th century (like most of Scandinavia).

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    Sigh … I really really wish you’d consider carefully the cultural critique that many, call it “anti-cyberevangelist” people have been writing over the years. I know a few them don’t like you (and vice-versa), so there’s personal baggage. But others (like me) do respect you and have read your ideas extensively.

    What Kevin Kelly is doing is a completely bog-standard version of what we keep complaining about – repackaging warmed-over platitudes into a buzzword-laden “edgy” net-utopian babble.

    Hence, when you basically say, wait, those buzzwords don’t really have that meaning – in a way, THAT’S THE POINT! That’s the goal of his piece, the shock-value, the marketing schtick.

    There’s a reason that Wired – which is not exactly the “Journal Of Marxist Studies” – is talking about “new socialism”. It’s part of the sales-pitch used to on the one hand sell technology as utopia, and on the other, make it all non-threatening for business (even advantageous, with the subtext of free work).

    And note: Wikipedia is not socialism. It’s a cult with a sugar-daddy (i.e. Google).

  • Andrew Katz

    Thanks, Edward Parsons, for making the point I was going to make, much more succinctly than I would have done.

    It’s impossible to read Orwell, and maintain Larry’s definition of “socialism”. Orwell was a socialist, and proud of it, but undoubtedly the strongest possible opponent of totalitarianism.

  • http://www.geof.net/ Geof

    As a Canadian, I am with the Brit (Edward Parsons) on this. I’m not expert, but I have never seen socialism characterized as “using the power of the state to force a result that otherwise would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people.” Given the context of the discussion, it seems appropriate to refer to the definition in Wikipedia, which says nothing about coercion (barring a quote from Lenin):

    Socialism refers to any one of various economic theories of economic organization advocating state or cooperative ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and a society characterized by equal opportunities/means for all individuals with a more egalitarian method of compensation based on the full product of the laborer.

    Or from the Canadian Oxford Dictionary:

    1. a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the community as a whole should own and control the means of production, distribution, and exchange.

    Lessig’s definition of socialism strikes me as so broad that it could encompass virtually all action by or enforced by the state (traffic regulation? contract law? copyright?). True, Lessig admits that many state actions are coercive though not “socialist” – but then it doesn’t seem like a term that draws useful distinctions. At that rate, his real objection seems to be not that socialism is coercive, but that (much) activity in the commons is not performed by the state. Fair enough, and I agree.

    As for the claim claim that “Words have meaning. We don’t get to choose their meaning.” If not us, who? Politics is all about defining and changing the meanings of words. (What is “marriage”? Freedom? Is abortion murder? Is copyright infringement theft?) Lessig’s characterization of socialism is more an expression of politics than an objective truth.

    To go a little off topic, one of the core problems with excessive copyright is that the same words can be used to express a multiplicity of ideas. We can take an existing creative work and use it to say something else: often something we could not say at all without appropriating the original expression. Doing politics means not only quoting the words (and sounds, and images) of others, but also redefining them. Taking that freedom away locks us out of politics.

  • http://tartley.com Jonathan Hartley

    Interesting that you should characterise the distinction this way. It certainly isn’t the way I have thought of it until now. I have tended to define socialism as the provision, by the State, of communal value (like State provided pensions, and the free-at-point-of-use healthcare and education we have here in England), rather than associate it with involuntary control.

    Remember that we, the British People, voted in our government to do these things. So I don’t think we cannot be considered to be being coerced (certainly no more so than taxpayers anywhere.) And yet we have ‘socialised medicine’, etc.

    So for me, the prominent characteristic of socialism is its effects, not the means by which it is introduced.

    Best regards,

    Jonathan

  • http://tartley.com Jonathan Hartley

    re: socialism is sharing, not coercion

    Suddenly I understand why Americans have such an inbuilt disgust of socialism. I was always bemused by this, and inferred that it was an irrational response induced by brain-washing and propaganda.

    Now I understand how the propaganda works! :-)

    Only (half!) joking! Love your stuff. Best regards,

    Jonathan

  • http://www.downes.ca Stephen Downes

    >. At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question). At the core of the behavior Kelly celebrates is freedom.

    That is such a load of… well, such a load.

    Socialism is not distinguished from other forms of economic organization by its use of coercion, and you should know better than to assert that. When we look at a ‘free market’ system that enforces the ownership of private property through the courts and police, or a capitalists system that uses sheriffs to enforce the will of the bank through evictions and such, it should be clear that coercion is a factor in any system, not merely socialism.

    What distinguishes socialism is not its use of force but rather the direction of public policy as a whole, whether or not it uses force. This direction, in the case of socialism, is toward the good of society as a whole. As opposed to capitalism, where (as the saying goes) ‘greed is good.’.

    I never thought I would write here to say that you are naive… but… in your depiction of socialism, at least, I have to say, how naive!

  • lessig

    Great comments. Thanks.

    We all need to recognize (speaking now to the cross cultural crowd) that different political systems internalize the concepts differently. So I am criticizing an American writing in an American publication about his use of a term — “socialism.” I don’t pretend to understand how well the use fits other cultures, or traditions. I am speaking to one of my own about my own tradition.

    That said, the reason I insist that “coercion” is a necessary condition of “socialism” in the American tradition is just that there are scads of organizations that are “socialist” in the weaker sense of the term — advancing social ends — that would never identify themselves as “socialist” in the political sense of the term. The Baptist Church. The Red Cross. Etc. These are organizations that care about fraternity (in the French sense) and see themselves to be about making the world better (n the social sense) but believe the essence of what they do is voluntary, and therefore, distinct from the state.

    If you define “socialism” more broadly — to be, for example, any allocation of state resources to maximize social value — then you include the law and economics movement (filled with lots of people who would never self identify as socialists) as well as British-sort utilitarians (who never realized they liked economists so). The usage would thus mischaracterize the community described. That’s my complaint.

    And finally, @Downes: Remember, I said coercion was a necessary condition of socialism, not sufficient. And you’re right, as American constitutional theory has argued since the realists, of course property rules are a kind of coercion. Bu the (arbitrary) sense of coercion I am pointing to is relative to a baseline distribution produced by the state-supported contract and property regimes. We don’t call that baseline “socialist” (though you’re free to, of course); the only acts that can count as “socialist” are state enforced deviations from that baseline. Again, I’m not against state-enforced deviations, even if called socialist. But I am against calling privately chosen deviations “socialist.”

    Thanks again.

  • http://itsallsemantics.com Daryl Richter

    Jan Hansen wrote:

    “I have no problem stating I am a socialist. You seem to say socialism is involuntary by definition, yet many countries have had democratically elected socialist governments for most of the 20th century (like most of Scandinavia).”

    Whether a government is “democratically elected” or not has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not it is coercive. Tyranny of the majority is still Tyranny.

  • jasontgordon

    Lessig:..what is not true is that something is “socialism” because “technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions.” Tim O’Reilly gave us a good enough word for such technologies — Web 2.0. And if that term is too geeky, then how about “civil society”?

    Voluntarism is a term that encompasses both non-commercial and commercial uncoerced activity (Agorism describes freely engaged in commercial activity).

  • http://www.hokstad.com/blog Vidar Hokstad

    You may be speaking based on “your own tradition”, but Wired’s use is part of a trend towards moving back towards the original meanings of these words. Socialism and communism doesn’t have the same automatic connotation to the Soviet Union, China, Cuba or North Korea or other repressive regimes as it used to. Even in the US.

    I take this to be at least in part a result of the fall of the Soviet Union and a generation growing up without being made to swallow anti-socialist propaganda under the guise of anti-Soviet propaganda on a regular basis.

    Socialism has never been a single ideology. It is a series of traits. Traits that you, as you pointed out, can find in voluntary organizations, and also in states. Traits that can be enforced through coercion, but that can also be voluntary.

    In fact, many socialist ideologies are founded on the idea of the destruction of the state as a necessary condition for the emancipation of labor and so for socialism – coercion is the problem not the solution. More generally, lack of freedom is the problem, but with capitalist enforcement of property rights coercion can not be prevented.

    Marxism for example, see the state’s only purpose as being a tool for the ruling class to oppress the rest, in large by enforcing property rights and an economic system that makes it largely impossible for the majority to make actual use of “political freedoms”, and so when a class society has been removed, the state will “wither away”. The goal is a society where voluntary association replaces the state.

    In Marxist theory, coercion is still necessary as a temporary measure, but only as a response to capitalist coercion: Capitalists, according to Marx’, will never stop oppressing the working class voluntarily, and so when capitalism is sufficiently well developed and the proletariat makes up the majority, the proletariat must rise up and take control of the state and use it to take control of the means of production, and so ultimately dissolve the class society by making the capitalist too part of the working class.

    In anarchist traditions this intermediate phase is seen as unnecessary – the state would be destroyed immediately, and society rebuilt bottom up immediately.

    Many other forms of socialist ideologies exist (indeed a wide range of socialist ideologies can be found just in the span of anarchist and Marxist ideas), ranging through European style social democracy, which works within capitalism and require no further coercion, to authoritarian systems.

    To brush all socialist ideologies with the same brush is a bit like saying that a free market “requires coercion” just because coercion is common in many countries with market economy. It becomes either a meaningless platitude (it could be applied to any wide-ranging concept, and the moment) or it is used to imply something else: That A requires more coercion than B.

    Your comment falls also because early socialist ideologies where not only based on voluntary association of the resulting society, but was envisioned as being built bottom up through the creation and expansion of socialist communes – this is in fact the earliest form of the modern political socialist ideologies.

    Ironically, given your claim to “your own tradition”, many, if not most, of these early socialist communes were set up in the US, at least in some cases because the coercive and intrusive nature of European powers at the time made such communes more difficult to set up in Europe

    “Coercive” socialist ideologies first arose much later, largely as a reaction against the radical ideas as a way of “safely” including or merging socialist ideas into capitalist or even feudal society, and this was the basis for much of Marx’ and others criticism of these ideologies.

  • http://www.thelateageofprint.org Ted Striphas

    This is a brilliant argument, and one worthy of a book in its own right. (I sense many a dissertation about to be spawned.) I wonder, though, it it’s more apt to say that most socialisms (Stalinism notwithstanding) are compulsive rather than coercive. To me, coercion suggests a more prevalent threat of physical violence than does compulsion, which, though suasive, produces outcomes initially by other means (e.g., the law and non-corporeal sanctions).

  • nielsen

    “At the core of socialism is coercion”

    At the core of Lessig’s knowledge of political philosophy is vacuum.

  • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

    I am grateful for the close read my piece has received.

    I was perhaps the least enthusiastic supporter for redeploying the highly charged word “socialism” for what is happening, but in the end I felt I did not have much choice. I would have accepted Larry’s proposed alternative of “web 2.0″ only under torture. “Civil society” is a phrase that while true carries no weight or force at all. In other comment streams, and in email, I gotten a barrage of folks trying to persuade me that the term I should have used is “anarchy.” I am not persuaded.

    While I did write this essay for an American magazine, I am at this point half Chinese, and, as much as possible, a citizen of the world. Unlike Larry I am not in constant battle with the uglier aspects of contemporary American governance, and so I was not aiming this essay at Americans in particular, nor at American politics for sure.

    All I can say is that from a lexiconic viewpoint, socialism is the best word available — and yes, but that I mean a type of non-coercive socialism. But it is not the best word imaginable. So I end where I began:

    Give me a better word to describe the type of governance that is emerging.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    @Kevin Kelly – there is no “word to describe the type of governance that is emerging.”, because there is no type of governance that is emerging. There are various projects, but there is no Grand Overarching Revolution which is the NEW NEW THING, despite the obvious incentives to find such a trend for punditry, speaking gigs, marketing, and business consulting.

    In fact, and this is meant more to Lessig – the hucksterism there connects with a lot of very toxic politic trends, notably presenting data-mining businesses as models for civil-society (gee, who do you think loves that, e.g. media corporations), and an absolute hatred of traditional government (no guesses needed as to who loves that!).

  • lessig

    Thanks for the reply, Kevin, but I still think you’re missing the point about taking responsibility for the words you use.

    Compare: Imagine someone argued as follows: “Obama’s economic policy is basically fascism. I don’t mean the fascism of Hitler. I mean the fascism that was dominant in Europe (and toyed with by FDR) in the early 1930s. [and then followed a 3,500 word essay about how it is possible to understand all this as "fascism."]“

    It would, in my view, be a completely fair criticism of that argument that it is misusing the word — that whether or not it might be reconstructed to mean something different from what it means to the vast majority of the world, using it to describe Obama’s economic policy is not responsible. Not responsible in the Fox News sense — that after people here it they will have less understanding of the subject than they did before the hear it.

  • http://www.sean-malone.com/blog.html Sean W. Malone

    I’m a little confused as to how no one posting comments seems to understand that as the State *is* nothing but a societally-sanctioned monopoly of force, and every single action of government is backed directly by force or by the threat of force – Socialism, by its very essence, as state control of the means of production, is a forceful enterprise. It’s not simply Stalin or Lenin, Mao, or Castro who “bastardized” what is otherwise a “good” philosophically-sound system of governance/economy, they are it’s direct product.

    Further, the very title of the Wired piece is about the rise of “Global Collectivism”:

    Collectivism definition:

    “col⋅lec⋅tiv⋅ism
    /kəˈlɛktəˌvɪzəm/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [kuh-lek-tuh-viz-uhm] Show IPA… Read More

    –noun
    the political principle of centralized social and economic control, esp. of all means of production.”

    In what universe is Blogger, Twitter, Facebook or any of another myriad of sites which exist with the *sole* purpose of giving individuals the ability to communicate without any centralized control at all, “collectivist”?

    The definition of Socialism in other countries around the world is, frankly, poorly understood. While many people look at it as just a happy way of caring about their fellow humans, the fact that many in Europe especially, and the rest of the world don’t recognize that all government is at root a forceful enterprise fail to realize that they are “helping” others via gunpoint when they use Socialism as a means of addressing very real social problems. It should be an insult everywhere… not just the US (and I’m beginning to doubt it is anymore here anyway… as more and more mainstream people are proudly claiming it).

  • http://www.sean-malone.com/blog.html Sean W. Malone

    Having not seen Kevin Kelly’s response prior to my post – I want to add one more thing…

    The word you’re looking for is “Libertarian”.

    –noun
    1. a person who advocates liberty, esp. with regard to thought or conduct.
    2. a person who maintains the doctrine of free will (distinguished from necessitarian ).
    –adjective
    3. advocating liberty or conforming to principles of liberty.
    4. maintaining the doctrine of free will.

    It is, the absence of the State controlling the mediums that you discuss which makes them independent, interesting, successful & thriving. It is the fact that these are all, in essence, homes for *individuals* to contribute anything they wish for any reason at any time exactly what makes it not a collectivist or socialist enterprise. The fact that self-avowed libertarians like James Wale, founder of Wikipedia, are some of the main instigators of these new realms of communication and public knowledge is just icing on the cake. You insult them, and other supporters of liberty by using the word that rightly is associated with Gulags, state propaganda and extreme force against individuals in the name of “unity”. There is nothing what-so-ever unified about Twitter. Suggesting that it’s a collectivist movement entirely misses the point and fails to even understand what collectivism *is* in the first place.

    Also, thank you Dr. Lessig.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    @lessig/for the audience – I assume you’re referring to Jonah Goldberg’s book (“Liberal Fascism”) which makes exactly that argument, in all seriousness.

    @Sean W. Malone: See my column
    Wikipedia isn’t about human potential, whatever Wales says

    “In fact, [Jimmy] Wales speaks a language of corporate collectivism that would not be out of place in Rand’s novels. Hyperbolically, it’s where docile workers express joy that wonderful capitalists have provided the means of production, enabling glorious collective enterprises such as a laissez-faire market. This sounds strange to people who don’t know about esoteric business-worshipping ideologies, and so mistakenly assume that phrases like “collective action” automatically indicate communism.”

    And here, “socialism”.

  • The Bagman

    Seth, I read your piece on Wikipedia, but I don’t really see the critique of Wikipedia as such there. Your beef seems to be with Jimmy Wales, but even if he himself is somehow bad, that doesn’t make his creation bad. That he can make money delivering speeches is rather a roundabout reason to indict people who contribute to Wikipedia as wiling slaves. It seem to require assuming that anything done under the auspices of volunteerism can never be applied in any way to make personal profit. Would it somehow be bad for Wales to get a high-paying job with a digital media firm on the basis of his work with Wikipedia? Or for a Wikipedia contributor to land a writing gig on the basis of his “slave” writing?

  • Shmoe

    “Socialism, in essence, is a very fundamental and perhaps innocent term to describe cooperative living, but it has been warped and is now confused with Marxism, communism, etc.”

    Exactly. This is not merely a “cultural’ meaning, Dr. Lessig, it is a technical one. “Coercion” is NOT the defining feature of socialism; it IS, however, a defining feature of Marx and his successors’ socialism. This is, it seems, is a problem of comparative political-economy; I suppose it is typical for a libertarian (neo-liberal?) to define his view of “socialism” as the “standard” American one. First we have the libertarian assumption of socialism as a state institution, followed by the libertarian assumption that most, if not all, of the state’s actions are, inherently, coercive. It is worth noting what the progenitor of socialism was: anarchism. It might be helpful to refer you to Proudhon, and his mutualism. In any case, keep up your fine writing, and your good work on behalf of the commons.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    [Repost, since some comments seem to have gotten lost]

    Well, the headline wasn’t mine, it was written by editors. But it’s OK. What I was trying to do was to debunk some of the mythology that’s been spread about the history of Wikipedia, and document how co-founder Jimmy Wales is not as he’s often portrayed in the media (to be fair, some that portrayal is how people want to see him, but on the other hand, much of it is also his public relations concoction). It’s less that “anything done under the auspices of volunteerism can never be applied in any way to make personal profit.”, but more that personal profit has always been a major motive (if seldom realized), there’s never been a philosophical contradiction, and there’s a horribly exploitative result where a few people at the top make out like bandits via in part cost-shifting a huge amount of misery below.

    That’s really important, compared to the happy shiny bubble-blowing story you’ll find in many evangelist articles.

  • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

    Larry, you say: ” Imagine someone argued as follows: “Obama’s economic policy is basically fascism. I don’t mean the fascism of Hitler. I mean the fascism that was dominant in Europe (and toyed with by FDR) in the early 1930s. [and then followed a 3,500 word essay about how it is possible to understand all this as "fascism."]“

    You say that opinion would be irresponsible. We differ on what irresponsible speech is. I think it would be irresponsible if the entire message were only the first sentence or two — which is often all one gets on TV. On the other hand I would find it interesting if the 3,500 words tried to defend this unexpected and contrarian definition. Given what I know I am unlikely to be persuaded by the fascism argument, just as you were unlikely to be persuaded by my arguments, but this means these words were ineffective, not irresponsible.

    I take the responsibility of my words very seriously. That is one reason why I always use my real name in posting, including postings on comments anywhere on the web.

    I agree, too, that words have power. But I also follow the way words bend and evolve. Meanings change. There is no list of approved definitions. Indeed the future is led by new language. You are aware of this as much as anyone. I am very up front in my piece saying that I am attempting to redefine a stale, troublesome, and vague word. What is irresponsible about that?

    I don’t expect everyone to get past the baggage of the old connotations of “socialism,” but till I hear a better word, I feel responsible to keep using it.

  • http://immanence.blog.uvm.edu Adrian Ivakhiv

    My initial response to Larry’s argument was the same as many of the above — that it’s hyperbolic and alarmist, and that Larry’s definition of the word “socialism” is ahistorical, inaccurate, ethnocentric, and plainly wrong. (I blogged about it, comparing Larry’s attempt to redefine socialism, while accusing Kevin of redefining it, to Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty arguing that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”)

    But now that I’ve taken the time to read the growing list of responses, I have to say that I’m much more impressed with the collective hive mind — the network of respondents here — than with the Queen Bee (the original article), if that metaphor can be applied to something as rhizomic as this blog discussion.

    Words do take on different meanings in different situations — I would say that’s *all* they ever take on (dictionaries being mere aids for usage) — so arguably both Lessig and Kelly are right in certain, circumscribed contexts. But just as Kevin is not only writing as an American, Wired is not only read in the US and Lessig’s blog is not only written and read by Americans. Even less so is the Internet, along with Wikipedia, the open-source movement, et al., intended to be restricted to a single country (isn’t that the last thing from most of our minds when we think of digital culture?).

    When Kevin writes “Give me a better word to describe the type of governance that is emerging” and Seth Finkelstein responds saying “there is no ‘word to describe the type of governance that is emerging,’ because there is no type of governance that is emerging,” this to me moves in the fruitful direction of defining what we’re talking about. I agree with Seth that “There are various projects, but there is no Grand Overarching Revolution which is the NEW NEW THING”. Governance mechanisms are evolving at every level, from the local to the national to the global, and from networking/peer pressure and institutionalized common practices to enforceable regulations (I assume that’s what Seth means by “various projects”). Speaking about “coercion” here is a red herring and I’m a little disappointed that Larry doesn’t want to admit that.

  • http://www.philippmueller.de Philipp Mueller

    I am confused about the link Larry Lessig makes between socialism and statism. It makes sense to me only, if I read (US) sociaism as “realexistierender Sozialismus” really-truly-existing-socialism (never mind the tautology). I had always connected US socialist thinking to Upton Sinclair and friends and felt that there is a shared appreciation for what socialists/progressives did for the country in the early 20th century.

    What I really like in the discussion is the question about governance models for network society.

    (a) I understand that libertarians want make the ahistorical argument that there is nothing new under the sun and see their chance to imprint their ideology on the emerging imagined network community.

    (b) I agree with Kevin Kelly that we need to point at these emerging forms of governance, because they are different.

    (c) I think re-coding socialism (or libertarianism, anarchism, or dadaism) is too simplistic to capture what is happening: our base metaphor of society is changing radically (from body-to-contract-to-the-network) and that changes what forms governance can be legitimized.

    (d) Therefore, I would spend less time on naming and more time working out the grammar of networked governance, in the spirit of KKs “new rules of the new economy.”

  • http://brokensymmetry.typepad.com Michael F. Martin

    I’m late to the discussion, but I’ll simply chime in that in my experience very few people who consider themselves socialists are in favor of coercion! To that extent, I can understand why some might consider your distinction an improper attempt to redefine terms.

  • http://secondthoughts.typepad.com Prokofy Neva

    >the suggestion that the movement of which I am a part is a kind of warmed over Marxism from the 1960s.

    But it is. In a 100 ways. Start with your goofy utopianism, your belief in code-as-law instead of the rule of law (legal nihilism), your hatred of elected and representative democratic institutions, your trumpeting of “transparency” — which is merely a dressed-up Maoist criticism circle designed to light a fire under the state’s bureaucrats — it is merely a Soviet speed-up.

    Kelly at least is honest. You are ducking and weaving when you pretend that your Creative Communism is exonerated from being socialist — communist, really — just because it “isn’t a state” or because people can “join it voluntarily” (right — where they are browbeaten to death never to sell their goods but to give everything away, and something magical will happen where they will, um, make money. Like you all do — all two or three of you who make money on such ideology — mainly by giving lectures for fees about how you can make money with such an ideology LOL.)

    There is nothing really related to “freedom” in Kelly’s view — or yours. It starts with you being willing to throw overboard the truth of the case of Tinie Causbie, which you imply — falsely — is about “progress” and “private property having to make way for technological advancement” and not letting “FUD” triumph — but which is REALLY about (and you duck this fact) *the state having to provide compensation for taking away property*. It is not about the destruction of property, or the exigency of private property having to give way to the public — which you celebrate with your socialist ideals which you keep coquettishly hiding in the belief that will make you “mainstream” — but about *due and just compensation for property taken by the state*. The rule of law; the value of private property.

    http://secondthoughts.typepad.com/second_thoughts/2008/12/liberating-free-culture-2-tinie-causby.html

    Kelly’s 8 generatives are about as empty-headed and fraudulent as the notion of “building communism” or “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” (it never got built) — no one can really make a living this way, it is for a tiny, zealous few who won’t tell us their real book sale numbers (like Doctorow).

    How completely intellectually *disgraceful* to say that “nobody forces Wikipedia editors to edit” — as if that supply side of the socialism by the state-like coercive nerds editing Wikipedia is the place to look for coercion. In fact, they have state-like power over others — absolute power — these very few zealots control all our search returns! The coercion comes because of our increasing reliance, whether out of laziness or necessity isn’t material, on their arbitrary rule, and the wholely undemocratic nature of their “governance” — a tiny handful of people decide all the Wikipedia controversies, without due process or transparency, and they are not elected or accountable. A small cadre can remove critics at whim. It’s an atrocious and appalling system, and your feting of it here only helps us see your true nature.

    Sprawling movements of determined coders making and ruling social media and cadres like Wikipedia nerds and Creative Commons zealots can’t get away with sanitizing themselves permanently from the characterization as “socialist” or “communist” just because they aren’t a state. They are like a state in the huge swathes of attention and resources and power they have accrued. Philosophers simply haven’t kept up with naming and defining the new technocommunism, that uses social media and new technologies to control people even without states — and control states, too, undemocratically.

    >here is no ‘word to describe the type of governance that is emerging,’ because there is no type of governance that is emerging,”

    Oh, baloney. The type of governance is as totalitarian as the day as long. Armed with corporate-style TOS on social media sites that enables devs to ban “for any reason or no reason”; armed with the power to pick only their friends on alpha and beta versions and utterly shape the tools and weld their ideologies into them; completely resistant to the rule of law — of *course* they are just the same as any old-fashioned form of governance named “bolshevism” or “oligarchy”.

    All we have learned is that you don’t need a state to have totalitarian rule of the many by the few (Google is just the start), and you don’t need the coercion to be terribly violent or unpleasant — as with the Soviet Union, many march to it happily.

    Over and over again, we see the fakery that is no different than the Bolsheviks one hundred years ago — under the guise of workers’ councils and collectives (wikis, Wave, mash-ups, blah blah) we keep seeing the few running the many. A handful of people code tools and sit atop the use of them by millions, without any democratic countability (look at the laughably fake “governance” exercise of Facebook recently, with its 375 million members.)

    The worst thing about Kelly’s piece, which I hope to rebut in full when I get some time, is the cooptation of the idea of “civil society”. This is merely “civil society — c’est moi”. It’s the socialist brand of civil society that merely means a people’s movement — people of course controlled by the avance-garde of the enlightened Web 2.0 gurus.

    I take my words seriously. I have a blogger’s name and Second Life name. My real name is on my blogs and is findable on Google.

    The good news is that you were not let anywhere near the Supreme Court.

  • http://secondthoughts.typepad.com Prokofy Neva

    >I’m late to the discussion, but I’ll simply chime in that in my experience very few people who consider themselves socialists are in favor of coercion! To that extent, I can understand why some might consider your distinction an improper attempt to redefine terms.

    But they are against free enterprise, and want the state to control all if not some of the means of production.

    Very few countries ever see that process happen peacefully; in fact, it is often a civil war.

    That forcing of the choice of an economic system *is* the coercion. Socialism ALWAYS involves coercion. If capitalism also involves coercion in places, too (you have to pay a high price), that doesn’t undo the blanket nature of socialist coercion that doesn’t contain a ready way to chose OUT of it.

  • http://secondthoughts.typepad.com Prokofy Neva

    >There is nothing what-so-ever unified about Twitter. Suggesting that it’s a collectivist movement entirely misses the point and fails to even understand what collectivism *is* in the first place.

    This is the sort of statement that I would not expect from someone apparently highly educated.

    To see Twitter as just a lot of birds randomly twittering who can’t possibly be coerced or organized is to look at it through the wrong end of the telescope.

    Of course it’s highly organized and coerced; the birds are flying in broader patterns. Not even just with the obvious things like the control of statements within 140 characters and the memes of how you “must behave” spread all over the place constantly by all kinds of net-nannies and state-informer types.

    No, it’s about the governance. There was a massive uprising against the removal of the @ reply function. The devs cooly ignored it, and did what they wanted to, because a handful of thin-skinned A-list bloggers didn’t like getting unsolicited criticism in their @ tabs (like @craignewmark, @davewiner, @shelisrael — etc.) Some freely governed entity, eh, that can’t have a majority decision about a feature kept in place?!

    The Gang of Four leader Steve Gillmor lobbied strenously to have “track block” to be able to have vanity searches of himself, but without anybody he didn’t like coming up in his feed — basically insisting on the right of hugely-favoured news aggregators to blank out feedback (the devs gave a select list the right to auto-follow, which put them way ahead on the followers count; the rest of us are capped at 2,000 until we can follow others and get them to follow us).

    And so on. There are plenty of ways in which Twitter is subtly and not-so-subtly coercive and socialistic like all social media, especially in virally spreading memes about how you “are supposed” to behave — or else, face ostracism.

    It’s also about the political memes that race through their with mindless, propagandistic Pravda-like frenzy — like the #amazonfail candard which falsely accused a company of deliberately discriminating against gays when it had done nothing of the kind.

    The ability of various power players to come and “seize the telegraph” and get one million followers like aplusk — another Soviet-like feature.

    But of course, always, there are the devs, and the mods at Get Satisfaction, and the TOS which enables the company essentially to do what they want, as they wish, and kick out anyone they find undesirable — without due process.

    Twitter is one of the large “autonomous republics” in the new Union of Soviet Socialist Media. That’s all.

    Worst of all, the end product — all our communications, intentional searches, attention patterns, friending connections are relentlessly scraped and used for the commercial value of one company, behaving like a Soviet state confiscating all workers’ labour value.

    A tiny fraction of a percent of bloggers can make a profit from blogging — all the income goes to the platform providers and coders.

  • http://secondthoughts.typepad.com Prokofy Neva

    Sage, you make such an eloquent case here for the socialistic coercion of Wikipedia, that I can’t understand why you wind up then continuing to call yourself a Wikipedian or thinking that the system is some benign “social democracy”.

    It isn’t at all. It isn’t just the sofixit, which is the moral equivalent of the oppressive “patch or GTFO” — silencing criticism in every closed society of opensource.

    It’s the hugely flawed — and coercive — system of governance in which a tiny number of people control a flock of cadres who rule the impressions and access of the millions. The way in which controversies are decided is appalling. I’ve traced discussions of this through interviews of Wikinistas give themselves, and it really is like a Politburo and a Central Committee and a CPSU. The results are biased entries that people cannot change:

    http://secondthoughts.typepad.com/second_thoughts/2008/12/the-evils-of-wikipedia-and-the-hope-of-second-life.html

    I think you also have to apply your same excellent thinking to Creative Commons, which I, of course, call Creative Communism precisely because it’s a system — a conspiracy, really — to convince people to give away creative works for free, and not seek payment for them — as handy as any communist manifesto and collective farm. When this culture assaults you from every web page with its meaningless “license” (you don’t need a license to claim your copyright; it does not require registration) is subtle and seemingly “not coercive” in the sense you “don’t have to use it” — but of course, all right-thinking progressive folk *do*.

    There isn’t at all a system on CC to be able to *sell* your work with a license enabling commerce. It is anti-commerce and constantly seeks to communalize people’s creative output, not *really* making a way for them to make a living wage (look at the poll I have on this).

    http://secondthoughts.typepad.com/second_thoughts/2009/04/further-on-creative-communism.html
    http://secondthoughts.typepad.com/second_thoughts/2009/04/creative-commons—-what-i-call-creative-communism-destroys-copyright-protection-and-commerce-destroys-value-and-does-not-h.html

    There is so little criticism of Lessig. We need more. It’s good Helprin tackled the Web 2.0 fraud. “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.”

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    @Adrian Ivakhiv: I meant that there’s pundits making (relative) mountains from finding a molehill here and a clump of dirt there. And then writing about “The NEW Mountain Climbing” (and then they say “Well, though you object that “mountain” means something like Everest, words evolve, and can you give me a better one for ‘not level ground’”)
    Look, Wikipedia or Linux or whatever net-project that’s hot, have very little to say about governance, in terms of running a real country dealing with people who need food and water and housing and medical care and so on. Fairy-tales for the lecture circuit should be treated as exactly that, not as any sort of insight.

  • http://brokensymmetry.typepad.com Michael F. Martin

    Prokofy,

    I agree with your analysis of how socialism leads to coercion. My understanding was that the disagreement between Mr. Lessig and Mr. Kelly was about what should be called socialism, not about its conequences.

    What this argument seems really to be about is whether or not the distinction between socialism and capitalism should be drawn in terms of whether government or non-government institutions are “coercing” other people. Lessig says his vision of political order isn’t socialism because it isn’t constituted by government actors. Kelly says it is because it involves a form of collective action. What label we choose is important because (as you point out) every large-scale socialist experiment carried out in the 20th Century was a disaster of epic proportions.

    Following Hayek, maybe the better way to distinguish “socialism” other forms of order is in terms of the structure of the interactions among people within society. Socialism according to Hayek means central planning, capitalism decentralized and spontaneous order. Note that under Hayek’s definition of socialism, private institutions can be “socialist.” See here. So maybe Mr. Kelly has the Hayekian idea in mind whereas Mr. Lessig has some other.

  • Grisha Perelman

    Words and phrases that describe the Kelly phenomenon better than “socialism”:

    *Sharing
    *Volunteerism
    *Peer production
    *Leisure labor
    *Laissez-faire cooperation
    *Casual collectivism
    *Collectivist ends by capitalist means
    *Free culture

    Of course, none of these phrases, plain and accurate as they are, would have yielded as much attention for Kelly’s piece as “socialism.” Which brings us to the Elephant in the Room: Magazines push ink (or pixels) — not necessarily ideas. Kelly and his editors perhaps chose “socialism” precisely *because* it’s inaccurate and irresponsible, or just inaccurate and irresponsible enough to prompt us all to waste our time discussing it and driving traffic to the original. That’s show biz.

  • http://www.streetwriter.net James Street

    The problem is that coercion is the usual response by extablished powers whenver spontaneous cooperative movements reach the crossroads of political power. Cooperative movements, including labor unions, credit unions and other voluntary economic groups are seen as dangerous by controlling elites which attempt to eliminate or control them, usually by preemptive strikes, purges, emprisonments and assassinations. Labeling these movements with perjorative terms such as ‘socialism’ is simpy a first step in this direction. Wise political activists who are aware of this history have come to the conclusion that strong countermeasures agains coercion is usually necessary to counter the coercion of the elites, because existing powers make it virtually impossible to complete on the same playing field they occupy. Ralph Nader and Ron Paul are good examples of politicians who are bloked from playing the American political game and neither is a socialist. Obviously socialist governments have been elected in various countires with fair elections, such as in Chile, but then directly subverted as was the case with Allende, or indirectly subverted by covert CIA action as is the case with Chavez in Venezuela and Castro in Cuba.

  • http://www.streetwriter.net James Street

    Sorry, let’s proof read this comment before posting it!

    The problem is that coercion is the usual response by established powers whenever spontaneous cooperative movements reach the crossroads of political power. Cooperative movements, including labor unions, credit unions and other voluntary economic groups are seen as dangerous by controlling elites which attempt to eliminate or control them, usually by preemptive strikes, purges, imprisonments and assassinations. Labeling these movements with pejorative terms such as ‘socialism’ is simply a first step in this direction. Wise political activists who are aware of this history have come to the conclusion that strong countermeasures against coercion is usually necessary to counter the coercion of the elites, because existing powers make it virtually impossible to complete on the same playing field they occupy. Ralph Nader and Ron Paul are good examples of politicians who are blocked from playing the American political game and neither is a socialist. Obviously socialist governments have been elected in various countries with fair elections, such as in Chile, but then directly subverted as was the case with Allende, or indirectly subverted by covert CIA action as is the case with Chavez in Venezuela and Castro in Cuba.

  • Wooster

    I agree. Socialism is not the correct word to use. However, your caricature of socialism is complete nonsense.

    Stalinism is a totalitarian version of socialism. It is a a non-sequitur to conclude that all of socialism is bad because a tyrant misused it for his own purpose. Why don’t we call capitalism a totalitarian ideology for the capitalist dictators? Mussolini, General Suharto, General Pinochet.

    Lessig’s rant on socialism should be thoroughly debunked by common sense, but it seems like he is entrenched with propaganda. He cannot separate cold war propaganda from reality. Lets start with Lessig’s interpretation of socialism:

    “That statement is flatly wrong. It is completely unreasonable to call that “socialism” — at least when the behavior described is purely voluntary. It’s like saying “Because Stalin set up a competition between different collective farms, it’s not unreasonable to call that free market capitalism.” Both statements are wrong because they point to a feature that is common, and ignore the feature that is distinctive. At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question). At the core of the behavior Kelly celebrates is freedom.”

    Or course, Lessig does not provide any evidence for why socialism is coercion. He only states the legacy of Stalin. Stalinism is totalitarianism, and it does not represent all of socialism. In fact, Trotsky, a student of Lenin, said, “socialism cannot exist without democracy.” Trotsky was than killed by Stalin. The leading opposition to Stalins totalitarian takeover were SOCIALiSTS, who cooperatively took over the workforce, but were than betrayed by the Bolshevicks. Karl Marx said it himself: “Socialism is when workers control the means of production.”

    Why is it that when socialism is hijacked by totalitarian dictators everyone screams “socialism is totalitarianism,” but when capitalism turns totalitarian there is no qualms about it. Mussolini was a capitalist dictator. General Pinochet and Suharto were capitalist dictators. America supports capitalist dictators today. Is totalitarianism bad when it is socialism but okay when it is with capitalism? It’s ridiculous how Lessig equates socialism with coercion, and ignores the fact that our entire government is coerced by corporate elites.

    Lets move on to Lessig’s next argument:

    “The thing that Smith was pointing to (and Hayek too), is not “socialism.” It is not reasonably called socialism. Because “socialism” is the thing Smith was attacking in the 6th edition of his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Socialism is using the power of the state to force a result that otherwise would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people.”

    While reading this piece, one could only conclude that Lessig watches far too much Fox News. Again, this is propaganda. Lawrence states, “Socialism is using the power of the state to force a result that would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people.” That is the complete opposite of socialism. Socialism is the people having a voice in the state and using it to serve their best interests

    It would have been more accurate if Lessig said, “capitalism, through multinational corporations, force results that would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people. Did the people voluntarily chose to support the Telecommunication Act of 1996? Did the people voluntarily support their environmental laws to be degraded? Did they support the corporate bailout? The deregulation of our entire economy? the stalling of our healthcare reform? the exploitation of third world countries?

    Adam Smith was wrong about the the value of labor. Every economist recognizes Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism’s exploitation of labor. The only thing socialists want the state to enforce are living wages, healthcare and education for all, affirmative action, higher taxes on the wealthy, and stricter regulations on corporations. You know, those pesky things that corporations have been fighting to reduce, and even disappear. The major reason why we have 40 hour work weeks, healthcare benefits, environmental laws, and minimum wage was because of Karl Marx’s critique and call for people to organize. Look at the history of unions, feminism, and civil rights: it is filled with socialists.

    It’s okay to disagree with socialism on practicality or in ideology. But please, do not promote this hateful stereotype of socialism. Socialists were put in prison for defending democracy, in America, no less. They deserve better than this.

  • http://keimform.de/ StefanMz

    @Kevin Kelly & all:

    Give me a better word to describe the type of governance that is emerging.

    What about »commonism« as a short form of »commons based peer production«?

  • http://goldhaber.org Michael Goldhaber

    Kevin Kelly is right that words evolve, and he is (re-)opening a new and interesting strand in a several long debates. Lately Republicans have been trying to tar Obama with the word “Socialist,” but one reason that is not working is that it has no particularly pejorative meaning to most Americans under thirty. Further, many Americans are perfectly aware the socialist governments that have been in power in many countries in Western Europe are far from the coercive demons the US right imagines.

    For another take on socialism and the internet here is a draft : “Values, Technology, the Internet, and a New Opening for Humane Socialism” that I wrote in 2003. I wrote it somewhat reluctantly for a book a friend and his co-editor (both Americans, incidentally) were producing to explain socialism (positively) for a new generation. It upset the other editor so much it was never included.

    http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/Technosocialism.html

  • Anonymous

    “If you call something “X” people will hear the equation. They won’t read the fine-print which says (“By X, I mean really not-X).”

    Been there, and definitely know that. Once, when a classmate was condemned for “diluting the concept of the Holocaust” because she drew a toothbrush mustache on a picture of GW Bush (similar to the Hitler mustache), I argued that, (a) Bush’s military posture more closely resembles Andrew Jackson than Hitler, (b) making a veiled trademark dilution argument involving the Holocaust was nuts, and (c) she has a right to comment and shouldn’t be harassed.

    The headline (written by someone else) read: “Saying Bush is like Hitler is like calling a duck a duck.” For the next year or so, I was known in a somewhat prestigious law school as “the nutcase who calls everyone Hitler.”

    Slurring opponents by excessive abuse of ill-defined terms is a potent tool, primarily associated with those slipping into abusive coercion (Heretic! Witch! Fascist! Communist!) – rational observers would properly respond by refusing to grant any credibility to such demagogues, treating them as pundit equivalents to professional wrestlers.

  • Skydaemon

    Michael Goldhaber that’s an interesting paper but I think you missed a few key problems which ultimately derail your hypothesis.

    You seem to write-off the notion of undesirable unhealthy or dangerous jobs as a small easily overcome point. I’d suggest this is not small at all, and is a large part of the basis of any successful economic system. It cannot simply be brushed off. People don’t run large scale mining operations for attention, or because they felt obligated to run around miles underground rather than spouting opinions on the internet.

    Creating a society which performs needed but undesirable tasks is inherently coercive, and rightfully so as there is no other way to get the jobs done, and done safely. (Where safely implies large scale organizations operating according to regulations and accountable to governments.) These operations are sufficiently important and scarcely available to create a powerful need to ensure that the individuals doing the work can get it done efficiently.

    Also, the fact that physical scarcity of raw materials exists isn’t going to be overcome by technology anytime this decade. We’re going to literally need star trek replicator technology for that.

    Then there is scarcity of location. Who gets to decide who lives in the beachfront property without a meaningful monetary system. Otherwise, we’ll end up fighting each other for it.

    Add to this the need to incent efficient behaviour (eg, buy local instead of from across the world if there is no operational cost to either, to save on transportation).

    Finally, add the desire to predict needs. Who’s going to predict the need for housing in an area? The internet might. If it cared to look, which it probably doesn’t have any reason to until one day there is a crisis. Without monetary incentives and paying attention to pricing signals for predicting needs, you end up with all the pitfalls of central planning.

    Efficiency, and scarcity and its allocation inherently creates a need for an economy with forms of money or something close enough, which ultimately is an allocation and scarcity sorting and incentive system. This flows necessarily from the need to coerce some people into doing forms of work that is relatively undesirable to them and making it up to them somehow. There is also the sorting aspect of choice, where who gets the beachfront property has to be decided somehow.

    -In communism, the scarcity allocation and sorting; as well as convincing people to do undesirable tasks are all dictated directly. A form of non-compensated coercion.
    -In capitalism, these are incented through monetary pricing which increases until someone chooses to do it or prices rise to a point where an alternative becomes viable. Capitalism is compensated voluntary coercion.
    -In socialism, it is largely handled the same way as capitalism, except with involuntary taxation, used to decree both certain social goods (eg, healthcare etc) as well as certain redistribution policies. Sort of a tweaked capitalism to achieve ends not normally supported in the same manner by capitalism. In other words, socialism is partially voluntary coercion, with a few involuntary bits of coercion thrown in.

    The whole free market economy thing assumes a lack of scarcity. Which can be true for some things (like intellectual property) but not for goods in the physical world or logistically restricted opportunities. Those problems don’t go away because of the internet, and they are the basis of most economic systems.

    A more likely outcome is the internet wipes out the economics for whole industries and we end up with the same value at a fraction of the employment base in those industries. Picture an economy with 25% unemployment rates as a permanent situation, yet capable of fulfilling all product needs.

  • http://cvetovnet.ru/ Vela

    Sigh … I really really wish you’d consider carefully the cultural critique that many, call it “anti-cyberevangelist” people have been writing over the years. I know a few them don’t like you (and vice-versa), so there’s personal baggage. But others (like me) do respect you and have read your ideas extensively.

    What Kevin Kelly is doing is a completely bog-standard version of what we keep complaining about – repackaging warmed-over platitudes into a buzzword-laden “edgy” net-utopian babble.

    Hence, when you basically say, wait, those buzzwords don’t really have that meaning – in a way, THAT’S THE POINT! That’s the goal of his piece, the shock-value, the marketing schtick.

    There’s a reason that Wired – which is not exactly the “Journal Of Marxist Studies” – is talking about “new socialism”. It’s part of the sales-pitch used to on the one hand sell technology as utopia, and on the other, make it all non-threatening for business (even advantageous, with the subtext of free work).

    And note: Wikipedia is not socialism. It’s a cult with a sugar-daddy (i.e. Google).

  • http://cvetovnet.ru/ Vela

    I’m late to the discussion, but I’ll simply chime in that in my experience very few people who consider themselves socialists are in favor of coercion! To that extent, I can understand why some might consider your distinction an improper attempt to redefine terms.

  • seo

    If you want to understand listen to Edward Parsons

  • http://kungfooguru.wordpress.com Tristan Sloughter

    As a communist and member of the International Socialist Organization I can assure you that you are wrong. Sad to learn you too, someone I thought who would be useful in government, is just as brainwashed and confused about communism as the rest of the useless liberals and conservatives.

  • http://www.oakley--sunglasses.com/ oakley sunglasses

    government or non-government institutions are “coercing” other people. Lessig says his vision of political order isn’t socialism because it isn’t constituted by government actors. Kelly says it is because it involves a form of collective action. What label we choose is important because (as you point out) every large-scale socialist experiment carried out in the 20th Century was a disaster of epic proportions.
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  • http://www.rogerviviertaiwan.net/ roger vivier

    I can assure you that you are wrong. Sad to learn you too, someone I thought who would be useful in government.http://www.roger–vivier.net/