May 31, 2009 · Lessig
There’s an interesting resistance (see the comments) to my resistance to Kevin Kelly’s description of (what others call) Web 2.0 as “socialism.” That resistance (to my resistance) convinces me my point hasn’t been made.
Confidence about my “ignorance” about political philosophy notwithstanding (and don’t tell my political philosophy tutor from Cambridge where I spent three years studying the stuff), my point is not that it is impossible to understand “socialism” as Kelly describes it. (Obviously, if a missile can be a “peacekeeper,” anything can be anything). It is not even that never in the history of “socialism” have people so understood it (there have of course been plenty of voluntary communities that have called themselves “socialist”). Instead, my argument against Kelly was about responsibility in language: How would the words, or label, he used be understood. Not after, as I said, reading “a 3,500 word essay that redefines the term.” Rather, how would it be understood by a culture that increasingly has the attention span of 140 characters?
In my view, the answer to that question is absolutely clear: “Socialist” would be associated with the dominant, modern vision of “socialism” which has, at its core, coercion. And as the Internet that Kelly and I celebrate doesn’t have “coercion” at its core, I maintain, it is not “socialist.”
In reading the reactions to my argument, however, I realize that in using the term “coercion” I was committing the same error that I was accusing Kelly of making. People associate the word “coercion” with Abu Ghraib or Stalin. And certainly, the “coercion” of socialism isn’t necessarily (or even often) that.
That’s fair. By “coercion” I meant simply law — that “socialism” is a system enforced by law, and enforced contrary to the way individuals would freely choose autonomously to associate. Again, I’m for that kind of coercion in lots of contexts. I’m for income redistribution (to some degree); I want better public schools, I want to force you to vaccinate your childeren, etc. So I didn’t mean anything necessarily negative by the term “coercion.” I meant something analytical: That Wikipedia, if it coerces, coerces differently from how 95% (of Americans) at least understand the term “socialism.”
Again, if you doubt that, think about American critics of “socialism”: None of them are complaining about people voluntarily choosing to associate however they choose to associate (except of course if they are gay). They are complaining about people being forced to associate in ways they don’t choose to associate. There’s nothing inconsistent with someone being a Right Wing (and anti-socialist) Republican yet working at a church soup kitchen every other Saturday. Those spheres are separate in the American mind. Because they are separate, one can choose to be a Wikipedian and see no inconsistency in voting for Ronald Reagan.
(But aren’t the “freely chosen obligations” often enforced (i.e., in my terms, “coerced”) by the state? Of course they are — as the Legal Realists and most recently Critical Legal Studies Movement worked very hard to remind us. But they had to work so hard because they were working against a very solid assumption about the sense of the term “coercion.” They wanted to change it. But they at least acknowledged there was something there to change.)
So my argument against Kelly is that it is wrong to use a term (in the context of a Wired essay at least; a philosophy seminar would invoke a completely different set of ethics) that would be so completely misunderstood. We choose our words. We don’t choose our meaning.
But if you’re still not convinced, then here’s a hypothetical that makes the same point. (And note, I’m being REALLY careful here — this is ONLY a hypothetical):
Imagine someone said Barack Obama’s economic policies were “fascist.” But by that the person didn’t mean the Fascism of the later German Nazi Party. He didn’t mean, that is, the racism that came to define the term. Instead, he meant the Fascism of the early National Socialist Party, or of their equivalent in Italy, or England, or the earliest of FDR’s administration.
My point is that however accurate it would be to describe the current “Czar” filled administrations with the centralizing and corporatist politics of the early 1930s, it would be unethical to call it “fascist.” The term has been marked, just as the name “Adolf” has been marked, and in mixed, attention deprived contexts, it is wrong to ignore that marking.
Secondly, and finally: Even if it weren’t, Kelly’s description would be wrong. Even if there were a useable concept (as opposed to a possible concept) of “voluntary socialism,” it would be wrong to describe what most think of as Web 2.0 as “socialist.” That again because of the part Kelly ignores. Sure, there’s a “sharing economy” as I describe in REMIX. That economy fits well with the Kibbutz or Wikipedia. And if you want to call that “socialist,” fine. But the “hybrid” economy is not that economy. The Facebooks and Twitters and Flickrs and Yelps! are not entities engaged in a global urge to hug. They are companies that promise investors a huge return from their very risky investment. To do that, of course, they need to behave differently from the dominant mode of, say, Hollywood lawyers. But if they behave like Gandhi, they’re not going to succeed at their mission — which is (however much “change the world” or “don’t be evil” is in the plan) to make money. Those people are not “socialists” (except in the corrupted sense that defines the term in many places today). Those people are members of a hybrid economy. What Tim calls “Web 2.0.” And while I can well understand that someone would feel “torture,” as Kelly puts it, using that term (I don’t feel it, but who am I dictate to Kelly), the fear of that torture doesn’t justify this violation of the ethics of language. The freedom of Wikipedia et al., is threatened enough. We don’t need to throw the baggage of “socialism” into the bargain.