- The leaders of the Sharing Cities Network will share in participatory workshops how citizen change was built in cities like Seoul, Cleveland or Bologna.
- Experts from the UME will explain what social and physical infrastructure is most helpful for the resilience of cities when disasters occur, and will teach us to design services and infrastructures for resilience in what we do.
- The developers of GNU social will draw a roadmap of the distributed social web for you: objectives, new apps and plugins to strengthen sharing through collaborative consumption, integration with WordPress…
- Businesses in the Direct Economy like Chufamix or Kano will teach you how to create a sustainable economic project (and will give us workshops on making horchata or teaching information science and electronics to children).
- The leaders of the European network of energy cooperatives will tell us how to create community projects based on green energy and save money on your electric bill.
- The author of “The End of Banking” will design an app to put an end to banks with us.
Progress was one of the most important and transformative myths in human history. The myth of progress doesn’t tell us that progress is inevitable, eternal, or that is directed towards a predetermined end. It’s not a replacement for “messianic hope” or Platonic teleology. But in each contribution, a door opens to meaning and hope. It’s really about the union of two ideas about knowledge.
The first tells us that knowledge is cumulative and can be described as a series of genealogies of ideas, discoveries, and applications, or alternatively, of teachers and schools, that have been compiling knowledge over time. This idea is linked to Baroque thought and birth of modern science between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But surely the image that best illustrates it would be the famous quote from John of Salisbury on Bernardo de Chartres:
Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.
Bernardo thought of the teachers of Antiquity as giants and of his medieval contemporaries and himself as dwarves. Taking the same metaphor, the ideal of progress imagines knowledge as a sort of inverted structure, with a few “big ideas” at the base being elevated and being diversified in every new age and generation, without, in principle, there ever being a maximum height, a “total” knowledge. Once again, this doesn’t mean there’s no limit, or that part of the structure couldn’t “fall”–as happened to Alchemy, Astrology, or Theology–or that those lines can’t be broken and knowledge lost or fractured over time. It only points out that knowledge is accumulable, and that it makes sense to study your lineages before “starting from zero.”
The second idea, whose roots can be traced back to the Renaissance, tells us that new knowledge, when it is applied and allows humans to transform Nature and society into new and more productive forms, transforms the “human experience” in itself. Progress doesn’t mean that we are “better” than our medieval or neolithic ancestors, but rather, the experiences we have access to in societies with a greater level of knowledge and well-being are “richer,” and allow us to enjoy lives with more meanings, nuances, and complexities, and therefore understand our own existence in greater depth.
By uniting both, the logical result is that each new generation and each new person has the possibility and the responsibility to contribute a new level a historical construct whose result is the improvement of the living conditions of their own community and of the species as a whole. Few stories create as much meaning: progress turns science into a movement, serves as a base for the hacker ethic, and offers a material path towards transcendence–without involve gods or eternities–to everyone.
Progress against Adamism
But it means many more things. In the first place, it requires those who want be part of it to provide themselves with a historical view of the knowledge they want to research or improve. So, for example, the theses that were written before academic life became a game around the “h-index” weren’t a collection of papers, but a “state of the art.” There’s no place for Adamism in progress. Even when dealing with radically new topics, the writer sought to situate himself in continuity with centuries of prior effort, which was more credible the more detailed and recent the chain of authors and teachers he was building on, even if it was to criticize them or “surpass” them.
The conception of time in knowledge in progress is like a skein of crisscrossed yarn, the stands of which can sometimes be tied together or break apart, stretch or make a loop to go “backwards,” but where continuities can’t be hidden. In a conception of time like this, someone like Michael Onfray for example, can’t be a Epicurean in a vacuum. He can’t simply go back and “start” the history of thought as if nothing had happened in more than two thousand years. He has to recognize his own affiliations, discover keys, and define himself with problems starting with those posed by his own direct teachers, those who instructed him. Or, a social movement has to be defined, beginning with its origins, as historical continuity. When the cooperative movement is born in the Iberian peninsula, for example, its main theorist, Fernando Garrido, who is presented to us as disciple of Fourier, writes a monumental History of the Working Classes and dedicates its first three tomes to the slave, the servant and the wage-earner, and only the last to “worker-member.” To propose radical innovations, it was first necessary be legitimated through genealogy–how else could he show progress that the movement itself contributed?
And that’s before we ever get to schools of thought: idealism, classical economics, Hegelianism, Marxism, American pragmatism, postmodern thought itself… all new thinkers present themselves as a continuation, even when they break with their teachers. The “forker” always will be the other disciple, who didn’t understand the necessary rupture, or broke the inescapable continuity. Nobody, in the logic of progress, can be allowed to abandon the value of knowledge that a long social history and a long lineage of teachers have brought them.
The myth of progress was easy to believe in the era of accelerated and sustained growth of wealth and knowledge opened by the Industrial Revolution. Immobile time, ahistorical time only will survive in magical thinking… until the end of the twentieth century. The “end of history” was much more than a victory cry from American think-tanks after the Cold War. It was the expression of what had swept away a gigantic empire–for the first time in history, without requiring a war–and was also going on in its “Western” rival. It was what we call “decomposition” and whose manifestation, in the end, is none other than the simultaneous destruction of market and state. This is our time.
It is a time marked by an antiquated order, incapable of imagining or projecting itself into the future in a way that’s useful for people. It destroys social wealth with its rattling on, so as to not change the structures of power. This order is no longer seen as a step towards abundance or towards the liberation of mankind. It has no qualms in “seriously” proposing “degrowth” and promoting “voluntary” poverty, which it imposes on the large majority through the economic crisis, the inefficient waste of resources, war, and the direct appropriation of rents and levies.
The time of a decomposed order also decomposes with it. The skeins then become tangled, and the effort to justify what exists falls into the ultimate suicide of thought: presenting the idea that everything “has always been t,” a large amorphous mass of events where, in a murky and ugly “human nature,” only a few original thinkers have stood out and made changes.
The place that’s presented as desirable is that of innovating from out of nothing, and at all costs. Steve Jobs replaces Spartacus and Madam Curie. Messianic messages multiply in popular culture, cinema, and TV series. Saviors and geniuses, messiahs and providential politicians fill a symbolic landscape where everything is presented as discontinuous, and everything outdated, everything disfunctional, everything that makes life miserable, whether political systems or food, is “innocently” explained as a vacuum of ideas waiting for a new app or a cool idea. It’s the smile of the abyss.
The forker and progress
In this framework, “forking,” a social mechanism that normally multiplies knowledge and brings is closer to abundance, becomes “forkism”: contributions through ruptures, accumulation of knowledge through historical deletions, the multiplication of paths through sectarian battles, identity in faith. It is the dark side of our days, the way the decomposition of the old system prevents itself from being overcome.
So, recovering the myth of progress is an urgent need. There’s no value or meaning in knowledge without it. It has no alternatives, because in its absence, only magical thinking and messianic politics grow. It’s what’s before our eyes. We need to reconquer time. We must once again raise the banner of progress.
In 2002, Alexander Bard and Jan Soderqvist published Netocracy: The New Power Elite and Life after Capitalism. The main thesis of the book has never had greater interest. Much like other attempts to give a “Marxist-style” foundation to anti-consumerism, it attempted to argue that social classes based on production were being overcome by new ones, founded on the relationship with consumption. Bourgeoisie and proletariat would mutate into netocracy and consumariat. The netocrats would be those capable of having an influence on the great consensus that defines lifestyles in the age of networks. The consumariat would be made up of the passive masses whose identity is defined by the netocrats.
However, in studying how conversational networks function to make their argument, Bard and Soderqvist made an important discovery. According to them, in these communities connected as distributed networks, “democracy collapses”:
Every actor individual decides for him/herself, but lacks the capacity and the opportunity to decide for any of the other actors, which makes it impossible to maintain the fundamental notion of democracy, where the majority decides for the minority when differences of opinion occur.
They call this system “pluriarchy.” The world of pluriarchy is a subtle one. First, because there’s no coercive power in conversational networks, even if the majority not only didn’t sympathize with a proposal, but was openly against it, it could not avoid it being carried out. Democracy is, in this sense, a system of scarcity: the collective has to choose between one thing and another, between one filter and another, between one representative and another, whereas pluriarchy inevitably produces diversity. But Bard and Soderqvist soon point out that even if this is possible, pluriarchy
…is not anarchy. You cannot do what you like, you have to adapt to the rules and laws of consensus.
This idea of consensus is the true key to understanding what pluriarchy means and the nuances between the different kinds of communities connected as distributed networks. Consensus defines identity, and identity defines belonging. Pluriarchy means total individual freedom within community, as long the individual acts within the basic consensus that makes up that identity. For example, we are in the paradoxical place that leads anarchist groups to establish the rule “it is forbidden to forbid.” Beyond the border of consensual identity and shared values, it is possible change conversational networks, or create a new one (“fork”).
What hurts Bard and Soderqvist is that identarian dissidence can mean the loss of the community belonging for the individual. And, in fact, this is fairly frequent. In practice, conversational communities, centered on creating a given set of knowledge or developing sets of coherent values, tend to have more precise and strict identarian criteria over time, which leads them to “be less to be more,” and ultimately leads to what Juan Urrutia has defined as the path of “individuation through belonging”: the development of individuality by successively belonging to different communities, which a person joins and later dissents from throughout their life.
But the interesting thing is that an individual dissenting from consensus also means the loss of members for the group. So, when communities incorporate productive activities–from developing software to producing objects–that trend begins to have a strong counterweight, because inclusiveness is a need imposed by survival. As we’ll see, when pluriarchy leads to production, it imposes a certain laxness on communities in the definition of that consensus, and therefore a opening to innovation and risk, which are completely new. And, in summary, two opposing tendencies define identity in pluriarchical networks: inclusion and dissidence, communitarization and individuation.
Therefore, where Bard and Sodeqvirst saw a symptom of the decomposition of democracy, we Indianos saw an emergent property that is characteristic of distributed networks, to which Juan Urrutia added a very important consequence: when a network configures itself as a pluriarchy, it becomes impossible to indefinitely maintain privileges or advantages for an individual or a group of individuals, because either consensus corrects the situation, or the disadvantaged will leave the network to join another one, or create a schism, a “fork.” And so, one way or another, rents dissipate. Pluriarchy is the form of organization characteristic of communities oriented to abundance, whether they are exclusively conversational communities or communities that also produce.
And indeed, pluriarchy is not only in virtual conversations: it appears as a defining element in the new technological cooperativism, in networks of free software developers, in teams that design products for the Direct Economy, and we could even interpret the experience of the communitarian movement of the last thirty years as a transition from democratic mechanisms to consensus as a hegemonic form of decision-making.
But there’s still another important element. A real community organized under a pluriarchical system coincides with what Juan Urrutia defined as “identarian community,” its consensus, its identity, is “mutation-proof.”
If one of the individuals or nodes on a completely distributed network changes its nature or the community is infiltrated by a few individual agents from another community, these new individuals do not change the memes, but rather adapt themselves to them.
This is the feature that made that Bard and Sodervisq remind us that pluriarchy and anarchy are not the same thing. In pluriarchy, there is a characteristic identity of the network or community. And this analytical idea of “identarian community” is, as we’ve seen, key in the foundation of abundance, because it drastically reduces, if not eliminates, the better part of transaction costs.
From pluriarchy to confederalism
And this is relevant because when we increase the scale of the social network, a new logic appears in inter-community relationships: a re-reading of the confederal idea in the light of networks. Confederation has important parallels with pluriarchy. For example, the fundamental difference between confederation and federation, as Juan Urrutia pointed out, is that…
In a confederation there’s no ultimate authority, and it is better to accept this than try to forge one artificially.
The result therefore necessarily asymmetrical, an overlapping network of commitments, topical consensus, and traces of shared identity that make it possible to reduce transaction costs at different moments and in shifting situations with allies. It is, as we see in the world of free software or the direct economy, a world in which peers, always linked, occasionally ally in action, resulting in a kind of map that’s closer to a dynamic representation of brain activity than to the representation of a commercial bloc or the organizational chart of an industrial group. The community of social relationships is presented to us as a changing mix of diversity and multi-specialization.
We know that it may be that this diversity will not make the optimum result attainable, but, as in many examples from biology, it maximizes the possibilities for survival of the whole.
That is, confederation reinterpreted from pluriarchy produces a “evolutionarily resistant” result where the fabric as a whole will have more possibilities for adaptation and survival than if it had opted for another form of organization that would homogenize the parts. In a new sense, we again accept an exchange of scale for reach.
Pluriarchy and community confederalism are simultaneously the result of, and a guide to, the path towards abundance. They are forms of organizing that maximize the ability to evolve and survive of the social space opened by the new optimum of scale and the emergence of distributed networks. Both put the focus on the true center of this whole transformation: community.
Surely the most striking thing about the promise of the direct economy and P2P production for a generation that has been separated from production by crisis and precariousness is the end of the figure of the consumer.
Requiem for the consumer
There’s not a lot to miss. The “consumer” is an alienated and alienating concept. All sovereignty attributed to the individual as consumer is reduced to choosing between the options on a menu created by others. The whole being of the consumer is located outside of the transformative capacity of the society in which s/he lives. Consumers choose, they don’t make or create. It’s so dehumanized as a concept that it’s not useful to better understand history and historical change. It’s as sterile a way understand the human experience as an industrial park is to describe urban life.
Once the core social concept is accepted, it’s no wonder that the proposed is equally inane and frustrating: the rejection of consumption itself and, therefore, the acceptance of various forms of voluntary poverty, artificial scarcity, and, at its root, a radical fear of the transformative capacity of knowledge. This is a narrative of “self-hate” on a scale of our whole species. Neither the concept of “consumer” nor anti-consumerism help us to understand our world or to give it shape and a future.
Consumption without consumers?
In the new world we see emerging, all those categories disappear. The idea is simple: at its limit, a world based on these productive models is a society where a normal person, seeing a new need, responds by looking for what to contribute to produce what’s needed. This new space of individual responsibility can take many forms: collaborating on a translation, documenting a product, developing code, creating designs, making blueprints and formulas, contributing improvements, or testing results; perhaps, collaborating on crowdfunding or helping publicize a project, perhaps creating results in a workshop or customizing them for others. Many times, it could mean starting to learn on the network itself what’s needed to be able to outline a proposal, looking for others who have enough knowledge to develop it, starting up a conversation with them, and creating a community around it.
Anyone who does any of these things is no longer a consumer, but a direct part–to different degrees–of the process of creation and production of the things they are going to use. They are part of a community in which personal, human relations are established to create new goods. What they make has meaning–they contribute and learn in a framework aimed at results. They are a producer who uses what they produce with others. And this relationship is new: they are an artisan whose workshop is globalized by the network and technology. This is as far as we could imagine from being a “consumer.”
The process in which a commons is formed in P2P production, the way a product emerges in the direct economy, creates an empowered form of conversational community, a community of knowledge oriented towards making, towards creating tangible products and tools.
All products, in all times and systems, “are carriers of worlds”–they create social meaning. What’s different now is that this meaning, the values that give it social content, are made obvious throughout the process to those who are part of it. The community that creates something new discusses “why” and “how” until everyone is satisfied. The community dimension of the new productive forms turns each new product in an act of transformation that is conscious of Nature and of the social surroundings.
This is the polar opposite of consumption oriented by the mass media and adherence to the recentralizers of the Internet. The passive expression of liking or disliking doesn’t work in this kind of relationship between individual and network. Identity is built through choices and learning in conversation on networks oriented towards making, not as the result of a series of buying patterns, or as a mold. Identity is no longer something that objects impose on people; they now discover themselves in the story that communities give to their creations.
From consumers to communards
The small communities behind the large majority of products in the direct economy are basically identical in this regard to the ones who energize and sustain the large networks in which the commons of P2P production is being developed.
In the beginning is the conversation. It is spontaneously transnational: it happens within the borders of a large global language, not within the limits of a city, a State or group of States. In some cases, it’s directly oriented towards the creation of a commons (like free software) and around it, among the same ones who collaborate to create and spread it, small groups form to sell services and projects. In others, the process is the reverse: small businesses are created from communities born of conversations so as to be able to generate income from what they already enjoy as a lifestyle.
In both cases, the result is the same: large conversational networks are the birthplace of small, productive, transnational communities that contribute to the commons, in some cases maintaining large networks of learning and knowledge.
The new egalitarianism and the “forker”
Accustomed to equality in conversation and to working in networks as equals, these transnational groups will naturally tend to experience forms of economic democracy, from cooperativism to networks of freelancers.
And egalitarianism in our time is the direct result of the direct incorporation of knowledge into production. We are in a multispecialist setting where we are all peers by default, because the scale necessary to “fork,” to separate and create a clone, is so small that what really makes a given fork viable is little more than its creators’ personal skills. Including each person, giving him/her an objective and place as a peer, is the only way to grow. And this is all the more drastic the shorter the cycle of the product. Crowdsourcing platforms have more “forks” than free software projects, because objects and hardware have a shorter lifespan than software, for which people expect indefinite updates over time, which demands a certain community stability.
The real possibility of “forking,” which is practically nonexistent in Big Business, would seem to show a certain fragility in this kind of structure, but should really be seen as a source of diversity and innovation, as an evolutionary engine. “Really existing forks” are just mutations. There will be some that, with a change in the surroundings, will provide something different and will live on. But, on its face, a fork doesn’t imply a positive development.
In fact, the majority will disappear or bog down. But what’s important is not forks in themselves, but the way communities try to avoid producing them. There are two strategies that are the most relevant and common: getting rid of hierarchies, and the tendency of the community to accept higher levels of risk than usual in members’ proposals.
The consequences of those strategies represent a radical change. In the first place, they mean that the gigantic hierarchies of the old Big Business and its obsession with specialization (the source of so many inefficiencies of scale) are no longer necessary, but rather, counterproductive. Secondly, accepting greater levels of risk, provided that the projects retain or even attract new valuable members, means applying the opposite logic to what has always operated in the old, industrial cooperativism, which is conservative by nature and easily captured by managerial “vanguards.”
So, in the new productive models oriented towards abundance, not only does the idea of community regain an importance it has not had since preindustrial society, but with it, the practice of a certain egalitarian ideal, born of the importance of knowledge, also returns.
Therefore, it is no wonder that, with a certain frequency, some of communities we’re talking about go futher, and are oriented towards the everyday experience of abundance. Because, in the end, “sharing it all” turns out to be the most stable form of organization for a group of peers.
A new communitarianism is appearing, which keeps the traditional egalitarianism of the holding property, consumption and savings in common, but whose ultimate goal is somewhere else: experiencing the abundance of networks and the commons in everything that one day can offer.
Looking back now, it seems clear that the P2P mode of production started to take shape at the end of the ’90s, when the emergence of Linux turned free software into a social and productive phenomenon of the first order. At the time, however, few would have gone so far. Most people were focused on something which was also important, and which links it with the logic and ethics of abundance: its origin in the hacker movement.
For hackers, knowledge in itself is a cause for production and in general, for life and work in community. They don’t learn to produce more or better, they produce to know more. Because learning is their motivation, their life can’t be divided up into working time and “free” time. All time is free and therefore productive, because hackers defend multispecialization as a lifestyle. Freedom is their main value, as the materialization of personal autonomy and community. Hackers don’t demand that others—governments or institutions—do what they consider must be done; they do it themselves, directly. If they demand anything, it’s that obstacles of any kind (monopolies, intellectual property, etc.) that prevent them or their community from addressing production be removed.
In this framework of values, the first major victory of free software took place: building a complete free operating system, Linux. Never again would the hacker movement be part of the underground. A new electronic commons appeared before the eyes of millions of people. Soon, profoundly but quickly, this forever changes the hottest industry of the previous decade. It would go from a few large-scale businesses to a far-reaching system with many small groups, projects and companies that rested on a unique, but multiform, diverse and dynamic commons.
Not long after that, the cycle and the structure of free software production would appear in other fields. Not coincidentally, the production of immaterial cultural objects—music, literature, and audiovisual creation—took advantage of P2P technology before others. But for just that reason, it had also suffered attacks from new laws on intellectual property called for by the large-scale culture industry.
The P2P production cycle
In this model, the center of the cycle is the knowledge commons: immaterial, free and freely usable for all. This is the characteristic form of capital in production between peers. From this starting point, new projects are born. Because there’s no central authority, there can be evolutions of previous projects in the commons—including customizations for concrete needs—or, different, truly new objectives can be spelled out. This way, new knowledge is produced in the process of its materialization and development.
Each new contribution incorporates directly to the commons, the center of P2P accumulation, but also enters the market, where it may possibly appear incorporated into customization, production and maintenance services sold by small businesses or individuals.
It’s important to point out the extent to which the market and capital are defined in a fundamentally different way in the P2P mode of production from the current system. The key to understanding it is the concept of “rent.” Rent is all extraordinary benefit, created outside of the market, by the place occupied by the business. “Natural” monopolies—normally created by over-scaling—legal monopolies (like intellectual property) and deals for regulatory favor are the most common origins of business rents.
All these rents disappear in the P2P production cycle. As Juan Urrutia had predicted, only one rent remains: the one produced temporarily by innovation. Anyone who creates new technologies or products has a short time to take advantage of their solitude in the market before the fact that the new knowledge has entered the commons allows others to make offers based on it, “dissipating” rents from innovation for its creators and starting the cycle once again, without any advantages for anyone.
Because, at the limit, the market only pays the value of the work contained in services, the businesses need to innovate constantly to win short temporary rents from successive innovations. That’s why the P2P mode of production is a true abundance-producing machine, which accumulates in the form of a ever-growing and universally usable knowledge commons. And all without any need for central control, hierarchy or large-scale organizations.
From the immaterial to the material
Ten years ago, talking about designing and producing objects without being a captain of industry would have sounded like madness or a symptom of over-exposure to science fiction novels. In a world that was enjoying the first glimpses of abundance in intangible goods after the digital revolution, the very idea of physical production felt like a throwback to an era that felt outdated and limiting; something that,while it kept functioning, it was out of the simple need to provide everyday objects: cars, computers, and appliances of all kinds.
In 2008 two teams, one at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, and other in las Indias, competed to complete the development of the “RepRap,” a machine capable of printing objects, up to and including replicating itself. Soon, the repositories of free knowledge also began orienting themselves towards the world of production. At first, limited by the machines themselves and the materials they use, pieces of small size proliferated: figurines and models for board games were the most popular objects of the first repositories.
With the “RepRap,” the first step was taken towards the factory at home. Quite naturally, 3D printers would turn hardware and design into natural allies of free software. In fact, the most important thing is that the new field replicated—for goods closer and closer to industrial production—the cycle of P2P production.
It’s not just that a new mode of producing is being consolidated, it’s that it’s sustained by the great economic and technological trends of our time, which it also drives. This whole immaterial commons maintained on the Internet will accelerate the reduction of the optimum scale of production more and more, until it turns the 3D printer into the symbol of a future of very high productivity and very small scale, which can already be sensed.
The Direct Economy and P2P Production feed each other
The possibility of using free knowledge—with a starting price of zero—substantially reduces the capital necessary to launch a company. Software, patents, technical training… all things that were substantive parts of the business plan of any SME in the ’90s, and which justified a good part of the investment, simply begin to fade. One of the main obstacles to starting a project of industrial production, capital, decreases substantially. What Marx had thought of as the basic “trap” of capitalism—the impossibility of turning salaries into capital—is less and less a problem. In an era where average qualifications are higher than they have ever been before, the substitution of monetary capital with direct knowledge puts it within reach for groups as small as a real community to produce for themselves.
Simultaneously to the reduction of the optimal scales of capital, smaller scales of production also become viable. Traditionally, short runs mean higher unit costs. Also, with a small volume of production, distribution becomes a nightmare, and negotiations with traditional channels becomes impossible. The product is limited to nearby markets.
And here’s where the Internet and virtual communities come into play. As conversational communities based on lifestyles and similar preferences form, what before were “statistical leftovers” in market studies, begin to become buying groups. The Internet is replacing scale with reach. The “long tail” begins to be talked about, and the idea emerges that “there are no big markets, but rather, unserved niches.” Soon, these communities of users participate in the design and conceptualization of products, finance them on crowdfunding platforms, and will be the main way word spreads about them. We’re still in the world of the direct economy which, as we saw, is fed by free software and networked collaboration. But in turn, as the direct economy colonizes new markets, carries with him the seeds of the step a P2P production.
From the point of view of a designer or a company, a direct- economy project is attractive, among other things, because the risks are reduced drastically. The different mechanisms of pre-release sales and crowdsourcing allow promoters to finance the costs of the first production with sales practically guaranteed.
From the user’s point of view, the experience of buying becomes discovery, a story that you share with those around you. Many people participate in the financing of a project for the pure pleasure of supporting the creation of something nice, or that interests them. Two decades ago, it would have been unbelievable for someone to decide to support someone else’s business launch without asking them for a share or hoping for a cut of the profits, but it’s true. It could be called pride in belonging, understanding collaboration in a broader sense, or a willingness to contribute to economic development. The issue is that the essence of financing a business project has been modified, in the most revolutionary way, and almost production itself: now, for hundreds of thousands of people, it has to do with the development of their identity and their community more than with the monetary cost effectiveness that a microinvestment offers them.
While in the old consumerist culture, identity was defined by consumption, which is why one bought, in the direct economy and P2P production, it’s the reverse: exercising one’s own identity is participating in production. Production returns, by a new path, to the center of what defines people. At the same time, the possibility of designing and producing directly is more accessible than ever, and that’s why communities begin to emerge that, after having been “niche” suppliers for others, “take the leap” for themselves into production, starting from the commons and adding new ideas, improvements, and product lines.
The P2P mode of production is already opening the door to a society of abundance. You can stop being a consumer. You can stop being passive and letting the things you buy define your identity. You can switch sides and produce, get involved a little or a lot in others’ production, and enjoy what’s been created together, from creating your own design to supporting someone else’s proposal with an advance purchase.
Don’t look in the store when you need something, from a cell phone to a razor or a computer for your nieces and nephews. Look for projects that are underway. None of them convince you? Propose your own, learn on the net what you need to do it, find your community in the search, become the owner of your life and of the material world around you. Become part of the freedom that allows the new time we live in. Enjoy the approaching abundance.
Archaeologists use the term “material culture” for all objects that express a way of life and bring the relationship that a society has with Nature into everyday life. It is curious how unconscious we are of it, but from the house with a hearth to one with an “economical kitchen” with the arrival of the industrial era, and again from there to a house with electric freezer and stove, there’s a major leap in the development of science and technology. Material culture is the way the capacity for transformation and knowledge reaches our daily life.
In 1879, August Bebel, one of the last German guild artisans and father and theoretician of German pre-war social democracy, dedicated his major work to presenting a history of the place occupied by the women in the evolution of economic systems, showing how it wasn’t intellectual differences between the sexes or moral ideologies that had put women in a role of true domestic slavery, but the needs of the different historical systems of organization of production. It was the first work that embraced this kind of focus. It’s hard to imagine today how groundbreaking it was, and the impact it had across Europe. In Russia, it was spread tirelessly by Alexandra Kolontai, and in Spain, Emilia Pardo Bazán published it with her own funds.
The most interesting thing today about The Woman in the Past, in the Present and in the Future—re-published today as Woman and Socialism—is surely the final chapters. In them, Bebel tries to imagine a society in which domestic work disappears as a result of the application of science and technology to everyday labors. For the first time, he builds a vision for future socialism based on what are, at the time, advanced technologies that are very expensive and practically inaccessible.
The kitchen equipped with electricity for lighting and heating is the ideal one. No more smoke, heat, or disagreeable odors! The kitchen resembles a workshop furnished with all kinds of technical and mechanical appliances that quickly perform the hardest and most disagreeable tasks. Here we see potato and fruit-paring machines, apparatus for removing kernels, meat-choppers, mills for grinding coffee and spice, ice-choppers, corkscrews, bread-cutters, and a hundred other machines and appliances, all run by electricity, that enable a comparatively small number of persons, without excessive labor, to prepare a meal for hundreds of guests. The same is true of the equipments for house-cleaning and for washing the dishes.
It continues to be striking that, faced with the chronic malnutrition of the European workers and peasants of his time, Bebel’s view of the future has lost the hedonistic spirit of his friend Lafargue. But what he doesn’t forget is that domestic work is productive activity, that the social form of organizing this productive activity is what is cloistering the women of his time in a subordinate place, and that the key for their emancipation, like that of all of society, is to enact alternatives, which means creating and applying knowledge.
The preparation of food should be conducted as scientifically as any other human activity, in order to be as advantageous as possible. This requires knowledge and proper equipment.
Bebel is projecting the technological development of his time on to material culture. But he can’t imagine those technologies on a scale other than what is viable then. An electric kitchen… for hundreds of people. Dishwashers for large communal dining rooms. This limitation of scale, which is perfectly consistent with someone who imagined socialism like “the mail system,” leads him to propose “the abolition of the private kitchen” as a logical corollary to that of private property.
To millions of women, the private kitchen is an institution that is extravagant in its methods, entailing endless drudgery and waste of time, robbing them of their health and good spirits, and an object of daily worry, especially when means are scant, as is the case with most families. The abolition of the private kitchen will come as a liberation to countless women. The private kitchen is as antiquated an institution as the workshop of the small mechanic. Both represent a useless and needless waste of time, labor and material.
The birth of “cohousing”
Bebel understands that the home and production are linked by the degree of technological development, and therefore share the same logic of scale, scale that makes an efficient use of resources. In 1879, when the book was published, this scale was much greater than today, which is why the debate that began soon merged with the movements of “hygienist” urbanism—which, like Bebel himself, were influenced by the Fourierist experience of Guise–and ended up resulting in what is known today as “cohousing.”
And Bebel had many followers. In 1901, Lily Braun published Frauenarbeit und Hauswirtschaft, where she proposed the “Einküchenhaus,” a building with just one kitchen, as a way of liberating working-class women from the domestic work. Braun organized a donation campaign in the social-democratic press—a very typical form of “crowdfunding” at the time—that allowed her to commission blueprints from a team of architects and found a society to fund its construction, the “Haushaltsgenossenschaft.” But she never got the capital for the following phase: building a block of sixty houses with a common dining room, day-care and cooperativized kitchen that, looking back on it today, is the first documented “cohousing” project in history.
The reduction of scales and diversity
The reduction of scale in domestic technology would still take a while to arrive. The first prototypes of electric kitchens for the home came about in the ’20s. Then it wasn’t until after WWII that the first models of electric ovens and stoves, and later a swarm of new appliances like those Bebel imagined, reached working-class homes. There was no need for a social revolution for this, only technological development that allowed a general reduction of scale.
Because where Bebel was right was in seeing that the organization of leisure and the “reproductive” time of a society oriented towards abundance was going to reflect the logic and technology of productive organization. But time and scientific-technical development would lead the promise of abundance to a place very far from those big factories and post offices that he imagined. With the direct economy and P2P production, high productivity returns to the workshop, and in parallel, we can once again imagine domestic abundance on a small scale, far beyond cohousing and even today’s communitarian glimpses.
In fact, when there is talk about P2P production of cultural content in distributed networks—a world where abundance already walks on terra firma—it means that diversity is multiplied in abundance. It’s not that everything is “long tail,” it’s that the tail of the distribution of preferences tends to be greater than the surface around the average. The average tends to become little more than a reference.
The world of abundance, the distributed and diverse world, can be imagined as the opposite of the world of recentralization. We can intuit a transnational, multilingual, and communal world where the search for a significant way of creating for everyone saturates the design of things, and rather than try to substitute and compensate for the deficiencies and frustrations of an unsatisfying way of working, things try to serve the way that each person wants build his/her life.
So, while it’s certainly too soon to define the styles in the first products of direct economy and the first P2P industrial production, a certain pattern does already seem to be emerging. An underlying trend in which the idea of “no logo” and the search for a generic aesthetic in the ’90s has been transformed into minimalism and the vindication of “honest design.” So it seems that, in the abundant world, we would have “honestly” functional objects and a very long and powerful tail of community customizations and aesthetics.
What doubtlessly provides us with the experience of the new forms of production is that, the closer we get closer to abundance, the closer production and consumption are to each other. Let’s say I want a shaving machine. I produce it myself… or I participate in financing one I like, or if I don’t like any of them, I design it and I propose it for financing by others. When you take part in the production of something you want to consume, your relationship with objects changes radically: they become full of meaning, and are now “de-alienating.”
And abundance in material culture means the possibility of rediscovering ourselves in the things that we use, as well as finding ourselves and others in their production.
Around the year 2010, John Robb, known for his efforts in the theoretical development of resilience, decided to develop a consultancy. He presented himself as an economic agent and discovered that he had different resources he wasn’t using. Incorporating them into his activity would contribute to diminishing his dependence on his main economic source—consulting. John Robb designed a set of activities, and concentrated on get them moving. He became a small agricultural producer and rented out different spaces in his house, besides selling advisory hours through tele-presence, writing books, and writing his blog. He started to refer to this phenomenon as the “direct economy,” a formula that allowed him distribute his income across different activities, all of them disintermediated.
While John was coming to this approach by seeking the reinvention of the North American family as a productive unit that is resistant to crises, in las Indias, at the same time, we were starting to lay the foundation for the direct economy as a result of the application of free knowledge and the reduction of the scale of production.
In our view, the direct economy brought together a whole series of productive and commercial activities of tiny scale that, thanks to the Internet, were gaining a large scope with very little need for financing. In fact, the combination of software and free knowledge, online advance sales and “crowdfunding,” was saving already a growing number of projects the search for shareholders and credit. On the other hand, the flourishing world of mobile apps was serving as a model for a whole new sector of micro-industrial SMEs. This was a sector centered above all, though not solely, on consumer electronics, that used traditional industry as a sort of gigantic 3D printer to manufacture ever-shorter runs of all kinds of products at low prices.
That is, the power of the direct economy does not reside in the possibility of getting extra income from underused consumer goods (house, car, tools…), which is the core of collaborative consumption, but rather in the possibilities offered by networks, disintermediation, definancialization and the “commodification” of the industrial work of entering the market with innovative products despite having a very small scale.
Why does the direct economy push society towards abundance?
The direct economy is the most radical expression of the reduction of the optimum scale of business. The development of technologies over the last decades of the twentieth century and of what we’ve seen of the twenty-first century has made it possible for the manufacture of sophisticated objects, from cellphones to electric cars, to be accessible for really small groups of people. The changes this holds in store are as radical as they are surprising.
In the first place, while it seems obvious, for the creators of an industrial project to be able to finance their production without the need to give up ownership is a true historical novelty. Ultimately, the economic system that we have known and lived with our entire lives was called capitalist because those who provided the capital were considered the legitimate owners of a company.
Secondly, this is possible thanks not only to advance sales or private donations that arrive via the Internet. It is also due to the fact that the large majority of these companies intensively use free software, which is to say, they benefit from existing capital, which they access freely and for free. What replaces monetary capital is less the value of the creative and technical contribution of the entrepreneurs, and more the prior knowledge accumulated communally and freely.
To put it another way, in the core of the direct economy, we already see the transformation of capital into free knowledge, the direct application of knowledge to production with no need for the formerly necessary mediator of social capital and credit.
This is more than a happy historical coincidence. The direct economy is the change in the modes of productive organization that take place among when the optimum scale of production approaches the community dimension. If we look at the structure of businesses in the direct economy, we’ll find they’re mostly made up of groups of 6 to 10 people. They transfer the knowledge that they possess, and design and offer products in the market. The community of concrete knowledge and the community of production begin to merge, while accumulated knowledge takes a directly useful, free and accessible form: the commons.
What are big companies doing?
Before getting into the social and philosophical consequences of all this, which are very important from the point of view of abundance, it’s interesting to pause for a moment to observe how big, multinational businesses have joined this movement as a way of relieving the growing inefficiencies of their own over-scaling.
As for products, it’s more and more common to hear announcements of pre-sale campaigns or even of production on demand: these minimize up-front investment at the same time that they make it possible to try out a new product in the market. Today, companies like Sony routinely measure the success of new lines of business with secondary brands on “crowdfunding” platforms, looking to minimize even the reputational risk of a possible failure. The use of crowdfunding as a way to capitalize a project has become natural.
Another growing trend in the incorporation of the direct economy by the giants of scale is to carry out direct public offerings (“DPOs”). This is a formula that allows a company create and administrate shares directly, without resorting to an intermediary. Businesses like Ben&Jerry’s used it as the way to finance their expansion in the US and into Europe. The company has the possibility to choose who the offer is directed to—so, for example, it could be exclusive to their workers and family, or citizens of the city where it’s based. At the level of local development, the use of direct public offerings by businesses opens up the possibility of locally organizing funding systems that local businesses join and in which citizens-investors own shares of the business. That way, not only would funds be created to promote development, social and democratic control of the businesses would also increase.
What about scales below the optimum?
Meanwhile, the supply of services available on the Internet is being taken advantage of by language teachers, personal trainers, therapists, nutritionists… access to services at a click has become more and more frequent. The Internet operates as disintermediating agent between client and provider. An increase of supply is produced, which incentivizes price differentiation between competitors, but it also encourages them to innovate in the design of services or in user experience.
Big businesses and professionals are two sides of the same coin. Both benefit from the reduction of the optimum scale of production as it approaches a community dimension. But this is not, by far, the most relevant thing.
Where the Direct Economy is leading us
We’re talking about small groups in which the difference between knowledge, applied knowledge, and practice starts to break down. In these groups, making the leap to production doesn’t require capital like something external and superior, which is capable of reorganizing the whole process in its image and likeness. In such groups, the division of labor and hierarchy fade in a way they never would in commercial businesses. The direct economy is the natural place for “multispecialization.”
The convergence point of the trends in the direct economy is the “productive community”: a group of people whose knowledge is converted directly into production, and whose process of generation of knowledge is difficult to distinguish from the productive process.
But beyond this, there’s still more. Theres a space that’s still closer to abundance, which is fed by this new communal world: P2P production. We’ll talk about that in the next post.
Gombrich said in the first chapter of his History of Art, that when analyzing a work, it’s not a matter of deciding whether this is “lovely by our criterion, but if it works.” That is, if it can “do the required magic” in the context of its community.
The author makes this point using the example of the cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux, to explain how the farther back we go in the history of Art, the more important the functionality of the work is, and the less important its objective beauty. That is, only in very recent times have portraits and sculptures begun to be made simply because the are beautiful and look good on the wall. Before, those representations had a function that could be magical, religious, informative, or propaganda, and if they didn’t fulfill that function, they were rejected.
The above-mentioned cave paintings were not painted by Ice Age people out of boredom, or to make those caves more habitable. The reason they are there is the belief in the power of representation, thanks to which prehistoric men believed they were able to subjugate animals just by painting them, an action that the beasts couldn’t carry out in turn, which demonstrated their inferiority.
This is, obviously, one of the theories that explain Altamira and Lascaux. These works are also considered, in a complementary explanation, as the first representation of abundance. It wasn’t just about the submission of the animal, but of the invocation of the abundance of proteins through the magic of the image.
In the following historical stages, the images that we find are not very different. In those remote times when basic needs were met with difficulty, the dream of abundance meant access the full satisfaction of basic needs that required food and goods that seemed scarce naturally.
Art in Ancient Egypt revolved almost exclusively around death. Besides the pyramids, the best paintings and sculptures are found in these peculiar tombs, not to mention the elaborate sarcophagi. Progress in Ancient Egypt assumed that more and more people could allow themselves to decorate a tomb of their own, and not just the Pharaoh.
The reason that death was so present was the importance of “the Hereafter,” because it was only there that abundance would be found. Osiris, the main god of Ancient Egypt, Lord of the resurrection, symbolized fertility, the regeneration of the Nile, vegetation, and agriculture. In other words: abundance. The definitive moment after death was the Judgment of Osiris, where a court decided, based on the life of the deceased, if s/he deserved live eternally in the fields of Aaru, the abundant paradise, or rather, suffer the true death.
That full abundance only would be reached after death can be understood as a “redemption,” given the evidence of an agrarian system that only grew very slowly, but also as the expression that from very early on, the idea of transcendence – not only of humanity or society, but of individuals – was understood as being linked to overcoming the “economic problem.” If your life deserved a favorable judgment, if you had contributed to the large collective effort, there would be abundance for you, even if only after you’d died. But if you had been a hindrance, your life would end definitively and nothing would remain of you, not even among the dead, as if never you had existed.
A much more material evolution of this idea is found in the Roman vision of the world. Rome is a sophisticated civilization, where wars of conquest, central to Roman history, went towards expanding that civilized world, not just towards sacking. This expansion of the world gave resulted in more products for trade and more places with which to do so, besides new lands with merits to reward. It was, somehow, a path towards the expansion of well-being.
The gods of the Roman Pantheon were practical and represented useful values for social cohesion and civics. They weren’t believed in the way the god of the monotheistic religions is believed in; rather, people believed in what they represented, occupying a central place in Art, as reminders and symbols of Roman virtues.
The gods of the Pantheon – or those virtues that they represented – were presumed to have not only a life in abundance, but the ability to provide it. The transcendence of the individual was symbolized in one of the two components of their spiritual life: the “genius.” The “genius” – the social significance of someone’s life, seen as a whole – was differentiated from the changing “animus,” the state of mind that determined concrete behavior. The “genius” of a person or a community – the “genius” of Rome, for example – when it stood out and transformed the world, could be diefied in recognition and as an example. An extraordinary “genius” was since capable of generating abundance.
In the absorption of local deities in conquered places and the ad hoc creation of gods, variety and repetition were common and, of course, the most repeated gods were those associated with agriculture and fertility. One of the foreign gods that was accepted and transformed in Roman logic was Mithra, whose myth, for the first time, highlights the association of responsibility and freedom personal with the generation of abundance, the activity that turns humans into peers of the gods. That’s why, among the whole very rich Mithraist symbology, the most reproduced aspect is the “Tauroctony,” the moment in which the forced sacrifice of the bull leads to abundance and the diversity of plant and animal species.
But the bull will not be the only, or even the principle symbol of humans’ struggle against scarcity. The cornucopia, or horn of plenty, proceeds from Greek mythology, was then absorbed by Roman mythology, and is one of the most common allegorical objects in the whole history of art. According to the myth, the young Zeus accidentally broke one of the horns of the goat Amaltea, who nursed him, with his lightning bolts. As compensation, the horn became a magical object that would provide whoever possessed it with everything they might want. It was usually represented brimming with fruits and flowers and sometimes gold coins.
Similar objects appear in mythologies and popular tales of other cultures and times. One of the most famous is that of Aladdin and his marvelous lamp, from The Thousand and One Nights or the Finnish Kalevala, a magic windmill that produced grain, salt and gold endlessly.
The Middle Ages
However, the imposition of Christianity will hide this symbolic map for a time. This period is known as the Dark Ages or the age of shadows, but not because it was a dark time in itself, but because of the scarce information there is about it, which leaves historians to walk “in the dark” in their studies. Yes, it’s true that it wasn’t an especially luminous era regarding equality and prosperity. Wars were continuous, there were epidemics, and hunger was at all-time highs. But above all, Roman trade routes were broken with the fall of the Empire, which meant, along with the breaking of communications, that techniques, procedures, and prescriptions were lost and forgotten, making life poorer in general.
The control of the Christian religion in European art is complete. So, beyond the miracle of the bread and the fish, which doesn’t get represented all that often, there are no works that allude to any myth of abundance, and when they do, it’s almost always in a negative way. It’s not Paradise that’s shown, but the expulsion from it.
With the commercial revolution (tenth to thirteenth centuries) abundance will return little by little to the horizon. First, with myths of utopias and just Christian kingdoms lost in hostile lands, like that of “Prester John,” then, beginning with Joachimism, with the radical evolution of movements of the exaltation of poverty. But even though their mark on popular culture and on later Reformation movements will be profound, its mark on art will be practically nonexistent. In the Middle Ages Art, it is knowledge at the exclusive service of the powerful. This will only start to change shyly when a new surge in the European economy turned into what we call the “Renaissance.”
The Italian Renaissance
The Renaissance is called that (which is French for “rebirth”) because it saw the resurgence of “true Art,” of the classical models, the recovery of the grandeur of Rome… there’s no doubt that it was grandiose, but it was also a big marketing operation by the Italian republics, which were responsible in part of the bad reputation of medieval times, which they began to describe as a barbarous (Gothic) intermission between Rome and the Renaissance, positioning themselves as being responsible for reviving the glorious past.
That desire to return to the classical world, accompanied by major technical innovations, caused another change in trends. The generation that followed Brunelleschi was incapable of limiting their “creative power” to religious representation. And so it is that, after many centuries, images of classical mythology appear and with it, cornucopias, Arcadias and representations of the Golden Age again became topical, especially in paintings.
But the main innovation is the appearance of a new genre of painting, the still life, which, in a certain way, means a return to seeing paintings as an “invocation.”
While still lifes, dead or calm natural items, had existed since Ancient Egypt, it’s not until the 16th century that they appear as an independent genre and not as details in a portrait, religious scene or funeral decoration. Although they have always been considered a minor genre and a way of demonstrating the skill of the artist when it comes to showing reality, it’s true that for a long time, their reason for being was the ostentation of the first modern bourgeois that hung them in their halls.
It is no coincidence that the representation of foods, drinks, fruits, and eventually objects of all kinds became fashionable just after the discovery of America and coincided with the first boom in horticulture, in a Europe fascinated by the new species that came from the colonies. The bourgeoisie was beginning to enjoy power and proudly showed its capacity to shrink the world, to bring the wonders of remote continents close, and to enjoy what then was considered a life without deficiencies.
The response of the old noble and ecclesiastical order to the whims of bourgeois abundance was not a return to the dangerous medieval austerity demanded by the most radical and iconoclastic sectors of the Protestant Reformation. In Italy and Spain, the Counter-reformation materialized artistically in abundance… in decorations, and reinforced the prominence of religious topics. What must have seemed infinite was the money used to decorate churches with gold leaf, and to fatten up little angels that did indeed seem to live in paradises of milk and honey. In a commercial system that was, for the first time, creating a global market, wealth was no longer a heresy, but another argument in religious conflict.
But wealth is one thing and abundance is another, which, in itself, remains subversive. That’s why its appearances in Baroque art are timid and are related, one way or another, with the desired end of some of the interminable wars that were drying up the coffers of European kingdoms.
So, it’s no coincidence that it’s three painters of the rising bourgeoisie who reclaim the topic, though in a way that was pleasing to the European crowns. Brueghels (father and son) painted several allegories of abundance on the occasion of the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609) and Rubens, who, through his international success, had become an intermediator between the powers of the times, gave Charles I of England a painting called The Allegories of Peace (1629-30), to convince him to sign peace with Spain. The allegory, replete with characters from classical mythology, represents peace with symbols of fertility and abundance.
But while everyone took care to highlight the benevolent role of monarchy, they obviously kept well in mind the ever-disturbing popular myths of abundance. In 1567, Brueghel the Elder paints his famous Das Schlaraffenland, a Germanic version of the French “country of Cucaña” that would be blended in those years with the myth of Jauja, born of the stories of abundance from the conquest of the Inca Empire.
In 1638, Nicolas Poussin paints some shepherds pointing to a tomb on which is written Et in Arcadia ego (I [death] too I am in Arcadia). This is a grim reminder that they had not forgotten about the myth of the Golden Age, but also a good expression of the contrast of the two large forces of the moment: the optimistic bourgeoisie of the new Barroque economy that feels strong enough to lead the world towards abundance, and the weight of religious inheritance and its melancholy topics in the role of universal and eternal spoilsport.
The blossoming of the more and more critical and secularized world the Baroque Era is incubating will not arrive until the French Revolution, and then will do so at first recycling prophetic symbolism, the only language of abundance religious thought is capable of. Between 1790 and 1793, the poet William Blake publishes “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” a book that imitates Biblical prophecies, and which was very influenced by the revolutionary context, in which “he imagines the transition to abundance as the leap to a whole new form of human experience.” The book is thoroughly illustrated by himself, in a succession of fantastic images that must have shocked his contemporaries.
During the French Revolution the revolutionaries don’t have such an easy time representing the new world, which is inevitably sketched with images inherited from the past. An extreme example will be the “cult of the Supreme Being,” the revolutionary attempt to create a rationalist religion. With it, the horns of abundance and the representations of happiness will return.
During the new century, the “century of revolutions,” the idea of abundance will be in books, even in the theories of the artistic vanguard, but like the god of Islam, its conception is so ethereal that it would seem that no one can represent it.
Only Paul Signac (1863-1935), a bourgeois fascinated by the new ideas of Kropotkin and Reclus whose rents allowed him to not only dedicate himself to painting but to finance libertarian newspapers, neatly captured what the society of abundance meant to him. Attracted by scientific theories on color, used the artistic style of pointilism for his “Time of Anarchy“… which he couldn’t show until he changed the title to “Time of Harmony.” This painting is especially important for our story because it is the first contemporary representation of a society of abundance and its values.
In 1917, the Russian Revolution gave hope to, among others, Signac, who was disheartened by the disasters of war. Initially, representations multiply of a new world in which the rapid expansion of technology in the hands of the government by popular assemblies—the soviets—looks like it’s going to open the door of abundance. Futurists and constructivists will use innovations of language experienced by Malevich to explain the Leninist promise of “soviets plus electrification.” Photography, collage, geometric forms, the incorporation of the machine as symbol and of anonymous faces as ruddy protagonists parallel cinematographic experimentation – “industrial art” in the happy expression of both Lenin and Mussolini – that would precede the new society.
But the revolution will not survive the decade. The exasperating and cruel civil war, the bloody consequences and errors of the first attempts at collectivization and the very limitations ideological of the Bolsheviks will open the way to a new ideology within it. Leninism will become Stalinism, and with the new narrative of “socialism in a single country,” a new form of totalitarian nationalism for which abundance no longer took its inspiration from the creative liberation of the artists that had impressed Marx, but from industrial discipline. Posters and public art become omnipresent and homogeneous didactics of the new order: ruddy Kolkholze peasants, feisty workers, and soldiers of indubitable Slavicness multiply in a return to oil paintings and the Academy.
While surrealism will maintain the debate on the “opening of perception” created by Dada in the middle of Europe between the wars, the narrative of Art, captured by the great States preparing for war, is changing. Very significantly, the Universal Exposition of Paris of 1937 features two opposing colossal structures in its entryway: one German, a rationalist tower crowned with an imperial eagle, and one Soviet, a blocky building topped by the gigantic statue of an allegory of the worker-peasant alliance. The Spanish pavillion, final redoubt of a world that was ending, though it is best remembered for Picasso’s “Guernica,” has in its entryway the work which will be the swan song of the vanguards in their love for abundance: “The Spanish people has a path that leads it to a star” by Julio López.
Then WWII arrived, and the posters of the totalitarianisms in conflict were more of the same. The Cold War had to arrive so the representations on posters and murals could recover some pretension of abundance. But was no longer an abundance born of the new transformative capacities of the new citizen and a culture that is boiling over, but rather a degraded version of them: the proud productive capacity of the well-established police-state socialist paradise (and also the capitalist paradise) in the form of great sheaves of wheat, technologized cities, and miraculous mechanical productivity. Even the posters promoting science for the Space Race had that point of ostentation of State power particular to an era of imperial nationalism.
Apart from relatively isolated exceptions, even if they were exceptionally successful, like Miró, we will not see liberating conceptions of abundance again until the ’60s. And then, more than with the Promethean tradition of Marxism and nineteenth-century anarchism, it will connect with Blake’s prophetic dreams. It is the time of the “pop-art” – an attempt to open the “the doors of perception” on the basis of visual exercises – and shortly later, of psychodelica. But talk about “experimentation as liberation” also has its limits, and that urbanite, bored and opulent generation will be the first to once again exalt in Nature.
Little by little, abundance again began to be thought of connected to the fertility of the land, the abundance of water and leafy nature. Everything joined together in the rise of ecology and the return to the land that followed the failure of the spirit of the ’60s. This imagery, especially in its iconic representations, sometimes seems to be accompanied by the belief that fruits and vegetables grow by themselves. There was a widespread, if not well thought-through, idea of the countryside as the Garden of Eden, where if we’re good and we recycle, everything will be given to us.
Present and future
It would be reasonable to wonder if there are, or in the future will be, visual representations of a new kind on abundance. It occurs to me think about a self-replicating 3D printer, as advanced as the one that appears in The Diamond Era, capable of producing, at the push of a button, anything from a fillet with potatoes to a mattress in a solid oak frame. I think of that printer represented as the Ark of the Covenant or the gods of the Pantheon.
I also think about how, today, to make a marble representation of free software or a tapestry that expresses what Ubuntu is. We’re not in the time of darkness, but it looks like Art cannot yet dispose of an past aesthetic to represent the new model that already seems possible.
For two decades now, it’s a rare month that newspapers don’t surprise us with a multi-million-dollar valuation of some enterprise, website or mobile app. The famous “rounds of financing” of start-ups, media hype when someone announces a public offering, and the eternal discussions about their “lossifits” have become part of business folklore and media hubbub. They’re really an obscene example of the growing difficulties of capital to find a place in real production. They are one more symptom of the overscaling of financial capital which is really one side of a process whose other side is that we have never been so close to abundance. But that deserves an explanation.
The shortcut that failed
At the end of the nineteenth century, two states, Prussia and Japan, discovered a shortcut to development: authoritarian State planning. At first, it worked, and worked so well that the progressive political forces of the time—social democracy, a large part of liberalism, nationalism, and even sectors of conservatism‐built their economic models on it. At the limit, the Soviet State born of the ruins of Russia and its empire after the civil war, for the first time, attempted the “total nationalization” of production: a system planned and oriented to maximize the training and activation of the large masses of capital needed to create the modern infrastructure of a continent, to teach a population to read, and satisfy its basic needs.
And at first, it worked. So much so that it became the path to follow for most of the European colonies that achieved statehood, and the magic formula to develop regions of the central countries that had been left behind. Recent examples outside the socialist States would include the industry developed by Francoism in Asturias or Peron’s five-year plans. Everything was based on quickly reaching large scales in use of capital, and no one better than the State, through public or nationalized enterprises, to reach it.
In reality, as theoreticians of bureaucracy in Europe or Galbraith in the US would soon point out, State businesses were not that different from what big businesses had become in economies where the market called the shots. Success consisted of having large-scale businesses, with lots of capital, able to import or create new technologies, hire tens of thousands of people, and of produce the industrial goods that would make it possible to increase the general productivity of the economic system.
Business over-scaling and crisis
The problem, as would become clear to economists like Boulding as early as the ’50s, is that to try to reach development, and ultimately abundance, with hyper-scaled productive units is like trying to reach heaven by climbing a tree. At the beginning, it looks like you’ll go very quickly, but as you go higher, the branches are more fragile, and finally, all your effort—still very far away from the objective—ends up focusing on not falling.
Every era has an optimum size of scale that depends on technology and the dimension of the market. The better the technology, the smaller the optimum size for a given dimension. Beyond that size, the inefficiencies created by the form of organization itself make every increase in capital or in people hired counterproductive, and the value produced is reduced.
In the first stages of capitalism in each place, with all the large basic infrastructure to make—highways, telephone lines, railways, sewers, etc.—the optimum size was gigantic for the levels of resource accumulation allowed by the pre-capitalist agrarian economy. It seemed that “the greater the scale, the greater the growth”… but precisely because it worked, the first symptoms of crisis would soon come.
The first great collapse
In 1955, when the USSR starts to talk about “peaceful co-existence” with the American bloc, it’s really talking about “peaceful competition.” At that time, the accelerated development of the USSR, the extension of its model first to Eastern Europe and soon to a good part of the decolonized countries of Asia and Africa, and even Cuba, create the impression that the most centralized forms of state capitalism are the owners of the future. But soon, by the beginning of the 60s, the numbers start to not work out. Political and cultural factors were blamed, but the fact is that gigantism is beginning to fail… on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
In the West, the market will prioritize a change in technological orientation: information technology grow to become an industry. It is clearly oriented towards improving management, which is to say, to reducing inefficiencies of scale. But it’s not enough. Markets must expand to justify the sizes already reached: the “European Community” progressively becomes a “Common Market,” and in 1973, Great Britain is integrated, once the preferential market in its former colonies is no longer enough.
Beginning with the crisis of ’73, the numbers of the Western nations and the results of their big businesses don’t give any reason to be optimistic, either. By the ’80s, the inviability of the industrial businesses on the largest scale, the public scale, is obvious. Industrial overscaling has become a danger to the survival of the State itself. This is the time of “reconversion” in regions like Asturias or Flanders, and the moment when the numbers of eastern Europe—but also Cuba—really begin to break down.
In the US and Great Britain the first political response to the crisis of scale emerges: neoliberalism. Basically, it consists of racing forward: finance is deregulated and financialization appears as a way of homogenizing, and therefore expanding, the market for capital, the speculative use of which is growing more and more as it becomes more difficult use it in capital-intensive big businesses. The State restructures its relationship with big businesses: the rents they receive actually increase, but on a new basis: legislation on intellectual property becomes hardened. Management and informatization become a true “cult” in the attempt to reduce inefficiencies.
When the Soviet bloc finally collapses, “globalize” becomes the new mantra. The neoliberal strategy looks to the East and see the volume of extension of markets that has been made possible as a triumph: it has reformed the world to rationalize the over-scaled sizes of its companies.
Globalization and the globalization of the small
Along the way, in the ’90s, technological development had accelerated, and with it, the optimum size of enterprise had been reduced even more. The Internet and large cell-phone networks appear, liberalization drastically reduces the costs of transportation both of cargo and of people, and we start to see the first glimpses of abundance.
But in the first phase, the dismantling of trade barriers looks like it’s going to basically favor multinationals by allowing them reduce size, gaining back at least part of the efficiency lost to overscaling. It’s a time for “breaking value chains“: production is divided into phases that are subcontracted to SMEs in peripheral countries. From the viewpoint of the developed countries, it’s a “dislocation” of production, and a real threat to industrial salaries. Unions abound with the idea that businesses change production sites to be able reduce salaries. The fact is that what makes that salaries are low in subcontracted businesses in these countries is that their productivity is, initially, lower than that of Europe, and therefore they have to compensate for their lack of knowledge and technologies by reducing other costs.
But that changes in two ways: the first is that peripheral SMEs learn to coordinate their own chains, without depending on brands from the central countries, by taking advantage of the reduction of transportation costs and the new accessibility of central markets. The second is that, especially in the consumer-goods market, they benefit from one of the first products of emerging abundance: free software. In less than five years, the volume of this movement exceeds the sum total of all aid to developed countries since World War II.
The result, which is known as “globalization of the small” when seen as a whole, is an unprecedented rise in world trade and a way out of extreme poverty for hundreds of millions of people, most of them in Asia. In quantitative terms, it is the greatest leap towards abundance in the history of humanity. With it, the productivity of the industrialized nations will grow steadily, also increasing salaries and improving living conditions.
The crisis of the center and the P2P mode of production
But for capital, times are hard. The scale of the leaders of the change is too small, and that of the great financial centers too big, for capital to be invested efficiently in the new productive economy. The result is a speculative rush towards anything “commodifiable,” which hits a ceiling in 2007. It is no coincidence that the fall of Enron, the company that did business by turning things like bandwidth or electricity into “commodities,” shortly precedes the collapse of the financial system in the developed countries, which was tangled up in financial products whose complexity was nothing more than the result of try to homogenize risks beyond what’s reasonable.
The longest crisis in the history of capitalism, however, showed the path of abundance. While the financial system collapsed, the business model that had leading the globalization of the small was developed and universalized into what John Robb called the direct economy. The direct economy is the meeting point of the vectors of change of the moment: it basically means the substitution, to the highest degree possible, of necessary financial capital with the free and communal use of knowledge and the capital needed to pay everyday costs through advance sales that often times take the form of “crowdfunding” on virtual platforms.
The intensive use of free software also turns the cycle of P2P production into a model to follow for a whole set of industries in which the reduction of optimal scales is made evident by the impact of the direct economy. The appearance of 3D printers, the rudiments of free multipurpose hardware (like Arduino), and the evolution of good part of the hacker movement into the “maker” movement describe a situation today in which, more than ever, we can talk of the path towards abundance not only in the world of the immaterial, but also in traditional industrial production.
Beyond the crisis, we’re living in a fascinating historical moment. Before our eyes, technological development has reduced the optimum size of businesses to a level that in more and more occupations can be carried out efficiently in a local setting or community, and can even be distributed globally. Many of them are supported to a greater or lesser extent by the result of a productive cycle of a new kind in which capital and market are being redefined, dissipating rents and creating abundance.
The path towards abundance is no longer a proposal or a utopian dream. It is a real course, an economic and social movement happening in parallel to the decomposition of the old ways and which offers us a new promise of overcoming scarcity, war and collapse.
But like every promise of every historical age, isn’t destined to become reality, and has no existence outside of the willpower and actions of people and real communities who must make it present. It’s only a possible result, a horizon to move towards and to struggle for. The question that we will try to respond in the following installations is how.
As much as the official discourse would like it to be, the debate on intellectual property is not about whether authors or inventors would earn the same thing or more if this legal monopoly was abolished. The question is whether we need rents from a monopoly that only exists thanks to legislation for innovation to exist and whether more innovation is created with protection from intellectual property or without it.
In the field of theory, Michele Boldrin made a fundamental contribution which is now part of the corpus of economic theory by demonstrating that under certain conditions, which are common and widespread today, that incentive is not necessary.
Emprical evidence however, in fields like the biomedical and pharmaceutical industry, was scarce, though it did point to the innovator having incentives beyond patents that would be sufficient to justify and profit amply from R&D.
The type of evidence necessary is two similar innovations, one patented and the other not, coexisting in the market from the outset. The record current for illicit duplication is two years, accused but never proved in the case of the Warfarin, the generic version of an anticoagulant called Coumadin, originally patented by DuPont Pharmaceuticals Inc. What’s interesting about the Coumadin case is that it continues to create revenue of some 500 million dollars annually for DuPont. According to the Wall Street Journal, the monthly expense per patient is $35.50, compared with $28.60 for the generic. However, in spite of the difference in prices, Coumadin continues to have almost 80% of the market. Today, Coumadin remains DuPont’s flagship product, and central to the multinational’s bank accounts, in spite of having been one of the few cases where the nearly simultaneous appearance of a generic creates a situation comparable to the absence of patents.
The definitive case: the human genome
We surely owe the definitive empirical proof to the recent paper by Heidi Williams, a Ph.D. student in Economics at Harvard University.
Williams analyzes the consequences of the Human Genome Project, whose results from the sequencing of the genome belong to the public domain, with those of Celera, a business that hoarded its results under patents.
What’s interesting is that there are genes that were originally protected by Celera, which, by being resequenced through public effort, then became patent-free. This way, Williams could really do two different studies: in one, she compared the impact of patented genes with genes in the public domain from the moment of their sequencing, and in the other, the result of genes that were originally Celera’s being devolved to the public domain.
The result in both cases was similar: patents decreased innovation and its results by 30%. Additionally, in the cases where Celera enjoyed a brief period of monopoly, the negative effects on innovation were maintained, though at a smaller scale, after the gene sequencing was released. That is, the negative effects of intellectual property on innovation tend to persist even after the end of legal protection.
If we extend these conclusions to other settings of intellectual property, we’ll understand, for example, why books in the public domain lead to new editions and translations with more regularity that those under Creative Commons.
We already knew from theoretical models and the scarce empirical evidence available that a pharmaceutical market without patents would, in all likelihood, see greater investment in R&D because only innovation would guarantee temporary extraordinary rents close to those of monopolies. But it also would see a rapid expansion of innovations, in the form of generics, in less-developed nations.
Now we know also that biomedical patents reduce innovation by a third, but also that as short as the period of monopoly may be, the social cost tends to be maintained over time.
If we add up both results, the political consequences are clear: the political and social objective should no longer be the reduction in time or place for exclusive use, but rather its total elimination.
A few days ago Shareable published a post about a new documentary that seeks to promote cooperativism and show how local economies based on cooperatives contribute to creating more resilient surroundings. It’s noteworthy in the first minutes of the documentary that the main idea, the drive shaft that connects pieces of the story, is none other than ownership.
A cooperative explained in the very simplest terms is an organization that, in an egalitarian way, practices the formula of one worker, one share, one vote. Our emphasis on this message, without a doubt, has to do with our fascination with discovering a form of organization that, traditionally in the English-speaking world, has been used for consumption. Transferred to production, cooperativism in the US is coming together as a real option to recover the economy of the great industrial cores devastated by the crisis. And also the world of professional services, of commerce, or healthcare.
We discovered it with Evergreen a few years ago. Cooperative pride has a lot to do with making business ownership accessible to many who never dreamed of being able to move on from being employees, or of the possibility of modifying and transforming the productive system. It’s exciting!
In recent years we have been through “a zombie attack” against the socialization and culture born in the Internet. This is known as the stage of recentralization, whose best-known proponent is the FbT-model. This is a socialization model that cut off conversations, wherever they took root, and the birth of new identities and the abundance of the Internet generally. There was no lack of strategies, and in fact, the distributed world worked for the creation of vaccine against the virus. But the response to this attack finally came from something much more basic and fundamental: Personal autonomy. Already, the debate on net topologies is a debate about the autonomy you have to participate in the creation of information, the definition of your agenda, and the possibilities you have to be authentic. The collision was inevitable, and — just like in the great movie “Warm Bodies,” something was alive in the zombies, they weren’t completely dead — our desire for personal autonomy was still alive. This explains the birth of, perhaps not numerous, but more and more islands in the net that are betting on a distributed world. The key words of the future are autonomy and sovereignty.
Yesterday I watched a PBS documentary about the rise of ISIS. Around minute 43, a phrase caught my attention. Explaining how ISIS arrived to a tipping point in recruitment, the script noted that the group itself had been surprised at the massive response of a generation who
wants to be part of something special, they want to be part of something successful
a clueless guy who did not know what to do with his life and who met people who made him feel important
I guess it is quite clear in jihadism but in reality is the generalization of these feelings that make militant movements of all kinds reach their tipping point. What happens these days is that we are nearing the time when the new political movements begin to be credible winners. And people are pointing to star in a historic change… the most credible in every different place or circumstance.
Of course will not produce the same results if is ISIS who capitalize that feeling in Syria and Iraq or if it will be the new PKK in Kurdistan. And if we look at Europe Ukrainian nationalism has not the same values than SYRIZA or Podemos. But from the point of view of network analysis it is a very similar phenomenum: The protagonist of the great social movements is changing worldwide.
The time of the young European jihadist who was able to destroy himself as a way to defy an unquestionable power has passed away as the time of the cyberactivist who wanted to change social consensus promoting new social conversations.
Lets remember two slogans from the quotes: “feel important” and “be part of something successful”. Those will be the magic words of all the mobilizing discourses during the coming years.
In many conversations about the expansion of languages and the use of English as a lingua franca, we hear statements about English being the most spoken language in the world. It is important to remember that the reality is quite different, the most spoken language in the world is “not-English,” i.e., all the other languages. The figures, which can be found in “The World Factbook,” clearly reflect this reality. In the light of this fact, it should also be noted that beyond the figures, the important points to note in the discussion about overcoming language barriers and the adoption of a lingua franca, are others, namely the rents and power structures supported by the adoption of a national language as a lingua franca, in this case English, and its limitations beyond superficial interactions.
Functional English, like all jargon, is useful for superficial interactions. For example, when a waiter in a cafe in Antalya describes the view of the sea as very beautiful. But it reaches its limits in the context of university education, a higher intellectual function that fully mobilizes our language skills. Because only on rare occasions do we see the same level of precision and nuance in a learned language as in the mother tongue. That iron law of linguistic competence is confirmed even in countries known for their knowledge of English.
What happens if the taxis of major cities are replaced by Uber? What if a central part of your urban transportation system depends on an app based on California? Do you think that a city hall could stand up to an multinational with the kind of battles it wages against taxi unions? What happens when your streets and your cars are commodities that are coordinated thanks to software and a set of rules that you don’t control? And perhaps the most clarifying: Do you really think that in California would let its transportation system be run from Barcelona?
All these questions are part of the conclusions Bruce Sterling draws about “Smart Cities.” The discourse on the “Sharing Economy” has detoured the debate and hidden the project of recentralization of networks and the power of the Internet giants. But it’s still there. And as the father of cyberpunk reminds us, it not only has political consequences in the city, but globally, and geopolitically.
So, does Sterling want to close the door on the “Sharing Economy” or the “Smart City?” Absolutely not. He’s simply reminding us that is a battlefield on which the different subjects must recognize what network structures and what architectures of power create a world where we have space. And in recentralization, there’s no space for citizenship.
The Philosopher’s Mail, the blog of Alain de Botton and the followers of atheism 2.0, published an article about the Epicureans. Its most interesting aspect is that, in a nutshell, it proposes that Epicurean communitarianism is based on its founder’s minimalist definition of happiness:
With his analysis of happiness in hand, Epicurus made three important innovations:
Firstly, he decided that he would live together with friends. Enough of seeing them only now and then. He bought a modestly priced plot of land outside of Athens and built a place where he and his friends could live side by side on a permanent basis. Everyone had their rooms, and there were common areas downstairs and in the grounds. That way, the residents would always be surrounded by people who shared their outlooks, were entertaining and kind. Children were looked after in rota. Everyone ate together. One could chat in the corridors late at night. It was the world’s first proper commune.
Secondly, everyone in the commune stopped working for other people. They accepted cuts in their income in return for being able to focus on fulfilling work. Some of Epicurus’s friends devoted themselves to farming, others to cooking, a few to making furniture and art. They had far less money, but ample intrinsic satisfaction.
And thirdly, Epicurus and his friends devoted themselves to finding calm through rational analysis and insight. They spent periods of every day reflecting on their anxieties, improving their understanding of their psyches and mastering the great questions of philosophy.
Epicurus’s experiment in living caught on. Epicurean communities opened up all around the Mediterranean and drew in thousands of followers. The centres thrived for generations – until they were brutally suppressed by a jealous and aggressive Christian Church in the 5th century. But even then, their essence survived when many of them were turned into monasteries.
De Botton forgets that that Epicurean, familiar, and mixed monasticism of the 5th century, common and even dominant in places like the Iberian peninsula and the island of Ireland, was gradually enclosed from Rome and finally removed with the Gregorian reform. The spirit of Epicurean communitarianism would then begin to thrive in a very different environment. But that’s another story.
(From Indianopedia) Market activism is our term for the design and trade of products with the goal of spreading values and ideas. The name was coined in 2012 by Juanjo Pina from “aesirs,” based on a previous debate on entrepreneuralism held by “las Indias Group of Cooperatives” since 2009, linking the idea of the phyle to the medieval arts and guilds:
We believe the kind of knowledge that enables us to make beautiful and socially useful things cannot be reduced to technical knowledge. It must contain a social meaning, a work ethic and a worldview. Goods offered in the marketplace carry with them a vision of the world, of social projects and a moral points of view.
- In 2007 the indianos combatted «rankism», a narrative on the blogsphere spread by the media that we saw as a danger to its distributed structure. As a response, we developed feevy, the first dynamic blog-roll for blogs. It not only made it easy to link and share audiences between blogs, it made it obvious that the “star blogger system” was just a media myth. Feevy had soon 60,000 users/blogs, making it possible to map hundred of thousands of blogs in Spanish and how they were connected. We called this map the map of flowers, and was, itself, a refutation of the narrative imposed by the mainstream media. Feevy, carefully developed not to use personal data, was programmed as free software, and its platform sold later to a a big firm.
- Since 2011, the whole “neovenetianist milieu” did its best to transform its knowledge into useful tools to combat the European unemployment crisis:
- Indianos inspired and cofounded Fondaki, a social enterprise dedicated to public information analysis as a tool for generating commercial intelligence for Basque industrial SMEs, helping them to internationalize and innovate.
- Aesires promoted 3D printing as a way to spread the potential of the P2P mode of production for SMEs. They finally created the first distribution channel in the south-east of the Iberian peninsula for 3D printers, creating a company for their commercialization.
- In 2010, Alain de Botton launched his atheism 2.0. His main tool would be “The School of life,” an international chain of stores supplying consumer goods, courses and motivational seminars for businesses
Today our front page has a new banner: series. That’s what we have called the thematic threads that have been forming since we started to focus “El Correo de las Indias” on the idea of an interesting life. And in fact, the first series tries precisely to answer the question what is an interesting life? This leitmotif that was born in another series, the only one now finished: “Towards a new narrative,” by Juan Urrutia. And of course, we can’t leave out our love of cooking, our pulp heroes, and Go. They all continue growing and will appear again in the future. For the moment take a peek, and we hope that you’ll like them.
(Note from your translator: if there are older posts you want to see translated, please leave a comment!)
These days, the press all over the world is talking about the Michoacan self-defense movement, since the Mexican State is confronting them, after letting the “Knights Templar” camp there for years. This mafia was the beneficiary of decomposition, accelerated by the State itself, of the formerly, and sadly celebrated “Michoacan family.” The debate is now the typical trap of decomposition between the defense of the monopoly on violence by the state and the verification of a captured and corrupt state that for years abandoned the life and treasure of thousands of people to a terrible mafia.
So rather than entering the debate, I’d like to draw attention to an element of “self-defense” and the form that its process of legitimation took: the reemergence of a series of forms, like open town councils, which come from the birth of urban democracy in medieval Europe.
These forms are not “natural,” but rather cultural and historical. Born with urban development, they became revolutionary in community revolts, and reappeared in the open crisis of the Napoleonic wars – which led to the birth of the Mexican State – and during the large civilian conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries. And now they return in the middle of decomposition. Quijote told Sancho on the path to the island of Barataria to “be careful of your vassals or they will take the government from you or form communities by themselves.” The “Long live the commoners!” shout is heard in the Michoacan town halls. In my view, there are issues here to reflect upon and learn from.
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