Actually Existing Internet Communism

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Henry Farrell finds Steven Johnson running away form the somewhat radical anti-capitalist implications of his work on innovation, something that I think is a fairly widespread problem.

The issue is that most people don’t have a great vocabulary for talking about valuable activity that’s neither organized by the government nor undertaken for commercial reasons. And yet there’s lots of activity along those lines in everyone’s life. Importantly, this has always been the case. People have always had hobbies. The number of people who play sports on an amateur basis has always exceeded the number of people who do it professionally. And most significantly, people—especially women—have always done intensely valuable work in the household sector and related to raising and educating children.

But rapid improvements in communications and information technology have drastically expanded the scope and importance of non-commercial activities. It’s also created a (virtual) space where commercial, hobbyist, non-profit, and government undertakings interact, compete, and collaborate in novel ways. This nexus of undertakings has created several billionaires and “hot” innovative businesses of the sort that those inclined to valorize the work of entrepreneurs can and do valorize. But it’s also created a much larger set of amateur or quasi-amateur producers who are impacting the lives of people all around the world. In its 1875 Gotha Program, the German Social Democratic Party “demand[ed] the establishment of socialistic productive associations with the support of the state and under the democratic control of the working people.”

It turns out that finding a feasible way to do that for industrial age enterprises was fairly problematic. And yet their arguments that such associations would be beneficial remain compelling. Meanwhile, the Internet makes it much easier for individuals to form socialistic productive associations without a ton of explicit support of the state. This means, however, that the extent to which the state is implicitly supporting or hindering the work of said associations deserves to be on the table politically. And that discussion needs to consider not just the GDP impacts of peer production (which are often quite small) but the giant quantities of consumer (and producer) surplus welfare that are involved.