The New Socialism?

Posted by on May 29th, 2009.

A few days ago, I read The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online by Kevin Kelly. I found the article very relevant to me, because we are essentially living it. The article is actually about the shift to a peer-production society, where business is carried out by free exchange between individuals, small or impromptu groups, etc., like what you see with sites like Wikipedia.

By far the most controversial part of the article is calling this New Socialism. It seems to me that the word socialism is a pejorative, especially in the United States, where most of the discussion about socialism seems to be carried out by people who don’t know what it is. Even the article’s description of “Old Socialism” seems quite strange to me, not really resembling the socialism I grew up under. But I suppose that the term is broad and vague, and socialism itself has taken on many forms around the world.

What the author is basically talking about, however, is the marriage of the cooperative movement, and more specifically the worker coop movement, with the enabling technologies of the internet. Oddly, this is called collectivism in the article and the term cooperation is relegated to collaboration, the level below. This movement has a fairly long history, including Leland Stanford if you believe this article (there’s nothing at all about it on wikipedia, so I’m in need of clarification here), and most notably the Mondragon corporation in Spain. I really believe that the advanced communication technologies we have now make this vision of peer-production more realistic and practical than it ever was in the past. Simple, peer-to-peer tools to aid in consensus-making and the sharing and distribution of information means that a workplace that is much more radically democratic and autonomous is now possible.

We took the following view in founding Brierwood Design: with products like Amazon EC2, the capital costs of entering the marketplace are almost nil. Value is created by combining highly skilled labor with a small amount of capital (such as my laptop and an internet connection). Therefore, it is the labor investment that is the most important factor to the company, and so it is that investment that takes the risk (I’ll explain how another time) and should be poised to reap the rewards. So in our case, we decided that the control and largest upside would not rest with investors, or with founders, but with the people taking the risk and creating the value — the employees. And this is the logic that led us to becoming a worker cooperative, and in my opinion is very much in the spirit of modern creations such as Wikipedia, Creative Commons, etc.

So, is it right to call this New Socialism? Maybe, although the term is probably too loaded to mean anything anymore. If you think that socialism means control of industry by the state, then it definitely isn’t. On the other hand, if you see the intent of socialism as putting control of industry in the hands of individual producers, then it most certainly is.

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