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Michel Bauwens, "Marx, Cognitive Capitalism and the Transition to the Commons"

"Marx, Cognitive Capitalism and the Transition to the Commons" Michel Bauwens

[Snatched from a longer list-exchange at the Institute for Distributed Creativity, ed.]

I think we do have to accept that we are no longer in a mercantile, nor industrial capitalist logic, but in a third phase of cognitive capitalism. My thesis is that the marxist thesis, of a organized working class taking power and then changing society, has been discredited. Not only because it didn't happen in the last 200 years, but because it is based on a misreading of history.

In the previous transitions, revolutions were always the end point of a long process of reconfiguration. Hence, both slave owners and slaves morphed to serfdom as domain lords and serfs, first as an individual strategy to survive the collapse of the Roman slave economy, and thus in paradoxical ways saving and strenghtening the system; and both nobility and working strata of feudal society morphed to capitalist relations and practices, with the same effect. The point is that these changes, initially seen as a way out for the old system, turned out to be more productive overall, and eventually it made no longer sense to keep the old social order, which precluded this higher productivity to occur on a general scale.

We know that state socialism as it historically developed, lost the race against the capitalist system, and furthermore, it offers absolutely no incentive, neither for the ruling class, who loses everything, and for the workers, who lose their freedom in a new class system dominated by a new coordinator class.

But what if we observe that, not socialism is occuring, but a new hyperproductive system, in which both the capital and managerial class, and the producing class, see different advantages to move towards. A section of capital becomes netarchical, and starts monetizing these practices. It appears at first hand to create a new economic sector, but it is embraced also by the producing classes, for different reasons.

The point is, while it originally appears to strengthen the capitalist totality, it at the same time creates post-capitalist logics, such as the direct production for value, forms of participatory governance that are practiced outside corporate formats, and commons oriented property formats. Commons-based peer production, the sharing platforms, and crowdsourcing are three main forms of this mutual adaptation.

The paradox is that it both creates new forms of capitalism, and new forms of post-capitalism. It is both immanent and transcendent, and we have to resist any either/or logic but rather see them both occurring at once.

While apparently saving capitalism, as Adam Arvidsson and I have argued, it also creates a formidable value crisis, and the return on assets has already declined by 75% since the onset of cognitive capitalism.

So what could possible strategies be:

1) Strengthen these new social practices and the autonomy of peer producing communities

2) Differentiate between those practices of the netarchical segment that enclose, and those that create more opportunity for sharing and commons based practices. Support the latter, fight the former.

3) Wherever we can, create independent infrastructures, based on open standards and protocols, that can be operated in a distributed fashion, not just for ICT but in every area of productive endeavour, to create alternatives that are commons-based, rather than requiring netarchically owned corporate platforms.

4) Create new economic formats that are maximally consistent with the new peer to peer ethics and social demands and support those entrepreneurial formats that overturn capitalist income-orientation to social-outcome orientation. These entrepreneurial forces are on our side!

5) Create alliances with the social forces of the decaying former economic system, such as farmers and workers movements, and link up with their mutualist traditions.

6) Create alliances with the environmental and social justice movements to overturn the present insanity of pseudo-material abundance and artificial immaterial scarcity, to realize natural abundance in a steady state economy, with free cultural, scientific and knowledge exchange in global commons communities.

7) Create alliances with anticapitalist and a-capitalist neotraditional movements around commonly shared immaterial values, thus finding a connection with the vast majority of Southern populations.

8) Pressure state and public authorities to change their corporate welfare orientation to a primacy of civil society and a partner state-based support infrastructure towards the new productive modalities.

How could any nostalgic return to socialist strategies result in any positive outcome after 2 centuries of failure?

How could a orientation towards attention logics that are subsumed to capital bring any fundamental progress?

Why not inspire ourselves by the real process of change, as it occurred in two previous phase transitions?

If this were true, then we need to be careful about time-scales and recognize that we are not entirely ready for a phase transition, but are at the same time rapidly approaching it. My hypothesis is that we can expect the next Kondratieff upsurge, which should ‘normally start’ 8 to 15 years after the sudden system shock that we are witnessing, to be used to move peer production from emergent phenomena, to parity and from there to phase transition. This timing is quite consistent with the expectation of Immanuel Wallerstein and others.

Capitalism is not dead, but it is dying, and as infinite growth is not compatible with a limited natural world, it has to die. Though it could conceivably be replaced by something worse, and though it is unlikely that 19th century socialist scenarios will come to fruition, the phase transition towards a fully commons-orientated mode of peer production, is a strong historical opportunity, and we should not idly stand by while it is occurring.