[ox-en] Report from COM'ON workshop: Dam builders and ship builders
- From: Stefan Merten <smerten oekonux.de>
- Date: Mon, 12 Dec 2011 12:01:58 +0100
[Since the workshop was in German I'm cc-ing the German list.]
Last Saturday I attended the workshop
COM' ON! - Die alte Eigentumswelt dreht sich
See http://commons.rosalux.de/ for the homepage.
The workshop has been organized by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung which
is the foundation of the party "Die Linke" in Germany. "Die Linke" is
the socialist party in Germany. As far as I understood the Keimform
people co-organized this event.
The workshop has been attended by about 40 persons. At least 8 of them
were on the Oekonux list at some point. It was very nice to meet all
these people again - some of them I had not met since years.
Some other people came from the broader commons debate. Most of the
remaining attendees I'd consider coming from the classical left which
is of course what "Die Linke" is.
The topic of the workshop was: What does the concept of commons mean
for the left in general and for "Die Linke" in particular.
Well, I'm not really into this commons debate but my impression is
this: It is composed of two discourses which IMHO have nothing to do
with each other. One of the discourses is the commons based peer
production discourse which is put forward by people like StefanMz and
ChristianS. I.e. the topic of this list. The other discourse is a very
classical left discourse with all the same old, same old questions and
approaches. Here are some aspects which IMHO mark the boundary:
* Appropriation of means of production
Part of the left commons discourse seems to be the classical
discussion about power relationships. As one example the power over
means of production is discussed in the form that the means of
production must be appropriated from the current owners. That
reflects closely the classical discussion that the working class
should be owner of the means of production.
In the peer production discourse this question - which is of course
an important one - is answered differently: Let's build the means of
production ourselves. This is a very different approach.
* Importance of environmental issues
In the left commons discourse environmental issues seem to play an
important role. This is of course part of the more recent left
In peer production I can't see that environmental issues play any
* Retrial of failed concepts
One of the interesting questions to the participants was: "How are
you involved in the commons on a daily basis?" Of course I listed
all the digital commons I'm using daily and producing for often
Many other at the table named classical approaches like people's
kitchens (Volksküche), organizations which are similar to
cooperations (Genossenschaften) or gratis shops (Umsonstläden). If I
add self-governed companies I guess many of those people would
Well, of course these things have been tried for decades. Many of
them came up in the 1970-ies, some are as old as the workers'
movement. What seems to be clear to me is that after so many decades
we *know* that these approaches may be a nice individual niche but
they don't have any practical relevance on a larger political scale.
In peer production we don't see these failed concepts at all.
* Classical oppression and equality
One person spelled out the classical oppression topics like gender
or disablement. Race could be probably also added. This persons's
critique in the commons debate was that it doesn't include this type
of inequality - or rather that it doesn't make inequality a topic.
I tried to explain that inequality *escpecially* in needs and
abilities is central to a peer production approach. What is a
project worth where all participants want the same and have the same
abilities? Unfortunately this didn't reach this person at all. I
also tried to make clear that under Selbstentfaltung conditions the
chance for equal chances for all are much better. But even this was
refused by this person.
In the end I have no idea what this person wanted - beyond: *you*
need to do what *I* think is right. Or in other words: political
* Political correctness as a precondition
In another discussion a similar topic came up: People find it hard
that in commons projects they have to accept people with a different
political opinion. In other words: They would prefer that political
correctness should be a precondition for becoming member of a
Well, I saw many leftists who suggested Free Software licenses with
political correctness built in. It never worked. In fact I think one
of the key advantages of Free Software licenses is that they do
*not* require political correctness on any side.
Don't let me be misunderstood: Of course there are rules in peer
production projects. But these rules relate to the goals of the
project and not to alienated goals like political correctness.
* Reference to crafts
In many cases there is rather a reference to (classical) crafts than
to modern industry or automation. This certainly reflects the
technology scepticism in the post 1970-ies left.
Of course in peer production technology is welcomed and seen as a
means to bring us forward.
* Ignorance of the new mode of production
People like StefanMz bring this topic up again and again: By peer
production we talk of a new mode of production. Still it seems not
to be heard. Or may be what this means is just not understood. Given
that the mode of production is one of the main Marx terms this makes
things worse, however. One hint to the latter is that this strong
thesis is not even criticized!
Well, as I said I'm not really into the commons debate. But my
impressions from Berlin strengthened my scepticism: There are two
discourses where the classical left discourse in a nutshell is old
wine in new bottles. I see that the visible peer production realms
like Free Software and Wikipedia *do* inspire the classical left. But
they don't really understand what happens in front of their eyes. They
prefer to do and think the same old same old, instead. Like
generations before them.
I thought about possible reasons for this. After all these people
*want* to engage for a viable alternative - why do they spend their
time with pointless activities then? May be the classical materialist
saying that the being determines the concsiousness (Marx) applies
here. Many of these people are not involved in the digital commons /
peer production - probably most of them still even prefer M$. So they
have no practical idea of what peer production may mean. Yet they
don't understand this concept. And look at Oekonux for another hint:
Many of the most influential people are into both: Politics *and*
technology including peer production.
An extreme variant of this ignorance of modern thoughts was the main
topic of one talk. In the brand new party program of "Die Linke" the
word "commons" does not appear at all and also the German translation
"gemein..." does appear only once. This after some years of commons
debate in the left. Although this is not really surprising IMHO it
makes finally clear that "Die Linke" is not useful for a promising
project. This is a pity IMHO.
The whole workshop reminded me of a picture which came up in the
Oekonux debate long ago. There are two ways of dealing with the ever
rising flood: Build dams to protect the existing or build ships to
sail for new shores. The classical left discourse IMHO focuses on
building dams. They want to protect what is. The peer production
discourse is of course a ship builder approach.
I like this picture because it makes clear a couple of things. For
instance that both approaches are needed. At the very least the ship
builders can not build ships when there are no dams to protect them
From the flood. But the most important difference this picture
illustrates is this: For building dams you need a completely different
set of abilities and tools than for building ships.
You even need different mind sets. Dam builders need to prefer
strength, firmness, immobility and stability and are interested in the
past and presense they want to protect. They fight *against*
something. Ship builders need to prefer dynamic, agility and are
interested in new horizons. The fight *for* something. In a way it is
funny and sad at the same time that today those who *think* they are
oh so progressive turn out to be so conservative...
I often compare our time with early capitalism. When I project the
current commons discourse into this time I'd say that it is a
discourse between the early capitalists and the rebel fraction of the
nobility. While the first opposed monarchy the second only wanted a
different king. How should this possibly work?
Well, as you may imagine there were very little to learn for me during
this workshop beyond some impressions of the commons debate. However,
one thought was new and after all this sceptical stuff I'd like to
share it with you.
We talked about needs and an older woman from Austria told that she
well remembers a time when it was simply clear that you get a job and
there is sufficient social security and so on. A situation younger
people usually have difficulties to even imagine. She said that life
felt differently then and that even the needs were different. I think
she is right. And it's pretty obvious that you don't need to care much
about your social security if it is simply given and you can be sure
that this is still the case in 20 years.
I know this effect from Free Software. I remember that in the 1980-ies
I stored a copy of the Gnu Free Software onto a tape of my own
although I didn't need it. I wanted to own a copy so I'm sure I can
use it if I want. Today I'd not even have this idea - because I know
that Free Software is available and will be available tomorrow. And
Wikipedia is available and will be available tomorrow.
In other words: these resources are part of the common infrastructure
and it's clear that they will stay. We discussed this a but further
and suggested that insurance models like in health insurance or flat
rate models may have a similar effect although on a paid-for basis.