What does Wikileaks mean for trade union activists?
It is important to see Wikileaks not as the isolated project of the maverick cyber pimpernel Julian Assange, but as part of a much wider cultural and social movement to free information from state and corporate control. I argued previously that unions should embrace open source and creative commons, and in my thesis I suggest briefly that we are moving from distributed discourse – technology facilitating easy communication – to distributed production, with people working collaboratively to produce new products, like Wikipedia and Linux. This hasn’t been properly analysed on the left, but this article by Alastair Davidson argues that we are seeing a shift to a new, radically decentralised, gift economy mode of production.
These trends – the end of information scarcity, the distribution of the means of production into the hands of information workers, the development of a broader hacker community and ethic, the emergence of ideological leaders and organisations, and the creation of a legal theory – combined in the 1990s to produce an extremely rare economic event: the arrival of an entirely new mode of production. The first example of the new mode was the Linux project….
The activism, organisation and ideology we see in the hacker community today are the material consequence of a new mode of production, a fundamental shift in the political economy of information. The free culture movement has (so far) defeated all attempts, both legal and technological, to reimpose information scarcity. If Marx was right then this is simply because the winds of history are behind us.
It is a long article that looks at a number of complex issues, some of them apparently only tangentially related, but it is an important read. Davidson describes the new mode of production quite clearly: the freely given labour of hundreds of thousands of volunteers who have contributed to Linux have successfully collaborated in a highly sophisticated engineering project. The end product is a suite of software that rivals that produced, at enormous cost, by Apple and Microsoft. Linux is considered more stable by most experts, which is why it is the most popular operating system for web servers. Despite the fact that many hackers espouse libertarian, individualistic views – influenced by science fiction rather than political polemics – there is nothing individualistic about motivating thousands of people to collaborate on a project.
This has never been done before. We have never had mass, voluntary, gift economy collaboration that has resulted in complex and effective end products. What is remarkable about this project is that it has managed to honour individual freedom while also facilitating mass collaboration, with divisions of labour, hierarchies of expertise and specialisations.
It is not only programmers who have been involved: graphic designers create icon and image sets for the desktop environment, writers produce technical manuals and guides, and media experts provide the marketing expertise by blogging about the software and otherwise sharing the message.
If Marx said that the free development of each is necessary for the free development of all, I can’t think of a clearer example of this in practice. There is a strongly individualistic – Davidson calls it ‘crypto-anarchist’ – tendency amongst a lot of hackers themselves, who probably occupy the same social position as Proudhon’s skilled artisans. But the fact that hackers have been drawn to libertarianism is largely due to the absolute failure of the left to understand where the class line runs through the information wars.
The privatisation of information requires secrecy, and Wikileaks – and filesharers – release this information into the Commons. Intellectual property laws like copyright are the Enclosure Acts of our age. The marginal cost of reproducing the world’s culture and knowledge is so close to zero it is not worth measuring, because it uses existing capacity. By facilitating sharing, we can vastly enrich the cultural life and education of the world. Therefore it is disappointing to see some unions line up in defence of copyright, which is an outdated model that attempts to turn pieces of information into commodities that can be sold – to the advantage of employers, rather than individual workers. It is more important to argue that workers are paid a fair rate for work done, and not base wages on the price the commodity fetches in the market.
It is also worth mentioning that proprietary intellectual property laws cost thousands of lives, because the patents for life saving drugs are owned by pharmaceutical corporations who sell them for the maximum amount possible. In many cases – such as with malaria medication – drugs remain undeveloped and untested, because there is no real economic incentive to develop them: most malaria victims are poor. By making these patents open source, they could be developed by other producers, and manufactured cheaply for the public sector.
(As Davidson acknowledges, open source in not necessarily anti-capitalist – it just stops oligarchies hoarding information to hold onto disproportionate amounts of power).
We’ve only seen the beginning of the Wikileaks effect. For the most part, the information released hasn’t been important enough to serious threaten US power. But from the reaction of the US to Assange, it is clear that the US does not welcome this development. Wikileaks heralds an age when state secrecy becomes impossible. Governments will have to become more transparent, to mitigate the effect of future leaks. This will have a profound effect on politics. and it will be very interesting to see how this unfolds.
For the crypto-anarchists, ‘strong crypto’ is necessary for this free culture to flourish. This would give us the tools to defend our privacy from encroachment by Google, Facebook and the state. There is no contradiction between crypto and the flow of information. Cryptology means we have the confidence to share information freely because we know we cannot be tracked and monitored.
I am no techno-utopian, but I believe this is an extremely important article, which makes provocative suggestions for the future of both governance and production.