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A new mode of production?

Summary:
From Donald Gillies  If a new mode of production is really going to supersede capitalism, then it is likely that we can find examples of this way of producing already coming into existence, though perhaps not yet in fully developed form. Paul Mason draws attention to a striking example, namely Wikipedia. This is what he says (p. 128): “Wikipedia is the best example. Founded in 2001, the collaboratively written encyclopaedia has, at the time of writing, 26 million pages and 24 million people registered to contribute and edit – with about 12,000 people regularly editing and 140,000 people vaguely taking part.  Wikipedia has 208 employees. The thousands who edit it do so for free. … With 8.5 billion page views per month the Wikipedia site is the sixth most popular in the world – just

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from Donald Gillies 

If a new mode of production is really going to supersede capitalism, then it is likely that we can find examples of this way of producing already coming into existence, though perhaps not yet in fully developed form. Paul Mason draws attention to a striking example, namely Wikipedia. This is what he says (p. 128):

“Wikipedia is the best example. Founded in 2001, the collaboratively written encyclopaedia has, at the time of writing, 26 million pages and 24 million people registered to contribute and edit – with about 12,000 people regularly editing and 140,000 people vaguely taking part. 

Wikipedia has 208 employees. The thousands who edit it do so for free. … With 8.5 billion page views per month the Wikipedia site is the sixth most popular in the world – just above Amazon the most successful e-commerce company on earth. By one estimate, if it were run as a commercial site, Wikipedia’s revenue could be $2.8 billion a year. 

Yet Wikipedia makes no profit. And in doing so it makes it impossible for anybody else to make a profit in the same space.” 

Paul Mason goes on to say that Wikipedia is organized (p. 129): “in a decentralized and collaborative way, utilizing neither the market nor management hierarchy.” This really is a new way of organizing production, which is at the same time much more efficient than more standard systems. Paul Mason emphasizes this by the following thought experiment (p. 129):

“… imagine if Amazon, Toyota or Boeing tried to create Wikipedia.

Without collaborative production and Open Source there would be only two ways to do so: by using either the market or the command structures of a corporation. Since there are maybe 12,000 active writers and editors of Wikipedia, you could hire that number, and maybe get away with some of them being outworkers in the sweatshop economies of the world, controlled by a better-paid managerial layer in the American sun-belt. Then you could incentivize them to write the best possible encyclopaedia on the web. You could give them targets, bonuses, promote teamwork through quality circles, etc.

But you could not produce anything as dynamic as Wikipedia. Getting a 12,000-strong corporation to produce 26 million pages of Wikipedia would be… pointless… A 208-strong foundation would always do it better. And even if you could produce something just as good as Wikipedia, you would face a massive problem: Wikipedia itself, your major competitor, doing it all for free.”

This is a very forceful argument. Big capitalist organisations are bureaucratic and authoritarian. A hierarchy of managers, leading up to the CEO, plan what is to be done, and assign tasks to the workers. Interestingly, hitherto existing forms of socialism have also had this bureaucratic, authoritarian and hierarchical character. This is obviously true of communism, but also holds of the productive organisations of social democracy. For example, a nationalized industry, such as the former coal industry in Britain, was run by a bureaucratic hierarchy of managers. The appearance of these bureaucratic forms in both capitalism and socialism shows that they were indeed suited to production, given the then development of the productive forces and the type of good being produced. However, Paul Mason’s thought experiment shows that these bureaucratic forms are not suitable for the production of digital goods in the era of the internet. For the production of such goods, as the example of Wikipedia shows, we need a networked, collaborative group of workers who agree among themselves what is to be done and by whom, without the intervention of any managerial hierarchy or bureaucracy. The same message comes out clearly from other examples such as the free software movement.

Here then we have in embryo the PostCapitalist mode of production. However, there is one feature of the Wikipedia and free software examples, which must be removed if this type of production is to become general. Those who contribute to Wikipedia and free software projects are not paid, and so have to do this work in their spare time, while earning their livings in some other activity. It is remarkable that such numbers of skilled people are willing to do this, but the lack of pay sets a limit on the extent to which this mode of production can become general, since obviously most people have to earn their living in some way. The question then arises: if groups of workers are going to be paid to produce digital goods, who is going to pay them? Clearly no one in the private sector is going to pay them, because of the difficulty of producing digital goods under capitalism. It follows therefore that they must be paid by the state.

This leads me to a conclusion, with which Paul Mason might not perhaps agree, namely that the PostCapitalist mode of production will turn out to be a form of socialism, but one which differs from the earlier forms of bureaucratic socialism by being more egalitarian and libertarian. This type of socialism I think could be called networked socialism. Paul Mason writes (p. xvii): “info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being.” Of course the overwhelming majority of educated and connected human beings are white-collar workers. So networked socialism is based on white-collar workers in contrast to earlier forms of socialism, which were based on manual (blue-collar) workers.

Another feature of networked socialism is that it is international. In the networks, which produce Wikipedia, free software etc., there are members from all over the world. What is important is whether someone is good at doing the job. Where they happen to live is an irrelevance. Capitalism too has gone international with the rise of the multi-national (or transnational) corporations. All this shows that the economic foundations of nationalism are being eroded.  http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue73/Gillies73.pdf

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