The cyber-socialism debate

Recently I have been re-reading several seminal works on Internet regulation, and I have to say that I have regained a lot of respect for Lessig’s Code (the original of course). Although I always respected the idea of regulation through architecture, the more I look at the way in which the Internet has turned out to be, the truer many of the ideas present in the book become.

As much as I admire many of Lessig’s writings, I have always thought that he has one big flaw, one he shares with many other American academics I might add, and it is that he truly seems to have a big blind spot for anything that happens outside of the United States. For someone who has travelled the world many times over promoting Creative Commons, he has often made some worryingly ethnocentric comments with regards to legal systems outside of the United States. He famously dismissed moral rights as a “French idea”, and even though he qualified that statement, the result was still a version of “we are right and you are wrong”. He also seemed reluctant to even consider the fact that in Civil jurisdictions open licences are contracts. I noticed this apparent blindness to outside legal traditions as well in his otherwise excellent demolishment of Helprin’s Digital Barbarianism, where he seemed to imply time and time again that copyright originates with the framers of the U.S. consitution. I am not saying that he does not know about the origins of copyright law, but his refusal to discuss the Statute of Anne, and the rich copyright traditions outside of the U.S. seemed a bit odd to me.

I mention this because Lessig has been involved in a very interesting debate with regards to the use of the term “socialism” to describe peer-production and the Web 2.0 revolution. Lessig wrote a response to Kevin Kelly’s interesting and thought-provoking piece in Wired entitled The New Socialism. I personally thought that Kelly made some interesting points about the political implications of the new collectivism that supports much of the Web 2.0 landscape, and he termed it a new type of socialism, albeit one that is completely dissimilar to the much maligned versions of socialism that dominated the 20th century political spectrum. Lessig however, does not like the “S” word. It has been used against advocates of Creative Commons way too often, and calling the commons movement socialist simply reinforces this type of “Red-baiting”. Lessig comments:

“That statement is flatly wrong. It is completely unreasonable to call that “socialism” — at least when the behavior described is purely voluntary. It’s like saying “Because Stalin set up a competition between different collective farms, it’s not unreasonable to call that free market capitalism.” Both statements are wrong because they point to a feature that is common, and ignore the feature that is distinctive. At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question). At the core of the behavior Kelly celebrates is freedom.”

The comments to the article are perhaps more interesting than the article itself (as is usually the case in the blogosphere). Lessig was called upon his narrow view of socialism, as he seems to be equating it with very specific variants, such as Stalinism and Maoism. Lessig replied in a very telling post:

“We all need to recognize (speaking now to the cross cultural crowd) that different political systems internalize the concepts differently. So I am criticizing an American writing in an American publication about his use of a term — “socialism.” I don’t pretend to understand how well the use fits other cultures, or traditions. I am speaking to one of my own about my own tradition.”

Weird, so socialism means one thing in the United States, but means something else to the rest of the world? I am with many of the comments that replied that the meaning of political theories and ideologies does not respect cultural borders. It is true that for many Americans the word “socialism” has become a dirty word, but it should not necessarily be so. Lessig wrote another post pretty much restating his criticism and defending the idiosyncratic use of the term by pointing out that socialism was implemented as state coercion, and therefore it is accurate to describe it as such. To that I reply that once again, this is only a limited definition of what constitutes socialism, and that the political tradition of self-proclaimed socialists is much richer than Stalinism. Yet socialsm has been shackled with the idea that it should be equated with Soviet communism and its many noxious variants. I can only reproduce here the words of that paragon of socialist thought, George Orwell, who in his preface to Animal Farm wrote:

“In my opinion, nothing has contributed so much to the corruption of the original idea of socialism as the belief that Russia is a socialist country and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imitated. And so for the last ten years, I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement. “

There are not many better places to end a post than with a George Orwell quote, so I shall end mine here.

Comments 4

  1. Hi Andres —

    While I haven't taken this whole blog tempest du jour quite as seriously as you (I've skimmed Kelly, Lessig, and the responses and haven't read Helprin at all), my impression, like yours, is that Lessig seems a little too eager to distance Creative Commons from socialism.

    My only reason for commenting is that I want to say this is primarily about Lessig, not about an American stance toward socialism. Remember that Lessig started as a constitutionalist and that he clerked for two conservative judges, Posner and Scalia, who must have influenced him in some ways. His most well-known case, Eldred, was about trying to limit copyright by going back to the original intent of the framers. His personal history explains a lot about his current thinking.

    Though it is true that "many other American academics" aren't really competent on international and comparative law, contrary to the impression one might get, there are some folks in the legal academy over here with more cosmopolitan and internationalist sympathies.

  2. Just my luck, I slag off American academics and one of my favourite ones shows up 🙂

    I think you're right, Lessig does have a strong constitutional background, so I can see where he's coming from. Unfortunately, he does seem to have a very American-centric view of the law, which has always baffled me a bit, as he's well travelled.

  3. Very interesting post. I do think that Lessig's turn to a "Common Cause" model of political reform explains a lot here too. It's progressivism against populism all over again. Whereas populism and socialism take seriously the prevalence of power, struggle, and conflict in politics, progressives yearn for science and neutral principles to put policymaking on a higher plane.

    I also think that Lessig is a bit too comfortable with Web 2.0 hierarchies:

  4. Thank you for this intersting reading. I came across the word cybersocialism, thru a a poetic equation, when realising that the swedish status update field in facebook had a different question than the english one. (This links to your question saying: "socialism means one thing in the United States, but means something else to the rest of the world?" in many ways)

    The swedish facebook says "what are you doing right now?", where's my english one asks: "what is on your mind?"

    The equation was the following:

    "Swedish Facebook ask you: "What are you doing right now?"

    My Facebook ask's me: "What's on your mind?"

    What dose our facebook ask you?"

    As i realised i was questioning the crosscultural way of understanding the socialmedias functions, the following string hit my mind:

    "socialy networking in the socialnetwork"

    which consequently led me to the keyword:


    Whether it is a model that works or not, As a matter of fact, socialism is a very ancient model, just as capitalism. "Cybersocialism" unavoidably reminds of the old russian system in the U.S. Where's captialism still reminds of careless and selfish interests in Russia.

    I believe internet is offering us mash of these 2 fundamnetaly contradictious concepts. There is a high chance that the merging of the "free world" and the "communitary world", will consequently lead us to the a new invention in politics. And it is about time.! 🙂

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