Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lessig and Kelly on Socialism

Larry Lessig has taken issue with Kevin Kelly's use of the word socialist to describe the new forms of organization that are emerging on the web. Lessig feels that socialism must entail state compulsion and that to describe the free collaboration online as socialist is to misuse the word, or to use it in a way that is inevitably misleading.

Lessig's hypothetical example, of using the word fascist to describe Obama's policies, is interesting. It would be a major loss if the racist and hyper-nationalist complexion of really existing fascism made it impossible to trace important similarities between the corporatist and anti-democratic politics of the mid-century and the current moment. Another comment has pointed out that it would irresponsible to call Obama's policies fascist and leave it at that. This is exactly correct. His attempts to shore up corporate capitalism with state intervention should be considered in light of what we know about Italian and other forms of capitalism - there are other important parallels, with Britain's National Government in the thirties, for example, But it would be an impoverishment of debate if the connotations of the word fascism made it impossible to make distinctions between elements in fascist thought and policy.

If we turn to socialism, the Marxist tradition contained with it a strong anarchist component - these people were often denounced and killed for the crime of 'left deviationism'. But it is not true to say that Marxism entails statism - Marx has no plausible account for how and why the state would 'wither away' after the Revolution, but that is what he hoped would happen, and many, though by no means all, of his followers agreed with him. And Marxism is not the only, or the most important, tradition in socialism today. The anarchists are dedicated to the end of coercion and see themselves as socialists. Chomsky doesn't describe himself as a libertarian socialist for larks, after all.

There is a strong statist tradition in socialist thought and practice - but there is also a tradition of seeing the state as an institution to be transcended by free human beings engaged in free cooperation and collaboration. There are plenty of problems with describing the various initiatives on the web as socialist, but they cannot be resolved by lexicographical fiat.

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